Happy Hanukkah! For the first night of the Festival of Lights, we went to my parents’ house, and I was planning on just making my good ol’ apple cider donuts. But then — I can’t say it was guilt. But I wanted to be true to my Jewy roots and dance in oil. Alight buttery balls of brioche dough, to puff, rise, and brown, showered in sugar as they cool. And fill them — not with jam, because I still just can’t do jelly donuts, but with Nutella. Because of course.
I know for the last days of Hanukkah I should probably be making jelly doughnuts. Or a jelly doughnut cake. But sufganiyot, the traditional treat served during the Festival of Lights, was never high on my mother’s dessert agenda, and I’m not sure we ever tried convincing her otherwise. Once, as an adult, I fried up some apple cider doughnuts for our Hanukkah feast, but have since realized they’re much better baked. And although I’ve had no problem stopping at Dunkin Donuts for some chocolate honey glazed (which, I think in this day and age, is no longer glazed with honey, but rather some other sugary concoction) to share around the menorah, rugelach is more in line with my family tradition. And unlike fried doughnuts (but not fried cookies), they’ll last for more than one sitting. I’m also gearing up to try my hand at croissants, so I may as well work on my crescent-rolling technique now, right?
This year I set out to do something a bit different from the traditional. At least, traditional in my family. My mom’s recipe, which comes from my grandma’s Romanian side of the family, is filled with sugar, cinnamon, and chopped walnuts. Actually pretty perfect for this time of year. But I must be stuck in some other dimension because my December treats have been suspiciously lacking in chocolate, and this must be amended immediately. This year we’re going to make rugelach of the babka variety: chocolate and cinnamon; tender and bittersweet. Sort of like 2014. But that’s a whole other story.
When I was a kid, Christmas was never a thing in my house. That comes with the territory of being a Jewish family in the suburbs of New York City, I suppose, where we were never alone. We were surrounded by plenty of kids who celebrated Christmas, of course, and we even had our moments of jealousy, but Hanukkah was a-okay. Eight days of presents and candles and yummy fried foods? That should be great in anyone’s book. But Christmas did sneak in while we lived on Long Island, thanks to our neighbor Rosanna.
Every December, Rosanna would make her famous Christmas cookies: strips of dough, cut into diamonds, twisted, fried and doused with powdered sugar; a holiday staple in her native Italy and possibly the most perfect cookie ever made. And she made them not only for her own family, her kids returning from college, her husband returning from the merchant marines, but for her neighbors — her friends — as well. It was always a treat to stop by her house while she was cooking them — we would get a few warm, along with a story or two, and then a bowl of them to bring back to our families. She even made them for Halloween, tucked in those little treat bags with cartoon ghosts and witches on them and handed to the local kids who would ring her doorbell for trick or treat. Those were still the days when neighbors were loved and trusted. Everyone loved Rosanna. She was the epitome of generosity, of warmth.