&Amp;Quot;You Eat Birds' Nests?!?!&Amp;Quot; - A Glimpse of Me Blog at Allrecipes.com - 261802

A Glimpse of Me

"You eat BIRDS' NESTS?!?!" 
Dec. 23, 2011 9:49 am 
Updated: Dec. 29, 2011 12:50 pm

That's a question I got asked many times during the Christmas season by friends at school.  You see, each of the three major holidays (Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), my family has a traditional pastry or dessert. We’re not sure exactly where these traditions started, but my father remembers his grandmother making them. For Easter, we have Italian Cheesecakes.  On Thanksgiving, we have a cookie my dad calls “Rollie Pollies”, which are similar to rugelach. But Christmas is when we have my absolute favorite…BIRDS’ NESTS! 

These delightful pastries are light, flaky, and sugary.  They crumble as soon as you bite into them, so you have to make sure to have a bowl, napkin, or your hand underneath or you'll lose most of that yummy flakiness and the dog will be happier than if he had two tails!  Oh...one word of warning:  Don't try to inhale as you take a bite of these delights.  Powdered sugar inhalation HURTS!


Once the dough has been made, cooking the Birds’ Nests is a two-person affair. One person is needed to roll and cut the dough while the second person mans the pot of oil and the powdered sugar sifter. When I was a child, Mama and Daddy would stay up late one night a few days before Christmas making these delightfully flaky fried pastries. My brother, sister, and I then had to make it through the next few days, knowing those Birds’ Nests were hidden away in a box somewhere in the house, just waiting for Christmas morning to arrive, because we weren’t allowed to have any until The Big Day. Although we were a little jealous of him because HE got a Birds’ Nest before WE did, we knew that Santa Claus would be thrilled when he got to our house on Christmas Eve. Why? Well, because Santa wouldn’t find plain ol’ milk and cookies waiting for him there…no sir-ee! Instead, he would find a Birds’ Nest and a mug of steaming hot chocolate!

Now that I’m an adult and my mother has medical issues that make it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time, I help Daddy make the Birds’ Nests. He and I don’t often do things together, just the two of us, so I treasure the time spent in the kitchen with him each year.

By the time I arrive at my parents’ house, Daddy already has the dough made up. He starts by mixing together 1 pound (approximately 2-1/4 cups) of white sugar with 3-1/2 pounds (approximately 12-1/4 cups) of all purpose flour and 1/4 teaspoon of salt in a large mixing bowl. Then he cuts in 1 pound (approximately 2 cups) of vegetable shortening (DO NOT substitute butter, margarine, or butter-flavored shortening!) with two knives. After the shortening has been reduced to pea-sized pieces in the sugar/flour mixture, he starts rubbing the mixture between his hands, reducing the size of the shortening bits even further, until they’re very small and well incorporated with the sugar and flour. Now it’s the eggs’ turn to join the party! He adds six eggs to the bowl and mixes them in well. Next he adds cold water, up to 1 cup, until the dough starts to come together.

For the first several years of my childhood, my dad kneaded the dough by hand. This took a LONG TIME! He would knead it in small batches for several minutes each, until the dough was smooth and silky with no hint of graininess left. Then one year he got my mother a food processor for Mother’s Day because she desperately wanted one. The next Christmas, he remembered that the food processor had instructions for kneading dough with it, so he tried it out. It worked like a charm and the entire bowl of dough was kneaded in record time! Every year since then, we’ve used that fantastic machine to knead the Birds’ Nest dough. Here’s what the dough looks like after it’s been mixed and run through the food processor:


The dough is transferred back to the mixing bowl and covered with a damp towel to keep it from drying out while we’re frying the pastries. Now it’s time for the two-person part of the production. First, we heat up vegetable oil in a small stock pot. The amount of oil varies, depending on the side of the pot you use, but you want it to be about 6-8 inches deep. When the oil is hot enough (about 375 degrees F), we roll walnut sized balls of dough. We only roll as many as we can cook at one time in the pot so the dough doesn’t dry out before we get it into the oil. The balls of dough are rolled out with a rolling pin into abstract oblongs as thin as we can possibly get them and then we use a pastry cutter to cut several slits in the dough, like this:


The oblong is then carefully picked up and every other strip is gathered over one finger:



Then the strips over the finger are pinched together in one hand while the other slits are gathered and pinched together in the other hand, like this:



The bundled up dough strips are then gently dropped into the hot oil. They will sink to the bottom at first, then should slowly rise to the top as they begin to cook. Once they are golden brown on one side, we carefully flip them over so they can brown on the other side.



After both sides are cooked to perfection, we lift the Birds’ Nests out of the oil with a slotted spoon and let the excess oil drip off for a few seconds.



The pastries are placed on a plate lined with paper towels to finish draining and to cool off enough so we can handle them with our bare hands:



 After they are cooled off, they are layered in a cardboard box lined with more paper towels and dusted with powdered sugar:

  My mother is the “Official Taster” each year and she is the only one who gets to eat a Birds’ Nest before Christmas…well, other than Santa Claus, that is! She proclaimed this year’s Birds’ Nests to be perfect, so we know Santa will be inspired to leave nice gifts rather than lumps of coal :-)

And that’s how we make Birds’ Nests! I often wonder when the family tradition started…and where. My father’s relatives came here from Italy not too many generations ago. Did the tradition come with them? Or did my great-grandmother create the recipes and they just morphed into a family holiday tradition? I never thought to ask my great-grandmother, because she died when I was very young. Perhaps I should ask my grandmother. No matter where my family’s holiday dessert traditions started, though, I plan to continue them throughout my adulthood and hopefully pass the desire to continue the traditions on to my own children.


Birds' Nest dough
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Birds' Nest dough rolled and cut
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Gathering the dough
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Pinching the dough
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Floating - almost done!
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Cooked to perfection!
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Cooling on paper towels
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Ready to eat!
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Dec. 23, 2011 10:30 am
my grandmother used to make something similar called "pig's ears" we always looked forward to to, have a Merry Christmas Keri!
Dec. 23, 2011 10:33 am
bird's nest soup. Served in China for over 400 years, the primary ingredient are saliva nests built by cave swifts. Among one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans it is believed to aid digestion, raise libido, and even alleviate asthma as it is dissolved in water to create a gelatinous soup. In Hong Kong, a bowl of bird's nest soup would cost between $10 and $30, a kilogram of white bird's nest can cost up to $2,000 per gram, and a kilogram of red bird's nest for as much as $10,000!
Dec. 23, 2011 10:51 am
And then there's google :/ Great blog, Keri...I love hearing about other people's traditions and that was a great one. Merry Christmas!
Dec. 23, 2011 11:50 am
Great tradition! You didn't mention working your daughters working into the tradition! I bet those are great tasting cookies!
Dec. 23, 2011 12:12 pm
I love it! In one of my past lives, my ex used to make something very similar called Pigs Ears, everything the same right up to the pastry cutter. I like yours much better, so I copied the lot!! Thanks ever so much for sharing!
Dec. 23, 2011 12:22 pm
Oh, Keri, you are so lucky that your Grandmother is still with you. I hope you take some time and talk to her about it. You will be so sorry some day if you don't. I often think of all the things I WISH I had talked w/ both of my Grandmothers about. Your conversations will likely bring up other topics about cooking and traditions that you will treasure forever. You will be so glad you did... Merry Christmas!
Dec. 23, 2011 12:34 pm
@ the4taals - Pig's Ears, huh? Sounds interesting! Looks like your family wasn't the only one to make those...unless you're somehow related to Raedwulf's ex LOL!
Dec. 23, 2011 12:35 pm
@ King Sparta - I've heard of bird's nest soup before and often thought "EWWWWW!!!" I guess some of the foods we eat here in America would seem pretty gross to other cultures, though :)
Dec. 23, 2011 12:36 pm
@ witchywoman - Thanks! Merry Christmas to you, too!! I'm looking forward to reading about how you cook a Christmas feast in that RV of yours. The things you do in that little galley kitchen never fail to blow my mind!
Dec. 23, 2011 12:37 pm
@ sueb - My daughters occasionally help with a little bit of the rolling and cutting, but they get bored with it pretty quickly. We don't let them do the frying part, because the hot oil scares me. I'm hoping they'll show a little more enthusiasm with the tradition as they get older!
Dec. 23, 2011 12:38 pm
Raedwulf - Thanks for the compliment! If you have a kitchen scale, I definitely recommend weighing out the ingredients rather than trying to measure them cup by cup, especially since the weight of flour changes so drastically with the humidity level in the area. The biggest tip I can offer you is to be sure to roll the balls of dough out as thin as you possibly can. If you can see your work surface through the dough, you've got it perfectly thin!
Dec. 23, 2011 12:40 pm
@ chris k - I hear you! I am fearful of the day my grandmother passes away. She's the last grandparent I have left...and she just turned 93 years old! Believe me, we have talked endlessly about food and family traditions. For some reason, though, I have never thought to ask her where these three dessert/pastry traditions originated. You're right. I should ask her before it's too late and I regret never bringing it up :)
Dec. 23, 2011 2:03 pm
> "Bird's nest soup" yes i heard about it last year, and your post reminded me of it. I agree EWWWWW!
Dec. 23, 2011 6:02 pm
Oh wow! These look sooooo good. I love these traditional recipes past down the generations. I haven't had these (our version, recipe I believe is lost, mom is gone :( and not sure if It is written in her recipe book) in a long long time. I remember she made the Hungarian version even though she was Italian. What a trip down memory lane.
Dec. 23, 2011 7:26 pm
How cool! And so great that you have those baking traditions. Merry Christmas to you and your family!
Dec. 27, 2011 6:44 am
years ago, my cousin's Italian MIL used to make something called, 'bowties' each Christmas. The recipe sounds so much like yours. They were so darned simple but so delicious. seems like the shaping was different. She'd make a huge huge tub of the every year to hand out. Was always a treat. Loved the photos and enjoyed reading your blog.
Dec. 28, 2011 11:20 am
Linda (LMT) - I wonder if they were similar. It's so sad when a family recipe is lost like that because no one took the time to write it down...or else the person who "specialized" in the recipe refused to share it. I hope you're able to find your mom's recipe!
Dec. 28, 2011 11:20 am
Magnolia Blossom - Thank you! I hope you and your family had a wonderful Christmas!!
Dec. 28, 2011 11:22 am
TUNISIANSWIFE - I wonder if the "bow ties" are similar to something my great grandmother used to make called "ribbons"...similar dough, but slightly different and the shaping was different. I just LOVE the memories that food and recipes bring out :)
Dec. 29, 2011 12:50 pm
Really enjoyed your blog, Keri. What a special tradition you have with your family. Definitely keep passing it on. Thanks for sharing!
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About Me
I have loved cooking since I was a young girl helping my mother make dinner or bake cookies during school vacations. My favorite class in elementary school was "Nutrition", because we cooked almost every day. I have two daughters who love cooking and baking as much as I do and my husband is even getting interested. He recently started making bread from scratch and he's doing an awesome job of it! We share our home with pets of all different kinds, including birds, cats, dogs, rabbits, a rat, snakes, frogs, a tarantula, and a turtle. We also provide foster care for a local dog rescue, taking in abused, neglected, abandoned dogs and giving them a safe, loving environment to live in until they find their "fur-ever" homes.
My favorite things to cook
Rosemary garlic roasted chicken with roasted garlic gravy; Skillet cabbage; Almost any baked goods; Anything I can make in my slow cooker! Somewhere around September 2008 I decided I was going to start baking all the bread my children and I eat. I'm COMPLETELy loving it and my kids like to brag that "my mommy MADE this bread!" Their favorite is when I make bread items that aren't your traditional loaf of bread, like hamburger buns, bagels, and soft pretzels.
My favorite family cooking traditions
For several generations, my father's family has made a "family tradition" dessert item at each major holiday. At Easter, it's Italian Cheesecake, made with ricotta cheese and anise flavoring (published as "Italian Cheesecake II", if you'd like to check it out). At Thanksgiving, it's "Roly Polies", which were invented by my great grandmother when she had leftover pie crust dough she needed to use up. My absolute favorite, though, is Christmas, when we make Birds Nests. These are made out of walnut-sized balls of a sweet pie crust type dough rolled out very thin. Then we cut slits in the dough without cutting through the edge, gather every other strip, twist them up into a jumble, and then deep fry the pastries. When they are cooled, we sprinkle them with powdered sugar. It doesn't matter how many we make, they all get eaten!
My cooking triumphs
I managed to make decorated sugar cookies for Christmas 2008 that turned out awesome!! I've NEVER gotten sugar cookies to turn out good looking enough to warrant decorating them. They always turn into shapeless blobs. This particular time I reduced the amount of butter in the recipe by 25% and chilled the cut-outs for 15 minutes immediately before baking them. They turned out beautiful!
My cooking tragedies
My first attempt at making Fairy Food candy (also called seafoam candy) was a disaster! I tried cooking it too quickly over too high of heat, so it burned, smelling up the entire house for DAYS. Thank goodness I still had enough ingredients (and courage!) to try again, and everyone at my family's Christmas gathering was impressed with my second attempt. I conveniently "forgot" to tell them about the first batch :-)
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