Just like anyone else who celebrates, I have lots and lots of memories and feelings surrounding the Christmas holiday. As I have discussed, religion is all over the place in my family. First, my parents are Christian. They were married in a Christian church (even though they have no idea what kind of Christian church, it was just the closest to their neighborhood), and their parents and ancestors were all Christian, at least as far back as they know. I went to a Methodist Kindergarten, but most likely because it was on my mom’s way to work and had been recommended by a friend. My parents never went to church, but we always had a Christmas tree and Christmas decorations, and Christmas presents. Then my parents divorced and the following year both remarried more religious people, both Christian. My mother married an Episcopalian and my Dad married a Mormon. I spent the better part of my childhood attending two different churches, every other Sunday.
Present day, my little family is technically Jewish, although none of us are religious. Blue Eyes has now embraced Buddhism during his recovery, but I am sure he will always consider himself Jewish. There are deep cultural roots there. I wanted those cultural elements passed to my kids, so that is why a non-religious person, once baptized Episcopalian, and exposed to the Mormon church for years, eventually converted to Judaism. When the children were younger, we celebrated Hanukah in our house, the Festival of Lights. Even though Hanukah is a lesser religious Jewish holiday, in America celebrating has become quite popular and there are lots of fun traditions including lighting the Hanukah Menorah, playing dreidel, singing songs, giving gifts, and eating foods prepared in oil to represent the eight nights the oil burned, even though it should only have burned for one. The most common fried foods eaten are latkes and doughnuts. This year, on the second to the last night, I prepared a delicious beef brisket, and latkes prepared two ways.
SWEET POTATO LATKES
1 medium yellow onion (grated)
2 pounds sweet potatoes (peeled & grated)
2 tablespoons matzo meal (or substitute ground crackers or all-purpose flour, I used panko break crumbs)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 jalapeños (1 minced, 1 sliced, separated)
2 large eggs (lightly beaten)
1/3 cup oil (plus 1 tablespoon), I used coconut oil
1 cup cilantro (stems trimmed)
Avocado Crema (1 large avocado, 1/2 c. sour cream, jalapeño, juice of one lime)
Preheat the oven to 200ºF. Put a wire baking rack in a baking sheet and place in oven.
In a food processor fitted with a shredder attachment, shred the potatoes and onions (or like I did, by hand). Transfer to a large bowl, add matzo meal, salt, 1 minced jalapeno and eggs. Mix to combine.
Place a large cast iron pan or skillet over medium-high heat, add 1/3 cup oil. Working in batches, add about a 1/4 cup of the sweet potato mixture per latke. With the back of a fork, press lightly to form 3-inch pancakes. Cook for 2-3 minutes per side, until golden-brown and crisp. Using a spatula (and leaving behind as much oil as possible), transfer the latkes to prepared baking sheet (I put them on a rack over the baking sheet just in case any additional oil wanted to drip off) in the oven to keep warm.
In a medium bowl, add remaining jalapeño, avocado, sour cream, and lime juice. Combine well. Serve on top of latkes.
(Adapted from Mario Batali recipe, abc.go.com)
BEST-EVER POTATO LATKES
2 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and coarsely shredded on a box grater
1 medium onion, coarsely shredded on a box grater
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions
1/4 cup matzo meal (I used flour)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
oil, for frying
creme fraiche, smoked salmon and chives, for serving (or applesauce if you are a die hard traditionalist)
In a colander set over a large bowl, toss the potatoes with the onion and squeeze dry. Let the potatoes and onion drain for 2 to 3 minutes, then pour off the liquid in the bowl, leaving the starchy paste at the bottom. Add the potatoes and onion, along with the eggs, scallions, matzo meal, butter, salt, pepper and baking powder; mix well.
In a large skillet, heat an 1/8-inch layer of oil until shimmering. Spoon 1/4-cup mounds of the latke batter into the skillet about 2 inches apart and flatten slightly with a spatula. Fry the latkes over moderately high heat, turning once, until golden and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the latkes to paper towels to drain, then transfer to a platter. Repeat to make the remaining latkes, adding more oil to the skillet as needed. Serve with sour cream, smoked salmon and chives (or applesauce).
We also celebrate Christmas with family. When I was a child, Christmas Eve was always celebrated with my mother, and Christmas day with my Dad. One of my favorite memories from childhood with my mother was making Christmas cookies. We made lots of different kinds and I loved the decorated ones, in fun Christmas and other winter shapes, with sprinkles and bags of frosting and fancy frosting tips. Even though I loved decorating, I think my all time favorite cookie to make and eat at Christmas was (and is) the Russian Tea Cake. Now I see them also often called Mexican Wedding Cakes here in America. They are delicious and super easy to make.
RUSSIAN TEA CAKE RECIPE
Total Time: 1 hr 10 min
Prep: 20 min
Inactive: 30 min
Cook: 20 min
Yield: 4 dozen cookies Level:Easy
1 cup butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup sifted confectioners sugar, plus more for rolling cookies
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup finely chopped pecans
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Cream butter in a large mixing bowl. Add the vanilla then gradually add the 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Sift the flour, measure, then sift again with the salt. Add gradually to the butter mixture. Add the pecans and mix well.
Shape the dough into 1-inch balls and place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten slightly using the bottom of a glass, then bake for 20 minutes, or until edges are very lightly browned. Remove the cookies from the baking sheets and roll in powdered sugar while still hot. Cool on wire racks and roll cookies again in powdered sugar before serving.
Once they are completely cooled, cookies may be stored in airtight containers for up to 1 week.
Recipe courtesy of Emeril Lagasse, 2004
Once I became a parent, I continued the tradition with the boys and they would help me make holiday cookies… sometimes we still did this at my mother’s house if it fit her schedule. I say holiday because we actually have Hanukah cookie cutters, and we also often made Rugelach (a traditional Jewish pastry). But the lion’s share of the cookies were traditional Christmas cookies like the Russian Tea Cakes, Decorated Sugar Cookies, Linzer Cookies, Spritz Cookies, Homemade Raspberry Jam Thumbprint Cookies, Gingerbread Cookies, etc… The Pragmatist is particularly fond of cardamom, so he always made his favorite, Cardamom Butter Cookies. We often gathered them up on pretty plates and took them to friends and neighbors and parties. Since I was diagnosed diabetic, I have given up this tradition… it is just too tempting for me.
When my step mom married my dad, she brought with some of her family traditions. I have two favorites. The first, preparing from scratch candy cane shaped coffee cakes filled with some of her own homemade raspberry jelly, sweet cream cheese, and then decorated with vanilla icing. She would cool them and place them on cardboard wrapped in pretty Christmas foils, wrap them in cellophane with Christmas ribbon and deliver to family, friends, neighbors, and their home teaching families (if you are Mormon, or know Mormons, you probably know what this is). Before wrapping, they looked like this.
The second tradition was, after being way too excited to eat breakfast before opening presents on Christmas morning, and then feeling like we were “starving” once the festivities were done, my step mom would have a big pot of fresh homemade chili and home-baked cinnamon rolls (she is an amazing baker) ready and waiting. Fond fond memories of how I became a chubby kid.
Speaking of chubby, one of our new traditions since this wonderful French style bakery moved in about a half mile up the road, is to order their festive Buche de Noel (Yule Log) as a special Christmas dessert treat. The moist chocolate sponge rolled with ganache & mascarpone whipped cream then frosted with chocolate buttercream is simply amazing (obviously you gotta like chocolate).
For most people, it will be a very busy week ahead. Normally at our house we would still bake up some goodies, go to my mother’s for Christmas Eve (she has the big Christmas tree and all the fun decorations, and apparently this year a fancy standing rib roast), have Christmas dinner at our house (I like to celebrate different food cultures with themed dinner menus), and then gear up for New Year’s Eve. We usually go out.
This year, however, we will do none of that. The boys will go to my parent’s house on Christmas Eve, but Blue Eyes and I will be home, enjoying the peace and quiet that is inevitably required after full hip replacement surgery. In Approximately 20 hours, Blue Eyes will go under the knife and receive a new right hip. All those years of agony will hopefully end soon. We are not quite sure what the next two weeks will entail, but I am sure it will include lots of restricted movement and some pain. We are planning nothing for the next two weeks, even the dogs are being sent away so they are not a tripping hazard (this was a big topic of conversation during the pre-op appointments). I am slightly apprehensive as surgery is surgery, and also, honestly, Blue Eyes has been doing the lion share of, well, lots of stuff around the house for quite some time. Believe me, I remember how to do it all since I did it for a good 20+ years, but I was growing accustomed to him taking care of me for a change. I know his incapacitation will be temporary, and his worst fear will not come true. I will not bring him home from the hospital, get him all settled into bed, and then walk out the door for good. I have promised him I won’t do that.