Why are roasted chestnuts, savory smoked ham, fruity cakes, specialty cookies, and eggnog popular Christmas traditions? These iconic foods, vital to holiday menus, are fully ingrained in the culture of the holiday, and although used in various ways at different latitudes, they all tend to be eaten solely during this time of the year.
Our collection of recipes is a tour through a holiday extravaganza, featuring recipes that embody Christmas and belong on your holiday table.
01 of 12
Before farm-raised poultry came to be, families who lived off the land had to choose carefully which animals to eat on special occasions because hens provided eggs and cows milk. Whole geese were cooked because they laid eggs only seasonally. This bird was the most common on Christmas tables before Turkeys and Thanksgiving traditions took over.
Our recipe for a roasted goose makes a moist and flavorful bird thanks to the overnight brine and yields a golden brown bird with crispy skin and delicious meat. Stuffed with citrus and perfumed with peppercorns and bay leaf, this could be a new Christmas favorite. Brine for 24 hours and roast for 3.
02 of 12
With the passing of time and with better access to healthcare and better livelihood conditions in rural areas, families grew in numbers and one small goose wasn't enough to feed multiple mouths. Turkeys were cheaper to raise than other birds. Born in the spring, they grew to a great size for a meal when Thanksgiving and Christmas arrived. Modest and working-class people forged the Turkey traditions, although more affluent families turned to game meats to show off their status. Turkey became a staple on American and British tables around the 19th century.
Our recipe for roasted turkey doesn't require a brine and comes out wonderfully moist thanks to the herby butter that seasons and covers the skin. Ready in under 4 hours.
03 of 12
A boar's head was the edible centerpiece on the wealthiest holiday tables in Tudor England, a holdover from the pagan tradition to honor Freyr, a Norse god of the harvest and fertility who was associated with boars. For those of lesser means, a Yule ham took the place of the showier boar's head, as it was more affordable and equally delicious.
04 of 12
There are plenty of legends on how panettone became associated with Christmas. Some say the sweet Milanese bread was developed in the 1400s by the Duke's falconer and his love Adalgisa, a poor baker's daughter. Working in secret at night, the two created a rich bread that revived the bakery's business. At Christmas, they added dried fruit and citron, a resounding success that made the baker wealthy and allowed the couple to marry. A less romantic possibility is that as a "Pane di Tono" or luxury bread, the lofty loaf—with its expensive ingredients and long proofing and preparation time—was reserved for Christmas.
Even in Italy, most buy their panettone, but if you want to give our recipe a try, you need under 3 hours, lots of candied fruit and plenty of patience, as the dough needs to rise multiple times.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
05 of 12
Gingerbread has an incredibly long history and there is thought that it has been shaped into Christmas tree ornaments since, at least, the Victorian era. As for gingerbread houses, they became popular after the Grimm brothers published Hansel and Gretel, though it's unclear whether the edible edifices got their start as a literary invention. In parts of Europe in the 17th century, only professional gingerbread makers were allowed to bake the stuff year-round. That restriction was lifted during Christmas and Easter, which may explain the Christmas-gingerbread connection.
Gingerbread house kits include an innovative frame for disaster-free construction, so you can just enjoy decorating your gingerbread house. Our recipe takes 2.5 hours to make and all the family can join in when it's time to decorate.
06 of 12
The tradition of eating plum pudding on Christmas might have originated with a Roman Catholic Church decree to make a 13-ingredient pudding to represent Christ and the apostles. On the informally named "Stir It Up Sunday," or the Sunday before the beginning of the Advent season, families made this pudding by taking turns stirring the batter from east to west to commemorate the Magi's journey.
Plum stood in for any dried fruit, as reflected by Victorian pudding recipes that included raisins, currants, beef suet, citrus zest, almonds, and spices — but not plums or even prunes. Traditional Plum pudding takes lots of time, but our quick and moist version is equally delicious and takes just 1 hour and 20 minutes.
07 of 12
The Bûche de Noël is a log-shaped cake meant to evoke the Yule log that once burned in European homes throughout Christmas as well as the massive decorated logs that Celts used to burn outside to celebrate the winter solstice – the term "yule" refers to this day of the year.
To honor this tradition in an edible and decadent way, sweet cakes were baked and rolled to mimic the aspect of a log. Nowadays, chocolate Yule logs are commonly made of layered or rolled genoise sponge cake filled with mousse or buttercream. Often decorated with marzipan or meringue mushrooms, forest creatures, or holly leaves, the log can be simply dusted with powdered sugar and decorated with a few red berries. Our recipe takes 1 hour and 15 minutes.
08 of 12
The recipes for the heavily fruit-laden, sometimes boozy fruitcakes we associate with Christmas today have their roots in the Middle Ages. Dried fruits and sugar were expensive imports, so using them in large quantities was strictly a special-occasion endeavor; that's why fruitcake was also a traditional wedding cake option. Plus, in the days of hard-to-regulate wood-burning ovens, successful cake baking was a tricky effort, and taking the risk of burning such precious ingredients was only reserved for the very knowledgeable and only during special occasions.
Although there are as many fruit cake recipes as there are cooks, they all agree on the use of spices, a combination of dried or candied fruit, and some liquor or wine. Our brandy fruitcake is filled with all three and is moist and chewy. Ready in 4 hours and 30 minutes.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
09 of 12
Mincemeat, in its original incarnation of a mixture of chopped meat mixed with dried fruits, sugar, and spices was a way to stretch a meat supply and use up leftovers. Over time, less and less meat was included in the recipe, so that the mincemeat we know today is made entirely from fruits, sugar, alcohol, and sometimes, in a nod to its origins, suet.
By the 16th century, mince pies were a British Christmas specialty. Some suppose that mincemeat pies were popular at Christmas thanks to the Saturnalia tradition of presenting sweetmeats to Roman fathers in the Vatican. Puritans condemned mincemeat pies as a Catholic custom, which may explain why they're less popular in the US than in the UK. Our recipe takes just 45 minutes.
10 of 12
Stollen is first mentioned in 15th-century documents, though the recipe has changed significantly since then. Originally an Advent meal eaten in monasteries, the bland bread didn't include fruit or butter. It took six decades of a Saxon nobility effort to obtain the Pope's permit to include butter in it. In 1491, the "Butter Letter" arrived and the recipe changed forever.
The inclusion of butter made for a richer cake; over time the recipe evolved into the dried fruit- and marzipan-accented loaf now prized at Christmas. Said to represent the swaddled Baby Jesus, the oblong, sugar-dusted loaves are Christollen in German. Time-consuming but worth the effort, our recipe takes 3 hours and yields two loaves.
11 of 12
Eggnog, as we know it today, is a variation of milk- and wine-based English punches that date back to the 17th century. Nogs were often made for social occasions, to toast the health of those who partook, so they were a natural choice for spreading Christmas cheer.
Today's eggnogs are a frothy concoction of eggs, milk, and sugar spiked with rum or bourbon. The recipe is simple, but if you prefer to eschew raw eggs, there are pasteurized commercial eggnogs readily available in supermarkets. Our recipe uses bourbon, cognac and Grand Marnier for an extra cheerful beverage, ready in 30 minutes.
12 of 12
Starchy, nourishing chesnuts may have been one of the earliest foods eaten by humans, and unlike many traditional Christmas foods, they weren't a rare luxury. Chestnuts grow wild and have been used historically as a subsistence food. Their humble nature may be key to the Christmas connection: on Martinstag, or the Feast of St. Martin, the poor receive a symbolic gift of chestnuts for sustenance.
This recipe for Marrons Glacé (candied chestnuts) elevates the humble nut and makes it a gift worth giving to family and friends. This French recipe takes many days to be made, but the end result belongs in the window display of a true patisserie.