In 1978 my father turned into the Grinch and it was The Year without a Santa Claus.
As was every year thereafter. Now, if you’ve noticed my last name you might wonder what I am doing having any sort of feeling about Christmas when clearly I am Jewish. Well, we’ve come to another thing we can lay at the feet of my unfairly burdened parents. Until I was twelve my family celebrated Christmas. And by celebrate I mean we decorated a huge tree, read “Twas the Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve, opened our presents on Christmas morning, had people over for a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding Christmas dinner and sang carols around the piano. And yes, we also lit a menorah.
This Jewish Christmas syndrome was not that odd in New York at the time. My other Jewish friends also had trees and presents and actually didn’t have menorahs at all. My family also went to synagogue on the High Holidays and always had a Passover Seder—although, one year my grandmother rewarded the grandchild who found the afikomen with a deluxe chocolate Easter bunny. So, you can see that I come to this split-faith personality honestly.
But there came an evening when my parents were invited to a tree trimming party at the Silverman’s (their name has been changed to protect, well, me.) Witnessing the gargantuan tree and the seemingly lovingly collected Victorian ornaments my father had an epiphany, “Who the hell do these people think they are? Do you suppose their parents were busy packing up those ornaments when the Cossacks came after them?!" And with that went Christmas.
But I loved Christmas. Among my (younger) siblings, I took the loss of this holiday the hardest since I’d celebrated it the longest. And as Smokey Robinson says, “A taste of honey is worse than none at all.” I loved the lights and the hymns we sang in the lobby of school during the week before Christmas vacation. I loved “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, watching a cynical Natalie Wood learn that Macy’s Kris Kringle was truly Santa Claus, tearing up at a treacly Hallmark card commercials, and of course every cookie.
To this day I brace myself to get through a season where I feel left out. I stay really busy with the surge of great movies, I buy theater tickets, I make a big deal out of Chanukah presents for the nieces and I bake. This year there was a little twist of fate that has helped to make December go a bit more smoothly than it has in the past. The usual trip my sister’s brood takes to visit her husband’s gentile family had to be postponed. She bought a tree to assure her eldest daughter (who tells anyone who will listen that she is Jewish) that the Santa who visits her at her other grandmother's house was not going to miss her. That’s all I needed to hear—a legitimate tree to decorate and ‘stockings to be hung by the chimney with care.’
I helped (meaning I bossed her around and told her to pop popcorn and buy cranberries for garlands) and I went out to her house armed with Chocolate-Gingerbread men, women, children and even Chocolate-Gingerbread dreidls. I mean, it is Chanukah week after all and I’m not that bad. The decorating was left to the nieces.
We were having an amazingly perfect day when my sister surprised me with something she had, unbeknownst to me, rescued from an unauthorized sidewalk sale held by my then 8 year old brother in 1980. Hearing Bobby Brady warble “The Little Drummer Boy” was almost too much—the real icing on the cake. (Or the sugar on the cookie.)
Up next? The Candlelight Carol service at the First Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon. You can take the Jewish girl out of Christmas but you can’t take the Christmas out of the Jewish girl.Some tips before getting started: To make the measuring of molasses (or any sticky stuff) easy, spray your measuring cup with cooking spray and it will pour right out. Also, I like to roll out my dough on floured wax or parchment paper to keep the kitchen less of a disaster area. I also used a variety of cookie cutter shapes and sizes despite the directions to keep them large. And, as always, I used Ghiradelli 60% chips for the bittersweet chocolate. As an aside, I strongly suggest you invest in a digital food scale. I use mine daily.
If you click on the Food and Wine link below you will notice that the original recipe calls for an icing and a filling. I left out both knowing that the nieces' skill set was better suited to brushing the cookies with egg white and sprinkling with pretty sugar. These cookies are so easy to roll out and the heat from the spices is just enough for adults and not too much for kids and the chocolate is perfect for everyone.
Interfaith Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies
adapted from Food & Wine, December 2009
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 Tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup solid vegetable shortening
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg at room temperature
1/2/ cup molasses
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour with the cocoa powder, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the softened butter with the shortening at medium speed until the mixture is smooth, about 30 seconds.
Add the brown sugar and beat until fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Add the egg to the cookie batter and beat until incorporated.
Beat in the molasses and then the melted bittersweet chocolate.
Add the flour mixture in 3 batches, beating between additions.
Divide the dough into 3 equal parts. Shape each part into a disk, then wrap each one in plastic wrap and refrigerate the cookie dough until chilled, about 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out 1 disk of dough 1/4 inch thick.
Using 4- to 5-inch cookie cutters, cut the dough into shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheets. Reroll the dough scraps and cut out more cookies.
Bake the cookies for about 7 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking until the tops are dry.
Let the cookies cool on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
Repeat the process with the remaining dough.
To decorate with sugars brush cookie with egg white and sprinkle with the colored sugar of your choice. Press gently to adhere.
Yield: 40 large cookies