Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas: Traditions and Gemütlichkeit

For the first time in about seven years we have snow for Christmas.  It began to snow on Christmas Eve morning and now, Christmas Day, it is still snowing.  It is calm and beautiful.  We shall be at home to enjoy the beauty through our windows.

We have celebrated 4th Advent with the Christmas celebration now upon us.  The Christmas season means special food prepared at home for the family.  Though our family is in Canada and far away, we shall enjoy all our traditional food as always.  Christmas Eve (Heilig Abend) means Coquilles St. Jacques as well as wieners and potato salad for us.  They certainly don't go together but we have compromised and do have both.  First, the scallops; then after a short break, the wieners and potato salad.

The wieners are not the type one gets in North America, although they are similar.  The German variety is longer, breaks off crisply when you bite into it and has a different spicing.  Generally, you just hold one in your hand and dip the end into a medium or sharp mustard and take a bite.  If eating at a kiosk, you will be served a Brötchen with it (a roll or bun), which is crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. The wiener is not placed inside the Brötchen; both are eaten separately.

Hans demonstrates how one dips the wiener into the mustard (shown on the side of the plate).  No Brötchen today for lunch.

It was the tradition in Hans' family, as in the majority of families in the area in which he grew up--the Mark Brandenburg just east of Berlin--for wieners and potato salad to be served on Heilig Abend.  That tradition was continued for his children who grew up in Canada and western Germany.  As they always celebrated Christmas Eve the German way, with the 24th being the most anticipated of all the Weihnachtstagen (Christmas days), it meant an easy and fast meal--the potato salad made ahead and the wieners taking only minutes to heat and cook--before the children saw their decorated tree for the first time, their toys around it and before the opening of their gifts.

Hans' potato salad, made a few hours ahead, using broth and not mayonnaise

The mustard is shown on the plate to the right of the potato salad.  This was a medium German mustard.

I grew up the Canadian way with Christmas Day, the 25th, being the most anticipated day for children, as that is when we saw our tree with all the gifts and toys surrounding it.  And, of course, we also had our huge goose or turkey dinner on that day.  The 24th, however, was an important and exciting day for us as well, one that always included a special Christmas Eve supper, though not always the same food each year.  We didn't have Coquilles St Jacques; that was a tradition I started with my children.  I had certainly grown up eating scallops as the Maritime provinces are well known for them as well as other mollusks and crustaceans.

The raw scallops at left have the coral attached.  Hans likes the coral very much, though I prefer mine without it.  These were bought in France, where the coral is considered a delicacy.

Digby, Nova Scotia, where scallops are renowned, is only 40 minutes west of our summer place.  During our time there we can buy fresh scallops on the town dock, at a fish store along the Bay of Fundy, from the back of a fish truck that sets up in the towns (or delivers personally) and, of course, at the supermarkets.  Here in Germany they are more difficult to come by, though they can be found.  

We always go over to Alsace, France before Christmas to buy ours.  (It is just a half hour's drive, which includes a five-minute ferry ride across the Rhine River.)  While there, we might buy cheese and red wine as well.

The picture on the right shows part of the fish counter at the medium-size supermarket we shop at in Rhinau, in the Alsace.

The first time I had Coquilles St. Jacques was in Marville, France in about 1962 at a special Air Force dinner.  The scallop shells were edged with pureed potatoes, slightly golden in colour, with the most delicious mixture of scallops and mushrooms in the centre, covered by a delectable sauce.  I still remember that dish.  A few years later, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, our next door neighbour, Sylvia May, gave me a recipe for it, one she made each year for Christmas.  I made it and liked it; later, however, I found the recipe that I have been making ever since.  There are faster recipes for this dish, but this is the best I've had.  It is from Time-Life and The Cooking of Provincial France, a recipe book I have used many times over the years for other things as well, including roast chicken and Boeuf Bourguignon (both superb).

I have made a few changes in my scallop recipe since then.  Sometimes the ingredient amounts are different, but it is the same basic recipe.  I still use butter and cream and eggs. 

The picture below left shows the scallops and mushrooms before the remaining sauce was placed over them.  The picture on the right shows the sauce covering them.

The just baked Coquille below.

Here is the recipe as I make it:

Coquilles Saint-Jacques a la Parisienne (Scallops in a white wine sauce)  
To serve 6  (I halve the recipe for the two of us and make smaller portions so we then have four Coquilles, two for Christmas and two for the freezer.)

1-1/2 cups fresh or canned chicken stock
1-1/2 cups dry white wine (Riesling is preferable)
3 to 4 green onions (scallions) or shallots, sliced
3 celely tops with leaves, cut into 2-inch pieces
3 to 4 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
10 whole peppercorns
2 pounds large scallops, cut into 1/2 inch slices; halve them or leave whole if small
3/4 pound (12 oz/375 grams) fresh mushrooms, sliced

Sauce Parisienne
4 tablespoons butter (unsalted)
5 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup milk
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup heavy cream (or more if needed)
2 to 3 drops lemon juice (or to taste)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
Grinding of white pepper
1/4 cup or more grated Swiss cheese (I use more and a combination of Emmental and Mozzarella)

Butter six scallop shells or oven-proof baking dishes and set them on a baking sheet.  The shells can be bought at many stores in the dishware department.  They add an authentic touch to this dish.  Preheat the oven to 375F/190C.

Method:  In a heavy large saucepan, bring the stock, wine, green onions, celery tops, parsley, bay leaf and peppercorns to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes.  Strain the bouillon through a sieve into a large enamel or stainless steel skillet or frying pan.  Add the scallops and mushrooms; cover and simmer for 5 minutes.  Do not simmer any longer as you want the scallops to remain soft and not overcooked.  Transfer the scallops and mushrooms to a large bowl.  Quickly reduce the remaining bouillon to 1 cup.

Sauce:  In a large stainless steel saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat.  After the foam subsides, lift the pan from the heat and stir in the flour.  Place back on low heat and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute or so.  Do not let this brown.  Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the reduced bouillon and the milk, stirring constantly.  Return to high heat and cook, stirring the sauce with a whisk.  You don't want it to burn on the bottom.  When it thickens and comes to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer slowly for one minute.

Mix the egg yolks and 1/4 cup heavy cream together in a small bowl.  (I do this beforehand.)  Stir into it 2 tablespoons of the hot sauce.  Add 2 more tablespoons of sauce, then whisk the now-heated egg yolk and cream mixture back into the remaining sauce in the pan.  Bring the sauce to a boil over moderate heat, stirring constantly; boil for about 30 seconds.  Remove the pan from the heat and season with the lemon juice, salt and pepper.  The sauce should coat a spoon thickly; if too thick, thin it with cream.

Discard any juice that may be under the scallops and mushrooms in the bowl.  Then pour in about 2/3 of the Sauce Parisienne over the scallop mixture and stir together carefully.  Spoon the mixture into the buttered shells or baking dishes.  Cover the mixture with the remaining sauce and sprinkle liberally with cheese.  Note:  Hans likes capers in his as he says it adds flavor and a little pizzazz; they should be added to the shells along with the scallops and mushrooms before covering the mixture with the sauce and cheese.  (I prefer mine the classic way, without the capers.)

Bake the Coquilles in the top third of the oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese melting.  Then slide them under a hot broiler until the cheese is golden brown if wished.  (Serve these as a first course.)  Place the scallop shells on a luncheon plate with a lemon slice on the side and a sprig of parsley for decoration.  If so desired, you can edge the scallop dishes with pureed potato.  Both the cheese and the potato should be golden when cooked.  I don't add the potatoes but it does make a nice presentation and is more filling, especially if having no other dish to follow it.


For wine, we drank a Riesling Auslese halbtrocken (not dry and not sweet; literally, half dry) from Partenheim, a gift from Hans' son and family.  It was perfect with the Coquilles.  On the side, we had buttered toast points.

Lighted candles on our tree on Christmas Eve

A picture from a TV show on Christmas Eve, in a church in Bavaria.

For us, Christmas Day means goose and all the trimmings, which we shall have this evening.  

Merry Christmas!  Frohe Weihnachten!

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