World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Month: December, 2006

Holiday Baking World


A re-post of last year’s popular favorite–Holiday Baking Around the World. I hope you and your families have a wonderful holiday and may the new year bring you happiness, abundance and plenty of great food.

Around the world holidays bakers regal family and friends with once-a-year treats.

Throughout Denmark the Danish Kringle, a flaky pastry shaped in a ring and filled with almond paste, topped with sugar and shaved almonds; Ukranians serve, Makiwnyk, a poppyseed roll; Christmas Eve Greeks prepare Christopsomo; julebrod is central to a Norwegian Christmas celebration and in Czech Republic bobalky is served over mushroom soup. In America and in Britain there’s also the ever present and chided fruit cake.

Germans, love almonds and pride themselves on their fruit-studded yeast bread, the Christmas stollen is the King of holiday breads. Oblong-shaped and tapered at the ends it is a flat loaf of bread with a ridge down the center and is covered with icing sugar. The traditional German stolen is so revered that it has it’s own annual festival where a Stollen-maiden is crowned. There is also a preservation society that monitors the commercial production of Dresden stolen to ensure quality and authenticity. Today there are 120 bakeries in the Dresden area authorized to use the official seal. During the Christmas season a marzipan log is tucked inside the dough. The trick is to taste a small bit of the paste with each bit of the buttery cake.

According to historians, the original Dresden recipe was far more austere than what we know today. Six hundred years ago ingredients included little more than flour, yeast and water due to Catholic dogma, eggs, butter and milk were strictly taboo. This forbearer of the holiday bread was known as Christbrod (Bread of Christ) due to its shape, as it represented the swaddled body of the infant Jesus and was used as nourishment through the fasting period leading up to Christmas. Today, the loaf is studded with raisins, almonds and flavored with orange and lemon.

In the United Kingdom, plum pudding which has no plums and isn’t a pudding has been a long British tradition. It is more of a cake made with raisins and other fruits and is steamed for hours. When it’s ready to serve, it’s doused with brandy, flamed and served with a butter sauce.

In Provence, the traditional Christmas meal is called le gros souper (the big supper). It ends with Les Treize Desserts, (13 desserts) symbolizing Christ and his 12 apostles. The desserts must be served all at the same time and each guest must taste each one of them. The sweets consist of fresh and dried fruits.

And of course writing on holiday dessert traditions wouldn’t be complete without mention of the French pastry dessert Bûche de Noël (yule log). There seems to be a general agreement that the tradition is tied to the age-old custom of putting a log of wood in the hearth to slowly burn on Christmas Eve. However after more research it appears that tradition is tied to the pagan worship of fire and vegetation. In ancient Celtic laying a carefully chosen tree trunk or stump at the back of the hearth and allowing it to burn down during the holiday festivities. The ashes were preserved to ensure good luck for the home.

Well, needless to say this rolled sponge cake is typically filled with a buttercream—chocolate, coffee or a simple vanilla cream. This year Parisian pastry chef Pierre Herme is using dark chocolate with yuzu an Asian citrus fruit.

In Italy, the Milanese have been eating panettone (pan-et-TONE-ay), for centuries. This is by far my favorite once a year treat. Although some suggest it’s nothing more than glorified raisin bread. Bah humbug. This large mushroom-shaped, brioche-style bread is fragrant with citrus oils, laced with eggs and butter and flecked with small pieces of candied fruit and whole sultanas (yellow raisins). It is also golden yellow from the eggs used to make it.

The “his”-tory dates back to the 15th century and a Milanese baker, apprenticed to a man named Antonio. In love with his boss’s daughter, the young man produced a rich, fruity creation. The instant success of Toni’s bread, or pane ad Toni won him his bride.

To this day, most of these dome-shaped cakes are made in Milan, beginning in September and ending before Christmas. Regulations state that you can’t call it panettone unless you use only butter. Recently, Milan bakers have taken the first steps toward controlling the recipe with that would guarantee traditional baking methods requiring shops to carry a multi-colored logo and a certificate of authenticity.

Holiday traditions around the world

Whole Foods Panettone French Toast

Midnight Cookies- Office Bake Off


Icebox cookies are not new to me. But lately I feel as if I’ve discovered something new.  Most likely due to a small,  or if I’m honest, a galley kitchen in my new place I appreciate them more for the ease and simplicity. 

In the 1927 the first commercially available electric refrigerator for residential use was available from GE for $300. Most utility companies offered them to customers for $10 a month billed via their monthly statement. As part of the$1,000,000 marketing launch uses and recipes were developed.  The slice-and-bake icebox cookie was born. Most of the ingredients required for the many variations on this theme are on hand if you keep even the most basic pantry.Today they are so convenient that not having a log in the freezer is an oversight.

Yesterday the office holiday bake off was held.  I won first place and audience favorite for Midnight Cookies, one of my favorite and most requested cookies. Really how could I possibly lose? They are pure chocolate cookie with a crispy edge and a chewy center.  Previously I’ve written of a somewhat similar but (believe it or not) richer chocolate cookie, pastry chef Jacques Torres’s Mudslides

Oh yes, while these took two top prizes another secret entry under a colleague’s name won second. The Pistachio Cranberry  cookie can be found in the recent issue of Gourmet or online.

Midnight Cookies

I call these midnight cookies not only for their dark, deep color but also because they are the perfect treat to sneak as the clock points straight up.

1 pound bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, cut into pieces

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1 ¾ cup sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

2 cups chocolate chips

Yield 48-60 cookies

Melt the 1 pound of bittersweet chocolate and butter in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally.  Remove from the heat.

In a standing electric mixer, whip the eggs, sugar, and vanilla at high speed until a ribbon forms when you lift the beaters out of the liquid.  Then turn the speed to low and mix in the slightly cool chocolate (it’s important that the melted chocolate is not steaming hot.)

In a separate bowl, stir together the flour and baking powder.  Add to the batter.  Add the chocolate chips.  The batter will appear soft.  Place the whole bowl into the fridge until it is chilled but not stiff.  It should still be pliable. The batter should be able to hold its form somewhat.

Place a large sheet of wax paper down on the counter.  Pull the batter onto the wax paper and divide into roughly three equal pieces. If it’s not exact that’s perfectly fine.  Now take another sheet of wax paper and one of the three sections and roll it into 10” logs and 2” in diameter.  Shape and wrap the log with the wax paper; continue with the others. Ensure that the ends of the logs are covered so that they don’t dry out.  Place all three wax-wrapped logs into a big plastic bag and chill for at least 30-45 minutes or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Remove logs at least 15 minutes before going into oven.  With a knife—use a chopping knife– as you need a clean swipe–cut the log  by ½” increments. Bake for 9-11 minutes. Here’s the tricky part you must remove them while they are a bit shiny as that makes the center chewy.  It’s a good idea to bake a few first as a trial run.

Note: The logs can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 2 months. 

The Baker’s Passport – Italy


Around the world at the holidays there are many cookies shared only during Christmas time.  Naples is no exception as the number of holiday cookies is many.  Recipes in English are not easy to come by as in general they haven’t been codified widely due to the history of origin.  Between the middle ages and the end of the 18th century most pastries in Southern and Central Italy where produced by covenants and a few monasteries. The pastries were sold to the public and the money used for upkeep and charity. Most of these recipes were only made in a single convent and the recipe was kept among the women.  As the power of the church declined many religious institutions closed and many of the recipes for these traditional sweets were sold off with exclusivity to pastry makers. Among a few Neapolitan Christmas treats are La collana del prete , the priest’s necklace, chestnuts strung together; Divino Amore, Rococò, Mustacciuoli and the sesame-honey "S" shaped cookie Susamielli pictured above.


1 1/2 cups honey
1 cup sugar
1 lemon, zest grated
3 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring honey, sugar and lemon zest to a temperature of 175 degrees. Form a
well out of the flour and mix in cloves and cinnamon. Pour the warm honey mixture
into the well and bring dough together with a fork, similiar to making pasta. Knead
dough with hands 2 minutes until smooth and elastic, 2 to 3 minutes.

Cut the dough into 1 1/2" balls and roll each ball into 4-inch long rope form. Form
each rope into an "S" shape and place onto a greased cookie sheet. Place in oven
and bake 20 to 22 minutes until light golden brown; remove; cool on baking