Christmas brings a bounty of seasonal goodies to our tables from the much-lampooned fruitcake to close cousins of stollen and panettone. Here’s a decadent sampling of traditional holiday favorites from fruit to nuts.
The edible paperweight
“There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” —Johnny Carson
Food historians trace the origins of fruitcake to ancient Egypt where relatives were believed to place the dense, nutrient-rich treat on the tombs of their dearly departed for nourishment in the afterlife.
The Romans honed the recipe adding pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and barley mash, sending the portable fortification with soldiers off to battle.
Over the centuries, the fruitcake recipe was tweaked to include preserved Mediterranean fruits, luxurious spices and alcohol, creating a high-octane indulgence. Today fruitcake has become deeply ensconced in our Christmas culture, razzed for its doorstop density and lengthy shelf life, so it can be re-gifted the following Christmas.
All kidding aside, the next generation of fruitcake (no longer your grandmother’s version) is lighter, fresher and healthier with honey and sucanat instead of white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, whole wheat pastry flour rather than refined white, and dried and fresh fruits, including cherries, dates, pineapple, plums and apricots trumping syrupy preserved neon nuggets. Grandma also didn’t have fair trade organic rum to dial up her fruitcake.
Panettone is Italy’s airier, virgin riff on fruitcake in the form of a cylindrical cupola-shaped sweet bread. Many versions of this traditional Christmas cake contain an assortment of delights, including candied orange and lemon peel, dried cranberries and bittersweet chocolate chunks.
The panettone is also swathed in romanticism with a 15th century Milanese legend about Ughetto Atellani, a nobleman who fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of a poor baker named Toni. To help her father’s struggling bakery business (and spend more time with his sweetie), Ughetto disguised himself as a baker boy working in Toni’s kitchen.
Selling his prized falcons to earn money for costly ingredients, he bought butter, raisins and candied citron, and whipped up an indulgent concoction to outshine the competition. His devotion to Adalgisa earned him marital blessings by the Duke of Milan. Their extravagant wedding with such notable guests as Leonardo da Vinci, also served the new fruity cake dubbed, “Pan de Toni” — the bread of Toni.
Today more than 50 million panettones are baked in Italy every Christmas, imported worldwide for all to enjoy. One word of panettone warning: steer clear of margarine, vegetable shortening and other artery-clogging trans fats.
Marzipan, the quintessential Christmas confection, is a scrumptious blend of almond meal or paste, confectioner’s sugar or honey and almond oil. No one country lays a solid claim to its creation, although Toledo in central Spain, which is full of almond trees, is a logical birthplace. In Europe the making of marzipan is strictly governed by a body of laws, for example, almonds must comprise no less than 50 percent of the total weight.
Holiday traditions in all parts of Europe include molding marzipan into miniature fruits and decorating them with food coloring. Marzipan is a hidden treat found in assorted pastries, or a magnificent icing for seasonal cakes.
A German hybrid of fruitcake, panettone and marzipan is the stollen log, aka Christstollen with a motherload of dried fruits and nuts, orange and lemon zest, cinnamon and cardamom.
It is light in texture and low in sugar, although traditionally dusted with powdered sugar. This holiday sweet has a delightful rope of marzipan enlivening the center.
The original stollen was spartan and dry, as it was baked for the Advent season, a period of fasting and deprivation. As such, bakers were forbidden to use butter in the recipe.
In medieval Saxony, members of the nobility appealed to the Pope to repeal laws prohibiting the use of butter in stollen. Eventually, the butter ban was removed and stollen evolved into a richer pastry.
Tipsy No-Bake Fruitcake Balls
1/2 cup brandy, rum or sherry
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup dried pineapple, chopped
1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
1/2 teaspoon each orange and lemon zest
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3 to 4 cups crushed gingersnaps, vanilla wafers or Graham crackers
1 cup almond meal
Directions: Soak fruit in liquor until moist and soft. (Overnight is best). Drain. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and add honey, beating until light and fluffy. Add fruits, nuts, zests, extract and spices, mixing well. Blend cookie crumbs until desired consistency is reached. Form into balls and coat with almond meal. Refrigerate in airtight container.
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