Ask A Wench – Festive Food Traditions!

Christina here. As we are approaching the Christmas festivities, I was curious about the Wenches’ food traditions so I asked them what is the food/dish you most look forward to for the holidays? Or is there a traditional family recipe you only make at this time of year?

Anne:  My Christmas dinner is generally pretty traditional; a seafood starter (a big platter of prawns, oysters, crayfish (lobster); then roast pork with crackling or if someone doesn’t eat pork, roast lamb, served with roast potatoes, baked pumpkin, steamed green beans, carrots and other vegies, and a tomato and onion bake. Then we open presents, then hit the table an hour or two later for plum pudding with cream or custard or ice-cream. I know it’s crazy having such a big roast dinner in hot weather, but the craziness is part of an Aussie tradition for those of us whose ancestors came from the UK. An alternative, far easier and nicer tradition is to take a crayfish and a bottle of champagne to the beach.

I hadn’t eaten or cooked my mum’s tomato and onion bake for years, but I made it a few years back for a friends’ Christmas dinner, mainly because I had a bumper crop of tomatoes in my garden. And my guests loved it. It’s amazingly simple — just thinly sliced onions and sliced fresh tomatoes in layers (onion, tomato, onion, tomato) in a well greased baking dish, topped with fresh breadcrumbs (rip the bread into small pieces by hand, don’t blitz it or use packet breadcrumbs), and dot the top generously with bits of butter. I sometimes sprinkle the tomato layer with herbs (basil and thyme), but Mum made it plain with just a pinch of sugar sprinkled over the tomatoes, and salt and pepper to season it. Then bake for around 40+ minutes until the onions and tomato are cooked and the bread topping is golden and crunchy. You can play around with it by adding zucchini (courgettes) and other herbs and adding some kind of cheese to the topping, but for my money the really simple version is the best. There’s a similar recipe here, only with cheese.

But no matter what I’m cooking, I always have this bowl filled with cherries on my Christmas table. It’s a Chinese bowl my mother gave me many years ago when she and Dad lived in Penang and I think of it as my Christmas bowl.

Pat:  Once upon a time, I looked forward to my mother-in-law’s three-layer, white chocolate cake, a decadent confection of white chocolate, mounds of sugar and cream, and ground nuts, with frosting so thick it foamed. Her holiday feasts were works of art. She’s gone now and none of us carry on in her tradition – it really was heart attack city, and we’re all too old to eat like that now. Most of our family is on the other side of the country and the ones here are vegetarians, so tradition has gone out the window. Extravagant cookies have been replaced with brownies, half of us eat ham, and the rest … just depends on what we feel like cooking. It’s the company that matters!

Andrea:  When I was very little, the scent of my Swiss grandmother’s cookies wafted through the house at Christmastime. One of her traditional recipes called for a (complicated) yeast-based dough that needed to sit for several hours under tea towels before having a design pressed into them with carved wooden cookie molds – I was allowed to help! (And some of them have come down to me, which I treasure.) Then we popped them in the oven to bake …

Another traditional family favorite is a cookie called “Hasselnuss Stengeli”. It’s sort of a shortbread, but with ground hazelnuts added. The dough is rolled out onto thumb-width logs, then cut into 3-inch lengths and baked. (Brushing with a glaze of lemon juice and confectioner’s sugar adds a delightful zing.

Recently on our family What’s App loop, my nephew wrote a really lovely note to his Dad (my older brother) about the cookie. He was baking them and just wanted to tell my brother that he was reminded of when he was 24-years-old and emailed asking for the recipe. He then said his dad’s reply still makes him smile: my brother gave him the recipe, but said there was a rule about Hasselnuss Stengeli – when you bake them, you have to eat them with friends.

I think that’s a perfect thought for any holiday food!

Nicola:  My mother-in-law always made a very special salmon mousse for the Boxing Day buffet in the days when the family would all get together at her house. This is our first Christmas without her so we’ll be making it in her honour. It’s the only time I will willingly eat anchovies! The recipe is so light and creamy. It’s fabulous with those little blinis you can make from buckwheat flour. That said, I think my all-time favourite dish is homemade bread sauce. We eat it with everything, not just turkey – sausages are particularly good with it (as you can see in the photo!). The recipe we use is an old family one and it contains cloves, nutmeg, bay and peppercorns. As it infuses in the milk and butter, the smell is so delicious. For me it sums up the scent of Christmas!

Mary Jo:  While our holiday menus generally resembled each other, there was no particular special dish that caused ooh’s and ahh’s. But one annual ritual I always enjoyed was making frosted Christmas cookies with my older sister. I’m not sure where our basic sugar cookie recipe came from, but it was classic and simple. After the dough was chilled and then rolled out, we used cookie cutters shaped like bells and angels and Christmas trees.

We also iced them and our preferred flavor was anise, which we all enjoyed. We put the flavoring in both dough and sugar icing, but what really made the cookies good was rolling out the dough to be very thin, and then using a lot of icing when the time comes so the finished cookies were crisp and sweet rather than doughy and boring. (I took the cookie picture here at a local supermarket–ours weren’t quite as fancy!)

Another cookie that was my exclusive project was Russian tea cakes, which aren’t really Russian but do taste really good. Basically it’s a simple shortbread recipe with lots of chopped nuts added, I generally used chopped walnuts. They’re shaped into little spheres before baking, then rolled in powdered sugar when they come hot out of the oven. When they cool, they get a second roll in the powdered sugar to make them look like little snowballs. Delicious!

Susan:  The days of family Christmas dinners, a big crowd around a big table using my great-grandmother’s gorgeous china are long past – a great time was had by all, but what a production!

Today we work around crazy schedules – sons off to in-laws or on hospital duty, kids who need naps, writers on deadlines <ahem> – getting everyone together takes some finessing. So simplicity rules for Christmas dinners and gatherings now. We serve a casual buffet that features Italian food – it’s part of our family heritage – and provides a cheerful red-and-green table at Christmas. We’ll order fresh, hot pizzas from a local place, and add homemade lasagna, salad, veggie platters, and holiday desserts. Sometimes I’ll make family dishes, such as my mom’s spinach lasagna or my grandmother’s lemon cake with a sugary lemon glaze. We can all enjoy the lovely chaos of a family Christmas without the fuss of a big dinner and lots of clean-up. Later in the evening, we do a crazy Yankee Trader swap (a family tradition since I was a kid) and take our chances on some hilarious offerings. And our red/green Italian food theme is becoming the newest family tradition for holiday happiness and convenience!

Christina:  For me, there are lots of festive foods that I feel are necessary to give that Christmas feeling – saffron buns, gingerbread cookies, Swedish meatballs and pickled herring among them. But to finish the meal off, there’s nothing better than rice porridge – or risgrynsgröt as it’s called in Sweden. This is made with pudding rice, lots of milk and a little bit of sugar, and eaten with sugar, cinnamon and cream or milk. In my family, we used to all eat our lunches separately, then the relatives would congregate in someone’s house for porridge in the evening. A blanched almond was always added (invisible among the white rice), and whoever was lucky enough to get it on their plate was supposedly the next person to get married. This caused a lot of hilarity, especially if it was small child who happened to find it! (Or someone who was already married …) The porridge takes a long time to cook, and has to be stirred constantly, but it’s worth it and the delicious aroma brings back wonderful memories for me!

How about you – what festive foods can you not be without during the holidays?