Tag Archives: Christmas

Two More Cookies

I finished making two more kinds of cookies today, Uly, or Vosí hnízda (Czech beehive cookies) and a type of sandwich cookie called an Amadeus cookie. For both, I began by making Lillian Langseth-Christiansen’s Suvaroffs, from the Gourmet Magazine Old Vienna Cookbook. They would form the base of the Uly, and the “bread” for the sandwich cookies.
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Then I made a paste of marzipan, pistachios, and kirsch to fill the sandwich cookies.
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The cookies were dipped in a chocolate glaze, then left to cool.
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All the Uly recipes on the internet seem to used crushed biscuits for the “hives,” except this one, which used walnuts, so it became my inspiration. I made a half recipe of the walnut dough, and it seemed a little sticky, so I added a couple of tablespoons of cocoa, and some breadcrumbs. I’d add the former again, but I don’t think I needed the latter. Then I shaped them in my Uly mold, given to me by my very kind cousin (who can bake me into the ground, so to speak), Erika Pick.
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I filled them with a buttercream made from a stick of butter, an equal weight of icing sugar, and a tablespoon of rum. Then I filled the hives, and affixed them to the suvaroffs. Yum!
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Vanilkové Rohlícky

Or Vanillekipferl, or vanilla crescents. They go by many names. The traditional Czech Christmas cookie plate is a thing of awe and beauty — a dozen or more different kinds of cookies, stuffed with apricot, layered with raspberry, filled with cream, or coated with chocolate or sugar, arranged in rich profusion. The wife of my grandfather’s nephew is the champion, and she would always send my grandfather a box each Christmas. But even my grandmother, who was not one of the world’s great lovers of cooking, always put together a cookie plate each year, repeating the tradition she learned as a child. Rum balls (hers were made of chopped chocolate and nuts, not cookies), shortbread (not as good as my Mum’s. sorry, Granny), and small florentines were on it, but the very best were the vanilkové rohlí?ky. We tried to make them; they fell apart, took hours, and tasted good, but ho hum. “Oh?”my Granny would say, puzzled, when we complained about how hard they were to make, “I just roll them out in long ropes and cut them.” Hmm. Clearly we weren’t using the same recipe.
Enter the handwritten cookbook of my great-grandmother, Marianne, which I talked about in a recent post. Sure enough, in its pages, handwritten in German, her first language, is a recipe for Vanillekipferln. Would they work? I had to try them out:
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    280 g Butter
    300-460 g Flour (I used a mix of all purpose and cake flour. I think all purpose would work fine)
    100 g ground hazelnuts (I toasted whole nuts in a low oven until the skins began to come off)
    100s sugar
    1 egg yolk

I ground the toasted nuts in a nut grinder. You could also process them until fine in a food processor, but the grinder is best. I then put all the other ingredients except the egg yolk into the processor, and processed them until the mixture began to come together in a ball. Then, I added the yolk and processed that too, until thoroughly mixed. The dough was too soft to work with at that point, so I put it in a cold place overnight. In the fridge for an hour would also work. In the morning, I preheated the oven to 300o F (yes, a low oven) and, miracle dicta, rolled pieces of the dough into ropes (about 1 cm diameter), cut them, and shaped them into crescents. I suggest using small pieces of the dough, no more than four cookies worth. Rolling on a cold surface helps. I used the smaller amount of flour — more flour would make a sturdier (though less buttery) dough. I baked them on greased sheets for 20-25 minutes. Begin with the shorter time, and check. There should be just a hint of brown at the tips of the cookies.
But wait, you ask, these are called vanilla crescents. Where does the vanilla come in? Once the cookies are baked, and before they cool down to much, I rolled each cookie carefully in vanilla sugar (superfine sugar to which I had added a vanilla bean a long time ago). About half a cup should do it. You could also use icing sugar, but I don’t like the taste of that.
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When I Knew

The title is misleading. The question I still ask myself is not, “When did I know I was Jewish?” but, “How, in God’s name, did I not figure it out sooner?” I blame Captain von Trapp.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of how my grandmother fled Czechoslovakia, weeks after the Germans invaded, with my two-year-old father in tow, to meet my grandfather in London (the story of how he got to London, however, remained a secret until much more recently). She was a great storyteller, and in her version, she was not a bold heroine, but a foolish and somewhat spoiled girl, slightly oblivious of the danger around her. I heard many times about how she charmed the Gestapo at the border into letting them leave, how they had to stay in Versailles, and how my grandmother abandoned my father every morning to the tender ministrations of “la promeneuse” so she could hot-foot it to Paris, and later, of their life in London and Wales, of ration cards, and air raids, and shoes that unaccountably did not get polished when you left them outside your door at night. What I did not hear anywhere attached to the story was the word, “Jew.” It was a word I never heard used by any member of my family, in any context.

And that is where the Sound of Music comes in. I saw it for the first time a long time ago, long enough ago that I remember standing for the national anthem before it began. My grandparents had come to visit in Toronto, and we all went together. And there, on the screen, was their story, their love for their homeland, the evil Nazis, and their flight to freedom. They even lived high on a hill with a lonely goatherd, in a Swiss Chalet. In Quebec. Here it is:

Granny and Gumper's house in North Hat;ley

When the Captain sang “Edelweiss,” my mother says, tears rolled down my grandfather’s cheeks. Bless my homeland forever.

And once again, not a mention of the word “Jew” in the whole movie (Weirdly, when you think about it. Sure, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. But Max? Max?). No wonder I was confused as the evidence began mounting and the questions started to come. Because I knew, I knew. But I didn’t know. I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and then all the Leon Uris books. I had dreams about being chased by Nazis. I even wrote a short story for school about a young girl, oh roughly my age at the time, escaping. I asked my father where our name came from. He lied (Miners from Lancaster come to work in the Silesian coal fields. I still have not forgiven him for this one!). I asked him why Gumper was smart enough to leave when others didn’t (you can tell I am getting close at this point). I asked my grandfather what happened to his two sisters. He left the room, and my grandmother changed the subject. I knew we weren’t Catholic, like all the other Czechs I knew, though when my grandfather swore, it was by Jesus and Mary (this also threw me off). Did I think they were Hussites? But no, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. You didn’t have to be Jewish to flee the Nazis. It wasn’t a question about myself that I asked; it was one I had already answered.

Then cousin Frances came for one of the last Christmases before my grandfather and father died, and this time brought with her a family tree. On it were large branches that were missing, unknown relatives marked only “died in the war.” And Frances told us that we had a Jewish background. I didn’t fully absorb it, confused as I still was by the Captain. Maybe Gumper’s mother had been Jewish?

After my father died, my uncle sat me and my sister down with my mother and told us the story of our origins and swore us to secrecy. My mother already knew; my father had told her before they were married in an offhand way, and she regarded it as a matter of complete indifference. We didn’t keep it a secret; we started talking about our background and history with our father’s cousins, and with our grandmother, especially when we travelled with her to the Czech Republic after the wall came down. My sister remembered revealing all to our Kitchener cousins when we visited them for Christmas a couple of years after our father’s death.

For me this knowledge came, not as a revelation but as a confirmation, an “Oh, of course.” It was like I had spent my life doing a puzzle without the picture on the box, trying to piece together the faces I saw from the pieces I had. Someone handed me some missing pieces and suddenly all the sections I had been working on began to fit together. And on the woman’s face, the pieces now formed a smile.

Christmas at the Picks

Christmas 1939

The official part of Christmas with my new family is over, and I have an evening alone, as the rest of them go out to shop, eat, and watch a movie, as is their usual custom on Boxing Day. We have been talking a lot about what our Christmas traditions are over the past few days, as we attempt to merge our practices and rituals, honouring what is most important to all of us. Like most of us, I have had a series of Christmas traditions, depending on where I lived and who I was living with at the time, but if you ask me what I think of when I think of Christmas, it isn’t Toronto in the 1970s or Detroit in the 1990s; it is spending Christmas in North Hatley, for many years at the incongruous Swiss chalet on a Quebec hillside house built my Gumper, my grandfather Jan Pick, and later also at our own cottage. It was always our family and my grandparents; sometimes our cousins from Kitchener joined us, and in later years, my father’s cousin Frances would come from Mexico.

What did it mean to us? It was the light in the darkness of winter. We feasted and burned candles. We skied through the woods and snowmobiled, and chopped down a tree, bringing the freshness of the forest indoors. The ornaments were battered and glittering survivors of those collected by my grandparents in their years as exiles and refugees from their native Czechoslovakia. We ate fish soup, and herring, and salmon, and eel. We ate turkey and plum pudding, and spiced beef. We ate candied orange peel, truffles, florentines, pepperkakor, vanilkove rohlicky, rum balls, Turtles, mince pies, and shortbread.  We opened a mountain of presents (This was the only part my grandfather did not like — he thought we had too many presents, and he was right. And it only got worse when the Kitchener Picks joined us!). And like the Whos down in Whoville what we did most of all was sing. At Christmas Eve dinner, the apex of our feast, we would sing and sing and sing, songs in English and French; Czech, Slovak, Swedish, and Hungarian. Some were toasts and drinking songs, some were folk songs; we sang songs about the black earth of my grandparents’ homeland and about battles fought in far off Herzigovina; we sang songs my grandfather learned as a student in France and songs my mother grew up singing around a Swedish Christmas smorgasbord. We banished the darkness and drew our family together around the table. It was this family we were celebrating as we sang, especially my grandparents, especially my grandfather.

The Picks were Jewish of course, and it may be surprising for some of you to read that Christmas was so important to them. It is one of the curiosities of the ways a culture borrows from another that many Czech Jews celebrated Christmas with as much enthusiasm as their neighbors, albeit with less piety. I remember my grandmother taking about childhood Christmasses, about the carp who would come to live in the bathtub to be cleaned of its muddy interior before it would be eaten on Christmas Eve. And their family was not alone. My grandfather’s best friend from the old country was a man who survived Auschwitz and wrote a memoir of his experiences. “It was a very sad Christmas for the Jews this year,” he wrote without irony about Christmas 1939 in occupied Czechoslovakia.

The grainy photo at the top, which shows my grandmother, Liska, lighting the candles on a Christmas tree, is a still from a movie made by our cousin Frances’s father at Christmas in 1939 in the UK. He and my grandparents and my father, Michael, had managed to escape there. Also in this film are my father’s young cousins, Peter and John, kindertransport children who had been saved by Nicholas Winton, and my great grandmother Ruzena, whose necklace I wore at our own Christmas dinner last night. The people in the film are all people I knew well, so even though the film is silent I can tell what they are saying and even what they are thinking, as they greet Father Christmas, and praise my father for riding his first tricycle. And I can see the moment when the mood grow dark and they raise a toast their friends and family left behind — my grandmother’s parents, my grandfather’s sisters, all to perish, with so many more — and my grandmother knocks back her drink, and stiffens her jaw and smiles again, prepared to defy the darkness for another year.

 

 

2000 Miles

Just in time, here is my other favourite Christmas song. The line I like the best is the one about, “Diamonds in the snow. Sparkle.” Every time I hear it, I remember being in university the winter it came out, and walking back to residence late at night after some Model Parliament party with my current boyfriend at the time. It was one of those dry, crisp frigid nights, and as the snow winked and blinked at us, he said, “Look! The photographers are taking our picture.”

If you, like me, have never seen the video before now, beware. It rivals “Safety Dance” for bad. Chrissie Hynde as a Salvation Army girl? But the song is worth it.

Christmas Wrapping

I managed to do most of my Christmas shopping in only one day but even that was too much. By the time it was over I felt like I couldn’t stand to hear another Christmas song as long as I lived. Part of that was a consequence of two hours trapped in my hairdressers chair listening to the Christmas channel on the radio. No, I have no desire to rock around the Christmas tree, and I do not hear what you hear. Don’t get me wrong — I like Christmas carols. Just not Christmas songs.

But there are two songs I make an exception for, and by a weird coincidence, both are by bands that originated in Akron, Ohio. Maybe I’ll get to the second later this month (and I bet you’ve already guessed which it is) but the first is The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping.” It has been running through my head all month, perhaps because this is the first Christmas I have spent with no family other than my son.

So deck those halls, trim those trees
Raise up cups of Christmas cheer,
I just need to catch my breath,
Christmas by myself this year.

Then I pay more attention to the words: “Had his number but never the time. Most of ’81 passed along those lines.” ’81? ’81?! This song is thirty years old! Am I even thirty years old? Clearly I must be. Oh dear, when did that happen?

There seems to be no video of it (we are almost pre-video for this song) so I present you with the synchronized Christmas lights version:

Christmas Wrapping — The Waitresses

In a quiet way, unwind
Doing Christmas right this time.

Gravad Lax

By far my most popular post ever is the one to my bullar, which I linked in the previous post. I thought I would continue the Swedish Christmas season theme by giving you our recipe for gravad lax — salmon cured with dill — that we eat on Christmas Eve. Our cousins laugh at us and say that gravad lax is not appropriate for Christmas Eve but we just think they’re jealous. Begin a couple of days before you want to eat, so the evening of the 22nd for Christmas Eve.
You will need:

  • As large a piece of salmon filet as you want to eat, cut in two equal sized pieces
  • Equal parts sugar and salt (kosher is nice but we don’t bother).  You can use 1/4 cup of each.
  • white or black peppercorns, ground.  for 1/4 cup sugar and salt, use 2 tablespoons of pepper.
  • a massive bunch of dill

Mix the sugar, salt, and pepper together.  Place half the fish, skin side down in a glass or enamel or non-reactive metal baking dish.  Sprinkle some of the sugar/salt mixture over it.

“Lucy, how much is ‘some’?”

I was afraid you’d ask me that.  It depends on the size of your fish.  Not so it is a thick white layer.  Just so much that there is a nice sprinkling.  About as much as the sugar/cinnamon mixture you sprinkled over the bullar, how’s that?  If you use the full 1/4 c of sugar/salt proportions, you won’t come close to finishing the mixture, unless you have a massive piece of fish.  Put most of the dill layered over the salmon.  Sprinkle more sugar/salt on the dill, about the same amount as before.  Put the other piece of salmon on top, skin side up.  It will look remarkably like this:

Gravad lax

Put saran wrap over it, or put it into a clean plastic bag.  Put the salmon in the fridge and weight it down with all those heavy condiment jars you keep in your fridge and can’t bear to throw away.  Now you know why they are there.  Or use a big can of tomatoes, or something heavy.

Every twelve hours or so, turn the salmon over, and then put back the weights.  You will find that a little juice collects in the bottom of the dish.  Great battles are fought in our family over whether you are supposed to pour off the juice, or whether you are supposed to leave it in.  I forget which one we do right now, but I’m sure we’re right.

When you’re ready to eat, remove the weight, lift off the first salmon piece, gentle remove any clinging dill and sugar/salt, and slice thinly.  Sprinkle with a little fresh dill and serve with mustard sauce.

Oh wait, you want the mustard sauce recipe too?  To be perfectly honest, the one they sell in a jar at IKEA is perfectly acceptable, but if you can’t make it to an IKEA, you can whisk together:

  • 4tbs mustard.  Not Dijon.  Not something grainy and German. The Swedish mustard from IKEA  would have been perfect, but if you could have bought that, you could have bought the dill sauce.  Oh well.  Next year.
  • 1 tbs. powdered mustard
  • 3 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs. white vinegar
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • massive amounts of dill.  This is why you didn’t use it all in the salmon.

Let it sit in the fridge for a bit so the tastes all marry.  The whole thing should come out looking a bit like this:

Gravad lax and dill sauce