Old World Eats: Holiday Treats Offer A Taste Of Tradition
By Nichole Dupont
I’m not going to lie, not about this. The holidays are all about the food. The smell of the Christmas tree, the light coming from the menorah, the singing, are all a reminder that there is food to be eaten: food from around the world.
In my own family — a raucous bunch of second and third generation Franco-Acadians — the big “eat” happens on Christmas Eve (a.k.a. the Reveillon). Whole boards covered with cheeses, meats, breads, and piles of sweets, and a cauldron of rich chowder are usually staples of the night. This is not to say that we haven’t eaten our way through December, feasting on golden latkes and borscht at friends’ houses, or dipping into the local café for an espresso and a shortbread cookie. Holiday food is everywhere in the region, you just need to know where to get it, especially if you are thinking about a feast for hundreds. Or, you can do what the Japanese do, and hit KFC for a quirky holiday meal. Beats the hell out of lutefisk (sorry, Norway).
By far the most popular and versatile delivery of the holiday spirit is the cookie. And there are so many kinds of cookies to choose from. Speculaas, the decadent Dutch take on the gingerbread cookie, is an elegant treat that can be found at the Dutch Epicure Shop in Litchfield, Conn. These ornately stamped, shortcrust biscuits are crunchy and loaded with spices — cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, clove, ginger, white pepper — and, of course, made with butter. Other nibbles around the region include a whole range of holiday offerings from Guido’s Marketplace, which is churning out cheese blintzes, cinnamon babka, and golden latkes like…well, hotcakes. The Marketplace’s David Renner, himself a chef and nostalgic lover of holiday food traditions, says that there are a few benchmark “starts” to the season.
“I’m Jewish and my wife is Christian so we have a mixed bag of holiday foods,” says Renner. “There’s definitely latkes at the house, and a prime rib for Christmas dinner. And all sorts of little snacks in between.”
One of those snacks, also a hot seller for the Marketplace, is the very labor intensive, very French candied orange and/or lemon peel dipped in chocolate.
“Once I eat one of those, I know it’s the holiday season. That says it to me,” Renner adds.
Fruit can be tricky business when added to the seasonal mélange. There is, of course, the fruitcake. It’s a British tradition — the butt of many jokes — which my college roommates and I tried our hand at. The whole experience ended with all three of us reaching frantically for a fire extinguisher after we ‘‘lit off” the rum-sodden cake.
But fruit can actually be delectable. The Bartlett House in Ghent, New York makes a jewel-y cranberry-walnut tart. It’s a classic dance of pulverized walnut and butter crust, and the cranberry filling literally explodes holiday joy in a mix of sharp and sweet. The Bartlett House always sells dozens of their crunchy-chewy pecan crusted sticky buns that are in high demand, especially on Christmas morning.
Also a big gig on Christmas morning, and basically every morning for the fortnight leading up to Christmas, is stollen, a traditional German bread filled with nuts and fruit. Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic and Pittsfield, Mass. has, for years, taken stollen to its highest heights by adding a thick, shameless vein of marzipan that runs through the entire length of the loaf. There are several ways to eat this beautiful bread. One is to warm it in the oven, slice it thick, and lather the marzipan onto the slice like butter. Or, you could rip off a giant hunk of it and eat it while writing a story about holiday food traditions. Either way, there will be fights about who ate the last piece. Fortunately, the bakery (and the Marketplace) also offers panettone, the fluffy, cupola-shaped Milanese sweetbread that is the perfect base for a killer bread pudding or French toast.
The slow train of decadence stops at the legendary Buche de Noel. Patisserie Lenox — with locations in Great Barrington, Northampton and Lenox, Mass., as well as Hudson, N.Y. — offers the traditional version of the airy Genoise cake (with buttercream frosting, shaped and decorated like a yule log) while Chocolate Springs in Lenox offers up a chocolate-covered version in either all dark chocolate, raspberry and dark chocolate, or mocha. And since we’re on the subject of chocolate, don’t forget that peppermint bark is readily available (Chocolate Springs, Berkshire Bark) and makes an ideal gift if 1.) you ate all the Buche de Noel intended for your family gathering or 2.) candy canes just don’t cut it.
And to wash all of this down, or just to make sure you’ve hit the appropriate seasonal calorie count, a nice big glass of High Lawn Farm eggnog should do the trick — optionally cut with Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Ragged Mountain Rum or Berkshire Bourbon Whiskey and a sprinkle of nutmeg on top.