This year, Christmas dinner will be low-key: just me, my husband and Harvey the Corgi. So there are no pressures to cook anything in particular.
No pressure to prepare my maternal grandmother’s stuffing made with dried white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and chopped turkey livers; or my paternal grandmother’s stuffing made with white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and celery. Not a turkey or goose in the style of my husband’s British family, nor Polish kielbasa as my dad’s mom used to do. And for one of the first times in a decade, we won’t be having Christmas dinner in Australia, eating winter foods in the heat of summer.
Instead of enjoying this freedom to do things just the way we like, I find myself befuddled trying to choose among the many culinary traditions my husband and I bring to the table.
Fortunately, there was support and inspiration from the BBC last night, via a programme called ‘Jerusalem on a Plate‘. It was a chef’s tour of the ancient city, featuring Arab and Jewish cuisine and the evolving, exciting fusion of the two. One chef remarked that the fusion of cuisines in Jerusalem is a way of creating a national identity and peace at the table, in a country struggling for both.
“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are”
This is a famous quote from one of history’s most famous foodies: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, circa 1825. It reminds me why food goes beyond sustenance for many of us — it is linked to our identity and sense of belonging. I find this most striking during holidays like Christmas. What might Brillat-Savarin have said about the Christmas menu of a Polish-Hungarian-Swiss-German-American living in England, married to a half-English/half-Welsh man, with family ties to Australia? … especially when I serve up my first Christmas culinary offering of 2011: Wombat Lebkuchen.
Lebkuchen are traditional German honey-flavoured cookies, usually spiced similarly to gingerbread. There are as many variations of lebkuchen as there are decades since it was supposedly first made, in the 1200s. I’ve heard stories about strained arm muscles after stirring the stiff dough, and frustrations when rolling it out as it sticks to everything. The biggest challenge, though, is not eating them all at once: the longer they mellow, the better the taste and texture. With its long history and huge variation, lebkuchen seems appropriate for my experiment in culinary and cultural fusion.
The (grand) mother of all cook books
My choice of lebkuchen is something of a tribute to my paternal grandfather’s roots in Germany and Switzerland. But the recipe I’m using comes from my Polish grandmother’s American classic: the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, published in 1950. The book has tabbed sections for breads, cakes, salads, meats and desserts, and one tab has fallen off from overuse: cookies. My grandma replaced the tab with a sturdy bit of card on which she wrote COOKIES, and reinforced with a tiny bit of wood. She taped it all together with multiple layers of tape. She also added comments to some of the cookie recipes, such as ‘Delicious!’ next to the Russian Tea Cakes and a post-it on the Thumbprint Cookies page saying she added chopped nuts and chocolate chips when she made them in 1985.
The lebkuchen recipe is based on a mixture of molasses and honey, but I’ve replaced the molasses (less common in England) with black treacle, a sugar derivative which isn’t quite as dark as molasses but still has a strong, smoky flavour. I made the dough Monday night and let it sit in the fridge until Tuesday. The recipe suggests cutting the rolled out dough into rectangular bars, but I like to take any opportunity I have to make fun shapes. Once again, though, I had forgotten that I don’t have any Christmas cookie cutters – the result of a transatlantic move and rarely being home at Christmas for the past decade. What I do have, however, is even better: my late sister-in-law’s Australian cookie cutters.
Spicy German marsupials
Because my sister-in-law moved to Australia nearly two decades ago and even became an Australian citizen, the place has become a second home for our family. Adding Australia into my family cookie mix seems fitting, and so the wombat and koala lebkuchen were born.
Once I tackled the tricky rolling out of the very sticky dough, I placed the critters on oiled cookie sheets. The recipe suggested giving them 10-12 minutes to bake, but in my fan oven each batch took about six-and-a-half minutes. As they baked I was meant to be making a glaze of boiled sugar syrup and confectioner’s sugar, then brushing it on the hot wombats as soon as they were out of the oven. But they baked so fast I wasn’t ready. The glaze was a bit gloppy, then it hardened and I had to add more water, which made it runny. Boiled sugar things are not my strong point.
My wombats won’t win any beauty contests and I won’t be crowned most elegant baker, but the cookies are pretty good. I’ve tasted them. Several of them. This whole “putting them away to ‘mellow’ in a cookie tin” isn’t going over very big in our house. (Try the recipe yourself and good luck letting them mellow!)
Sadly, I can’t share these cookies with the two people whose far-flung kitchens inspired me to make them: my grandmother and my sister-in-law. They both passed away within two months of each other, in 2009. I can, however, imagine them laughing at my ragged, badly iced wombats and koalas, over a good cup of Italian coffee (with my sister-in-law) or a filter coffee with a shot of whiskey (with my grandma).
Next up: there’s honey-infused cookie dough made with my grandma’s Betty Crocker recipe for ‘Merry Christmas Cookies’. It’s chilling in the fridge, and just about ready to be transformed into red- and green-iced kangaroos.