When Marc Antony gave Cleopatra a smoked sturgeon as a token of his affection, he started the noble tradition of giving food as gifts. When George Washington was courting Martha, he always appeared at her parents' home with a smoked ham or a brace of pheasant; when Winston Churchill met Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Yalta, he presented him with a pickled ox-tongue; and when John and Jacqueline Kennedy were leaving Berlin, Willie Brandt gave them a going-away gift of eight kilos of sausage.
Not all gifts of food are as straight-forward as these. When Grand Duke Sergei of Russia presented his mistress, Augustine de Lierre, with a tin of Beluga caviar, he insisted that she open it at once. When she did, she found that the duke had placed a 30-million-franc pearl necklace on top of the caviar. And, as is well known to admirers of Sherlock Holmes, that great detective once gave a breakfast to honor one of his clients. At that breakfast, hidden on a plate of kippers, was the gift of the Naval Treaty whose loss probably would have changed the fate of the civilized world.
Because there is no requirement for all gifts of food to be historically or economically significant, the season of Hanukkah, the onset of which falls on Sunday evening, offers a marvelous opportunity to give those we care about edible tokens of our affection. The first of the following recipes was a Hanukkah favorite of a Yiddish novelist, and the second, of a well-known Jewish composer. Both will make lovely gifts during the holiday season and both will serve four to six.
A Dutch recipe
Throughout his novels, Yitzhak Leib Peretz dealt with such perennial issues as life in the shtetl and Hasidic ideology. Even today, it is evident that Peretz could retell classic Hasidic tales with such artistic effect that they continue to appeal to even the most secularized readers.
Even though he was born in Poland, Peretz had a special fondness for Holland which he visited for the first time in 1932. In a letter to a friend he wrote that "although I find the people and the climate cold, I have an unbridled admiration for the food here ... surely the best I have ever eaten." The recipe that follows, the Dutch version of latkes (potato pancakes, to the uninitiated) are especially appropriate during Hanukkah.
2 cups milk
the meat of 2 fresh coconuts or 2 cups packaged, unsweetened coconut, shredded or grated
4 large baking potatoes
1/2 cup flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted, for serving
In a saucepan, heat the milk just until bubbles begin to appear at the edges. Remove from the flame and add the coconut meat to the saucepan. Stir once and let the coconut meat sit in the hot milk for 20 minutes. Strain through a sieve lined with a double cheesecloth and press all of the liquid out of the coconut meat. Reserve the liquid. (The coconut meat may be used in making cookies or other desserts).
Boil the potatoes in their skins, cool slightly and peel. Mash the potatoes.
Resift the flour together with the baking powder and salt. Beat this mixture into the potatoes, alternately with the eggs. Add the coconut liquid. Pour this batter onto a hot, well-buttered griddle or heavy frying pan, turning the pancakes when golden on one side (3-4 minutes). Cook until the second side is golden brown.
Serve with the melted butter on the side.
Jacob Lieberman Beer was born in Berlin in 1797 but, because he found the atmosphere there too heavy, he traveled to Italy where he changed his name to Meyerbeer and discovered "the lightness and marvels of the Italian personality and cuisine." By the time he came to Paris, Meyerbeer was as famous as a gastronome as a composer of grand operas. Every year at Hanukkah, Meyerbeer would have his housekeeper prepare hundreds of anisette cookies, some for his own pleasure and others as gifts to his friends.
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1 tbsp. aniseed, lightly crushed
Pernod, ouzo or Arak as required
In a mixing bowl, beat together the sugar and eggs until the mixture is thick and nearly white. Gradually resift the flour into the mixture, stirring between additions. Stir in the aniseed and turn the batter into two 8" (20-cm.) buttered and floured loaf pans. With a spatula, level the batter and bake in a medium-hot oven until the top is dry and pale golden (about 25 minutes).
Turn the cakes out of the pans and cut into slices about 3/4" (1 1/2-cm.) thick. Arrange the slices on a buttered cookie sheet and continue to cook in a medium-hot oven until both sides of each slice are golden brown (about 10 minutes in all, turning once). Sprinkle over lightly with the Pernod, cool and let dry. Store in airtight containers. Yields about 36 biscuits.
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