My mother only imparted two pieces of dating advice to me before she passed away: never marry a man with a hairy back, and marry a nice Jewish boy like your father. By the way, she was not Jewish.
I did indeed marry the nicest of Jewish boys, just like she said. And unlike my mother, a nice Italian-Catholic girl from Brooklyn, I had a conversion to Judaism in my early 20s, giving up many traditions including Christmas.
During the time of my conversion and the first few years after, I felt a need to really distance myself from some of the traditions of my family. There was both an internal pressure I felt, but also an external one from Jews I met who definitely judged my intermarried family for exposing us to Christian celebrations, Christmas trees, and even church.
More than 10 years later, I look back and feel annoyed, and sometimes angry, about this. The truth is it wasn’t just about embracing my Jewish identity that made me want to give up Christmas for a while. It was also because my mother passed away when I was young, and celebrating Christmas was just so painful without her.
She loved the holiday season, and our house was always decked out in decorations, traditional Italian treats like panettone, and some of the most awful Christmas music streamed constantly from our speakers during December—particularly Amy Grant Christmas and Johnny Mathis. Oh dear God, I don’t know what my mother (a trained classical pianist) was thinking.
But all the same, Christmas definitely reminded me of her, and I needed the distance from feeling sad at the holidays. Rejecting the holiday as part of my conversion felt like the right thing at the time.
As I grew less insecure about my Jewish identity, feeling more and more proud of being a child of an interfaith marriage in the American Jewish landscape, I wanted to celebrate Christmas again in some way that felt like the right balance for my life.
It started the year I was pregnant with my daughter. I was missing my mom a lot, lost without her guidance and comfort at such a pivotal and emotional moment. And suddenly, the Christmas songs and holiday traditions of my childhood were no longer as painful. In fact, now I found comfort in them. I listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas album all season, resumed the annual Christmas cookie baking ritual, and also began going out for traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner with my husband and brother, as we had done ever year of my childhood.
Four years later and these traditions are now a part of my own family, with my daughter and my nice Jewish husband. We don’t put up a tree, and there’s no Christmas Eve mass. But I dedicate one weekend before the holidays to baking up loads of holiday treats to share with friends, family, and my husband’s office. We still go out for Christmas Eve dinner, dressing up just like we did with my mom. And while there is still a tinge of sadness to this time of year for me without her, I look forward to immersing myself in these small things that bring comfort and remind me of her joyous and ridiculous holiday antics.
So this year, I’m going to enjoy the holiday season and eat some f-ing delicious Christmas cookies like these chocolate peppermint rugelach I whipped up. As my mother would say: They have no calories during the holidays (or if you eat them standing up).
For the dough:
8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 lb unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
For the filling:
12 oz dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips
1-2 cups chopped peppermint bark
1 egg, beaten
1 ½ cups white chocolate chips, or white chocolate broken into pieces
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
Additional chopped peppermint bark
Cream butter and cream cheese in stand mixer with a paddle attachment until creamy. Add sugar, salt and vanilla. Mix well.
Add flour and mix until just combined. Dump the dough onto a well floured surface and roll into a ball. Cut the ball in quarters and wrap each quarter in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
In a microwave safe bowl, heat dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips in 30 second intervals until smooth and melted. Make sure to stir well in between each time you microwave. Add a pinch of salt to chocolate if desired.
Chop peppermint bark into fine pieces.
Take one dough-ball out of fridge (leaving others chilled until ready to use) and on a well-floured surface, roll it out using a floured rolling pin. Roll it out to about 9 inches in diameter.
Using an 8 or 9 inch cake or pie pan, cut a perfect circle out of dough. Use a pizza cutter if you have one.
Spread thin, even layer of melted chocolate in the center of the dough, leave around ½ inch around the edge. Sprinkle with chopped pieces of peppermint bark..
Using pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut dough into even triangles. (See example here).
Working from the wider end roll up each triangle and place on a baking sheet with the end side down.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Brush with beaten egg. Bake for 15-18 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough.
After rugelach have cooled, prepare the white chocolate glaze. Place white chocolate and vegetable oil in a microwave safe bowl. Heat in 30 second intervals until melted and smooth, making sure to stir well in between each time.
Using a fork, drizzle white chocolate over the tops of rugelach. Top with additional chopped peppermint bark and a sprinkle of thick sea salt (optional).