I’m of two minds about spending the holidays in New York. On the plus side, the city is decked out in her prettiest outfit, all sparkles and glitter and polish. On the other hand, it is swarming with tourists to the point where, if you’re not careful, you can literally get stuck among the scrum, just as my husband and I were last Christmas Eve Day near the Rockefeller Center tree. We had to make a harrowing escape via a small opening near Saks.
But there is a lot to love. The celebratory restaurants at your disposal, for one.
We celebrate Hanukkah, and each year we make a pilgrimage to eat some latkes at a traditional Jewish deli. This year, though, we tried something different.
On the 6th night of Hanukkah we rented a Zipcar and drove to Stix Kosher Restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens. This homestyle establishment specializes in the cuisine of Bukharian Jews–a Central Asian population with a distinctive culture whose history in the region dates back millenia. Lamb is what they do best, and the varieties we sampled were tender and not-at-all gamey. We feasted on lamb plov, kebabs, chebureki and traditional tandoori bread. All around us, large tables of families were toasting to birthdays and the holiday with BYO bottles of vodka and brandy. It was an incredibly festive and warm atmosphere.
After dinner, we were craving sufganiyot. These filled doughnuts are traditionally enjoyed during Hanukkah to commemorate the oil burning miracle at the center of the holiday. They’re similar to American-style jelly doughnuts, Italian bomboloni and German Berliners. We stumbled upon Queens Pita, which wasn’t just serving one variety of sufganiyot; they had prepared a veritable smorgasbord of the pastry. We were in deep-fried, powdered sugar-coated paradise. I mean, just look at that photo. The ones in the foreground are filled with Nutella. NUTELLA! Just as God had intended.
As Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan admitted during her confirmation hearing, most NYC Jews spend Christmas at a Chinese restaurant. It’s a funny tradition with origins in the mere fact that, for a long time, those restaurants were the only ones open on a day when the usually bustling city is uncharacteristically quiet. Local Chinese joints were the default place to grab a bite for cooking-averse New Yorkers. Many have also pontificated about the shared otherness both Jews and Chinese Buddhists experienced back when assimilation had a much stronger pull in predominately Christian American society.
In order to get a meal in with family members who were leaving the next day, we decided to partake in a spicy Szechuan outing on Christmas Eve night as opposed to the much busier Christmas Day dinner hour. Café China in Midtown was packed with families of all stripes (including The Americans‘ Richard Thomas, out with his wife and two kids!) Festooned with kitschy throwback decor, the restaurant is a nice option for a slightly-more-upscale Szechuan meal in the area. The foods of the Szechuan region are covered in spices and mouth numbing peppercorns (ma la, in Chinese parlance). If you can handle it, order their specialties and not the American-Chinese entrees on offer. We enjoyed Szechuan noodles, dumplings in chili oil, scallion pancakes, tea-smoked duck, ma po tofu, spicy lamb, fried strings beans and twice-cooked pork. Over-ordering and enjoying leftovers later that night in your PJs is half the fun.
Christmas Day is a relaxing day for us. No presents to open. No fancy dinner to make. We spend it lazing about the apartment and baking something from scratch. We had a breakfast of corned beef hash with two eggs over-easy (my favorite!) at a standby diner down the street. It was quiet, low-key, perfect.
After a stroll in the park, I spent nearly all of the rest of the day making these cinnamon rolls. They weren’t too difficult, and as I’ve been doing with nearly every dessert this season, I spiked them with some bourbon–just a tablespoon or so added to the cream cheese frosting in order to give it a little extra sumthin’. We enjoyed the rolls with sparkling wine cocktails. A very merry Christmas, indeed.
New Year’s Eve
NYE in the United States is mainly a going out holiday. It’s about drinking, dancing, counting down until midnight. In Russia it’s much more–it’s a Thanksgiving-level celebration. There, New Year’s Eve is a HUGE deal. After the Communist Revolution and the subsequent suppression of religion, the traditions surrounding the day mirrored those of Christmas–a decorated tree, a Santa Claus-like figure, presents–though completely void of any religious meaning. (Actual Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th). Since moving to the U.S., my family has dropped most of the Christmas-like traditions (except for the presents part, natch), but NYE doesn’t feel right without a festive meal that includes caviar, sweets and champagne. My husband and I were going out with friends on the actual day, so we made the meal–complete with homemade crepes–on December 30th. It was freakin’ lovely.