Holiday Entertaining

Alsatian Gingerbread

December 19, 2013

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: Gingerbread for the small humans in your house, and for you. 


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This is going to be a Holiday Season Column, which is a lot like a Holiday Season Movie, except without Chevy Chase to redeem it. At the end of the column, the camera will pan out and you will see its author far below, tiny and insignificant, and while you are distracted by the smallness of all of our lives, I will indulge in some poignant, non-ironic sentiment.

Also, there will be a recipe for Alsatian gingerbread. 

I only mention all this because this column, like Chevy Chase, usually spends its time wandering around and bumping into things. If you are here for the physical comedy, do not worry. The next column will be all pratfalls all the time.  



Somewhere in Cooked -- right around when the barbecue hogwash of North Carolina gets neck-high -- Michael Pollan wonders out loud whether authenticity precludes being aware of being authentic. In other words, can barbecue fetishize authenticity and still be authentic? Or once authenticity is self-conscious, is it something else entirely?

Lately I’ve been wondering something similar about tradition. If you self-consciously invent a tradition, will it become a tradition? And if it does, will it be as meaningful? Or will it be something else too? It’s one thing to know that the most ancient traditions are recent inventions. It’s another thing to do the inventing yourself. 

It’s impossible to read Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy and not ask these questions. I open it at this time every year and every year I feel the same deep regret about not being born heir to some extraordinary Italian holiday tradition. Why did my parents not think I’d be better off with a deserving Sicilian family? Why were they so selfish? Did they not realize I was being deprived of this extraordinary fig-and-nut-filled Christmas wreath?

And then I think, well, maybe we could be that Sicilian family. 

But I don’t believe it. Because what’s most moving about almost all holiday cooking is its sense of deep history: this is what you do because it has always been done, and all those other times, dating back to when you have nothing but gauzy memories, are what give the food its emotional weight. It’s a vicious circle, but a really loving sort of vicious circle.

I am thinking about this because there are small humans in my house who are in their prime gauzy memory years. And as unlikely as it seems, I am now the grown-up at Christmas, which means this is my responsibility. (It also means my gifts will suck. I know this because I’ve been dropping hints to the toddler about what to get me for months now and he still doesn’t get it.)

Of course, since my whole approach to parenthood is one of extreme self-consciousness, my children’s gauzy holiday memories will be of their father wandering around the kitchen, muttering to himself about self-consciousness and tradition. Perhaps they too will grow up to wander around the kitchen muttering to themselves. This -- this -- will be our family tradition. Instead of making cookies, I will bequeath to them the tradition of thinking about making cookies.



It isn’t the same, really.

So this December I’ll make what was part of my childhood—panettone and, like Amanda, springerle. But I’ll also make a few new things each year—things that were part of someone else’s childhood. Last year it was panforte, which, if my marriage is to survive, I now have to make every year. This year it was an Alsatian gingerbread. It’s from Jacquy Pfeiffer’s The Art of French Pastry and it isn’t your typical gingerbread. It’s a delicate and deeply honeyed loaf, flecked with candied citrus, with spices that fall into place a couple days after it bakes. It’s lovely.

Will it become a tradition? Who knows. All I know is that this makes sense for us: to stagger forward, accumulating some rituals, discarding some, looking up only occasionally. Was it already last year that I first made panforte? If Christmas comes but once a year, does that mean last Christmas was a year ago? Or did I make the panforte for President’s Day?

There’s a point in the picture book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt -- yes, really -- in which the family, on their mock-epic journey, after going through the deep, cold river (splash, splosh) and the thick, oozy mud (squelch squerch), has to go through the big, dark forest. And they go like this: stumble, trip. This is how I think about us sometimes, too, especially around this time of year, when you can step outside the why-did-you-dump-that-cereal-on-yourself-ness of the days and see what you’ve wrought. This is the fated Holiday Movie Moment, when the lights twinkle and -- here we go -- the camera pans out and you suddenly see yourself, all four of you, a family, on your own mock-epic journey. 

We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it. Stumble, trip. Stumble, trip.



Alsatian Gingerbread

Makes 1 small loaf 

1/2 cup honey
2 ?tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 ?cup whole wheat flour
1/2 ?cup rye flour
1/4 ?teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 ?teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 ?teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 ?teaspoon ground anise
1/4 ?teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 ?teaspoon sea salt
1 1/4? teaspoon baking powder
1 ?large egg
4 ?tablespoons whole milk
2 ?tablespoons candied orange or lemon peel, diced

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here. 

Photos by Mark Weinberg 

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


Gestur December 29, 2013
Nicholas, I made your Pain d'épices Alsacien last week and you’re right: It is lovely. In fact it goes way beyond lovely and deep into necessity-territory for me. I plan on making it often this winter since it stays very tasty for a long time. Many thanks for posting this recipe. I followed you recipe exactly—‘always follow the recipe truthfully the first time through’ someone told me long ago and I always do—although I admit I was a little dubious when the dough/batter was nowhere near being ‘pourable’. But it rolled into the pan easily enough and baked up very nicely. However, I'd say that this Pain d'épices Alsacien, good as it is, wouldn't be worth it for me without the exceptionally fresh and richly flavored candied Italian orange peel strips I buy from Market Hall, out in Oakland. But, of course, I'm partial and I have a (small and dwindling) stash of it still. The combination of these lovely spices and the rich orange flavor-notes striking your palate is truly a taste delight. [On my second bake, though, I think I’ll try a bit more of the candied orange bits, if that’s ok with you.]
Nomnomnom December 23, 2013
As always, this column sparkles and I laughed out loud. Oh, thanks for the recipe too, It looks delicious.
TaoistCowgirl December 23, 2013
Where does one find candied orange and lemon peel? I looked in 4 different shops in Seattle and couldn't find any.
Nicholas D. December 24, 2013
You can find them in speciality stores, but I usually just make my own. This sounds insane, but if you're not fussy about it it really isn't. I use a very, very casual method, David Lebovitz's soft candied peel. Here's a link to it (just ignore the souffle part):
Hippo F. December 22, 2013
This seems to perfectly describe my search for Christmas traditions for my family. Although my search is also complicated by having none of my own as a Jew from NYC who married a non-jew partially to get Christmas. Turns out I married one without any traditions of his own. Will you please share your panettone recipe? I had a beloved one copied out on a piece of paper that disappeared one time when we moved.
Nicholas D. December 22, 2013
You know, I made the King Arthur version this year and it was really good. And it works well in a bundt pan (although I think, contra KA, that it should have at least some candied peel). Here's a link:
Hippo F. December 23, 2013
Thanks, I will check that one out. Did you use the fiori di sicilia? I finally caved and bought some last year, but I am a little afraid it will have a fake taste to out.
Nicholas D. December 24, 2013
I skipped it. But I microplane-d the lemon peel -- like 2 lemons worth -- straight into the sugar and then rubbed it together so the sugar got all lemon oily. It worked pretty well.
Fairmount_market December 20, 2013
Lovely post. The next stage to look forward to is when the little humans start creating their own traditions. My ten year old daughter has proven to be part Christmas elf, and for several years now she's spent December sneaking off to her room to produce the most charming gifts for the whole family (this year her brother will get a hand drawn Harry Potter coloring book with hidden snitches on every page). It's not clear where these tendencies came from, but they certainly infuse the household with Yuletide cheer.
Nicholas D. December 22, 2013
This is so great.
What W. December 20, 2013
This recipe looks delicious, but I just wanted to let you know that I especially love the accompanying post. Happy holidays Mark!
Kristen K. December 19, 2013
Do you think this would work with a combination of oat and rice flours? Thank you!
Nicholas D. December 19, 2013
I wish I could say yes, but I'm not so sure -- you're getting some gluten strength from the whole wheat flour (less from the rye) and neither the rice or the oat flour would replace that. But I don't have much experience with those flours; someone else may know more.
Sara S. December 19, 2013
Loved reading this! I have often felt the same way, particularly because I moved across the world at a young age, felt out of place for years as a young immigrant. Our family traditions were always a mix, reflecting movement and change, and sometimes distance. But recently I've started to see that as a positive thing. We are so flexible! And it's allowed me to start my own traditions in my adult life. Do you think this loaf will work well baked in advance?
Nicholas D. December 19, 2013
Thank you for this -- I think that's what I was trying to say, in my clumsy way. And I also think it will work in advance -- mine tasted best a couple days out.
fiveandspice December 19, 2013
This looks delicious. Every other week your column makes me laugh (I imagine it would make me laugh every week if there were one every week, but we may never know). It also makes me vaguely upset that I write the way I write, rather than the way you write. But that's how these things go, eh? ;)
Nicholas D. December 19, 2013
What's with this self-flagellation? By the way, people: all of you should be reading Emily's blog, if you're not already. OK? It will make your life better. Also: Nope -- only every other week. If I went to every week, I'd be mailing in knock-knock jokes.
fiveandspice December 20, 2013
Haha. First, thanks. Second, self-flagellation is one of those things I happen to be quite good at. I don't even have to practice! It just comes naturally, though probably I should credit my Lutheran upbringing.
Nicholas D. December 20, 2013
You're in luck, though, because it is a CRUCIAL parenting skill.