Updated: Jan 2
2020 is nearing its exhaustive conclusion and as we inch closer to the end of this dark tunnel we are also that much closer to a COVID-19 vaccine, closer to a relief bill, closer to being able to hug our friends and families, closer to dinner parties, closer to my regular lunch date at Zuni Café, closer to being belly to the stage at a live music show, closer to seeing each other’s smiles again, and closer to breathing a huge sigh of relief.
December’s many festivities also bring with some of the darkest days of the year, and although they are feeling darker than usual right now there are plenty of things to celebrate. The aforementioned issues are each on their own reason to pop that cork on the bubbles (although it doesn’t take much to make that happen around here!), and we’ll absolutely do so like we did our virtual Thanksgiving, toasting our loved ones near and far via our computer screens.
Bringing friends and family into the kitchen with us via Zoom and FaceTime as we sipped, nibbled, cooked, chatted and laughed was such a tonic, and all without having to wake that sleeping uncle in the recliner to tell him it’s time to go. No cleaning up after and doing dishes for 25 people. No arguing politics with that one who just can’t shut up about it. None of it, but all of the food, fun, and people you’ve been missing. We look forward to catching up, checking in, laughing, crying, and making speculative plans for the days we can do so in person.
In our home we take a rather secular approach to the holidays and the decorating that comes along with. It doesn’t take much for me to be inspired to festoon many surfaces with seasonal, sparkly, evergreen-boughed, snow-kissed enchantment! Being raised in a home where matzo ball soup was served by the light of the Christmas tree might tell you a few things. Traditions are a big part of it for many folks and although we don’t do things like put up a Christmas tree (other than sweet little yule tree on Barry's desk!) I have forged my own rituals over the years. While many new customs have stuck and a few have definitely changed, there is always space for new ones, as Barry and I have made together.
Not surprisingly, most of my traditions center around food and one that remains in the festive mix is holiday cookie baking, or Cookie Day as we call it. This is a tradition I started with my sister around twenty years ago. The types of cookies changed a few times those early years until we found a rhythm and mix of recipes that were complementary, accessible and doable enough to get 3 to 4 varieties made in a day. We’d then divide the cookies up and assemble them into decorative containers that my sister would have purchased the day after Christmas sales the previous year. We usually assembled 12 to 14 of these gifts and then each took half to then go forth and spread the joy and lovin’ from the oven.
These aren’t your classic frosted or sprinkled cookies cut into tree, people or star shapes from sugar cookie or gingerbread dough. Pumpkin chocolate chip cookies have been made by Mom since sometime in the mid to late 70’s. Light and cakey, heady with pumpkin-spice (decades before it was a thing), and semi-sweet chocolate chips in every bite make for a seasonal offering and cause everyone who eats one a little eye-roll. My nieces now make the cookies for their families, and I love that the family recipe is being carried on.
Dried cherry-toffee-chocolate chunk cookies are another eye-roller, although a bit more for the sophisticated palate. Crunchy toffee holds the lacey, buttery, oatmeal cookie together. The delicate wafer is studded with bittersweet chocolate chunks and chewy dried tart cherries, beautifully balancing the caramelly toffee-brown sugar that could easily be rather saccharine without. I think this was a Martha Stewart recipe from way back, a definite keeper!
Rounding out the mix is a Cognac Snowball. My take on the classic Silver Palate Cognac Sugarplums are chocolatey, nutty, booze balls that should probably not be given to children, unless of course they need a nap. A base of ground Nilla Wafers (I’ve Snooted them up before with more high-brow vanilla shortbread cookies but always come back to the old school Nabisco standard) and pecans is held together with melted chocolate and a generous nip of Cognac, all rolled up truffle-like and then tossed in powdered sugar – a festive, spirited nibble with a subtle calming effect that will indeed cause visions of sugarplums!
We have made the lists, checked them twice, we have shopped, measured, mixed, rolled, scooped, dropped, baked, cooled, packaged and now mailed off the goodies along with a handmade card to lucky recipients across the land! And now, I can start one of my other favorite pastimes; planning menus for our holiday feast – more on that next time!
I wax nostalgic for treats of holidays past, some of which shaped my culinary trajectory. Great Aunt Marion’s lemon bars, that to little me in the 70’s were a revelation and cemented my lifelong love of lemon desserts (I’ve said before, if there is a lemon dessert on the menu, that’s the one for me!). A refined, buttery short crust holds a lush, tart and sweet citrus-punched curd that’s just able to hold its shape when cut yet so custard-like it barely does. Finished with a snowy landscape of powdered sugar it was nirvana and the humble lemon most truly exalted. Where had these been my short life?!?
My dear friend Marti would make and share sour cream walnuts and the most delicate sugar cookies; thin, crisp, buttery and simply but effectively decorated with tinted sugars and dragées. Marti graciously shared her recipes (I still have the handwritten 3x5 recipe cards!), however I was never able to recreate them with the delicious results she consistently had and I’m fine now with the delectable memories. I still dream about those walnuts, a veneer like an wintry iced pond, crunchy and sugary-sweet but the sweetness offset by the tanginess of sour cream and mild earthiness of the walnuts, sigh…
I hope you are able to maintain some of your favorite traditions, if a bit changed, or perhaps you are creating new ones, inspired by our current circumstances. I hope you can bake or enjoy in someone else’s baking. I wish you joy as the light returns and the days slowly start to get longer.
I can’t wait to catch up with folks during the holiday and I look forward to sharing with you all in the New Year. Hoping we all stay healthy and find happiness in our much smaller worlds this season and wait with anticipation when we can all share in new and old traditions in person; exchanging gifts, smiles, and hugs. I so miss hugs. I miss you all!
Love and hugs!