Forty-Eight Tartlet Pans, Some Funny-Looking Gold Dust Cookies, and Three Christmas Cookbooks
I have little to do with Christmas cooking: my job is to show up and help my mother-in-law. This doesn't stop me from being avidly interested in Christmas foods and the many cookbooks addressing what remains to me an exotically foreign holiday.
The Martha Stewart Living Christmas CookbookPublisher: Clarkson Potter
Author: Martha Stewart Living Magazine (editors)
Length: 464 pages
Publication date: 2003-09
Elizabeth David's ChristmasPublisher: David Godine
Author: Elizabeth David, Jill Norman, editor
Length: 209 pages
Publication date: 2008-10
Nigella ChristmasPublisher: Hyperion
Length: 277 pages
Author: Nigella Lawson
Publication date: 2009-11
“I am not by nature a calm person, and, much as I love Christmas, I can be kyboshed by it. I know from experience how easy it is to be overwhelmed by the sheer workload and the burden of expectations, one’s own above all.”
-- Nigella Lawson, Nigella Christmas
Many are the Jews who secretly long to celebrate Christmas. Yes, we have Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, the Menorah, the tasty fried foods. And yes, we do exchange gifts. But there's no big deal fancy meal, no stockings, no tearing awake at 4AM to see what Santa left under the tree.
Ah, the tree. There are Jews who shudder at this ancient pagan symbol and others who want one themselves: that lovely piney scent, those cunning decorations.
One of the best ways for a Jew to observe Christmas is to acquire a Christmas-observing partner. Often, these partners are attached to extended families whose Christmas traditions include bone china, the big deal meal, and a large tree laden with heirloom ornaments. I have such a partner, and therefore, I have the best of both worlds. Earlier this week my grandmother’s menorah came down from its high shelf for polishing, and this afternoon my husband and I purchased a tree. We decorated it with our own ornament collection, built over two decades, and stood the menorah nearby.
I realize some will cringe, but I cannot claim anything more than cultural Judaism. Besides, the best of both worlds is a rare occurrence. It’s hardly as if the beauty of one ritual detracts from the beauty of the other.
So, on to the food. I have little to do with Christmas cooking: my job is to show up and help my mother-in-law. This doesn't stop me from being avidly interested in Christmas foods and the many cookbooks addressing what remains to me an exotically foreign holiday.
It’s fair to say numerous “all purpose” English language cookbooks discuss Christmas, often in dedicated sections. This means anyone possessing a decent all-around cookbook like Joy of Cooking or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (to name only two) need not shell out extra cash for speciality holiday tomes. Even those of us interested in spending our money thus are rapidly overwhelmed by sheer number of holiday cookbooks available. Everyone, it seems, has a stake in making the reader feel she (these books invariably assume a woman alone in the kitchen, overworked and miserable) must produce an elegant Christmas Day feast, along with jolly delish meals Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, and a few days thereafter to cope with a houseful of famished guests certain to snarf your food, then leave you with piles of dirty dishes.
Seeking to expand my limited expertise in matters Christmas, I lit on three cookbooks: The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook, Elizabeth David’s Christmas, and Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Christmas. I choose Elizabeth David and Nigella Lawson because I love their other cookbooks. Martha Stewart is another story. Let us begin with her.
I am not a Martha person. This bod hasn’t a crafty bone in it, and Martha’s chilly, perfectionistic yet law-breaking persona put me off. But in the spirit of open mindedness, I bought The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Coobook. At 463 pages, it's the longest of my lot, arguably because the definition of Christmas food (admittedly hazy to start with) is stretched here to include Chicory Salad with Lemon-Anchovy Vinaigrette, Creamy Tomato Soup, and Pork Loin Braised in Milk—all winter foods, yes, but Christmas specific, no.
The book is pitched at readers who are unfamiliar with morel mushrooms (but evidently can afford them) and require instructions for deglazing pans. Yet many of the recipes, especially in the baking sections, require dexterity and experience. The cakes, pies, cookies, and confections will be difficult, if not impossible, to prepare without a spacious kitchen crammed with specialty equipment. If you want to use The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Coobook , you’ll need a food processor, 48 tartlet pans, mini-angel food cake pans, candy thermometers, pastry bags, clay bakers, cookie presses, and a squadron of abused peons to clean up.
Seriously, the The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Coobook has a real disconnect: any cook in possession of a Turkey-Hill style kitchen (Martha’s manse) and such accoutrements knows how to clean a morel mushroom and deglaze her pans. She would also take exception to grammatical errors in her cookbooks:
“We hope you’ll like flipping through these pages as much as we do—and more important, trying different recipes, whether new or familiar, to the delight of those closest to you.” It’s more importantly, and we’ll ignore the passive construction “of those closest to you”.
Elizabeth David’s Christmas was posthumously assembled by David’s longtime editor, Jill Norman, who found a box of Christmas writings among David’s papers. David famously said she’d rather spend Christmas alone in bed with a smoked salmon sandwich and a glass of champagne. Never mealy-mouthed, she rails against the commerical insanity burying Christmas’s true meaning, arguing for a simpler approach.
“Christmas, at any rate the way we are supposed to celebrate it nowadays, does tend to unbalance people, particularly those people responsible for the catering.”
On the avocado as appetizer:
“Here I’d like to have my say about the detestable way avocados are often treated. Filling them with prawns or crabmeat is just awful, a total wrecking of two good things at one blow.”
Instead of crabmeat-filled avocados or salmon caviar rolls, another David bugaboo, Elizabeth David’s Christmas offers simple, elegant, utterly correct dishes, a welcome mix of seasonal Saturnalian feasting alongside more abstemious meals. David has a keen sense of balance between the required/desired wish to feast and the need for simpler fare: she describes a lush pork terrine (no food processor necessary) but also suggests a lentil soup, the broth coming from the Christmas bird’s carcass: both economical and soothing. Of an apricot ice cream, she writes:
“If you have no suitable electric machine, use a big bowl or a heavy whisk or fork.”
There's information on what to do with the remains of your holiday bird, fascinating history about Chrismas in England, and recipes for classic English Christmas pudding, a complex affair David admits to no longer making. David spent Christmas with her sister Diana’s family, who vastly preferred ice cream to “the whole performance of boiling the thing on Christmas morning and the turning out of it, and the mess and all the rest of it…” Should you wish to try the “whole performance,” though, David offers her usual precise instructions. In all, an excellent book for cooks or those who requiring a sardonic hit of emotional support during this most stressful time.
Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Christmas departs radically from Christmases Stewart and David. I confess to loving Lawson’s cookbooks. Yes, they’re food porn, brimming with glossy photographs of Lawson’s crammed kitchen (this woman has 48 tartlet pans), perfect foods, and Nigella herself. Then again, Lawson—or her ghostwriters—present a sunny, earthy, likable persona. It’s hard to hate a woman who repeatedly calls herself klutzy, admits to insomnia-fueled online buying jags, and is unabashed about her love of cooking—and eating. Moreover, her recipes always work.
Nigella Christmas starts with welcoming drinks, including plastering punches and a number called Santa’s Little Helper (brandy with Amaretto, Cointreau, triple sec, or Grand Marnier) certain to quell the worst holiday jitters, even if Lawson herself admits serving it to a party “would be irresponsible in the extreme.”
If Nigella Christmas has a flaw, it’s Lawson’s admitted tendency to sprinkle pomegranate seeds on nearly everything—very holiday red, but seeding pomegranates is a time-consuming, staining pain. Lawson suggests bagged seeds, but this doesn’t diminish the stain factor. She can forget—or not realize—that crab, shrimp, and salmon are out of reach for many of us: here on the American Pacific coast, shellfish and wild salmon are costlier than steak.
Nonetheless, Lawson’s cheery mien and straightfoward recipes are encouraging to us lesser mortals lacking showroom kitchens or surgical dexterity. To the relief of all but the strictest locavores, Lawson isn’t ashamed to use store-bought broth, canned beans, or out-of-season tomatoes.
I decided to test-drive a Nigella Christmas cookie recipe. Gold Dust Cookies were so alluring in their full-page photo, so artfully arranged and –a-gleaming against their dark platter, that I was moved to attempt them. I rooted through my tartlet pans, pushed aside my cookie press, and dug out my star-shaped cookie cutter. I scored some red sugar sprinkles (the market was out of gold dust) (There is a Stevie Nicks joke in here somewhere), and got baking. The results were nothing like Nigella’s.
Granted, I had no food stylists handy, and bake rarely. The dough is butter-based and needed to kept cold. Repeated re-rolling of the scraps left my stars smeary-edged, like those seen in a foggy night sky. My sugar sprinkles, added after the cookies baked, promptly rolled off. A baker friend later explained I needed to apply egg white as an edible glue.
To say these cookies looked like a child baked them is an insult to children everywhere. Still, two out of three Christmas cookbooks from a random sampling ain’t bad. And kitchen mishaps are part of the cooking experience. As for the cookies, I will foist them on my in-laws, who will understandably laugh at them. But they taste fine, and will get eaten. And isn’t that the point?
I finished this piece two days after the Newtown, Connecticut shootings. Writing a happy Christmas story felt senseless. But Christmas is about light in the darkest season, about a man who preached love and peace, about being with friends and family. This Christmas, treasure your loved ones, and light a candle for the families in Newtown.