Feeding On Tradition

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Local folks share their special holiday recipes and the stories behind them.

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Annelyse Gould may not have a white Christmas living in Orangevale, but when she gets done making her Santa Cookies—pecan cookies covered in powdered sugar—on Christmas Eve, the kitchen of her family’s home looks like it’s been hit by a snowstorm. Annelyse has been making the sweet treats as far back she can remember. “Me and my brother help make the dough and roll them in sugar. We help make the balls, too,” says Annelyse, 9. “My dad puts them in the oven and bakes them.” The cookies are put on a special Christmas plate and placed on the hearth near the fireplace along with a mug of milk for Santa. Annelyse also leaves a bag of them for Mrs. Claus, which, she says, is always gone by Christmas morning. What’s left behind? A few cookies (Annelyse understands that Santa goes to a lot of houses on Christmas Eve, so she doesn’t interpret the leftovers as rudeness on the big guy’s part) and a note thanking her and her brother, Brendon, 71/2, for the goodies and instructing them to do well in school. What’s her favorite part about this Christmas tradition?  “I like sampling the cookies to make sure they are good for Santa,” says Annelyse, who regularly watches the Food Network with her father and brother. “Real chefs do that.”

  

SANTA COOKIES (aka Mexican Wedding Cakes or Russian Tea Cakes)
 
½ cup pecan halves (can substitute walnuts)
1¾ cup bleached all-purpose flour
Pinch salt
1 cup powdered sugar (lightly spooned into cup)
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1½ cups powdered sugar (for topping)
 
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the pecans on a cookie sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool completely, then grate them into a fine powder.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the nuts, flour and salt. Set aside. In a separate bowl, cream powdered sugar and butter on low speed until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract, scraping the sides of the bowl. Still on low speed, gradually beat in the flour mixture until just incorporated. Cover bowl tightly and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and no longer than 3. Measure the dough into 1¼ inch, gently rounded scoops or scant tablespoons and roll between the palms of your hands to form 1-inch balls.

Place the balls 1½ inches apart on cookie sheets. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cookies barely begin to brown. (The undersides will be lightly browned.) For even baking, rotate cookie sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking period.

Cool cookies on the sheets for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from sheets using a small, angled metal spatula or pancake turner. Roll them in powdered sugar while they’re still hot. (Several rollings create a lovely powdery coating.) Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool completely. Roll again in powdered sugar. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes about 4 ½ dozen 1 ½ inch cookies

(Recipe adapted from Rose’s Christmas Cookies by Rose Levy Beranbaum; William Morrow and Company, Inc.)

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Hand-shredded or food-processed? That is the debate that goes on every year in the Shapiro household when it comes to making potato latkes. Monica Shapiro prefers to shred the potatoes by hand, which makes the latkes more like hash browns. Scott Shapiro is a fan of putting them in a food processor, which makes them more like a pancake. But the difference of opinion doesn’t stop the River Park couple from making the traditional Jewish dish every Hanukkah. “We have a big Hanukkah party and make 100 to 200 of them,” says Monica. “Lots of people come over. We have pictures of people shredding potatoes; the kids are playing with dreidels.” The latkes are fried, then served with lox, capers, sour cream and chopped onions or with apple sauce. The oil is paramount. “All Hanukkah dishes are cooked in oil,” says Scott. “It’s a way of remembering the miracle of Hanukkah, the oil lamp that burned for eight days.” The Shapiros, whose latke recipe once beat out five or six others in a competition among friends, did try using PAM one year. But it didn’t work. “It’s all about the oil,” says Monica. Oil or PAM, hand-shredded or food-processed, one thing is clear, according Monica Shapiro: “People know that Hanukkah and latkes go hand in hand. It’s very comforting to know that if you go to someone’s house at Hanukkah, you’re going to get a latke.”

  

POTATO LATKES

2 ½ cups cubed potatoes
1 medium onion (or more if you love onion)
¼ cup matzah meal (if you don’t have matzah meal, bread crumbs will work)
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
vegetable oil for frying

Mix potatoes, half of the onion (chunked), matzah meal, salt and egg in a food processor until blended and there are no large chunks of potato. Meanwhile, add 1 inch of vegetable oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the other onion half as a single chunk to the pan. When the onion starts to sizzle well, remove it and ladle ½-cup servings of the batter into the oil. Flip the latkes once the sides start to brown. When the latkes brown on both sides, drain them on a paper towel. Serve hot with lox, capers, sour cream and chopped onions or with apple sauce.

Makes 10 to 12 latkes

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It’s a simple spice more common in Nigeria and Ghana, but in Sacramento, egusi brings people together. At least it does at Gerri Scott’s house. “I just have to put out the word that I am making it,” says Scott, about her famous stew, whose star ingredient is the egusi seed, sometimes referred to as a melon seed. Scott serves the tomato-based stew—which also includes ginger, onion, garlic and spinach—during Kwanzaa, the seven-day cultural celebration based on African festivals that starts Dec. 26. Scott picks one day out of the seven to hold a celebration, generally hosting some 20 to 25 family members and friends. Scott says the dish isn’t difficult to make, but it is time consuming. “You have to really cook your tomatoes down so they get dark and thick,” she says. “You’re constantly stirring, stirring, stirring.” And while she sometimes buys the egusi already ground, this year she brought some back from her trip to Ghana and will grind it herself. Scott doesn’t mind the work. “It really is an act of love,” says the South Sacramento resident about making the stew. “For me, because Kwanzaa represents a cultural holiday, it is important to go back to the African continent and select a dish that helps people connect with our ancestry.”

  

EGUIS STEW

½ cup palm oil (available at Red Star International market in Sacramento)
1 cup canola or vegetable oil
5 tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic
1 thumb-size piece ginger
1 to 2 habanero peppers
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
3 maggi cubes (available at Red Star International market in Sacramento)
1 cup ground egusi seed (available at Red Star International market in Sacramento)
2 extra-large bags of spinach, boiled (save water)
½ teaspoon nutmeg
salt

Add palm oil and canola or vegetable oil to a medium-size (10-quart) pot over medium heat. Blend tomatoes, onion, garlic, ginger and habanero peppers in blender, and add to the pot. Let the mixture fry. Cook, stirring continuously for about 20 minutes. Add the tomato paste and maggi cubes and stir until the mixture becomes dark (like a rue).

Mix the ground egusi seed with a little water to make a paste. Add to the tomato mixture and stir. After about 10 minutes, add the pre-cooked spinach. If mixture is too thick add 1 to 2 cups of the spinach broth to the pot. Add nutmeg and salt to taste. Stir and let cook until the water is absorbed.

Serve over rice with ripe fried plantain (available at Red Star International market in Sacramento). Meat of choice may be served on the side.

Total prep and cooking time: 1 ½  to 2 hours
Serves 15 to 20

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Patricia Morello is gearing up to make her famous tamales. The Pollock Pines resident supplies the meat, chili and corn husks; friends and family bring whatever other fixin’s they desire: chicken, vegetables, fruit. Morello’s favorite? Green chili and cheese with some corn thrown in.  The cooking commences the weekend after Thanksgiving and continues on the weekends leading up to Christmas. “By the time Christmas rolls around, we’re sick of eating them,” says Morello, who makes the tamales with her four daughters and friends. Yet, when she goes down to Southern California for Christmas, the pots, pans and portable stove go with her so she can make more tamales for her family, which includes her 88-year-old mother. “We start up all over again, but definitely by January, I am done.” Morello took a break from making the tamales the past couple of years after her husband, David “Littlehawk,” died. “He helped out with getting the pots out, the stove and all of that, and then he sat back with his plate and fork.” She misses seeing him eat them—“He really enjoyed it and was grateful that he could provide food for the family”—but she’s ready to cook again. “I’m looking forward to it this year,” she says. ns

 

TAMALES 

Day 1: Preparing the pork

5 to 6 pounds boneless pork butt
5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 white onions, sliced thick
1 cup chicken broth

Dry rub:
1 small cellophane packet of cumin powder (available at Hispanic markets)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano

Mix together cumin powder, salt, pepper and Mexican oregano. Rub over pork. Cut small pockets in the pork butt and insert garlic.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place sliced onion on the bottom of a Dutch oven, place pork butt on top of the onion and pour chicken broth over the top. Cover and cook for 3 hours, until meat is soft and tender. Remove onion and meat from the pan. When it is cool to the touch, shred the meat, mash in the onion, add some liquid to moisten the meat mixture and place in an airtight container. Refrigerate.

Day 2: Preparing the chili sauce

6 dried pasilla negro chili pods
6 dried pasilla ancho chili pods
6 dried California chili pods
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablet Abuelita (Mexican chocolate)
6 cups water

Remove stems and seeds from chili pods and tear into small pieces. Place in a saucepan, then add garlic cloves and chocolate. Add the water. Bring to a boil, turn to low heat, cover and cook for 40 to 45 minutes. Cool the mixture, put in a blender and process until smooth. Add mixture to the shredded pork. Mix thoroughly and place in an airtight container.

Day 3: Preparing the cornhusks

1 package cornhusks, clean and shaped (available at Hispanic markets)
 
Separate and soak the cornhusks overnight in a large stockpot filled with hot water. The next day (tamale assembly day), remove from pot and place in a box lined with towels to absorb excess water. Cover (so they don’t dry out).

Day 4: Assembly

10 pounds masa (available at Hispanic markets)
pork/chili mixture
 
Lay the cornhusks on the table, wide side at the bottom, narrow at the top. Spread the masa (should spread like peanut butter) not too thin, not too thick on the bottom third of the husk. Spoon pork/chili mixture vertically in the middle of the husk. Fold, then gently pat or squeeze so masa and husk stick together. Place vertically in a steamer basket but don’t over pack. Steam for 1 hour (2 hours above 2,500 feet). Check often and don’t let the pan empty of water.

Green chili, cheese and corn version:

10 pounds masa (available at Hispanic markets)
1 can cut corn, drained
3 pounds fresh green pasilla chilis, roasted and peeled
5 pounds shredded Monterey Jack cheese
 
Mix about two-thirds of the corn into the masa and set aside. Slice strips of chilis and set aside. Lay the cornhusks on the table, wide side at the bottom, narrow at the top. Spread masa (should spread like peanut butter) not too thin, not too thick on the bottom third of the husk. Add the following ingredients to the masa/cornhusk, to your taste and texture: chili strips, remaining corn, cheese. Fold, then gently pat or squeeze so masa and husk stick together. Place vertically in a steamer basket but don’t over pack. Steam for 1 hour (2 hours above 2,500 feet). Check often and don’t let the pan empty of water.

Makes 3 to 4 dozen tamales