A Christmas Minute

The sun was setting on one of those rare snow globe days that would have sent Currier and Ives back to the drawing board.

My daughter Alex and I were fulfilling our annual Macy’s pilgrimage to see Santa. Our mission accomplished, we paused for a long moment to have one last look at the sparkling snowy spectacle that was Santaland.

Perhaps we appeared lost amid the throng of milling, squealing children. A young woman dressed in a green and red velvet elf costume came up to us. It had to be near the end of what was surely an exhausting work day; nevertheless, she approached us gamely.

“Did you come here to see Santa?” she asked, poised to once again point out the line.

“We came here to see his elves, and you are one of Santa’s elves. We came here to see you.”


“Yes. You work as hard and give your time and your attention and your patience and your love to these children every bit as much as the jolly gents wearing overstuffed red suits who sit in those cozy little houses do. So we came here to say thank you to you, Caitlyn.”

She regarded us for a second and wiping a tear from her eye leaned in and gave us both a hug. I whispered “Merry Christmas,” and my daughter and I continued on our way.

Alex looked up at me. “What just happened?”

“We just spent one minute of our time giving her something that she might actually remember for years. The most noble thing anyone can do is to help someone, even a total stranger, feel appreciated, feel somehow special, even for a minute.”

As we threaded our way out of Macy’s, Alex took my hand.

“She gets it,” I thought.


Christmas Comes Twice in Ukraine!

Recently, I was chatting with my charming Instagram friend Olya who lives in Ukraine; she’s a nature lover, very much into cooking, and the inspiration for the Ukraine corner of my website.

We were exchanging information about American Thanksgiving and Orthodox Christmas foods and I was surprised to learn that Christmas is officially celebrated on two days in Ukraine. The Orthodox Church still uses the old Julian calendar, therefore its Christmas celebration falls on January 7, thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar. But backlash against the Russian invasion has prompted Ukrainians to look westward, distancing themselves from the Russian Orthodox Church, and now the Orthodox Church of Ukraine allows worshippers to observe the holiday on December 25 as well. So that makes it doubly special!

Olya provided me with a stocking full of info regarding traditional Ukrainian Christmas foods – and there are many! Here are a few, in no special order:

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Kutya (кутя) – Best described as a sweet porridge, it’s made from wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey, and customarily includes chopped walnuts and raisins. The wheat berries symbolize immortality and hope, the honey and poppy seeds represent happiness, tranquility, and success. Here’s my homemade version, served in my grandmother’s dish.

Holubtsi (голубці) – Stuffed cabbage rolls are filled primarily with rice, minced vegetables, and sometimes mushrooms; they are prepared without meat on Christmas Eve, the Ukrainian tradition, and with meat on Christmas Day.

Kholodets (холодець) – A savory meat aspic; chilled meat stock gels naturally because of its high collagen content although gelatin is sometimes added to double down on the texture. Chicken, pork, and vegetables come to the party and it’s often served with red horseradish or mustard.

Fish (риба) in many varieties and styles including fried, baked, stuffed, jellied, or marinated (like this herring) is usually a part of Ukraine’s Christmas dinner because it is associated with Jesus.

Varenyky (вареники) – These dumplings are one of Ukraine’s national dishes; they can be found in a pair of divergent guises: sweet, filled with cheese and/or fruit; and savory, stuffed with meat, potatoes, or cabbage, and customarily crowned with fried onions, occasionally bacon, and almost always accompanied by a dollop of sour cream.

Borshch (борщ) – This popular red beet soup has Ukrainian roots. Again, in keeping with tradition, Christmas Eve borshch is meatless and dairy-free. I’ve added a few fresh herbs, parsley, dill, and scallions to this version.

Pampushky (пампушки) – Ukrainian yeast-raised rolls that can be sweet or savory (these are topped with garlic and dill), baked or fried, and are a perfect accompaniment to borshch.

And although I don’t have photos for these dishes, they are an important part of the Ukrainian Christmas dinner table as well:

Kolach (колач) – Ukrainian Christmas Bread. A slightly sweet, braided yeast bread.

Uzvar (узвар) – Ukrainian Winter Punch made from dried fruits and warming spices simmered until your kitchen smells like heaven!

And there are many more. Thank you so much for your help, Olya!
З Різдвом Христовим!

A Chanukah Miracle in Brooklyn

(Originally posted in 2021.)

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after its destruction in the second century B.C. The ceremony involved the lighting of a menorah, an oil lamp, but there was only enough oil to last for a single day. By a miracle, the menorah glowed for eight which is why Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for as many days. In Jewish households, a nine branched menorah is used; a single candle is lit on the first night and an additional candle is added each consecutive night, with the ninth position reserved for the shamash, a helper candle used to kindle the others.

Since the Chanukah miracle revolves around oil, tradition involves eating oil-centric fried foods. Sufganiot, jelly doughnuts, are the go-to sweet treat in Israel while Eastern Europe brings latkes to the table, potato pancakes customarily served with sour cream and apple sauce; here, we happily indulge in both.

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My homemade latkes: shredded potatoes, minced onion, beaten eggs, baking powder, S&P, plus a binder like flour or matzo meal, shaped and fried in plenty of peanut oil and/or schmaltz (chicken fat) if you’re the decadent type 🙋‍♂️; they’re plated here with the requisite sour cream alongside chunky apple-strawberry sauce topped with sweet crystallized ginger. (You know me: I hadda be different.)

The recipe calls for salting and draining the potatoes; I simply set up a colander in the sink, squeezing out the liquids from time to time. But this year, I noticed something I had never witnessed before: the intricate patterns made by the drained, wet potato starch were as beautiful and mesmerizing as snowflakes! A present day Chanukah miracle!

The photo enlarged.

Now, look very, very closely and you can see a tiny, perfect Chanukah menorah in the pattern. Go ahead, keep searching. Stay focused. Take your time. Don’t pay any attention to me. I’ll just, um, finish off these latkes while you’re trying to find it….
!חַג חֲנוּכָּה שַׂמֵחַ
Happy Chanukah!

It’s Thanksgiving: Merry Christmas!

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For many folks, Christmas season officially begins the moment Santa Claus floats down Sixth Avenue (sort of a horizontal chimney, I guess) at the finale of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And as if a holiday miracle had occurred, somehow stores were already flaunting a plethora of Christmas goods even before he chortled his final “Ho!” All the fall décor had vanished like the Ghost of Thanksgiving Past to be replaced by a full complement of Christmas merchandise. Or did they just leap from Halloween to Christmas skipping over Thanksgiving entirely because as holidays go it’s just not profitable unless you’re a food market?

Leaping and skipping aside, I decided to get a jump on the festivities and dash away to the newly opened Wegman’s at Astor Place in Manhattan – for all intents and purposes a take-out restaurant disguised as a supermarket – to check out the “first fruits” of the season. I was eager to see if they too had begun to display Christmas wares like eggnog, eggnog ice cream, and other eggnog infused desserts.

Nope. Not a jot or a jingle.

I asked a helpful staffer and he replied, “We don’t sell that here.”

A modern upscale supermarket that doesn’t sell eggnog at Christmastime? Heresy! He suggested that I try their Brooklyn store. Bereft but undaunted, I took the two subways and one bus required to get there.

Now, the Brooklyn store keeps its holiday items sequestered away from their conventional cousins – eggnog has its own display far from the milk – but I couldn’t locate its frozen creamy counterpart. I found a helpful staffer. “Hi! I bought some eggnog ice cream here last year,” I began, “but I don’t see it in the ice cream case.”

“We don’t sell that here,” she replied helpfully. “Try the Astor Place store in Manhattan.”

“They…sent…me…here,” I intoned, parsing my words.

But at least they were offering their panettone (which I covered last year in my “Panettone” story) as well as the marzipan stollen you see here. It was only okay.

I’m hoping to post more treats as we dive further down the holiday rabbit hole. But it’s still early and like any sweet fruit, the season needs time to ripen.

Happy Diwali!

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Dear Friends,

I can no longer keep this to myself. I am an addict, hooked on mithai. What’s that? You don’t know about mithai? Mithai are Indian sweets and since Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, is upon us, I can think of no better time than now to tell you my tale. So gather round your diyas and check out my post “Indian Sweets 101: Meeting Mithai” right here on ethnojunkie.com!
दिवाली मुबारक
Happy Diwali!

Día de los Muertos

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You’ve heard it before: “Oh, Día de los Muertos is Mexican Halloween, right?”

Wrong. Día de los Muertos is decidedly not Mexican Halloween any more than Chanukah is Jewish Christmas – and if any unenlightened soul tries to tell you that, please disabuse them of that fallacious notion inmediatamente!

The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, is celebrated from October 31 through November 2 (dates may vary depending upon the locality) – and “celebrated” is the proper word: families congregate to memorialize loved ones who have passed away, but it is seen as a time when the departed temporarily revivify and join in the revelry rather than as a sorrowful occasion. Additionally, these days Día de Muertos, as it is also known, serves as a paean to the indigenous people with whom it originated in pre-Hispanic times.

In the year 1 BC (Before Covid), I headed out to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get myself into the Día de los Muertos spirit. Sequin-eyed, neon icing-coiffed calaveras (sugar skulls) are relatively easy to find in the neighborhood; this one came from Panadería La Espiga Real, 5717 5th Avenue. Although spirits don’t eat, this one seemed particularly interested in the pan de muerto I picked up at La Flor de Izucar, 4021 5th Avenue.

This bread of the dead is customarily embossed with bone shapes, sometimes crossbones, sometimes in a circle, and other traditional embellishments such as skulls and a single teardrop. It’s a barely sweet, simple bun (like so many Mexican panes dulces), light and airy with a tight crumb, and topped with sesame seeds or sugar (like this one) with hints of cinnamon, anise, and orange flower water.

Above: A view of the inner sanctum.

Goblin’ Futomaki on Halloween

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Halloween is just around the corner and I wanted to indulge in something that didn’t involve Reese’s Cups, M&M’s, or Kit Kats, so I’ll be goblin’ futomaki that’s decked out in an All Hallows’ Eve costume – I guess that makes it both a trick and a treat. (But, not gonna lie, I’m waiting for the post-holiday sales: just as leftover Thanksgiving dinner tastes better the next day, so does leftover half-price Halloween candy.)

In obeisance to the official black and orange Halloween rubric, the black monstermaki (futomaki means thick or fat roll) is wrapped in nori, its conventional costume, and its orange sidekicks are swathed in soy wrappers that come in five flavors/colors: original soy, sesame, spinach green, turmeric yellow, and paprika orange.

I filled them with kani (krab sticks), avocado, cucumber, strips of sweet kanpyō (dried gourd) and most important, eel because – in keeping with the holiday spirit 👻 – it’s only one letter away from EEK!

And in case you’re wondering – no, I’m not handing out these spookomaki on October 31; the kids are supposed to scare me, not the other way around!

Spooky Season

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This post is dedicated to someone who loves Spooky Season as much as I love Christmas. Her devotion to all things pumpkin-spice rivals my passion for eggnog. I get it: these ephemeral seasons only come around once a year, and we are obliged to indulge enthusiastically before they evanesce.

But because my focus is all about international treats and since Spooky Szn is as American as apple – er, pumpkin – pie, I’ve never been able to write about it here and still stay within my rubric.

Until now.

I spotted these dim sum at the Main Street level grab-n-go outpost of Royal Queen Restaurant in Flushing. They’re not pumpkin flavored of course and they’re not filled with candy, but they are filled with sweet bean paste so as far as I’m concerned we have an acceptable crossover here.

Couldn’t resist taking a minute to PShop it a bit! 🎃

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2023

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A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a spectacular assemblage of mooncakes (月餅, yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated this year on September 29. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.

And here’s one of my favorites, Five Mix Nut Moon Cake, from Golden Fung Wong Bakery at 41 Mott St – one of the stops on my Manhattan Chinatown ethnojunket, of course!

Since 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit, known for his elegance among many other characteristics depending upon where you do your research, I decided to purchase an assortment of these elegant delicacies in order to share them, virtually, with you.

For a deep dive into the holiday and these delicious treats, you can get the skinny – er, poor choice of words there – in my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified page detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.


Le 2023 Lait de Poule Est Arrivé!

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Eggnog! First sighting of the year!

It’s like waiting for this year’s vintage Beaujolais Nouveau to appear: Le 2023 Lait de Poule est arrivé! (They say that the French have a word for it, and I have to admit a certain fondness for their spin on the word “eggnog”, lait de poule: hen’s milk.)

If you’ve read me, you know that I have a few (ha!) guilty pleasures when it comes to holiday food, and for me, nothing heralds the advent of the season like the first appearance of eggnog on supermarket shelves. And snatching it away precipitately as they do every year when the yule log’s embers have barely begun to evanesce only makes the anticipation and craving for next year’s batch more intense.

But which one(s) to buy? The brands in this photo may not be my fave – they’re merely the first I’ve found this year: September 27 to be precise! But fret not. I and my OCD are here to offer you the benefits of my research and experimentation regarding this happy holiday quandary. Please check out my essay, An Eggnog Excursus – and unlike the holiday libation itself, it’s available year-round under “Deep Dives” on my homepage!