Thursday, December 31, 2009
Pope Sylvester I
Sylvester is the first, and major, pope of the Church as it emerged from underground—from the catacombs. Of this important 4th century Bishop of Rome little is known for certain—though legends abound. He was Pope for 21 years, from 314 to 335, during the reign of the Emperor Constantine—the time when the situation of Christians changed fast and dramatically: the Church went from being forbidden and persecuted, to being tolerated; soon afterwards, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Sylvester was apparently an advisor to Constantine. Under Pope Sylvester’s pontificate, many great churches were built (previously there had been no churches since Christianity was illegal); among them are the Lateran basilica and baptistery, the basilica of the Sessorian palace (known as Santa Croce), the original St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and several churches over martyrs’ graves. Also under his pontificate, the first martyrology of Roman martyrs was drawn up, and a Roman school of chant was established. Sylvester convened the great ecumenical Council of Nicaea. Fans of Evelyn Waugh—I am certainly one!—might like to be reminded that in his novel Helena (Waugh’s favorite work), he offers a marvelous image of Sylvester I.
Pope Sylvester I was buried in 335, on December 31—known in Catholic countries as the Feast of Saint Sylvester, Sylvesternacht, and by similar names. He was buried in the church he had built over the Catacomb of Priscilla.
For his feast day, the Viennese eat delicious doughnuts filled with apricot jam (recipe in A Continual Feast, p. 158).
And we drink a delicious punch in his honor. In A Continual Feast (p. 159) I provide the recipe for a great Polish punch—Poncz Sylwestrowy, or Sylvester’s Punch.
Happy feast of Saint Sylvester and happy New Year to you all!
Monday, December 28, 2009
Saturday, December 26, 2009
This year on Sunday, December 27, falls the beautiful Feast of the Holy Family--Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Many mothers are just too busy to do much baking before Christmas—there’s so much going on! But the Christmas season is just beginning for us, so how about doing some baking now, starting with this beautiful feast focused on the Holy Family? Your family will appreciate the cookies and breads—and your children will enjoy helping you bake. You can give some of your baked goods away as gifts—it’s never too late for that!
We can bring out all our cookie cutters we have: the star, the angels, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, the Wise Men, the sheep and the camels—the whole glorious crowd! (Many cooking stores sell cookie cutter Nativity sets.) If you have a few extra animals or other figures, bring them on too: they can all adore the Infant Jesus!
Among everyone's favorites are Old-fashioned Sugar Cookies (recipe below), but A Continual Feast offers lots of recipes for cookies and breads.
Old-fashioned white sugar cookies (from A Continual Feast, p. 95)
1 cup (1/2 pound) sweet better, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy.
Stir in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat until the mixture is fluffy. Stir in the vanilla extract.
Sift the flour with the baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Optional: Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let is rest for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator. On a lightly floured board, roll the dough out thin—about 1/8 inch (or 1/4 inch, if you prefer), and cut into fancy shapes.
Bake on lightly buttered cookie sheets at 375 F for 8 to 10 minutes, or until cookies are a light golden brown.
Yield: about 4 dozen cookies
NOTE: The beautiful image above comes from a workshop in Mexico. You can order this painting and many other gorgeous religious hand-painted reproductions from them: http://www.artesacro.com.mx/-
Our next few posts will remind us that, for Christians, the Christmas season is only just beginning! We have Twelve Days, until Epiphany on January 6 (which will be officially celebrated in the US on Sunday, January 3). And I think we might want to prolong the season, as people did in the Middle Ages, until the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord (or Candlemas) on February 2. Shall we do the loo-o-oong Christmas season?
In any case, we are just getting rolling!
Thinking food-wise: let’s not just dish out to our families leftover turkey and other tired erstwhile-treats. Let’s continue to serve them tasty dishes, and to celebrate all the highlights of this great season.
Today--the 26th--is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr (for thoughts on celebrating his feast day with traditional food, please see A Continual Feast, p. 156).
And thinking of Stephen: here is the close to a sermon preached early in the 6th century on the Feast of St. Stephen by Bishop (and saint) Fulgentius of Ruspe in North Africa. Fulgentius' focus is on the power of love--that of Christ, that of Stephen, that of Paul, who, after participating in the killing of Stephen, became a Christian with the help of Stephen's loving forgiveness and prayers.
"My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together."
A great quotation, I think--for families in particular! (It comes from the Breviary--The Liturgy of the Hours: Advent Season, Christmas Season, p. 1257).
We will post shortly on the Feast of the Holy Family. This year it falls on December 27 and therefore takes precedence over the beautiful Feast of St. John Apostle and Evangelist whose feast is that day--and whom we will also remember: A Continual Feast, p.157.
On December 28, let’s not forget the Holy Innocents! See thoughts on them--and the red foods eaten in memory of these tiny martyrs--in A Continual Feast, on p. 158.
And we will post on the Feast of St. Sylvester, December 31.
And then we start on the New Year!
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Christmas Day is right around the corner now—and the cooks among us are planning our Christmas menu.
As we welcome Christ, we might start the day with a delicious Christstollen—a beautiful coffee cake, shaped like Christ’s swaddling clothes? (Recipe in A Continual Feast, p. 114). Ah, this kind of baking is such fun! (Children love to help knead dough—to pound and thwack it.) I spent much of this past weekend baking with my wonderful daughter-in-law, Ann. We had such a good time making bread and springerles and the cranberry pudding that you will see below!
And then, let’s keep our great feast from feeling like a replay of Thanksgiving, with its turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pies, etc.
We might go for a boar’s head this year—with the apple in its mouth, it does look so festive and memorable! And it would certainly be different from Thanksgiving! (The medievalist in me rather likes the idea.)
Here (to the right) is the look:
But on second thought, perhaps not.
Perhaps a beautiful roast beef (many fine recipes for roast beef are available in cookbooks and on line). You might serve the roast with roasted red potatoes, or mashed potatoes, or wild rice on the side--and of course your favorite vegetables or salads.
For desserts: steamed cranberry pudding—the recipe is below.
And perhaps pecan pie (recipe in A Continual Feast, p. 21).
And, like the Christstollen, can anything be more appropriate for the Nativity than some of those sweet little cookies called Christ's diapers? (The recipe is in A Continual Feast, p. 100.)
Between courses—or at several points during the meal—perhaps ask each member of the family or group to start a Christmas carol, and then all join in? If you don’t have singers, perhaps you can play Christmas CDs during the meal? I find I just can’t get enough Christmas music—I love those beautiful carols!
Steamed cranberry pudding (slightly modified from A Continual Feast)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2/3 cup water
3 Tablespoons sweet butter
1/3 cup molasses
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 1/4 cups cranberries
Optional: 2-3 Tablespoons crystallized ginger, finely chopped
For the sauce:
1 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
Butter generously a pudding steamer. Dust with flour.
Sift the flour with the baking soda, salt, ginger and cloves.
In a saucepan, heat the water with the butter, stirring until the butter is melted. Stir in the molasses and brown sugar. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is well blended.
Add gradually to the flour mixture, stirring until the mixture is smooth.
Add the cranberries and optional crystallized ginger and mix well.
Pour the mixture into the pudding steamer. Cover it tightly.
Place the pudding steamer on a wire rack or vegetable steamer in a large pot with a tightly fitting lid. Pour an inch or so of water into the pot. Bring it to a boil, cover the pot tightly and reduce heat to medium. Steam the pudding for about 2 hours or until the pudding is firm and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Check occasionally to be sure that the water has not boiled away.
Serve the pudding warm with hot sauce poured over each slice.
Combine the sugar, cream, and butter in a saucepan. Heat thoroughly, stirring frequently, until the butter is melted. Add the vanilla and serve hot.
Friday, December 18, 2009
When tea was introduced from Asia into Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, people wondered how to make the leaves into a drink. A writer who was knowledgeable about the mysterious new leaves explained that one should steep them long enough to recite the “Miserere” Psalm (“Have mercy on me”—psalm 51). The “Miserere” made a good timer!
Around the middle of the right-hand page of this beautiful Book of Hours--a medieval prayerbook--you can see the "Miserere" Psalm, copied after the large colorful "M."
If this afternoon you could use a good, hot cup of tea in this, often frantic, season, how about reciting or reading the “Miserere” while you steep your tea, and perhaps meditating on it as well, while you sip the restorative brew?
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.
My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned;
what is evil in your sight I have done.
That you may be justified when you give sentence
and be without reproach when you judge,
O see, in guilt was I born,
a sinner was I conceived.
Indeed you love truth in the heart;
then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
O purity me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than show.
Make me hear rejoicing and gladness,
that the bones you have crushed may revive.
From my sins turn away your face
and blot out all my guilt.
A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit.
Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervor sustain me,
that I may teach transgressors your ways
and sinners may return to you.
O rescue me, God, my helper,
and my tongue shall ring out your goodness,
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise.
For in sacrifice you take no delight
burnt offering from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite spirit you will not spurn.
In your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Traditions for Christmas Eve dinner are among the most complex and interesting in the Christian tradition. This meal is both a feast—always a glorious, delicious repast—and, simultaneously, a fast: a meal of abstinence from meat, since this is the last day of Advent. So we will have that paradox: a feast within a fast—joyful abstinence!
This is a dinner full of symbolic details, as well. Many beautiful and interesting traditions are associated with this dinner, which has always been considered a special and deeply religious meal. (I welcome hearing about your traditions, in Comments.)
* Over this dinner there lies a hush—this is the night Christ is born. To bring this hush home to your family, perhaps have your table lit by candle-light?
* One Russian custom is that the dinner begins when the first star—symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem—has appeared in the sky.
* In Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe, at the start of the meal the father blesses bread—or special wafers called Vigilia—and hands a piece to each family member with a kiss, wishing each one a blessed Christmas. Such a beautiful tradition!
* This is a meal that—even more than most—should have a grace both at its start and at its conclusion.
* Once the meal has begun, no one should get up and leave the table. This is to reaffirm and solidify the bonds of family unity.
* An extra seat should be set aside to remember any family members who are missing—and to welcome Christ himself. Again, we reaffirm family and Christian unity, as well as our openness to the coming of Christ.
* Many dishes are strongly traditional: served just once a year, at this particular dinner. (A Continual Feast contains many of these special dishes, from around the world.) Each family can put together its own set of special traditions for the Christmas Eve meal—dishes your family members will look forward to eagerly, from year to year. You might invite your children to help you think about what these favorite dishes should be—help create that menu, which they can perhaps write out for the family.
* Interesting traditions also bear on the number of courses. (As I said, everything takes on meaning in this great meal!) In Poland, there are to be fourteen courses: one for Christ, one for his Mother, and one for each of the Apostles. In other parts of Eastern Europe, custom has it that the Christmas Eve meal should consist of an odd number of courses— five, seven, nine, eleven. (Odd numbers have, since Antiquity, been considered lucky. Moreover, Christianity, like Judaism, has always been interested in number symbolism: the Bible is full of numbers with symbolic meaning!)
* Five reminds us of the five wounds of Christ.
* Seven is the number of perfection—the days of creation. Nine—the nine choirs of angels.
* Eleven generally refers to the Faithful Apostles—that is, the Twelve minus Judas Iscariot; thus, in the famous old folksong “Green Grow the Rushes Ho”—eleven is for “The Eleven who went up to heaven.”)
A not-very-complicated five-course Christmas Eve dinner might consist of: a light soup, pasta with a meatless sauce, fish, salad, and dessert.
To move it up to seven is a cinch: you might add an appetizer and an additional dessert.
It takes some work—and inventive fun—to get up to an eleven- or a fourteen-course meal! A few tips if you want to give it a try. Serve several, quite small courses. Here are some examples:
* Add a second, somewhat different salad—and/or pass a bowl of tasty olives.
* Serve thin pieces of cheese quiche—or the Swiss Onion and Cheese Tart, on p. 84 of A Continual Feast.
* Add another small pasta dish—using pasta of a very different shape, and with a different sauce.
* Add a little vegetable dish, such as sautéed sliced mushrooms and/or artichoke hearts, with capers and chopped scallions.
* Bring on a cheese course—two or three nice cheeses, with bread or crackers.
* Somewhere around halfway down the line, maybe serve small bowls of sherbet to refresh and cleanse the palate.
* And—last but not least!—if you are going down this fun but ambitious road, I recommend using pretty paper plates and bowls to cut down on the number of dishes! Or else, reuse the same plates a lot. (You want the dish-doers to still love you at the end of this meal, and not grind their teeth or even holler—that would rather disturb the hush!—when they see the state of the kitchen!)
Coming soon: our post for Christmas Dinner!
Monday, December 14, 2009
We want everything we do in Advent to reflect this great truth--this hope--in our lives.
So, concretely--this means what? Fasting of course--and spiritual reading, extra time for prayer, attendance at the liturgy whenever possible during the week as well as on Sunday, careful examination of conscience and confession, works of charity and mercy. Anything I have left out that you'd like to add?
A Continual Feast contains recipes for several of these delicious soups. One of my favorites is Greek Bean Soup, on p. 81.
But to explore meatless soups more fully, let me recommend to you a book that is filled with nothing but wonderful vegetable soups: Twelve Months of Monastery Soups: International Favorites, by Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette - http://www.amazon.com/Twelve-Months-Monastery-Victor-DAvila-Latourrette/dp/0767901800/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1260809054&sr=8-2. Brother Victor-Antoine also wrote From a Monastery Kitchen, which I recommend to you as well.
Serve the soup with some bread, a salad, and a bit of fruit for dessert—a nice Advent meal!
And here is a quote from St. John Chrysostom to go with it: "Fasting is a medicine."
Friday, December 11, 2009
December 12th is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, "Empress of the Americas"! So put a pause to your fasting and prepare a Mexican feast!
Our Lady of Guadalupe is so celebrated in Mexico that December 12th is one of the most important days of the year. The festival of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe actually begins a week before December 12. Thousands of pilgrims from all over Mexico, many traveling for a week on foot, congregate at the Basilica of Ville Madero, on the outskirts of Mexico City. Once there, the pilgrims take part in various devotional ceremonies in honor of the Virgin. The streets outside the church are packed with people who wait their turn to enter the church and pray. On the eve of December 12, the conchero dancers gather in the atrium of the church. Accompanied by the music of mandolin-shaped instruments made of armadillo shells (concha), the dancers alternate so that they may dance their many traditional dances until dawn. Since it is a grand day for all Mexicans, food and drink are an important part of their celebration, and many people save up their money throughout the year for this special occasion.
December 12th marks the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1531 to an Aztec Indian named Cuauhtlatohuac, who was baptized and given the name Juan Diego. For the full story, go to http://www.sancta.org/intro.html.
There are many possibilities for a fun Mexican menu. If you want to go the quick and easy route, make tacos! And maybe flan for desert? You can actually buy pretty good flan in the grocery stores now. Perhaps you could decorate your table with roses, or pointsettas, Mexico’s official flower. If however, you are feeling more ambitious, below you will find delicious recipes for chicken mole and Mexican wedding cakes. You will also find a link to Mexican music in honor or Our Lady of Guadalupe and to a good children’s book in her honor. There is also a prayer you might say with your children before dinner or bed.
Chicken mole (This recipe is adapted from David Lebovitz’s,
The Sweet Life in Paris.) It makes enough to
smother one cooked chicken or a pork shoulder.
5 dried ancho dried chiles
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1 small onion, chopped
1-2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup raisins or diced prunes
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds1 clove garlic, chopped
¼ teaspoon each: cinnamon, ground cloves, dried oregano, powdered cumin, ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup water (or more, as needed)
1 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted
Soak chiles in very hot water until soft, about 30 minutes or so.
(Make sure they're submerged by setting a lightweight bowl on top ofthe chiles.)
In a small skillet, sauté onion in vegetable oil until soft and translucent. Add garlic and sauté another minute. Add spices and herbs and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds, being careful not to let them burn.
In a blender, grind together the almonds, cooked onions, tomatoes, spices, raisins or prunes, sesame seeds, salt, pepper, and water. Puree until smooth.
Remove seeds and stems from the chiles and puree very finely, passing the chiles through a food mill. (If you don't have a food mill, press the puree through a mesh strainer to make remove any skins. Some people just puree them in, but they can be tough.) Blend the chile paste into the mole and add additional water, as necessary, until the consistency is smooth and slightly pourable. Add the melted chocolate.
Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To make Chicken with Mole Sauce:
Brown poultry pieces quite well in a large casserole in vegetable oil. Once nice and brown, remove the chicken pieces from the pan and saute one chopped onion in the casserole and cook until translucent.
Deglaze the casserole with some wine or stock, and scrape in anybrowned bits from the bottom with a flat wooden spatula.
Add the chicken back to the casserole along with a cinnamon stick or two, and add enough chicken stock, water, or white wine to cover chicken pieces. Cover the casserole, and gently simmer chicken until tender throughout.
Once they are cooked, remove the chicken pieces from the liquid and arrange them in a shallow baking dish. Smear chicken pieces generously with mole and bake in a moderate oven, turning once or twice during baking, for about 30 minutes.
Serve with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.
Mexican Wedding Cakes
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup pecans, lightly toasted, coarsely ground
1 cup powdered sugar to roll the cookies in
1/8 teaspoon salt
In a large bowl, mix the butter, powdered sugar and vanilla at medium to high speed until light and fluffy.
In a separate bowl, mix the flour, salt, and cinnamon until well blended.
Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture, about 1/2 cup at a time.
Mix until well blended. Fold in the nuts.
Roll small pieces of dough into walnut-sized inch balls.
Place the balls on a lightly greased baking sheet, about 2 inches apart.
Bake at 350 for about 10-12 minutes, or until the cookies just getting color on the bottom; do not let them brown!
Mix the reserved powdered sugar and salt. Roll the cookies generously but gently in the powdered sugar mixture. When the cookies are cool, store them in a tight can.
A children's book about Our Lady of Guadalupe:
This link will take you directly to Amazon where you can buy Tomie de Paolo’s “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
This link will take you to Amazon, where you can order the listen to and download tracks of this great CD:
Prayer to Our Lady: To Our Lady Dark Yet Fair
O hail, thou Virgen de Guadalupe! Unfailing refuge, our solace in
days of grief, Radiant Queen so kind, our Mother of sweet relief
¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!
Lovely Maid, fairest star above the sea! Advocate e'er gracious of clemency and love, Deign to listen to our pleas, O mother above ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!
Yea, O Lady of Guadalupe; O meek and gentlest One, take heed to our groaning; For oft we stumble and raise to thee our moaning ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!
Golden gate of heav'n, thou radiant portal; Unstained by sin, blissful queen of heav'n and earth, Aid me that I may love Him whom you did give birth ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!
Daughter of God, thou queen of royalty, Ave Maria! With joyful hearts we hail thee! Look on us so kindly, O Blessed Virgin Mary! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!
Unfailing refuge and sweetest Mother; Pearl of grace so fair, fail not thine children to care, E'er our sweetest Advocate who did God once bear ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I am just about ready to hear lots of Advent and Christmas music. I’ll share with you here a small handful of my favorite CDs for the season—and I invite you to join me, in your comments, by recommending your own favorites. Let’s focus primarily, if possible, on CDs that are still easily available for purchase—ideally with purchase information, as well.
1. “Christmas with the Von Trapp Family”—a classic, of course! So varied, so beautiful!
2. Not at all well known, but my husband and I love it: Alfred Deller: “The Holly and the Ivy”; an unusual sound!
3. “Adestes Fideles: Christmas Music from the Westminster Cathedral”
4 “The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear, 1975-1986” and “Nowell, Nowell, Nowell” by John Roberts and Tony Barrand. These two Englishmen are specialists in the traditional British song; they have interesting voices and sing wonderfully together. Not every track on these two CDs is fully in the spirit of Christmas (as I understand it), but the best tracks are, I think, really grand! Available at: http://www.goldenhindmusic.com/
Let’s play these beautiful songs while we cook! Or maybe we can sit down each afternoon for a few quiet minutes with a cup of tea—and songs for the season?
Thursday, December 3, 2009
There are many ways in which we can prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas—for the coming of Christ, both at his Nativity in Bethlehem and at his Second Coming. (I discuss some ideas in detail in A Continual Feast, in the section on Advent.)
But one time-honored form of spiritual preparation is certainly abstinence and self-denial with regard to food and drink. A few suggestions for you and your family:
* Abstinence from meat on Fridays—actually, many Catholics practice this throughout the year, as Catholics have done for centuries; also on Wednesday, or another weekday. (A Continual Feast contains a good many tasty recipes for meatless dishes—pasta, vegetable dishes, and fish.)
* The giving up of wine or liquor throughout the period, or at least on certain days of the week.
* The passing up of deserts, sweets, soft drinks—any sort of little pleasure—rather like in Lent. (These things will all taste even better, of course, when we have them again at Christmas!)
These forms of abstinence can all serve to remind us that this is a season of preparation!