Memories of Christmas dinners past

The last packages have been wrapped and beribboned, the eggnog is sitting untouched and alone in the refrigerator, and colorful cocktails announce that preparations are over and the celebrations are beginning.

As we at Blue Hare set down our pens and power down our laptops for the holidays we also take a few minutes to recall our favorite memories of the Christmas festivities of our childhoods.

Clare: Crackers and pud. Christmas dinner in England in the 60s

To this day, I still remember the excitement I felt gazing at my grandmother’s table before my parents, my sisters and my aunt and grandmother all sat down to Christmas dinner. While the adults talked in the kitchen, I circled the dining room table in anticipation. There were two things that most excited me about the dinner: the crackers (no, not Saltines) and the Christmas pudding.

Christmas crackers are cardboard tubes wrapped in brightly decorated twist of paper with a prize in the central chamber. They are not common in North America but they are a big part of the Christmas celebration in England. Everyone at the table has a cracker and, with arms crossed, holds the end of the cracker of the person on either side until everyone is joined by their crackers. Then they’re pulled open with a “crack.” I remember the thrill of pulling the crackers and seeing the contents—paper hats and toys and riddles–flying out on the table, sometimes hitting the turkey or landing in the gravy. But no one seemed to care; it was Christmas and it was time to be silly. We would put on our hats and read our jokes out loud and oooh and aaah over our little gifts.

Once the table was cleared, my grandmother brought out the Christmas pudding, a sticky, dense sponge that had been steaming for hours in a large pot in the kitchen. The pudding was made with raisins and currants and other dried fruits held together by egg and suet and treacle and flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. Although the pudding steamed only for a few hours on Christmas day, it actually had been aged for months. Grandmother made the pudding in November, then it was soaked with brandy and stored away until the holiday. Christmas pudding is also called plum pudding or “figgy pudding”, even though it never contains plums or figs. The pudding is traditionally served with a sprig of holly on top.

What I loved just as much as the pudding itself was the custard it was served with. In England, custard is a hot, milky yellow sauce. It is invariably made from Bird’s Custard Powder, which was invented in 1837 and is still a staple in cupboards in Britain today. When that milky sauce was poured over the fruity steamed pudding, it was a joy to savor and the perfect end to Christmas dinner.

Cynthia: Melomakarona and kourabiedes

One of my favorite Christmas memories is the rich aroma of Greek Christmas cookies coming from my great-aunt’s kitchen. She took particular pride in creating delectable spoon sweets and baked goods, her way of demonstrating her love of family. One of the first signs in Greece that Christmas is near is when two traditional cookies — melomakarona and kourabiedes – start to pop up in all the bakeries and grocery stores. These cookies are at the center of every holiday table.

There are many regional variations of melomakarona around Greece. These oblong hand-formed cookies are made with semolina and flavored with a mix of cinnamon and clove and, depending on preference, orange or mastic. Once baked, they are covered with crushed walnuts and drenched in honey syrup. They are always made with olive oil, not butter.

In contrast, kourabiedes are shortbread cookies made with butter and rolled in confectioner’s sugar. They are often made with toasted almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts. They are often flavored with rosewater. They can be made in circular shapes or in crescents, made by hand or rolled out and cut.

Verlee: Nut rolls for Santa

In polyglot Pittsburgh, our Christmases were a mix of English and Eastern European traditions, with turkey and fruitcake sitting side by side with kielbasa and long poppy seed rolls. But my favorite were the small individual nutrolls that my mother made during the baking frenzy that preceded Christmas eve. Not only were they my favorite, they were very important because THAT WAS WHAT SANTA LIKED, with a glass of milk. And I have proof because one of them would be completely gone and a bite taken from another when we jumped out of bed on Christmas morning. I guess he didn’t have time to finish all of them, probably because he had to get to the neighbors’ house, where the three boys had asked for a whole bunch of Tonka trucks.

The little nutrolls were made with a cream cheese dough that was chilled, then rolled out and cut into small squares. A bit of walnut and pineapple paste was dabbed in the middle of the square, which was rolled diagonally into a crescent and dusted with sugar. They were ready to come out of the oven when the tips just began to turn a golden brown.

These little nuggets were off limits until Christmas morning, when we had them with our hot cocoa, opening the presents Santa brought while we were sleeping.

Christmas around the world

An email we received last week offering a tour of Christmas dinners around the world served as the inspiration for our memories. We hope they and our stories will spark similar recollections of happy holidays for our dear readers.  We’ll see you in 2017.

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