European Christmas Sweets

From Advent to Three Kings Day

Two famous Swiss Christmas cookies: on the left are the Mailänderli, on the right, Spitzbuebli. Both will be devoured throughout Switzerland this season. Courtesy Beamish

by Sharon Hudgins

Christmas is my favorite holiday season in Europe. Advent, the period leading up to Christmas itself, begins on November 30 or on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, whichever comes first on the calendar. And in most places, the Christmas season doesn’t end until six weeks later, on January 6, known as Three Kings Day (or Epiphany).

Special foods are prepared and eaten at this time of year, some of them with roots in Europe’s pre-Christian past. During the cold, dark days leading up to the winter solstice (December 21 or 22) and Christmas (December 25), people have a natural craving for caloric cookies, cakes, and confections to tide them over until warmer, sunnier weather arrives. Yet not so long ago, Advent was a time of fasting for members of the Catholic Church, which forbade the consumption of butter, eggs, and other animal products during this holy period, in solemn preparation for the coming of the Christ Child.

Today, only a few people still deny themselves such temptations during the days leading up to Christmas. In many parts of northern Europe the annual Christmas baking binge begins as early as October, when home cooks make hundreds of cookies and dozens of cakes and puddings whose flavors are better if they “ripen” for several weeks before serving. Commercial bakers and confectioners hire extra help to produce thousands of holiday sweets for this most lucrative quarter of their business year. And colorful open-air Christmas markets in large cities and small towns sell the seasonal specialties of their own particular region.

Bakers in the British Isles start making their Christmas puddings several weeks or even months in advance of the special December day. Old-fashioned Christmas Plum Pudding—originally made with mutton, beefsteak, and fruits, including plums—has morphed in modern times into a dense, rich, dessert full of currants, raisins, and sultanas, with mixed fruit peel and candied cherries, steamed in a covered bowl and served with a brandy hard sauce made from sugar, butter, and brandy beaten together until fluffy. A sixpence coin is cooked inside the pudding, which supposedly brings good fortune to whoever finds it in his or her serving.

Also popular in Britain are a variety of fruit cakes, sometimes covered with a layer of marzipan and decorated with marzipan “fruits” and sprigs of holly—and small mince pies, their pasty cases filled with a fruity mincemeat mixture of apples, raisins, currants, sultanas, almonds, beef suet, brown sugar, and several spices. In earlier times, the oval shape of these mince pies was said to represent Christ’s crib, with the spices symbolizing the gifts from the East that the Three Kings brought to Bethlehem.

In Scotland, slices of densely textured Dundee Cake, filled with dried and candied fruits and decorated with almond halves on top, are served on “Boxing Day” (December 26). Buttery Scottish shortbread, taken with a dram of Scotch whisky, is traditional for the New Year. And in Ireland the holiday season is the time for loaves of fruit-and-nut-filled breads, as well as several kinds of round or oblong puddings made from wheat or potato doughs, sugar, spices, and dried fruits, wrapped in a cloth and boiled in a big cooking pot.

In the Scandinavian countries the Christmas season begins on St. Lucia’s Day (December 13), which is celebrated with coiled yeast buns colored with saffron. You’ll also find a number of yeast-raised Christmas breads (JulekakaJulekage) made with plenty of butter and eggs, filled with raisins, nuts, and candied fruits, and seasoned with cardamom. Norwegian Almond Ring Cake (Kransekake) is a tower of baked almond-paste rings, the largest on the bottom and the smallest on the top, fancily decorated with white icing. Crispy molasses-spice cookies called pepparkakor are popular throughout Scandinavia, where they’re made in many holiday shapes and sometimes hung as ornaments on the branches of a special “pepparkakor tree” made of wooden dowels. And a traditional Christmas Eve dessert is rice pudding, with a whole almond hidden inside. Whoever finds the almond will be married before the next Christmas (in Sweden) or will have a series of lucky adventures throughout the coming year (in Denmark).

The Netherlands, Belgium, and northern Germany are home to crispy brown Christmas cookies known as Speculaas or Spekulatius, the dough spiked with ginger or black pepper and pressed into special wooden molds that outline the cookies’ shapes and imprint designs on them. Cookies in the form of windmills and little sailor boys are especially popular. And throughout all of Germany, the Christmas season seems to bring out the best in home bakers, whose kitchens are filled with the aromas of sugar, yeast, spices, nuts, and candied fruits combined in myriad ways to produce some of Europe’s best-known holiday treats.

German gingerbread cookies (Lebkuchen) have been famous throughout Central Europe since the Middle Ages, especially those from the city of Nürnberg. The stiff dough made of rye or wheat flour, honey, almonds, hazelnuts, finely chopped candied fruit peel, and spices—ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cardamom, and coriander—is pressed into wooden molds that imprint intricate designs on the cookies. Other Lebkuchen cookies are made in simple shapes—circles, hearts, squares—and decorated with white or chocolate icing. No German Christmas season would be complete without plenty of Lebkuchen to nibble on during the entire six weeks from Advent to Epiphany.

photo of Lebkuchen in tin

Other traditional German Christmas sweets include flat, white, anise-flavored cookies (Springerle), made with pretty designs printed on them with wooden molds; spicy, round “pepper nuts” (Pfeffernüsse) containing ginger or black pepper; six-pointed “cinnamon stars” (Zimtsterne), redolent of that spice and covered with thick white icing; marzipan confections made of sweetened almond paste, shaped and colored to resemble tiny fruits, vegetables, animals, and other figures; Stollen, an oblong fruit-nut-raisin bread covered with a thick layer of confectioners’ sugar and said to represent the Christ Child in swaddling clothes; and Striezel, a braided bread whose three strands of dough symbolize the Holy Trinity.

Holiday treats very similar to these can be found throughout Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine. Many Poles and Ukrainians also begin their Christmas Eve dinner with kutia, an ancient kind of pudding made with whole wheat grains boiled with honey, figs, dates, raisins, nuts, lemon peel, and poppy seeds. And they conclude the meal with a sweet compote containing twelve kinds of dried fruits, symbolizing the Twelve Apostles. In Hungary, poppy-seed rolls and cakes are popular at this time of year, harking back to the pre-Christian era when the tiny seeds were eaten as a fertility charm on the night of the winter solstice to ensure a bountiful harvest in the coming year.

Christmas traditions are a bit different in the Latin lands. In France, especially in the south, it’s customary to have thirteen desserts for the Christmas Eve dinner that follows Midnight Mass—including fruits, nuts, dates, marzipan, nougat, and always a “Jule log cake” (Bûche de Noël), a long cylindrical cake rolled up around a buttercream filling and decorated on the outside with chocolate icing swirled to look like tree bark, with marzipan “leaves” and meringue “mushrooms” attached to the log-shaped cake. The French end the Christmas season with the celebration of Three Kings Day (January 6), when they eat a special “kings’ cake” (galette des Rois), a round, somewhat flat, golden-colored cake made of puff pastry, often enriched with an almond-paste filling, which has a single bean or a porcelain or plastic good-luck charm baked into it. Whoever finds the charm in his or her piece of cake becomes king for the day and gets to wear the gold-foil crown that was perched atop the cake when it was served.

In Italy, bakers turn out a number of yeasty Christmas breads (pane di Natale), full of butter, eggs, nuts, raisins, and dried and candied fruits. Particularly popular throughout the country is panettone from Milan, a tall, delicate, dome-shaped yeast bread studded with raisins, almonds, and candied orange peel. The northern Italians like their own Alpine fruit bread (Zelten), another yeast-raised bread chock full of dates, sultanas, candied citron, almonds, walnuts, and pine nuts, scented with cinnamon and cloves. The Italian sweet tooth finds satisfaction in all the confections traditionally eaten during the Christmas season, too, including chewy almond nougat (torrone) and marzipan; candied orange halves, candied pumpkin slices, and candied whole chestnuts; and medieval panforte from Siena, a flat, dense, highly spiced, confection-like fruit-and-nut cake containing almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, honey, candied fruit peel, cinnamon, cloves, white pepper, and coriander seeds. And on Three Kings Day the Italians eat puff pastries filled with apricot preserves, as well as a type of sweet focaccia (flat bread) with a single black bean baked inside for the lucky eater who finds it and gets to be “king for the day.”

The Christmas season in Spain is a time for consuming large quantities of the confections for which the country is famous: marzipan from Toledo, often formed in fanciful shapes and sometimes decorated with white icing and colorful candied fruits; almond nougat (turrón), the hard variety from Alicante and the soft version from Jijona, as well as numerous other types of turrón containing hazelnuts, pine nuts, coconut, and chocolate; candied chestnuts; sugar-coated almonds; candied fruits and dried dates; the rich chocolates for which Spain is gaining an international reputation; and “fig bread” (pan de higos), a thick, chewy confection of dried figs, hazelnuts, almonds, and sesame seeds, flavored with grated orange peel and anise liquor.

The special meal on Christmas Eve in Spain often concludes with a sweet soup made of ground almonds, walnuts, or chestnuts, sprinkled with cinnamon. But for children the main event of the holiday season is Three Kings Day, when they receive gifts from the Magi who carried presents to the baby Jesus. As in other Latin countries, the traditional sweet is Three Kings Cake (Roscón de Reyes), a ring-shaped cake studded with raisins, nuts, and candied fruit, and with a coin, a bean, or a small toy baked into it—the lucky charm for the finder, who then gets to wear a king’s paper crown for the rest of the day.

The holiday season in Greece is also a time for indulging in sweets: pencil-thin bread-dough fritters fried in olive oil and drizzled with honey; coiled flaky baklava filled with ground almonds and roasted chick peas; spice cookies made with cinnamon, cloves, and olive oil, then soaked in a sweet syrup; delicate ground-almond cookies (kourabiedes) covered with a thick coating of confectioners’ sugar and with a whole clove baked inside to symbolize the spices that the Three Kings brought to the Christ Child.

Many kinds of special Christmas breads (Christópsomo) are baked in Greece during this season, too. Depending on each family’s own traditions, the Christmas bread might contain walnuts, almonds, raisins, dried figs, lemon or orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, black pepper, and aniseeds. The shapes of these breads vary according to family preferences, too, as do the decorations on top, which range from symbolic shapes made of dough to sugar glazes and garnishes of chopped candied fruits. After the midnight church service on Christmas Eve, the family and guests gather around the table to share the Christmas bread. The first piece is set aside for Christ, and the rest is distributed among the diners, one of whom will find a coin baked into the bread, bringing that person the blessing of good luck. And on New Year’s Eve, the Greeks share another special bread called Vasilópita (St. Basil’s Bread), a yeast bread flavored with aniseeds or mahlepi seeds, honey, olive oil, and grated orange zest, sprinkled on top with sesame seeds and often decorated with the number of the new year made out of dough. The head of the household breaks the bread at the last stroke of midnight, giving a piece to each person at the table—and whoever finds the coin baked inside will have good fortune throughout the year.

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