When I was a child, Christmas Eve was my favorite day of the year. There were presents to open and food to eat and stories to be heard, but Christmas Eve was more than that. Christmas Eve was a sacred, holy day; even as a child I could feel something was different about that day. I know I drove my mother crazy because I would ask her every few minutes, “What time is it? Is it time to go to Mamaw’s?”
“No, not yet,” was the answer I heard over and over again. Finally, time would arrive, and we’d get dressed in our Sunday clothes because we would be going to church later that night.
By the time we arrived at my grandmother’s house, it would be completely dark outside. We’d walk up to the back door and yell, “Merry Christmas,” and hug everyone.
My sisters and I were always anxious to sit at the table and get dinner out of the way so we could open presents. My grandmother’s kitchen table was covered with a tablecloth that had fringe around the edge, and the table was always overloaded with food. There would be fried catfish — a Catholic Christmas Eve tradition — potato salad, fried cornbread, ambrosia salad … so much food, but it would never change from year to year. The only things I ever remember eating were the catfish and cornbread. After dinner, the adults would gather in the family room to visit. I have no idea what they talked about, and I would get so bored that I would braid the fringe on the tablecloth until one entire side was filled with little braids.
At one point, my grandmother would say, “Did you hear that? I think that was Santa dropping off presents on the porch.” We’d all get up and head to the living room, which we only used one day a year, on Christmas Eve. My sisters, Lori and Susan, and I would run to the door and look out into the darkness, too scared to actually go outside and retrieve the big box Santa had just left for us.
My dad would get it and bring it inside, and we’d be so excited. Then the frenzy would begin, with everyone exchanging and opening presents. After we hugged and thanked everyone for our wonderful gifts, out would come more food and drink: eggnog, homemade candy, pies, cookies and sugared pecans.
Our bellies were full, and it was so very hard to stay awake until midnight mass. I usually wouldn’t make it and fell asleep. Around 11 p.m., we’d begin to clean up and pack our cars and then head to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. This was the one day a year we all went to church together, because my grandmother and Aunt Liz usually went to the early
mass on Sundays and we went to the later mass.
Christmas Eve was special since I got to sit next to Mamaw at church. The church always seemed to change during those midnight mass services. The space we knew so well seemed to become new that one night a year. The choir would be in the balcony singing Christmas carols, and the lights were dim. Candles were flickering. There was a live nativity scene outside the church. It was very quiet with only the singing in the balcony. The church was transformed into a holy, sacred place. When mass was over, I never remembered anything else until the next morning because I’d always fall asleep in the car on the way home.
Today, our Christmas Eve doesn’t sound and taste the same as it did when I was a child, but we still have traditions we carry on with our children each year, and I hope they will cherish them and continue with their families one day. We don’t eat fried catfish for our Christmas Eve dinner. Instead, we usually have a feast centered around tamales, which have been at the center of celebratory meals in Mexico for hundreds of years. And we do go to church every Christmas Eve, just not at midnight.
I am really the only one in my family who likes eggnog. Then we discovered Coquito — a Puerto Rican version of eggnog — that is so good. In this month’s recipes, we’ve paired that with an updated, simpler version of Czech Christmas Bread (the traditional recipe calls for the dough to be cut into nine pieces, which are then rolled and braided); along with some other sweet goodies that can be served after your Christmas Eve dinner or on Christmas morning as you open presents.
We hope you have a very merry Christmas with your family and share
lots of hugs and favorite family recipes. Merry Christmas from the Tankersley family. May 2021 bring joy and lots of love.
Easy Czech Christmas Bread
For the brioche dough:
- 1 tablespoon active dry or quick-rise yeast (1 packet)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 8 large eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, melted
- 1 1/2 cups (340g) lukewarm water
- 7 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 pound brioche dough
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 2 tablespoons brandy or rum
- Zest of 1 large lemon
- 1 egg, for egg wash
- 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds or slivered almonds
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
(These ingredients make four 1-pound loaves of bread. The bread recipe is easy to double or to cut in half.)
For the Christmas bread:
To make the brioche, mix the yeast, salt, eggs, honey and melted butter with the water in a 5-quart bowl or lidded (not airtight) food container.
Mix in the flour, using a spoon until all the flour is incorporated.
Cover (not airtight) and allow to sit at room temperature for about two hours.[Editor’s note: The dough can be used as soon as it is chilled. This dough is way too sticky to use after the initial rise, but once it is chilled it is easier to handle. The dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. After that, it can be frozen.]
To make the Christmas bread, place a piece of parchment or a silicone mat on a baking sheet. Set aside.
Soak the raisins in the rum for at least 30 minutes, or until the raisins are plump. Set aside.
Dust the surface of the dough with flour and cut off a 1-pound piece, about the size of a grapefruit. Dust with more flour and shape into a ball.
Generously flour a work surface and roll the dough out until it’s about a half-inch thick. Sprinkle the raisins over the dough and sprinkle on the lemon zest. Then roll up the dough into a log.
Using your hands that have been dusted with flour, quickly shape the dough into a coil, tucking the end of the dough underneath the coil. Place on the prepared pan. Place in a warm place and let rise for 1-2 hours.
Thirty minutes before baking, heat oven to 350 F. Right before baking, brush the loaf with egg wash and sprinkle with pumpkin seeds or almonds. Bake in the center of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown. Remove and cool completely on a wire rack. Just before slicing, dust the bread with sifted powdered sugar.
Makes about 8 servings.
- 1/2 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk, or to taste
- 1 can (15 ounces) cream of coconut, such as Coco Lopez
- 1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk
- 1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
- 6 ounces light rum, or more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a blender, puree the condensed milk, cream of coconut, coconut milk, evaporated milk, rum, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. Pour into a pitcher and refrigerate for at least four hours. Stir vigorously before serving.
Makes about 8 servings.
- 3 cups pecans, walnuts or whole almonds
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Heat oven to 375 F. Place the nuts on a sheet pan in a single layer. Place the pan in the oven and toast the nuts for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently to brown evenly, until they’re lightly toasted. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
Generously butter a piece of parchment paper or baking sheet and set aside.
In a saucepan, add the sugar, water, cinnamon and salt. Cook over medium heat until the liquid reaches 235 degrees on a candy thermometer, or until it reaches the soft ball stage. (The soft ball stage is when a drop of the syrup dropped into cold water forms a soft, squishy ball.)
Remove the pan from the heat and beat until the mixture is creamy. Add the vanilla and the cooled nuts, stirring to coat well. Pour the mixture onto the prepared parchment or baking sheet and spread into a single layer, breaking up any large clumps as needed. Let cool before serving.
Makes about 8-10 servings.
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 1 cup dates, pitted and chopped; or dried figs
- 1 cup walnuts, pecans or cashews, chopped
- 4 ounces dark chocolate
In a small saucepan, add the sugar and evaporated milk. Bring to a boil and cook until the mixture reaches 235 degrees on a candy thermometer, or until it reaches the soft ball stage. Add the dates (or figs) and nuts and stir to combine. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Using a small scoop, form the mixture into small balls and place on a sheet pan. Refrigerate until the balls become firm.
Place the chocolate in a small microwave-safe bowl. Heat in the microwave for 30 seconds, then stir. Heat for an additional 30 seconds, or until the chocolate is mostly melted, then stir until it’s completely melted.
Dip some of the balls halfway into the chocolate and submerge others completely into the chocolate. Place the balls back onto the baking sheet and return to refrigerator until the chocolate hardens.
Makes about 24 date balls.