CHRISTMAS was a special time in Latvia, the country my parents came from. In this tiny land off the Baltic Sea, the winters were long and cold. Christmas was important because it gave the Latvians, most of whom were farmers, a needed break during December's darkness. While growing up, I heard stories of the special holiday preparations that began as early as a month before the big day.
Christmas was the time for special cakes, cookies, and other delicacies that were not to be had at any other time of the year. My mother recalls that sometimes the children in her family each received an orange - an incredibly exotic fruit to these northern people - as a special yuletide treat.
Here are three recipes for Latvian sweets that we have enjoyed for many years. They would be a nice variation for any holiday table.
Piparkukas (which means pepper cookies) are actually made with white pepper. Spicier than gingersnaps, the dough should be prepared and refrigerated at least two weeks in advance for the full flavor to set in. In Latvia, the dough was made around mid-November to give the spices plenty of time to permeate.
These cookies were strung and used to decorate Christmas trees in Latvia, much in the same way popcorn was used by early American settlers to brighten up their Christmas trees.
Piparkukas 1/3 cup honey 1/2 cup dark molasses 1 cup dark brown sugar 1/2 cup butter 3 tablespoons shortening 4 3/4 cups sifted flour, divided in half 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon white pepper 1/2 teaspoon cloves 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cardamom 1/2 teaspoon coriander 2 eggs, slightly beaten 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder Slivered almonds, optional 1 egg, beaten
Heat first five ingredients in saucepan to boiling point, until butter and shortening are melted and ingredients well blended.
Mix together 21/2 cups flour and all spices. Fold flour mixture into butter mixture with wooden spoon until well blended. Cool. Add eggs.
In small bowl, mix together remaining flour with baking soda and baking powder.
When other mixture is completely cooled, add remaining flour mixture. You will have to knead this in by hand. Continue kneading until dough is shiny.
Dough should be allowed to ``set,'' covered tightly, for at least a week in refrigerator.
When ready to prepare, roll out dough until quite thin (between 1/8-inch and 1/16-inch thickness). With cookie cutters, cut out shapes desired. Decorate with slivered almonds, if desired.
Brush cookies with beaten egg before popping in the oven to give them a glossy surface.
Bake in hot oven (400 to 425 degrees F.) until light brown (about 5 min.). Check frequently, as ovens may vary. Cookies will be crunchy and can be stored in airtight container for a few weeks.
Apples were the only fresh fruit available in the fall and winter in the Baltic, and Latvian cookbooks abound with numerous apple pastry recipes. This apple tart was frequently served around Christmas. Not too sweet, it is a nice change from heavy pastries and cookies. Abolu Maize (Apple Tart) Crust 1/2 quart whole milk 1 1/2 sticks margarine or shortening Pinch salt 1 package dry yeast 2 1/2 cups flour 2 teaspoons sugar
Heat milk and margarine unil melted. Cool. Stir in enough flour to make mixture thick and sticky. Blend well with wooden spoon. Prepare yeast according to package directions. Add sugar and yeast mixture to dough and blend well.
Let dough rise, covered, in warm, draftless place until doubled in size. Knead in remaining flour until dough doesn't stick to bowl or fingers. Punch down. Let rise again until doubled in size.
Roll out dough to cookie sheet size. Place on greased cookie sheet.
Topping 2 pounds tart green apples (preferably pippin or Granny Smith) peeled, cored, thinly sliced and sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning 1 beaten egg 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Combine egg, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until well blended.
Arrange apple slices in vertical rows, with slices overlapping each other by three quarters.
Brush egg mixture over apples to cover. Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees F.) for 25 to 30 minutes, or until apples are slightly curled and crust is golden brown.
Cut in diagonal pieces.