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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Christmas Fruit and a Citrus Kick in the Ol’ Boxers

I had forgotten about a particular tradition until Lindz visited one of her professors before Christmas.  Her professor receives a box of citrus from one of his former students every year during Advent.  When Lindz showed up to visit, he had just gotten his yearly present and he realized that he couldn’t eat it all before it went bad.  So, Lindz ended up with a box of fruit.

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The Red Navel oranges (in the red tissue) were by far the best ones. Sweet, but with a prominent citrus tang.

The tradition that I forgot about was the giving of a certain bag of “goodies” at Christmas time.  This bag consists of an orange (maybe an apple too), nuts in the shell (usually peanuts), and some form of candy (candy canes, old fashioned ribbon candy, chocolate coins, etc).  With a bit of research on the good ol’ internet, I found that a lot of people used to get these in their stocking from their parents.  Personally, I received it from our priest every year as a youngster.  I’ve heard of this custom off and on over the years, but never knew the origin.  I’ve always assumed that it was a “healthy” and/or “inexpensive” gift.  But the more that I heard about it, it slowly dawned on me that this wasn’t just a local Catholic thing, it was far more widespread phenomenon.  This year I finally took the time to do the research.  It turns out that the actual origins are pretty murky.  Frustrating, but not surprising.  On the web, a lot of people remember this as a kid, and many continue it with their own children.  Most people are comfortable with the answer of “I don’t know.  It was just something that grandma (or whomever) always did.”  They assume that it either came from the old country, (Italy, Poland, England, etc) or it dates back to the time when oranges were a rarity and hence an actual treat, or some combination of these two factors.  While I can see these two reasons being factors, it just didn’t feel right for how widespread and long lasting this experience is.

Wiki to the rescue!

In his (St. Nicholas) most famous exploit, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes . Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him . . . and drops the third bag down the chimney (where) the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

Ok, but how do we get from a bag of gold to an orange?  Here is where symbolism comes into effect.  The best explanation is that an orange is a similar color to gold and that oranges are similar in shape to bags of the shiny stuff.  Also, in some European countries, oranges have symbolized Jesus’ love for the world.  I’ve listed a bunch of the more interesting links that I’ve found at the end of this post.

Now that the history lesson is over, on to the food!

We weren’t eating the box of oranges as fast as we should have and they were in real danger of going bad.  So I had to come up with something to use a whole bunch of oranges at once.  I’ve had a venison loin sitting in the freezer since last fall and it seemed like it would be a perfect pairing for an orange pan sauce that I had in mind.

Since the sauce was going to be the star of the show, I simply cut the loin into medallions and pan fried them in a bit of oil.

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I’m not sure why I keep posting pics of frying meat, but it always look so good.  Well, that I love to see my cast irons being used.

As a side, I went with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic all mashed up together.

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I really love roasted root veggies and mashing them up makes for a nice variation. Especially if you plan on putting some kind of sauce on them.

Once the venison was fried off and resting, I made the pan sauce.  The recipe that I borrowed quite heavily from is the Orange Pan Sauce with Middle Eastern Spices from the Cook’s Illustrated cookbook.  I really wanted the sauce to be a “Friday-night-drunken-barroom-brawl” explosion in your mouth, so I went very heavy on the OJ and zest.

Ingredients:

  • 2 Shallots, minced
  • 2 tsp Sugar
  • 1 tsp Ground Cumin
  • 1/4 tsp Pepper
  • 1/4 tsp Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp Ground Cardamom
  • 1/8 tsp Cayenne Pepper
  • 1/4 C Orange Zest
  • 3 Tbs Red Wine Vinegar
  • 2 C Orange Juice
  • Salt

Pour off all but 1 1/2 Tbs fat from the skillet (of whatever meat you are making).  Place skillet over medium heat.  Add shallots and cook until softened, about 1 minute.  Stir in sugar, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and cayenne; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Stir in vinegar, scraping bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the fond.  Add the orange juice, increase heat to medium-high and simmer until reduced to about 3/4 C, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Off heat, season with salt to taste.  Spoon over meat and serve.

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Yes, it tasted even better than it looks.

I managed to create the citrus barrage that I was intending.  Plus, the other spices weren’t lost in all of the citric acid.  They were a nice background note in the sauce.  What is even better, is that the sauce worked equally well on both the meat and the roasted veggie mash.  All in all, I was quite pleased with this meal.  In fact, I am hoping the bag of lemons that we have in the fridge right now linger around a bit so I have an excuse to try this with a different citrus.

p.s.  Sorry if there is less snark in this post than usual.  Lindz has been hoarding our household’s share of it lately.

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An informative page, with emphasis on the Canadian Prairies.

A well-researched page (much more effort than I put into mine) that is a nice narrative.

This page looks at this Christmas tradition with regard to its English origin.

A sugar- and food-centric page that emphasizes the sweet and preservative aspect of fruit.

An interesting audio story from Minnesota Public Radio about the impact of a couple from Minnesota and their influence on the Christmas orange tradition here.

A not very helpful page with regards to Christmas oranges, but a still very interesting read.

A wonderful page full of Polish Christmas time traditions.

Smoked Herring!!!

For some people, it’s music.  For others, it’s snow, or even the neighborhood lighting up.  But for me, Christmas is finally here when I get my hands on some smoked fish.

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No matter what form herring takes, it is a great fish.

This urge I can trace squarely back to my grandpa Nick.  When I was little, he would always buy smoked fish around this time of year.  It was usually smoked whitefish.  Which I do try and pick up on a regular basis.  The other one that he would buy (when he could find them) is blind robbins.  Blind robbins are small herring fillets that are so salted and dried that they turn into a jerky version of a salt-lick.  My saliva glands are going into overdrive just thinking about them.

While wandering around Cub Foods today, I ended up at the seafood counter.  This is an area that I tend to avoid because I’m weak willed and usually end up buying something from there.  In this case it was a surprise package for Lindz (post coming as soon as I make it) and a pack of whole smoked herring.  I’ve had one already and it was quite good.  A little heavy handed on the salt, but it had a nice strong smoke flavor.

So, I say to you, Happy Holidays and eat some fish!

Grandma Rose was holding out on us!

One of the traditions that we had growing up at the Czeck Christmas gatherings was a dessert called Makówki (pronounced mah-KOOV-kee).  The way that Grandma Rose made it sort of defies explanation.  You almost have to experience it to fully understand and appreciate it.  Of course, being genetically inclined towards the stuff doesn’t hurt either.  You’ll understand that point better in a little bit.

The “official” recipe that Grandma Rose used for Makówki was like all old family recipes.  Not exactly big on measurements.  I’m sure someone has a version written down that has some actual numbers associated with it, but I’m too lazy at the moment to find out, so here’s the version that I have.  Take homemade bread (it has to be homemade) and tear it into chunks, then let it sit out on the counter and get stale.  Next, you make a simple syrup solution with ground poppy seeds in it, and build up layers, alternating between the bread and syrup in a bowl.  Refrigerate it for at least several hours and then serve.  What you end up with is a really soupy, sweet, soggy bread with a crap load of poppy seeds in the mix.  Sounds appetizing right?  I don’t think many of the in-laws actually eat the stuff.  I’m not even sure how many of my cousins do.  I know that at least some do, because my cousin Stephen and I were talking about it at Roy’s wake with a couple of my aunties.  It was established that our respective wives won’t touch the stuff, but we actively sought it out.  I also found out that my aunt Rosie has the official Makówki pottery bowl, and of course it’s green.  Rosie mentioned that her brother Mel was supposed to have been the one to keep the Makówki recipe alive.  He took the time and made it with Grandma Rose so he understood how to make it.  But unfortunately he passed away over ten years ago and no one took the opportunity to learn it again while she was alive.  I know that Mary Ann made it a couple of times, and it is possible that one of Mel’s sons has it.  I’ll have to make inquiries into some kind of official version in the near future.

A reasonably close picture of how Grandma Rose’s Makówki looked.

When I started actively collecting recipes and searching out different dishes, I always was on the look out for this recipe.  I had flipped through every applicable section of any Polish cookbook that I could find hoping to discover a variation of this dish.  I even read through the index looking for the recipe.  I was becoming increasingly convinced it was something that Grandma Rose had made up.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one that came to this conclusion because Rosie mentioned that she too was convinced of the same.  Grandma Rose was well known for combining odd things and making them taste amazing.  Her punch being one example (some odd combination of 7-Up, fruit juice, kool-aid, and who knows what else).  I guess living through the Depression and raising nine kids forces you to become creative in the kitchen.

You can’t even imagine my surprise and delight when I literally stumbled across a Makówki recipe while browsing the web.  I finally had a starting point outside of my family to do some research!  It seems that outside of Silesia, this dish is not well known.  In fact, many people in Poland haven’t even heard of this dish.  Talk about your regional cuisine!  This would explain why I’ve never seen it in any of the cookbooks.  Although I was impressed that there is a Wikipedia article on it (a few key selections):

The main ingredient are: sweet white bread and finely ground poppy seeds boiled in milk with butter. Other important ingredients include: dried fruit (figs, raisins, apricots, dates, etc.) almonds and other kinds of nuts (the choice of nuts and dried fruit varies). It is flavoured with sugar, honey, vanilla, cinnamon and rum.

Silesian cuisine can be very conservative. The tradition of makówki/mohnkließla/mohnpilen is well maintained amongst Silesians, i.e., it is hard to imagine a Silesian Christmas without this foodstuff, and it would be rather unorthodox to serve it outside the Christmas–New Year period.

I basically only found two versions of the recipe doing a Google search.  This one is fairly close to what Grandma Rose made (which strangely enough is the one that was in Polish).  The measurements in brackets are the originals, I have converted them to US standard.

Ingredients:

  • 1 – 1 1/2 quarts [liters] of milk
  • 5 large tablespoons of sugar
  • 8 3/4 oz [250 g] of poppy seeds
    (ground dry)
  • 2 small wheat buns
  • 5 1/4 oz [150 g] hazelnuts
  • 1 3/4 – 3 1/2 oz [50-100 g] walnuts
  • 5 1/4 oz[150 g] of raisins

Mix the sugar and milk together in a sauce pan and bring to a boil.  Add the ground poppy seeds and bring back to a boil (the recipe doesn’t state how long you need to boil this mixture).  Refrigerate the poppy seed mixture until cool.  Meanwhile, cut the buns into slices and chop the nuts quite finely.  In a large glass bowl, alternate layers of bun, nuts, raisins, and the refrigerated poppy seed mixture.  Repeat until you use up everything.

Grandma Rose’s version did not have the milk, nuts, and raisins.  Also, she used white bread instead of wheat buns.

The other version that I found sounds completely over the top compared to what I’m used to eating.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups poppy seeds, ground
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 8 tablespoons honey
  • 3 ounces rum
  • 6 ounces Amaretto
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup raisins (pre-soaked in a little rum)
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds
  • 1 loaf raisin bread (sliced 3/4 thick)
  • 2 ounces chocolate, shaved (bitter sweet)
  • 1 tablespoon sliced almonds
  • whipped cream (optional)

Prepare a day before because this needs to refrigerate over night.  It is sometimes difficult to find ground poppy seeds, so I use the poppy seeds, put them in a coffee filter and pour boiling water over the poppy seeds twice, to soften them up, then put them in the food processor, set aside.  In a large pot over medium heat bring the milk, cream and butter almost to a boil.  While constantly stirring with a wooden spoon, add the honey, rum, amaretto, cinnamon, raisins, walnuts, and almonds.  Reduce heat to medium low and let this cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Turn the heat off and add the ground poppy seed, stir twice and let the mixture sit for 10-15 minute (its important to have the heat off because the poppy seeds can become bitter if heated too much).  The mixture should be slightly thickened.  In a large glass bowl alternate layers the poppy seed mixture and the bread slices, starting with a ladle of the poppy seed mixture and ending with poppy seed mixture.  Should be 3 – 4 bread layers.  Cover the top with chocolate shavings and almond slices.  Cover and put in the fridge overnight.  Can be served with whipped cream.

Personally, I think the chocolate and the whipped cream are completely unnecessary.  I do like the idea of adding the dairy to make it more like a bread pudding.  And if you are going to do that, you might as well add the nuts and dried fruit because they go well that style of pudding.  Adding a alcohol to a dessert, to my knowledge, has never hurt anything.  But by the time that you get here, you’ve got a fairly typical bread pudding with poppy seed in it.  While it may be the more traditional Silesian version, I think I’m going to stick with Grandma Rose’s for the familial tradition and personal memories.