ERIC METCALF/For The News-Enterprise
Christmas sweets are as old as the yuletide season itself. Fruit cakes, sugar plums, eggnog, gingerbread and peppermint sticks all have their roots in family and cultural traditions stretching back to medieval days and beyond.
Christmas desserts are part of what makes the holidays special and passing down family recipes is an integral part of our celebrations. It brings us together as a family and connects one generation with the next. I have copies of my grandfather’s recipes I pull out at the holidays to try and recreate some of his favorites.
Eggnog. Many of our cherished holiday desserts and drinks have their origins in the holiday traditions of the old world. Eggnog can trace its roots to a once-popular rich and creamy English dessert drink called posset and more recently syllabub.
A posset was a hot drink that combined whipped eggs with ale, cider or wine and likely was sweetened with honey and spices.
A syllabub was made with cream and/or milk, wine or cider and sweetened with treacle (sugar syrup) and other flavorings. Americans adapted these recipes to produce a variety of milk-based drinks that combined well with brandy, rum and whiskey with cream sprinkled with nutmeg.
The first written reference of eggnog was an account of a February 1796 breakfast at the City Tavern in Philadelphia. George Washington even penned his own heavy-on-the-rum eggnog recipe. These days you can find recipes for eggnog ice cream, shakes, cookies, cakes, etc. You only are limited by your imagination.
Sugar Plums. In “’Twas the Night before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore, the poem reads:
“The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads”
What is a sugar plum? According to food historians and the Oxford English Dictionary, a sugar plum is a comfit, or a seed, nut or scrap of spice coated with a layer of hard candy.
Comfits are thought to be one of the world’s oldest sugar candies. They most likely began as a medicine created by Middle Eastern apothecaries to be used as indigestion aids. Sugar plums referenced in the poem likely were hard red, green and yellow sugar candies flavored with spices.
Bourbon Balls. Bourbon balls, a Kentucky Christmas and Derby favorite, are bite-size confections incorporating dark chocolate and bourbon. They are said to have been invented in 1938 by Kentucky candy maker Ruth Hanly Booe of Rebecca Ruth Candy.
The idea of mixing bourbon and candy together was accidentally suggested by a dignitary at Frankfort’s sesquicentennial celebrations of 1936. He stated the two best tastes in the world are Mrs. Booe’s candies and fine Kentucky bourbon. Thus, the seed was planted and Bourbon Balls were born.
Today, there are many variations of these treats — some simple, some more complicated and with varying amounts of alcohol to suit one’s tastes.
Baked Goods. Our pioneer ancestors also were influenced by old world traditions, chess pie, resurrection cake, apple stack cake and more all can be traced to earlier times. Flour, dried fruits, milk and eggs were combined with molasses or honey and baked. Finished cakes often were soaked in rum or whiskey for flavor and to preserve.
Martha Washington’s great day cake wildly was popular in its day. A white fruit cake made with candied fruits, baked and wrapped in sherry- or rum-soaked linens, it was stored away to be brought out and served on “great days” – Christmas, New Year’s day or election day.
This year, I urge you to keep the spirit of Christmas past alive by making a treasured family recipe or a holiday recipe from days past.
Eric Metcalf is a beekeeper, an outdoor enthusiast and is the executive chef at Hardin Memorial Health and Morrison Healthcare. He can be reached at email@example.com.