No one I know is traveling internationally these days, except in their imagination or through fond memories.
My last big trip, one year ago, was to Japan. It was a business adventure that I almost didn’t take because of the busy holiday season. Now my mind replays so many snippets from that quick but unforgettable cultural immersion.
In a hotel room, from the maid: a tiny origami Santa and Christmas tree. Seen during gentle snowfall: a colorful parade of popped open umbrellas. On a shop shelf: hand-carved “Merry Christmas” signs amid this world of Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana language.
A revisit is tempting, and you can come too. Anybody can learn about Japanese Christmas and New Year traditions, thanks to virtual tours through the reputable Arigato Japan Food Tours (arigatojapan.co.jp). Consider it a fun and easy way to escape your own reality while amusing yourself online for 2,800 yen (under $30).
Those of us with German roots know our homeland gets credit for introducing Christmas trees, Advent calendars and visits from St. Nick in early December. We sing a verse of “Silent Night” in German because that is the song’s language of origin. When I bake gingerbread or buy stollen, I fondly remember trips to Nuremberg and Dresden, respectively.
Gone this year, because of the pandemic, are Germany’s outdoor Christkindlmarkts, a centuries-old tradition. They typically pop up throughout the country, from the start of Advent until Christmas, giving friends a reason to linger with mulled wine and hot sausage while watching another holiday season unfold.
The Christkindlmart was one reason why I signed up for a recent online baking class sponsored by Germany’s Baden-Württemberg area. I figured it would get me into the Christmas spirit. tourism-bw.com
What I learned, in addition to recipes, was a backstory or two and regional favorites. Things like Hutzelbrot, a bread with dried pears, plums and figs. And anise-flavored Springerle, made with special molds or rolling pins, to eat or to hang on the Christmas tree.
Children in this part of Germany – the Black Forest area – help make Dambedei, a sweet and citrus yeast bread. The dough is shaped like pudgy people, with raisins and almonds used for eyes and jacket buttons. Here is a recipe.
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
Zest of one lemon
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons honey
1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 egg yolk
Raisins, to decorate
Combine flour and lemon zest in a mixing bowl.
In a second bowl, warm milk slightly; add honey and yeast. Stir. Add vanilla.
Use an electric mixer to add milk mixture and canola oil to the flour and zest. Mix until smooth, soft dough forms.
Put dough in warm location and cover. When it doubles in volume, knead by hand and roll into four log-shaped pieces, each about eight inches long.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place parchment paper on baking sheet.
Use kitchen shears or knife to help form legs, arms and head in each piece of dough. Place on baking sheet. Stretch and adjust as necessary. Brush with egg yolk. Press raisins into dough as eyes and jacket buttons. Bake 12 minutes, or until golden brown.
This recipe also comes from the Baden-Württemberg tourism office in Germany but is not unique to that country. The finished cookie looks very much like the Linzer cookies of Austria. Both types of sandwich cookies have a thin filling of jam.
Have a convection oven? Use it for more even baking.
(Makes about 2 dozen)
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup cold butter (cut into small pieces)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups of flour
1/2 cup raspberry jam
1 tablespoon powdered sugar (optional)
Use a mixer to cream together sugar and butter. Add vanilla and egg until combined. Add flour and mix until dough forms. Shape dough into a ball, wrap or cover well and put into refrigerator for an hour.
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Roll out dough to about one-fourth inch thick. Use a round cutter to cut an even number of cookie pieces. Use a smaller cookie cutter to cut out a preferred shape (star, heart, circle) inside one-half of the larger cookie cutouts.
Place all cutouts on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool.
Heat jelly, just until it is spreadable, and cover all cookies that don’t have a smaller cutout. Top with the remaining cookies. Dust with powdered sugar.
What helps shave production time when making Spitzbuben? A two-sided cutter – one side to make the cookie base, the other for cutting out the smaller shape as a window to reveal the jam filling.
Check the selection at Downtown Dough, in downtown Cedarburg, whose selection of cutter shapes and sizes is enormous. Search for “linzer” to see the choices. downtowndough.com
Last, come with me to Lithuania, whose tourism experts acknowledge – in a press release – that the Baltic state “might have one of the most unexplored cuisines in the world, yet the flavors are familiar to almost everyone.” For more about the country’s cuisine and other charms, check out lithuania.travel.
What you need during this pandemic year, says Lithuania’s tourism office, is comfort food that is easy to make. One example: Tinginys, also known as “lazy cake.” The unbaked cocoa cookie bar is described as a national treat.
In this recipe, tea biscuit cookies are recommended, but I’d try vanilla wafers, shortbread, graham crackers or whatever else sounds good. Break them into visible chunks, not dust.
(Makes one batch)
14 ounces tea biscuit cookies
1/3 cup butter
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
3 1/2 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon sugar
Break cookies into chunks.
Melt butter. Mix in sweetened condensed milk, cocoa and sugar. Remove from heat and gradually mix in cookie pieces. Cool slightly.
Pile mixture onto middle of a piece of plastic wrap. Shape like a sausage, wrap tightly and refrigerate for several hours.
Serve by the slice.