Let’s all climb on board Santa’s sleigh and take a trip back in time to learn the origins of some of those sweets we love scarfing down this time of year.
One of the oldest Christmas cakes is the much maligned, calorie-dense fruitcake, which fueled the Roman army, as well as the armies of Europe during the following centuries. The word “fruitcake” actually came into use during the time of the Crusaders, who packed along the energizing treat during their search for the Holy Grail. England began adopting fruitcake as its own in the 1400s and it became even more popular in the 1600s when cheap sugar started arriving from the colonies.
The elaborately decorated and filled sponge cake known as a Yule log may have started in the 1600s, when marzipan and meringue decorations were popular on Medieval tables. Known as a bûche de Noël in France, chocolate-covered yule logs were made popular by 19th-century Parisian bakers.
A newer cake tradition is pavlova, the fruit- and cream-filled meringue dessert created either in Australia or New Zealand in the 1920s, when Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova was touring the region.
Another version of a sponge-type holiday dessert is the Japanese Christmas cake, made of sponge cake topped with fruit and whipped cream. The Portuguese brought the custom to Japan, the country that started the saying that single women, like Christmas cakes, are hard to get rid of after the 25th (Christmas day or their birthday).
Pies, too, are traditional for Christmas. Probably the most classic filling is mincemeat, tracing back to England, where Medieval cooks originally made pies of chopped meat, fruit and wine.
Nowadays, mincemeat rarely contains meat and is instead made of distilled spirits, chopped fruits and spices.
Fruit and spices are also important in plum pudding, aka Christmas pudding or that figgy pudding we’ve sung about since we were children. This steamed, boozy dish was so important in the 15th century that the Roman Catholic Church in England decreed how many ingredients should be used and how the batter should be stirred, which gave rise to the British holiday known as “Stir-Up Sunday.”
Many Medieval European breads were reserved for Christmas because they were expensive. Some modern favorites include German stollen, Slovenian raisin-studded sarkelj and the braided, ring-shaped Ukranian kolach, as well as the tall, candied fruit and egg bread known as panettone, created in 15th century Milan.
One of the many panettone fables says the bread was invented when a lovesick nobleman named Ughetto disguised himself as a baker so he could be near Adalgisa, the daughter of a lowly pastry shop owner. Ughetto eventually concocted panettone, which made his sweetheart’s father fabulously wealthy, and the two young lovebirds were allowed to marry.
The popular story about the origin of the candy cane revolves around a German choirmaster who, in 1670, made white candy sticks to keep his young singers still during a long church service.
Eventually the sticks were curved like shepherd’s sticks, and it wasn’t until around 1900 that they assumed their red stripes and peppermint flavoring.
Like many traditional sweets of the season, the cookies we know today are rooted in Medieval Europe, with German lebkuchen (gingerbread), generally recognized as the first cake or cookie associated with Christmas. Today, cookies from around the globe include the jam and coconut Hertzog cookies of South Africa, the anise- and cinnamon-scented Mexican biscochito, South America’s dulce de leche-filled alfajores, Russia’s spicy pryaniki, and the no-bake confection popular in Canada known as Nanaimo bars.
In addition to adopting customs from around the world, we here in Louisiana also enjoy Christmas desserts that use ingredients traditionally associated with the South.
That’s why sweet potato, lemon, coconut and pecan cakes and pies are so popular, as is just about any dessert soaked in bourbon. Then there’s that humidity thing, which is why pralines, fudge and divinity are logical candies for the coolish month of December.
And if your holiday plans do include whipping up something sweet, and whether the recipe originated in Latvia or LaPlace, remember to make a little extra for Santa — it takes a lot of energy to command that sled and those feisty reindeer.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is editor of “The Southern Table” cookbook series at LSU Press and author of “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.