IN THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT
The excitement mounts. Elves bustle from room to room, digging out decorations, hiding gifts, grinning impishly as they slither and slide ever-so discreetly from room to room. Cupped hands around whispering lips, winks and nudges the latest form of communication; the glee is uncontrollable and contagious as the countdown to the first candle begins. Silver and gold flutter through the house creating a festive backdrop, both Christmas and Hanukkah decorations find their way out of drawers and cupboards in abundance and we find ourselves humming old tunes, from Silver Bells to I Had a Little Dreidl to Winter Wonderland. Our favorite holiday movies, Christmas in Connecticut, The Holiday, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Swing Time (really, anything with snow and romance will do!) are pulled off of the shelf and begin to fill the house with the enchanting sounds and flickering images of the holidays. Yes, even How the Grinch Stole Christmas with the magical voice of Boris Karloff makes its seasonal appearance to the still-excited child in each of us.
Though the purse strings are tugged a tad tighter this year, the Scrooge-like tendencies have evaporated faster than one can say “Twas the night before Christmas” or, more appropriately, “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah”. A Festival of Joy, indeed! As is our habit, we celebrate alone, en famille, just the four of us, and happy we are to do so. During the year, the boys are rarely seen, Simon just returning from a year-and-a-half-long hiatus and working holiday in the States now down in Milan since early November, Clem spending his days at school, out with friends or closeted away in his room, door firmly closed against nosy, chatty parents, working, working, working. Little time for family nonsense, his company and undivided attention is almost as rare as his brother’s. But together we will be, like old times…but better.
Ghosts of Christmasses – and Hanukkahs – past. No Christmas ever crossed our threshold when I was a tot. My secret joy was always being invited next door to help the neighbors decorate their ceiling-high, gorgeous tree. Hours of pleasure was mine as we hung heirloom ornaments, tossed shimmering tinsel and wove garlands in and out among the branches, overabundance in all of its Christmas glory! The bright, chilly afternoons of a Florida December were spent wandering the streets around our house, ogling the crazy, romantic, ethereal and silly decorations, only to return at night under cover of darkness to see entire streets ablaze with lights, dizzy with gaudy baubles and bulbs dangling from palm trees, reindeer and Santas perched atop chimney-less roofs or standing proudly among dancing, prancing elves on green lawns. Life-size crèche scenes brightly illuminated, Snowmen innumerable, at home even in the balmy Florida evenings, grinning in delight at the amazing display of which they are a part, rising up from the dirt and sand like a brilliant phoenix in glorious, blinding Technicolor. And the mystical, eerie, entrancing luminaries dotting the night, lining the street, heralding the celebrations.
Hanukkah was always rather low key, our simple family menorah aglow, a plateful of sizzling latkes, a rambunctious game of dreidl with peanuts or M & M’s passed hand to hand, losers to winner, edible prizes pooled around our impatient fingers itching for our turn to spin the top. One present each night as the candles were lit, gifts we had more than likely helped our mother pick out for ourselves. The greater celebrations were reserved for Sunday School festivities with our friends, exchanging gifts, singing songs, clamoring for a much-coveted role in the yearly play of the story of Hanukkah: the Maccabean fight for Jewish survival against the Assyrian army, the oil that kept the Eternal Light glowing in the destroyed Holy Temple miraculously lasting 8 days and nights instead of the expected one. Christmas carols and Christmas plays filled our public school Decembers, but glory be the year I was the motivating factor in getting permission for our Sixth-grade class to write and perform a play about Hanukkah in front of the entire elementary school. The one year, the festivities I will never forget.
We’ve brought the quiet, low-key, intimate family tradition into our own home. Once or twice we’ve had friends over, offering gifts, explaining the rituals and introducing them to traditional – and not-so traditional Hanukkah foods and dishes amid the warm glow of the flickering flames. But normally we celebrate amongst ourselves, just the four of us. We excitedly exchange gifts, enjoy meals of latkes and sweet and sour chicken, play board games and watch films. And just talk and laugh together, the true joy and meaning of the holidays. And I love to cook and bake. Happily, we rarely have guests…happily because I am random, without rhyme or reason when it comes to my holiday cooking and baking. I will prepare piles of cookies, tin upon tin of sweet cakes and breads, macarons and truffles to please an army. Yet I cook and bake when the whim comes upon me, pulling out flour and apples, sugar and eggs, potatoes and cinnamon when the mood strikes and creating from morning to night. Then I may not cook or bake again for days or weeks. If I must prepare a complete meal for a certain number of people, for a particular date, an approaching hour, my nerves fray, my brain sizzles and I panic. But for my little family or as gifts for friends, the holiday goodies, the festive treats come rolling out of the door, the oven in an almost continuous display. Just like the gifts I buy for my family.
Hanukkah is the holiday not only to cook and bake but to fry as well! Sizzling potato pancakes; cheese latkes both savory and sweet; donuts of all types, shapes and sizes; chicken or fish, breaded and slid into bubbling oil; anything and everything is good as long as it is fried, the oil a reminder and celebration of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days and nights instead of one, keeping alive the Holy Temple’s Eternal Flame after the Temple’s destruction while new oil was prepared. And these fried Hanukkah treats are almost always served up with something sugary and fruity: jam nestled inside fluffy donuts, a generous dollop of homemade applesauce or other fruit compotes atop fritters, pancakes and latkes both savory and sweet; chicken bathed in luscious, glistening sweet & sour sauce and rugelach, our favorite cookies, find a favorite jelly or bits of chocolate rolled up in the decadent, cheesy, moist crescent of dough. Add to the equation tiny sacks of chocolate Hanukkah gelt, candy coins wrapped in shiny gold tinfoil, and you truly have a Hanukkah to remember.
For our first night of Hanukkah, I turned to Jewish food maven Jayne Cohen’s Jewish Holiday Cooking, the updated version of her first cookbook The Gefilte Variations, a book I have loved and cooked out of for years. A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations is the oh-so appropriate subtitle of Jewish Holiday Cooking; this book is filled with more than 200 fabulous recipes inspired by Jewish holiday dishes from communities and cuisines around the world, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Jayne offers scrumptious contemporary renditions of traditional dishes and creative, exciting reinterpretations, twists on the classics, as well. Her beautiful stories, her luscious, mouthwatering descriptions, tales of her childhood and growing up in a Jewish household, as well as concise, entertaining, informative explanations of each holiday and the rituals and traditions surrounding those holidays make this book more than delightful to cook from as well as simply to read. The perfect gift, the perfect holiday companion for any Jewish – or non-Jewish – kitchen.
This is one of my holiday go-to cookbooks… I make Jayne’s Hungarian Chocolate Walnut Torte and her Hazelnut Macaroons, her stunning Snapper Filets in Pistachio-Matzoh Crust and her Lemon Fried Chicken over Tart Salad every single Passover; her Almond Challah has graced many a Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year, celebratory dinner table; her Chopped Chicken Livers, one of my favorite foods, is just like my dad used to make! And this year, for Hanukkah, I decided that it was time to make her Apple Fritters (among others). They were perfect, the beer batter coating was light and crisp (although to be perfectly honest, not the easiest thing for me to photograph!), the apple slices nestled inside delicate, meltingly tender and sweet with just a hint of cinnamon. And to top it all off, I spooned dollops of just the batter into the sizzling oil for light, crispy fritters – without apples! Delicious and sweet!
I also had to make her Rich Fudge Brownies. One can tell by the photographs just how dark and gooey these are. Perfect, fudgy texture, deliciously chocolate, the perfect brownie!
N.B. Jewish Holiday Cooking was a gift to me from the author herself, and I want to express my heartfelt appreciation for her kindness in both the book and her kind words. A very Happy Hanukkah to Jayne and her family! But the decision to write about the book was my own and all views and opinions are my own.
ITALIAN APPLE FRITTERS
From Jewish Home Cooking by Jayne Cohen
6 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/3-inch rings
6 Tbs brown sugar
1 Tbs vanilla
½ tsp ground cinnamon
3 large eggs at room temperature, separated
3 Tbs mild olive, canola or avocado oil
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tsps baking powder
1 ½ cups beer
Canola oil for frying
Confectioner’s sugar, brown sugar or maple sugar for sprinkling
* I used Royal Gala apples and as I noticed too late I had run out of brown sugar I used granulated white sugar.
Put the apple slices in a large, resealable plastic bag and add the brown sugar, the vanilla and the cinnamon. Seal the bag then move the apple slices around in the bag until the seasonings are evenly distributed. Let the apples macerate at room temperature for about 1 hour.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks with the oil until well blended. In anther bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the yolks, alternating with the beer, squooshing the batter up against the side of the bowl to break up any lumps. Stir the batter until smooth. Let it rest at room temperature for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 200°F (about 100°C) if you want to bring all of the fritters to the table at the same time instead of serving and eating them right from the pan as they are done.
Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff but not dry. Gently fold into the batter until there are no more lumps of whites.
In a large, heavy skillet (do not use nonstick!), heat ½ inch of oil over medium heat until gently sizzling (about 360°F/180°C). Dip the apple rings one at a time into the batter making sure it is completely coated, then letting the excess batter drip off before slipping it into the hot oil. Fry in batches, about 5 rings at a time so you don’t crowd the pan, until golden brown on each side, the fritter is puffed and the apple inside is tender and cooked through. Use two spatulas or one spatula and a large spoon to turn them.
Line a serving plate or large ovenproof platter with crushed paper towels. Serve the fritters immediately, sprinkled with one kind of sugar or another or, less desirably, keep warm on a rack placed over the platter in a low oven (in one layer) until all of the fritters are done and ready to be brought to the table.
RICH FUDGE BROWNIES
From Jewish Holiday Cooking by Jayne Cohen
1 cup granulated white sugar
1 cup granulated bight brown sugar
16 Tbs unsalted butter, melted and cooled; ¾ cup mild oil; or 16 Tbs unsalted kosher-for-Passover margarine
4 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla or 2 tsps coffee liqueur
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch processed)
½ cup matzoh cake meal (if you don’t have matzoh cake meal, try flour)
1 ½ tsps finely ground espresso coffee or instant espresso powder
¼ tsp salt (omit if using margarine)
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease or line with parchment an 11 x 7-inch rectangular or 9-inch square baking pan.
In a large bowl, combine the white and brown sugars with the melted butter, oil, or margarine. Add the eggs and vanilla or coffee liqueur and beat until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, stir together cocoa, cake meal, coffee and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the batter and blend until smooth.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes. Do not overcook: the brownies should be moist. They are done when the batter is just set, the to dry to the touch but no crust has yet formed around the edges. A toothpick inserted halfway between the center and the edges of the pan should come out just about clean; a toothpick inserted in the center will emerge with some batter still clinging to it. The size and material of the pan will affect cooking time, so begin checking after about 20 minutes.
Transfer the pan to a rack and let stand until cook. Cut into squares