V: The Lord led the just man in right paths
R: And showed him the kingdom of God.
Ant: The Lord loved him and adorned him;
He clothed him with splendid apparel,
and crowned him at the gates of paradise
~ from Vespers of St. Nicholas
The children of the house have smelled the good smells of spices, and they are dancing around the table with mixing spoons and cookie cutters in their hands. "Don't forget St. Nicholas, Mother. Don't forget he comes tomorrow night."
There will be no forgetting St. Nicholas at our house, I can assure you. That is the eve when we all hang up our stockings. The hanging of stockings on the fireplace is great fun for the children. Most of the real sport, though, comes the day before when we make the treats to fill those stockings. One of our favorites is a spice cookie that came from the Netherlands, the land that loved St. Nicholas best. This Dutch cookie is called speculatius.
1 cup butter 4 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup vegetable shortening 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups brown sugar 1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup sour cream 4 1/2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 cup slivered almonds
Sometimes, after the dough is chilled, we roll it very thin and try to cut it into the shape of good St. Nicholas himself. It is great fun to use a sharp knife as a stiletto and see how artistic you can be. The very best ginger cake figure is always named St. Nicholas. The others are good, bad and indifferent — until we call the worst of all the devil, which is about what it looks like. But if you have been good all year, you have nothing to fear when St. Nicholas comes knocking at your door.
Part of the dough can be cut into the shapes of birds or fish or animals. This is a feast day for school children — and what pleases them is the order of the day. Sometimes we frost these ginger cakes with white or pink icing, and decorate them with dried or candied fruits.
Waiting for the speculatius to chill is very trying for the fifty anxious fingers in our house. While we are waiting, we mix up a batch of raisin cookies that we can taste right now. These are drop cookies, and even a tiny child can drop bits of dough on a greased cookie sheet. What if a few miss the pan? What if they are all sizes, from dibs to dabs? The crumbs are the important things — the crumbs and enough whole ones to fill our stockings. (Bloggers note: We fill our stockings with these cookies, an orange, some nuts and of course a bag of gold the chocolate variety that is ;)
On the evening of December 5, the whole house is filled with the good smells of baking as we tell the beautiful legends of the charity of St. Nicholas. To give gifts in secret so that people would render him no thanks was surely a saintly act. With the people of the Netherlands, let us toast his memory with bishopwyn.
1 bottle claret or other dry red wine
4 inches stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
Simmer wine and spices for about 5 minutes. Strain the wine.
Serve it hot. (In the chill of the night vigil,
it makes you feel like a bishop!)
I am sure it was the discretion and reticence of St. Nicholas that won him an extra high crown in Heaven. The children like his idea of throwing gold into an open window on the sly. In imitation, the older children put extra treats in the little ones' stockings. You will find traditions very easy to begin with children. When they are grown, they will be loath to cast them aside.
INTRODUCTION TO COOKING FOR CHRIST
Of all the rooms in a house, the friendly, comforting kitchen is mother to us all. It is the source of our food, our learning and our virtue. Here the first pale green streaks of dawn find coffee brewing; the aroma wakes the family with a kindly call. Here the baby spills his milk with impunity. All during the day little helpers find new adventure here in the tasks which teach and amuse — even though it means sifting flour on the cat. Here the older children run, as soon as school is out to raid the apple bin or cookie jar. Even the high school gang prefers to kick off their shoes in the kitchen. At night there are lessons to do here, while debates and philosophizing split the ceiling. When the rest of the rooms are asleep at last, the light in the kitchen comforts a newborn baby or a visiting neighbor.
Thus the kitchen remains first and last in our affections and memories.
There is, I believe, a reason for this, and it lies in the woman who is the mistress of that kitchen. Cook, you may call her. I prefer to call her "Christian in Action." She herself is Christ-centered because she brings Christ home to her kitchen and, in corollary, her kitchen reflects the Christ within her.
To some it may seem sacrilegious to connect cookery and Christ, but that is exactly what this book means to do. If I am to carry Christ home with me from the altar, He will have to come to the kitchen because much of my time is spent in there. I shall welcome Him on Easter and He shall eat new lamb with us. I shall give him Homage to Him on Epiphany and shall cook a royal feast for Him and my family. I shall mourn with Him on Holy Thursday, and we shall taste the bitter herbs of the Passover and break unleavened bread. Then the cooking that we do will add special significance to the Church Year and Christ will sanctify our daily bread. That is what is meant by the liturgical year in the kitchen.
If I am to be creative, and I believe God made me to be just that, why can't I create feast day specials from eggs and milk and butter? These are materials which I know. I once tried to paint a picture, but the colors ran and the perspective was poor. I tried to write music, but even the dog howled to hear it. I tried to weave a piece of cloth, but the warp broke and the woof tangled. So I have resolved to stick to my cooking and beat my way into heaven.
The idea of serving certain foods on certain feast days is a very old one. You can go all the way back to Exodus and see how specific God was in giving instructions to the Jewish cooks who were to prepare the Passover meal. Christ and His family were careful to follow the letter of the law as they celebrated the Jewish festivals.
As the celebration of Christian feast days spread throughout Europe and the East, each group of people created their finest foods in celebration and used them over and over; in this way a tradition of feast day cookery grew up. The custom was so widespread during the Middle Ages that the Church had to call a halt to the many days of fine eating. After all, the people were not getting their work done and, I suppose, gout was on the increase.
With the Protestant revolt the saints' days were scattered. Instead of six or seven days in honor of Christ's mother, we of very recent date have drummed up a so-called Mother's Day. Instead of the holy thrill of the white garment of baptism given at Easter, we have silly little Easter bonnets to cover our silly little heads. If we are Christians, why must we de-Christianize things? When we encourage secularism, it is not a case of being neither fish nor fowl — we soon become all foul and no fish. Remember the fish was the one of the first signs of the Christian.
A cry has gone forth to revitalize our Christianity. Analysts have pointed to the lethargy that has crept upon the Christian spirit like a slow paralysis. Liturgists have called us back to a vision of the early Christian worship and have begged for more active lay participation in the Lord's service. Theologians have rewritten our New Testament in Modern English. Commentators lead us though Old Testament
pathways so we may come to know the ancient prophets. Now perhaps mothers and daughters can lead their families back to the Christ-centered living and cooking. Foods can be symbols that lead the mind to spiritual thinking. After Christ had preached to the multitude, He fed them. If our family is to hear the Gospel, I shall first feed them on symbols and then on more substantial meat. The one will help the digestion of the other.
Yet this book is not a part of a backward-looking movement. We do not revive past Catholic customs merely because they are antique. We use them because they are filled with the Christian spirit, which our modern days have sidetracked. We have tested the recipes, which we ask you to try, in a modern kitchen fully equipped with modern gadgets. We have changed the old procedure of measuring ingredients by weight and used our present quantitative system of cups and spoons. We have sweetened or enriched several of the recipes to suit America's sweet tooth. But, above all, the acid test
came when we asked a very real, growing matter-of-fact family to eat our feast day specials. If the feast was to be a day of joy, we should not mar it, but magnify it with our cooking. This tells you how our book was built, how the idea was sown and watered; only God can give the increase.
Florence S. Berger,
Hill Country House,
Exaltation of the Holy Cross,