Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Kitchel.

It is time for me to start assaulting you with Christmas recipes again in earnest. Over the last seven years I have given many, many recipes for the season, although several years ago I gave up adding every single one to the Christmas Recipe Archive. A girl has to save time somewhere, you know. It is easy to search for them however – just type ‘Christmas’ into the search box on the blog page, and wait to be inundated.

I don’t believe I have ever covered the ‘Christmas Kitchel’ in the past. A dictionary of Suffolk Words and Phrases published in 1823 describes it as:

Kichel: A flat Christmas cake, of a triangular shape, with sugar and a few currants strow’d over the top – differing, only in shape, I believe, from a bun. Cocker says “Kichel is Saxon – a kind of cake of God’s Kichel, a cake given to God-children when they ask blessing of their God father.”

The kitchel is mentioned in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale (circa 1386).

Give us a bushell whete, malte, or rice,
A God’s kichel, or a trippe of cheese.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines kitchel (and its alternative spelling) cicel, as a small cake, but claims that the origin of the word is obscure, and then hedges its bets a little, suggesting a connection with the teutonic kuche, for ‘cake.’ Words with obscure origins are usually very ancient, and the OED cites word usages for kitchel and its variations from as early as the cusp of the eleventh century. 

That a definition for cicel is given in the Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language (1838) presupposes that the origin is Anglo-Saxon. The dictionary gives the meaning however as referring to ‘a morsel, a little mouthful’ but does not mention cake. It seems that in fact, the origin of the word may not be obscure at all, but be Germanic. I am not sure if the Saxons are the same as the Teutons, but am satisfied that they are both Germanic in origin. I await some expert advice on the subject from one of you.

There is a little more word-fun to be had with this Christmas treat. Once upon a time, it is said that there was a custom of throwing kitchels from the windows of the Guildhall (i.e Town Hall) in the English town of Harwich, on Lord Mayor’s Day. This may perhaps, be the origin of our phrase ‘catch-all.’ 

I have given you many recipes for sweet buns in the past, including one for a recipe for a Scotch Christmas Bun. Any bun dough can be made into a triangular shape (although other shapes are described sometimes) and hence be deemed a kitchel, so please do go ahead and knead and bake with abandon. There is always room for one more version of any baking theme however, so I give you a nice recipe for a ‘German Cake’ in support of the Teutonic origin of kitchel. It is very rich and very sweet and very buttery, and is in fact for‘cakes’ not ‘cake’, singular, so suits our theme very well.

German Cake.
Two pounds of flour; one pound of sugar; one pound of butter; three eggs, one teaspoonful cinnamon; a wine-glass of rosewater.
Beat the butter and sugar together, whisk the eggs and add them with the flour, cinnamon, and rose-water. Roll the dough think cut it into cakes and cover them with sweet almonds, blanched and cut in half. Bake them on tins in a moderate oven.
Widdifield's New Cook Book: Or, Practical Receipts for the House-wife (1856)
by Hannah Widdifield.


Mad Latinist said...

I had no idea that the relationship between cécel and Küchen was even controvercial! (Cf. also Yiddish kikhl, suggesting a German Küchl, but I don't know if that's ever used or not.)

Anonymous said...

I am of German origin, my family came through England then on to the USA, I'd heard that a variant of my family name was shared with a cake. This is so much cooler when you have the last name "Kitchell" I'm including a link to a youtube video of the celebration where the mayor throws the Kitchels on Mayor's day. Enjoy!

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Anonymous, and my apologies for the late response - I got a bit distracted there by the holiday season then the work backlog. I love your name and story!