Miniatur Wunderland and the Hamburg Christmas Market

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s the time of year when friends ask “Where are you vacationing this summer?” as openers of conversations.  The answer one of my students gave me this week was “Hamburg, Germany.”  He is a big model railroading enthusiast, and Hamburg has the world’s largest model railroad, Miniatur Wunderland.  One of my favorite Christmas topics is train gardens, but I had not heard of this miraculous sight.  Right now, there are eight unique areas with over 13,000 meters of track with nearly 1,000 trains.  The current design requires 46 computers and over 230 employees.  I am including a video of the trains with a link to the website.

Although the Miniatur Wunderland does not advertise any specific Christmas trains or train activities, I learned that Germany is proud of its traditional Christmas Markets, and Hamburg’s especially interesting.  Opening this year on November 25, the event is hosted by world-famous Roncalli Circus performers.  Each evening, Santa visits, arriving on a sleigh in the sky. I watched a video, and I can’t exactly figure out how Santa is flying, but it’s quite the spectacle.

The market advertises beautiful hand-crafted gifts, including traditional German Aachen Spice Cookies.  I looked up a recipe, and I am suggesting that Jeremy and I will need to experiment with the cookies.  I suspect that they will be close to a molasses/gingerbread taste.  We’re going to have to find a German baker who will guide us through the process, and I have one of my mom’s friends in mind.



Santa and Christmas – Gangnam Style

5:45 a.m.  A blur of dancing Santas on the gym television screens caught my eye.  From Australia, a group of 150 were dressed as Santas and dancing Gangnam style on the deck of the Australian naval ship HMAS Ballarat in Sydney Harbour.

The purpose was to raise awareness for a charity fun run next month, where organizers expect upwards of 5,000 Santas in Sydney and 25,000 throughout Australia.  Through this huge event, Variety, the Children’s Charity, delivers millions to help poor, disadvantaged, and handicapped children.

No podcast today!  The whole house smells like mint and chocolate because I’m baking candy cane topped brownies tonight to prepare for our tree designing party tomorrow. (My first “from scratch” brownies.  Recipe from Sugar Plum Blog here.) We’re gathering at Jeremy’s house to practice setting up our trees for the Kennedy Kreiger Festival of Trees, and we plan to have the entire group help us to record our weekly podcast.  More tomorrow!

Mmmm… Shortbread!

Food is such a huge part of Christmas festivities and celebrations!  Tasty treats are also a big part of our time with the Yule Log.  Each Monday we get together to review our plans for our podcast and discuss the previous and upcoming week ideas.  These meetings usually include some type of sweet treat.  Our most regular choice is shortbread cookies!  These great tasting cookies are a regular at Christmas time, but is there some type of true Christmas connection?

Traditional shortbread was first created in Scotland and is widely associated with the U.K.  Shortbread is a simple combination of sugar, butter, and flour.  It is really a bread, more accurately a biscuit.  It is unleavened and finishes firm, some might even say hard.  The way the bread holds its shape during cooking is part of why it is a popular holiday choice.  Shortbread dates back to the 12th century and really took off in the 16th century.  It was quite an expensive indulgence for the common person.  This is where the connection to Christmas comes in.  People would save throughout the year to splurge for the treats on Christmas.  Bakers and merchants linked to this practice and today we see the increased marketing at that time of the year.  (Natalie and I like shortbread ALL year, not just Christmas!)

If you want to bake your own shortbread there are hundreds of recipes available online.  I picked three that Natalie and I plan to try in the coming weeks.    From we have Vel’s Christmas shortbread, a simple 3 ingredient recipe needing LOTS of elbow grease.  Next we have Martha Stewart’s Basic Shortbread (She actually has over 30 shortbread recipes!)  Finally from we will try out Chocolate Shortbread.  If you want to buy some shortbread your first choice should be Walkers Shortbread.  The Scottish based and family-owned company has been making shortbread with the secret family recipe since 1898.  Their products are available throughout the US at speciality stores and grocery stores.  We will be sure to let you know how our baking turns out- we may even try a little baking during one of our upcoming podcasts!

Countdown Podcast #14- 372 Days to Go!

Podcast #14- MMM… Chocolate! – Click to hear this week’s podcast.

Today we get into the spirit of candy!  Basically all this Easter candy has us thinking ahead to Christmas confections.  There is a lot to discuss when thinking of Christmas Candies.  What kind do you like?  To give or to keep?  Homemade or store purchased?  We are in agreement that often the best choice for giving chocolate and other treats at the holidays is to make it at home.  This can be quite easy and in many cases more economical than the store-bought treats.  Natalie will be sharing some great and simple recipes later this week.  Jeremy will be working on his new peanut butter ball recipe.  When your delicious treats are finished the final step is the presentation.  What container will you choose?  Remember secret #10- Keep it Simple as a guide.  Take time during Easter to practice  your candy making skills for Christmas 2012- your family and friends will thank you!

In addition to Oreo cookies (see 3-6-12 post), Nabisco makes the ever-popular animal crackers. Did you know the circus box with the handle is the product of a Christmas marketing campaign?

Animal cookies were first produced in England, and shortly before the 20th Century they were introduced in America.  Stauffers, the local bakery in York, introduced them in 1871. Other companies made similar versions.

Nabisco produced the circus train box and renamed their crackers Barnum’s Circus for the  1902 Christmas season, with the string designed to hang from the branches of the Christmas tree. The box then sold for 5 cents.

There will probably always be lions and tigers, bears and elephants, but the dog and jaguar have been replaced by the hyena and gorilla. Today each package contains 22 crackers with a variety of animals. The Koala is the newest addition, voted on by consumers, beating out the penguin, walrus and cobra. The Koala bear joined the 18 other animals in September 2002.  I wasn’t aware of the voting because I think I would have thrown my support behind penguins.

There have been three limited edition animal crackers:  the Endangered Animals box in 1995, the Chocolate Zoo in 1997 and the Marine Collection in 1998.

I searched for Christmas recipes that involve animal crackers, but, instead, came up with gingerbread, sugar, and other forms of the basic animal cracker recipe.  Nabisco is doing just fine in that area–I imagine anything I bake from scratch would be poor imitations.  What do you think?

Santa wants Oreos with milk

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Oreo cookie.  As a staple in American lunchbox, the Oreo is well-connected to Christmas and Christmas recipes.

Oreos were first introduced in 1912.  The Hydrox cookie, one I thought was a bad imitation of an Oreo, was first sold in 1908!   On the podcast, “How to Do Everything,” the hosts recommend that to enjoy the Oreo and milk, one should skewer the Oreo with a fork, gently, in the crème center so that the entire cookie can be dunked.

Looking for variety?  The double-stuffed Oreo was introduced in 1975. (My vote—epic fail.  Too much crème.)  In 1987, the fudge-covered Oreo was introduced (my vote—blah), and the Halloween Oreo was first sold in 1991.  In 1995, the Christmas or Winter Oreo was introduced with a red crème center.

There are 21 Christmas themed Oreo recipes on the Nabisco site, including Christmas Tree Cookie Ball Pops.  There’s also a wicked golden Oreo and coconut recipe.

I’m including a few of my favorites,Christmas Eve Mice and Oreo balls (with variations). Click on the highlighted links for he full recipe.   Check out the birthday celebration at Nabisco!

The bottom line is that Christmas + Oreos = Magic!

Krusteaz Sugar Cookies: A shortcut worth taking

When we were kids, baking and frosting my mom’s homemade sugar cookies was high on our list of anticipated Christmas activities.  I am still partial to the 8-piece red plastic set of cookie cutters that was my mom’s, and I just can’t settle in to using the newer metal ones.  It may sound odd now, but we sucked a hole into each raw cookie with a straw so that they could hang from the tree at Christmas. I had no qualms then about eating them off the tree.  Now, it would be a different story.

Rolled and cut sugar cookies, of all the Christmas treats are, in my humble opinion, the most labor intensive.  In the years when my Christmas spirit doesn’t develop, the sugar cookies are the first to be sacrificed.  The solution, I discovered this year, is to cheat.

At Thanksgiving, we were trolling the aisles at Costco, presumably buying “only what’s on the list,” but our cart was already full of extras, when we stumbled upon an enormous back of Krusteaz Sugar Cookie Mix.  In full impulse shopping mode, we bought a $17.00 bag that advertised it made 21 dozen cookies.

We made our first two batches in early December, dropping the dough on the pan.  They were thin, crisp, and amazingly sweet (even without sugar sprinkles).  We proceeded to make more batches through the holidays, using the alternate recipe on the bag for rolled and cut cookies.  Perfect every time (even I didn’t ruin them).  No frosting needed.

We calculated that we got our money’s worth:  total investment (with butter and eggs), $22.00.  That’s less than 10 cents a cookie.  Voracious cookie eaters, we couldn’t bake and eat enough to finish the bag until I baked them for a birthday party tonight, in late January.  I cut them into heart shapes and sprinkled them with red sugar.

I discovered this size bag is available November – December at Costco, but plenty of grocery stores nearby stock the regular single-batch,  3-dozen variety year-round.  Making a list of things to remember for next year?  (Who doesn’t ?)  Keep your eyes peeled in November for Krusteaz.