Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: Gingerbread for the small humans in your house, and for you.
This is going to be a Holiday Season Column, which is a lot like a Holiday Season Movie, except without Chevy Chase to redeem it. At the end of the column, the camera will pan out and you will see its author far below, tiny and insignificant, and while you are distracted by the smallness of all of our lives, I will indulge in some poignant, non-ironic sentiment.
Also, there will be a recipe for Alsatian gingerbread.
I only mention all this because this column, like Chevy Chase, usually spends its time wandering around and bumping into things. If you are here for the physical comedy, do not worry. The next column will be all pratfalls all the time.
Somewhere in Cooked -- right around when the barbecue hogwash of North Carolina gets neck-high -- Michael Pollan wonders out loud whether authenticity precludes being aware of being authentic. In other words, can barbecue fetishize authenticity and still be authentic? Or once authenticity is self-conscious, is it something else entirely?
Lately I’ve been wondering something similar about tradition. If you self-consciously invent a tradition, will it become a tradition? And if it does, will it be as meaningful? Or will it be something else too? It’s one thing to know that the most ancient traditions are recent inventions. It’s another thing to do the inventing yourself.
It’s impossible to read Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy and not ask these questions. I open it at this time every year and every year I feel the same deep regret about not being born heir to some extraordinary Italian holiday tradition. Why did my parents not think I’d be better off with a deserving Sicilian family? Why were they so selfish? Did they not realize I was being deprived of this extraordinary fig-and-nut-filled Christmas wreath?
And then I think, well, maybe we could be that Sicilian family.
But I don’t believe it. Because what’s most moving about almost all holiday cooking is its sense of deep history: this is what you do because it has always been done, and all those other times, dating back to when you have nothing but gauzy memories, are what give the food its emotional weight. It’s a vicious circle, but a really loving sort of vicious circle.
I am thinking about this because there are small humans in my house who are in their prime gauzy memory years. And as unlikely as it seems, I am now the grown-up at Christmas, which means this is my responsibility. (It also means my gifts will suck. I know this because I’ve been dropping hints to the toddler about what to get me for months now and he still doesn’t get it.)
Of course, since my whole approach to parenthood is one of extreme self-consciousness, my children’s gauzy holiday memories will be of their father wandering around the kitchen, muttering to himself about self-consciousness and tradition. Perhaps they too will grow up to wander around the kitchen muttering to themselves. This -- this -- will be our family tradition. Instead of making cookies, I will bequeath to them the tradition of thinking about making cookies.
It isn’t the same, really.
So this December I’ll make what was part of my childhood—panettone and, like Amanda, springerle. But I’ll also make a few new things each year—things that were part of someone else’s childhood. Last year it was panforte, which, if my marriage is to survive, I now have to make every year. This year it was an Alsatian gingerbread. It’s from Jacquy Pfeiffer’s The Art of French Pastry and it isn’t your typical gingerbread. It’s a delicate and deeply honeyed loaf, flecked with candied citrus, with spices that fall into place a couple days after it bakes. It’s lovely.
Will it become a tradition? Who knows. All I know is that this makes sense for us: to stagger forward, accumulating some rituals, discarding some, looking up only occasionally. Was it already last year that I first made panforte? If Christmas comes but once a year, does that mean last Christmas was a year ago? Or did I make the panforte for President’s Day?
There’s a point in the picture book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt -- yes, really -- in which the family, on their mock-epic journey, after going through the deep, cold river (splash, splosh) and the thick, oozy mud (squelch squerch), has to go through the big, dark forest. And they go like this: stumble, trip. This is how I think about us sometimes, too, especially around this time of year, when you can step outside the why-did-you-dump-that-cereal-on-yourself-ness of the days and see what you’ve wrought. This is the fated Holiday Movie Moment, when the lights twinkle and -- here we go -- the camera pans out and you suddenly see yourself, all four of you, a family, on your own mock-epic journey.
We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it. Stumble, trip. Stumble, trip.
Makes 1 small loaf
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rye flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground anise
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg
4 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons candied orange or lemon peel, diced
Photos by Mark Weinberg