Since we're a communal melting pot and there are many crossovers among cultures, we’re fortunate to be able to partake in the delights of all the December traditions — social, religious and ethnic. Here’s the line-up of festivities and food highlights for the month’s party offerings so you can pick your pleasure. Cheers!
New twist on the old cocktail
The secret, sexy cocktail parties of the 1920s during the period of bathtub gin and speakeasies evolved into the cool cocktail culture of the Rat Pack and “Mad Men” era. Today’s trendy cocktail soirees shake things up (like Bond’s martinis) with fun little bites (best made in advance), garden-to-glass sips, and an organized, gracious host who is busy mixing with their guests rather than mixing their drinks.
Creative mixologists concoct some farm- to-table holiday whistle whetters (which can also be made beforehand) like cilantro gin slushes, sangria with fresh sage leaves, vodka thyme lemonade, a blackberry mint julep or a cucumber basil tequila zinger.
Perfect pitch parties
Host a caroling party serving up sheet music for holiday tunes along with harmonious treats. Start with smoked salmon crostini, roasted veggie crudités, and a soul soothing caramelized butternut squash soup. Keep up the tempo with a wild mushroom and chicken puff pastry strudel, and an arugula, pomegranate and pecan salad. For sweet finales Christmas spices roar out of the pantry like cloves, nutmeg, allspice, peppermint, cinnamon and ginger enlivening classic gingerbread and shortbread cookies, mincemeat pies and plum puddings, in addition to other decadent goodies such as cranberry trifle, assorted crème brulees, glazed fresh berries and honey pecan brittle.
To wash it down nicely with quintessential holiday comfort drinks, serve top hits including silky smooth eggnog and hot-spiced apple or pear cider.
Festival of lights and latkes
Hanukkah commemorates the ancient miracle when Judah Macabee found a flask that contained enough oil to burn for eight days for the rededication ceremony of their desecrated temple in Jerusalem. Jelly doughnuts aka sufganiyot and latkes or potato pancakes symbolically fried in oil served with chunky applesauce and sour cream are part of the modern day menu. Riffs on the traditional potato latkes include sweet potato, zucchini, cheese and assorted root pancakes accompanied by apricot or berry sauces.
When my grandma was growing up in Russia, her family performed a beautiful “festival of lights” ritual called the Flaming Tea Ceremony. Everyone was given a glass of hot tea and a chunk of brandy-doused sugar. The lights were dimmed and a lit taper was passed around the room, lighting everyone’s high-octane sugar.
When the last person’s sugar was ablaze, they dropped the flaming cubes into their tea and the room sizzled.
Then they sang Hanukkah songs and noshed on old-world apple strudel.
Kwanza — The newbie on the block
Since 1966, Kwanza, a seven-day secular celebration of African American heritage has been celebrated annually on Dec. 26. “Kwanza” translates from Swahili to “first fruits” in honor of the treasure trove of harvest fruits and veggies from the African soils. Some traditional dishes served during the Kwanza feast are Koki, a black-eyed pea appetizer, peanut soup, okra and greens, anything yam since the root is considered “the king of crops,” and for dessert, a fresh fruit salad or a creamy coconut pie.
1 gallon apple cider
10-inch square cheesecloth
Piece of butcher’s twine (long enough to tie)
Rind from one Meyer lemon
Rind from one orange
4 cinnamon sticks
6 whole cloves
6 allspice berries
1-inch stick fresh ginger
1/4 cup amber honey
Method: Place cider and honey in a large pot. Make a sachet piling the rinds and spices in the center of the cheesecloth square, bringing edges together, and tying tightly. Drop into the pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for 8 minutes. Remove sachet and pour cider into mugs. Garnish with cinnamon sticks and whipped cream.