Old Fashion Christmas Food Explained


            At this time of year I often get a few requests for “traditional” holiday recipes. Not moms, grandmothers or even great grandma Rosie’s “can’t have a holiday meal with out being excommunicated from the family with out serving them recipes” but rather, the recipes that have made up holiday menus in times past. These are the recipes we all know about but have never made because either they sound too weird, take too much time or frankly, require more ingredients and expertise than the average cook has. I’m talking about Mincemeat, Roasted Chestnuts, Wassail, Syallbub, Gingerbread and Roast Goose.

            These five foods have been discussed, lauded and praised in the Christmas songs and literature for eons. While the Wassail and Syallbub are not as well known or popular as they once were, they are nonetheless, by virtue of their longevity in our collective culinary memories, worthy of inclusion in this column. None of these items are actually difficult to make so I suppose the reason most of them don’t get served is that family favorites have edged out the traditional favorites.     

I’ve made both Wassail and Syllabubs and found both to be delicious. Gingerbread and Roast Goose have both graced my table on many occasions. However, I will admit I’ve never had the desire to try mincemeat but several of my friends love it and assure me that, made right, it’s delicious. My mincemeat lapse aside, tradition has its place. So, without further ado, my holiday gift to you is a nostalgic retrospective of the recipes of Christmas past.


Mincemeat was originally a medieval (England) sweet, spicy mixture of chopped (minced) lean meat (usually beef, or beef tongue), suet and fruit. It was generally served as an entree. Gradually the meat content was reduced, and today the mixture contains nuts, dried fruit (raisins, apples, pears, citrus peel, etc.), beef suet, spices and brandy or rum, but no beef. Mincemeat is used primarily in pies and tarts.


1/2 lb beef suet, chopped fine

4 cups seedless raisins

2 cups dried currants

1 cup coarsely chopped almonds

1/2 cup coarsely chopped candied citron

1/2 cup coarsely chopped dried figs

1/2 cup coarsely chopped candied orange peel

1/4 cup coarsely chopped candied lemon peel

4 cups coarsely chopped, peeled and cored cooking apples

1 & 1/4 cups sugar

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp cloves

2 & 1/2 cups brandy

1 cup dry sherry

2 recipes for 2 crust pie shell recipe

Combine the suet, raisins, currants, almonds, citron, figs, orange peel, lemon peel, apples, sugar, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves in a large mixing bowl and stir them together thoroughly. Pour in the brandy and the sherry and stir with a large spoon until all the ingredients are moist. Cover the bowl and set the ingredients aside in a cool place (do not refrigerate) for at least 3 weeks. Check the mixture each week and replenish the absorbed liquor with more brandy and sherry, using about 1/4 cup each time. To cook: Preheat the oven to 375. Roll out dough and cut into 4 to 5 inch circles. Place about 1 tablespoons of mincemeat into each pastry circle and cover and fold in half, crimping the edges with a fork. Place the stuffed pies on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Let pies cool then remove from tin and serve with whipped cream. Makes 2 dozen With leftover filling.

From http://www.about.com


Simply put chestnuts that are roasted and then served warm. Since the middle of the twentieth century, North America has imported most of its chestnuts from Italy. In France, marron glace, a candied chestnut with a typically French cooking style that involves 16 different processes, is always served at Christmas and New Years time. To the early Christians chestnuts symbolized chastity.
To roast your chestnuts use the point of a paring knife to slash an X on the flat side of each nut, being sure to cut through the skin. Bake in a single layer at 425  for 10 to 15 minutes for peeling only. If you want them completely roasted, bake 15 to 25 minutes until tender. Stir nuts occasionally during the roasting time.

Always peel chestnuts while they’re still warm. If they cool so much that the shell won’t easily come off, reheat them briefly.


Syllabub was a popular dessert in seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. It was popular for celebrations, special occasions and Christmas due to its festive appearance. Syllabub was made with a mixture of whipped cream, whipped egg whites, white wine, sugar, lemon juice and zest of lemon. The quantity of white wine added would determine the consistency determining whether the mixture was a creamy dessert or a punch.


2 cups white wine

3 cups milk

5 tablespoons grated Lemon peel (rind)

2 cups Light cream

1/3 cup Lemon juice

4 Egg whites

1-1/2 cup Sugar


Combine wine, lemon rind, and juice. Stir in 1 cup of the sugar and let stand until sugar dissolves. Combine milk and cream, add wine mixture, and beat with a rotary beater until frothy. Beat egg whites until stiff, add remaining 1/2 cup sugar, a little at a time, beating constantly until whites stand in peaks. Pour wine mixture into punch bowl, top with puffs of egg white, and sprinkle whites with nutmeg.

From http://www.webmaster.com


This French pastry origin can be traced back to the ancient Celtic tradition of celebrating the winter solstice. On the shortest day of the year, the Celts would search for a large trunk of a tree and burn it. The burning log was a symbol of the rebirth of the sun as well as an offering of thanks to the sun for returning to the earth. This pagan tradition was transformed by the Catholic Church and during the Middle Ages the logs and the ceremony of the burning log became more elaborate. The logs themselves would be decorated with ribbons and greenery and it would burn through the night.  The big log was replaced by a smaller branch that was set in the middle of the table and surrounded by little sweets that were given as treats to guests. It is this branch that was eventually transformed into the cake we know as the Buche de Noel.


6 large egg yolks
1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups half and half
8 ounces imported white chocolate (such as Lindt), chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange peel

1 1/2 cups toasted sliced almonds
2 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour

6 large eggs, separated
10 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt

Powdered sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur

Pine twigs

Candied Cranberries
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup cranberries

For Buttercream:
Whisk egg yolks, sugar and flour in medium bowl to blend well. Bring half and half to simmer in heavy medium saucepan. Slowly whisk hot half and half into egg mixture. Return egg mixture to same saucepan and cook until mixture boils and thickens, whisking constantly. Transfer mixture to medium bowl. Add chocolate and orange peel and stir until mixture is smooth. Press plastic wrap onto surface of pastry cream to prevent skin from forming. Cool completely. (Pastry cream can be prepared 1 day ahead. Refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before continuing.)

For cake:
Preheat oven to 300. Butter 11×17-inch jelly roll pan. Line with parchment. Butter and flour parchment. Coarsely grind toasted almonds with flour in processor. Using electric mixer, beat yolks with 5 tablespoons brown sugar in medium bowl until slowly dissolving ribbons form when beaters are lifted. Stir in orange peel and vanilla extract. Using clean dry beaters, beat whites with cream of tartar and salt in large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 5 tablespoons brown sugar and beat until stiff but not dry. Fold whites into yolk mixture. Gently fold in almond mixture.

Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Run small sharp knife around pan sides if necessary to loosen cake. Slide cake on parchment onto rack. Cool.

Slide cake on parchment onto work surface. Loosen cake from parchment using knife as aid. Sift powdered sugar over cake. Invert onto cookie sheet. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and invert onto another parchment sheet. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in Grand Marnier. Add pastry cream 1/4 cup at a time, beating after each addition until just blended.

Spread half of Buttercream over cake, leaving 1/2-inch border. Starting at 1 long side, roll up cake jelly roll fashion. Arrange seam side down on parchment. Set aside 1/2 cup Buttercream; spread remaining Buttercream over cake. Cut 2 inches off each end of cake, cutting on diagonal. Transfer cake to platter. Attach ends to top of cake, forming branches. Spread reserved 1/2 cup Buttercream over cake ends and seams. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour to firm Buttercream. (Cake can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Let cake stand at room temperature 20 minutes before serving.)

Arrange pine twigs on cake and on platter. Garnish with cranberries.

For Cranberries:
Cook 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons water in heavy small saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Transfer to top of double boiler. Add cranberries. Cover berry mixture and place over simmering water. Cook 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from over water. Let cranberry mixture stand at room temperature overnight. Place remaining 1/2 cup sugar on plate. Drain cranberries well. Add to sugar and turn to coat. Let dry at least 30 minutes. (Can be prepared 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)  Serves 8.

From Bon Appétit December 1991


Wassail is a hot, spiced punch often associated with winter celebrations of northern Europe, usually those connected with the Christmas,  New Year’s and Twelfth Night. While the modern day beverage typically served as wassail most closely resembles mulled cider. Historical wassail was different, more of a mulled beer. Sugar, ale, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon would be placed in a bowl, heated and then the alcohol ignited. Recipes vary, but usually call for a base of either wine or fruit juices (for those who abstain from spirits) simmered with mulling spices, usually fortified with brandy. Orange and or lemon slices were added to the mixture.


1 gallon apple juice

2 oranges
2 lemons
1 lime
1 tbsp cloves
1 tbsp allspice
2 cinnamon sticks
1 qt water
1 cup sugar

Heat the water to boiling. Cut the lemons and oranges (and lime if using) in half and squeeze the juice into a separate bowl to save, throw the skins and pulp into the boiling water. Add spices and simmer for one hour.  Remove the cinnamon sticks, a few cloves, allspice and save to one side. Using a slotted spoon or strainer remove the citrus peels and pulp and the remaining spices. Return the cinnamon sticks and saved spices to the water. Add the apple juice or cider and return to heat. . When boiling remove from heat and add the citrus juice and sugar. Simmer very lightly for another 10 minutes and serve. Serves 10 to 12.

From http://www.drinkmixer.com


Gingerbread has been baked in Europe since the eleventh century. In some places, it was a soft spiced cake; in others, a crisp cookie, and in still  others it resembled bread. Sometimes light, sometimes dark, sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, it was almost always cut into shapes such as men, women, stars or animals and then decorated.


1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/4 cup water
2 1/2 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice
Candied cherries, red gum drops
String licorice
Decorator’s icing

If you are using self rising flour omit salt and baking soda. If you are using quick mixing flour add 3 tablespoons milk. Cream shortening and sugar. Blend in molasses, water, flour, salt, soda, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. Chill for 2-3 hours. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll dough 1/4 inch thick on a lightly floured cloth covered board. Cut with cookie cutters or into shapes with a knife. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet for 10-12 minutes. Immediately remove from baking sheet and cool. For crispier cookie roll dough 1/8 inch thick and bake for 8 minutes. Trim cookies as desired. For gingerbread men, press raisins into dough for eyes, nose, and buttons. Use bits of candied fruits and licorice for other trim. Makes 2 dozen regular cookies.

From http://www.cooks.com


Turkey, Ham, and especially goose have been the main stay of most Christmas dinners. While turkey and ham are a more modern American tradition most Europeans still roast a goose for the holidays.

1 fresh whole goose (13 to 15 pounds)
Butchers’ twine
Kosher salt
3 ounces goose rub (1 ounce each of ground fennel seed, ground coriander seed and ground white pepper mixed together)
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 bunch fresh rosemary
1 dinner fork (to poke holes in skin of goose)
1 onion (peeled, cut into large dice)
1 carrot (peeled, cut into thick slices)
1 rib celery (washed, cut into large slices)
1 leek (white part only, washed and cut into thick slices)
1 bay leaf
2 cups water

Preheat oven to 350. Tie the legs of the goose together and cut the tips of the wings off. You can save the wing tips with the neck bone and make a quick goose stock, if needed. Next, using the fork, gently poke holes in the skin of the goose without going through the skin into the meat. Do this all over the bird (this will allow the fat to render off during the roasting process). Stuff the cavity of the bird with the fresh thyme and rosemary, and season it generously with salt. Finally sprinkle the entire goose with the goose rub, then transfer the goose to a roasting pan with water, onion, leek, celery, carrot, and bay leaf. It’s important to make sure your roasting pan is deep and strong enough to accommodate the goose. Do not use aluminum foil roasting pans because 3 cups of goose fat will render from the bird and, if spilled onto a hot surface, could ignite.
Place the goose into the oven for one hour. Then, without opening the oven, turn it off and let goose sit for one hour. Remove from oven and cut breast meat off the bird, then slice the breast meat very thin. Next, remove the thighs and legs, and serve with huckleberry sauce (see recipe below).

Tip: Save the rendered fat from the roasting pan and use it to roast potatoes or vegetables in place of cooking oil, a very flavorful option. Serve 4 to 6.

From Chef John Greeley of New York’s historic ’21’ Club NBC Today show web site


1 Comment (+add yours?)

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    Dec 29, 2010 @ 11:57:03

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