It seems counter intuitive to cram an overabundance of sweets into one month but holiday revelers are seldom known for embracing moderation. December’s food temptations are dizzying, sprawled across every food catalogue that crosses my threshold or stares back at me from the interweb. Admittedly, my line of work makes me a sweets enabler of sorts, just as guilty as Harry and David and Williams-Sonoma. Harry and David may lure you in with their glossy cover photo of Royal Riviera pears, but turn the page and you are up to your neck in towers of truffles and a seven pound serving of cheesecake. Chuck Williams goes straight for the sweet tooth with enough peppermint bark to induce both diabetic shock and a trip to the dentist.
In a modest attempt to tread cautiously into the early days of December, it seems appropriate to kick off the season in an orderly fashion. Hanukkah cookies are first up, blanketed in white and blue royal icing. As dreidels and stars stretched out on parchment to dry, it seemed a good time to inch over from sugar to spice. The analysis and preparation of two distinctive gingerbread cakes, generously spiced and weighty with molasses provided a warming mid-morning snack. Unable to decide which one reigned supreme, I had just a smidgen more to be certain. As a palate cleanser and a worthwhile use of my afternoon, I moved on to the curious cookie known in Southern circles as the Hello Dolly Bar and elsewhere as the 7-Layer Magic Bar.
Sheltered from 7-Layer Magic Bars in my youth, it wasn’t until college that I encountered this sugar coma in brick form. There are many variations, but traditionally graham cracker crumbs hunker down beneath obscene quantities of butter, chocolate chips, butterscotch morsels, sweetened flaked coconut and finally pecans. All of these ingredients are drowned in a sea of sweetened condensed milk. That is probably why they were never featured in my childhood. Sweetened condensed milk was simply not a part of Jessie’s pantry. It seems redundant to create an achingly sweet cookie using an ingredient dubbed ‘sweetened.’ Which may be why I opted to bow out of the butterscotch morsels and skip the sweetened condensed milk altogether. Homemade caramel with a good dose of salt makes for a better confection, although probably not the one most people identify with.
Preparing the caramel in a small space also reinforces one’s respect for fire safety. This seems most appropriate with the Festival of Lights waiting in the wings. The fact that the local fire department is situated just around the corner provides an additional sense of security. Watching the sugar turn from white to clear to amber, I silently make a holiday wish that there will be no need to summon the Captain and his fine team of firefighters. The month is young.
As Hanukkah nears, it seems unlikely that Hello-Dolly-7-Layer-Magic-Bars will usurp potato latkes from their rightful place on my Hanukkah menu. Then again, as inscribed on many a dreidel, this may be the year when a great miracle happens here. The miracle of remembering where on earth I put the new box of Hanukkah candles for safekeeping.