This time of year, kitchens around the world are awash with the seasonal perfume of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg as culinary architects painstakingly build gingerbread houses, yule logs, trifle towers, plum pudding pyramids and shortbread sculptures. To accompany these delights are some holiday whistle-wetters, including eggnog, apple cider and hot toddy.
My fave is a leavened cupola-shaped Christmas cake drizzled with crema di mascarpone, a blend of sweet cheese and a splash of amaretto. The traditional Italian panettone recipe incorporates such seasonal delights as candied orange and lemon zests, raisins, cranberries, glazed chestnuts and bittersweet chocolate chunks into the yeasty dough.
The origin of the panettone and its name are probably apocryphal, but according to a 15th century Milanese legend, a nobleman named Ughetto Atellani fell in love with the beautiful Adalgisa, the daughter of a poor baker named Toni. To win her heart and impress her papa, Ughetto disguised himself as a baker and whipped up a concoction of yeast, butter, dried fruits and citrus peels molded into an unusual shape resembling a church dome.
This light and airy fruitcake was an instant success, and Toni and his daughter embraced Ughetto for his brilliant baking talents. The Duke of Milan gave his blessing to the marriage, a gala attended by such notables as Leonardo da Vinci, during which was served the new fruity bread dubbed, "Pan del Ton," the bread of Toni.
Today, more than 50 million panettones are sold in Italy for Christmas, with sales of this holiday bread expected to topple $110 million in the United States alone.
Hanukkah, Chanukah or Hanukah, properly pronounced with a throaty, gargling intonation, is a celebration of religious freedom that begins this year at sundown on Friday, kicking off an eight-day grease-a-thon. Simply, "Hanukkah" translates to "dedication," since it honors the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that had been captured and defiled by the ancient Geeks. The iconic Yehuda Maccabee, in searching for consecrated oil to light the lamp for the dedication ceremony, only found enough oil to burn for a single day and night. Then a miracle happened when the oil burned for eight days and nights.
Today, Jews celebrate the holiday to commemorate this miracle, serving oil-fried foods such as doughnuts and latkes or potato pancakes.
For a divine Hanukkah soiree, you can try something New World, such as a gourmet latkes bar with exotic toppings. Of course, you can't beat the classic potato latkes. I make these healthier by baking them on parchment paper coated with olive oil. Try zucchini-cheese, wild-caught salmon for a dose of omega-3s, or sweet apple latkes for dessert. For traditional toppings, there's chunky applesauce and sour cream, or for unconventional ones, how about mango chutney or Sephardic salsa (similar to pico de gallo). Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of heritage, the harvest and community values in the African-American culture, begins Dec. 26 each year. The holiday was named for the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which translates to the "first fruits." The bountiful feast takes place on the last day of December, serving up some traditional African delicacies and soul fare including Koki, an appetizer of black-eyed peas, peanut soup, okra and greens, baked yams or sweet potatoes wrapped in banana leaves, and coconut pie washed down with minted green tea and ginger beer.