To me, Christmas time should be filled with special treats. My mother raised me this way. As I grew up, she would describe the fabulous holiday spreads of her own grandmother. Tall, sparkling cut crystal goblets filled with chilly, rich apple cider. French porcelain bowls brimming with nuts to crack and pick apart. Sweet, sticky tangerines and oranges (which were hard to come by out of season and expensive then) filling her stocking. Think of all the special foods by inspired by Christmastide. Eggnog, brandy milk punch, peppermint creme martinis. Gingerbread houses, fruitcake, and the scrumptious, Southern invention called Christmas Lane Cake. What a wonderful time to cook, bake, and shop! So, each year I spend some time not only planning our main holiday meals, but also discovering special treats to have around the house. After all, isn’t it wonderful to have small offerings to delight guests (both expected and unexpected)?
Because of our historical Southern roots, my family loves anything Southern, but because of our metropolitan, urban experiences, we also enjoy fine foods from other parts of the world. For example, my grandfather’s second wife had German heritage, so she introduced us to Christmas stollen. Stollen combines the light bread texture and raisins of challah with a white crystal coating of moistened sugar. The most special stollen has a tender, almond marzipan center. I found some at our local gourmet market, Kings, and stowed it away. Cut it into small slices and serve with coffee or dark tea.
Every year, my mother buys each of her grown children a panettone to have in our homes. This delicious Italian Christmas bread has the airiness of an Angel Food Cake, dotted with raisins, but it stands nearly twice as high and lacks that spongy spring of Angel Food Cake. The unusual combination of citrus flavor combined with vanilla creates its light sweetness. We slice off pieces in the morning, toast them, and spread them with butter: a ready made, self-serve breakfast as everyone awakens. This year I discovered an unusual version made with pears and chocolate and cannot wait to taste it!
My husband and I traveled to Barbados this summer where we visited the lovely Saint Nicholas Abbey. There a local family is pioneering the production and sale of artisanal foods made with local ingredients. Most guests take home a bottle of their small batch rum in an exquisitely etched bottle. I collect treats as I travel, so I also brought home a rum cake entombed for safe keeping in a decorative ceramic crock and a jar of chutney made from their tropical fruit called golden apple. I plan to serve the rum cake with eggnog and the chutney with some chicken or turkey one night. When I went to London a few years ago, I brought back a small, dense fruitcake from the shop at Buckingham Palace, which I also highly recommend.
Speaking of eggnog, I usually make it myself using an old recipe from the now defunct Gourmet magazine. It calls for making a cooked custard which you chill and thin out, making it entirely safe for your family and guests.
Custard –Based Eggnog
6 large eggs
½ cup sugar
4 cups milk (whole)
1 cup brandy, rum, or bourbon (or to taste)
1cup well chilled heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
In a saucepan beat the eggs well, beat in the sugar gradually, and beat in 2 cups of the milk. Heat the entire mixture over moderately low heat, whisking constantly, until it registers 175 degrees on a candy thermometer, and remove pan from the heat. Whisk in the remaining 2 cups of milk, chill the mixture until it is cold, and stir in the brandy. Just before serving, in a bowl with an electric mixer beat the cream until it holds soft peaks, fold the whipped cream into the milk mixture gently but thoroughly, and sprinkle the eggnog with nutmeg. Serve immediately and chill any leftovers.
Makes about 8 cups, serving 12 to 16
(Just make sure you don’t overcook the custard or it becomes unpleasantly grainy.)
Once you have made your own eggnog, you can never go back to the artificially thickened, artificially flavored, artificially colored, boxed stuff. Homemade eggnog has a smoother texture and a more delicate flavor. I usually place bourbon and rum on the side so that people can drink it plain or spiked. It disappears quickly at parties!
Brandy Milk Punch, a Southern concoction, provides a delicious alternative for those who don’t care for the heaviness of eggnog. This recipe from the once defunct but partially resurrected magazine, Victoria, goes down so smoothly, you will barely notice how much brandy you have had!
Brandy Milk Punch
2 ½ cups very cold milk
1 cup brandy
½ cup coffee liqueur (Kahlua)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
10 ice cubes
Place half of each ingredient in a blender.
Blend on high until punch is smooth and frothy.
Pour punch into 4 glasses.
Repeat process with remaining ingredients and serve.
Let’s not forget the humble, yet essential candy cane. Hammond’s has been making them for a long time and has even developed flavors beyond peppermint.
Personally, I find a big, thick candy cane a welcome stocking stuffer peeking out over the rim. Mint can help settle a stomach filled with rich and tasty treats, but I also got 2 in butterscotch as a change of pace. I purchased mine from a large display in our grocery store which also stocked flavors like cinnamon and strawberry. I know they carry Hammond’s candy canes at our Hallmark store, too.
As you prepare for the holidays and make them special for those you love, please don’t forget to treat yourself. Sit down with a nice cup of tea or coffee and put your feet up for fifteen minutes. Take a bubble bath when you return home exhausted from an extra long day. Indulge in a hokey, cheesy Christmas movie. Light a fire and listen to carols while you doze off by yourself or cuddle up with someone else. Light candles on a tray if you don’t have a fireplace. After all, this season brings extra work along with special times. So go ahead, treat yourself as well as those you love.
Wishing you every blessing,