Out of the Frying Pan And Into the Antipodes--
Recipes & reminiscences from 70-plus years of New Zealand & Australian food; with some of the loves, some of the lovers, and some of the culinary & social history.
(A few names & places have been changed to protect the guilty)

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Dreaming Of A White Christmas

The sweet known as “White Christmas” is an Australian specialty, a kind of white fudge. Like many home-made sweets, it’s made in a solid slab and then cut up into pieces.
    The base ingredient is a vegetable fat which remains solid and stable at room temperature: either the hydrogenated coconut oil “copha” (the Australian term; in New Zealand it’s Kremelta), or white chocolate, which is sweetened cocoa butter (theobroma oil) from the cocoa bean.
    To this base the usual additions are glacé cherries, and any of a range of secondary ingredients such as other dried or crystallised fruits, rice bubbles (a favourite), desiccated coconut, nuts, a sweetener, and often a dairy option such as milk powder or even cream.

Healthy? No.
Before we look at the recipes, let’s get our facts straight. You didn’t think that sweets were gonna be good for you in any case, didja? No. However, given the current food fads, especially the fervent advocacy of coconut products, let’s find out exactly what we’re talking about, here. “White Christmas” may be based on copha or on white chocolate—but claims that one is healthier for you than the other are spurious. White chocolate does have less saturated fat than copha, but both are very high in saturated fat. And copha is something that should be eaten infrequently in very small quantities: not used as a base for anything you bake regularly. You’ll quite often see it in slice recipes. Avoid it.

*** Copha
Copha, as it’s called in Australia (“Kremelta” in New Zealand) is hydrogenated (solidified) coconut oil. You can find out all about coconut oil from Wikipedia’s excellent article “Coconut Oil” and believe you me, after reading it you won't ever believe it's healthy again. Here’s what it says on the process of turning the oil into a solid:

RBD [refined, bleached, and deodorized] coconut oil can be processed further into partially or fully hydrogenated oil to increase its melting point. …
   In the process of hydrogenation, unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids) are combined with hydrogen in a catalytic process to make them more saturated. Coconut oil contains only 6% monounsaturated and 2% polyunsaturated fatty acids. In the partial hydrogenation process, some of these are transformed into trans fatty acids.

“More saturated.” Ouch. What this means is, the coconut oil product (copha) gets worse.

*** White Chocolate
“White chocolate is a chocolate derivative. It commonly consists of cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids and is characterized by a pale yellow or ivory appearance.” (“White chocolate”, Wikipedia). Cocoa butter is the vegetable fat extracted from cocoa beans. Wikipedia’s article on it tells us: “It contains a high proportion of saturated fats as well as monounsaturated oleic acid.” (“Cocoa Butter”, Wikipedia).

*** Let’s compare fat facts
The list below, compiled from the two Wikipedia articles mentioned above, shows you the comparative fat content of coconut oil, cocoa butter, and a couple of popular cooking oils. The percentages are of the weight of total fats (fatty acids) in each.

Coconut Oil:
82.5% Saturated
6.3%   Monounsaturated
1.7%   Polyunsaturated:

Cocoa Butter:
57 - 64% Saturated
29 - 43% Monounsaturated
0 - 5%     Polyunsaturated

Canola Oil:
7.4%   Saturated
63.3% Monounsaturated
28.1% Polyunsaturated

Olive Oil:
13.8% Saturated
73%    Monounsaturated
10.5% Polyunsaturated

If the unhydrogenated coconut oil is 82.5 percent saturated fats, the hydrogenated copha is going to be even higher. Oh, dear. Because white chocolate is a commercial product it’s impossible to tell exactly how much saturated fat each version contains, but since it’s mainly cocoa butter, it’s a very high proportion. Not as high as copha, no, but it’s not gonna be healthy!
    But gee, who gorges on fat-laden foods at Christmas, anyway?

The Forerunners
Such easy-to-make recipes as “White Christmas” and its cousin “Rocky Road” have replaced the earlier home-made sweets created as slabs to be cut up, such as nougat, which were much harder to make. This 1959 recipe from The Australian Women’s Weekly is typical, entailing a lot of hard beating:

Cherry Nougat
One and a half pounds sugar, 1/2 lb liquid glucose, 6 tablespoons water, 1 egg-white, 4 oz glace cherries, 2oz chopped blanched almonds or walnuts, l teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon lemon juice.
Place sugar and glucose into saucepan, add water, stir with wooden spoon over low heat until sugar is dissolved. Boil steadily to 240deg. F. Pour into basin. When cool but not cold, beat for 3 minutes, then fold in stiffly beaten egg-white, cherries, nuts, vanilla, and lemon juice. Continue beating until white and stiff. Press into greased bar-tin. When set, cut into blocks.
(The Australian Women's Weekly, Wednesday 2 December 1959)

    In this combination we see the old-fashioned version of the Christmassy combination of red glacé cherries and a white base which now typifies “White Christmas.”
    Later, in 1980, Mrs L. Pescott had another version of this nougat, in her Early Settlers Household Lore, a large collection of what she claimed were old traditional Australian recipes. A lot of them clearly have nothing to do with early settlers, they were just her friends’ and relations’ favourites of the moment. But some of them are old recipes, and the ones in her section on “Sweetmeats” look pretty genuine. Most of them entail a lot of hard work—not to mention knowing the tricks to make the thing turn out right! “Twisted Hair”, for instance, is a recipe for pulled toffee (often “pulled taffy” in the older American books), which would have been over a hundred years old. Likewise “The Vicar’s Barley Sugar”, shaped into twists in the old way that most of us would never have heard of in 1980. And “Marzipan” is very old, far predating most of the others.

Cherry and Nut Nougat
    1 oz. halved glace cherries;  1 oz. chopped walnuts;
    6 ozs. granulated sugar;  1/2 gill water (1/4 pint);
    1 level teaspoon honey;  1 egg white;
    a few drops of lemon juice;  a sheet of rice paper
A tin six inches square will be required.
Line the tin with half the rice paper. Dissolve the sugar in the water in a medium sized pan over gentle heat. Make sure every grain of sugar is dissolved before the mixture comes to the boil. Add the honey.
Bring the mixture to the boil and boil it continuously, without stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes until the syrup seems thicker.
To test for the right consistency, drop a little of the syrup into a cup of cold water and when it is ready it should roll into a firm ball between the fingers. As soon as this stage is reached, take the pan off the heat
Quickly whip the egg white stiffly then beat the syrup into the egg white. Stir in the lemon juice, cherries and nuts and pout the nougat into the lined tin.
Cover the nougat with the rest of the rice paper. Leave the nougat overnight or until it is absolutely cold. Cut the nougat into rectangles.
(L. Pescott. Early Settlers' Household Lore. Rev. ed., Richmond, Vic., Raphael Arts, 1980)

Dreaming of that White Christmas
“White Christmas” itself can’t date back earlier than the nineteen-thirties, because its base ingredient, copha (hydrogenated coconut oil), was introduced in Australia in 1933. (See more in “Snap, Crackle— Slice? The Australasian ‘Slice’ (2)”)
    Later, versions of the sweet appeared using white chocolate.
    There is a recipe in the new edition of The Golden Wattle Cookery Book (Thirty sixth impression, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1999, reprinted 2005), but this book has been added to over the years since it was first published in 1926, so there’s no telling when each recipe was written.
    Irving Berlin’s song White Christmas as sung by Bing Crosby was well known years before the famous movie came out in 1954, as I mentioned in the “Snap, Crackle, Slice” blog article. But the recipe? Well, in 1948 it wasn’t a recipe, it was a bathing suit:

    Presumably the sweet took its name from the song: when the film came out it became even more popular than it had originally been.

    The sweet considerably post-dates the movie. The first published version of the recipe I could find under the now traditional name, “White Christmas,” is in The Australian Women’s Weekly of 15 November 1978; two years earlier, however, we can discern its culinary roots in the same magazine’s “Ripe Cherry Slice” of 8 December 1976:

Ripe Cherry Slice
250g (8 oz) dark chocolate;  1 1/2 cups coconut;
30g (1 oz) solid white vegetable shortening [copha/Kremelta];
1/4 cup ground almonds;  1/2 cup icing sugar;  2 egg whites;
2 tablespoons rum;  125g (4 oz) glace cherries
Melt chopped chocolate and vegetable shortening in top of double saucepan over simmering water.
Line two 25cm x 8cm (10in x 3in) bar tins with aluminium foil, pour half chocolate mixture evenly over base of ach tin (reserve remaining chocolate for top); refrigerate until set.
In bowl combine coconut, ground almonds and sifted icing sugar. Add unbeaten egg whites and rum, mix well; chop cherries roughly, add to coconut mixture, mix well.
Spread mixture evenly over chocolate in both tins, pour remaining chocolate mixture evenly over coconut mixture, refrigerate until set.
Before serving, allow to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, to soften chocolate so that it cuts well; remove from tins, carefully peel off aluminium foil, cut into slices.
(The Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 December 1976)

“Vegetable shortening” in such recipes always means copha (in Australia) or Kremelta (in New Zealand).

    Here’s the 1978 recipe for “White Christmas”:

White Christmas Slice
250g (8oz) solid white vegetable shortening [copha/Kremelta];
2 1/2 cups coconut;  1 1/4 cups icing sugar;
1 1/4 cups full cream milk powder;  250g (8oz) glace cherries;
60g (20z) dark chocolate
Melt chopped vegetable shortening over low heat.
Combine in bowl coconut, sifted icing sugar and powdered milk. Add melted vegetable shortening, mix well.
Spread one third of the mixture over base of 18cm x 28 cm (7in x 11in) lamington tin which has been lined with aluminium foil. Refrigerate until base is nearly set.
Chop cherries roughly, sprinkle over base, press lightly into base. Spread remaining coconut mixture evenly over cherries, refrigerate until set.
Put chocolate in top of double saucepan over simmering water until melted, remove from heat, cool slightly, then spread evenly over top of slice; refrigerate until set.
Cut int slices to serve: for easier cutting, remove slice from refrigerator 30 minutes before cutting.
(The Australian Women’s Weekly, 15 November 1978)

    These two recipes date from the period when home cooks began to make easy sweets in slab-like form, intended to be cut up into pieces: these were often called a “slice”. Today, recipes called “slice” are rarely for sweets. The modern terminology “slice” is nearly always used for a flat cake-like substance, baked or unbaked, intended to be eaten as a dessert or for morning and afternoon tea. I’ve tried to trace its history in two earlier blog articles: Condensed Cholesterol & Sugar Blindness: the Australasian ‘Slice’ (1)” and “Snap, Crackle— Slice? The Australasian ‘Slice’ (2)”.

The modern take? Drop the glacé cherries

White Christmas
    600g white chocolate, chopped;
    1 cup (160g) blanched almonds, roasted;
    1/2 cup (75g) dried apricots, chopped;
    1 1/2 cups (150g) walnuts;  1 teaspoon ground ginger
Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water and stir until melted and smooth. Stir in the almonds, apricot, walnuts and ginger.
Pour into a 26cm x 16cm tin lined with non-stick baking paper and smooth top with the back of a spoon.
Refrigerate for 1 hour or until set. Turn out and cut into long slices.
 –Makes 20.
(Donna Hay Magazine. Issue 42 (Dec 2008-Jan 2009))

You can see that it uses white chocolate, not copha: white chocolate is a much more up-market ingredient!
    A few years later in Bite website The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly reprises this mixture but adds rice bubbles and mini marshmallows, popping the result into paper cases, cupcake-fashion (cupcakes being very In with the middle-class Antipodean housewives, this decade):

White Christmas Clusters
    180g white chocolate;  1/4 cup cream;
    1 1/2 cups rice bubbles; 1 1/2 cups marshmallows [mini];
    75g dried apricots
1. Place chopped chocolate and cream in a heat-proof bowl and melt over a saucepan of simmering water or melt in a microwave.
2. Stir in the rice bubbles, marshmallows and well- chopped apricots. (use mini marshmallows or cut large ones).
3. Spoon mixture into mini paper cases and leave to set. Store in an airtight container. Serve festooned with ribbon.
—By NZ Woman's Weekly. (Bite, circa 2018) http://www.bite.co.nz

Back to the dream?
The same magazine, at around the same time in the same website, also gives the now traditional version with the glacé cherries—except that it adds currants. An odd touch; was it supposed to make it original?

White Christmas
        2 1/2 cups rice bubbles;  1 cup coconut;
        3/4 cup icing sugar;  1 cup milk powder
        1 cup glace cherries;  1/2 cup currants
        250g vegetable shortening [Kremelta/copha]
1. Combine all ingredients except vegetable shortening.
2. Melt vegetable shortening over a low heat and stir into the dry ingredients. Press mixture into a baking-paper-lined 20cm square slice pan.
3. Refrigerate until set and then cut into squares.
—By NZ Women’s Weekly. (Bite, circa 2018) http://www.bite.co.nz

Still dreaming
The sweet “White Christmas” has become such a cultural icon in Australia that collections of its variants are now being published: try the BestRecipes feature for Christmas 2018, “11 White Christmas treats to enjoy with a cuppa.” The website notes: “You’ll be dreaming of a winter wonderland with these sweet treats.”
    If you like peppermint, their “White Christmas Peppermint Surprise” looks intriguing!

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas 2018, and the happiest of new years.