TIS THE SEASON TO BE DOUBLY JOLLY!
Tis the season to be jolly, according to one well-known holiday song. And it certainly is what with the swags of gaily-colored lights and the glittery garlands strung up and down the streets, the holiday music piped into shops and city squares adding a festive rhythm to your already bouncy step. Candy shop windows have become wonderlands of silver and gold, boxes tied up in plump velvet bows and crystal dishes filled with every chocolate delight. Toyshops greet you with fluffy cotton snowmen and jolly Santas prancing through the snow laden with gifts for all. Friends chattering non-stop about holiday meal preparations, the pies and the cookies, the turkeys and hams, the family flying in from the four corners of the earth to celebrate together amid laughter and seasonal joy.
But if you don’t celebrate Christmas? I know how easy it is to get swept up in the festivities, the bright lights and the wonderful culinary traditions. “I don’t celebrate Christmas” is often greeted with quizzical, confused looks and “Why not?” follows the initial surprise. Christmas for many is simply a universal celebration, a cornucopia of food and traditional delicacies, colorful lights and a bounty of gifts to those who choose to forget or are happy to ignore the religious significance of this holiday. But when raising children a religion other than Christianity one is well aware of this point. And the point can get even more delicate when the children are the product of two different religions, two different cultures. I have always taken care of how we approach this most jolly of seasons, gently trying hard to counterbalance the excitement brought home from school as my boys watched all the merrymaking enviously from afar.
I have tried to raise my children in a Jewish home, yet they have celebrated the odd Christmas whenever they spent their winter holidays with their French grandparents: chopping down, dragging home and then decorating the tree, pulling out tiny figurines and setting up the crèche in front of the fireplace, hanging stockings and receiving Christmas gifts directly from the hands of Jolly Old St Nick (le Père Noël or better known as Tonton Claude under all that cotton fluff of a beard and the red felt cap!), and eating their fare share of Bûche de Noël and marrons glacés. I must admit that we even had a small Christmas tree in our apartment once or twice, a wreath on the front door: maybe to honor their heritage and their grandparents, maybe so they wouldn’t feel left out. We tromped out to the market where we purchased a sack full of whole walnuts in their shells and then to the grocery store where we picked up a plastic tube of empty escargot shells, the seductive swirls so elegant and just perfect for the tree. We went home, stopping along the way for a spray can or two of sparkly gold paint and, once home, plate of cookies never far from small hands, they spray painted all the walnuts and shells gold then strung them and wrapped them round and round the tree. Added to that were a selected few handmade ornaments, gifts from friends or made with love by the boys.
Yet the real excitement and joy seeped into our house at Hanukkah time. I still have a shoe box filled with tiny cutouts of Assyrian warriors on elephants or standing, legs firmly planted to the ground, helmets on and swords in hand alongside the shabbily-equipped Maccabees with their large blue Star of David emblazoned across their white tunics. Of course the boys also carefully drew and cut out the Holy Temple, the sacred place of Jewish worship that was destroyed by the Assyrians in their attempt to wipe out the Jews, the holy Eternal Light threatened with extinction during the war and destruction. The story of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, swirls around the miracle of the magical duration of the tiny bit of oil remaining in the holy lamp which lasted not the expected one but eight full days until fresh oil could be prepared. Thus was born the tradition of lighting the candles for 8 consecutive nights and the eating of foods fried in oil.
The stories told, the candles lit, the blessings recited and the gifts passed around. Then a joyous holiday meal of fried potato latkes eaten with tangy, fruity homemade applesauce or breaded and fried fish tenders, anything fried will do. But we also love the Christmas goodies to round out the meal, the cakes and the pies and the cookies. I adore giving edible gifts, cranberry-orange breads and pumpkin treats, tiny chocolate truffles nestled in fluted paper cups adorned with red and green poinsettas, and cookies. And how much fun are holiday cookies? I love baking, but I especially love baking during this holiday season. I pull out my wonderful collection of Christmas and Hanukkah cutters, the Santa, the tree and the bell mingle gaily with the star, the menorah and the dreidl as I knead, roll and press the cutters into the most perfect of all buttery cookie dough. Christmas cookies frosted or glazed or all lit up with colorful, bright sugar crystals, most disappearing the first time Simon’s friends visit. And Hanukkah cookies drizzled with melted white chocolate and sprinkled with blue are set out next to the Menorah to be enjoyed while opening the gifts. And this year I decided to use the Lemon Mascarpone Goat Cheese Cream I made for my holiday macarons as the basis for fluffy white snow and build a Cookie Christmas Tree. Beautifully ruffled cookie cutters create the layers, a kiss of bright green pistachio nuts and the fir tree appears. The cookies are layered with luscious lemony snow then sprinkled with a little bit of gold sugar crystals and some gorgeous pink praline, a gift from Pam, for the final festive touch.
HOLIDAY CUT OUT BUTTER COOKIES
Always tender, never crumbly or dry and less cloyingly sweet than your other butter cookie recipes.
2 sticks (1/2 lb, 225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
2 large eggs
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbs Amaretto (optional)
½ tsp vanilla – use 1 tsp if omitting the Amaretto
3 ½ cups (525 g) flour
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition just to incorporate.
Beat in the salt, the Amaretto and vanilla and then about a third of the flour until smooth. Gradually beat in as much of the remaining flour as possible using the electric beater, then stir in the rest with a wooden spoon or a spatula.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. If you haven’t stirred in all of the flour you can knead in the rest quite easily. Once you have a smooth, homogeneous dough, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Working with about half the dough at a time, roll it out to a thickness of not less than 1/8-inch (no less than .3 cm), being careful that the dough is very evenly rolled out. Carefully cut out shapes with your cookie cutters. Gently transfer to a cookie sheet (I use unlined, ungreased cookie sheets with no problem at all). If you want the fir tree effect, just gently lift the cookies one by one, brush around the edges with a beaten egg, then dip in crushed pistachio nuts before placing on the cookie sheets. I also brushed my Hanukkah cookies very lightly with egg wash and doused them with colored sprinkles.
Bake for about 10 minutes. They will be set and appear cooked but they will NOT brown. You’ll know they are done because they will slide right off the cookie sheet when just nudged with a spatula.
Allow to cool. You can now frost them or drizzle with melted chocolate as I have done.
MASCARPONE-GOAT CHEESE LEMON CREAM
This is adapted from a recipe I found on Meeta’s blog What’s for Lunch Honey? And can easily be doubled.
7 oz (200 g) mascarpone cheese, drained
1 oz (30 g) fresh, tangy goat cheese, drained
2 Tbs (30 g) superfine sugar
Finely grated zest of ½ lemon
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp Limoncello
¾ - 1 cup (about 200 ml) heavy whipping cream
Edible decorations (colored sugar, chopped nuts, etc)
To make the Lemon Mascarpone Cream, place the mascarpone, the goat cheese, the sugar, zest, cinnamon and Limoncello in a mixing bowl and beat until smooth and creamy. Chill.
Have the Lemon Cream, the whipping cream as well as the glass bowl and beaters for beating the whipped cream very well chilled before making the “snow”.
When ready to make the Cookies and Cream Christmas Tree, beat the heavy cream in the chilled bowl with the chilled beaters until very thick. Using the same beaters, beat the Lemon Mascarpone Cream briefly (in a large bowl) just to loosen it and make it smooth and creamy after chilling in the fridge. Add the whipped cream to the Lemon Mascarpone Cream and beat briefly to blend and thicken.
To create the Cookies and Cream Christmas Tree:
Simply pile up the various-sized ruffled cookies which had been trimmed in chopped green pistachio nuts from largest to smallest, placing a large dollop of snow/lemon cream carefully in the center of each cookie round before placing another cookie on top trying to keep the green pistachio bits visible. Decorate by sprinkling the snow with colored sugar decorations.