It’s the first Advent today plus it’s snowing in Cologne so Lisa’s lighting her first candle tonight while it snows outside and mine will be lit after the sun has gone because it’ll melt. Yet again I won’t spend Christmas with Lisa and both her brothers and I are feeling quite miserable about it. Even Mark, who’s not an emotional person, mumbled that it’s pretty miserable without them. However, short of a miracle (and those have been in very short supply over here), I have to suck it up & get over it.
Advent, like Christmas, sees many fanatical fundamentalists spewing venom and froth because they believe it began in pagan times. They’re quite right. In a way. An evergreen wreath with candles was symbolic long before Christianity when it was used to remind people that there is life in the middle of winter. The custom, however, died out & it’s re-introduction was anything but pagan. There are many schools of thought on when, exactly, the custom was re-introduced in northern Europe, some insisting it was in the Middle Ages & others offering the 16th century as the only feasible possibility. I’m of the opinion that Hinrich Wichern, a German pastor & missionary, created it for the children at his school in the 1800’s. Like all children, they were terribly excited about Christmas and in order to help them understand when it would arrive, he made a wooden ring from an old cartwheel and stuck 19 small red and 4 large white candles in the thing. Every day he lit a small one and every Sunday a large white one. In the end all Protestant churches in Germany followed suit but they made a small wreath. The Roman Catholic church only introduced it in 1920.
- 350g plain flour plus extra for rolling
- 250 g golden caster sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 2 tsp allspice
- 3 eggs , beaten
- 1 orange, coarsely grated zest
- 85g seedless raisins
- 85g dried cranberries
- 50g blanched almonds
- 50g shelled pistachios
- Heat oven to 180 C and cover and line 2 baking sheets with baking paper.
- Put the flour, the baking powder, the spices and the sugar into a large bowl and mix well.
- Stir in the eggs and zest until the mixture starts forming clumps and then bring the dough together with your hands – it will seem dry at first but keep kneading until no floury bits remain.
- Add the fruit and nuts and knead and work them in until everything is evenly distributed (take a bit of care here because nothing is as horrible as a biscotti with all the interesting bits at one end of the biscuit and the other end void of excitement.)
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 4 pieces and then, with your hands covered in flour, roll each piece into a sausage about 30cm long.
- Put 2 sausages on each tray and make sure that they are well spaced apart, bake them for 25-30 minutes until the dough has risen and spread out and feels firm – it must still be pale in colour.
- Take them out of the oven and put them on a wire rack for a few minutes until they are cool enough to touch, turn the oven down to 140 C.
- Using a bread knife, cut the sausages into slices about 1cm thick on the diagonal and lay these slices flat on the baking sheets.
- Tip: the biscuits can now be cooled and frozen flat on the sheet now & then bagged and frozen for up to 2 months but if you want but if not, bake them for another 15 minutes (20 minutes if just taken them out of the freezer) from this point on at the lower temperature; turn them over and then bake again for another 15 minutes until they are dry and golden in colour.
- Allow them to cool on a wire rack and store them in an airtight tin, cellophane bags or boxes – they’ll last for a month.
The lighting of the four candles (one each Sunday) signifies the coming of the light into the world, the wreath represents eternal life because it’s evergreen and the seedpods, the nuts and the pinecones signify the symbol of resurrection.
THE COLOUR PURPLE
The colour of the candles became quite a thing over the passage of time because humans like to change things around. The original colours were ignored and since purple was used for the hangings around the church the tabernacle, it seemed to fit in better with the decor. Today blue is more often used, especially in the Anglican and Lutheran churches. Curiously, theuse of blue as a liturgical colour can be traced back to the Swedish Church and the medieval Sarum Rite. On the 3rd Sunday (Gaudete Sunday) a rose coloured candle is used to signify a shift in the mood to one of rejoicing. So, on the first Sunday one candle is lit, on the second one two candles are lit, on the third Sunday two plus one purple one and all the candles are lit on the fourth Sunday. I, however, like the white candles and that’s all I have to say.
EGG NOG WITH A DIFFERENCE
- 1140 ml whole milk
- 6 fresh organic eggs
- 50g caster sugar
- 1 large vanilla pod, split
- 20 fresh cherries, destoned and halved
- 200ml cognac
- Good unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting
- Put the milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla pod into a pot and heat gently, without boiling, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon – never stop stirring
- To serve, scatter the cherries in the bottom of each serving glass and divide the brandy between the glasses and pour the egg nog over it – dust with cocoa powder and serve.
- The egg nog can be chilled at this stage or served hot.
There are many other traditions that may be of interest to you.
- The English custom that saw poor women carried two Advent dolls, representing Jesus and the Holy Mother Mary with them; everyone that was allowed to look at the dolls had to pay a halfpenny and everyone that didn’t have a chance to look at the doll would have bad luck in the year to come.
- In Normandy child labour was the order of the day and farmers sent children under the age of 12 running through their orchards and their fields armed with torches so that they could set light to the bundles of straw, apparently this would drive out anything that could damage the crop.
- Today Catholics call their last Sunday of Advent, the Feast of Christ King.
- Anglicans call it Stir-up Sunday.
- Lutherans and some other protestant churches refer to it as the Reign of Christ.
- This year first Advent falls today, the 2nd of December & for those of you who don’t know what year we’re in: we’re in 2012.
In Holland, long ago, cookies were given as gifts at this time of the year and speculaas cookies became gifts during the time of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas). Young men would carve an image of what they did as a profession on a piece of wood and then the carving would be used as a baking mould for the cookies so that a mirror image (latin for mirror is speculum) of the carving would appear on the cookie. Curiously, the young men were the bakers, probably ably assisted by their mothers. They would give the cookies to the father of the girls they courted & a few days later would go back to discover their fate; if she’d eaten them, the father had agreed to the match and if not – that was it. No wedding. This recipe originated on Radio Nederland Wereldomroep and it’s definitely one to try!
- 200g flour (plus extra to flour the rolling pin and rolling surface)
- 125g dark brown sugar
- 2 tbsp speculaas spices, recipe below
- 150g cold butter
- 2 tbsp of milk
- 2 eggs
- 300g almond paste (amandelspijs or marzipan)
- 55g sliced almonds to garnish
- Sift together the flour, the brown sugar, the speculaaskruiden and the salt – make sure that all lumps are pushed through the sieve – you need alight flour.
- Cut the butter into the flour mixture with two knives until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs and add the milk.
- The next step is important because you need cold hands: run your hands under cold water until they are icy and then dry them and knead the dough into a smooth ball, wrapping the ball in plastic wrap and refrigerating for at least an hour.
- In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs well with 1 tbsp water.
- Crumble the almond paste into another bowl and add half of it to the whisked egg – stir the egg mixture until it’s quite smooth.
- Heat the oven 175 C and make sure the rack is in the middle of the oven.
- Cover the baking sheet with parchment paper, flour your work surface and rolling pin.
- Divide the dough into two equal pieces and roll each piece to approximately 15 x 30 cm, then place one sheet of dough on the baking sheet.
- Spread the remaining almond paste over the dough with wet hands or flat-edged knife, leaving the edge bare.
- Lay the second sheet of dough over the first and press the edges together firmly.
- Brush the top with the egg mixture and decorate with sliced almonds (pressing slightly into the dough so they will stick) and bake the filled speculaas for 40-45 minutes or until the almonds on top are golden brown.
- Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let cool.
SPECULAAS SPICE MIXTURE
- 20g cinnamon
- 10g ground nutmeg
- 5g ground cloves
- ¼ tsp ground cardamom
- ¼ tsp ground ginger