December 19, 2008

Sweet Holiday Breads Evoke Thoughts on Tradition

by Nate Rafn

The holiday season gives cooks of all skill levels the perfect excuse to fire up the oven, tie on an apron, and bake something sweet and hearty. I’m speaking of course about the seemingly endless selection of traditional holiday breads from around the world, laying dormant most of the year in the text and scribbles of cookbooks and recipe cards.

Of the cultures that celebrate Christmas, or any other holiday for that matter, each has its own special treat to go along with it. Germans make stollen, Danish make julekage, Italians make pannetone, and Mexicans make rosca de reyes.

Professional bakers and home cooks alike relish in the opportunity to revive these recipes and share the delicious results with family and friends.

Baking is part science, part art-form, and part tradition. Recipes and procedures are handed from one generation to the next, from expert baker to the young novice, from mother to daughter, from executive chef to the line cook, and so on. We make Grandpa’s julekage the same way he made it, not because his recipe is perfect or because Grandpa was a chemistry major, but because that’s how he taught us.

You can certainly deviate from an old family recipe. (Just don’t tell Grandpa.) Part of the fun, however, is in keeping within the rough guidelines of tradition. This is how we stay in touch with our family history and the land on which we live.

Holiday breads have the unique quality of reflecting religious customs, one of the most compelling aspects of any culture. Recreating the culinary traditions of our ancestors keeps us grounded, connected to the cultural roots of which all people are bound.

Another major component of any culinary tradition is geography. Local ingredients in Southern Italy are different from local ingredients here in Oregon. And as people move from one part of the globe to another, old recipes are adjusted and new recipes are devised. Residents of the Willamette Valley, for example, are likely to gravitate towards holiday bread recipes that incorporate apples, hazelnuts, winter squash, whole grains, lard, butter, or honey.

For obvious reasons, such reliably good ingredients make baking in Oregon a real treat. Farmers here are renown for the quality of their products, and local foodies are delighted to be the nearest recipients.

When formulating your own holiday recipe, focus on the ingredients available to you. Choose one ingredient to be the star, and one or two other components to support it. Try making Pumpkin Bread with toasted Pumpkin Seeds, Pear Bread with Honey and Hazelnuts, or Whole Wheat Bread with Local Raisins. You may find that seasonal ingredients pair nicely together or in combination with exotic spices, coffee, sugar, or chocolate.

Be adventurous. Find a recipe you like, and don’t be afraid to substitute ingredients to make it more friendly to your location, family tradition, or pocketbook.

If you would rather let someone else do the holiday baking, consider patronizing a small independent bakery. Most bakers keep a variety of old fashioned holiday recipes in their repertoire. You might try something completely new or rediscover an old favorite.

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