Monday, December 3, 2012

St. Nicholas Day and Tangerines

Saint Nicholas will be coming to visit my two boys this week on December 6th... the day designated by the Catholic Church to honor the saint who is the patron of children. In many European countries (including the Czech Republic,) children hang their stocking or place shoes by the fireplace the night of December 5th, knowing they'll be filled overnight with small treats by St. Nick.

Growing up, I always felt the celebration of this holiday was unique to Texas Czechs. I never met another child who knew what it was and, as an adult, only other Texas Czechs seem to know about it. And usually those adults I've met who do know it only have vague memories of the meaning and the activities surrounding it. That's more interesting when you consider that the name Santa Claus evolved from Sinterklaas, a short form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas.) There are a few places in the state that have public events for the holiday, including the Czech Center Museum Houston which hosts a holiday dinner (for grown ups) on December 6th and the town of West which features Svaty Mikulas (Saint Nicholas) at their Christmas Market on December 7-8 and 14-15. But it's rare for me to meet someone who's children still hang their stockings on the night of December 5th as my boys do; as I did; as my mother did; as my grandmother did.

Traditionally -- for children who have been good all year -- candy, little toys, nuts and fruit were waiting on the morning of the 6th. We were told that bad children would receive rotten potatoes, coal, or a switch (for their parents to beat them with.) I don't really remember the toys I received - maybe Matchbox cars, maybe a Barbie. My 14-year-old son has looked forward to an iTunes gift card the last couple of years. (The times, they are a changin'.) For candy, I specifically remember getting a candy cane, chocolate coins, a "book" of Lifesaver rolls, a Pez dispenser, and, for the family, a bowl of Brach's hard raspberry candies would be near the fireplace. My sister and I still search for the raspberries and chocolate coins every year for our children, usually finding them at Walgreen's of all places. I look for the other candies, too, for my boys, though none of them are Czech, nor are the nuts, apples and tangerines I put in the stockings. It's the holiday that has some cultural significance for us, not the foods. 

In 2012, it would pretty hard to get a child excited about a tangerine considering the embarrassment of riches in US grocery stores. My mom gets teary-eyed thinking about the box of oranges her father would order from the Valley for the holidays. Though my older son does know how special the tangerines in his stocking are because he picked them himself from a tree in my mother's backyard -- see the picture above. (If my 4-year-old knew where the fruit came from, it would blow the whole mirage of St. Nicholas' visit.)

In 1993, my now-ex-husband was working for a community gardening project in Houston lead by a now-legendary-gardener name Bob Randall, who started Urban Harvest there. For our wedding present, we received from Bob and his wife, Nancy, a tangerine tree not even two feet tall. We were living in a series of duplexes in pre-gentrified Montrose, so we planted the tree in my parents' backyard in suburban Katy. It was the right spot for the right tree stock and today the tree is two stories tall and produces hundreds and hundreds of tangerines around Thanksgiving. 

My sons, nieces and nephews love to climb up into the tight branches with clippers to pick the fruit. (So do complete strangers who pick the tangerines from branches hanging over the back fence. This infuriates my Dad even though, at some point, we simply can't pick, eat, or juice any more and the tangerines start rotting off the tree.) Family members have made tangerine marmalade, tangerine martinis, tangerine vinaigrette, juice for breakfast, and used tangerines in the Jell-O salad we have on our Christmas Eve table (one of only a couple of foods that don't have a Czech origin.)

I have a basket of tangerines on my cabinet right now, picked Thanksgiving weekend by my son, brother, father and me. Since St. Nicholas Day is the first opportunity to start baking for Christmas, I decided to try cookies using them. Below is a variation on the recipe for Czech cookies called Linecke Testo DvoubarevneThey are also a variation of the pinwheel cookies my mother makes at Christmas -- hers are green and white or red and white and flavored with peppermint extract. My cookies do have two colors -- orange and white instead of the traditional black and white. They have a bright, but subtle tangerine flavor and are not too sweet. I think they'd be very pretty with sparkly sugar sprinkled on top before baking.

The four-year-old licking the mixer beaters. 

Tangerine Pinwheel Cookies
8 ounces softened butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
zest from two small tangerines
red and yellow food coloring
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg and the vanilla and mix until until fluffy. (I used a hand mixer up until this point.) Add the flour and work into a smooth dough. Divide the dough in half. Into one half, mix in the tangerine zest, 3 drops of red food coloring and 6 drops of yellow. You have to work the dough thoroughly to get the zest and coloring evenly distributed. But work fast! The dough is so full of butter that it gets soft and sticky quickly. Put the two doughs into the refrigerator for about an hour to stiffen them up a bit and make rolling easier. 

The two layers of dough being rolled up into a "log."
Roll each of the two doughs out on the cabinet or between waxed or parchment paper into a rectangle shape. Lay the contrasting colored rectangle of dough on top and roll them up together into a log. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the dough "log" into 1/4-inch cookies and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 10-15 minutes, being careful not to let them brown and then cool them on a wire rack. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Tangerine Pinwheel Cookies cooling on the rack. 

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