Someone sent me a clip of the comedian Dave Attell on “The Jimmy Fallon Show,” responding to the host’s query about his holiday plans. “Christmas is a long day for the Jews,” Attell says. “Very long.” Then he takes viewers on a quick tour of Fallon’s set through Jewish eyes, and for a few seconds, the evergreenish, tinselly, gingerbready, ornamental excess decking the studio seems to double in size, bursting out of the category “normal” straight into “weirdly aggressive.”
I had a really nice Christmas: I did next to nothing, saw no one, and relished the quiet of a rainy day. It was long, but I didn’t mind. But watching Attell reminded me of Christmas longueurs past. I wish I could give you a glimpse of the food of the season through the eyes of someone who finds eggnog vaguely exotic. You see, for two long stretches in my life, I was related by marriage to families who celebrated Christmas very much like the TV families that formed my initial impression of how it was done.
At my first Christmas in one of these households, eager to be helpful, I volunteered in the kitchen, saying I’d be happy to do anything. My new mother-in-law thanked me, offering instructions: “Just mix these miniature marshmallows into this Cool Whip along with those canned mandarin oranges, please. Let me find the coconut and maraschino cherries….”
Southern and Midwestern Protestants given those instructions will recognize an ambrosia salad in the making; Jews like myself will recognize none of the ingredients, and do their best to wipe disbelief from their faces as they stir them together.
Both of the families I joined for Christmases past had Midwestern roots. Festive meals featured dishes that seemed dated, like poodle skirts or bobby-sox. You’ve probably had that green bean dish made with cream of mushroom soup and sliced almonds, with canned onion rings crushed on top for extra crunch. Layering was an important theme. Seven-layer salad featured a rainbow of shredded or diced vegetables forming distinct bands inside a glass bowl. It was thickly frosted with a mayonnaise-sour cream dressing and left to sit overnight before serving; at the last minute, grated cheese and crumbled bacon were layered on top. Seven-layer cookies featured strata of graham cracker crumbs, coconut, chocolate chips and several similar ingredients, all baked together with canned sweetened condensed milk.
Now, of course, we are all interested in echt regional cuisine and know the Midwest has as many delicious traditional dishes as any region.
But these are not they.
These are dishes emblematic of a moment in American food culture that prized convenience above all, that was smitten with recipes that sounded like formulae and took no time—just dumping the contents of a few cans or packages into a pan. The dishes are far too rich: the thick white dressing of the seven-layer salad is blandly smothering; the seven-layer cookies are tooth-achingly sweet. Feeling sick after eating too much is part of the holiday ritual, too, and these dishes trumpet an abundance (i.e., excess) that seems in tune with the season.
The long day Dave Attell referred to isn’t so much December 25th itself as the whole stretch following Thanksgiving. I’m guessing the feeling is comparable to the experience of a Christian in a country where most people observe Ramadan: all around you, nearly everyone is somehow connected to a common tradition, the conventions of which are assumed to be universal. For that whole period, almost every place I go will be decorated for the holiday. Every time I walk into a store or turn on TV or the radio, holiday tunes and messages will ring out. Almost every time I buy something, the clerk will ask whether my purchase is for Christmas, and wish me a “Merry Christmas” as I depart. If I demur, the response will almost always be either a quizzical stare or an awkward silence.
It isn’t as if the holiday is universally beloved by those who observe it. My friends regard Christmas in a hundred different ways, from an enchanting festival of familial bliss to a binged-out endurance contest. In some families, gift-giving is a garden of earthly delights, in others, an annual occasion to practice the arts of disappointment and dissimulation.
To be a gifted giver requires casting oneself imaginatively as the recipient, knowing something of the recipient’s desires; it is a delight to receive a present clearly chosen with oneself in mind, and an art to pretend delight at one that merely expresses the desires of the giver. Not a day has gone by without floods of gratitude since I received a most wonderful anonymous gift, the occasion for my last food blog. But the gift relationship is intensely interpersonal, a universe in miniature. Pull back for a wide shot of the season, and most people I know are appalled at the conspicuous consumption bacchanal it has become.
In terms of emotional content, all holidays—especially those that carry the expectation of family happiness—hold the same potential. If Easter or Hanukkah or Diwali pushes your buttons, wait a week or two and the feeling will pass. But Christmas has come to cast such a long shadow, steadily gobbling up real estate on the winter calendar. Still, I ask myself, what’s the big deal? Why do I avoid certain locations, certain experiences, from the end of November through the end of the year? Why do I hide from experiences that clearly delight most of those around me?
The only answer I have is this: for the likes of Dave Attell and me, it’s one l-o-o-o-ong bulletin from the hegemon, a zillion little ways to feel deeply in it but not quite of it. For we outsiders, the ever-expanding Christmas season can generate the tpe of allergy that stems from overexposure.
On one of the last Christmases I spent with my first husband’s family, my mother-in-law took me aside. She looked at me confidingly. “I just want to say,” she told me,” that it was hard to get used to having someone of a different race in the family, but now we feel very comfortable with you.” She was completely sincere and completely unconscious of how her words might sound to me. It would be hard to think of another sentence that more perfectly encapsulates my relationship to this season.
“Ambrosia” is a Greek word meaning “food of the gods.” Holidays exist in part because we need special moments to remind us of the pleasure of living. For some people, Christmas dinner tops that list; for others, it is a lesson in alienation; and both are real and true. Either way, it’s always good to change things up. So just for this year, forget the canned oranges and miniature marshmallows: if you have a long day on your hands sometime this week, I recommend investing it in making the dish considered by my family to be the apex of the baker’s art, apple strudel.
My grandmother was famous for it, making mass quantities each year to pack in waxed paper and send to distant relatives. To roll out the strudel dough, Grandma used an old-fashioned rolling pin, a long hardwood dowel slightly thicker in the middle than at the ends, burnished a soft brown from decades of use. It was always wiped with a damp cloth—never washed. (I have it now; it is the only rolling pin I have ever owned.) She used it in many ways, even “chopping” nuts by folding them inside a clean dish towel and crushing them with the rolling pin.
Making strudel, Grandma would press and stretch the pastry with the wooden pin and her fingers until it almost covered the kitchen table. Then she would make the soft, elastic dough even thinner by carefully inserting her balled fists under the sheet of dough and gently punching upward and outward. The pastry was ready when it passed the eyeball test: when you could see your own hand through the tissue of dough, it was thin enough for strudel.
My grandmother’s strudels were massive, as long and thick as a man’s arm and as bumpy as if the apples and walnuts that lay beneath the surface were veins and sinews. But once they were baked and sliced, all their muscularity yielded to melting, delicious crispness. No one could eat just one piece.
Grandma’s Apple Strudel
This recipe makes four medium-sized strudels, enough to bring some to several holiday parties and still eat your fill at home.
3-1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup oil (not olive)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup hot tap water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Mix flour and sugar in a bowl. Beat oil and egg together lightly, then stir into flour and sugar mixture. Combine vinegar and water and add gradually, mixing to form a soft dough. Knead for a few minutes on a lightly floured board. You want a very smooth and elastic-feeling dough.
Divide into four equal pieces, roll each into a rough ball, and set aside covered with plastic wrap in a slightly warm place for half an hour or so, while you get the filling ingredients ready.
Flour a large table or pastry board and roll one ball of dough into as thin a circle as possible, then lift and stretch gently with your hands to thin it further. Your goal is dough that is virtually transparent, yet not so fragile that it will break under the weight of the filling. Proceed as directed below, then repeat with the remaining balls of dough.
(This will make strudels the size of a ten-year old child’s arm. If you want to work at my grandmother’s heroic scale, use fewer, larger pieces of dough and an entire tabletop to roll it out. Conversely, if you do not think your working surface is large enough to achieve a properly thin dough using four balls, divide the dough into five or six pieces to make smaller strudels.)
Peeled, tart cooking apples, cut into large dice, approximately 5 pounds (have a few extras set aside in case you run out and need to peel and cut more)
1/2 pound raisins
3/4 pound butter, melted
1 and 1/2 cups dry bread crumbs
3 cups walnuts, very coarsely chopped
1 jar flavorful jam
2 lemons, quartered
1 1/2 cups white sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
(All of the filling amounts listed above are approximate; they should be enough to fill the four strudels this recipe will make. But if you love walnuts or raisins or cinnamon, or have a heavy hand with the butter, add more.)
For each strudel, line a jelly-roll pan or shallow roasting pan with foil, and butter or oil the foil. Or use nonstick silicone sheets, which are even better. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
With a pastry brush, paint the rolled-out dough with melted butter to within one inch of its edges. Spoon dollops of jam at regular intervals over the lower two-thirds of the surface, so that a flap of dough on the side farthest away from you is buttered, but free of other filling ingredients. Smear the jam around gently with the back of the spoon or your fingers, taking care not to the tear the dough.
Sprinkle the jammy surface with breadcrumbs. Distribute apple pieces over the jam and crumbs, covering them, but not too thickly. Sprinkle raisins and walnuts over the apples. Strew cinnamon-sugar thickly over the filling, then squeeze drops of lemon juice over it. Finally, dip your pastry brush in the melted butter, and shake it over the filling to sprinkle butter throughout.
Starting with the side nearest you, roll up the strudel like a jelly roll. Roll carefully to avoid tearing the dough, using a lifting and sideways stretching motion, so the roll gets longer as it is being formed. Finish by pinching the ends of the roll securely together, so the filling does not leak out while the strudel is baking. If there are any holes in the surface through which bits of filling can be seen, pull off a small piece of rolled dough from the end, moisten it, and press it gently over each hole to patch it.
Carefully lift the strudel onto the prepared pan, placing the seam side down. Keep the roll well-supported as you are moving it; if you drop one end it is likely to stretch the dough beyond the breaking point. Be very gentle, as it is hard for the soft dough to support the filling without tearing; enlist another pair of hands if you can, and place the prepared pan as close to the roll of dough as possible, to minimize the need to move it. If necessary to make it fit, arrange the roll in a loose coil or crescent shape.
Paint the surface of the roll with melted butter, and bake for approximately 45 minutes, basting after thirty minutes with additional butter. The strudel is done when the surface is golden brown and feels crisp when you touch it lightly with your finger. (If you are making smaller strudels, baste after 20 minutes, and watch for doneness starting at about 35 minutes.)
When done, remove from the oven and sift powdered sugar over the surface of the roll, allowing it to cool in the pan. The first sifting of sugar will probably be absorbed by the residual melted butter on the roll’s surface; if so, sift some more when it has partially cooled. When the strudel is room temperature, slice carefully with a very sharp knife and remove the slices to individual plates or a platter. If the filling has leaked, it may form a dark burnt-sugar slick on the pan’s surface. You can trim this off when you remove the strudel from the pan without any permanent damage to the roll.
Fair warning: my grandmother was a scary person. Do not serve this with Cool Whip unless you want her ghost to torment you. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream are good accompaniments, but even on its own, it will be the most delicious thing you eat this December.
Of course, like most American Jews, I know all the words to all the Christmas carols, the legacy of a public education and childhood TV. But this is the only Christmas song I really love, an apple strudel of a song: the great Charles Brown’s version of the deeply sexy and deeply evocative “Merry Christmas, Baby.”