In colonial times, British New Englanders often gave fowl pies to their friends at Christmas, filled with a combination of goose, chicken, and pigeon. In respectful emulation of this early practice, consider distributing frozen Swanson chicken pot pies to your friends as gifts. Just imagine their happy faces as they pop them in the oven. About $1.20 each at most area supermarkets.
Nineteenth-century German immigrants to Pennsylvania (erroneously dubbed the Pennsylvania Dutch) probably started the American custom of making sugar cookies in various shapes at yuletide. Some of their favorite shapes were deer, rose, and castle. Run out and buy some tin cookie cutters, most priced from $1.99 to $4.99, at NEW YORK CAKE AND BAKING DISTRIBUTORS (note that these tin forms have changed little in the last 200 years), download a roll-out sugar cookie recipe, and get busy. Prior to baking, decorate your cookies with colored sanding sugar, candied violets, rainbow jimmies, metallic dragées, nonpareils, or other edible decorations, all available at the same place (56 West 22nd Street, 675-CAKE).
In 17th- and 18th-century New York, you could often tell a person’s religion by whether he or she celebrated Christmas. Jews and Protestants—surprisingly, the latter shunned the holiday as “papist”—generally went about their normal business on that day, while Anglicans and Catholics celebrated with fervor.
North African Jews have always eaten sweetened couscous at Hanukkah. Here’s how to prepare it: Following the directions on the box, hydrate the couscous with boiling water. Add six tablespoons of butter, a pinch of salt, and raisins that have already been boiled till plump. Fashion the couscous into a cone, and crisscross the surface with alternating festoons of cinnamon and powdered sugar.
The cakes at VILLABATE PASTICCERIA (7117 71st Street, Brooklyn, 718-331-8430) are a hallucinogenic phantasmagoria—the cake itself eclipsed by a humongous frosting sunflower in the brightest shade of yellow, or heaped with colorful candied fruits, or mapped with a complex landscape of fondants and frostings. Even better are the marzipan fruits, which make great stocking stuffers: bananas, strawberries, kiwi fruits, split-open figs, and crab apples that do a convincing imitation of reality, highlights and dark spots included. The master pastry chefs of Sicily are always in the house at this shop.
Kwanzaa celebrants have a unique opportunity in New York—in fact, nearly 60 of them by my count—to revisit their African roots via a meal in a real African restaurant. You can probably do it on Christmas Day, too, since many of these restaurants are Muslim. Here are a few suggestions: IN GOD WE TRUST (Ghanaian), 2364 Jerome Avenue, Bronx, 718-401-3595; KEUR N’DEYE (Senegalese), 737 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-875-4937; OBAA KORYOE RESTAURANT AND CAFÉ (Pan-West African), 3151 Broadway, 316-2950; AFRICAN GRILL (Ivorian), 1496 Fifth Avenue, 987-3836; MADIBA (South African), 195 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-855-9190; AFRICAN VILLAGE (Nigerian), 724 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-722-4770.
My pal Steven Levi has been holding an annual Hanukkah latke party at his East Village pad for over 10 years. Guests include a combination of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, and his party serves as a powerful reminder what a congenial and multicultural lot we New Yorkers are. Follow his example and hold your own latke party this holiday season. Here’s Steve’s recipe: Take 10 pounds of the cheapest potatoes you can find, and one pound of carrots, and grate coarsely. Add one box of matzo meal and plenty of salt and pepper. Form into patties and squeeze out excess fluid before frying in very hot oil. Serve with applesauce and sour cream.
The Voice‘s Holiday Preview:
“Seasonal Brew: Getting Into the Holiday Spirits”
“Gotham Gifts: A Guide for Bargain Hunters”