Oh by gosh, by golly, it is officially one week prior to Christmas and my head is spinning like a dreidel. I’ve been rockin’ around the Christmas tree with Suzy Snowflake and the little drummer boy for the better part of the last three weeks. You could say I am stuck in the midst of a marshmallow world.
Hanukkah and Christmas cookies are co-mingling on the Bakers racks rather peacefully. The only time we must reconfigure the cookie baskets is when folks request non-denominational seasonal cookies. My solution? Snowmen and snowflakes teamed with presents, the color palate appropriately Boris Karloff green. I then turn my attention to trays of Hanukkah cookies in blues and whites followed by boozy eggnog pies and Guinness chocolate cakes. Is it any wonder my co-workers refer to me as Grinchy?
There is one thing I do bemoan about the holidays, Hanukkah in particular. How I wish I had paid better attention to the letters on the Dreidel when it was taught in Hebrew school. Maybe I was distracted by the thought of milk chocolate gelt wrapped in gold foil. Or maybe I wasn’t much of a gambler and lost interest in the specifics of the Dreidel spinning game. Most likely, I was fixated on what I might be receiving on the first night when we unwrapped our gifts. I do remember quite vividly having to write a short essay in Hebrew school about what we wished for at Hanukkah. In hindsight, I suspect we were supposed to write about our wish for world peace or the importance of family. My wish was for a Honey West action figure complete with accessories, and an Etch-a-Sketch.
A few decades later, I can’t for the life of me remember the slight difference between the Gimel and the Nun, which look completely identical when written in royal icing. I do remember with utmost clarity the way the Shin really looks like a “W,” and that the Hey looks somewhat like a number seven, but not really. My true talent lies in outlining the Stars of David, but there I am, piping letters on Dreidels like a Talmudic scribe. Until I step away and start on another round of eggnog pies. The whole thing seems slightly sacrilegious to me. As Charlie Brown eloquently stated, “I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.”
Just today at work, I was trying to come to terms with a small Island of Misfit Cookies. (In case you have forgotten the animated program that features an Island of Misfit Toys, step inside the bakery and wait a few minutes. The songs from that television special will make their way through the Sonos shuffle soon enough.) When the parchment paper doesn’t lie quite straight and you don’t realize it until halfway through the baking process, you end up with Misfit Cookies. The cookies are misshapen, and it is important to me that they are embraced by the other cookies in the holiday basket. So I fudge it; I add a bit more sanding sugar or a bit more icing, or in extreme cases, I perform an intricate surgical procedure using a small paring knife. Holiday cookie-ing is an extreme sport and should not be tried at home. (Unless you are me and you retreat to the solitude of your kitchen when you return home from work to bake Hanukkah treats.)
In the quiet of my kitchen, there are no Christmas carols, no Americolor gel paste in Red-Red or Forest Green, not a sparkle of crystal sugar. What is front and center on the counter is a rolling pin, several pounds of rugelach dough and a jewel-toned filling of fresh raspberries and jam. Toasted walnuts with a splash of olive oil cozy up to cinnamon, brown sugar and dark chocolate. Yes, I know, technically rugelach falls under the heading of cookies. To my way of thinking, once you wrap a little dough around a little bit of fruit, that can be considered pie. The little twists of buttery dough, tangy with cream cheese and bursting with raspberries is an integral part of my Hanukkah. Maybe more cookie than pie, but delicious nonetheless.
Baking rugelach is a labor of love and patience. You need cool hands and chilled dough and a substantial amount of comfort and joy. I can’t find the joy with Suzy, or Santa, or the little boy with the drum. Lest you think I am a total Scrooge, I know exactly where to look for the meaning of my holiday season. I find it in the music of Vince Guaraldi and Stephen Sondheim and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Musicians worthy of having their pictures on bubblegum cards.
Happy Hanukkah to all.