Sunday, December 28, 2008

Traditional Christmas Morning

After reading Kate's wonderful account of her Christmas morning, I thought I'd show you what I've done with my Christmas mornings for as long as I can remember (and probably continuing for as long as I live.) Most of the Christmas traditions that we keep in my family have to do with food. My mother's family is English and German. All of our Christmas cookies (which must be done, no matter what) are German - lebkuchen, chocolate lebkuchen, springerle, and white cakes. Actually, that last one is something that seems to be unique to my family. They are a flat, hard, rolled cookie, cut out with cutters which leave an impression in the top. They are slightly sweet and fruity (one of the ingredients is citron), keep forever, and one batch makes roughly 22 dozen cookies. If you've heard of these cookies or know anything more about them, please let me know. I'd love to know more. Traditionally, our Christmas Eve supper includes a vast spread of these cookies.

My dad's family is English and Serbian. It's not really possible to label the country any more closely than that. The borders keep changing. Currently the village my great-grandmother was born in is in Romania. Christmas Day is for making strudel.

First, we have to get out the traditional strudel cloth. This one belonged to Mica, my dad's great-grandmother and strudel-maker extraordinaire. You can't see it in this picture, but the center is stained yellow from years of dough sitting on it.

Then, we have to make the dough. The dough is made with water, flour, salt, egg white, and lard. Yes, lard. You can use shortening, but where's the fun in that? In the old way, you have to knead the dough for 20 minutes to half and hour. My mom and I use the food processor to cut down on kneading time, though mom's processor seems to be on it's last legs, so I muscled up this year. The transformation from sticky, un-kneadable mess to smooth, elastic dough is incredible. Truly the best way to develop the gluten in the dough is to slam it on a counter, using a bench scraper to help lift it away and slam it again. Then the dough must rest.

While the dough is resting, we turn a pile of Granny Smith apples (must be Granny Smith. I don't know why.) into slices. An apple peeler makes this short work.

Then, we pull the dough. This is the fun part. We take a double handful of dough and turn it into a paper thin sheet.

There really is no trick to pulling the dough, except it's easier with two people so you can pull against each other, and your fingertips are the best tool. Also, a bit of extra melted lard can help grease the works. Around and around you go, stretching it just a little bit futher. There are always holes in the dough, but this is not a problem. Then the dough must dry a bit.

You can see here how thin the dough is. There are little bubbles in it and places that are thinner than others. After the dough is leathery dry, you pull off the doughy edges and lay out the filling. My mom used to give my brother and I the pulled off edges to play with. Boy were they fun!
We exclusively do apple, but Mica used to make cheese and cherry too. You lay out the apples on the longest edge and sprinkle with bread crumb, sugar, salt, and cinnamon.
This is not an exact science, as you can see. Rolling the strudel involves using the table cloth as extra hands and sort of tossing it together. Then you maneuver it into a pan, drizzle with extra lard, and pull the next dough.
They bake together and make the whole house smell wonderful. This kind of strudel is much more traditional than the super flaky kind you get in the bakeries. The dough is layered, though the final effect is much more chewy than crunchy.

This dough can also be cut into squares and layered in a pan to make Chesnitza (spelling wrong, I'm sure, but that's what it sounds like). A New Year's dessert similar to baklava with coins baked in it. If you get a coin, you can't spend it and you'll have good luck the whole year.
I hope you all had a wonderful holiday, and I'll be back after the New Year!

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