Cultures revel in christmas food traditions

When I was growing up our Christmas devolved into the bare minimum of traditions. After my brother and I stopped believing in Santa, we didn’t even wait until Christmas morning to open gifts. Someone, usually an elder in the family, rang a bell on Christmas Eve and out we’d come to open up the gifts. My mother, her sister and their cousins used to put on skits at Christmastime, too, performing songs with lyrics made up to point out some wacky behavior from another member of the family and sung to a popular tune. With fewer kids involved now, we don’t gather like that as much, but I still go to New Jersey/Pennsylvania to celebrate with my family. We have dinner on Christmas Eve at my aunt’s house – always with plenty of shrimp cocktail. My own cousins are there and one cousin’s kid. Last year, we played Cards Against Humanity. I had to explain a few of the terms to my step-dad. Awkward.

Traditions change, sometimes diminish, but when we still have them, they’re so important, something to look forward to and then remember. I just like that I can see my family and raise a glass to those there, and those gone.

Still, I have tradition envy. I see rituals and traditional foods eaten in other countries and want to do some cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to the food. Maybe some of you practice these at home already, taking a little from one side of the family, a lot from another.

In Spain, drink wine and whiskey, but snack on turron, a chewy nougat candy. It’s all paid for by the boss, too, who give their employees food and drink baskets.

There are so many great cookie traditions, too. In Germany, have pfeffernüsse, spicy ginger cookies with powdered sugar on top, and stollen, a fruit cake with spices, rum, and sugar glaze.

The Polish cookie, Chrusciki, is a bit less sweet, like a hard, bow-tie-shaped fried dough. They’re also enjoyed before Lent and sometimes have rum in the dough. In our area, you can find Kourabiedes, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies from Greece with a lot of almond flavor. They’re a bit like Russian Tea Cakes, which also have walnuts inside.

Down in Austin (and of course in Mexico and Guatemala), many Mexicans are making their holiday tamales by the dozen. In Canada, you’ll find poutine, the fries topped with cheese curds and gravy that are a French-Canadian cuisine staple.

In Sweden, they celebrate St. Lucia’s Day on Dec. 13 and the oldest girl in the family dresses up with a crown of candles. She gives her parents breakfast in bed with lussekatt, buns with saffron. And in Denmark, enjoy an almond and cherry rice pudding called rislamande (or Ris A L’Amande). I had some recently and now I eat it for breakfast!

When I worked at the Hungarian restaurant in New Jersey a few decades ago, the chef made beigli, a poppy seed cake. In France, they have an elaborate bûche de Noël. I see them all over now in fancypants bakeries. I think my favorite is the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is now mostly an Italian American feast which includes shellfish and salted cod, or baccalà.

This is the rislamande (or Ris A L’ Amande) recipe I’ve been making along with one for pfeffernüsse I first made 20 years ago and do each year. Or try to. This year I’ll be at my Dad and Step-Mom’s house for Christmas Day, and we’re having lasagna. I’ll bring the pfeffernüsse. And the wine.

Ris A L’ Amande (or risalamande)

The host or hostess adds one whole almond to the bowl and stirs it in. Whoever finds the almond while eating the dessert gets a little gift. I use canned or jarred cherries and add a little rum or aquavit to the sauce.

½ c.short grain rice

4 c. milk

a pinch of salt

⅔ c. sugar

1 t. vanilla extract

2 c. whipped cream

1 or 2 handful of almonds, blanched and chopped into slivers (except for that one almond)

Cherry sauce

1 small present

Bring the milk to a boil in a sturdy pot. Add the rice and simmer for an hour, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Add a pinch of salt.

Stir in the sugar and the vanilla extract and set the finished rice pudding in a cool place until it’s chilled. Just before serving, add the whipped cream and the almonds, stirring them in carefully. Add the whole almond. Serve chilled with warm cherry sauce.


4 c. all-purpose flour

1 t. baking powder

1/2 t. baking soda

1 t. ground white pepper

1 t. ground cinnamon

1/2 t. ground cardamom

1/2 t. ground ginger

3/4 t. salt

3/4 c. butter, softened

1 1/4 c. packed brown sugar

2 eggs

3/4 c. finely chopped almonds (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine dry ingredients and set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar together until light. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Stir in dry ingredients 1/2 cup at a time. Add almonds, if desired. Roll into one inch balls and arrange 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 11 to 14 minutes.

Cool and store in airtight containers for 3 days to mellow flavors.

Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Exeter (and Austin). Her column appears Thursdays in Go&Do. Her restaurant review column, Dining Out, appears Thursdays in Spotlight magazine.

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