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Wrapped Presents under a Christmas Tree
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La Belle Cuisine
Helen Witty, © 1988
1994, Wings Books, a division of
“Ways of keeping Christmas seem to drift down through the generations of
family, so it’s likely that the holiday customs I grew up with had been
on one coast or the other long before my mother, from the East,
from the West, met in the Puget Sound country, married, moved
Southern California, and began to bring up their own family. There, where
sleds and genuine holly were only a rumor, one family custom that
came from somewhere was firmly maintained: The celebrations of Christmas
breakfast, not before.
…By the time all my parents’ big family had come along, any change in the
pattern would have seemed very odd; Christmas just couldn’t begin (as it
to, in some families) at midnight the night before or in an unruly
on the presents at earliest morning light or indeed at any point at al
was up, dressed, and comfortably fed.
..So we took our places around the big dining-room table, excruciatingly
to the tree and the presents and the well-stuffed stockings visible
dining-room door, and tucked into something more interesting to
eat than the oatmeal, orange juice, and toast of every day. Dad liked to
cook when he could,
and he especially liked to fix breakfast, so he often
turned out one of his Sunday
specials on Christmas morning.
…Breakfast over, Christmas began. One child, or several in turn, played
and handed out the presents heaped under the tree glistening with
glass ornaments (commonplace then, priceless today) and swagged
of cranberries and popcorn, garlands of spiky silver tinsel, and
showers of metal-
foil ‘icicles’ that curdled intriguingly into wads if they
fell to the floor. Banked
on the piano and on a chair or two were all the
dolls of Christmases past, even
the raggedy ones. Our stockings hung above
the fireplace; the bulge in the toe
of each was an orange or a tangerine
(tradition again, although neither fruit
was exactly a rarity in that
country of citrus groves). Among the small toys and candies and notebooks
and pencils and puzzles in the stockings, the round
lumps were walnuts.
There was always a box of ribbon candy we could raid at will – it was
terrifyingly sweet then as now, but didn’t it taste fruitier then?… There
was a jar or two of soft-centered, satiny hard candies shaped like peanuts
raspberries or chunks of taffy… A platter of butter-cookie stars with
cherries or sparkling sugar on top… Thick candy canes… Catnip for
which was once intoxicated into climbing the Christmas tree… One
there was an English wonder, a fruitcake topped with an inch of almond
paste, made by the expatriate mother of a family friend…
That was the Christmas I remember: a Sunday-special breakfast, then the
presents, the toys and dolls, a day spent riding bikes or scooters or wagons
the sunny outdoors, with candies and nuts and cookies between meals quite
remarkably allowed. Later, there’d be roast turkey for dinner, and chunky
cranberry sauce, and mince pie – never mind the near-tropical reading on
As in my childhood home, Christmas morning at our house still starts with a
not-for-everyday breakfast. As the ‘something special’, a yeast-raised
fragrant with lemon peel and spice, stuffed with dried fruits and
snowy with powdered sugar, has become a tradition, but some
I’ve devised for the great day have also been well received…”
Hazelnut Cheddar Bread
“Devised for friends (and ourselves) who are best pleased by a zesty,
non-sweet yuletide eye-opener, Hazelnut Cheddar Bread is meant
to be toasted
lightly and spread with the best butter. The flavors
burgeon for a day or
two after baking, so
if you’re making it for
yourself, this isn’t a bread to
serve hot from the oven.”
1 1/2 cups milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick)
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of sugar
1 envelope (1 scant tablespoon)
active dry yeast
1 egg, beaten
About 5 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups (6 ounces) fine-grated extra-sharp
natural Cheddar cheese
1 cup coarse-chopped toasted and
skinned hazelnuts (filberts)
Melted butter for pans and tops
Heat milk with butter and salt until butter melts; cool until
tepid, 100 to
110 degrees F.
Combine the pinch of sugar with 1/4 cup lukewarm water in a mixing
the large bowl of an electric mixer) and stir in the yeast; leave
foamy, abut 10 minutes.
Add the tepid milk mixture to the yeast mixture; beat in the egg, then 2
cups of flour, one cup at a time, to make a smooth batter.
Stir 2 cups of the remaining flour together with the cheese, reserving the
rest. Beat the floured cheese and the hazelnuts into the batter until well
then beat hard (or knead by hand in the bowl) for 2 minutes, or
at medium mixer speed for 1 minute.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until dough is
and elastic but still somewhat soft, adding more of the four as
mixing by machine, change to the dough hook and knead
the dough at low speed
for 2 minutes, then at medium speed for 2
minutes.) Form the dough into a
Butter a large bowl, turn the dough around in it until coated, cover, and
let rise until doubled, about 1 1/4 hours. Punch the dough down, turn it
and let it double again, about 45 minutes.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface, flatten it to expel air, and cut in
two. Form each half into a fat cylinder and place it in a buttered 8- to
bundt or kugelhopf mold, pinching the ends together. (Or use
standard loaf pans.) Cover and let rise until doubled, about 45
Before rising is complete, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Brush the tops of the loaves with melted butter. Bake the bread in the
center of the oven for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 degrees F;
to 40 minutes longer, until the tops are golden-brown and the
shrunk slightly from the pan sides.
Turn the loaves onto a rack, cover with a towel, and cool. Wrap in foil
plastic and store 24 hours or longer before slicing.
Note: This bread keeps for several days at room or refrigerator
or freezes for up to 6 months. Thaw completely before
Sweet Dough for Christmas Breads
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/3 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter,
cut into slices
Pinch of sugar
4 teaspoons (about 1 1/3 envelopes)
active dry yeast
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 packed teaspoons grated or
fine-chopped lemon zest
About 6 cups all-purpose flour
Heat milk to simmering. Stir in 2/3 cup sugar, salt, and
butter; stir until dissolved; cool to tepid (100 to 110 degrees F).
Combine 1/4 cup lukewarm water and the pinch of sugar in a mixing bowl
stir in the yeast; leave until foamy, about 10 minutes.
Combine tepid milk mixture with yeast mixture; add eggs and lemon zest;
to mix. Beat in most of the flour, a cupful at a time, reserving about
cup; beat well, by hand or machine.
Turn dough out onto a kneading surface spread with half the remaining
and repeatedly scrape, turn, and cut the soft dough, using a dough scraper
or a wide spatula, until the flour is incorporated. Sprinkling with
as needed, knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic;
into a ball.
(A mixer with a dough hook may be used for these
knead about 4
Butter a large bowl, turn the dough around until it is coated, cover, and
let the dough rise until doubled, 2 hours or more, depending on room
[The cookbook includes a recipe for Christmas-Greeting Currant Loaves made
with the above dough, as well as the following festively glazed
walnut bubble or “monkey” breads:]
Cranberry-Walnut Bubble Rings
Sweet Dough for Christmas Bread (above), fully risen
2 cups coarse-chopped cranberries
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar,
or 3/4 cup each light brown and white sugar
1 1/2 cups coarse-chopped walnuts
While the dough is rising, combine the cranberries, butter,
in a saucepan and cook them over low heat, stirring, until the
butter melt and the cranberries soften slightly. 3 to 5 minutes.
in the nuts.
Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface and flatten to
remove air. Cut the dough in two. Form each half into 1-inch balls.
generous layer of cranberry-nut sauce into each of two well-
buttered 10-cup bundt or one-piece tube pans. Arrange a layer of dough
balls 1/2 inch apart
in each pan; scatter some of the cranberry and nut
mixture over the layer;
repeat layers, dividing ingredients equally, until
dough and sauce have been
used. Cover pans with towels and let rise
until dough has doubled, about 1
Before rising is complete, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Bake loaves in the center of the oven 35 to 40 minutes, or until the tops
are moderately brown and the sides have shrunk slightly from the pans.
Cool loaves in pans for a few minutes, then turn onto racks and cool
completely. Wrap in foil or plastic and store.
Note: These will keep for several days if refrigerated; they may be frozen
for up to 2 months. Thaw before unwrapping.
Gingerbread Waffles with
Ginger Lemon Sauce
New Year's Day
More Christmas Memories:
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