Our Guide to Traditional Holiday Treats

It’s that holiday time of year, and along with it comes that yearning for certainly foods that have become traditions, so we put together this guide to those traditional holiday treats to help you enjoy one or all during this busy time of year.

Mince Pies

Mince pies are one of those holiday traditions that have changed over the years but continue to thrill many who can’t wait until these seasonal treats are once again in stock. Hubby and I are among those who make sure we have plenty on hand every year!

Mince pies were originally “mincemeat” pies where they were filled with meats such as chicken, partridge, pigeon, hare, capon, pheasant, rabbits, ox or lamb tongue, livers of the animals, and mutton meat mixed with fruits, peels, and sugar. It was also large and oblong in shape, resembling a baby’s cradle. They could also be baked and kept for as long as two months, according to Quaker Elizabeth Ellicott Lea in her book Domestic Cookery that was published in 1853. Over time, they became smaller… and round… and filled with fruits and other flavorings… but no meat. Who says there’s no such thing as evolution, at least as far as cooking is concerned!

Ready-made Mince Pies

We always stock up on Walkers Mince Pies (they can be frozen for later enjoyment)
We always stock up on Walkers Mince Pies (they can be frozen for later enjoyment)

You can make your own of course, but why? Hubby and I just stock up on Walkers Luxury Fruit Mince Tarts. We’re now finishing off last year’s supply and need to restock from the fresh supply coming in to stores. What’s the appeal? Their very traditional fruity and tangy filling. If you love raisins, you’ll love these. Try them hot or cold and served with clotted cream, custard, or ice cream.

Making Your Own with Store-bought Mincemeat

Norfolk Manor MincemeatBut if you really want to do your own, start with one of these ready mixes:

  • Robertson’s Mincemeat — A popular brand that is a ready mix mincemeat for baking your own pies. The name is misleading, since this product contains no meat. It contains sugar, fruits (apples, raisins, sultanas), candied mixed peel (corn syrup, orange peel, sugar, lemon peel, citric acid), palm oil, treacle, currants, sunflower oil, acetic acid, rice flour, spices, citric acid, ascorbic acid, and salt.
  • Norfolk Manor Mincemeat — A great tasting mincemeat imported from England, and perfect for baking your own mince pies. This mincemeat filling is also perfect for making turnovers, adding to stuffing, or filling a crown roast of pork. Suitable for vegetarians, this mincemeat is a blend of dried fruits, candied citron, sugar, spices, and vegetable shortening.

Robertsons Mincemeat

Making Your Own from Scratch

If you do end up making your own mincemeat, you can make it a family event by following some traditions:

  • Family members take turns stirring the mince mixture clockwise (to be like the Sun’s path thru the sky) while making a wish (this is an English custom). Stirring anti-clockwise is considered unlucky and may bring bad luck for the New Year.
  • Have your children leave a mince pie or two out for “Father Christmas” (what we call “Santa Claus”) by the chimney for him to eat while dropping off those presents and filling those stockings.
  • Share a mince pie or two on each of the twelve days of Christmas to bring your family good luck.

Want a meat version of this treat that is more like the original version? Try this recipe for Sunnyside Mincemeat Pie.

Whatever your choice, have a jolly mince time!

McVitie’s Cookies

Our fave McVitie’s have the dark chocolate coating on top – dunk at your own risk!
Our fave McVitie’s have the dark chocolate coating on top – dunk at your own risk!

Not everyone has talent when it comes to putting ingredients together, popping them into an oven, and having something even close to edible emerge. We poor souls have to find something else to leave by the fireplace for Santa with that glass of milk or cup of eggnog. Otherwise, he might but a big black “X” on our rooftop so he would know never to stop there again. We don’t want to take any chances, so I’m thinking it’s time to get those McVitie’s cookies in stock for him. My theory here: the more we leave for Santa, the more he’ll leave for us!

McVitie’s makes a range of products, including a variety of digestives (high-fiber cookies), a special treat called HobNobs, mini biscuits, and special kid-appealing products. They are all great year round and give your tea time crunch!

McVities Plain Chocolate DigestivesA very special selection of McVitie’s cookies are available for holiday enjoyment and gift giving. It’s the McVitie’s Victoria Chocolate Biscuit Tin and comes, as the name indicates, in a wonderful tin that not only looks great but is full of a very tasty assortment — 12 different kinds of cookies to tempt anyone’s palate.

McVities Digestives

  1. Milk Chocolate Cream Crumble (Red Foil)
  2. Plain Chocolate Finger Cookie
  3. White Chocolate Crispy Biscuit Finger
  4. Coconut Cookie
  5. Double Chocolate Cookie Dipped in Milk Chocolate
  6. Chocolate Coated Coconut Square
  7. Milk Chocolate Clover
  8. Milk Chocolate Raspberry Triangle
  9. Milk Chocolate Digestive
  10. Orange Cream Crumble (Gold Foil)
  11. White Chocolate Cream Wafer
  12. Milk Chocolate Finger Cookie

Fruit Cakes

More holiday prepping is in line here. This time, the loved (and despised) fruit cake is the object of our attention. A holiday tradition dating back as far as the 1400s when fruits from the Mediterranean region were dried to preserve them during the long ocean voyage to Britain and upon arrival considered only fit for use in these cakes, they continue to be in high demand.

Contrary to popular opinion, fresh fruit cakes are baked each year. While some re-gifting may occur (where the recipient rewraps the fruit cake and gives it to some other poor sucker…uh, I mean lucky person), many people actually like fruit cake, me included.

Many fruit cakes are made with various alcoholic beverages such as whiskey, rum, stout, and brandy, but there are still plenty of non-alcoholic versions for us teetotalers who avoid all alcohol. (I’ve had to re-gift one of those rum fruit cakes given to me by a very nice person whose feelings I didn’t want to trample.) Recipes abound and can vary from using only a few types of fruits to using a whole bunch. They tend also to include a bunch of nuts. And spices. And normal cake-type ingredients like eggs and flour and sugar.

Typical fruits, nuts, and spices used:

William Lusty Fruit and Rum Cake

  • candied cherries
  • dark raisins, white raisins, currants, sultanas, figs
  • dried apricots, peaches, pears, pitted prunes
  • pineapple (usually canned)
  • ground allspice, cinnamon, cloves, mace
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • orange zest (peel), lemon zest (peel)
  • almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans

The secret to fruit cake is the ratio of fruits and nuts to the other ingredients. It’s what makes these cakes so dense. They weigh a proverbial ton compared to other cakes their size. And they can be stored for at least a year, especially if they are the kind made with alcohol.

Stock up today and enjoy some this Summer (you never know when that “fruit cake urge” will strike).

Cocoa and Chocolate Drinks

Tea and water may be the top two beverages on the planet, but cocoa is definitely on the top ten list. And during the holiday season here in the U.S., it climbs into the top five. Having some cocoa and chocolate drinks on hand is a great way to prep for those holiday visitors. And for yourself!

Cadbury Drinking ChocolateBasically, you have two choices: something pre-made (either as an instant that you add hot water or milk to, or as already all mixed up that you just heat at home) or made from scratch. Of course, that applies to a lot of things, not just cocoa. But I digress. When gifting, you obviously need to pick the former, preferably the instant kind. There are hordes of options from which to choose, from simple to gourmet.

Some Store-bought Ones:

All sure to please!

  • Cherry Chocolate Gourmet Cocoa — Perfect for the discriminating cocoa lover on your list, combining cherry and chocolate.
  • Christmas Bells Peppermint Chocolate Gourmet Cocoa — Peppermint candy canes are a favorite holiday treat. The package is pretty enough to give as is.
  • The Noelle Collection Mint Chocolate Gourmet Cocoa — Another classic flavor pairing, mint and chocolate make this a stand-out cocoa mix.
  • Bellagio Candy Cane Cocoa Kit — Peppermint combined with bittersweet chocolate and chocolate shavings. A cupful will relieve frazzled nerves after a long day of shopping, wrapping, and hiding gifts, and then decorating the house.
  • Bellagio Mocha Kiss Kit — Bittersweet chocolate and espresso combine to give you a flavor found in the cafés of Paris or Brussels.

Making Yours from Scratch:

Hey if the ancient Mayans and Aztecs could do it, so can you. That way you can tweak the flavor any way you want. Lots of recipes are online, but here’s a nice place to start.

Christmas Specialties

It’s not too early to start lining up your treats for the holidays. One that has a fairly long tradition is the Christmas Cracker. Another is the Advent Calendar. They both have an interesting history, something to make their enjoyment all the more meaningful when shared with your guests!

Christmas Crackers

The name can be a bit confusing, since there are no “crackers” (soda, Ritz, or other) involved. The cracker part is in the sense used in “firecracker.” A Christmas Cracker is opened similarly to how a wishbone is divided — a person pulls on one side and another person pulls on the other side of the cracker, which opens with a loud “pop!” and the person with the largest piece keeps the gifts inside. These are a favorite tradition in England and contain a paper crown, a small gift, a motto or joke, and of course, the “pop.” More recently, each setting at the table is given its own Christmas Cracker to pull apart. They are traditionally “cracked” after Christmas dinner. The exterior wrappers can be in typical Christmas colors or silver.

Merry Christmas Script Cube CrackersTom Smith, a confectioner, created the original cracker in the mid 1800s. He began working in a bakery/confectioners shop in London in early 1830. His main interest was in creating ornamentations for wedding cakes. He traveled to Paris in 1840 and saw a confection called “bon bons” (sugared almonds in tissue paper twists). From this he developed a more complex container that would open with a pop — a design inspired by the crackling of the logs on the fire. These remain the top brand to this date.

Advent Calendar

Cadbury Advent CalendarAn advent calendar is used to count the days until Christmas. Most start on December 1st and go through the 24th. They come is different forms. Some are paper cards with little windows for each day, usually 24. Each day, one of the windows is opened to reveal an image, a poem, or a portion of a story about Christmas. More elaborate versions, like the Cadbury Wishes Advent Calendar, have a little treat concealed in each window.

Advent calendars have been around since the early 19th century and were simple chalk lines drawn on the door each day. The first paper calendar, handmade, dates from 1851, with the first printed version being produced in 1902-03. Many are secular in nature and make a fun activity for the children who wait anxiously for that big day.

Add both of these fun specialties to your holiday preparations — they’ll bring a touch of tradition and fun to the festivities!

Chocolates Galore!

Cadbury Selection StockingThere are lots of special chocolates that come on the market this time of year. Time to stock up and hoard… uh, I mean, store safely so they last all year long. Here are a couple of great chocolate treats to start with.

Cadbury Selection Stocking

This Christmas stocking includes a full-size assortment of Cadbury favorites. Don’t hesitate, though, since only limited quantities are imported from England for the holiday season. Cadbury’s is a brand that has been around even longer than Beech’s. Founded in 1824 by John Cadbury, a Quaker, in Birmingham, UK, the shop also sold tea and coffee, quite fitting since both beverages are great paired with chocolates. The shop also sold drinking chocolate. In the U.S., they licensed with Hershey’s to make and sell under the Cadbury brand.

Beech’s Milk Chocolate Brazils

Beech’s Milk Chocolate Brazils are made with the finest whole Brazil nuts, covered with Beech’s milk chocolate. Beech’s was founded in 1920 in Preston, UK, by Edward Collinson. Chairman Andrew Whiting and Managing Director Robert White decreed that only natural color and flavorings would be used and that they would adhere to the original recipes perfected for almost a century.

Cakes and Puddings

A typical British style “pudding” (more of a cake)
A typical British style “pudding” (more of a cake)

From Spotted Dick to Toffee Pudding and fruit cakes, ’tis the season for a bit of extra indulgence. But you’re working a job, driving the kids to dance class and sports practice, shopping for those once-a-year gifts for distant relatives, or trying to get a little “me time” when you can. Pre-made British-style cakes and puddings can serve several purposes:

  • Save you time that can be used on other events
  • Make fairly easy gifts for folks on your list that you have no idea what to get or for the hostess of the many parties you’ll be attending
  • Bring a taste of British cuisine and tradition to your table

I’m a glutton for Aunty’s Chocolate Fudge Steamed Pudding and have been pleased to receive some as a gift as well as ordering more once hubby and I had gobbled it all up, so I know that such things are usually quite welcome. Just be sure the giftee is not allergic to things like wheat gluten or soy or — horrors! — chocolate!

An Essential for Your Homemade British-style Pudding: Pudding Bowls

Mixing Bowl by Mason Cash
Mixing Bowl by Mason Cash

You have two choices for your holiday puddings: store bought or homemade. The recipes are simple enough for even a non-cook like me to manage not to screw up too badly. One thing that helps insure success, though, is a proper bowl. And yes there is such a thing as a pudding bowl.

Actually, it’s called a pudding basin. Go figure.

Think of the pudding basin more of as a pudding mold. Seriously. You mix up the ingredients in a mixing bowl and then pour the mixture into the pudding basin. This gets covered with muslin, greaseproof paper, or cling wrap. Then you put it in a steamer. The basin design helps keep the covering in place and assures a perfect pudding. A classic design made of earthenware and in traditional white, this bowl/basin/mold can also be used as a mixing bowl. Wow! Talk about multi-tasking. And the ones from Mason Cash come in four sizes:

  • Papa Bear size — Actually, this is the family size (size 18), making a pudding that serves 4 to 6 people. It measures 8 3/4″ x 4 3/4″ and holds about 12 cups (3 quarts).
  • Mama Bear size — For the hearty but not overindulgent appetite, or to serve 2 to 4 people. This (size 24) basin measures 7 3/4″ x 4 1/4″ and holds about 8 cups (2 quarts).
  • Teenage Bear size — For the slightly lighter appetite or about 1 to 2 people. This (size 30) basin measures 6-3/4″ x 4″ and holds about 5 cups (1.25 quarts).
  • Baby Bear size — Also known as the single-serving size (size 42) and measuring 5½” x 3″, it holds about 2½ cups.
Pudding Basin by Mason Cash
Pudding Basin by Mason Cash

They also make mixing bowls. The bowls are so pretty, in the same pattern, ergonomic shape, and “white and cane” colors as they have been for the last 100 years, that they can sit out on the kitchen counter, adding grace and charm. Like the pudding basins, these mixing bowls are made of earthenware and are dishwasher safe. They have been made by a company in Derbyshire, UK, since around 1800, renamed as Mason Cash and Co. in 1901.

Now all you need are some pudding recipes. You’re in luck. There’s a web site dedicated to British puddings!

Oh, and if you ever need a taste tester, let me know. I’ll be right over!

Sweet Treats

Nestle Quality StreetSome of my favorite treats are only available during the Winter Holiday Season, so in addition to stocking up for parties, I stock up for the rest of the year. (A bad case of candy withdrawal ain’t pretty.) Chocolates from England and a particularly British style of pretzels are just two of those stock-up items.

Nestlé Quality Street Tin

Nestlé is a brand well-known in the U.S. but that originated in Switzerland, a country known for cheese, the Alps, staunch neutrality, and, best of all, chocolate! Founder Henri Nestlé started out creating baby formula made of cow’s milk, flour, and sugar, then started making condensed milk and cheese, and then added chocolate products to the mix. This selection presents chocolates with flavored centers and is popular in over 50 countries worldwide.

Jacobs Twiglets Caddy

Twiglets are a savory snack with an 80-year-old British tradition. They are shaped, textured, and colored like small twigs, are quite crunchy, and have the flavor of marmite. They have been an important part of British life for every major occasion from birthday parties to Christmas. They go great with dips or can be an alternative to bread sticks or carrot sticks. Munch some while watching that football game on TV!

Santa’s Tea and Cookies

The tradition of leaving milk and cookies for Santa has been around quite awhile. There are also variations: hot cocoa and cookies, eggnog and brownies, coffee and donuts, and even beverages of a somewhat “harder” nature. My experience, though, is that the best quality and most numerous gifts result from leaving tea and cookies for Santa!

Yes, it’s true. Santa is a dedicated tea lover. He slurps his way from house to house, dropping off presents and marking who’s naught-TEA and who has nice TEA! His taste in tea knows no limits either. Unlike some of us who refrain from certain types of teas such as those loaded with various flavorings (fruits, flower petals, spices, scents, etc.) or those herbals that many vendors call “tea” (such as rooibos, honeybush, and chamomile), he likes it all. So the sky is the limit here!

Price really isn’t an issue either. Santa will drink affordable teas from Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Kenya, and elsewhere, but he will also savor the delights of some matcha, “Iron Goddess,” dragon pearls, alishan, or some nice aged pu-erh, and then leave under your Christmas tree not only the gifts his elves made for you and your family but the gifts for those who left him that milk — ugh!

Fancy teacups aren’t necessary, but they sure help! (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)
Fancy teacups aren’t necessary, but they sure help! (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

You can also steep up a hot pot of such popular brands as Barry’s, PG Tips, and Typhoo. I know for a fact that Santa likes these teas extra strong and with milk and sweetener. He can go for a nice package of chocolate McVitie’s Digestives, too, and yes, Santa is a dunker. He doesn’t even mind if some of the chocolate gets into his tea.

Other cookie options are Highland Directors Shortbread Selection, Walkers Scottish Biscuit Selection, Fox’s Vinnie Panda Tin, and Jacobs USA Tin. I’m sure these will please Santa. Whichever you choose, leave him the whole package so you don’t look like you’re trying to put him on a diet. It’s not nice to imply that Santa is a bit … um … well … less than svelte!

Follow this advice, and see how much your haul of Christmas loot increases. My share will be a modest 10% of your stack of stuff, or better yet, just leave me a pot of tea and a package of cookies. Ho ho ho!!

© 2009-2016 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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