Via Religion Unplugged

David Geisser
The Vatican Christmas Cookbook
Sophia Institute Press, 2020
ISBN-13: 978-1644133057

The Vatican Christmas Cookbook



The only way to really review a cookbook is to try out the recipes. With my family as test subjects, I embarked on trying some of Geisser’s recipes. It was a resounding success - proof that a great chef can help us mere kitchen mortals come across as good cooks. Geisser’s Instagram account alone will make you hungry.

The Christmas season is a time for family, friends and goodwill towards others. It is also the time of year when all those things often come together thanks to the connective power of food.

As we enter what is the strangest holiday season ever because of the ongoing pandemic, the gathering of family and friends has become a complicated discussion. It doesn’t mean that food can’t unite us nonetheless even when families are separated by distance.

I know food can be a great unifier because I grew up surrounded by lots of it. That’s what happens when you grow up in an Italian in a home. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of family dinners or my mother’s cooking.  

The passing on of recipes during this time of year is something that can help keep traditions alive. It’s the reason why there are lots of holiday cookbooks to choose from, although only one of them features the recipes of an acclaimed chef who used to work as a Swiss Guard. David Geisser’s new book in time for the holidays, The Vatican Christmas Cookbook, offers up over 100 recipes from around the world and not only. The 178 page book, published by Sophia Institute Press, also features wonderful photography and a history of the Swiss Guard, the men tasked with protecting the pope and the Holy See. It all makes for a great Christmas gift or a wonderful addition to your shelf.

More time at home also means more time in the kitchen. With many of our favourite restaurants closed or many of us in fear of eating out because of the virus, this cookbook makes it easier to swallow if forced to stay home. The habit of eating at home more may stick with us even after the pandemic ends. For example, a Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll from earlier this year found that only seven per cent of Americans plan to cook less once the economy fully opens.

The book also provides stories of Christmas traditions at the Vatican and around the world. The ones that stand out include stories of a variety of popes during the holiday season. The book’s photography brings not just the recipes to life, but the magnificent art and traditions of the church.

The book’s recipes are divided into three sections - Advent, Christmas and Epiphany - and the section towards the end titled “Christmas with the popes” is a great insight into how Christmas is spent within the Vatican’s walls. One of those Christmases is from 1981 when Saint Pope John Paul II headed the church. Geisser’s account recalls JPII’s recovery after an assassination attempt on his life took place seven months earlier in St Peter’s Square.

“Then came Christmas Eve. I had the special honor of serving as a Guard to the Throne during Midnight Mass,” Geisser recalled. “This is the most exalted position on the holiest night of the Christmas season, in the heart of venerable St. Peter’s, and so close to the pope, only steps away.”

Geisser recounts how John Paul II experienced a “resurgence” that night.

“He was energized by the profound meaning of this night, and the faithful that surrounded him,” he said. “It was a great joy for me to participate in this beautiful service.”  

The only way to really review a cookbook is to try out the recipes. With my family as test subjects, I embarked on trying some of Geisser’s recipes. It was a resounding success - proof that a great chef can help us mere kitchen mortals come across as good cooks. Geisser’s Instagram account alone will make you hungry.

The pasta dish from the book that I chose to cook was papalin fettuccine, a creamy pasta dish accented by peas, diced raw ham and grated pecorino cheese. It made for a satisfying dish and one that cheese lovers will certainly want to try.

The real beauty of this book - aside from the brilliant photography - is its ability to make even complicated recipes easy to pull off. In another attempt at cooking something from The Vatican Christmas Cookbook, I decided to go beyond a pasta dish and make a fish one, something southern Italians traditionally eat on Christmas Eve (you may have heard of the feast of the seven fishes) in anticipation of the birth of Jesus.

The book wasn’t loaded with fish dishes, but it did feature a roasted trout with fennel. The fish is served on a lightly toasted baguette with blood oranges and garlic. The fish turned out to be light and flaky. The addition of the oranges added a citric zing to each bite.  

Next up for my family will be to make one of the desserts from the book. There are several cookie recipes that look particularly good such as the lemon sugar cookies and the cinnamon stars. That’s something we hope to tackle as Christmas Day approaches.

Food can nourish both the body and the soul. It can bring a smile to your face and brings families together at the table. This wonderful book is a guide on how to get there this Christmas season.

Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.