A few days to Christmas, to a new year, and it feels like everything happened suddenly, as I was not expecting the holidays, the celebrations, the frenzy of shops bustling with people, a menu to decide, ingredients to buy at the market and at the butcher.
Have you ever been at a butcher a few days before Christmas? It is a show you do not want to miss, and the perfect place where you can learn many a recipe, just by eavesdropping conversations or paying attention to what your butcher is proclaiming about certain cuts.
I was still getting accustomed to Autumn, its foggy mornings and comforting soups, when Christmas and winter came abruptly into the scene.
I’ve always believed in the magic of Christmas, but this year I hadn’t had enough time to reflect on it. It is a kind of magic that requires dedication, a sparkle of imagination, and shimmering lights. It just doesn’t happen, you have to make it happen. I fed this magic through the years with illustrated books and short stories, daydreams, an adamant confidence that something wonderful was about to happen in the days before Christmas.
So, with a house still bare – no Christmas tree, no gifts made -, I took a few hours to reflect. I turned on a small table lamp, even if it was still clear outside – does it happen to you as well? I feel more inspired with a light next to me -, I took a notebook and a pen, and started writing.
How would I describe my ideal Christmas? Which are the first words that come to my mind when I think about Christmas?
This year, I would pick humble. Humble as the unassuming log that the head of the family would put in the fireplace at Christmas Eve. It would burn slowly, the embers glowing in the dark, until the next day, or sometimes until the new year. It is a trace of ancient, pre-Christmas rituals, connected with the Winter Solstice celebrations. The log represents the union between two worlds, the one of darkness, cold and death, where it would deeply anchor its roots, and one of light and life, where it would stretch its branches upwards.
It was The Log, il Ceppo, as my grandfather Remigio would say, to bring gifts for Christmas. In the local folklore, il Ceppo was represented as a thick man with an untamed mane, who would leave his gifts by the fireplace, the heart of the house.
My ideal Christmas is therefore deeply connected to winter.
Christmas as the religious and pagan celebration of light, winter as the season where all this happens, when you light candles, spend time by the fireplace, when nature, slowly but stubbornly, works underneath the frozen soil to create new life. I, a July girl, thrive in winter, in the season of hearty stews, frozen mornings, Christmas lights, candles, woollen scarves. With less cooking classes, it is our low season, when I have more time to think, search for inspiration, read, cook just for the pleasure of it, just for us.
My ideal Christmas is associated to Nature, too.
This is why I celebrated the first Christmas in my new house, 7 years ago, buying a small juniper tree. I decorated that tree with a few baubles and lights I had chosen from my parents’ box, a way to bring my family Christmas into the new house. The juniper tree still lives, in a big clay pot, right in front of my house door: we greet each other every morning.
One of my ideal ways to celebrate Christmas would be to take a morning walk to the nearby pine forest to pick twigs, berries and evergreen shrubs to weave a wreath for my door. Every year I set aside this wish: I always have more impelling errands, like buying a last-minute gift, or making fresh pasta for the Christmas lunch, and I postpone my walk in the woods. Maybe, if I write this down, this year I’ll take a few hours to make my own wreath.
My Christmas is white.
No, I’m not talking about a snow-capped landscape. Here in the hills of Tuscany, in between Siena and Florence, I’ve never lived the experience of a white Christmas. I once spent the holidays in the Alps with my parents, and there I had my first and only white Christmas. Of that holidays, I remember the snow, an egg broth soup, the gifts strangely delivered in a hotel room, and Santa Claus on a white little truck.
At home, Christmas is white thanks to the copious amount of icing sugar that covers, just like snow, the typical sweet treats from Siena: a thick dusting over the panforte, a spiced and nutty fruit cake, a crackled layer over the ricciarelli, the melt-in-your-mouth almond paste cookies, with a delicate vanilla and orange aroma.
When I closed my notebook, and suddenly realised the light outside had faded away, leaving room for a clear night sky, I felt like I had regained time, like I could really make the most out of the few days left. The magic of Christmas was safe.
A very Tuscan Christmas menu
Before bringing downstairs from the attic our box of Christmas decorations, and trying to unravel the Christmas lights, let me share some seasonal recipes for a homemade, genuine Christmas feast, something I’ll probably see on our table during the holidays, as I’m already compiling the shopping list to cook them.
As an appetiser, I am sure there will be crostini neri, Tuscan chicken liver crostini. Chicken livers are cooked with carrot, celery and onion, a bay leaf, a clove of garlic. When the chicken livers are cooked through, add capers, butter and anchovy paste and purée them into a velvety pâté. Sometimes they are made with a part of spleen, or just with spleen, as in my Aunt Teresa’s recipe.
Along with these crostini, we have a staple of every Christmas, originated in the ‘80s: smoked salmon crostini. Back then, it was a luxurious ingredient which we would purchase specifically for Christmas. We would butter the bread, drape a piece of smoked salmon on top and decorate it with a small wedge of lemon. Now smoked salmon is a more common ingredient – I often have it for breakfast –, but those Christmas crostini still taste different, there is something special about them.
It has to be fresh pasta. Tommaso as every year asks for the potato tortelli from Mugello, dressed with a robust meat sauce, either a beef ragù or a wild boar sauce. His family is from Mugello, the mountain area over Florence, so this is the taste of his childhood.
I usually prefer tortelli with ricotta, like the ones we made for our wedding, but in a festive shape like in these cappellacci. My mum and grandma are partial to lasagna: they always prepare a few trays of plain lasagna (plain, I mean, with meat sauce, mozzarella and béchamel, this is our “plain” version), and of mushroom lasagna, made just with béchamel sauce, sautéed mushrooms and a shower of Parmigiano Reggiano. They freeze the lasagna trays, to have them ready throughout the holidays.
Main course and side dishes
Speaking of the main course, it will be meat. This year I might prepare again the stuffed pork loin, maybe adding some grated orange zest along with the dried fennel flowers.
We often prepare wild boar as a main course for Christmas, doubling it also as a pasta sauce. The longer the cooking, the better the result: slow braised meat is my go to choice when we have many guests, as you can prepare it in advance and just reheat it when ready to sit at the table.
As my father-in-law is a hunter, and a few weeks ago he brought us two pheasants, probably there will be also a stewed pheasant on our table, but it will be nonna, 91 years old, to cook them, as she still has the magic touch with game.
Spinach, artichoke or cardoon flans might be included as side dishes, along with a pan, better two, of roasted potatoes, which are always on our table, being it Christmas, Sunday, or a day you want to celebrate.
As a proper Tuscan family, we close every Christmas meal with panforte, ricciarelli and cavallucci. When I was a child, they used to be store-bought, always the same brand, now we plan ahead and we bake them in the days before Christmas. My mum bakes a hundred cavallucci in our wood burning oven, while I take on the ricciarelli and the panforte. Panettone and pandoro are still store-bought, as I have not succeeded in making them at home.
There’s always a British Christmas cake in our Tuscan celebrations: not too different from the panforte, fed over the months with brandy or whisky, it has the taste of my grown-up Christmases.
You won’t be surprised if I tell you that one of my favourite Christmas cakes is the Yule Log, which represents the original log burnt in the fireplace overnight at Christmas. And this makes a full circle, from my desire to live a humble traditional Christmas to my Tuscan menu.
And now, a bonus recipe and a surprise for you.
Eggplant parmigiana would be my last meal, but when eggplants are out of season, this is what comes as a close second. Butternut squash parmigiana is equally delicious, filling, comforting. There’s an old recipe on the blog on how to make it, now you have also a video recipe to illustrate the various steps. You could include this in a Christmas menu, what do you think?
We’re back sharing videos after a few years: this time we’ll be working with Alessandro Semplici, a friend and a video maker from Siena, to deliver inspiring and explicative video recipes, something that will bring you one more time into the kitchen with me. Let us know what you think of this new video in the comments, and please share with us any request, we’ll be working on new videos soon!