A Country Christmas: Holiday Recipes and Memories

article image
A fine roast goose—crisp, juicy and beautifully brown—for a traditional Christmas feast.

Enjoy these country Christmas holiday recipes handed down from years of family tradition. Recipes include the goose of Christmas past, and Danish kringles that can vary according to the cook’s whim.

A Country Christmas: Holiday Recipes and Memories

The setting: Bloomington, Illinois. Time: the ’50s and ’60s. This is the very heart of the heartland, and our home. Snow settled over the black cornfields of McLean County in mid-December, and the dark soil disappeared into white. A brick house, fir tree lit up on the front lawn, wreath on the door, sleds leaning against the side of the house.

The ghosts of Christmases past gather outside. Through the windows they see a family, a rough dozen of us, different ages and sizes, assembled here from various origins, from Italy and New York, from Des Moines and Denmark. A volatile mixture, ready to celebrate Christmas.

Through the windows of that house in Bloomington could be seen certain traditional events and foods and even arguments that were carried on from year to year. Discussions about midnight mass or an early one Christmas morning, and Danish kringle for breakfast–these were two of several topics in our household that were as traditional as Santa himself.

On Christmas Eve after dinner we would have our annual debate about midnight mass. Someone would bring up the subject, remark that he had always wanted to go, and discussion would start. Lots of us wanted to go. None of us had ever been. Then we would settle into our conversations and laughter and become fatigued far too early in the evening to make the late-night foray. Every year it was debated and argued.

Every year we agreed to do it. Every year at 11:00 p.m. we’d accept the unspoken group decision: This year we weren’t going. It was a required family script, emphatically delivered, with a well-known ending. A real family tradition.

Every Christmas breakfast would feature Danish kringle, a pastry ring that was hard to prepare and of questionable gastronomic appeal, because of the independence of the several bakers. In those days five or six of us cooked together, though hardly in a coordinated fashion, and there were large differences of opinion. Someone could be relied on to sneak over and add an extra ingredient or two; hence the highly varied outcome of the kringle year after year.

We all keep Christmas in our own way.

Des Moines, Iowa. It is 10:00 p.m. on the night of Christmas Day. Most of us have long since stopped stifling our yawns and pushed back the last crumbs of dessert. In this house, though, the meal is just beginning. It lasts until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., postponed so this family can spend from dawn until dusk serving meals at a food kitchen for the poor.

The decibel level here is high, and will go higher. Their late-night repast is a particularly delicious bounty with an extra dollop of meaning. And an extra round of fun, via a family tradition: rice pudding.

Inside the delicious smooth pudding is hidden a single almond. The old tradition says that whoever gets the almond will be married the coming year. But the family has added its own embellishments, to Grandmother’s consternation: If you’re already married, you’ll be remarried; if you’re too young to be married, your parents will give you a younger sibling. And so it goes. The group eats very, very slowly, until everyone is down to the last bite.

Christmas food. Here’s a topic we can really get our teeth into. Can any two words elicit more reaction from our salivary glands? It’s impossible to imagine this season without its special relationship to food. From fruitcake to nuts, all the products of the earlier seasons are assembled on our table. Have you ever heard of a low-cal Christmas dinner? It seems a blasphemy. It is smells and scents of Christmas food that trigger entire panoramas of memories, that incite riots of reminiscences. Christmas food has jumped from the groaning board right out into the room, into fruitcake and fudge boxes and cider and cinnamon sticks, leaped onto the Christmas tree in lines of popcorn and candy canes, sticky progeny of the sugarplums and apples and oranges of times past. Christmas food can’t be contained. It leaps from person to person like electricity.

Roast Goose Recipe

This recipe works well with the supermarket variety, but fresh wild goose is better.

1 wild goose
2-3 apples
2-3 onions
1 stalk celery
2 bay leaves
6 fresh sage leaves, chopped

Chicken stock (canned is fine) Preheat oven as hot as you can get it. Clean goose and prepare for roasting. Cut up remaining ingredients (except stock), combine, and stuff goose with mixture. Roast goose for about 30 minutes. It will start smoking about then, so turn the heat down to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, cover the pan, and roast for about 2 hours more. Baste every 15 minutes or so with half a cup of hot chicken stock.

Remove pan drippings when they get over about 1/2 inches high. When you can stick a fork in the breast easily, remove cover and turn heat up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit or 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Watch the beauty brown. When it looks mahogany and smells like you can’t wait another minute to eat, don’t.

Danish Kringle Recipe

3/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1 package active dry yeast (not fast acting)
1 cup warm water
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
3 tablespoons sugar
Dash of salt
3-1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

Cream butter with 1/4 cup flour. Roll between wax paper to a 10 inch by 4 inch rectangle. Chill. Meanwhile, soften yeast in warm water. Combine egg, cooled milk, sugar, salt and softened yeast. Stir in flour to form soft dough. On a floured surface roll the dough to a 12 inch square. Place the chilled butter-flour mixture in the center.

Fold dough in half, then roll to 12 inches square. Repeat folding and rolling 2 more times. Wrap in wax paper and chill 1/2 hour. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll to 24 inch by 12 inch rectangle. Cut lengthwise into 2 strips. Spread each with raisin filling and roll, starting with long side, as for a jelly roll. Moisten the edges and seal. Stretch each roll to 30 inch length without breaking. Place, seam side down, on greased baking sheet. Shape each roll into an oval with ends meeting, and seal ends. Flatten to 1/2 inch with a rolling pin. Add the almond topping. Cover and let rise until double (about 1/2 hour). Bake for 30 minutes. Makes 2.

Raisin filling:
1/4 cup softened butter
1 teaspoon cardamom
2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons cream
1 cup light raisins

Blend butter and cardamom. Gradually stir in sugar. Blend in cream. Stir in raisins.

Almond topping:
Brush kringles with 1 beaten egg. Sprinkle with a mixture of 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 cup halved almonds.

Femmy’s Rice Pudding Recipe

3/4 cup rice
2 sticks cinnamon
1 cup water
5 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs, beaten
A little almond extract (optional)
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
1 whole almond

Boil rice, cinnamon and water together until water is absorbed. Combine rice and milk and cook in top of double boiler for 1/2 to 3/4 hour. Remove from heat, let cool.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir in remaining ingredients and bake in buttered 2- or 3-quart casserole dish for at least 1 hour.