This year I tried to quit Christmas. I know, what a bah-humbug thing to say. I started my campaign to escape the holiday in early December of 2017. And yet, even with a plan to take 2018 off, it was a bust. When I realized my failure about 45 days out, I was in disbelief. How could I have had such a failure of epic proportions?
At the risk of being overly honest, the holidays carry with them a hint of childhood grandeur sprinkled with magic AND also a somberness. Maybe it is lack of sheer available daylight that evokes the latter emotion. Or is it the feelings I had as a child knowing that I would never have that idealic Christmas with both parents sitting around the white (or blue) flocked Christmas tree opening presents. Rather, my Christmas would be two very separate holidays with each parent, almost like dual personalities. In today’s modern world, that is hardly abnormal and barely even cause for a mention. At the time of my childhood however, it was far from the norm. And in retrospect, the multiple Christmas celebrations really were all wonderful celebrations. But when you are in your youth, you try to fit in, at all costs, and any unusual-ness is quickly rebuffed.
For the last 10 years, my maternal cousins and I have hosted Christmas and slowly started to take on more of the ancestral cooking – those once a year dishes that require an exorbitant amount of time (12 hours of ravoli making, or 7-1/2 hour frittata assembly – you get the idea). When you combine the required time it takes to collectively make these incredible dishes, and add them to Christmas shopping and professional work projects, well, there is zero margin to come up for air, for sleep, or to really enjoy the process. And there is so much that is truly special about these dishes that I desperately WANT to enjoy and soak up every minute of these traditions with my mom, my aunt and my cousins, while we cook, laugh, and swap stories. Of course, while we do these things, I always have fun. But it is the exhaustion of the lump sum afterwards, when combined with the ‘everything’ else, that is where I reach the limits of what I can enjoy. I too want it all to be idyllically perfect. I too am incredibly proud of our traditions. Yet frequently I feel pressure beyond the norm and exhaustion beyond words.
I recently read that you can really tell who someone is during an emergency. Well I believe that the same theory applies to Christmas. That’s because Christmas throws me into a state of sleep deprivation (ergo crisis). Think of it like this: On Christmas, the Catholics are all handed the same stage props (the tree, the elaborate meals, hosting relatives, gifts, expectations) and then we all try to recreate the same kind of day. Except that for my maternal family, these dishes require a committed army of foodies able to jump into action on a moment’s notice; collecting ingredients, chopping only by hand, transporting vats of olive oil and fresh picked crab, to then cook the desired flavors AND achieve the above par desired textures (this is NOT to be underestimated). For me, it is a high stakes art project, a happy crisis driven feeling is summoned, and true colors are revealed.
As the hours melt away, gifts are not yet wrapped, some are not even purchased, and we focus on the one last run to the goal line for a perfect Christmas meal. The situation is tense. You see it in movies. This is the magic and dread I internalize at Christmas. When asked about my holiday, I stammer. Should I give the cookie cutter answer? Nope, that’s not me. I am honest to a fault, even if I try to pad it. With conviction I say, “It is the best meal of the year, it was delicious but I am relieved it is over!” I stammer because this year, as in a few past years, aside from not being able to ‘get away from it all’, my mother was sick and unable to join the traditions. So while trying to rise to the challenge of making her incredible specialty dishes, which we usually do together, I was also trying to look after her and do what little I could to get her well. When she should have been resting and recouperating, she would try to cook some of the holiday dishes we all enjoy. Oh the irony of it all.
This year I wanted to take a year off and really miss every single detail about this holiday season. In my heart, I didn’t want to view this holiday through the lens of ‘we must get this done’ but rather ‘I am looking forward to getting this done’. That’s where being a grown-up comes into play. You want to make it all great for those around you. So basically, no matter how exhausted you are, or how behind schedule you feel in getting other things done, at the core you need to dig deep and try be the same good person you normally are, and more so. Oh, and in my case, I probably need to be less transparent. I retreated into myself, I took the path of keeping it in, and I reminded myself of the more important elements of the holiday – being together.
So yes, despite being surrounded by our loving families and celebrating at four family Christmas gatherings with the most delicious food I could imagine – I tried to quit Christmas. To be honest, I am going to try it again, not next year for various reasons but soon. I’ve only missed this version of Christmas three times in my life, all when I was living outside of the country, but it was those years that really made me feel, with every bone in my body, how incredibly special and coveted all of this really is. So I know that if I can step away and pause from it all, that I will see it again through the eyes I desire – true appreciation.
Post holiday I am still in serious cooking mode, it is like a switch I can’t turn off. I indulge my every dreamy cooking whim and try to keep it simple. For example, in early December we received three bags of Myer lemons from family trees, and I thought it would be fun to whip up a double batch of limoncello (recipe in ‘Taste This: The Delicious Sequel’). With alcohol pickled rinds galore on the verge of being discarded, it seemed a shame not to reimagine them into something else. So I quickly opted to prepare some delicious candied lemon peel; reminiscent of my days in the south of France this past summer bouncing around Nice with my dear friend, Christine, tasting the most scrumptious candied lemons…but I digress.
Using home grown Meyer lemons skins, drained and rinsed post limoncello, a simple syrup was made to glaze the rinds, which were then tossed into granulated sugar and dried for crunch (the French version is not crunchy or chip like, it is more a plump chewy treat). Simple, delicious and fun. This recipe reminds me of a burst of sunshine for the palate that is both sweet and tart. Packaged into small jars it makes for a great host/hostess gift along with the limoncello.
While the actual French recipe would utilize a bit more of the pith (the fleshy white part next to the skin), my version comes out more as a cross between a lemon chip with undertones of fruit leather.
Candied Crisp Lemon Peels
2 cups lemon peel (from limoncello)
2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar, plus extra ½ cup for dusting
If not using the pith-less rind from your limoncello cuttings, then cut lemons into slices about ¼-inch thick and remove the fruit pulp. (Note: To not waste anything, I juice the lemons and then use the simple syrup mixture to make lemonade.) Cut the rings in half so the peels are in long strips. Bring water and lemon peel to a boil in a small pan. Drain water, and repeat again with fresh cold water….
If using the cuttings from the limoncello, combine 2 cups fresh water with 2 cups sugar. Set over medium-high heat, bring to a boil and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Drop in the peels, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until the peels are tender and translucent. Drain and cool the peels. Keep the syrup for other uses- like the lemonade.
Place the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl and add the peels. Toss with your fingers until the peels are thoroughly coated. Remove one peel at a time shaking off the excess sugar. Drop onto a cookie sheet and place in a 100 degree oven for 60-minutes to dry out create a crunchy texture. Store in an airtight container. Keeps for several weeks.