The Twelve Days of Christmas: A culinary sing-along

biscuit christmas tree

My edible little Christmas tree was assembled with pineapple and coconut liqueur curd as glue and finished with redcurrant baubles, a dusting of icing sugar snow, and washed holly leaves picked from the outdoors

Last Christmas I thought I’d depart from traditional ways that a Christmas tree’s made. That year I baked several tiers of biscuit of different sizes. What a Whammy Christmas that was. My festive post this Christmas contains recipes, food history, and excerpts of food in fiction and food in poetry. Sing along and enjoy!

The First Day of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my stomach growled to mea partridge in a pear jus. The light flavour of pears complements heavy game birds such as partridge. Try them poached or roasted. Because they are not farmed but hunted for in the wild, the meat of game birds like partridge do not contain any chemicals in them that would harm you when eaten pink.

The Second Day of Christmas

On the second day of Christmas my stomach growled to mestewed turtle doves and a partridge in a pear jus.

Here’s what the 15th century Italian gastronomist Bartolomeo Platina had to say about the turtle dove in his treatise De honesta voluptate et valetudine (On honourable pleasure and health):

When her mate is lost, a female turtle dove does not touch a green tree in flight.

Getting to the food, here’s a short recipe in translation from the late 4th – early 5th century AD Roman cookbook  De Re Coquinaria (‘On culinary matters’), thought to have been the work of a man named Apicius. Whether it was a copy of a text written centuries before by the Apicius we know from the literary sources to be the dining companion of Emperor Tiberius, or whether it was a new work by a man who assumed the stock name for a gourmand, we do not know.

Of Partridge, Hazel Hen and Turtledove: [pound] pepper, lovage, mint and rue seeds. [Combine with] stock, unmixed wine and oil. Heat.

Also take a look at this entry for ‘turtle dove’, translated from Le Viandier de Taillevent, a French cookbook attributed to Guillaume Tiriel, a 14th century cook at the royal court of the Valois kings.

Like a goose. If desired, gild along the side and cook with its feet on. Split the head down to the  middle of the shoulders, and kill through the heart. Eat with yellow pepper.

Or try turtle dove roasted. From a 15th century German cookbook, here are some words of wisdom from a certain Meister Eberhard:

Turtledove is noble food because it sharpens the senses and the memory…other doves cause inflamed blood and fever…they should be filled with bacon, juniper and sage and roasted.

The Third Day of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus.

Here are 3 French hen recipes to get you clucking:

  • Colombo de poulet (curried chicken and vegetables soup), a national dish for the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. You might think that it is named after Christopher Columbus, who landed on Guadeloupe and sighted Martinique on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493, but actually its name comes from Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, from where workers came to the French West Indies to work on the plantations and brought with them their unique mix of spices, now called Colombo powder. Try a recipe from Guadeloupe’s tourism website.
  • Poule au pot (‘hen in pot’) is poached stuffed hen, and was what Henri IV of France (1553–1610) said that every Frenchman should eat on Sundays. Rick Stein agrees.
  • Lait de poule (‘hen’s milk’) was also the name of the white horse of Henri IV of France (he really was a gourmand). The alcoholic custardy drink, better known as ‘eggnog’, can be served hot or cold and originates from East Anglia in England, where ‘nog’ is a beer and is drunk out of a ‘noggin’. Originally mixed with brandy in England, when it migrated to the US and became a regular fixture in the Christmas season the brandy was substituted with rum. Here’s a recipe from the Founding Father of the United States himself, George Washington:

One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.

The Fourth Day of Christmas

On the fourth day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus. Yes I know, the original lyrics of the Christmas carol have four ‘colly’ birds. The word ‘colly’ originates from the Old English world ‘col’ which means coal. Since blackbirds are now off the menu, I thought silkie birds would be a good substitute, colour-wise. The silkie chicken has coal-black skin and bones, and is not uncommon on a menu in Asia. Its taste is described as being between a chicken and a game bird. Here is a recipe for Silkie Chicken Soup, the most common use for a silkie chicken. Not four recipes, I know, but you could always make a vat of soup with four chickens 😉

The Fifth Day of Christmas

On the fifth day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, five almond rings, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus. You’ve heard of a kugelhopf and, thanks to the 2014 Great British Bake Off, you’ve also heard of baumkuchen, but have you heard of kransekake (as the Norwegians call it, or kransekage in Danish)? This is a conical cake tower made of almond cake rings layered one on top of each other in decreasing size. The wedding version is shaped like a cornucopia (called an overflødighedshorn), but for Christmas, a tree-like cone will do. Tune into BBC Two at 8pm on Tuesday 16th December for a demonstration by Paul Hollywood of how to make kransekake, in a Great British Bake Off Christmas Masterclass. Or get a head start with a recipe from Arctic Grub.

The Sixth Day of Christmas

On the sixth day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, six geese a-laying, five almond rings, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus.  Here are seven reasons for why you should eat goose for Christmas.

  • The goose, unlike the turkey, is indigenous to Britain, and so is more rooted in the local Christmas tradition.

It is used more extensively, for lard, for eggs, for foie gras, and for down, and so could be thought of as a more worthy animal for the table. Moreover, it is the goose, not the turkey, which features in the best-known works of literature, not least in Aesop’s Fables, where it lays golden eggs. But the important thing is that it features on the dinner table of the best-loved literary characters…

  • Salt goose is gobbled up by the famished Levin in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
  • A roasted goose came to life and gave the little match girl in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale a fright:

She rubbed another against the wall: it burned brightly, and where the light fell on the wall, there the wall became transparent like a veil, so that she could see into the room. On the table was spread a snow-white tablecloth; upon it was a splendid porcelain service, and the roast goose was steaming famously with its stuffing of apple and dried plums. And what was still more capital to behold was, the goose hopped down from the dish, reeled about on the floor with knife and fork in its breast, till it came up to the poor little girl…

  • It is the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner of the Cratchit family in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah. There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.

  • The goose caught and roasted by Paul Bäumer and Katczinsky in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front brings respite amidst the horror of WWI, in possibly the most beautiful passage of the whole novel:

And so we sit facing one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby battledress, roasting a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but we have a greater and more gentle consideration for each other than I should think even lovers do. We are two human beings, two tiny sparks of life; outside there is just the night, and all around us, death. We are sitting right at the edge of all that, in danger but secure, goose fat runs over our fingers, our hearts are close to one another, and time and place merge into one – the brightnesses and shadows of our emotions come and go in the flickering light of a gentle fire. What does he know about me? What do I know about him? Before the war we wouldn’t have had a single thought in common – and now here we are, sitting with a goose roasting in front of us, aware of our existence and so close to each other that we can’t even talk about it.

  • You can eat a golden goose egg by scrambling it using a T-shirt.
  • Ok, this is not goose related but is a great egg metaphor from T.S. Eliot, who described the early 20th century as ‘a cooking egg’, an egg which is no longer fresh but can still be used in cooking. The central figure in the poem A Cooking Egg reminisces on the glory of the past and which by doing so reveals the ingloriousness of the present. He lives in an age of reflection and inaction, a ‘penny world’ that used to emulate history’s heroes but which is fast disappearing.

The Seventh Day of Christmas

On the seventh day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, seven swans a-swimming,  six geese a-laying, five almond rings, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus. Here’s a graceful meringue game of swans from Cakecrumbs.

The Eighth Day of Christmas

On the eighth day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, what’s the maid a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five almond rings, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus. Here are some lesser known milk-based dishes.

Organic milk, or ‘milk from grass-fed cows’: Organic milk comes from cows that graze on natural grass (that pesticides or fertilisers have not touched) in open spaces and which live to over 10 years. The cows are often traditional breeds rather than cross-bred, so their milk is more similar to what our ancestors drank.

Conventional milk, or ‘cheap milk’: Your average pint of milk from the supermarket will have come from cows fed on grain (grass produces a lower yield) in confined spaces, with growth hormones injected into them, which from the age of 2 annually lose their calves shortly after giving birth, and which are slaughtered at around the age of 5 (they could live for another 20 years).

Unpasteurised milk, or ‘raw milk’: Milk it directly into cider, add sugar, then beat, and you’ve got yourself a syllabub. The first time I heard of a syllabub was in Philippa Gregory’s novel The Queen’s Fool, where the protagonist’s offer of a syllabub to her fiancé is rejected because he has “no taste for things that are sweet and sour at the same time”. Nigel Slater gives a concise but comprehensive description and history of the syllabub. For a 17th century recipe, here’s one from Kenelm Digby:

Take a pint of verjuyce in a boul, milk the Cow to the verjuyce; take off the Curd, and take sweet Cream and beat them together with a little Sack and Sugar; put it into your Syllabub-pot; then strew Sugar on it, and so send it to the Table.

Colostrum milk, or ‘Milk from a cow that’s just given birth’: Use it in kalvdans (Scandinavian) or junnu (Indian). It is called beestings in England, and has lots of healthy bacteria. Some people treat both desserts as the same thing.

The Ninth Day of Christmas

On the ninth day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, sweet ladyfingers, what’s the maid a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five almond rings, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus. Here are some ladies partnered with desserts and dances.

Dessert: vegan pumpkin Tiramisu
Lady: the Fairy Godmother from the Disney film ‘Cinderella’
Dance: tarantella, the type of tune ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ is sung to
Origin of dance and dessert: Italy

Dessert: blackcurrant and rose Charlotte Russe
Lady: Margot Fonteyn, who had a famous partnership with the Russian ballerina Rudolph Nureyev who defected in Paris
Dance: ballet
Origin of dance and dessert: the Charlotte Russe was invented by French chef Marie-Antoine Carême for Princess Charlotte of Britain, with a nod to the principal employer of Carême, the Russian Tsar, and the art of ballet originated in Italy before evolving into its current forms in France and Russia

Dessert: whim wham, a trifle from the Regency period when the word whim-wham was used to describe something light and fanciful.
Lady: Elizabeth Bennet at the Netherfield Ball in Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Dance: English country dance
Origin of dance and dessert: Britain

The Tenth Day of Christmas

On the tenth day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, what Lord W is eating, sweet ladyfingers, what’s the maid a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five almond rings, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus. The Lord I’m referring to is Frederick Marquis, 1st Lord Woolton, who was so successful at being Minister of Food in WWII and post-WWII Britain that the Woolton pie was named after him. His success also inspired Jamie Oliver to launch his programme ‘Jamie’s Ministry of Food’, which aimed to get people cooking their own meals.

The Eleventh Day of Christmas

On the eleventh day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, elegant nozzle piping, what Lord W is eating, sweet ladyfingers, what’s the maid a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five almond rings, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus. I don’t mean the smoking pipe, though Santa did once smoke tobacco, but the piping bag, of course. The most common nozzle shapes are a round tip and an open star (or ‘French swirl’) tip. The former is used to squeeze in fillings and to make line drawings in icing, whereas the latter is used to frost cakes. As for the other nozzle shapes, according to the fabulous blog My Cake Decorating,  use…

  • closed star tip for roses. You can also use this to make churros. These Spanish doughnuts are normally dunked into hot chocolate, so you need not trouble yourself with making chocolate sauce.
  • grass tip for creating grass/hair/fur textures.
  • leaf tip for creating leaves.
  • petal tip for petals. Speciality ones may be used for specific types of flowers, such as rose, chrysanthemum, and hydrangea.
  • drop flower tip for whole flowers.
  • basket weave tip for wickerwork texture.

You can also use the ruffle tip for a ruffle cakemulti-openings tip, and other speciality nozzles such as the pine tree tip, the four-leaf clover tip, and the heart tip. As you might have guessed from above, the situations in which you might use them are pretty self-explanatory. All said, the round tip is not boring at all. You can frost a scallop cake with it, as well as use it for feather icingpearl swags, or drop-strings.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas my stomach growled to me, hot chicken drumsticks, elegant nozzle piping, what Lord W is eating, sweet ladyfingers, what’s the maid a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five almond rings, four silkie birds, three French hens, stewed turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear jus.

In the spirit of the new Paddington film, here’s a recipe for chicken drumsticks with a marmalade glaze. For a fusion twist, try a Hawaiian Huti Huti marinade. Fizzy drinks like cola are great for marinades, but did you know that coffee works too? There’s a marinade that combines the two. To pass Christmas like an Edokko (person born in Tokyo), order KFC chicken drumsticks. Yes, that’s right; they are such big fans of KFC that some flights with Japan Airlines actually have KFC on the in-flight menu. Discover the story behind the KFC craze in Japan here.




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