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Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Festive Holiday Dishes from History
Every year when the holidays roll around, we look forward to serving — and devouring — our favorite seasonal treats. Although indulgent classics might seem rote to modern-day epicureans, these festive holiday foods are rooted in centuries of culinary tradition and innovation spanning time, culture and place. Many dishes iconic to contemporary holiday spreads have origins in Medieval feasts, while others date even further back in history to ancient times. Some of today’s holiday cuisine looks and tastes exactly as it did on Georgian, Colonial American or Victorian tables, but many others sustained noticeable changes over time.
Ahead, enjoy a glimpse into traditional holiday menus of yore with delectable recipes from history alongside M.S. Rau’s selection of antique wares perfect for entertaining throughout holiday festivities and special occasions.
Could there be a better way to ring in the holiday season than combining chocolate and wine? This simple-yet-unexpected combination was brought to the Virginia Colony in the 18th century by English colonists and remains a popular wintertime favorite in historic Williamsburg today.
Serve this warm, chocolatey treat in this resplendent royal service of eight gilt teacups by Tiffany & Co.
“To Make Wine Chocolate,” 18th-century recipe
- 2 cups sweet Sherry or Port wine
- 4 oz unsweetened dark chocolate, grated or broken into small pieces
- 6 oz white granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp flour or cornstarch, optional
- Grate or break the chocolate into small pieces.
- Place chocolate in pot with wine and sugar.
- Heat, stirring occasionally until chocolate and sugar is melted, and the mixture is velvety smooth.
- Pour into glasses and serve, hot or cold.
No holiday celebration is complete without a creamy batch of eggnog. According to food historians, this rich beverage was enjoyed during Christmastime in Jamestown Colony, but its roots date to 15th-century England — and possibly further back. American Southerners later improved the traditional recipe by adding a mix of peach brandy, rum and whiskey.
At your next holiday party, serve this delightful tipple to your holiday guests in this superb Alhambra Brilliant Period cut glass punch bowl set by Meriden.
"Egg Nogg," published in The Kentucky Housewife by Lettice Bryan, 1839
- Six eggs
- 1/2 pint rum or 3 gills brandy
- 1 quart whole milk
- 1/2 lb powdered sugar
- Nutmeg to taste
- Break six eggs, separating the whites from the yolks.
- Beat the [egg] whites to a stiff froth, put the yolks in a bowl and beat them light.
- Stir into it slowly, that the spirits may cook the egg, half a pint of rum, or three gills of common brandy; add a quart of rich sweet milk and half a pound of powdered sugar; then stir in the egg froth, and finish by grating nutmeg on the top.Recipe via FoodTimeline.org.
Snacks & Sides
Mincemeat pies are an English holiday tradition dating to Medieval times brought to the American colonies as early as the 17th century. The original process for making these toothsome treats began months in advance of baking to allow the spiced flavors to merge and marinate. Alcohol and sugar — ever-present ingredients in the well-stocked 17th-century pantry — were handy for preserving meat. Present-day recipes rarely include the meat protein, an advent of late-18th century cooks.
Serve these festive miniature pies on this Francis I silver compote.
“To Make Mince Pies the Best Way,” published in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, 1776
- Pastry (homemade or store bought)
- 1 pound beef suet (optional; hard steak fat found in grocery stores around the December holidays)
- 4 large Granny Smith apples
- ½ lbs raisins
- ½ lbs currants
- 2 oz candied lemon peel
- 2 oz candied orange peel
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ½ tsp mace
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- ½ tsp cloves
- 1 pound of finely chopped almonds (optional)
- ½ to 1 cup brandy
- ½ to 1 cup sweet sherry
- Mince the suet beef (optional), peeled and cored apples, raisins, currants, candied lemon and orange peels, and place filling into a large bowl.
- To the filling, add the sugar, mace, nutmeg, cloves, almonds (if using) and sherry. Mix thoroughly with your hand or spoon.
- Place in a large crock or tall container. Add enough brandy and sherry so that the entire mixture is just covered. Let sit in a cool area for at least three days. (In earlier eras, this would have been three months!)
When you are ready to make your pies:
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
- Remove one piece of dough from refrigerator and let stand until soft.
- Lightly flour your work surface and roll out dough into a 12-inch circle. Then, wrap the dough around the rolling pin to transfer into a 9-inch pie pan. Unwrap the dough from the rolling pin into the pie pan, making sure the dough is form-fitted to the pan. Allow the dough to overhang the lip of the pan. Return pie pan with dough to the refrigerator until it is needed
- Retrieve the pie pan from the refrigerator. Fill the pie with the mixture.
- Roll out the second piece of pastry into a rectangle. Cut 3/4- to 1-inch strips along the length of the pastry to give you eight strips. Weave a lattice top for your pie. With a little flour and water, “glue” each strip edge to the bottom pastry at the plate’s rim. Trim any excess. Using a whipped egg yolk, gently glaze the top lattice using a pastry brush. This will lightly brown the top. If you do not wish to make a lattice, take your pastry and make a full top crust as you do for any fruit pie.
- Place a rimmed baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven. Place the pie in the middle of the sheet. Bake at 450 degrees F for 10 minutes, then at 350 degrees F for 35 to 45 minutes.
- Allow pie to rest at least half an hour before slicing.
Shimmering with a festive ruby sheen, this classic cranberry tart was a simple and delicious holiday favorite of early English colonists in the United States.
Though considered a savory side dish by 18th-century cooks, contemporary epicureans can serve this beautiful cranberry tart as an appetizer or after-dinner pastry on this lovely Worcester porcelain dessert service.
Amelia Simmons’ “Stewed, Stained and Sweetened” Cranberry Tart, 1796
- One 12-oz bag of whole cranberries
- Pastry crust of your choice
- 9"x12" tart pan
- Place cranberries in a pot and cover with water. Cook on medium-high for approximately 10 to 15 minutes until berries “pop” and become soft. Make sure water does not boil away completely.
- Cut a 12"x12" section of cheese cloth and place inside a small colander or strainer. Pour the contents of the pot into the cheesecloth. Let the berries and water drain for 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, pick up the corners of the cheesecloth and squeeze berries to extract the juice and jelly. Discard contents of cheesecloth.
- While the juice is draining, butter a 9"x12" tart pan. Roll out your pastry and place into the tart pan. Trim sides so that crust is flush with the sides of the pan. Place parchment paper in shell and fill with dry beans or rice to weigh it down. Blind bake crust at 350 degrees until lightly browned and fully cooked.
- Measure cranberry juice. Add an equal amount of sugar. (For example, if you have two cups of juice, add two cups of white granulated sugar.)
- Place sugar and juice in a pot and cook until thickened. Let cool until lukewarm.
- Remove the beans and rice and fill baked tart crust with the lukewarm filling. Let set for approximately one hour. Decorate with dollops of lightly sweetened whipped cream.
Fish and shellfish are historically vital to the Christian calendar, particularly for Catholics who have observed periods of fasting and abstinence from meat since ancient times. In Catholic tradition, Christmas Day menus feature meat, while Christmas Eve menus feature fish. Oyster stew is an enduring holiday tradition of Irish-American immigrant tables, especially in New England and Louisiana’s Gulf Coast where oysters are plentiful and inexpensive.
Dish out this New Orleans Irish-American favorite in this George II silver soup tureen by Paul Storr.
Traditional Oyster Stew
- 1 quart shucked oysters, with “liquor” (oyster brine and liquid)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
- 2 quarts whole milk
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Oyster crackers
- In skillet, combine oysters with butter over low heat until edges of oysters curl. Do not discard oyster liquor.
- In a large kettle, heat milk to simmer. Add oysters with their liquor, plus salt and pepper to taste. Continue simmering for at least an hour to enhance the flavor.
- Ladle into bowls and serve with oyster crackers. Makes about 8 servings.
Recipe via FoodTimeline.org.
Chickens, the French Way
While turkey remains a favorite holiday entree from the time of English King Henry VIII (1491-1547), rivaled only by the advent of spiral ham in the 1930s, genteel tables of the 18th and 19th centuries were decked with smaller fowl during winter festivities. Similar to a fricassee, this popular 18th-century poultry dish was first browned and then finished in a flavorful broth hearty enough for cold winter nights.
Keep this easy English-American holiday entree warm with this Tiffany & Co. silver Chrysanthemum chafing dish.
“Chickens, Dressed in the French Way,” published in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, 1776
- 1 chicken, cut into quarters
- ½ cup golden raisins or grapes
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 cups chicken broth
- ¼ cup breadcrumbs
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 shallot, diced
- 4 cups white wine
- 1 tsp parsley, minced
- 3 egg yolks (or you may thicken with 1 tbsp cornstarch and ½ cup water, stir it well, and add it to cook for the last 5 minutes)
- Cut the chicken into four parts. Coat lightly with breadcrumbs and parsley. Over low to medium heat, broil or grill for five to seven minutes or until lightly brown, but the meat is still pink by the joints.
- Place chicken in a stewpot with broth, wine, onion, shallot, grapes or raisins and lemon juice. Simmer for 25 minutes; remove chicken.
- In a medium bowl, whip the egg yolks. Gradually add 1/4 cup of the sauce to the yolks while stirring to temper the eggs. Be sure not to cook the egg yolks. Stir mixture into the rest of the sauce. Heat gradually until sauce thickens.
- Pour sauce over the chicken and serve.
Christmas Plum Pudding
A quintessential English dish notably featured as the crowning glory of Christmas cuisine in Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol, plum puddings, or “pottages,” have a long recorded history as far back as the 15th century. Like its Christmassy compatriot mincemeat pies, present-day boiled plum puddings rarely include the suet beef protein, thanks to late-18th century cooks.
Serve this classic boiled-plum pudding garnished elegantly on this William IV silver serving tray by Paul Storr.
“A Boiled Plum-Pudding,” published in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, 1747
- 1 pound suet beef, chopped (optional; hard steak fat found in grocery stores around the December holidays)
- ½ pound currants
- ½ pound raisins
- 4 eggs, minus two whites
- 1 small roll grated into breadcrumbs
- 1 tsp grated nutmeg
- 1 tsp grated ginger
- ½ pound flour
- Pinch of salt
- 1 cup milk
- ¾ cup sherry or brandy
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ cup butter
- Fill a stockpot about two-thirds full and bring to a boil. Have a teakettle or another pot of water heated as a reserve.
- Whisk eggs until frothy. Add half the milk.
- Gradually add the flour, and breadcrumbs.
- Incorporate the suet beef (optional), spices and fruit. Gradually add remaining milk as needed to make a very thick batter. Insert a wooden spoon in the middle of the bowl. It should stand straight up.
- Prepare your pudding cloth: Take a tightly woven linen cloth, about 24"x24" and lay it on the table. Take some softened (not melted) butter and spread a thin layer of butter all over it. DO NOT MISS ANY AREAS. Next, sprinkle a layer of flour on top of the butter layer. Over the sink, trashcan or outside, draw up the corners of the cloth and shake the flour around the cloth to ensure it is completely coated.
- Lay the cloth on countertop or inside a bowl. Carefully spoon the pudding batter on to the center of the cloth. Draw of the sides of the cloth and twist tightly so that your pudding looks like a ball. Tie it closed with cooking twine, making sure it is a tight as possible, leaving some twine to hang the pudding.
- Take a long wooden spoon and slide the twine loops on to it. When the water has come to a full boil, lay the spoon across the top of the pot. The pudding should be completely immersed in the water, but not touching the bottom. Boil for about two-and-a-half hours, topping off the pot with boiling water as needed. It is very important to keep the water boiling at all times to prevent the pudding from becoming water-logged.
- To check the pudding, remove from the water and let set in a colander for a few minutes. Tap the pudding. It should feel slightly firm, not squishy. If it is finished. Let it cool a little while longer, then carefully untie the cloth and slowly peel it away from what will be the bottom of the pudding. The cloth should not stick. Take a plate and turn the pudding right side up. Carefully remove the remaining cloth from the pudding.
- In a small saucepan, add the alcohol, sugar and butter, heat on low until sugar is completely dissolved and the sauce thickens a little. Pour over the pudding and enjoy.
Desserts & Sweets
Sufganiyah Hanukkah Donuts
These rich, jelly-filled pastry cakes are a traditional dessert made during Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights commemorating the Maccabean victory over the Seleucid dynasty in 164 BCE. The term sufganin hails from the 3rd century and references ritual food laws in the Jewish Mishnah text, later evolving in the Middle Ages to mean “fried dough.” Jewish food historian Gil Marks notes in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food that Sufganiyah are the first recorded jelly donuts in history, with recipes published in Jewish cookbooks dating to Germany and Poland between 1485 and 1532.
Serve these delightful Hanukkah treats on these stunning Paul Storr silver dessert compotes.
Sufganiyah Jelly Donuts
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 teaspoons canola or peanut oil
- 1 egg
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Oil for deep-fat frying
- 3/4 cup seedless raspberry preserves
- Confectioners' sugar
- In a large bowl, mix the whole-wheat flour, yeast, cloves and 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour. In a small saucepan, heat the water, honey and oil to 120 to 130 degrees F. Add dry ingredients; beat on medium speed for two minutes. Add egg and vanilla; beat two minutes longer. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (dough will be sticky).
- Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about six to eight minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about one hour.
- Punch down dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface; roll dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut with a floured two-inch biscuit cutter.
- In an electric skillet or deep fryer, heat oil to 375 degrees F. Fry doughnuts, a few at a time, for 45 seconds on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
- Cut a small hole in the tip of a pastry bag or in a corner of a food-safe plastic bag; insert a small tip. Fill bag with preserves.
- With a small knife, pierce a hole into the side of each doughnut; fill with preserves. Dust with confectioners’ sugar. Serve warm.
Recipe via A Taste of Home.
Undeniably iconic to the holiday season, spiced gingerbread as we know it today descends directly from Medieval culinary traditions of Northern European Christmas tables. It’s no wonder this warm, cakey bread was served after a large holiday feast: In the 1600s, gingerbread was traditionally used as a stomach settler!
Dole out these dense, moist bakes on this gorgeous Francis I silver bread dish.
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup molasses (sub out half the molasses for honey or treacle syrup)
- 2 eggs
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 cups flour
- 1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp ground allspice
- 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
- Optional: 1/2 cup of chopped candied orange and/or lemon peel
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Grease a 8- or 9-inch square baking pan with soft butter and set aside.
- In a small saucepan, warm milk until almost boiling.
- Pour milk into a cup and add the baking soda. Stir and set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk molasses and eggs together.
- Add in butter (you want super soft butter — nearly melted but not quite). It will be lumpy, that's okay.
- Whisk in sugar, flour and spices; whisk until smooth and thick.
- Carefully pour in warm milk and stir until combined.
- Pour into baking pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
- Allow to cool on a wire rack in the pan for 20 minutes.
- Cut into pieces and enjoy.
Recipe via The Gingered Whisk.
Twelfth Night Cake
Twelfth Night Cake, a basic yeast-based brioche filled with dried fruits and nuts, honors the Christian holiday Epiphany (or Three Kings Day) celebrating the "Three Wise Men" who visited the infant Jesus on the twelfth day after his birth. Known in Spain as Rosca de Reyes, in France as Gateau des Rois and here in New Orleans tradition simply as King Cake, this festive glazed cake is consumed through Mardi Gras, ending on Ash Wednesday at the commencement of Lent.
King Cake has origins in ancient Arab times and was made and eaten throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, but New Orleans can thank its 19th-century Spanish colonists for introducing this cake as a lasting local tradition. The New Orleanian practice of serving Twelfth Night Cake with a prize inside predates Christianity back to ancient Roman times.
Close out the holiday season and harken in a New Year by serving Twelfth Night, or King Cake, to your guests displayed on this resplendent Fabergé silver cake basket.
Traditional Creole King Cake
- 2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees F)
- 3/4 cup sugar, divided
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup warm 2% milk (110 to 115 degrees F)
- 2 large egg yolks, room temperature
- 1-1/4 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 3-1/4 to 3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 2 to 3 tablespoons water
- Green, purple and yellow sugars
- In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add 1/2 cup sugar, butter, milk, egg yolks, salt, lemon zest, nutmeg and 2 cups flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (dough will be sticky).
- Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about six to eight minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about one hour.
- Punch dough down. Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Roll into a 16“x10” rectangle. Combine cinnamon and remaining sugar; sprinkle over dough within 1/2" of edges. Roll up jelly-roll style, starting with a long side; pinch seam to seal. Place seam-side down on a greased baking sheet; pinch ends together to form a ring. Cover and let rise until doubled, about one hour. Brush with egg.
- Bake at 375 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack.
- For glaze, combine the confectioners' sugar, lemon juice and enough water to achieve desired consistency. Spread over cake. Sprinkle with colored sugars.
Recipe via A Taste of Home.
“Food Timeline.” FoodTimeline.org. Accessed November 6, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/
“What’s Cooking in the Kitchen?” Colonial Williamsburg Historic Foodways Presents History Is Served: 18th-Century Recipes for the 21st-Century Kitchen. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://recipes.history.org
“5 (Almost) Forgotten Historical Christmas Dishes.” Fine Dining Lovers. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/5-almost-forgotten-historical-christmas-dishes
“The Taste of Christmas Past: 4 Historical Festive Recipes.” History Extra. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.historyextra.com/period/taste-christmas-past-historical-festive-recipes/
“Top 5 Ancient and Medieval Foods to Make This Holiday Season,” by Sarah Bond. Forbes. Accessed November 6, 2019. ttps://www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2016/12/05/top-5-ancient-and-medieval-sweets-to-make-this-holiday-season/#4935ae43567c
“A Taste of Home.” ATasteofHome.com. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/sufganiyot/