Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Confessions of a Cookie-Baking Jew

For today's post, some thoughts on Christmas, and cookies (and coming soon: an original Red Ramekin Christmas cookie recipe!).

As one of the few non-Christian kids in my hometown, I always considered Christmas cookies to be the ultimate appeasement during the month of December, when my friends and classmates were all buzzing with anticipation for their favorite holiday.

I never really bought into the whole Santa Claus thing, and, although my incremental presents trickled in steadily during the hallowed week of Hannukah, I never got to experience the Christmas morning elation of waking up to a living room’s worth of new toys, games, and clothing. Although I never knew for sure, it seemed that Christmas was about as good as it could get. And what I did know firsthand was that Hannukah Night 4: The socks edition left something to be desired.

[espresso-chocolate and cranberry-pistachio shortbread]

Luckily for me, with vicarious Christmastime cheer also came the cookies. Lots of cookies, with lots of frosting, in lots of different varieties. Unlike caroling or spending time with family – seemingly both products of nostalgia rather than intrinsic gratification – cookies are a universally appreciated element of Christmas that touch everyone, Jewish kids included. Everyone loves a good royal-frosted sugar cookie, and the spiritual experience of eating gingerbread men, pecan sandies, and chocolate peppermint drops knows no religious bounds.

My primary cookie complaint was that I was never actually part of the December-time army of cookie-makers. While my friends were gorging themselves on dozens of fresh-from-the-oven odds and ends, my family was divvying up the small tin of treats that the occasional neighbor or two had left on our doorstep. But still – what joy resided in that little tin! The four of us, disenchanted by so many misdirected “Merry Christmases,” would spin the dreidel a few times for posterity’s sake, and then descend upon our edible, goyische gifts, each taking a bite here and there, ensuring that everyone had an opportunity to taste each sugary creation.


But making Christmas cookies need not be a Christians-only affair. From my outsider’s perspective, making and distributing cookies is one of the modern Christmas phenomena that I fully understand and appreciate. The act of baking has a magical way of joining friends and families, the act of giving builds character, and the art of personalizing recipes is a gift unto itself. All of this probably explains why I have come to adopt the tradition of making my own cookies during the holiday season. Over the years I have outgrown the December envy of my Christian friends, and have even been known to gloat in the relative stress-lessness of my post-Thanksgiving routine, but I’ll jump at any opportunity to make dozens of cookies. Baking has a way of putting me into some kind of good spirit, even if it’s not the explicitly “Christmas” kind.

One of the perks of being a dedicated Jewish Christmas cookie-baker is the freedom afforded by my lack of passed-down family cookie recipes. While most cookie connoisseurs have a few varieties that define their Christmas experience, I am unattached. I’ll admit that I find it difficult to resist the classic Christmas cookie, with hints of spice or lemon perfuming the dough and crackly shards of royal icing topping it all off, but the world of cookies is too vast for me to stick to the basics.

This has become both a good and a bad thing; come mid-December, I’ll often find myself absorbed in the annals of the vast online cookie-recipe repository, unthinkingly forming lists of to-makes that would make even the most church-going of housewives cringe. Worse still is when I set aside some dedicated cookie-baking time, and then spend most of it feeding my indecision, scouring hundreds of recipes in search of the one that is worthy of my Christmas cookie lineup.

My secret, of course, is that I actually enjoy spending my time this way, and Christmas provides the perfect excuse to do so. I love that I can bake maniacally for a solid weekend, no questions asked, even though I don’t care a wink about the other Christmas hubbub and, frankly, am under no obligation to make cookies or give gifts at all. It is for this, and this alone, that I find myself thanking Jesus.

So of course, I love giving away my Christmas cookies, but am also aware that for me, cookie-making is a slightly more self-serving process than it is for most. No matter though. Tonight I have plans to make another batch, whip up some frosting, and finally get around to buying some glassine bags with shiny ribbon. And so what if my “Christmas” cookies are more cookie than Christmas? They still taste good to me.

[the whole cookie tin]

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Turnip's Turn

I suppose I should start off with a little Thanksgiving recap even though it seems that everyone is so Christmas-crazy that they've forgotten that turkey day even happened. But I never gave it its due, and it is the biggest food holiday of the year, so...

I hardly ever take pictures of my food when I'm serving it to guests, and Thanksgiving is no exception. So no photos of the food we ate, although it was all tasty and blog-worthy. Here is the menu we prepared:
Turkey (my mom was in charge)
Whole-grain stuffing with roasted leeks and apples
Roasted turnip and shallot puree
Roasted buttercup squash
Curried chard with apples
Cabbage salad with toasted pecans
Herb-roasted potatoes
Wine-spiked cranberry sauce
Pumpkin-mascarpone pie (my sister made this one)
Poached quince and apple tart
Caramel cake (courtesy of the Daring Bakers)
Our dirty little secret was that this menu was only for five (5!) people. In fact, I also made a celery-root soup, but there was so much food on the table that nobody remembered to bring it in from the garage (which becomes our overflow fridge when the weather cooperates). So yes, there it is, a Thanksgiving menu in all its glory. The food was good, the company was better, and the leftovers were abundant and well-received.

But before we leave that all behind in favor of bourbon balls and potato latkes, I thought I'd at least share one recipe from Thanksgiving, even if it is the most dull-sounding one on the menu. Can you guess? Yep - it's the turnips. So unassuming, so unfortunately lumpy-looking, and so downright tasty.

I've never really had much to do with turnips in the past, but those huge Macomber turnips at Whole Foods looked intriguing, so I thought I'd lug them home with me. In the end it was just right - I roasted and ran them through the food processor, and they served as a sort of stand-in for the traditional mashed vegetable: potatoes.

We stopped doing mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving last year, when we realized that we just didn't need to serve a heavy, not all that interesting dish in the name of tradition. The thing about mashed potatoes is that they just don't taste good unless they are loaded with butter, cream, or something else decidedly un-potatoey.

So we started doing herb-roasted potatoes, which need only some herbs, salt, pepper, and olive oil, and nobody has complained yet. Still though, I wanted to try something with my turnips, and they seemed perfect for a puree. The result was a smooth and flavorful dish that is far more interesting than regular old potatoes. It's also much lighter, and would make a wonderful addition to any number of meals.

I repeated the process again for tonight's dinner, this time using a roasted head of garlic instead of the shallots I used a few weeks ago, and served it with some deliciously moist roasted chicken breasts (Jonathan's handiwork, I might add!). The turnip and roasted garlic combination is complex and slightly sweet; the turnips have a sassy bite to them, similar to radish or mild horseradish, and the roasty, subtle sweetness of the garlic was a lovely complement. Unfortunately, it's not the most photogenic of dishes, but it's a great and creative way to serve a vegetable that so often is forgotten.

A note about turnips, my new favorite forgotten vegetable: They can take a while to roast, but their browned edges and creamy flesh add lots of depth to the flavor of the puree. In my freakishly fast oven, it takes about half an hour for them to become tender, but in my parents' oven, I had to roast them for a little more than an hour. Make sure the roasted turnip flesh is very tender, not crunchy at all. As for the garlic: I love roasting whole heads of garlic, and the flavor of the garlic changes dramatically once roasted. I used a little less than the whole head for this puree, saving a few cloves worth of soft garlic to spread on some bread. Delicious. Other than that, this recipe (if I can call it that) is a breeze. Use a food processor for the best and smoothest results.

Turnip and Roasted Garlic Puree

1 very large or a few smaller Macomber (white) turnips, diced to 1/2 inch cubes
1-2 tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
1 head garlic
a few tablespoons water or stock


Roast turnips: Place diced turnip on a foil-line baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, stir to coat, and roast at 400 degrees until tender and beginning to brown, 30min. - 1hr., depending on your oven. Meanwhile, roast garlic: slice the top off of one head of garlic. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt, then wrap completely in foil and place in the oven along with the turnips until cloves are soft and mushy. To make puree, place roasted turnips in the bowl of a food processor. Squeeze the head of garlic to extract the soft flesh, and add to the turnips. Puree until smooth, drizzling some stock or water into the whirling puree to achieve the proper consistency. Season to taste and serve, preferably underneath a perfectly roasted piece of chicken or turkey.