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Holiday column: SUGAR PLUMS!
By Chef Joey
‘Twas the issue before Christmas and all through the city, people were waiting to read my latest ditty. The juries were hung in the courthouse; who cares?! While many others took elevators and didn’t use the stairs! … I could go on rhyming, but I don’t have “A Christmas Carol” to write for my children, just an interesting article about the holidays. So, let’s start with the music then move on to the food:
Google tells me that the Christmas hymns that we know have origins dating back to the fourth century Rome. Latin hymns such as Veniredemptor gentium, written by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, were theological statements. Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father’s love begotten) by the Spanish poet Prudentius (d. 413) is still sung in some churches today! Thousands of years and no royalties!
In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Christmas “Sequence” or “Prose” was introduced in North European monasteries. They developed a sequence of rhymed stanzas with the guidance of Bernard of Clairvaux. Leave it to the French! The French took it up a notch in the twelfth century with Adam of St. Victor, a Parisian monk, deriving music from popular songs, creating what is now closer to traditional Christmas carols.
In the thirteenth century, in France, Germany, and mostly Italy, a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in the native language developed under the influence of Francis of Assisi (yes the Patron Saint of Animals!). Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas,” probably sung by groups of ‘wassailers’, who went from house to house.
Ok, let’s stop at WASSAILERS! The word actually has two categories! One means people that go door to door singing Christmas songs and the other stands for: the ones who went to the English Apple Orchards and sang to the trees so they would produce a good cider! Ironically, Hard Cider is in vogue in the USA while still popular in Europe.
So in sum, the songs we know specifically as carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations like harvest tide as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols were sung in church and were specifically associated with Christmas.
So that moves me up to Christmas! Songs like “Jingle Bells”: Written in America – right here in Medford, Massachusetts! James Lord Pierpont came up with the song and published it under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh” in the autumn of 1857. Even though it is now associated with Christmas and holiday season, it was actually written for Thanksgiving. Apparently, Thanksgiving snow is popular. And the term “Jingle Bells” came to be because there were many sleighs, and putting bells on horses was the only way they could avoid collisions, since there were no other external noises like Pandora or sirens!
The song “Jingle Bells” was often used as a drinking song at parties: people would jingle the ice in their glasses as they sung. The double-meaning of “upsot” was thought humorous, and a sleigh ride gave an unescorted couple a rare chance to be together, unchaperoned, in distant woods or fields, with all the opportunities that afforded. Sleigh rides were the nineteenth-century equivalent of taking a girl to a drive-in movie theatre in the 1950s and early 1960s, so there was a somewhat suggestive and scintillating aspect to the song that is often now unrecognized. Thought you might like to know that and now you too can bear my curse of the song.
I could continue about Christmas songs, but this is a food column. So let’s move on to traditional food and the fun “Puddings” and “Cakes” talked about by authors over the years.
Christmas pudding has its origins in medieval England and is sometimes known as plum pudding or Christmas Pudding or just “pud,” though this can also refer to other kinds of “boiled pudding” involving dried fruit. Despite the name “plum pudding,” the pudding contains no actual plums due to the pre-Victorian use of the word “plums” as a term for raisins. The pudding is composed of many dried fruits held together by egg and suet, sometimes moistened by corn syrup or molasses and flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and other spices. The pudding is aged for a month or even a year; the high alcohol content of the pudding prevents it from spoiling during this time. No wonder it was so popular – flammable dinners!
What we know about the current story telling Puddings is they took their present day form in Victorian England. The pudding’s origins can be traced back to the 1420s, to two sources. It was as a way of preserving meat at the end of the season. Because of shortages of hays or grains, all excess livestock were slaughtered in the fall. The meat was then kept in a storage container along with dried fruits acting as a preservative. The resultant large “mince pies” could then be used to feed hosts of people, particularly during the festive season.
The chief ancestor of the modern pudding, however, was the pottage, a meat and vegetable concoction originating in Roman times. This was prepared in a large cauldron, the ingredients being slow cooked, with dried fruits, sugar and spices added. In the 15th century, Plum pottage was a sloppy mix of meat, vegetables and fruit served at the beginning of a meal. So there you have it “Christmas Pudding” unmasked.
So instead of sugar plums dancing in your head…make some! They are an easy and a great alternative to making cookies as there is no baking and it’s fast and easy – and can be served immediately! They last for about a month when stored in a Zip-lock plastic bag or other container.
Here is a simple and fast way to make a new Christmas tradition for your family.
• 6 ounces slivered almonds, toasted
• 4 ounces dried plums
• 4 ounces dried apricots
• 4 ounces dried figs
• 1/4 cup powdered sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon anise seeds, toasted
• 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted
• 1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• Pinch kosher salt
• 1/4 cup honey
• 1 cup coarse sugar
Place the figs, almonds, apricots, and plums into a food processorand pulse up to 25 times or until the fruit and nuts are chopped into small pieces, but before the mixture becomes a solid mass.
Combine the powdered sugar, cardamom, and all the seeds and salt in a medium mixing bowl.
Add the nut and fruit mixture and the honey and mix – preferably wearing gloves until well combined.
Use a small scoop and form the mixture into 1/4-ounce portions and roll into balls.
If serving immediately, roll in the coarse sugar and serve. If not serving immediately, put the balls on a cookie cooling rack and leave uncovered until ready to serve.
Roll in the coarse sugar prior to serving.
I hope all your dreams come true this holiday season! Remember: the little things can make the biggest impact!
Best wishes to all of you!