Holiday Desserts

Allow me to paint you a picture.

The last of the cars have arrived and found an available place to park. Coats go flying. Boots go flying. Gifts go flying. All of this and it's still not even 10 o'clock in the morning.

Earlier that morning, a certain hustle demands attention. The food was being prepared. No, first the coffee; then the food. Wake-up juice. Christmas dinner. The scene varies little year to year. The people vary little as well. The atmosphere: congenial, happy, busy, warm.

Christmas songs resound in the background, amidst the noise coming from the kitchen, the living room, and elsewhere. Smells being to enfold all who are present. Turkey. Ham. Stuffing. Cranberries. Fruits. Nuts. And.... dessert. Blessed, sweet dessert. As an Italian-American family, certain foods were expected. Italian cookies primarily. And the ever popular and difficult to make without experience "cannoli."

When I started thinking about how I would approach the subject of holiday desserts, I wanted to share with you a special and very important family tradition: cannoli. A fine, rich, and delicious treat: a wine-fried shell is stuffed with a thick, sweet, white pudding called "bianco cibo." Literally it means "white food." Often the custard filling is embedded with chunks of chocolate and the whole treat is capped with crushed nuts or chocolate fondue. I then recalled these words my mother taught me. She said, "Christopher, if you dare share this recipe with anyone I will disown you." Ah, the tender love of a parent. Well-placed none-the-less. I practically had to steal the recipe in the first place, and I still can't make it correctly.

Out of respect, you, dear reader, will not get the Holiday treat that you may think this is heading to. My sincerest apologies up front.

Instead, I thought I would explore other cultures' traditions of Holiday desserts. Most notably "plum pudding" and the "Yule log." You've heard of these two treasures and yet you and your family may have never experienced them.

Plum Pudding

Neither has it plums, or is it a pudding (by American standards). This Dickens tradition is a hearty pie filled with nuts, fruits, and sweetened with molasses and ale. The pie itself is quite the endeavor: the picking and curing of the fruits to the final cooking with steam from upwards of four hours or more.

It took some research to find an American equivalent; surprising since this treat is easily found both in English old-century homes, and also in early-American tradition.

The dessert speaks of family gathering as romantic images from Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" wander in our skulls.

This is the near-perfect Christmas dinner dessert, richly flavored with a dense but light texture. This pudding is successful made just one week out or even a few days before serving, and it's easy, in spite of its length.

  • 12 oz pitted prunes, chopped
  • 10 oz dried currants
  • 8 oz dark raisins
  • 4 oz glace fruit (candied fruit-peel)
  • 1 large orange, zest only
  • 1/3 c orange juice
  • 1 large lemon, zest only
  • 1/4 c lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp apricot puree
  • 1 tbsp molasses
  • 1/3 c Guinness stout
  • 1/2 c or more cognac or brandy
  • 1/4 c tawny port
  • 1/4 c or more Frangelico liqueur
  • 1/2 tsp (rounded) cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp (rounded) ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp (scant) ground cloves
  • 1 c + 1 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 8 c fresh white bread crumbs from homemade-style sliced white bread
  • 6 oz butter, melted, + additional-as needed
  • Holly sprigs and glace-cherries, for garnish
  • Vanilla-flavored whipped -cream, lightly sweetened

Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, glace fruit, citrus rinds and juice, apricot puree and molasses in a large nonreactive bowl. Add the stout, 1/2 cup Cognac, the port and 1/4 cup Frangelico. Mix well.

Stir in the cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and cloves. Add the sugar and mix very well. Cover bowl with plastic wrap; refrigerate for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. The following day, let mixture stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Fold in the bread crumbs with a rubber spatula, in batches if necessary, until crumbs are thoroughly combined and no white specks are visible. Mixture will be stiff. Let stand for 30 minutes. Thoroughly fold in the melted butter. There should be about 9 cups of batter. Lightly butter two 4-cup and one 2 1/2-cup steamed pudding molds, heat-proof ceramic bowls or stainless-steel bowls. Lightly pack 3 1/2 cups of batter into the 4 cup molds and 2 cups of batter into the 2 1/2-cup mold. Smooth tops with a rubber spatula. Press a lightly buttered round of baking parchment directly onto the surface of each pudding. Cover each mold with its lid or each bowl with aluminum foil. Place molds in pots with boiling water that comes 3/4 of the way up the sides of the molds; cover pots. Steam puddings for 4 hours over low or medium-low heat, so water boils gently. Replenish boiling water as necessary to maintain level. Transfer puddings to wire racks; cool to room temperature. Refrigerate puddings, covered with baking parchment and plastic wrap, for up to 6 days. Brush them lightly once or twice with Cognac or Frangelico, if desired. To serve, let pudding stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Steam, covered with parchment paper and aluminum foil, for 2 1/2 hours. Let cool on a rack for 1 1/2 hours. Pudding should still be warm. Run a knife around the edge of the pudding. Invert pudding onto cake stand or platter. Decorate with holly sprigs and glace cherries. To flambé pudding: Pour about 2 tablespoons hot Cognac over the top. Carefully and immediately ignite it with a match. Blue flames will subside when alcohol has burned off. Slice the pudding and serve with whipped cream.

  • Yields: 2 large puddings, serving 8 to 10 each, and 1 small pudding that serves 6 to 8

The Yule Log
From Pat Spiller's "Christmas Traditions in Spain."

    "A huge log -- the Yule Log -- is brought into an outdoor clearing and becomes part of a great bonfire. Everyone dances and sings around the fire. All the noise and great excitement is said to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep, hurrying spring on its way as the cycle begins once again and the days grow longer than the nights."

This tradition began as a Pagan ritual to be had during the Winter Solstice. Nowadays, the Yule Log still symbolizing the coming season while at the same time, keeping things home in a fashion. The Yule Log, represented in dessert-form, reminds us of Holiday tradition in many a form, much like that of the aforementioned Plum Pudding. While its not entirely incorrect to say that the once Pagan ritual has become Christianized, the ritual in itself embodies now what it embodied then- that is, the newness of what is to come. In parallel, the birth of Jesus can also be thought of as a "look to the future" and the newness of what is to come.

The Yule Log

Buttercream:

  • 14 oz. bittersweet or semi sweet chocolate
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 C confectioners sugar
  • 3/4 lb. softened unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 tsp. instant coffee (espresso is nice)
  • 1 tsp. boiling water

Sponge Cake:

  • 14 tbsp. softened butter
  • 1 cup plus 3 tbsp. cake flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs

Meringue Mushrooms:

  • 2 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
  • cocoa powder
  • confectioners sugar

For the buttercream, chop the chocolate into small pieces and put them into a heatproof bowl. Melt in the microwave on 30 percent power in 30 seconds shots until melted. Stir until smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Put the egg yolks and the sugar in a medium bowl and mix with an electric mixer until very pale - about 3 minutes. Add the butter, a tbsp. at a time. and beat well after each addition. Beat about five minutes longer. Remove half the buttercream to a separate bowl and stir the melted chocolate into one batch of the buttercream. Dissolve the instant coffee in the boiling water and stir in the vanilla. Add to the other buttercream. Can cover and refrigerate for 48 hours if need be.

For the sponge cake, coat a 5x10 inch jelly roll pan with 1 tablespoon butter and line it with parchment paper or wax paper. Butter the paper and set aside. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt. Beat the remaining butter and the sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture and beat about 3 minutes. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Evenly spread the batter in the pan and bake until the cake layer is lightly browned and springy -- about ten minutes. Remove from heat. Run a small knife along the rim of the cake to loosen it. Flip the cake gently onto a linen towel that has been dusted with confectioners sugar. Carefully peel away the paper. Trim off the crisp brown edges (handy to feed these to a nearby child). Flip the cake again onto another linen towel that has been dusted with confectioners sugar and take away the first towel. Fold the bottom edge of the towel up over the cake and tightly roll the cake. Set aside rolled up on a wire rack until cake cools. This takes about thirty minutes.

If you have your buttercream refrigerated, bring to to room temperature at this point and stir until smooth. Set aside 1/2 cup of the coffee buttercream. Unroll the cake and spread with the remaining coffee buttercream Roll it back up tightly. Cut a diagonal slice from one end of the cake - about 1 1/4 inch long at its longest point. Reserve slice and sit the cake seam side down on the serving dish. Edge it with wax paper in order not to mess up the plate while icing the log. Set the reserved slice on top of the "log" so it protrudes like a stump off the main log. Spread the ends of the log and the end of the stump with the coffee buttercream. Then frost the rest of the log and sides of the stump with the chocolate buttercream (stripe with fork tines to appear like bark). If desired, pipe rings on the light ends of the log with the chocolate buttercream. You may get as fancy as you please here, and if you have a hand for decorated, pipe on green vines and leaves if desired. Make the meringue mushrooms and sit on the log and around it. Dust whole thing with powdered sugar if desired for snow. Arrange sprigs of holly, or whatever you choose around the log on the serving tray. Use as a centerpiece and an elegant dessert.

  • Yields: one fantastic yule log
I hope you've enjoyed my little portrait. And I hope that you will take care of portraits of your own; recognizing the importance of them in your life. As my favourite painter always said, "And remember... make all of your trees "happy trees."

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