Sugar Plums and Latkes

Though my brother and I grew up in a Jewish household, our parents made sure we appreciated the best of all the season’s holidays, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas. Because what are the holidays anyway if not an enchanted time made for children. Strangely enough, cooking wasn’t a daily routine around our house. It occurred mostly on the weekends due to our parents’ busy work schedule. Yet, I associate the traditions of the holidays with the scents and flavors that began to emanate from my mother’s kitchen almost daily shortly after Halloween. The increased preparation schedule would start with the menu for Thanksgiving dinner. It was usually centered around a roasted turkey that had been basted for its entire 8-hour cooking time in a an endless supply of Cherry Kjafa, a Dutch cherry fortified wine. Surrounding this wine sotted bird were Jell-O salads, the ubiquitous green bean casserole and yams sweetened with enough brown sugar and marshmallows to make any dessert pale in its comparison.

There was one standout dish from these Thanksgiving dinners that has made an appearance at every turkey day dinner of my own since. It’s a dish called Indian Relish, a politically incorrect name by today’s standards, but the name was inspired by its use of cranberries, a truly Native American food. The way my mother made it was a simple preparation of ground cranberries, apples and oranges sweetened with sugar and let to marinate together for a few hours until it took on the glistening look of crushed rubies. The dessert course for Thanksgiving was always a point of contention in our family however. My father sometimes brought in a mincemeat pie to serve alongside whatever pumpkin choice mother would decide to prepare that year. He was a fan of mincemeat and because of his insistence, I too must now have mincemeat at some time during the holidays in some form or another. The pumpkin pie was something mother would experiment with year after year. I really don’t remember having the same pie twice. She would try chiffon styles; cream cheese loaded varieties and even once attempted something that resembled a soufflé. But it was the simpler styles, thickly spiced on a flaky crust that I relished and would heap with airy cream out of a can. It’s still the benchmark of a complete Thanksgiving.

I must apologize in advance. But I must take a slight detour here and include my birthday as part of the holiday season. Though my birthday has little importance to anyone else outside of my close group of friends and immediate family, it has significance as far as my development as a Chef and my appreciation of great food. My birthday sits smack dab in the middle of the holidays at the beginning of December, I’ve never felt cheated or short changed about this fact however. My family just added it to the list of parties and special events that make the holiday season what it is. The most memorable part of my childhood birthday tradition was the birthday cake. Though both my parents were fabulous cooks, neither of them would attempt to make a birthday cake. Especially when, at the tender age of eight, I made the announcement that my favorite kind of birthday cake was a rum soaked sponge cake filled with chocolate chips and iced with whipped cream. I can’t recall where I might have tasted it first, but I’m sure it was part of a dinner or celebration that my parents had a hand in. They weren’t drinkers as a rule but loved foods; particularly desserts made with any sort of alcohol. Even going to the German bakery in our suburban village to order the cake with my mother became a regular part of the whole birthday celebration. I would stand beside her as she would tell the white-haired ladies behind the counter that the tipsy cake was for her son, at which point I would beam a huge smile at them.

Hanukkah usually fell within a week or two after my birthday. The date of the holiday is guided by the ancient Hebrew lunar calendar, which causes the date to float around the Gregorian month of December like a bobber on a wavy lake. Wherever it landed, I knew when the production of potato pancakes and mandel bread began. It meant that Hanukah was right around the corner. We would mass enormous amounts of both delectable that would always seem to last us until New Years and beyond. The potato pancakes or latkes “smelled the house up”, my mother would say so she chose to spend an entire Sunday in the kitchen peeling, grinding and frying rather than making them several times during the eight-day holiday. My father and I would often help with some portion of the task. My brother however did not take to cooking as easily as I did. He would pop in occasionally for a sample but would spend most of the day glued to a football game on the TV in the den or most often found a friend’s house to visit to avoid the whole process completely. These golden-brown morsels would appear at Hanukkah dinners at home or at relatives all crisp on the outside and moist on the inside as if they had just been fried. It was years later that I learned the secret of re-crisping in a hot oven. But back then, it was just one of those amazing things I figured adults knew how to do.

The mandel bread was also an all-day event. This time my aunt and youngest cousin, the only girl in the family, would join my mother in the kitchen. I would hang around as much as possible to help cut the long bricks of slightly warm cookies before they were laid out on cookie sheets and returned to the oven to crisp and dry out a little more. Mandel bread, when made properly, should wreak havoc with temporary fillings and bad dental work. It’s a hard, twice baked cookie in the biscotti family that’s made to be dipped in coffee, hot chocolate, tea or any liquid that will decrease the danger of causing serious injury. We would keep them out at room temperature for a few days to harden and develop flavor. Then, any excess not slated for immediate consumption were packed in layers of silver foil and frozen to be brought out sometimes years later when a little snack or something was needed to serve with coffee to guests.

As soon as Hanukkah was done and if Christmas wasn’t too close on its heels, there came a procession of goodies that included pfeffernuss, egg nog and brightly decorated sugar cookies just to name a few. Christmas was the time when the big presents were given and received in our house. Being Jewish, we never went so far to have a tree to put them under on Christmas Eve, so we designated the fireplace in the den as the official celebration site. There my brother and I would hang stockings from the mantle and in front we would pile all the gifts to be exchanged by both our immediate and our extended family of aunts’ uncles and cousins. It was also the place where the above-mentioned goodies (including mandel bread) would be laid out on the big night so Santa could have a snack when he finished filling our orders.

Even after the Santa secret was revealed to me by my well-meaning brother, we would make our yearly pilgrimage to Marshall Field so I could sit on the jolly elf’s lap and list my deepest desires to him in a low whisper so no one else would hear. Afterwards we would make our way downstairs for the experience of having lunch in the Walnut Room under the 75-foot Christmas tree. My grandmother would join us and I would have to behave like a gentleman. This was an easy job because I was so awed by the splendor of the tree and the bustle of my surroundings. I was also deeply involved with the food. I remember experiencing my first chicken potpie that wasn’t served in an aluminum foil tin.

Time flies ten times faster now than when I was a kid. When the holidays do roll around these days, I always have this strong sense that, gosh weren’t we just here yesterday? My house only recently lost the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg from last season it’s already time to break out the beat-up recipe books for another round of sugar loading and shopping. Though time seems to fly, it’s the traditions and memories of holidays past that give us anchors and help keep our lives from spinning out of control. Even the fruitcake from distant relatives (though I’m sure it’s the same one I sent to them last year) adds to my excitement for the season to come. I would truly miss it if it never came.

BONUS RECIPE LINK; Potato Pancakes (Latkes)