Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Posted by Jamie
Tis the season to be jolly, according to one well-known holiday song. And it certainly is what with the swags of gaily-colored lights and the glittery garlands strung up and down the streets, the holiday music piped into shops and city squares adding a festive rhythm to your already bouncy step. Candy shop windows have become wonderlands of silver and gold, boxes tied up in plump velvet bows and crystal dishes filled with every chocolate delight. Toyshops greet you with fluffy cotton snowmen and jolly Santas prancing through the snow laden with gifts for all. Friends chattering non-stop about holiday meal preparations, the pies and the cookies, the turkeys and hams, the family flying in from the four corners of the earth to celebrate together amid laughter and seasonal joy.
And if you don’t celebrate Christmas? I know how easy it is to get swept up in the festivities, the bright lights and the wonderful culinary traditions. “I don’t celebrate Christmas” is often greeted with quizzical, confused looks and “Why not?” follows the surprise. For many, this holiday is universal, a sharing of love and human kindness, the excitement of decorating and the pleasure of giving and receiving gifts. Yet when raising children in another culture or religion, how does one balance the traditional/religious side of Christmas with the non-religious commercial side, that part of Christmas that kids see others celebrating, and often watch enviously from afar?
I have tried to raise my children in a Jewish home, yet they have celebrated the odd Christmas whenever they spent their winter holidays with their French grandparents: chopping down, dragging home and then decorating the tree, pulling out tiny figurines and setting up the crèche in front of the fireplace, hanging stockings and receiving Christmas gifts directly from the hands of Jolly Old St Nick (le Père Noël or better known as Tonton Claude!), and eating their fare share of Bûche de Noël and marrons glacés. We even had a small tree once or twice in honor of their heritage and their grandparents, but the real excitement and joy seeped into our house at Hanukkah time: the boys drew and cut out Maccabees and Assyrians when they were small, creating a cardboard version of the great battle scene in which the tiny Jewish army, made up of a band of brothers, defeated the powerful, well-armed great Greek Syrian army who were out to wipe out the Jews; and still every year the boys pull out these tiny figures and line them up on the dining room buffet, they hang glittery, shiny garlands of silver and blue and prepare the two Menorahs (one for each of them to light). This is the Festival of Lights, the holiday in which we are reminded of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by that mighty Assyrian army and the oil in the Holy Eternal Light that burned for eight days instead of one until more oil could be prepared. We therefore light candles on a Menorah, the special holiday candelabra, for eight nights, starting with one candle on the first night, and adding one more each night. On the eighth and final night of Chanukah, all the candles are lit. And, of course, there is a gift on each night, with the lighting of each candle. And lots of latkes, the traditional treat of Hanukkah, fried potato pancakes eaten with fresh applesauce.
Yet, how to deal with the Christmas season for those of us who don’t celebrate this holiday? Food is always my way! Bring in a little of that Christmas cheer by baking puddings and cakes, stollen, panettone, gingerbread men and whatever other little goodies and treats that can be baked and offered to your loved ones. The kids can bring in their friends to share in the holiday goodies or pack them up and dole them out to neighbors and colleagues. And why not mix it up? Here is my absolute favorite cut-out cookie recipe, buttery sweet and tender, never crumbly and dry: every year I pull out my Hannukah and Christmas cookie cutters: the Star of David, the Menorah and the Dreidl along with the sleigh and reindeer and Santa cookie cutters. Glazed and sprinkled with colored sugar or rolled in nuts or simply eaten plain, these are the best cookies ever!
This year I’ve made my traditional Hanukkah cookies, drizzled with white chocolate and sprinkled with blue, but for the Christmas in me, I’ve used my ruffled cutters in 4 sizes to create a Christmas tree. Once cut out, I brushed the edges of the shapes with a bit of beaten egg then dipped them carefully in crushed green pistachio nuts to give the idea of a fir tree. They baked up perfectly! I then sandwiched them together with “snow”, a fluffy lemony mascarpone-goat cheese cream with plenty of whipped cream folded in. I piled up the layers then sprinkled them with a little bit of gold sugar crystals and some gorgeous pink praline, a gift from Pam.
HOLIDAY CUT OUT BUTTER COOKIES
2 sticks (1/2 lb, 225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
2 large eggs
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbs Amaretto (optional)
½ tsp vanilla – use 1 tsp if omitting the Amaretto
3 ½ cups (525 g) flour
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition just to incorporate.
Beat in the salt, the Amaretto and vanilla and then about a third of the flour until smooth. Gradually beat in as much of the remaining flour as possible using the electric beater, then stir in the rest with a wooden spoon or a spatula.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. If you haven’t stirred in all of the flour you can knead in the rest quite easily. Once you have a smooth, homogeneous dough, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Working with about half the dough at a time, roll it out to a thickness of not less than 1/8-inch (no less than .3 cm), being careful that the dough is very evenly rolled out. Carefully cut out shapes with your cookie cutters. Gently transfer to a cookie sheet (I use unlined, ungreased cookie sheets with no problem at all). If you want the fir tree effect, just gently lift the cookies one by one, brush around the edges with a beaten egg, then dip in crushed pistachio nuts before placing on the cookie sheets. I also brushed my Hanukkah cookies very lightly with egg wash and doused them with colored sprinkles.
Bake for about 10 minutes. They will be set and appear cooked but they will NOT brown. You’ll know they are cooked because they will slide right off the cookie sheet when just nudged with a spatula.
Allow to cool. You can now frost them or drizzle with melted chocolate as I have done.
MASCARPONE-GOAT CHEESE LEMON CREAM
This is adapted from a recipe I found on Meeta’s blog What’s for Lunch Honey?
7 oz (200 g) mascarpone cheese, drained
1 oz (30 g) fresh, tangy goat cheese, drained
2 Tbs (30 g) superfine sugar
Finely grated zest of ½ lemon
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp Limoncello
¾ - 1 cup (about 200 ml) heavy whipping cream
Edible decorations (colored sugar, chopped nuts, etc)
Make the Lemon Mascarpone Cream:
Place the mascarpone, the goat cheese, the sugar, zest, cinnamon and Limoncello in a mixing bowl and beat until smooth and creamy. Chill.
Have the Lemon Cream, the whipping cream as well as the glass bowl and beaters for beating the whipped cream very well chilled before making the “snow”.
When ready to make the Cookies and Cream Christmas Tree, beat the heavy cream in the chilled bowl with the chilled beaters until thick. Using the same beaters, beat the Lemon Mascarpone Cream briefly (in a large bowl) just to loosen it and make it smooth and creamy after chilling in the fridge. Add the whipped cream to the Lemon Mascarpone Cream and beat briefly to blend and thicken.
To create the Cookies and Cream Christmas Tree:
Simply pile up the various-sized ruffled cookies which had been trimmed in chopped green pistachio nuts from largest to smallest, placing a large dollop of snow/lemon cream carefully in the center of each cookie round before placing another cookie on top. Decorate by sprinkling the snow with colored sugar decorations.
This post was written by JAMIE
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