Christmas

ricottapancakesJeff and I have been starving ourselves for the past few days. Well, not actually starving. We did have our morning coffee. Oh, and I sneaked in a couple of double chocolate pomegranate cookies yesterday. But those don't count. I was recipe testing.

Why are we starving ourselves? Because on Christmas Eve night, we will be enjoying a traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. That means fried calamari, fried smelts, and crab cakes. Snail salad, bacala (a dried, salted fish), and shrimp cocktail. (Those are just the starters.) Then comes the pasta. Two types of pasta, actually -- one with mixed seafood including shrimp, scallops, and lobster; the other with olive oil, clam sauce, and parsley. Then we'll finish with jumbo stuffed shrimp and garlicky broccoli rabe.

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christmas-candles.jpgWe have a traditional Christmas dinner.   We've been doing it for twenty-two years. There are fourteen people involved – eight parents and six children – and we all get together at Jim and Phoebe's during Christmas week to exchange presents and make predictions about events in the coming year.

Each of us brings part of the dinner. Maggie brings the hors d'oeuvres. Like all people assigned to bring hors d'oeuvres, Maggie is not really into cooking, but she happens to be an exceptional purchaser of hors d'oeuvres. Joe and Phoebe do the main course because the dinner is at their house.  This year they're cooking a turkey.  Jane and I were always in charge of desserts.   Jane's specialty was a wonderful bread pudding. I can never settle on just one dessert, so I often make three – something chocolate (like a chocolate cream pie), a fruit pie (like a tarte tatin) and a traditional plum pudding which no one ever eats but me. I love making desserts for Christmas dinner, and I have always believed that I make excellent desserts. But now that everything has gone to hell and I've been forced to replay the last twenty-two years of Christmas dinners, I realize that the only dessert anyone ate with real enthusiasm was Jane's bread pudding; no one ever said anything complimentary about any of mine. How I could have sat through Christmas dinner all this time and not realized this simple truth is one of the most puzzling aspects of this story.

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ImageBiscotti, the popular Italian cookies, can be enjoyed any time of the year, but I find them especially appealing for the holidays. Typically made with almonds and called cantucci in Tuscany, these little treats can include any combination of nuts and dried fruits. Bright red cranberries and green pistachios are ideal for Christmas. I make them every year to share with neighbors and friends who stop by between the two holidays. They go great with coffee and tea and are perfect for dipping.

Traditionally quite dry, biscotti go well with beverages or, as the Italians enjoy them, with the dessert wine Vin Santo. The name "biscotti" translates to twice-baked. First, they are baked through and second, they are dried out. This method of preservation dates back to Roman times, when biscuits were made to last for journeys as long as months. I wouldn't recommend keeping them around for that long. However, they can be stored nicely in a tightly sealed container. But I'm sure they will disappear soon enough.

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hellodollietin.jpgSpending countless hours trapped in a cold, dimly lit basement -- that's what I remember about Christmas.

In fact, it's my favorite memory of Christmas. I don't remember gifts I gave or received (except for my pink Huffy bike in 1979), but I do remember making Christmas cookies with my mom, which we did together for 20 years. Each year, it was a massive project that began in the market, moved to the kitchen, and was completed in the basement.

After numerous trips to the grocery store to buy obscene amounts of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and chocolate, we would bake for 4-5 days straight, making about 2,000 cookies (that is not hyperbole).

Everyone got a tray of our cookies, including the paper boy. It got to the point that people would make special requests of my mom: please put more biscotti or pignoli cookies on their tray.

My mom never complained; she had the patience of a saint. Even when I added baking soda instead of baking powder (which I did) or dropped eggs down the front of the refrigerator (did that too), she never yelled. She always said something like, "That's alright, honey. It can be cleaned up." Then we would start the recipe over again.

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hanukkah.jpgIt’s not easy being Jewish during the Christmas season, especially if you’re a kid. Chanukah is great, don’t get me wrong. Presents for eight nights in a row. Lighting the candles and watching them flicker in the menorah until they gradually fade away. And I’m a big fan of the latke. But compared to Christmas? Really?

Imagine, then, what my son Luke had to contend with, growing up Jewish and having an older brother who got to celebrate Chanukah and Christmas while he celebrated only the Festival of Lights. And it was all my fault. I married a non-Jew, had a son with him and got divorced. Then I met my true love (Luke’s father) and created our modern nuclear family. Three Jews and a mixed-breed (sorry, Craig), who marched in a Christmas pageant at his father’s church wearing the robe of a king – the same year he was deep in preparation for his bar mitzvah. Holiday time in our household was always a bit fraught.

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