Winter celebrations take many forms, from Christmas to Diwali to Hanukah to Santo Tomas. No matter what the culture, one thing holds steady: the season is celebrated with friends, families and food – specifically sweet, baked goods.
This year we reached out to friends and readers of Rustik to find out what sweet treats they can’t do without during the holidays. Here are 10 of the best results from our completely unscientific poll.
Have we missed something? Tell us what holiday cookies, cakes and pies your family relies on in the comments!
In Jamaica, Christmas isn’t complete without a fruit or “black” cake, says caterer and mother of two Lorna O’Hanlon. Dried fruits (raisins, dates, prunes, citrus peel) are soaked in port or rum for months ahead, making this a cake that is not for the feint of heart. Blended with cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar, the result is a dark, rich, dense and completely addictive cake that takes time and love to make.
Across North America, the classic Christmas treat is a crisp sugar cookie that was either pressed, rolled or cut into shapes and brightly decorated with frosting and sprinkles. It is said that Moravians, who came from Central Europe, Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), brought the cookie tradition with them.
One cookie tops them all when it comes to holidays and celebrations in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East: maamoul. This delicate shortbread treat is typically stuffed with dates, pistachios or walnuts and may be shaped into balls or domes, or flattened.
Christian communities in Goa and South India celebrate Christmas with traditional dishes including navries, a sweet, crescent-shaped dough packet similar to a samosa that is stuffed with a coconut, sesame and cashew filling. Navries are also popular among non-Christian communities during the annual festival of light, known as Diwali.
“My mom always made a chestnut-flavored Buche de Noel for Christmas and a Galette des Rois (or king cake) on the eve of epiphany,” says Sophia Tewa, a New York-based freelance writer and producer who is originally from Paris. “The buche is a classic,” she says, “although it’s a cake and not a cookie.” Made of sponge and shaped into a yule log, the cake is filled with raspberry jam and iced inside and on top.
Gloria Fusillo, who comes from a large Italian-American family, says: “In our house, Christmas starts when the struffoli arrives,” referring to a classic southern Italian dish of fried dough mixed with honey and coated in colored sprinkles. “I have been the designated struffoli-maven since my mom died. I still use the recipe she used every year, but the only tip I would add is to make sure the dough is chilled so it is easier to cut. From experience I will tell you that melty dough does not cooperate!”
RoseAnn Zammit of Guelph, Ontario remembers imqaret, mouthwatering, diamond-shaped pastries, from her childhood in Malta. Stuffed with dates and deep-fried, RoseAnn says this is not a treat for the figure conscious – “forget all about calories and cholesterol when eating them!” – although they can be baked instead of fried. Imqaret, originally of Arabic origin, can be found at bakeries in Malta all year round, but especially at Christmas. “My mom used to make them and I always used to help her cut them with the little cutting wheel. The smell of dates today still reminds me of imqaret.”
A braided bread called vanocka signals the Christmas holidays in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Legend has it that once this difficult-to-make delicacy was only made by bakers who were members of a guild. The rule was relaxed at the holidays to allow people to make it at home, and with that came a host of superstitions as well. For example, the woman making the bread had to refrain from talking, wear a white apron and kerchief while mixing the dough and then, while it was rising, jump up and down.
Hundreds of years ago, German monks used to make small, spiced cakes as a complement to the strong beer that was so popular at the time. Spices such as cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, anise, coriander and cloves, which were coming through Europe from points farther east, were known to aid digestion. Combined with locally available honey, the monks’ invention – now known as lebkuchen – are one of Europe’s favorite Christmas treats.
In parts of Scandinavia, Christmas begins on Luciadagen – December 13 – or Santa Lucia’s Day. Tradition holds that a girl in the household rises before dawn and dresses in a white robe and a crown with lighted candles. She then goes to the bedside of each member of the family to offer a tray of coffee, cakes and Lussekatter, a saffron-scented sweet bun studded with raisins said to resemble the eyes of a cat.