Explore holiday flavors from around the globe without leaving the neigborhood
Think of the aroma of Christmastime and what probably comes to mind are baking spices — the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves that accent everything from fruitcake to holiday candles.
Those seasonal flavorings date back to the Elizabethan era, but most other elements of Christmas celebrations have their roots in 19th-century London. Queen Victoria and her German-born husband Albert took such delight in Christmas that they turned a minor holiday into a commercial bonanza. The Christmas tree, sled rides and candy canes from Albert’s boyhood in Bavaria and the bright Scottish plaids and English plum puddings Victoria favored became part of their culture as well as ours. The eccentricity of a beloved and trend-setting royal couple captured the world’s imagination.
Other flavors might come to mind if you didn’t grow up in England or the U.S., or if your family honored other ancestral holiday traditions. Romanians get nostalgic over cakes filled with brandied cherries, Ukrainians over sweet nut-and-grain pudding, Argentines a heady mix of sparkling wine and pineapple juice.
Some of these dishes involve rare ingredients or are difficult to make. Since you only get one chance to serve the perfect holiday meal it’s a safer bet to just go ahead and buy these speciality foods.
Denmark’s Prize Pig
The Danes have a charming Christmas tradition that involves a huge bowl of rice pudding called risalamande and one almond. Whoever gets the almond in their portion gets a special treat: a marzipan pig called a julegris. You can make risalamande easily, but making your own marzipan pig is not easy. Get one at Copenhagen Pastry instead. And while you’re at it, treat yourself to some of their handmade Christmas cookies made with vanilla, ginger, butter and cinnamon.
11113 Washington Blvd,
Culver City | (310) 839-8900
England’s Plum Pudding and Mince Pies
The works of Charles Dickens have given us all a vision of plum pudding and mince pies at Christmas, even if we aren’t entirely sure what those are. Both have misleading names. Plum puddings contain raisins and currants rather than plums, and while traditional mincemeat pies contain lamb or beef along with apples, sugar and spices, there are now even vegetarian versions. Confused yet? The people at Ye Olde Kings Head Gift Shoppe & Bakery know their English holiday foods and will be happy to help you have
a very British Christmas.
Ye Olde Kings Head Gift Shoppe & Bakery
132 Santa Monica Blvd.,
Santa Monica | (310) 393-6869
France’s Famous Log Cake
It’s no surprise that the French dine well in this season, because they do that all year. The crowning glory of a Parisian table at Christmas is the bûche de Noël, a cake shaped like a log and filled with chocolate and raspberry jam. These are a triumph of the decorator’s art, and you can find them at Caprice Fine French Pastries in Santa Monica. You should definitely order in advance, however, as they make only a limited number each day.
Caprice Fine French Pastries
3213 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica
(310) 453-1932 | capricefrenchpastries.com
German and Dutch Delights
Though the British and Americans copied many German traditions, there are still plenty that are unique to that country. The stollen, a cake filled with dried fruits and dusted with powdered sugar, is probably most famous, but the gingerbread-like spice and honey cookies called lebkuchen are popular too. You can get these and also Dutch Christmas items like pepernoten cookies and speckulaas marzipan bars at Shoop’s European Market in Ocean Park. Some are in limited supply, so shop early!
Shoop’s European Market
2400 Main St., Ste. A1,
Santa Monica |(310) 452-1019 shoopsdeli.com
Italy’s Feast of the Seven Fishes
Italian-Americans celebrate Christmas Eve with the Feast of Seven Fishes, a seafood extravaganza that originates in the Catholic tradition of eating no meat on the day before Christmas. (In Italy this dinner can contain as many as nine kinds of fish, but Italians here settled on seven.) Alongside the various fresh fish there is always bacala, the dried codfish that is used in codcakes and stews. You can get your codfish, and much else, at Sorrento Italian Market in Culver City, the place Italians have been shopping for over 50 years. Other available items are panettone, the Tuscan almond cookies called Ricciarelli di Siena, and Neapolitan struffoli. Those crisp fried doughballs mixed with honey were traditionally made by nuns and given to people who had performed acts of charity, and they’re a delightful reward.
Sorrento Italian Market
5518 Sepulveda Blvd.,
Culver City | (310) 391-7654 sorrentoitalianmarket.com
Japan’s Patriotic Cream Puffs
There is nothing wildly innovative about the Japanese Christmas cake or cream puff: they’re basically pastries either stuffed or topped with whipped cream and strawberries. Nevertheless, it has great symbolism in modern Japan. The red and white colors match the Japanese flag, and it’s a symbol of prosperity. The local Japanese community buys their cream puffs at Mitsuwa Marketplace, generally ordering in advance because they sell
3760 S. Centinela Ave., Mar Vista
(310) 390-7307 | mitsuwa.com
Mexico’s Fruit Tamales and Fried Pastries
At this time of year, many Mexican restaurants and bakeries sell fruit tamales — one of the most popular variants includes pineapple, raisins, cinnamon and honey. Those are a lot of work to make, so you might want to get them at Tamara’s Tamales. To keep with tradition, wash those tamales down with Ponche Navidado. Some Mexican markets stock the hawthorn berries and guavas that are pulped and mixed with tequila or brandy to make this sweet concoction. The distinctive pastry of the season is buñuelos, which are fried pastries scented with anise or cinnamon and sometimes served with syrup. Venice Bakery has those fragrant holiday doughnuts, but you need to call two days in advance to reserve them.
13352 Washington Blvd.,
Mar Vista | (310) 305-7714
10943 Venice Blvd., Palms | (310) 839-3478culvercitybakery.com
Whether your Christmas is a holiday of great reverence or an excuse to gather the family and give presents, connecting your menu with your heritage helps make a connection with your culture. Whatever you eat and drink, have a joyous holiday season.