The beauty of India is that we keep celebrating something or the other throughout the year, be it a Hindu, Muslim or a Christian festival. I think Christmas is almost a secular festival, at least in Calcutta and also in Chandannagar, the small town of my childhood. Christmas meant a month-long holiday and fruit cakes for me. The stores used to stack cubes of fruit cake wrapped in yellow cellophane paper. I am sure they were mass-produced with barely any fruit in them. But, they were still fruit cakes to me because I hadn’t had the chance to taste any other fruit cakes.
Calcutta used to light up during Christmas with the same fervor as any Hindu or Muslim festival. The shops in New Market would be filled with Christmas decorations and Park Street was packed with people out to see the lights. It was exactly the opposite in Baton Rouge (the university town where we both went for graduate school)….and it was not something I had envisioned. To me, a festival or holiday is celebrated with everybody, the city will have a festive mood and people will walk on the street….but no….it was completely different. It was very privately celebrated. They put some lights on the trees and on the front porch during Christmas, but that was it. Nobody walked on the street, no hustle or bustle, no chaos, nothing. The shopping malls were busy but not like what we see back home. I didn’t go home during the first Christmas holiday and spent the entire time in the ghostly university town with my international friends who were unfortunate like me and couldn’t go home for the holidays. The International Students Association was kind enough to host a Christmas party for the international students and that was it.
Once we moved to the Washington, DC area, things changed gradually and we kind of feel the festive mood here again. Street lights, busy shopping malls, exchanging gifts, sharing recipes, holiday potluck parties and everything else that belongs in a holiday season. I bought myself a reusable Christmas tree two years ago and love to decorate it with whatever ornaments we have and a few new ones each year. This year it was special for me because for the first time in my life, I got Christmas gifts from Santa-a cute little piggy-shaped cutting board, a cherry/ olive pitter and a nice bone-handled bar spoon.
On the other hand this year I am a little sad because of the Connecticut shooting. Although I am not a mother, I still cannot accept the fact that a human being could be so brutal to children still too young to have been touched by evil. They were innocent little lives. While everybody is busy shopping, cooking and spending time with their loved ones, my heart goes out to the unfortunate parents who are going through a terrible time in their lives. No comforting words will erase their grief and all I can hope is that we don’t have to see this happening again.
•1/4 pound raisins
•2 ounces dried cherries, coarsely chopped
•2 ounces dried cranberries
•2 ounces dried apricots, coarsely chopped
•1 tablespoon honey
•2 tablespoons rum
•1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
•6 ounces chopped pecans
•1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
•1/2 cup superfine sugar
•1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
•1 extra-large egg
•2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
•In a medium bowl, combine the figs, raisins, cherries, apricots, honey, rum, lemon juice, pecans, and a pinch of salt. Cover and allow to sit overnight at room temperature.
•Cream the butter, superfine sugar, and brown sugar until smooth.
•Add the egg and mix until incorporated.
•After that slowly add the flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt just until combined. Don’t over mix! Add the fruits and nuts, including any liquid in the bowl.
•Divide the dough in three portions and place each portion on the long edge of a 12 by 18-inch piece of parchment or waxed paper. Roll each half into a log, 1 1/2 to 1 3/4-inch thick. Refrigerate the dough for several hours, or until firm.
•Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
•With a small, sharp knife, cut the logs into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place the slices 1/2-inch apart on ungreased sheet pans and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly golden.
PS: Here is the original recipe and the video. I have tweaked it a little bit. I didn’t add cloves and figs, instead I added dried cranberries. You can add any dry fruits in hand; there are no hard and fast rules. The cake was very easy to make and the video helped me a lot. As I am a new baker, a video is what I need to boost my confidence.
While driving home yesterday, I was stuck in traffic for 40 minutes. Funnily, this reminded me of my hometown because the same thing is happening to people there now, only several degrees worse. It’s that special time of the year when the festive season in India is over in other places but the craziness just started in my hometown. Thousands of people are on the street, chaos rules, lights are glittering all over and those gigantic idols of goddess Jagadhdhatri are standing tall and gracefully on their lions. When I call my mother I can almost hear the missing person announcements and the instructions to not touch the decorations To me all these are memories, memories of those wonderful days which are never forgettable.
Coincidentally we are preparing for a festival too but not with the same fervor though. It’s that time of the year when all Americans are ready for the holidays. It was very different for me when I came to the US, as I didn’t have a clue about Thanksgiving. It wasn’t my festival and I wasn’t a part of the celebration either.
Things started changing a little bit at a time. Now we look forward to the holidays. We feel the same festive joy as any American (or at least pretty close, I would think). We prepare far ahead of time for parties at friends’ places or invite friends over. We exchange long emails to fix the menu, get anxious over the turkeys or legs of lamb. We buy new clothes to wear on the day, exchange gifts, laugh our heart out, eat until we can’t move, drink until we collapse and so much more. I have no family here but in a foreign land, your friends are your family…at least to me, they are.
Needless to say, we are going to visit two of our friends this year for Thanksgiving who are the proud owners of a new house. Can’t explain how excited I am to be going there and to spend the holiday with some of our favorite people, for whom my husband and I made these freshly baked pecan shortbreads.
Pecan shortbread recipe:
Pecan: 1 cup
Butter: 1 cup room temperature
All purpose flour: 2 cups
Vanilla extract: 1 tsp
Salt: ¼ tsp
Brown sugar: 2/3 cup packed
- Pre heat the oven to 350 C.
- Toast the pecan for 8-10 minutes or until fragrant and toasty. Stir halfway. Break the pecan halves into smaller pieces.
- In a medium to large bowl, whisk together the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add the vanilla extract and mix well again. If you have a mixer/blender with a paddle attachment, use it. You can use a hand blender with medium speed. My husband mixed it by hand. So, you can go totally the old fashioned way.
- In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the salt.
- Add the flour to the butter mixture a little at a time and fold into the butter. Do not over mix it.
- Add in the pecan pieces and then gently fold the dough again.
- Dump the dough in a cling film or plastic warp and wrap the dough. Flatten it like a disk and chill in the refrigerator (at least an hour). You can separate the dough in to two halves which will help the dough to chill faster.
- Take out the dough and flatten it to ¼” thick disk with a rolling pin.
- Line a cookie sheet with an ungreased parchment paper.
- Cut the dough with a cookie cutter and place them one inch apart on the cookie sheet.
- Place them in the refrigerator for another 10 minutes.
- Place the cookie sheet in the middle of the oven and bake for 18-20 minutes or until dark brown.
- Cool on a wire rack for another half n hour.
Notes: The dough will be a little difficult to handle. It will be crumbly, so you have to be a little patient. Shortbreads are supposed to be sand like in texture and require a lot of butter in the mix. The chilling is very important; otherwise you won’t be able to roll it. I like the shortbreads to be toasty and crisp, so I baked them a little longer. Traditionally shortbreads are much lighter in color.