The Holidays are Upon Us…

…so what better way to celebrate than talking about FOOD?

It doesn’t matter whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or some other holiday at this time of year. We happen to celebrate Christmas at our house, but it doesn’t matter what you celebrate or where in the world you live. Part of what makes the holidays special is the food that we eat during our celebrations. I love learning about the ways different cultures celebrate, and a big part of a culture is its food.

Cooking is a passion of mine, and I especially like to cook during the holidays. Each year I have a repertoire of recipes that I haul out, and each year I try to add a few new things. This year, in an attempt to bring more of an international flavor to our holiday season, I made a batch of cookies called “Austrian Chocolate Balls.” Now, I don’t know how chocolate balls came about or what’s Austrian about them, but I’ll tell you this: they were a big hit and now I want to go to Austria even more than I did before I made the cookies.

Anyone else eat stollen at Christmastime? My mom’s side of the family is German, and stollen is a German sweet bread filled with dried fruits. My aunt makes it every year. I think it’s actually called “Christmas stollen” or “Christstollen,” but we take the simple route and just call it stollen. I like it best when it’s toasted and slathered with butter.

I also make Russian tea cakes. There are about a million other names for the same recipe (including “Spanish Wedding Cookies,” “Mexican Wedding Cakes,” “Snowballs,” “Ponda Polvas,” etc.), but I find “Russian tea cakes” to be the most exotic and exciting. Fortunately or not, I am the only one in my household that really likes them (everyone says they’re too dry…um, hello? That’s why we have eggnog), so I usually eat more than my fair share of them during the holidays. I could just stop making them, but why?

In a nod to the country of France, every Christmas Eve I melt a round of brie and top it with raspberry preserves, apricot preserves, or other sweet mixture. I don’t know how French the toppings are, but I feel beaucoup francais when eating my brie on December 24th. Do I even have to note that it’s wrapped in puff pastry? I think not.

There are so many foods out there that the rest of the world associates with Christmas, Hanuakkah, and Kwanzaa, and I’d love to learn more about them. I recently took out a library book called Holidays of the World: Cookbook for Students. It’s an overwhelming list of foods and recipes that are prepared for countless holidays, all over the world, all year ’round. I have enjoyed looking through it, though I am finding it almost too exhaustive.

There are other foods I make at Christmastime, of course, that are tradition and I have no idea where the recipes originate. One is my grandmother’s party mix. It has two pounds of butter in it.

Yes, you read that right. Here’s a picture:

party mix

Another is crab bisque, and caramel-fudge shortbread, and pumpkin roll, and mulled cider, and cutout cookies, and lots and lots of other delicious and heavy-on-the-saturated-fat foods that I associate with Christmas. And I know they’re not good for us–that’s why I don’t cook like this during the rest of the year.

And the best part of making all those things? Sharing them. Are there any special foods you associate with the holidays this time of year? I’d love to hear about them!

Until next week,

Amy

P.S. Here are examples of some of the recipes I’ve listed above:

http://germanfood.about.com/od/baking/r/weihstollen.htm

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/austrian-chocolate-balls/

http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/russian-tea-cakes/3af8664b-6c3e-4022-b686-cd961521e59b

http://www.hgtv.com/design/make-and-celebrate/entertaining/baked-brie-with-raspberry-preserves-recipe

A Review: The Plum Tree

For those of you who have been reading my blog, you may remember that one of the books on my TBR (to-be-read) list was The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. I’ve finished reading it and I hope you’ll read it, too.

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The Plum Tree is a beautiful story about a young woman, Christine, who lives in Germany during World War II. She is in love with a young Jewish man, the son of her employer, and the horrors of the Third Reich and pre-war Germany begin early in the story. Christine’s journey of love and loss and hope is heart-wrenching; the reader easily forgets that this is a work of historical fiction, not a memoir. The story is filled with characters and events that seem so real and so close that one is sure that there must be a real Christine out there and Ellen Marie Wiseman has somehow read her mind and put Christine’s feelings onto the page, into words that are at once touching and terrifying.

More than once I had to put the book down because I didn’t want to read what came next, like the scene where a little boy is torn from his mother’s arms upon their arrival at Dachau. More than once I gasped out loud because of my revulsion over what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust, making my own children ask what in the world I was reading that was having such an effect on me. More than once I flipped ahead (I know, I know) because I couldn’t stand not knowing who would live and who would die.

But I always went back because I had to read the rest of the story.

And the story didn’t end where I expected it to. It introduced me to the shocking conditions that existed in Germany after the war ended, something I’d never thought much about. It reminded me that innocent Germans suffered, too; many of them paid a steep price simply because they were German.

If you’ve ever read Sarah’s Key, you’ve experienced the haunting feelings that linger after you’ve read the last paragraph of The Plum Tree. It’s a book that will stay with me, as I’m sure it will stay with anyone who reads it. I think it would be an excellent reading selection for a high school history or English class.

Next up from Ellen Marie Wiseman: What She Left Behind. If it’s anywhere near as good as her first book, I’ll love it.