Saturday, December 29, 2012

Medieval Christmas - Part 5

Let's talk Christmas carols!

Did you know that the very first Christmas carols were written in Rome during the 4th century? Usually these hymns, such as Veni redemptor gentium written by Ambrose, were strictly statements of theological doctrine. These Latin chants, litanies, and hymns were intended to be used during the liturgy and were not considered 'popular songs' outside of the service.

In the 9th and 10th centuries under the leadership of Bernard of Clairvaux - the nemesis of medieval church decoration and art -  rhymed stanzas were developed for music and thrived in northern Europe.  And in the 13th century Christmas songs were sung in the vernacular, and what we think of as 'carols' were born. Also at this time the English added a circular dance to the singing of Christmas songs, and thus the term 'carol' was coined.

But 1426 is the magic date for Christmas carols when the poet-priest, John Audelay, set to music the "25 songs of Christmas" that were most likely sung by wassailers (remember them?!). These songs were associated with some of the earliest 'carols' that would have been sung door-to-door by the wassailers, and include such hits as "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Good King Wenceslas".

What is your favorite Christmas carol or hymn?

Spiced Strawberry Pie

For those of us that travel to family for the holidays one of the best things you can contribute to the family spread is a pie. Pie is easy to make, it travels well, and most everyone loves a pie (except me, I am not a fan of pie). Regardless, allow me to share with you one of my pie recipes that everyone likes, spiced strawberry pie.


For the Filling - 

5 cups halved fresh strawberries
3 tbs sugar
2 tbs cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
1/2+ cup orange zest

In a large mixing bowl combine all filling ingredients and set aside.

For the Crust - 

2.5 cups flour
2/3 cup shortening
1 tsp salt
8-10 tbs of water
1tsp of vanilla extract

Mix all crust ingredients into a mixing bowl, thrashing with a fork until thoroughly combined. Squeeze the dough into a ball with your hands. Divide ball in half. 

Roll one dough half out and place into a greased pie pan, pressing in the corners. 

Place pie filling into dough-lined pie pan. 

Roll out the other dough half and cover the top of the pie. Cut off the extra pie dough that hangs over the edge. Press the dough seams together. Use leftover pie dough to reinforce the seams...or make homemade cinnamon sticks (more on that later). Also, don't forget to cut 'air holes' in the pie. 

Bake at 375* for 50 minutes. Enjoy.

(Also, I have no idea what happened to the pictures I took of my pie, it looks like my camera ate them. I am seriously upset too because I even decorated the top of my pie! Oh well.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Medieval Christmas - Part 4

This post is an exploration of guilt. You see, we never did get around to putting up our tree, and in fact except for the obligatory card garland, our only other holiday decoration was a sprig of strategically placed mistletoe. And while contemplating our lack of decorations I started wondering about medieval Christmas decorations.

We all know that many of our traditional Christmas decorations are pagan throwbacks, but let's look at a few things in more detail.

Medieval Christmas trees were usually oak trees or evergreen trees both of which were repurposed in medieval Europe from pagan roots. Oak trees were venerated by the Druids, and evergreen trees held special meaning to the Romans. Evergreen trees were believed to hold special powers and symbolized the eternal promise of spring. For Christians the evergreen would come to mean the eternal life promised by Christ.

Christmas trees were brought into churches on Christmas eve and decorated with apples and even paper flowers. On Christmas day the trees would be brought into banquet halls and celebrated by the attendants, they were even danced around. At the closing of the feast the trees would be paraded through the city streets and then ceremonially burned.

The holly, ivy and mistletoe were all sacred plants to the Druids and would all become important parts of medieval Christmas decorations. Druids believed that good spirits lived within holly branches, and Christians believed that the bright red holly berries were once white and had turned red by Christ's blood when he was forced to wear the crown of thorns. Ivy, a plant associated with the Roman god Bacchus, would not be a favored Christmas decoration until the later Middle Ages when it was believed to ward off the plague.

Also, our representations of the Nativity reflect medieval Christmas plays and pantomimes that were popular during the period. Actors would dress up as characters of the Christmas story, and without talking, would 'decorate' a Christmas feast or church interior.

What are your favorite Christmas or holiday decorations? What holds special meaning for you? For me, it was always a lighted star on the top of our tree. I always thought it was the most beautiful thing in the house at Christmas time.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Medieval Christmas - Part 2

I hope that everyone is having a very merry Christmas or correlating feast day today! To continue with our food and feasting theme, let's turn our attention to the Christmas day dinner. I hope these recipes inspire and intrigue you, perhaps you will even consider adding them to your own Christmas dinner menu for next year.

Three of the most popular dishes that would become associated with the Christmas feast were plum pudding, and mincemeat pies (the ones made with real meat), but perhaps the most popular was boar's head (shown above). This dish was so liked and synonymous with the season that if an actual boar's head could not be procured, a faux presentation of one was made with cake or cheeses, and this was considered acceptable.


2 lbs ground lean stew meat (traditionally either venison or beef)
1-2 cups shortening
4 cups cored and chopped apples (peel if you like)
2.5 cups raisins
1.5 cups currants, chopped
2.5 cups sugar
3 cups pie cherries, pitted
1.5 pints strong cold coffee
1 pint cider
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
1 tbs black pepper
1 tbs allspice
6 tsp salt

Cook meat until tender. In a large pan (dutch oven) add all ingredients but the meat, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the meat and stir well. This is now your 'pie filling'.

Here is also Alton Brown's Mincemeat Pie recipe, complete with pie crust.

PLUM PUDDING: (aka Christmas Pudding - aka Plum Duff).

Truth: Plum pudding contains no actual plums. Say what?! The word 'plum' in pre-Victorian times meant 'raisin'! But today we include plums. Go figure. has a great recipe for traditional plum pudding that excludes plums. Also, you can read up on some of the history of plum pudding here.


Bean Cake was a food "game" that was played at the Christmas feast. The following passage is from Terrance Scully's book The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages (a link to this book is included in the previous post) about Bean Cake....

Since the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan 6) commemorated the visit of the Wise Men or the Magi (kings) to the Christ child, it became universally customary to prepare a cake in the shape of a royal crown for this celebration. Originally in antique times a mere wreath to symbolize power and victory, the crown had come to symbolize purity and consecration. As a food, the many versions of the 'King Cake' testify to the broad popularity of this cake at this time in the ecclesiastical calendar. Certain traditions, involving the hiding of small articles in this cake grew with its use: if a person eating it found a pea or bean in his piece, he was declared the 'king' or ruler over the Epiphany festivities; finding a ring presaged marriage in the coming year for the finder; finding a coin, wealth. 


Botanical Sketch of Elderflower

Seriously, sambocade might be the coolest thing on a medieval feast menu. Sambocade is a elderflower and cheese tart that is pretty similar to our version of a cheesecake.

Here is a modernized recipe for sambocade, but the only thing I do not like about this recipe is the the exclusion of rosewater from the list of ingredients. Rosewater in this dish is something that all versions of the medieval recipe have in common (besides the obvious ingredients of cheese and elderflowers). To rectify this, add 1 tbs of rosewater to this recipe and you should be good to go. Some medieval recipes also call for an addition of half tsps of black pepper and cloves to the cheese mixture, but these are optional.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Medieval Christmas - Part 1

Merry Christmas from your local medievalist! Here are some fun ideas to kick your Christmas olde school. The 12 days of Christmas start after December 25th and run through January 6th (The Feast of Epiphany), and in honor of those days I will attempt to fill your holiday with some medieval fun! 

So, I thought we could start with a look at medieval food and drink that would have been served during the Christmas season. Also, Christmas feasts allowed for many culinary indulgences (read: really bizarre foods) that were otherwise frowned upon during the liturgical calendar. 

And I ask you, who doesn't like learning about food and table customs? I mean, seriously.

On Christmas Eve during the medieval period the fasting observed through Advent would have still been in effect and all dishes comprised of meat, chicken, milk, cheese, and butter were prohibited. Therefore, we can't begin with a menu of full on feastly fares, but here is a list of some of the drinks and dishes that would have appeared on a medieval table during the holiday season. Also, did you know that sections in medieval cookbooks for feast days and appropriate foods for fasting were clearly marked? These sections included a great deal of interesting things to do with fish and assorted seafood, resulting in things like Barnacle Goose(??!!). Fried foods were fried with nut oils rather than animal fat. Oh, and almond milk was used to 'lighten' certain dishes, both sweet and savory, and was used as a substitute for milk. 


Ever made wassail? It is basically a delicious spiced drink that is very easy to make and is enjoyed by all. Here is a great recipe, and learn about the history of wassail here. And in the spirit of wassail and good cheer, don't forget to add "Here We Come a Wassailing" to your Christmas carol queue! I will even get you started...

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

CLARREY and POTUS YPOCRAS were two other such mulled wine drinks. 

Clarrey can be made by bringing a bottle of white wine and 1-2 cups of honey to a boil, skim off the film as it rises. Remove from heat and add 1tbs each of cinnamon, cardamon, and ground ginger, and 1 tsp of white pepper. Let the mix sit covered for 24 hours. After sitting, strain the wine into another container and bottle. Make the mulled wine up to a month before serving. 

Potus Ypocras -Hippocrates' Drink- is very similar to clarrey but with the addition of a few extra spices and can be used to refer to either a red or white wine mixture. To make it bring a bottle of sweet red or white wine and 1-2 cups of sugar to boil, skim off the film as it rises. Remove from heat and stir in 1 tbs each of cinnamon, cardamon, ground ginger, white pepper, clove, nutmeg, and caraway seed. Let the mix sit covered for 24 hours. After sitting, strain the wine into another container and bottle. Make the mulled wine up to a month before serving. 


And for you brave folks out there, you can brew a cup of caudell - which is a wine thickened with eggs. The modernized version of the recipe is something like this,

5 egg yolks
2/3 cup white wine
sugar to taste
a pinch of saffron

Add all of the ingredients into a pot on the stove over medium heat. Stir the mixture continuously until the caudell is hot, thick, and fluffy. DO NOT LET IT SCALD, STICK TO THE BOTTOM OF THE PAN, OR BURN. It will become super nasty if you let this happen. Serve immediately as a drink or as a sauce over your favorite dessert. 

As already mentioned, there were several dietary restrictions for fast days, but medieval cooks were not thwarted by this and did several things to circumvent those restrictions. These included recipes featuring beaver's tail (hey, they lived in the water, right???), and ordinary geese were sold and consumed under the nom de plume Barnacle Goose. A barnacle goose was said to have been a type of goose that "blossomed" from a nautical plant called a barnacle tree, ergo, it was not a "true goose" and could be served on fast days. 

Inspired yet? I hope so! Check out these books for more ideas, as they have greatly influenced these posts, and are truly awesome reads. 

The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages by Terrance Scully
Food and Feasts in Medieval England by P. W. Hammond
Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society by Bridget Ann Henisch 

Also, here is a link to a collection of manuscript folios of medieval 'cury' or 'cookery'. You can see what some of these recipes looked like! 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Croque Monsieur Sandwiches

Oh.My.Goodness. These sandwiches were amazing! We used this recipe for Croque Monsieur sandwiches and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. The only things I changed was that I used Chambord cheese instead of Gruyère, and I added cayenne pepper to the béchamel sauce. And seriously, stone ground mustard and thinly sliced onions add extra awesomeness to the sandwiches.

I served our sandwiches with a bowl of beef and vegetable stew and a handful of blackberries! Yum!  

Also, what no one tells you about these bad boys is that they are (in my opinion) even better cold!!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gingerbread Cookies

Molasses, Sugar, and Shortening

Question: Is there anything better than gingerbread cookies and a nice cup of Constant Comment?
Answer: Yes. Chocolate chip gingerbread cookies and a cup of Doubleshot Ethiopian Moka Stag.

Okay, so we all knew that this would happen. I just had to make those glorious new gingerbread cookies in part chocolate chip cookies. But fear not, I have yet to find anything that chocolate chips have ruined.


1 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup mild molasses
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vinegar
7 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ginger (I added about 3)
1/2 tsp cinnamon (I used probably close to 3 or 4...we like cinnamon)
I also added a little nutmeg, just for good measure.

Cream together the first 3 ingredients
Add all other ingredients to the creamed mixture, and alternate the buttermilk and vinegar.
Roll out onto a floured work surface.
Cutout cookies with your favorite cookie cutter

If you want to decorate your gingerbread cookies in the traditional way, add an eggwash to the cookies after rolling them out.

Bake at 375* until just baked (about 8 minutes or so)

We didn't decorate these cookies, but just used a melon baller and plopped them onto a baking sheet.
-Don't forget to add the better part of a bag of your favorite chocolate chips to the batter!-
Also, gingerbread dough doesn't really hold the chocolate chips, so you have to use your hands and smoosh together the balls of cookie dough before placing them on your baking sheet.

And so, we didn't make traditional gingerbread cookies, but we made some pretty yummy ones all the same! Grant and I are officially fans of gingerbread cookies, and many thanks to my wonderful, magical Aunt Bonnie for lending us her recipe!

Grant Approved!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Look, Art!

While looking for Christmas gifts online tonight I stumbled upon these! These are from Celine ArtGalerie via Etsy! Never mastering watercolor myself (read: all of my watercolors look like I spilled food coloring onto a page form a coloring book) I simply adore looking at the work of those who can wield those unruly drips and sweeps. Anyway, here is some pretty art to look at!

A Moment...

Hello! My goodness these last few weeks have simply flown by! Is this really another semester done? Already? Late library nights, thesis proposals (I passed!), homework, and excessive daydreams (hence that glorious, stormy cornfield), are all put on pause for the moment.

Today has been my first "official" day of break, although truthfully I was done with school last Thursday...and that is when the celebrations began! That evening the grad school gals and I had a night in with the Magic Mike DVD, a lovely spread of hors d'oeuvres, and a bartender to boot (thanks, Sydney!). It was simply lovely and so nice to just relax and kick back with some truly fantastic people.

On Friday, Grant and I also had a night in that was much needed, and we brainstormed and made plans for his sister's visit next weekend. Have I mentioned how much I like having company visit us? And visits during the holidays are especially nice...because that usually means that Grant makes his signature hot cocoa and I make strawberry rhubarb tarts. Excited!

Oh, and Grant's work's Christmas party was Saturday night! What a fun bunch! We had a great time and I really enjoyed meeting more of his co-workers.
And Sunday we went on a much needed pilgrimage to the grocery store and finished almost(!) all of our Christmas shopping!! We also got all but a few of our Christmas cards in the mail!

I must confess that having company gives us an excuse to put up our Christmas tree...something we have so far neglected to do! We have been doing some deep cleaning and cleaning out before we drag out our decorations. How is it that before you move, you get rid of so much stuff...but you somehow always gain it back again at each new place?? Simply amazing.

Tomorrow night Grant and I are planning a night of cooking and Chrsitmasing. We decided to try making Croque Monsieur sandwiches and I am going to attempt to make gingerbread cookies. Confession, I have never actually tried gingerbread cookies before, and by that I mean both eating or cooking them. Those who are nearest and dearest to me know that I am almost exclusively a chocolate chip cookie girl...but I am trying to branch out! And have you guys heard about this? Leaving your cookie dough in the fridge for 36 hours before baking so that all of the wet and dry ingredients can truly merge?! I am going to try it and report back!

Anyway, during/after dinner we are going to decorate our tree and watch a movie! I am so glad to spend some quality time with Grant, these last few weeks have been so stressful, and the break could not get here fast enough.

Also, thank you to all who responded about your favorite Christmas or holidayesque movies! I also learned that I am one of the few people who doesn't like Elf very much...go figure. But, thanks to Asher, I think tomorrow night we are watching The Apartment. One of our favs, but would not have thought to watch it at Christmas!

Um, and I am totally watching Little Women (Winona Ryder version) tonight while I mix up the cookie dough.