I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a sweets-snob. Growing up, my family prepared an array of specialty sweets in the week or two before Christmas. Although the actual sweets differ, my Czech in-laws are also keen on baking multiple varieties of sweets weeks in advance of the holidays. Following Czech recipe tradition, their sweets are then left on the balcony to mature until a glorious unveiling after dinner on Christmas Eve.
This year, babička invited Anna Lee, who’s nearly five, for a weekend of holiday baking. Much to Oliver’s disappointment, he was declared too young to be helpful. I didn’t get many details from Anna after her baking weekend; however, babička reported that Anna had been šikovná (clever), once she learned the necessary techniques. Both babička and Anna complained of sore backs, and babička lamented that she still had three more varieties of sweets to make before she was finished.
After a childhood of eating homemade delicacies I felt compelled to make a few of my American favorites to add to the mix. My in-laws typically don’t care for what they call my “too-sweet” American desserts, but in the spirit of sharing traditions, I thought they might be curious to try a few new taste treats. My baking ambitions might not have been so daunting if I was a confident cook, but some of these recipes, although having tasted them often, I had never actually made on my own.
With Christmas fast approaching, I spent the past week dashing in and out of shopping markets and Prague specialty stores trying to track down ingredients. I found most Czech equivalents for my basic baking needs, but I had a harder time tracking down semi-sweet chocolate chips, peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, mature cheddar cheese, whole pecans and fine grain confectioner’s sugar.
From my years of living in Prague, I’ve grown accustomed to adapting recipes (i.e. chunks of chopped Milka bars instead of chocolate chips) and baking with whatever ingredients I find readily on hand in the Czech supermarkets. In the past, I have found frequenting Prague specialty stores both too troublesome and wildly expensive. However, it might just be my upbringing, but Christmas is an exception. I ventured to the highly-touted, expat-friendly Robertson’s butchers for fine-powdered English icing sugar and cheddar cheese. Next on my list was marshmallow fluff, which a Czech friend tipped me off was carried at Tesco. After visiting three different Tesco stores however, the only marshmallow fluff I found had a manufacturer’s expiration date of Nov 30, 2009. Having already beat my way around the city and thoroughly worn out, I figured, what was a few weeks more or less and bought the expired fluff anyway.
Once I’d secured my ingredients or their close equivalents, the recipes themselves didn’t appear too complicated. However, once I started to put things together, I found myself repeatedly calling my father at his work; my hot line for baking tips and reassurance. Each time his surprised receptionist asked if everything was all right, when I assured her that I was fine, just suffering from baking insecurity, she laughed and got my father on the phone. My father had plentiful advice, but in the end I realized, I was going to have to figure these recipes out on my own.
Despite eager promises, my children didn’t do much to facilitate the baking process, apart from tasting the dough. Naively, I thought Oliver might want to help me, but he was far more interested in just sneaking tastes, especially of my precious Nestle chocolate chips. After unsuccessfully trying to teach Anna how to roll a crumbly concoction of butter, confectioner’s sugar and peanut butter into perfectly-shaped round balls for dipping into chocolate, I lost my patience. I couldn’t get the dough into a neat ball myself, so how could I attempt to properly advise her.
I felt a pang of guilt as I exhorted her to wash her hands and go watch Večerníček, the children’s bedtime fairy tale show. Christmas baking was supposed to be a family activity, I reminded myself as she grumbled away. I remembered Radek had decorated gingerbread cookies with the kids over the weekend, so I resolved to make up for my short temper by mixing up some sugar cookie dough that the kids could then press into shapes. That would be fun, I reassured myself.
Once most of my sweets were safely stowed alongside babička’s in the garage, I concentrated on the last hurdle, preparing the dipping chocolate for my peanut-butter candies, a confection I had grown up calling buckeyes. Although my parents’ recipe called for mixing paraffin wax with Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips, when I’d asked Radek if he could find paraffin, he shook his head in confusion and declared he’d never heard of such a thing for baking. I consulted with other friends, both Czech and American, and everyone agreed that paraffin, even the food-grade variety, was probably not a good thing to add to an edible sweet.
Confused, I called my parents back to double-check. Yes, they insisted, it was just a little bit of wax, the kind that people used to use for canning, just enough to make the chocolate balls have a smooth sheen to them. A food-approved version was sold in supermarkets in America, and my mom offered to buy some and bring it over to me on their next trip. I stewed over the information. Even if I could locate the paraffin, knowing that my favorite Christmas sweets had wax in them was unsettling, especially when I found lively internet discussions offering substitutes for “old-fashioned” recipes that used to use paraffin. Nowadays evidently, chefs recommend using either a higher-grade baking chocolate or substituting a little vegetable shortening.
In the end, Radek provided the solution. We mixed a prepared Czech icing mix with a bar of baking chocolate. I’d once tried to use the icing and became annoyed when it quickly hardened with a glossy shine instead of spreading nicely. Radek’s idea proved to be ingenious (and more palatable too).
One final Christmas sweet my family bakes just before Christmas Day is a sweet bread, something like the Czech vánočka, but with cream-cheese filling. The jury is still out as to whether I’ll have enough stamina and the desire to bring the tradition to our Czech family, but since no one in our Czech family makes a homemade vánočka, I think there’s reason to give it a try.