If you have a recent preschooler, you know this tune. Happy Hannukah to those celebrating this first night. While we do not celebrate Hannukah (my son figured this out after a year or two), we do like to partake in food traditions – no matter what the holiday or religion. Food is a great way to learn about cultures, religion, beliefs and geography.
In the past I made my own latkes (see past recipe), however this year my kids and I discovered and sampled (and purchased) Trader Joe’s frozen latkes. I’m sure this is probably sacriligious. However they are tasty and came in handy today as our schedule was so hectic. It also worked out well with our meatless Monday ritual. I topped them with apple sauce, creme fraiche, lox and capers.
The only way I could stop myself from baking cookies this year during the holidays was to leave the house. If I was at home I was baking. From Thanksgiving until Christmas if I had a spare 20 – 30 minutes I was thinking “hmm. I have time to make some dough” or “I can bake one more batch”. This also counted starting a batch at 11:30 p.m. (more on that later) You name it I baked it. All our family favorites from “kissed” peanut butter cookies (photo above), molasses sugar cookies, snickerdoodle biscuits, sugar cookies, gingerbread cookies, chocolate sliced cookies – just to name a few. I don’t ever need an excuse to bake cookies. I have cookie cutters (about 100) for every occassion and no special day at all (think octopus, train, lighthouse, football, etc). But this year, I seemed particularly driven. The funny part is that I discovered I was not alone…
This year more than ever when I got together with friends and family they all had similar cookie baking stories. Whether they were making them for the school gingerbread decorating, the family potluck or gifts for the neighbors, everyone was baking. Was this because it was so cold? My aunt (who rarely bakes, and gave us a beautiful container full of homemade sweets) thought so. We really had our share of cold and rainy days in the Bay Area and yes, I prefer baking cookies with my kids in a warm house in the late afternoon, over bundling and braving the weather at the park, again. Another reason could’ve been the economy. People tend to bake and eat comfort foods more than in the past. What is more comforting than homemade cookies with milk? My final reason is because it’s thoughful and a gift of time. There seems to be a return to homemade gifts. All the magazines talked about “green” gifting and things to make from the heart. This year not only did we make cookies to send to relatives, we also make cookie gifts for neighbors, friends and teachers. Here are a few of the packaging ideas that we used or received that are inexpensive and also green and fun to do with kids especially (and can be remembered for any time of year):
flower pot – filled with baked good and tied with a ribbon. Kids can even decorate the pot with paint, stickers, glitter.
glass jars – Ball, cookie, canning, french – in all shapes and sizes. I found them for as little as $3.99 at the Container Store
dish cloths/tea towels – cookies or breads wrapped in pretty fabric that can be reused for dish or hand drying
china plates and bowls – scour flea markets, estate sales and china outlets for single, one-of-a-kind plates for unique presentation
With all the baking, gifting and shipping of cookies, I actually got burned out on cookies mid-way between Hannukah and Christmas. Even my kids were a bit tired of helping mom and asked “why are we making more cookies?” However at this point I had already committed to bring cookies to a few events and a friends’ house for the kids to decorate. Starting a batch of cookies at 11 p.m. after a long day and evening of holiday shopping, wrapping and merriment did not produce my best results. See below. I was impatient and put the butter in the microwave to soften. I knew it had gone too soft, but used it anyways. As you can see the cookies spread and the results were more plump than pretty – although still just as tasty. I already had some gingerbread men as well as other sucessful cookies to bring, so I brought them for the kids to decorate anyways. They didn’t care. It’s amazing what some frosting, sprinkles and raisins can do to transform the “failed” cookie. Here’s a tip when decorating cookies, or really anything with kids – use a muffin tin lined with muffin cups. This works great to hold a variety of small objects, in this case sugars, sprinkles, raisins, currents, marshmallows, coconut, died fruit, and candy cane pieces. It makes it easy for kids to share, there’s less waste and mess than diving into separate bowls and clean up is quick and easy. oops! too
Since I was getting tired of cookies I wondered about others. Think of the teachers, who while appreciative of homemade sweets probably get overwhelmed by sweets at the holidays. I’ve always been meaning to make cookie dough mixes in jars and this year I tried it. I liked the idea of short cutting the recipe and not shaping and baking more cookies. I also liked the idea that the recipient could bake their cookies whenever they had a craving or wanted to share with others. However I learned there is an art to creating the cookie mix and making it look presentable. My first attempt, didn’t look as neat as my third. Those pretty layers were tough to see. I went online and found some tips that really helped. The most important being : flour and white sugar seeps down to other layers of ingredients, so layer those at the bottom and on top or between packed brown sugar. Common sense, but easy to forget, again when you’re working late at night – it’s easy to layer before thinking (and there’s no going back).
So it’s a bit confusing around my house with all the holiday festivities and celebrations. Anytime you have a 3 and 6 year old there’s bound to be questions and comedy. There’s been lots of talk and queries about God, Santa, Hannukah, presents, the North Pole, etc. Everything from “Why don’t all kids get presents since Santa can make as many toys as he wants and gives them for free?” (good point) to “We’re Jewish right?. You make latkes and we go to a party and play dreidle”. (that’s true, but…)
Like many I like to use food as a way of celebrating and teaching different holidays, cultures, and history. There’s always a story and a food for most of life’s tradition, beliefs and gatherings. However now my son thinks our family is all religions, cultures and ancestry because I cook it all. Not necessarily a bad thing, but he (and I) needs some guidance. I ordered a book (not a cookbook) entitled One World, Many Religions by Mary Osbourne to hopefully give me some more educated answers about religions, faith, and beliefs around the globe. I need something more than the simple story about the oil lasting for 8 days and now here’s a latke.
Thankfully other children in my son’s school and circle of friends are noticing different ways family’s celebrate too. I hear them ask “Why don’t we have a Menorah/Christmas Tree?” So we’ve been able to share in some friends’ candle lighting and dreidle games (and note our impromptu “lights” above) and also have ornaments for those to put on our tree that don’t have one at their home.
Here’s the latke recipe that launched a thousand questions.
(from Petit Appetit: Eat, Drink and Be Merry)
Wanting to reduce the amount of oil and frying in traditional latkes, I developed a version that’s finished in the oven to give extra crispness without extra fat and grease. These are great accompanied by applesauce and sour cream.
2 (6-inch-squares) whole wheat matzo, broken into pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Toss potatoes, onion, shallots, and salt together in a medium bowl. Transfer to a sieve set over a large bowl and let drain for about 15 minutes. Squeeze potato mixture by handfuls over a glass bowl to release excess moisture (some moisture should remain) and put potato mixture in a separate bowl. Potato liquid will have a pasty-white sediment (starch) in the bottom of the glass bowl that you can see. Carefully pour off and discard top liquid and add starchy portion to the potato mixture. Stir in egg.
Put matzo pieces into a food processor (or see below) and process to coarse crumbs. Sprinkle crumbs and pepper over potato mixture and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate until matzo is softened, 15 to 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Coat a baking sheet with oil.
Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Stir the potato mixture. Using a ¼-cup measuring cup, scoop potato mixture and add to pan without crowding. Press with a spatula to flatten to about a 3-inch cake. Cook until crispy and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer the latkes to prepared baking sheet. Continue cooking, using additional oil to prevent sticking, if needed. Once all are cooked and on baking sheet, transfer to the oven and bake until heated through, about 10 minutes.
Kid’s Help vs. Processor. Instead of using the processor to make matzo crumbs, put matzo in a plastic bag and have kids roll with a rolling pin to break and crumble. Of course the project takes longer, but is more fun.