New Year – Old Meaning ?

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Well, New Year is nearly here …

Am I feeling any different by the approach of a new year ? no. Many things have changed for me and life has taken a drastic turn, guess New Year has already started for me. Nothing will be the same again. One page turned, like a year gone by. New Year’s resolutions ?. Yes. Many. This time I have to stick to them. Hence, blogging would go on with limited period of inactivity. One way to make sure that the tradition of New Year lives on. Improve on what we can do. Not that I am a prolific blogger, but the grey cells get their share of acitivity too. Whatever way you choose to celebrate the New Year, it is the novelty of things we all look forward to.

Hence, Happy New Year to ayone who happens to pass by this blog.

May all your wishes come true.

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Christmas Log – Bûche de Noël

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Christmas is a time when I look forward to the sweet treats and one of my favourite is the ‘Buche de Noel’ or the yule log. My childhood memories of Christmas log appearing at the end of the meal and guessing whether it was cold or cake based.. My mother always kept it as a surprise, and it was a real rush of pleasure tickling when it appeared. Each time with a different decoration, colour and taste. My favourite one still remains the chocolate one with Moccha cream and ‘griottes'( cherries). It is such a simple cake compared to the rich Christmas pudding, but the taste for me is always just right to finish the festive meal. Light, creamy and delectably good on the palate, it infuses the festivity surrounding with the right touch of sophistication without going over the top. now, I have tasted a good number of ‘buche de Noel’ over the years but the ones made by Dolayau are simply ecstasy melting in the mouth!

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The origin of the yule log is quite interesting, and it has come a long way from the days when it was presented to the family gathered around the hearth on a cold night.

A Yule log is a large wooden log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or Christmas celebrations in several European cultures. It can be a part of the Winter Solstice festival or the Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or Twelfth Night.

The expression “Yule log” has also come to refer to log-shaped Christmas cakes, also known as “chocolate logs” or Bûche de Noël. The Yule log is related to other Christmas and Yuletide traditions such as the Ashen faggot[1].

The term “Yule log” is not the only term used to refer to the custom. In the north-east of England it was commonly called a “Yule Clog”[2], and in the country’s Midlands and West Country, the term “Yule Block” was also used[3]. In the county of Lincolnshire, the term “Gule Block” was found, and in Cornwall, the term “Stock of the Mock” was as well[4].

In other parts of the British Isles, different terms were used, for instance in Wales, the log was often referred to as “Y Bloccyn Gwylian”, meaning “the Festival Block”[5], whilst in Scotland, “Yeel Carline” (meaning “the Christmas Old Wife”) was used, and in Ireland, the term “Bloc na Nollaig”, which meant “the Christmas Block”, was used[6].

In Germany, the log is reffered to as Christklotz, Christbrand or Weihnachtsscheit (“Christ-log” or “Christmas-log”). Kindled on Christmas eve, the log in German tradition functioned as a lightning charm.

The Yule log has frequently been associated with having its origins in the historical Germanic paganism which was practiced across northern Europe prior to Christianisation. One of the first people to do so was the British Henry Bourne, who, writing in the 1720s, described the practice occuring in the Tyne valley. Bourne theorised that the practice originated from Anglo-Saxon paganism[7], which is a form of Germanic paganism that was practiced in England during the early mediaeval period.

Robert Chambers, in his 1832 work, Book of Days notes that “two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our pagan ancestors—the hanging up of the mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log.” James George Frazer in his work on anthropology, The Golden Bough (p. 736) holds that “the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive” in the Yule log custom. Frazer records traditions from England, France, among the South Slavs, in Central Germany (Meiningen) and western Switzerland (the Bernese Jura).

However, some historians have disagreed with this claim, for instance the Swedish C.W. von Sydow attacked Frazer’s theories, claiming that the Yule log had never had any religious significance, and was instead simply a festive decoration with practical uses[8].

British Isles

Because there are no accounts of the custom prior to the 17th century, some historians and folklorists have theorised that it was not an ancient British custom but was in fact imported into Britain from continental Europe in the early modern period, possibly from Flanders in Belgium, where the tradition thrived in this period[9].

The first mention of the Yule log in the British Isles is a written account by the clergyman Robert Herrick, from the 1620s or 1630s. Herrick called the tradition a “Christmas log” and said that it was brought into the farmhouse by a group of males, who were then rewarded with free beer from the farmer’s wife. Herrick claimed that the fire used to burn the log was always started with a remnant from the log that had been burned in the previous year’s festivities. He also said that the log’s role was primarily one of bringing prosperity and protection from evil – by keeping the remnant of the log all the year long the protection was said to remain across the year[10].

In traditional British rural culture, the Yule log was not only seen as a magical protective amulet, and there are many reports of rivalries occuring between members of a community as to who had the largest log[11].

The traditions of the Yule log died out in Britain in the latter 19th and early 20th century because of, according to historian Ronald Hutton, “the reduction in farm labour and the disappearence of the old-fashioned open hearths”[12].

In English folklore, Father Christmas was often depicted carrying a Yule Log. [13]

In Italy

In Tuscany, there is a Festa di Ceppo (“festival of the log”).

Sometime in the late 18th to early 19th century, a facsimile of the Yule Log became a traditional French dessert. Usually, it is in the form of a large rectangular yellow cake spread with frosting and rolled up into a cylinder – one end is then lopped off and stood on end to indicate the rings of the “log.” This “Bûche de Noël” became a traditional Christmas dessert, and has recently spread to other regions, where it is often referred to as a yule log.

Bûche de Noël (“Yule log“) is a traditional dessert served during the Christmas holidays in France, Belgium, Quebec, Lebanon and several other Christian-populated francophone countries. As the name indicates, the cake is generally prepared, presented, and garnished so as to look like a log ready for the fire. The traditional bûche is made from a Génoise or other sponge cake, generally baked in a large, shallow jelly roll pan, frosted, rolled to form a cylinder, and frosted again on the outside. The most common combination is a basic yellow sponge cake, frosted and filled with chocolate buttercream, however, many variations on the traditional recipe exist, possibly including chocolate cakes, ganache and espresso or otherwise-flavored frostings and fillings. Bûches are often served with a portion of one end of the cake cut off and set on top of the cake to resemble a chopped off branch, and bark-like texture is often produced in the buttercream for further realism. These cakes are often decorated with powdered sugar to resemble snow, tree branches, fresh berries, and mushrooms made of meringue.

One popular story behind the creation of this dessert is that Napoleon I of France issued a proclamation requiring households in Paris to keep their chimneys closed during the winter, based on the notion that cold air caused medical problems. This prevented Parisians from being able to use their fireplaces, and, thus, prevented them from engaging in many of the traditions surrounding and involving the hearth in French Christmas tradition. French bakers, according to the theory, invented this dessert as a symbolic replacement around which the family could gather for story-telling and other holiday merriment.

Guess this year too, the ‘buche’ will be present on our table. Looking forward to this sponge delight with a glass of bubbly !

Christmas Mince Pies

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Another favourite of Christmas in England, surely sweet enough to melt away the years worries and welcome the festive cheerfulness. James Cooper puts it like this :

Mince Pies, like Christmas Pudding, were originally filled with meat, such as lamb, rather than a dried fruit mix as they are today. They were also first made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, with the top representing his swaddling clothes.

Now they are normally made in a round shape and are eaten hot or cold. I like mine hot with some ice cream!

A custom from the middle ages says that if you eat a mince pie on every day from Christmas to Twelfth Night (6th January) you will have happiness for the next 12 months!

On Christmas Eve, children in the U.K. often leave out mince pies with brandy or some similar drink for Father Christmas, and a carrot for the reindeer.

Christmas – Traditions and Customs

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Christmas is celebrated all across the globe. Yet, to many its meaning, traditions and customs associated with it remain a bit clouded in scepticism and lore. In the United Kingdom, a Christmas without the famous Christmas pudding or the mince pies would not be a complete feast. Now, I personally do not drool over a Christmas pudding, its richness is just too powerful for my already satiated stomach when it appears on the table. But I love its shape, look, the little holly leaves on it. I have never attempted at making one, although each year I tell myself, this year might be worth a try. But all things siad, it looks too complicated to me, and what if I cannot get the shape altogether ? Eventually, I like going to different shops and reading about the reviews of the best pudding by leading connaisseurs. According to James Cooper,

Christmas (or Plum) Pudding is the the traditional end to the British Christmas dinner. But what we think of as Christmas Pudding, is not what it was originally like!

Christmas pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. This would often be more like soup and was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas festivities.

By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavour with the addition of beer and spirits. It became the customary Christmas dessert around 1650, but in 1664 the Puritans banned it as a bad custom.

In 1714, King George I re-established it as part of the Christmas meal, having tasted and enjoyed Plum Pudding. By Victorian times, Christmas Puddings had changed into something similar to the ones that are eaten today.

ver the years, many superstitions have surrounded Christmas Puddings. One superstition says that the pudding should be made with 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and His Disciples and that every member of the family should take turns to stir the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honour of the Wise Men.The Sunday before Advent Sunday (which is also the last Sunday in the Church Year), is sometimes know as ‘Stir-up Sunday’. This is because opening words of the Collect for the day (the main prayer) in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 (used in Anglican Churches) says:

“Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Although Christmas Puddings are eaten at Christmas, some customs associated with the pudding are about Easter! The decorative sprig of holly on the top of the pudding is a reminder of Jesus’ Crown of Thorns that he wore when he was killed. Brandy or another alcoholic drink is sometimes poured over the pudding and lit at the table to make a spectacular display. This is said to represent Jesus’ love and power.

In the Middle Ages, holly was also thought to bring good luck and to have healing powers. It was often planted near houses in the belief that it protected the inhabitants.

Putting a silver coin in the pudding is another age-old custom that is said to bring luck to the person that finds it. In the UK the coin traditionally used was a silver ‘six pence’. The closest coin to that now is a five pence piece !

Christmas for Veggies ?

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Now, what to cook for Vegetarians on Christmas?

This has been my main concern for years. Being vegetarians, not very Christmas friendly affair. I scour after the recipes books and scores of Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith’s recipes to find some inspirations to cook a veggie Christmas lunch. I fall within the inevitable roast vegetables and nut roast’s recipes. Not always a welcome change. But while in the tropics, Christmas has been fun. Really different. Anyway, before I post on ways that Christmas is different in the tropics, I should carry on with the topic and mention this article I found by Tom Norrington:

On a busy Saturday in mid December, London’s Borough Market is no place for the squeamish. Game hangs from the girders, long-legged and feathered, sold by the brace. Whichever way you look, the view is likely to include eviscerated remains of Britain’s best-bred farmyard animals. Some produce is still on the move; shellfish stalls are piled with lobsters and langoustines clambering over one another. This is the herbivore’s vision of hell, best described by the neurotic duck in the film Babe: “Christmas is carnage!”

And yet not for everyone. Just yards from a stand selling wild beef from Dartmoor is The Veggie Table (theveggietable.co.uk), where a queue is forming for halloumi burgers in eco-friendly, cabbage-leaf wrapping and nut roasts in more conventional takeaway boxes. This is the busiest Christmas so far for Ana and Adam Robertson, who started the company in 2005. “We wanted to provide well-made ready meals for people who were uneasy about living on artificial ingredients or manufactured soya proteins,” says Ana. Ana’s mum inspired their first festive product. Faced with six vegetarians round her table one Christmas, she turned to an old Rose Elliot recipe and tweaked it. The 2008 version of “Mum’s mushrooms en croute” is now available to take home, and Mum herself has been drafted in from time to time to ensure that supply meets demand. “We are not busy because more people decide to become vegetarians at Christmas,” Ana tells me, but “because people are slowly but surely becoming better at accommodating their non-meat-eating guests over the holiday season.”

Christmas is an odd time for the vegetarian. Twenty-first century Britain is one of the most veggie-friendly countries in the world. Over the last 20 years the UK’s non-meat-eating population has remained at a fairly steady 2%. However, the choice of food available to them has gone through the roof, on account of the diversity of the modern British diet. But at Christmas we tend to revert to a very traditional model of eating, so what do you give a guest who doesn’t want turkey and all the trimmings?

This is a question I get asked year after year, not just because I cook for a living but also because my partner doesn’t eat meat. I have one golden rule for entertaining at home: I won’t segregate the food. So, despite the fact that I’m a carnivore at work, all my home cooking is meat-free. I want everyone tucking into the same thing so if there is a vegetarian at the table, the whole meal is meat-free.

If you need inspiration, Nigella Lawson’s latest book, Nigella Christmas (Chatto and Windus), offers a striking (and mildly camp) spread where a pumpkin stuffed with spiced rice takes centre stage. “Cinderella,” says Nigella (clearly referring to her veggie fans), “you shall go to the ball.” This is a recipe for a fairly large party, unless you are happy to cope with enough leftovers to rival those on a turkey carcass. But what is great about Nigella’s veggie Christmas is that it doesn’t attempt to apologise for being meat-free. It has unconventional confidence in spades.

There is no direct reference to Christmas in Denis Cotter’s book Paradiso Seasons (Atrium 2003) but the Irish author and restaurateur is seen by many as the best vegetarian writer on the planet, and I am constantly inspired by his recipes: his seasonal delights include baked portobello mushrooms with cashel blue cheese and pecan crumbs, and dolmas of savoy cabbage, wild rice, leek, egg and truffle oil.

The official site of the vegetarian society (vegsoc.org) has recipes and sensible advice for anyone with non-meat-eating guests. This ranges from checking that your mince pies don’t contain suet to reminding you that roast potatoes are not veggie if cooked in goose fat. But it also offers a slightly leftfield Christmas menu inspired by Turkey – the country, not the bird. Your table could be groaning with a spread including imam biyaldi (spiced stuffed aubergines) and spinach and potato börek.

But there is no need to eschew tradition. If the range of dishes on the table is well balanced, the meal can still feel communal even if it is based on a roast. The simplest approach is to add a nut roast to the spread instead of or as well as one of the stuffings. Nuts are both nutritious and a truly indispensable part of any Christmas. If nut roast seems too hippy-tastic, consider the famous Macsween veggie haggis (macsween.co.uk): I know meat-eating Scots who say this is as good as the real thing. It is spicy and toothsome, and great with mashed carrots. It sits happily among all the traditional trimmings and has a strong fan base who swear by it every Christmas.

You could also include a pulse-based dish. Chickpeas could be braised slowly or deep-fried in the form of falafel, which has a spicy, festive quality. You can even buy some very good pre-made falafel mixes at most supermarkets: try Orgran all-natural falafel mix, available through Waitrose and Ocado (ocado.com). But another excellent Christmas pulse is the French puy lentil. Quick cooking, with a smoky, wintry flavour, they are easy to prepare: soften celery, shallots, fennel and garlic in olive oil, then fold in tinned or vac-packed lentils (try Merchant Gourmet’s)

Well, I might as well go back to baking my cookies until some inspiring thoughts trickle down …

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