European Christmas Cakes
“Europe itself is an embodiment of this diversity.”
Catch yourself humming a Christmas carol yesterday, did you? I might be wrong, but didn’t you start seeking out Christmas gifts in that softly lit shop the other day? And last week, wasn’t it you who looked on with glee as those men from the council starting putting up the Christmas lights in your street? Worry not, you’re not alone: it’s just that Christmas is almost upon us! So to build the annual excitement, let me help you explore one of Christmastime’s most important elements: the cakes we Europeans bake for Christmas Eve! There’s a whole smörgåsbord to discover. Wherever you are in Europe, there’s a traditional yuletide dessert to enjoy. But this year, you might want to make something a bit more original! So why not take a closer look at the following list of European Christmas cakes? You could end up whipping up a delicious bûche de Noël, opt for a spectacular Norwegian Kransekake, taste the unique Lithuanian Šakotis or enjoy the yummy Croatian Fritule. No matter what you eventually decide on, the most important thing is to enjoy a splendid dinner with your loved ones. So let me take this opportunity, to wish you, one and all, a very merry Christmas!
Discover one of the most traditional cakes of the Portuguese Christmas: Bolo–Rei – the King‘s Cake – which originated in France and only arrived in Portugal during the mid nineteenth century. It is traditionally eaten on the 25th December for the Nativity and the 6th of January for the Epithany. The bread-like cake is round with a hole in the centre like a crown and decorated with candied fruits and nuts to symbolize the gifts offered by the Magi. Inside the Bolo Rei are nuts, candied and dried fruits. There is also a fava bean and according to one legend, a baker added a fava bean to the cake to settle a dispute as to which of the wise men gave the gifts to baby Jesus. The Magi who found the fava, in his slice of cake, was then selected. A family tradition in Portugal is that who ever has the slice with the fava bean has to buy or bake next year’s cake!
Rosca de Reyes
The Rosca de Reyes cake is traditionally made in Spain for the ‘Día de Reyes’ or Kings’ Day, celebrated on the 6th of January, twelve days after Christmas and marks the end of the Christmas period in Spain. Spanish children also receive their presents on this day. Generally it has a round shape (as also the name ‘Rosca’ indicates), can be filled with cream or plain, and decorated with candied fruits. In Spain also a figurine and a bean is hidden in the cake – whoever finds the figurine, will be the king or queen of the day, but the person who finds the bean will have to pay for the cake. The tradition of placing a trinket in the cake is very old. The baby Jesus hidden in the bread represents the flight of the Holy Family, fleeing from King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents.
La Bûche de Nöel
Here comes a yummy traditional French dessert served after the main Christmas dinner : the Bûche de Noël. It’s a roll of light sponge cake, covered in chocolate or coffee butter cream textured to resemble bark as an evocation of the ancient tradition of burning the Yule log. It is a form of sweet roulade. Traditionally, Bûche de Noël is decorated with confectioners’ sugar to resemble snow. Other cake decorations may include actual tree branches, fresh berries, and mushrooms made of meringue or marzipan. The original Bûche de Noël recipe emerged during the 19th century and its name originally referred to the Yule log itself, and was transferred to the dessert only after the custom had fallen out of use, presumably during the first half of the 20th century. Until recently France held pride of place in the Guinness Book of Records with the longest Bûche de Noël ever, measuring a very respectable 207.80 meters…
A Culinary time capsule since 1875, Vínarterta has been connecting and nourishing the bodies, hearts and minds of people of Iceland in a multilayered way for generations. It’s a distinctively different, refined and yummy striped cake handmade with seven thin fragrant vanilla cake layers filled fruit, then iced with pure vanilla and almond flavoured buttercream. Making Vínarterta is an art. It can be made several ways, by stacking very thin cake or cookie-like layers and adding the more traditional filling of prune, or raspberry. Vínarterta is eaten best at least a few days after baking to allow the fruit and flavourings to become what they are meant to be. So while you enjoy your traditional Icelandic cake, I only would like to wish you Merry Christmas! – or in Icelandic Gleðileg jól!
Irish Christmas Cake
There are hundreds of different recipes for Christmas Cake in Ireland, all with slight variations on the same theme. In all cases is it a moist, rich, slightly spicy cake crammed with fruit and nuts, which is traditionally baked at least 6-8 weeks before Christmas, and then ‘fed’ whiskey regularly in the run up to the big day. The finished cake will usually have both marzipan icing and white icing or frosting. This is definitely not a quick ‘throw in a mixer, bake and eat’ sort of cake – especially if you plan to ice it properly. It is quite a hassle, but it certainly is worth the effort and no Irish Christmas would be complete without ‘the cake’. With its rich fruit and the plentiful addition of alcohol, the Christmas cake has an important place at the table in any traditional Irish Christmas.
No British Christmas is complete without a Christmas Pudding. The traditional Christmas pudding is a brown pudding with raisins, nuts and cherries. It is similar to fruitcake, except that pudding is steamed and fruitcake is baked. The pudding is composed of many dried fruits held together by egg and suet, sometimes moistened by treacle or molasses and flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and other spices. Traditionally puddings were made on or immediately after the Sunday “next before Advent” – the day became known as “Stir-up Sunday”. 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.
Here comes an impressive Norwegian cake that forms an unusual showpiece at Christmas celebrations. The Kransekake is everything you love about playdoh, cookies, and cakes – all rolled up into one stunning cake. It resembles a tower – which inspired yet another name, Tower Cake (Tårnkake in Norwegian). It is made from almonds, icing sugar and egg whites. The dough is a little coarser than marzipan and sometimes has specs of almond skin as a ‘rustic’ feature. Kransekake is made by cooking rings in different sizes, which are then stacked into a pyramid-shape. It is held together by icing between the layers. Usual decorations include tinsel, bonbons, lollies, sparklers and small Norwegian flags. In Norway, a Christmas without Kransekake just isn’t the same. This cake is also served at many other celebrations such as birthdays, weddings and on 17th of May (Syttende Mai), which is Norway’s Constitution Day.
The festival of St. Lucia begins the Christmas season in Swedish custom, and she comes as a young girl crowned with fresh greens and lit candles carrying a tray of baked Saffransbullar. The sweet yeast rolls are flavoured with golden saffron and dark raisins and often shaped into ‘Lucia cats’ (lussekatter). Despite being the world’s most expensive spice, saffron is widely used in Swedish food. Everyone has their own special tricks that claim to make the best, most fluffy and tasty saffron buns in all of the land. It is not uncommon for children to help build little houses out of Saffransbullar dough to celebrate Christmas.
At Christmas time Finnish mums and dads always bake their traditional Joulutorttu. These pastries are windmill-shaped tarts with a prune jam filling. The pastries can be in other shapes and apple used in place of the prune jam. The name of Joulutorttu, is translated as Christmas tart (“torttu” for tart). It is also known as Tähtitorttu (Star Tart). Joulutorttu are traditionally made with a quark and butter pastry and filled with homemade jam. Although there is a bit of work involved in preparing the windmill shapes, one bite into a tart fresh out of the oven makes it all worthwhile. For our Finnish friends, the smell of the prune jam bubbling away on the stove always brings back fond memories. Joulutorttus are mostly made in Finland but also in Sweden, although swedish media has accused the pastries of being “swastika-shaped” – which is an aberration.
Christmas in Danish is called Jul (an old Nordic word for feast) and it is the biggest holiday in Denmark. We all know, the Danes love good food and during the festive season have some of the best treats with the Danish Drømmekage. It is like a “sweet dream” and that’s what its name actually means. The cake itself is soft and spongy and loaded with vanilla beans while the topping is thick and soft with a caramel, coconut flavor that lingers on your taste buds. This caramelised coconut sponge makes loyal followers out of anyone who steals a bite. Note that the cake is even more dreamy the following day. Believed to have originated in Brovst in the northern region of Nordjylland, this now-favourite Christmas treat is a relative newcomer, making its first appearance in the latter half of the 20th century.
It’s Christmas time, and this special time of the year is celebrated in the Netherlands with good food, family visits and well, more good food. During this time, an old-fashioned, traditional cake in the shape of a turban, or Tulband is often baked. Usually, the Tulband is a simple pound cake, but for Christmas, it becomes a special treat. Rich with butter, sugar and dried fruits, generous slices of this Kersttulband are often served when enjoying the visit of a friend or family member. It is good by itself and will hold, because of its richness, for several days. Dress it up with a beautiful red bow and give it as a gift, or keep it for yourself and enjoy it during these holiday times! red and green candied cherres give it a festive, Christmas-sy feel.
Of course, Belgians also enjoy the delicious Bûche de Noël on Christmastime, just as the French. But they also have a very specific kind of brioche, the Cougnou baked during Christmas holiday, especially in Flanders. The Cougnou, or bread of Jesus, is a sweet bread formed like a baby Jesus. It is made with flour, eggs, milk, yeast, raisins and sugar. Usually, it is given to children on Christmas and St. Martin’s Day and usually enjoyed with a cup of hot chocolate. This bread seems to have originated in ancient Hainaut but the bread of Jesus is now spread throughout the southern Low Countries. It is usually decorated, also differently across the provinces: with terracotta circles (called Rond) in Hainaut and Romance Flanders, with incisions in Cambraisis, elsewhere it is with flowers, sugar… The Rond were traditionally made with clay coming from Baudour but are now made with plaster.
Germany – Austria
The Dresden Stollen, a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit, was first mentioned in an official document in 1474, on a bill at St. Bartholomew’s, a Christian hospital. At that time, however, there was no thought of festive pleasures: the mediaeval fasting food was made only of flour, yeast and water. The most famous Stolen is still the Dresdner Stollen, sold, among other places, at the local Christmas market, Striezelmarkt. Dresden Stollen is produced in the city of Dresden and distinguished by a special seal depicting King Augustus II the Strong. Keep in mind: this
official Stollen is produced by only 150 Dresden bakers! Every year Stollenfest takes place in Dresden. This historical tradition ended only in 1918 with the fall of the monarchy, and started again in 1994, but the idea comes from Dresden’s history.
One of the best things about Christmas in Switzerland are Chräbeli or aniseed cookies. Three things are needed to succeed when making these Swiss Christmas cookies: good recipes, a little experience and a lot of patience. Chräbeli are especially made and sold before and during winter holidays, and are eaten with tea, coffee or hot chocolate or presented in special gift boxes to the nearest and dearest. They widely popular amongst the locals and tourists as well. The main aromatic ingredient for these cookies is anise, which enriches its taste with the unique smell of winter time. Other components for the dessert are: eggs, confectioner’s sugar, salt, flour and Kirsch. Chräbeli are great, but there are of course other sorts of Swiss Christmas coockies such as the Brunsli (Swiss brownies), the Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), the Kokosmacarönli (coconut macaroons) and the Basler Läckerli (hard spice biscuits).
Christmas is just around the corner and, where Italians are concerned, food is one of the main components in the festivities. Indeed, no Christmas holiday meal is complete without dessert, but when it comes to traditional Italian Christmas cakes, you will be served with the famous Panettone. It’s a cake that hails from Milan with a sweet, yeasty taste and a distinctive domed shape. The cake dough requires several hours to make because it must be cured in a way similar to sourdough, rising and falling three times before being baked. The Panettone is often compared to fruitcakes because both are traditionally made with raisins and candied fruits. The word “Panettone” derives from the Italian word “Panetto“, a small loaf cake. The augmentative Italian suffix “-one” changes the meaning to “large cake”. The origins of this cake appear to be ancient, dating back to the Roman Empire, when ancient Romans sweetened a type of leavened cake with honey.
The Vanocka is part of the Christmas holidays in Czech Republic, whether made at home or bought in a store. At one time in history, Vanocka could only be made by a baker who was a guild craftsman. Its recipe is similar to Polish chałka, Jewish challah, Hungarian fonott kalacs and other Eastern European egg-twist breads. Preparing a Vanocka isn’t simple and therefore a variety of customs were once followed in preparing, braiding and baking the dough to ensure success. The woman of the house had to mix the dough while wearing a white apron and kerchief, she shouldn’t talk, and she was supposed to jump up and down while the dough was rising. Another old custom was to bake in a coin (much like a King cake). The person who found it in their slice was assured of health and wealth for all of the following year. A burnt or ripped Vanocka was a bad omen.
Štedrák is a layered cake. The layers are made of leavened dough, and are filled with the traditional Slovak village home-cooking fillings: plum jam, poppy seeds, ground walnuts, and farmer cheese. Think of it as buchty, poppy seed rolls, and tvarožník all fused into one delicious calorie bomb. This cake originated as traditional ceremonial holiday bread, similar to the Eastern Slovak kračún, which was believed to hold magical powers. This bread was prepared for the Christmas Eve dinner, and the many layers symbolized abundance, fertility, and good harvest. This is because the belief of first-day magic was prevalent in the olden days. Back when Christmas coincided with New Years, and as one did on Christmas, one was bound to repeat during the whole next year. These days, Štedrák is prepared only rarely. Instead, it’s place at the Christmas table has been taken over by the poppy seed (makovník) or nut rolls (orechovník), or various assorted Christmas cookies.
In Poland, grandmothers are used to make several Makowiec for each of their grand daughters and sons, or else they would fight over it! Makowiec is a yeasty dough that’s rolled up with a poppy seed filling like a roulade. The filling can be made by hand by simmering the poppy seeds in milk, soaking them overnight and then finely grinding them in a food processor. While poppy seeds are the most important ingredient, reflected in the cake’s name (“mak” means poppy in Polish), several other ingredients determine the cake’s character too. Traditionally, things like sultanas, chopped nuts, orange zest, lemon zest and vanilla sugar are added. Poppy seed flavor combiend with almond and orange notes make the cake seem rather light to the taste. It’s a great thing to enjoy with a cup or coffe. You should definitely try it, if you haven’t yet!
The unique tree cake, Šakotis, is invariably found on the table during special occasions in Lithuania. No wedding, baptism, anniversary, Easter or Christmas is celebrated without it. It is also a popular souvenir. It is a cake made of butter, eggs, flour, sugar, and cream, cooked on a rotating spit in an oven or over an open fire. Šakotis is an exceptional cake that would be hard to make at home since it requires special equipment and a great deal of effort. Its name means “branched tree” or “tree with many branches” due to its distinctive shape (it is often conical, like a pine tree, and with the drips as branches). Bakeries that make šakotis keep their recipe a closely guarded secret. Some sources claim šakotis was first baked in Europe as early as the 15th century. The cake became popular during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1791). Its origins are attributed to either the Italian Queen Bona Sforza of Poland or the Baltic tribe of Yotvingians.
What are Latvian gingerbread, the so-called Piparkūkas? These are thin dark brown spicy and crispy biscuits made of ginger, cloves, nutmeg, peppers, all spice, coriander, cardamon, cinnamon. Note that such a symphony of spices is nowhere present in any other Latvian dish! Christmas in Latvia cannot be imagined without baking tray upon tray of those Piparkūkas. It is a national pastime in the days leading up to Christmas – store brought gingerbread just won’t do. However, majority will be happy to use store-brought gingerbread dough and every self respecting bakery and supermarket will have it for sale. The biggest discussion around this time is what dough to buy as some will give you crunchy and crisp cookies, while others will lead to softer and puffier outcome.
Christmas and New Year without Piparkoogid just doesn´t feel right. Piparkoogid actually translates as pepper cakes, and they’re a must-have in Estonia. Mums and dads across the country are rolling and cutting and baking gingerbread cookies with their delighted offsprings. Coffee shops replace the traditional chocolate-with-your-cuppa with piparkook-with-your-cuppa. Piparkoogid are actually made with lots of different spices, cinnamon, ginger, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, orange peel, black pepper. The most important part of the preparation of the dough is burning the sugar. The burnt sugar gives the piparkoogid the brown colour. It is good to let the dough rest for at least 24 hours and it can stay in the fridge even for a month.
Christmas in Belarus, similar to Christmas in Albania, often takes second place to New Year’s Eve celebrations, a holdover from Soviet times, when ideology demanded the abandonment of “Western” and religious holidays. At Christmas time, however, Belarusian enjoy their Kutia, a sweet grain pudding, traditionally also served in Ukraine, Russia and some parts of Poland. Kutia is often the first dish in the traditional twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper (also known as Svyata Vecherya). It is rarely served at other times of the year. Traditionally it was made of wheatberries, poppy seeds, honey, various nuts, dried fruit and raisins. In many recipes milk or cream is also used. In some Slavic countries, rice is the main ingredient.
The name Perekladanets comes from the Ukrainian word for “to layer” and refers to the four thin layers of sweet yeast dough with various fillings like poppy seed, date, apricot, walnut or just cinnamon-sugar. Rich and satisfying, this cake is similar to Russian Torte, except the latter is made with three layers of dough and a meringue top. Note that the Ukrainian Christmas festive days according to the Julian calendar, start on 6 January, Christmas Eve, and end on 19 January, “Jordan” or Epiphany. When Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union, Christmas Day was not a public holiday but Christmas traditions were not forgotten. After Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, Christmas Day was made a public holiday. Many Ukrainian Christmas traditions are based on pre-Christian Pagan customs.
Romania – Moldova
At Christmas time Romanian mothers prepare the dough for baking Cozonac, these delicious breads, with a variety of fillings. The smells of Cozonac baking stir senses. On Christmas Eve, relatives and their friends with musical instruments move from house to house in the Romanian cities and villages to serenade people with Romanian Christmas songs and hosts lay out Cozonac to welcome them. This type of Stollen cake is a sweet, egg-enriched brioche-like bread, prepared by adding lemon zest to the dough mixture. In Romania, the recipes for trimmings differ rather significantly between regions. Depending on the region, one may add to it any of the following: raisins, rahat, grated orange or lemon rind, walnuts or hazelnuts, and vanilla or rum flavor. It is possible that the first Cozonac has been made in Ancient Egypt. Perhaps it was sweetened with honey and filled with seeds. The Greeks took from the Egyptians their interest in cuisine
Beigli (or sometimes spelled Bejgli) is a genuine Hungarian Christmas treat. This pastry is ubiquitous around Christmastime, you can buy it in practically any shop or bakery. It is basically a rolled up crust with lots of filling. Walnut and poppy seed are traditional, but these days experimental folks are filling it with chestnut puree or even Nutella. Since this is such a traditional food in Hungary, there are as many recipes as there are families. The dough, for example, can either be risen dough or crumbly dough. Some recipes call for cooking the filling in milk, others simply direct you to mix it with grated apple for added moisture. Beigli originates from Germany and in Hungary it became a custom to bake Beigli for Christmas in the 19th century during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
Potica is a traditional holiday cake in Slovenia. It is very rich, so it was really only ever baked on important occasions, like Christmas and Easter. Potica is a rolled dough cake with different fillings. The closest English translation of Potica would be nut roll, known in the United States and some other Slavic countries, although the fillings of potica are not limited to nuts, but can also include cottage cheese, raisins, poppy seeds and tarragon. Modern fillings even include chocolate. Potica was first mentioned by Primož Trubar, a Lutheran priest who published the first books in the Slovenian language in the 16th century. This treat is such an important part of Slovenian heritage that it was twice featured on its postage stamps!
Croatia – Bosnia and Herzegovina
What’s the best way to greet guests during the holiday season in Croatia? Offer them Fritule! There is almost no Dalmatian home without this pastry these days, especially on Christmas Eve. You can also find it on street vending stands, in different versions, even with chocolate. However, old recipes are very strict about it; icing sugar is the only decoration allowed. Fritule are aromatic bite-sized dough balls, flavoured with lemon and orange zest, grape brandy (loza in Croatian) and/or dark rum, and sprinkled with icing sugar. Like almost any home will have its bowl, there is probably no housewife, especially among older women, that doesn’t have her own recipe, the best in the world, inherited over generations.
Serbia – Montenegro
Christmas dinner in Serbia would not be complete without Česnica– a ceremonial, round loaf of bread that is an indispensable part of Christmas celebrations. The preparation of this bread may be accompanied by various rules and rituals. Česnica is usually made with wheat flour and baked on Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning by the head of household or the woman of the house. The water for the dough is in some areas collected on Christmas Day before sunrise from a spring or a well, into which a handful of grain is thrown. On Christmas eve, about noon, or even earlier, the family members sit down at the table. The head and another man of the family hold the česnica between themselves, rotating it three times counterclockwise. The česnica is then carefully broken among the relatives, so that each of them gets his or her own share of the loaf. The family member whose share contains the coin hidden in the česnica, will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year.
Bulgaria – Macedonia
Even though Bulgaria is a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, Rozhdestvo Hristovo, literally “Nativity of Jesus,” is celebrated on Dec. 25, according to the Gregorian calendar. The Koledna Pitka, the bulgarian Christmas bread, is one of the most fun aspects of the meal on Christmas Eve. The bread is always good, but the fun part is the coin inside. The one who finds the coin is said to be predicted to have good fortune in the coming year. Koledna Pitka is usually served around Christmas or New Year’s and assumes various appearances depending on how you position the dough. It is meant to be a pullapart bread that you tear and share for special occasions
Albania – Kosovo
It is a somewhat problematic to discuss Christmas traditions in Albania. Albania’s relationship to Christmas is not as strong as may other countries in Eastern Europe, and history and culture are both responsible for this phenomenon. Albanias say “Gëzuar Krishtlindjet!” to greet one another on Christmas. The Christmas Eve feast is typically one without meat, consisting of fish, vegetable, and bean dishes. Baklava is served as a dessert. They are rich, sweet pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened and held together with syrup or honey. There are three proposals for the pre-Ottoman roots of baklava: the Central Asian Turkic tradition of layered breads, the Roman placenta cake, as developed through Byzantine cuisine, or the Persian lauzinaq.
Greece – Cyprus
Melomakarona are traditional Christmas cake-like cookies, wonderfully spiced and soaked in a honey-based syrup. They are sweet, delicious and addictive! Plus, in case you are interested, they are dairy-free! Melomakarona are egg-shaped dessert made mainly from flour, olive oil, and honey. Along with the Kourabies they are traditional treats prepared primarily during the Christmas holiday season. During rolling they are often filled with ground walnuts. After baking they are immersed for a few seconds in hot syrup made of honey and sugar dissolved in water. Finally, they are decorated with ground, as well as bigger, pieces of walnut. For Greeks children and parents, they are THE recipe that makes houses smell like Christmas – orange peel and cloves and cinnamon, can you imagine the smell ?
Turks actually celebrate what they call “Noel” on New Year’s Eve and also decorate trees and exchange gifts with love ones. In cosmopolitan areas especially, streets and shopping centers are decked out in stunning Christmas decorations and you may even spot a Santa or two. Although for the most part, Christmas is just a regular day here in Turkey, you can celebrate your Christmas time there in Turkey, a country that holds great significance in the history of Christianity and enjoy the famous Turkish delight – the Lokum! It’s a family of confections based on a gel of starch and sugar. Premium varieties consist largely of chopped dates, pistachios, and hazelnuts or walnuts bound by the gel. They are just delicious!
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