I love this time of year, always have, and since I met S I’ve been enjoying it even more. You see, I have a confession to make: I’m a Christmas-loving Jew. Just walking by a curbside Christmas tree vendor, breathing in that evergreen aroma, is enough to make me smile and walk a little more sprightly. The sparkly things, the colors, the warmth…it’s all so gorgeous. Don’t get me wrong—I love Hanukkah, too, lighting the candles and watching the reflection dance in the window, eating latkes with applesauce, and eight nights of gifts. But Christmas has always had a soft spot in my heart. When I was growing up the family of one of my best friends had an annual open-house party on Christmas Eve, and from the time I was about fourteen, I attended every year. They had a gorgeous tree, absolutely massive, with hundreds of ornaments carrying varying degrees of family significance. And off to the side, the formal dining room would already be set for the next day, with special holiday-themed china, red cloth napkins (we never, ever used cloth in my family—paper all the way for us), and placecards. They had assigned seating at their dinner! That fascinated and intimidated me. To a certain degree, I think I’ll always associate that level of formality with Christians.
This is my second holiday season with S, who is a quite-lapsed Catholic. Last year we were engaged but not yet living together; this year we’re married. A year ago, we spent some time navigating through all the possibilities: Should we have one big celebration? Celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas separately and with equal vigor? Light a menorah, or just display it? And what about a tree? I really wanted a tree but S hadn’t had one in years. Our decision, our own Chrismukkah (very mixed feelings on that whole thing, by the way—I hesitate to even use it here for fear it will become an acceptable term):
• Light Hanukkah candles when we’re home;
• Make latkes exactly once during that week;
• Exchange one small, token gift a night for eight nights;
• Save the big presents for Christmas; and
• HAVE A TREE! A small one, that fits on a tabletop.
Since neither of us owned any ornaments and we wanted our holiday to have some specific, personal meaning, we made all our decorations last year. There are paper chains and a champagne cork (from the night we got engaged) and Spongebob Squarepants toys, plus dozens of multicolored tokens from an old-fashioned “make your own souvenir” machine S owns. For the topper, I crafted a Star of David out of gold tissue paper and cardboard. This year we’ve added some new ornaments I bought at one of last year’s post-Christmas sales—clear glass and blue glass flowers, nothing overtly religious, and loads of sparkly garlands that we used to decorate our wedding.
I love our tree. Just opening the door to the living room and catching a whiff warms me.
And I love celebrating both holidays. For us that means neither side has too terrifically much actual religious content—at my family’s Hanukkah party, blessings were said over the candles but the event was really about eating latkes and brisket, and watching one of my nieces (the other was home sick) enjoy all her new toys. And yesterday was S’s family Christmas gathering, which had no specifically religious overtones at all. It was all. about. food. Oh, and loads and loads of presents—while Hanukkah does seem to be mostly about the kids, Christmas is a fun-for-all giftstravaganza. Here is the bounty at my in-laws’ house after barely half of us had arrived:
(I didn’t have a chance to snap a pic with all the presents arrayed—it was truly impressive.)
And their tree, which reminds me of my friend’s family’s in its size and lushness:
I don’t imagine there will ever be a tree like this in my own home. The officialness of a tree this size, and this beautifully decorated, would cross an invisible line in my heart. But back to the gifts: Between S’s bounty and our two family’s (and some early birthday gifts snuck in for me as well), I received quite a bit of interest to foodies:
• A Roul’Pat Pastry Mat, for kneading bread and rolling out dough
• The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion, which I can’t wait to use
• Jacques Pepin Fast Food My Way
• A new Cookie Scoop
• A fabulous small tripod for my digital camera (the better to take non-blurry food photos in low light)
• A Farberware Millennium 12-Inch Nonstick Skillet (not the icky used one I complained about last week—this is a shiny, new, happy skillet)
• An assortment of goodies from Trader Joe’s (god I love that store)
But enough about presents. You want to hear about the food at yesterday’s fete, don’t you?
If there were a nexus for such things, yesterday’s spread and my family’s Hanukkah meal would be on opposite poles. Literally nothing that was served yesterday would ever be served in my parents’ home—no, I take that back. There was a roast beef. My dad makes a nice roast. But it was served with a mayonnaise-based horseradish sauce. That would never happen chez my folks. We eat our roast beef unadorned. There was also a big platter of shrimp with cocktail sauce (I grew up kosher, remember, so you see why that wouldn’t fly). Pasta with chicken in Alfredo sauce (mixing meat and dairy: so not kosher). An antipasto platter with meats and cheeses (ditto). A big spinach salad with pomegranate seeds and pecans. Deviled eggs. Chicken wings. Those last three aren’t verboten in kashrut, they’re just not the sort of food I was raised on. And I must point out that none of this is a problem per se, it’s just jarring to me. I don’t much care for cheesy things in general, so many of the available vittles never made it to my plate. Even the food before the food, the nibbly stuff that was already out when we arrived, was mostly foreign—there were three different cheese-based dips with a variety of crackers, to which I contributed Roasted Red Pepper Spread and Parmesan Crackers (a big hit—recipes are at the end of this post, I promise). Only the salsa and chips would ever see my parents’ table—my family are much more the buy-a-crudite-tray-at-Costco type, along with a jumbo variety pack of frozen Kosher hors d’oeuvres. But not to worry, I managed to fill my belly just fine!
After the main meal came the grand gift-opening, with tons of wrapping paper strewn about accompanied by exclamations of pleasure. I’m not sure how it works in other households, but at S’s family’s all the gifts are placed to the side of the tree initially, and then one representative from each family unit distributes that unit’s contributions to their recipients. It’s paced pretty naturally—only one or two people are passing out presents at a time—so all in all it takes a good hour to crack everything open. And by then, everyone’s ready for dessert (or a nap, depending).
There were about ten different kinds of cookies, more than you see here—yet another difference from my upbringing: my mom treated cookie-baking as an activity to do with us kids, not as a dessert-making effort. Dessert for us was cake or pie or store-bought cookies (usually Stella D’Oro). But S’s mom, aunt, and grandmother are all bakers, and between them there was a mighty assortment. Interestingly, very little with chocolate (sacrilege, I tell ya!). My favorite was one of the two chocolatey options, a biscuit with toffee bits dipped into dark chocolate and chopped pecans. Quite tasty indeed. There were also homemade cannoli, and a Costco-bought coconut-cream pie (ah, Costco! The one thing shared by Christians and Jews in this holiday season).
By seven o’clock the whole shebang was over and everyone was scrambling to leave before the rain turned to snow. We were not successful in that regard—about fifteen minutes after we hit the road, it started to snow, hard. What should have been a two-and-a-half hour drive ended up taking nearly an hour longer, but we arrived home in one piece, cold and tired but full of holiday cheer.
Now, as for those promised recipes:
[Originally clipped from the New York Times, though I had to make one very big adjustment]
Time: 20 minutes plus 2 hours chilling
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1-2 T. ice water
In a food processor, combine the first three ingredients and pulse until the dough comes together. [It absolutely refused to do so in my case, so I dribbled ice water into the running machine until it did.] Turn it out onto a piece of plastic wrap and form it into a log 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 325F. Grease two baking sheets. Cut the log into 1/4-inch thick crackers and place them 1-inch apart on the baking sheets. Bake until firm, about 12 to 13 minutes. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and raise the temperature to 500F. When the temperature comes up to the correct heat, return the sheets to the oven and bake for another 3 minutes, or until the crackers and deeply golden brown all over. Let cool on a wire rack.
Yield: 40 crackers
[I prepared the dough on Friday, baked on Saturday, and brought them to the party on Sunday, and they tasted great. Rich and slightly nutty, and really pretty to look at, too.]
Roasted Red Pepper Spread
[from Party Food by Barbara Kafka]
2 7-ounce jars roasted red peppers, drained
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2 T. minced fresh Italian parsley
1 T. fresh lemon juice
2 t. capers, drained
1 medium clove garlic, smashed, peeled, and mashed to a paste with
¼ t. kosher salt
Arrange the drained peppers on a double layer of paper towels and let them dry while preparing the recipe.
Combine the remaining ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor. Process until the capers and parsley are very finely chopped, or work hard with a large knife. Add the drained peppers and process, using on/off pulses, or chop until the peppers are coarsely chopped. Stop several times to scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure the mixture is evenly chopped. Check the seasonings and adjust as necessary. Store, covered, in the fridge for up to five days. Remove to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 1 ½ cups
[I prepared this on Thursday, and it only tasted better with more time for the flavors to meld.]