Some of the most meaningful holiday traditions are the recipes that get passed down to us from one hand to another. Families gather around tables, anticipating these annual favorites. Here are four cherished recipes that you may want to add to your own holiday feast.
Hidden Memories Grandparents' tradition is born anew
Christmas doesn't play much of a part in the Buddhist tradition. In fact, it's safe to say that it plays no part whatsoever. When you come to the United States from Vietnam like Meeshell von Ofenheim's
family did, however, you adapt to the traditions of your adopted country — but in your own way.
"We didn't have much money growing up," Meeshell says. "My mother worked three or four jobs." For special occasions like Christmas, Meeshell's mother would make a family favorite: sliced steak with fries on top of rice with a soy sauce, onion and mushroom gravy. "I know," Meeshell says, "it's not what you would expect, but it was our favorite!"
Another tradition was borrowed from the French, who originally colonized Vietnam. "My grandmother called them ‘peanut cookies,'" says Meeshell, "although they just had one peanut pressed on top. They're very buttery and crumble like sand castles. My sister and I would help make
them and then we'd pack them into old tins we reused year after year. They were the only special cookies we had for the holidays," Meeshell says.
Meeshell's grandfather and grandmother made the cookies together. Her grandfather "was so meticulous," she says. "If [a cookie] was burned or was even slightly discolored, forget about it. They had to be perfect."
"My sister and I helped, but it was a big deal for them, and they gave the tins with the cookies carefully placed inside for gifts . . ."
After her grandfather's death, her grandmother stopped making the cookies. "Mêmê (Meeshell's name for her grandmother) was so sad when he died." Meeshell couldn't bring herself to look at the old recipes after her grandmother died. When I asked her to share the cookie recipe, she had to search for the box. When she finally found it, she cried.
"It's a good thing, a good kind of crying," Meeshell says. "I hid these memories from myself for a while, but I need to do this. It's so nice to restart her traditions — so important for us as a family. Now that I've found them, I can't wait to make them again."
• 1 egg yolk
• 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
• 3 cups of sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla
• 1 teaspoon of baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
• 3 cups of flour
• 1 1/2 cups of vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix yolk with butter, sugar, vanilla, baking powder, baking soda and flour. Gradually and slowly add the oil to the mixture. Knead dough and form into quarter-sized balls. Transfer to an ungreased cookie sheet and gently place half of a peanut in the center of each cookie. Bake for 15 minutes on the oven's middle rack.
Family Ties Lone almond becomes a link to a life left behind
Paige Goodpasture's mother-in-law, Ellen, grew up in Denmark but fled during World War II to escape the Nazis. At age 10, she and her sister traveled alone to Venezuela, where her father, an engineer, was working and where her mother was visiting. When her parents realized Adolf Hitler was about to invade Denmark, they made arrangements to get the girls out immediately.
Ellen and her sister were sent to attend school in the United States, and Ellen never left. Family, after that experience, became even more important to her and transplanting her Danish holiday traditions to the United States was one way of strengthening that important bond.
When Paige joined her in-laws for Christmas Eve dinner for the first time, Ellen shared the story of one important tradition. "The Danes," she said, "celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with a big family dinner. Long ago . . . there was often only one scrawny goose to share among the whole big family. So, it was important that people, especially the children, fill up on the more abundant starches."
At the beginning of the meal, a bowl of white rice with cranberry juice and cinnamon sugar is served to each person. "In one of the bowls, an almond is hidden," Paige says. "No one knows which bowl, because the cook asks someone else to hide [it]."
"The first time I came to Christmas Eve dinner, Ellen hid the almond in my bowl," says Paige. She received a gift: a little bronze horse, which sits on her desk to this day. "I was instantly charmed by this tradition, and by my husband-to-be's mother."
At Christmas every year, Ellen's memory lives on. "We've taken these traditions as our own," Paige says. "[That] was truly a beautiful gift that she gave to me, and part of her is with me every time I close my eyes and put the almond in one of the bowls of rice."
An updated version of the rice bowl is a Danish rice pudding with whipped cream. The most important ingredient remains the same, however. A whole almond hides somewhere within the bowl, waiting for one lucky person to find it.
Rice Pudding with Almonds and Cherry Sauce (published in Bon Appetit, December 2000)
This rich and comforting pudding is served at the floating restaurant Fregatten Sct. Georg III in Copenhagen. Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
• 4-3/4 cups of whole milk
• 7 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup of sugar
• 3/4 cup of short-grain or medium-grain rice
• 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
• 1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
• 1 cup of chilled whipping cream
• 1 16-ounce package of frozen pitted cherries, thawed
• 1 lemon, quartered
• 1 tablespoon of cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
Combine milk, 5 tablespoons of sugar and rice in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add the bean and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until rice is tender and mixture is thick, stirring frequently, about 35 minutes. Discard vanilla bean. Mix in almonds. Pour rice pudding into 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan; cool completely.
Using electric mixer, beat cream and 2 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl until medium peaks form. Fold cream into rice pudding mixture in pan. Cover and refrigerate until cold, about 4 hours. (Can be made a day ahead. Keep refrigerated.)
Cook cherries, lemon and remaining 3/4 cup of sugar in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until cherries are tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add cornstarch mixture and bring to boil, stirring constantly. Discard lemon. Spoon pudding into bowls. Spoon hot cherry sauce over.
Sweet Loaves Chocolate babka: A Hanukkah staple at the Paleys
Growing up in the Bronx, Ilene Paley remembers her mother always being in the kitchen and helping her make babka for Hanukkah.
Today, Ilene is responsible for most of the cooking at Keneseth Beth Israel, her synagogue, and at the Jewish Food Festival that the synagogue sponsors in February.
For this past year's festival, she made latkes. "My husband fried a hundred pounds of potatoes — kosher and already grated — and we ran out the first day. The next day I ordered 60 pounds and they went in two hours. I told the supplier we'd need a hundred pounds every day for the rest of the festival, and we sold every latke I made." She also has to estimate the number of people who might come to a big meal served after services at the synagogue to celebrate a holiday such as Simchat Torah.
"I have no clue as to how many people are coming. They don't RSVP; we just ask for a donation. Usually, I'm a very good guesser, and I'd always rather have more than less. How do I know how much to make? I don't know, but I just do," says Ilene.
The popularity of the Jewish Food Festival took her by surprise. "It's hard work. I get there at 7 a.m. and don't leave until after 9 p.m."
Ilene, who keeps a kosher kitchen, goes through a meticulous process to bake at home, so the task of making babka becomes a little more complicated than just taking out measuring cups and beginning the dough.
Although the recipe is relatively uncomplicated once you look past the three separate steps you need to follow, one aspect of the recipe calls for a little judgment. Ilene says, "My mother used to always tell me, ‘Start with less flour instead of more,' "
Because of the fluctuating humidity in most kitchens, sometimes a little more or a little less flour will be needed. The key is to use enough so that the dough is neither sticky nor dry, but elastic enough to roll out into a rectangle.
"Babka isn't really a Hanukkah recipe," says Ilene, "but it's what my mother always made and what I remember about cooking with her for the holiday growing up."
• 2 packages of yeast
• 1 cup of warm water
• 5 eggs
• 1 cup of sugar
• 1 cup of canola oil
• 2 teaspoons of baking powder
• 6 to 7 cups of all-purpose flour
• 1 to 1 ½ cups of chocolate chips
• 4 teaspoons of Fleischman's Parve margarine, softened
• 1 egg
• ½ cup of sugar
• 2 teaspoons of vanilla
Crumb topping :
• ¼ cup of Fleischman's Parve margarine
• ½ cup of flour
• ¾ cup of sugar
• ¼ teaspoon of fine kosher salt
To make the dough: Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let bubble for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the other ingredients, adding the extra flour until dough is elastic, not sticky. Knead well for 10 to 15 minutes. Place in a large bowl, cover it with a cloth, and let rise in a warm place until double in size.
To make the filling: Melt the chocolate chips (to taste), margarine and sugar in a pan over another pan of gently simmering water. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well. To make the crumb topping:Mix all ingredients together.
To make the babka: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Divide dough into four equal pieces. Roll out each piece into a rectangle. Cover with the filling and roll dough into a cylinder. Repeat with the other three pieces. Place each in a disposable, greased loaf pan. Sprinkle equally with the crumb topping. Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Makes 4 loaves.