An ocean and many years separate Camilla Schwab from Stuttgart, her homeland in southern Germany. But when it comes to the holidays, Camilla and her husband Ernst, have worked to preserve the Christmas traditions they brought with them as immigrants to Cincinnati more than 50 years ago.
“We would go to church on Christmas Eve and come home to tea and pretzels with butter,” said Schwab, “and our meal is simple,” today still consisting of German knockwurst, potato salad and bread and butter.
While rich meals are a focal point of Schwab’s Christmas celebration, baking breads, cookies and cakes are a traditional and delicious journey that starts on the first Sunday of Advent and continues every Sunday leading up to Christmas. Aromas from baking kuchens, a coffee cake pastry with pockets of cinnamon; spicy gingersnaps; Springerle, a molded biscuit; Stollen, a loaf-shaped fruitcake; pressed, buttery spritz cookies and Zimsterne, meringue cinnamon stars, fill Schwab’s kitchen. All are variations of recipes handed down from her mother.
Schwab also joins other volunteers at the Germania Society, a Cincinnati social club that perpetuates the traditions and customs of the German heritage, to cook and bake for the Christkindlmarkt, an annual market and festival that ushers in the Advent season both here and in Germany.
“It’s wonderful work,” she said of the time in the kitchen with longtime friends, laced with a lot of good conversation in German and English.
Although a fruitcake, don’t confuse sweet and tender stollen with traditional rum soaked versions. Traditionally the shape of the cake was meant to represent the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes.
1 package (¼ ounce) dry active yeast
¾ cup warm water (between 105 – 115 degrees)
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
3 whole eggs
1 egg yolk, white reserved
½ cup unsalted butter plus 3 tablespoons, softened, divided
3½ cups flour, plus extra, if necessary
½ cup chopped blanched almonds
¼ cup chopped citron
¼ cup candied cherries, chopped (optional)
¼ cup golden raisins
teaspoon grated lemon zest
Mix 1½ cups confectioners sugar with 1½ tablespoons milk until smooth.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine the yeast and the water in a large mixing bowl of a stand mixer. When the yeast is foamy, add the sugar, salt, eggs, egg yolk, 1/2 cup butter and half of the flour. Using the paddle attachment beat on medium speed for about 8 to 10 minutes, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.
Stir in the remaining flour along with the nuts, fruits and zest until well mixed. Cover the bowl with a slightly damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until double in bulk, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
When double, stir the mixture down, cover tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight or up to 2 days.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and shape into an oval about 12 inches long and 8 inches wide. Spread with the remaining butter then fold the dough in half lengthwise, pressing the edges together firmly. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet, cover and let rise until double in bulk, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Mix the egg white with a tablespoon of water and use it to brush over the dough.
Bake 30 to 35 minutes until golden. Let cool for 30 minutes. While the bread is still warm, prepare the glaze and pour over the bread. Cool completely before serving. Makes one loaf.
Diane Gordon has been organizing Kwanzaa celebrations for members of the central Toledo African-American community since the holiday was created in 1967.
A modern holiday, Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in Swahili, is a seven-day celebration that begins Dec. 26 honoring African heritage and culture. Each day of the holiday focuses on a specific guiding principle such as unity, faith and creativity.
It’s a time when Gordon’s family talks about what its heritage means to them. “We also talk about our accomplishments of the past year, whether in school or in the community,” she said, “and what we did to improve our quality of life and that of our community.”
For the larger African-American community, the weeklong celebration is held at the Wayman Palmer Community YMCA in central Toledo where every evening is filled with special programs that showcase the cultural history, talent and spirit of local African Americans through art exhibits, music and dance performances, storytelling and more. It all leads to a Karamu, a final feast where the menu is large to reflect the African harvest and traditions, regional influences and homeland foods of various African cultures. Traditional fruits and nuts, okra, yams and plantains, curried dishes and rice and beans, and Caribbean foods with coconut are prepared and enjoyed in community.
“The way they are prepared is an important part of this cultural celebration, too,” said Gordon. For example, in Liberia, collards, mustard and turnip greens are chopped finer and often what little pork or chicken there is will be incorporated and cooked all in one pot.
Dishes featuring corn, which represent youth or offspring, are always served – perhaps on the cob, roasted, in a pudding or in cornbread. Cinnamon and nutmeg, warm spices that have African origins, season many of the dishes, too.
Gordon has “retired” more than once from organizing the community Kwanzaa celebration, yet more than once her communities welcome her out of retirement to help organize one more – “just one more,” she teases.
This recipe can be prepared as a side dish, or add a little meat and it becomes a main course. Take care not to overcook the greens so that they come off the stove with some texture and color.
Diane’s Collard Greens
3 pounds collard greens, rinsed thoroughly
4 cups chicken stock or broth
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 pound frozen mixed vegetables
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1½ cups cooked chicken or pork (optional), cut into bite-sized pieces
Remove the tough ribs on the collard greens. Stack the leaves and slice into 1-inch thick slices.
In a large pot, add the chicken broth, crushed red pepper and garlic. Bring to a boil. Stir in the collard greens. Cook over medium heat for 40 to 45 minutes or until tender. Add the frozen vegetables, salt and sugar and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Stir in the meat, if adding, and cook for an additional minute. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
The crunchy, gritty texture of cornmeal adds a rustic appeal to this simple fried corn bread.
Diane’s Hot Water Corn Bread
2¼ cups white or yellow cornmeal
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups boiling water
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus additional, if necessary
In a medium bowl, mix the cornmeal and salt. Stir in the boiling water until all the ingredients are blended.
Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the oil. When the oil is hot, form the cornmeal mixture into small patties. Place in the skillet and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side until the outside is golden and crispy.
Transfer to paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Serve immediately. Makes 8 to 10 corn cakes.
“Just like my great-grandmother did.”
For Liz Krantz of Shaker Heights and her family, the celebration of Chanukah, or the festival of lights, is a time filled with family and traditions. Like any other holiday celebration, food plays an integral part in gatherings and anticipating these once-a-year flavors is a tradition in itself.
Chanukah, an eight-day observance in December, is a celebration of the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. It also commemorates the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days in the temple. While the foods served during this holiday do not have any particular symbolism, oil is used in many preparations, particularly for the familiar latkes, or potato pancakes, fried golden and crisp on the outside and buttery and creamy within.
“In Israel they have fried donuts,” said Krantz, “but here we have our latkes with sour cream and applesauce,” a treat her family looks forward to just this one time a year. “We grate the potatoes by hand, just like my grandmother did,” she said.
“After dinner, we play dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, win chocolate coins or gelts and exchange small gifts,” she described. It’s on the eighth night of Chanukah where the extended family gathers to enjoy a meal of traditional foods including braised brisket, fresh applesauce, frosted Chanukah cookies and latkes.
While service to her community and traditional foods are a special focus in her Chanukah celebration, Krantz’s favorite part of the holiday is that it gives her family time to stop, spend time together and think of one another with gifts. “It’s a time of year when outside everything is so dark and dreary,” she said. “Being able to reflect on our faith, heritage and family and making others in the family feel remembered is really special.”
For the crispiest, most tender latkes, use starchy potatoes like russets or Idaho.
2 cups packed grated potatoes
(about 2 large potatoes)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
¹?8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small onion, finely chopped
Vegetable oil, for frying
Mix the grated potatoes with the baking soda in a large bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes. Squeeze the liquid out.
Add the remaining ingredients (except the oil) and mix until combined.
Add ¼ cup of oil in a 12-inch skillet and heat over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, drop the potato mixture by large spoonfuls in the hot oil, taking care not to splatter. Flatten with a spatula. Fry on both sides until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel to drain. Serve warm with sour cream and applesauce.
Makes 15 latkes.
Naturally Sweet Applesauce
Naturally sweet apples make the best applesauce so look for varieties like Winesap, Gala, Fuji, Macintosh or Yellow Delicious.
2½ pounds apples, cored and quartered
Honey or brown sugar, to taste
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
Cinnamon, to taste
Place the apples in a large heavy pot and add ¼ cup of water. Cover and cook over medium heat until tender. Puree the apples with the skins in a food processor. Pour off any excess liquid and return to the pot. Add honey or brown sugar to taste, lemon juice, extract and cinnamon, to taste. Cook the applesauce over medium heat for a few minutes until slightly thick.
Cool to room temperature and serve with the latkes. Makes 4 cups.
Native Americans and Pilgrims made a meal of it
“Most people realize that the Pilgrims landed in about 1620 at Massachusetts and they had a very bad winter, but thanks to the help from the Indians, they were able to plant crops the next season and by fall they had a really nice harvest,” said Priscilla Hewetson of the Ohio Historical Society. “And so Gov. Bradford made a proclamation that there should be a three-day festival. So indeed they did get together and eat and have a very nice time doing other things as well.”
Whether or not turkey was on the menu is less clear.
“We know that they went, and I quote, ‘a-fowling,’ and there were four different birds being used.”
Turkey was being used as a centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feasts as early as the 1820s.
Thanks to Sarah Hale
In her book Northwood, Sarah Hale contemplated how a New England Thanksgiving should be celebrated.
“Once she became editor of the very popular magazine Godey’s Ladies, she began to really push for that. So every November she would put an article in Godey’s Ladies saying that we should indeed have a national Thanksgiving Day and be thankful for the many blessings that we have,” Hewetson said. She eventually persuaded Abraham Lincoln, who issued a national proclamation of Thanksgiving. It was Franklin Roosevelt who eventually made it a national holiday.
Thanks to farmers
According to Danville, Ohio turkey farmer Don Hawk, it takes 18 weeks to produce a 35- to 40-pound turkey. And it all begins when a day-old chick arrives on his farm.
“Your daily chores are cleaning the waterers, making sure the feed systems are working right,” he said. “It’s every day, seven days a week. We’re in the barn two and three times a day. You wash waterers seven days a week, on Christmas, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Farmer Don Hawk doesn’t necessarily think turkeys deserve their less-flattering ranking on the barnyard intelligence scale. However, he judges them based on behavior.
“Turkeys have their way of reacting to certain situations,” he explained.
“Once you’ve lived with them as long as we have, we can tell when there’s a weather change coming, because the birds will be quite a bit more flighty,” he said. “They’re pretty good predictors.”
Hawk said turkeys, unlike chickens, will approach him when he walks into the flock. If they don’t, “you know you’ve got a problem,” he said. Describing a welcomed response from a tom turkey, Hawk says, “If he’s happy, he’s going to jump and come to you.”
Celebrate. Watch football.
Sports have always been a part of the Thanksgiving celebration, according to Hewetson.
“There’s documentation that the Pilgrims and Indians played games at their first feast,” she said. “First of all it was baseball as we got into the 1800s. People loved to go to a baseball game then. Then a little bit later football kicked in. Even during the Civil War we have documentation that the soldiers played football after they ate their meal.”