As we approach the end of our first year at the Festive Food Project, it’s fitting that we’ve also reached the Big One, the winter holiday season. Although lately it feels like Christmas decorations go up the day after Halloween, we’re never truly in the holiday mood until we’ve digested the Thanksgiving feast. And as much as we love the holiday season, December can sometimes feel like a kind of punishing marathon of coordinating holiday schedules, gift shopping gauntlets, and baking on a mass scale, all headed towards the end of month with no time to catch your breath. This year, Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve, which for families who celebrate both is either a relief or doubling down on the month’s breathless quality!
So we were really pleased to discover an early December holidays that gives us the opportunity to make a delicious, homey meal and take a breath with our families. The feast of Saint Nicholas—the same one who inspired Santa Claus—isn’t an orgy of gift-giving, but it does celebrate the saint’s close and special bond with children. On Saint Nicholas eve, children often leave the good saint letters along with a carrot for his white horse in hopes of finding goodies the next morning. This Saint Nicholas originated in northern and eastern France, and he brings coins, small gifts and sweets, often left inside shoes or clogs put out for that purpose. But his sphere of influence is hardly limited to France: from the southern Italian city of Bari to Portugal, Germany and Greece—where he is the very important patron saint of sailors—into Central Europe, and even into the Holy Land, he is revered far and wide.
We decided to pick up on the German St. Nicholas tradition of gingerbread. Perhaps because Thanksgiving is still in our rear-view mirror, we were craving a cranberry gingerbread, with the tartness of the fresh berries to set off its dark molasses spiciness. Serve it with some bourbon-spiked whipped cream for a grown-up treat.
Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about making spaetzle, German egg noodles, and this felt like the perfect time. This traditional comfort food is easy to make and can be served on its own or alongside just about any protein. We tossed ours with mushrooms and leeks in a light mustard cream sauce. You can also add cubes of cooked ham or sausage.
Spaetzle with Mushrooms & Leeks
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
2 large eggs
4 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp milk
1 lb of crimini (baby portobello) mushrooms, quartered
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 leek, white and light green part only, chopped (about ½ cup)
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 cup heavy cream
2 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp mustard seeds (optional)
Salt & pepper to taste
2 tbsp snipped chives
optional: 1 cup cubed ham or sausage
Mix together flour, salt, pepper & nutmeg in bowl. In separate bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. Make a well in center of flour mixture and pour egg mixture in. Gently fold together ingredients, and mix until combined. Let sit for 10-15 minutes. Mixture should be like a thicker version of pancake batter; if too thick, add more milk and/or another beaten egg.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Hold the spaetzle maker, or a metal colandar with large holes over the pot and take half of the spaetzle dough and force it through the holes and into the pot. Cook until noodles float to the top, about 3 minutes, and remove with a slotted spoon. Set aside in colander.
Add 2 tbsp of butter to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cooked spaetzle and saute until slightly browned. Remove from the pan and set aside while you prepare the mushrooms. Add the remaining 2 tbsp butter and some olive oil to the pan. Add the garlic and leeks and cook, stirring frequently for 2-3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and thyme and saute until the mushrooms start to brown, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Now add the heavy cream, mustard and mustard seeds and stir well. Reduce the mixture until the sauce starts to thicken a bit, 3-4 minutes. Add spaetzle to the pan and combine. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle with snipped chives.
Serves 2 as main course or 4 as side dish.
Adapted from Melissa Clark
1 ½ cups fresh cranberries
½ cup sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
⅔ cup brown sugar
½ cup half & half (or whole milk)
½ cup molasses
¼ cup maple syrup
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 tbsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp cloves
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a 9-inch square baking pan with parchment.
In a small saucepan, combine the cranberries, sugar and 1 tbsp water. Stir the cranberries over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, forming a syrup and about half the cranberries have burst. Set aside.
In another saucepan, stir together the butter, brown sugar, milk, molasses and maple syrup over medium heat. Bring it to a simmer and remove from heat as soon as butter is completely melted.
In the bowl of a mixer stir together the flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Beat in the butter-molasses mixture and then beat in the eggs. Then stir in the fresh ginger.
Transfer the batter into the prepared pan. Then drop spoonfuls of the cranberry mixture over the top. Drag the cranberries through the batter with a knife almost as if you were marbling a cake. Bake the cake in the oven for about 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cake cool completely before cutting. This gingerbread is best wrapped or covered and eaten the next day or even better, the day after that. Serve with whipped cream.