In my quest to live more like a local, I decided to bring some Catalan holiday traditions to my family’s Christmas table. The traditional Catalan holiday dishes, admittedly, seemed so different from the dishes I typically prepare, with ingredients not entirely to my taste. Undaunted, I decided to enlist the help of chef, cooking teacher, and local guide Iris Hillier to walk me through the recipes and help ease my feelings of holiday homesickness.
Catalan holiday celebrations and meals occur throughout the months of December for Christmas and January for the Día de Los Tres Magos or Three Kings Day on January 6, when there are large parades in Barcelona and family gatherings to exchange gifts. Depending upon your tolerance level, it’s either smart to spread the burdens and challenges of holiday cooking and preparation or insane create even more family gatherings, requiring meals to cook and presents to buy. There are a variety of traditional dishes for the holiday season and many families prepare them to take along for visits from one family celebration to the next.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with Christmas Eve.
December 24: The Soup
The Escudella de Nadal or Sopa de Galets is a traditional Catalan soup that is often served on Christmas Eve. The soup does double duty because it may be eaten in two parts or combined for one meaty starter dish. Families sometimes first serve just the stock made from the carn d’olla – the meat of the pot. The carn d’olla is an incredible mixture of meats, including botifarra (sausages). The star of the show though is la pilota, the massive meatball that floats in the center of the broth, along with the extra large shell pasta (galets). According to Catalan tradition, la pilota must be big enough to feed everyone in the family (whether you like them or not) to prevent fighting at the dinner table. Before serving the soup, the carn d’olla is removed from the stock and holiday guests eat the broth with the pasta and la pilota first. The remainder of the carn d’olla is then served on a platter as the second course of the holiday meal.
The sheer amount and variety of meat (four to six types!) that goes into preparing the stock may be off-putting. Plus, as with any stock preparation, the entire simmering process takes approximately two hours, with the end result being something that looks a lot like chicken noodle soup. Don’t tell Catalans that though – they have been reportedly enjoying their escudella since the 4th century, when they were said to eat it almost daily. At its heart though, this is a holiday soup, prepared for family and friends, during a time of the year when we are supposed to slow down and prepare thoughtful dishes. And what’s not to love about a giant, spiced meatball?
December 25: The Stuffed Chicken
Catalans also make during the Christmas holidays La Pularda Nadal or pollastre amb prunes, a stuffed roast chicken with prunes and garlic that looked like the chicken marabella recipes from my childhood days in Rhode Island. When Chef Iris tapped into the culinary memory of Tina Parayre García, a friend’s abuelita, to find an authentic recipe for this traditional savory roasted chicken with sweet stuffing and rich sauce of prunes, raisins, sherry and pine nuts, I realized this was definitely not the recipe of my childhood memories.
Neither was the preparation like any of my prior Christmas poultry-roasting adventures. For starters, the recipe calls for a pularda, which is a type of chicken fattened specifically for meat production and prevented from laying eggs. Don’t tell the abuelita, but we took the easy way out with a regular, store-bought, egg-laying chicken. I offered to help Iris cook as she bustled around her modern chef’s kitchen, and soon found myself massaging manteca de cerdo (pig fat) all over the chicken. We then prepared the stuffing, a mix of crumbled madalena (muffin), foie gras, sausage, hard-boiled egg and cream. With my hands already well-greased, I found it easy to slip the stuffing into the bird’s cavity. Iris then helped me tie the drumsticks with twine before putting it into the oven for an hour. Partway through the roasting process, we added MORE manteca and whole garlic cloves to roast in the chicken grease, then splashed the entire bird with copious amounts of sherry.
This dish is not for the faint-of-heart cook or the picky eater. Between the pig fat and the Catalan stuffing this is not a light or simple recipe! On the plus side, my hands have never been softer and better moisturized, even after doing the dishes! Once the combination of ingredients began cooking, they soon filled Iris’s apartment with the delectable smell of roasted garlic and poultry that finally reminded me of childhood holidays with oven-roasted poultry.
Catalan Holiday Desserts
Is it any surprise that these meaty, rich meals of giant meatballs and muffin-stuffed roasted birds leave little room for dessert? Typical holiday desserts in Catalonia tend to differ from the Christmas cakes, puddings, and pies that I am used to. But Catalan holiday desserts tend to be purchased, not made at home, and what’s not to love about getting a break from the hot kitchen stove.
The most common sweet is turrón, or torró in Catalan. You may have heard local children singing to the Caga Tío, that most Catalan of holiday characters, begging him to poop out turrón and not sardines. Turrón is a nougat bar made from egg whites, sugar, honey and almonds or hazelnuts, originally imported in the Middle Ages by settlers from Arabic lands. Today you will see turrón in every flavor imaginable: chocolate, Catalan cream, coconut, and even a gin and tonic flavor created by Catalonian chef sensation Ferran Adriá. Popular brands, such as Suchard, Torrón Vincens, and El Lobo, can be easily found at local supermarkets during the holiday season. We recommend seeking out some of Barcelona’s old-school bakeries (Planelles Donat dates from 1885) in the narrow streets of Barcelona to taste homemade turrón.
Catalans also add crunchy, rolled, lemon wafer cookies, known as nueles, to their holiday dessert selection. Neules are perfect for nibbling while toasting with cava. According to one popular theory, the cookies may have been created by a nun who was interrupted while making communion wafers- lucky for us.
Roscón de Reyes / King´s Cake
Catalans save the most important holiday dessert, the roscón de reyes or king’s cake, for January 6 when they celebrate the arrival of the three kings and the day of the Epiphany. Bite into this special ring-shaped cake carefully though. A plastic king figurine and a dried fava bean rest below the topping of candied fruit. Catalans believe whoever finds the toy is crowned king or queen of the celebration, while the one who finds the bean has to buy the roscon de reyes next year. The roscón de reyes can be bought at bakeries or groceries, unless you really want to go to the effort of making one yourself – a feat that even most Catalans don’t endeavor. Reportedly, each year El Corte Inglés hides gold ingots inside some of the roscón cakes sold in stores across Spain. If you find one, let us know!
Leftovers, Catalan Style
Catalans traditionally serve canalóns on over the holidays, especially on December 26, San Esteban’s Day. This official public holiday celebrates the first known Christian martyr. The ever-practical Catalans make the canalóns with any meat left over from the carn d’olla or pularda. Catalans modify the Italian cannelloni by cooking the pasta so that it is softer and changing the sauce to bechamel, rather than a cheese-based sauce. There will definitely be leftovers after cooking up (or shopping for) some of these Catalan holiday foods.
You can contact Iris Hillier for more information about her cooking classes at [email protected]
This article was updated on December 10, 2019.