Consistency has never really been my strong point, so it's not surprising that when I think of December, I think of three very different things. I think of skiing on Christmas day, when the crowds are thin and Santa's finally been able to bag off work and take a few quick runs. I think of the menorah I must have forgotten to clean last year, like I always do, with a week's worth of wax crammed into the little candle holes, waiting patiently for an hour of my time and a Swiss Army knife. And I think of my freshman year in college, when my friend Abby gathered a bowl of little Satsuma oranges, studded them with whole cloves, and put them on top of her bureau. I thought she was Martha incarnate; I didn't grow up with décor. The sweet, spiced smell from that one bowl snuck under her dorm room door, and wafted down the hall, and planted itself deep within my psyche as the smell of Christmas.
Only, in reality, we didn't really celebrate either--not in the way some families do. We swayed to the whims of two calendars, fitting gifts and meals around them, often forgoing one or the other if school events or ski races or a really good snowfall got in the way. And in the kitchen, our holiday rituals were even less dependable.
For Hanukkah, I think there were always latkes. And if we were home for Christmas, my mom would roast beef, and use the drippings for Yorkshire pudding, always marvelously puffy and lopsided, eliciting a seldom-heard insistence on getting to the table now, while it's hot. But for a long time, instead of gathering my family's odd holiday habits in a little bouquet of thankfulness, I was embarrassed by them. We were Jewish, but I'd never tasted sufganiyot, the little jelly-filled doughnuts traditionally served during the Hanukkah season. I didn't know the prayers; I didn't usually get Chinese food on December 25th. We celebrated Christmas, but we only had stockings every third year, and my mother never labeled the gifts, like I'm sure Abby's mother did, so there was an equal, if not greater, chance that I'd open my brother's Game Boy when I was supposed to be cracking into my Caboodles. And we certainly didn't eat peppermint stick ice cream every Christmas Eve, or leave cookies out for Santa.
Now, though. They tell me I'm an adult. They tell me it's my turn to pass my own traditions down. A decade ago, I might have said I'd just pick one avenue, one holiday. I'd have said I'd write down a list of Best Traditions, my own personal holiday declaration of independence, and stick to it, making the same foods every year, singing the same songs, smiling the same smiles. Now, though, having the freedom to celebrate however I want to each year, and to always do it differently, seems like the blessing.
Now, my two-year-old is old enough to see the Star of David on top of our little Christmas tree, and to look up at me with a jammy grin as we sit on the floor in front of it on the first night of Hanukkah, stuffing our faces with sufganiyot made with leaf lard and filled with Christian-smelling sacrilege. This year, I'll show him how to stick cloves into little baby oranges, and how to pile latkes with applesauce and sour cream, and how to set out cookies for Santa. (I'll use Santa's all-powerful presents as a threat, if I need to.) We'll make pork-filled tamales on Christmas day, and steam them in the light of seven candles.
When he's older, I'll show him how to light the menorah one year, and the next year, we'll forget where we put it, and stick to Christmas and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But every year, if we're lucky, we'll be with our families, and we'll share food with friends, and we'll smell something special--something with orange and cloves and winter.
If we're lucky.
Spiced Buttermilk Sufganiyot with Orange-Clove Marmalade
Recipe by Jess Thomson, inspired by Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts: Secrets and Recipes for the Home Baker (by Mark and Michael Klebeck with Jess Thomson, Chronicle Books, September 2011)
Traditional sufganiyot are fried each year during Hanukkah to celebrate the miracle of light, when oil burned for light lasted eight days instead of the expected one. They're often filled with strawberry or apricot jam, or a mixture of jam and custard. This version strays toward more typically Christmassy flavors, with a bittersweet filling made by spiking marmalade with ground cloves.
If you're a really bad Jew that likes really good doughnuts, you could use leaf lard in place of the shortening.
Total: 1 hour 5 minutes active time
Special equipment: 2-inch round cutter, piping bag with medium round tip
3 tablespoons (four 1/4-ounce packets) active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup lowfat buttermilk, warmed
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
2 teaspoons iodized salt
4 to 4 1/2 cups (550 to 620 grams) bread flour, plus more for rolling and cutting
1/4 cup shortening (trans fat-free preferred)
3 large egg yolks
1 gallon canola oil, for frying
2 cups orange marmalade
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
In the work bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar with the buttermilk and water and let sit for 5 minutes, until foamy.
In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar, baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, mace, salt, and 4 cups of the bread flour. Set aside.
Add the shortening and egg yolks to the foaming yeast mixture. Mix with the paddle attachment on low speed for 1 minute, to break up the shortening. Add about a third of the dry ingredients and mix until blended on low speed, then repeat with the second third of the dry ingredients.
Switch to the dough hook and add the remaining dry ingredients, mixing on low speed until no dry spots remain, adding additional flour as necessary, until the dough is dry enough to clean the bottom of the bowl. Increase the speed to medium and knead for 2 more minutes. (It should be smooth like bread dough, but still a bit tacky.)
Transfer the dough to a baking sheet sprinkled with 1 tablespoon flour, shape into a flat disk 6 inches in diameter, dust lightly with flour, cover with a dish towel, and set aside.
Create a proofing box in your oven: Bring a large kettle of water to a boil. Pour about 8 cups of the boiling water into a 9-by-13-inch (or similar) baking dish, and set it on the floor of your oven. Place the sheet with the covered dough on the middle rack of the oven, close the door, and let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
While the doughnuts rise, combine the remaining teaspoon ground cloves with the marmalade in a small saucepan. Warm the mixture over low heat until it bubbles, strain through a fine-mesh strainer, then refrigerate. Transfer the cooled jam to a pastry bag fitted with a medium-sized round tip.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and roll into a roughly 9-inch circle, about 3/4-inch thick, with a lightly floured rolling pin. Cut the dough into about 16 rounds with a 2-inch round cutter. (Reroll the dough for additional sufganiyot.) Gently transfer the sufganiyot to two baking sheets sprinkled with 2 tablespoons flour each, arranging them at least 2 inches apart, and let rise in the oven (with new boiling water), uncovered, for another 20 to 30 minutes, until doubled in size.
Using a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, heat oil (2 to 3 inches deep) in a deep fryer, large pot, or high-sided frying pan over medium heat to 350°F. When the dough has doubled, carefully place a few in the oil, taking care not to overcrowd them, and fry for about 45 seconds. (Note that the sufganiyot will look more brown when they're done than they do in the oil. If you'd like, you can use scraps from cutting to test the oil.) Carefully turn the sufganiyot and fry for another 35 to 45 seconds, until golden on the second side, then transfer to a cooling rack set over a layer of paper towels to cool, rounded side up. (After the first batch, check to see that one has cooked through completely, and adjust frying time accordingly.)
When the first sufganiyot are cool enough to touch, poke the marmalade-filled pastry bag into the top of each pastry, and squeeze a scant tablespoon of filling into it. (The pastries are easiest to fill while they're hot.) Repeat with the remaining sufganiyot and marmalade, dust liberally with confectioners' sugar, and serve immediately.
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(Images: Jess Thomson)