Luscious jam filling is the star of this quick holiday dessert.
I love food and I love history. Oh, and I love Christmas. Combine these three elements and I there’s no telling how deep into the research rabbit hole I can go. But I will pack a lunch, so it’s all good.
I’ll hazard a guess here and say most busy home cooks staring at their to-do list for holiday food prep do not wonder, “Gee, I wonder why we eat this for the holidays.” But those of us who love getting lost reading about food history (like me) are here to answer that question.
One could write a book about where our holiday food traditions come from—I checked, and there are many—but for this story, let’s look briefly at why fruit is so prominent in a so many holiday foods, like fruitcake, breads, and cookies. Heck, every year, I had an apple and orange in my Christmas stocking, and my Mom told stories of how fruit was often the only gift she’d receive on Christmas.
After Pope Julius I, Rome’s fourth-century bishop, declared Dec. 25 as the official birth date of Jesus, pagan festivals celebrated around the winter solstice over the years melded into the Christian holiday. Interestingly, an ancient pagan customi n the cider-producing areas of England (Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent, and Sussex) is still practiced. On Twelfth Night, people visit fruit orchards making a ruckus to awaken tree spirits and chase away any evil ones lurking in the winter shadows. We know this practice as wassailing. Before moving to the next orchard, someone places a piece of bread soaked in wassail (the drink) into the apple tree’s branches, thereby ensuring a fruitful harvest next year.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was a quiet time for fasting and prayer that lead up to Epiphany on Jan. 6 when the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus was celebrated. By the High Middle Ages, observances of the 12 Days of Christmas were in full swing. By the 1400s, breads such as panettone, fruitcake, and stöllen were baked for Christmas because dried fruits and sugar were expensive imports and saved for special occasions. Popular dried fruits, in part, included apricots. This fruit today is often seen in the German stöllens sold at traditional Christmas markets in Europe and in lighter recipes for fruitcake.
But fruit-laced baking, of course, is not confined to Christmas traditions. Many Jewish families when celebrating Hanukah serve rugelach cookies. Rugelach, which means “little twists” in Yiddish, originated in Poland’s Jewish communities. Rugelach can be filled with fruit jams, dried fruit and nuts, or even chocolate.
So, back to the apricot bars. This bar cookie was part of our annual holiday baking tradition. I still have the original recipe card in my Grandma’s handwriting. Each year, she’d pull it out of the box and mix up a batch or two.
Like most of the traditions observed during Christmas, our family just “did it” without much discussion, so as a result, I don’t really know why these cookies were always on the cookie platter. Maybe because they were not hard to make; you don’t even have to get out the mixer for this one. I have memories of Mom and Grandma deftly working the kitchen during cookie-baking season in tandem, with Mom in charge of one batch while Grandma started another. That’s probably the biggest reason the apricot bars were made each year, but the romantic in me likes to think it was Grandma honoring our German heritage that made this cookie a family favorite.
The other cool thing about these cookies is you likely have every ingredient already in your pantry. Of course, if you don’t have apricot jam, orange marmalade is an easy swap. You also could use apple or cherry jam and as a bonus, know you’d be keeping with a food tradition that goes back hundreds of years.