In Season: Holiday Desserts
Nothing says Christmas like a candy cane. But why?
The hooked peppermint stick, like Christmas cookies, or the much-reviled fruitcake, is such part and parcel of the holiday that we rarely wonder where the tradition comes from - and even if we ask, there may not be a clear answer.
For every country that celebrates Christmas, there are traditional Christmas desserts. In France there's the bûche de Noël, a buttercream-filled cake that is rolled and decorated to look like a log. The frosting is colored and swirled to look like bark, and often it's topped with little candy leaves or mushrooms.
Dominique Geulin, proprietor of Portland's St. Honoré Boulangerie (2335 N.W. Thurman St.), is busy right now making the dessert from the recipe his parents used in their bakery in France.
'I have vivid memories of it,' he says. 'Everybody gets so excited and worked up about participating in making the bûche.' They fill the shelves of the pastry shop until 'you literally have no room for anything else.'
Why does everyone get so excited about a cake that looks like a log? 'I grew up with that,' Geulin says. 'We don't even question where it's from because we're so used to it. It's a natural.'
Apparently, the shape of the bûche is patterned after the ancient yule log, which remained burning in the fireplace from Christmas Eve until New Year's. The ashes were believed to protect the house from evil, and were also scattered in fields for a bountiful harvest.
The ritual dates back to pre-Christian times, while the bûche de noël first appeared in the 19th century, coinciding with the decline of the original custom.
The bûche may not have a specific story attached to it, but the Italian Christmas cake called panettone has several.
Some say that it was invented by a baker's assistant named Toni during the Renaissance, or by a love-smitten courtier, or by a poor young nun. More certain is that it dates at least as far back as the 15th century and originated in Milan.
Locally, Grand Central Baking Co. (with five locations in Portland) sells a sweet, fluffy version.
The ingredients in panettone - white flour, sugar, and dried and candied fruit - were all luxury items and saved for special occasions.
Dried fruit forms the basis for another well-known Italian Christmas dessert, panforte (available at Di Prima Dolci, 1936 N. Killingsworth St.). These are chewy, spicy delicacies, perhaps distant cousins of mincemeat.
Cloves, cinnamon, ginger and other spices were brought to Europe by the Crusaders, along with raisins, dried prunes and lemon peel. These spices were rare, and status symbols, and hence pepper (as in the German pfeffernuss) and ginger (as in gingerbread) found their way into Christmas celebrations.
These days, there are two common types of gingerbread batter. One bakes up into a cake, and the other makes flat, somewhat crisp cookies.
Medieval gingerbread was quite different from either one. A recipe for 'gingerbrede' from the Middle English period (around the 15th century) calls for boiled honey, thickened with breadcrumbs and seasoned with ginger, pepper and sandalwood. It was kneaded and then pressed down into a box or mold, and was not baked.
As time went by, the molds became more and more ornate. Gingerbread was made into the shapes of saints and animals. These were three-dimensional likenesses, colored, decorated, even gilded.
Only much later did flat cookies and cookie cutters become popular. And what about gingerbread houses? It seems that the witch's house in 'Hansel and Gretel' was the original - in early versions of the tale, it's made of bread and cake, with windows of clear sugar.
After the Grimm brothers published their collection of nursery tales, German bakeries began creating elaborate renditions made of gingerbread.
Gingerbread cookies also were used as decorations. Christmas trees in the Victorian era were mostly decorated with edible items, such as strings of popcorn and cranberries, and oranges stuck full of cloves. Also candy, which gives a clue to the origin of the candy cane.
It is often said that candy canes are shaped to resemble shepherds' crooks, in honor of the shepherds who saw the star of Bethlehem and heard the angels sing.
Another popular tale is that the shape is really a J, standing for Jesus. More likely, though, the candy cane is the work of a clever candy maker, who was mulling the best way to affix an old-fashioned peppermint stick to the branch of a tree.
But the truth is, no one knows for sure.