It sounds like a good problem to have. For families that observe both Hanukkah and Christmas, there's double the gatherings, double the gifts, and double (or possibly quadruple if said family combines Jews and Italians) the food.
Yet this time of year can also be challenging for multi-holiday households. It may mean delicate calendar negotiations, tense budgeting, or surprising surges of usually dormant cultural or religious loyalties. We talked to three chef households about how they balance multiple celebrations and keep the party going through the solstice season.
Lamb, schnitzel, and latkes
Bill and Lisa Shapiro of Lizelle's Catering in Wynnewood are both chefs. He's Jewish, and she comes from a Greek Orthodox background. "We celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and then Greek Easter instead of traditional Easter," Bill Shapiro says.
The couple's three boys (ages 15, 16 and 18) were raised Jewish, and Hanukkah has always been honored. "We light the menorah every night and play dreidel. We always make latkes and jelly doughnuts," Shapiro says. The main course is typically fried chicken or schnitzel, such as their extra crispy version made with panko and sesame seeds.
Even now that their kids are older, Shapiro says Hanukkah is still important in their household. "They may not get gifts anymore - now they can buy their own stuff - but they enjoy the traditions. Doughnuts and latkes are not something they're shying away from."
For Christmas, the family reverts to Greek cooking: Usually a spread of lamb plus feta cheese, olives, and the traditional spiced yeast bread Christopsomo. Lisa Shapiro also bakes Greek butter cookies called kourabiethes with a tender, melting texture that comes from powdered sugar inside and out.
Shapiro is proud to be able to celebrate both holidays with the attendant range of culinary rituals. "My kids have a strong Jewish identity and we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days, so it tends to overshadow the one day of Christmas, but Christmas is always going to be part of their lives. There's no confusion there. It's just a great time of year."
Salmon three ways
Chef owner Chad Kubanoff of Northern Liberties' Same Same was already celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah (his father's Jewish; his mother is Christian) when he met his wife Thuy, who is Vietnamese. Now, with that newly acquired cultural heritage, he adds Tet to the mix and the couple makes traditional fish-sauce braised pork belly with hard-boiled eggs every winter.
When it comes to the Judeo-Christian holidays, Kubanoff enjoys preparing the kind of food he makes at Same Same. "I always want to push palates, and introduce new flavors or interesting techniques. Usually, I try to lighten things up - what I love about Vietnamese food is that freshness." For instance, roasted potatoes for Christmas might get lime juice and fresh herbs instead of rosemary and butter.
Though his family Hanukkah is usually held at a cousin's house and involves a cultural hodgepodge of potluck dishes (turkey chili, sweet potato curry, broccoli casserole) Kubanoff tends to take over the kitchen at his mother's house for Christmas, preparing almost everything, down to the layered tortes and cheesecakes. The meal almost always involves both turkey and fish.
One of his favorite holiday dishes is pan-seared, crispy-skinned salmon, marinated in soy, ginger, and pineapple. Mildly sweet and fragrant, the dish can work well for any crowd or occasion. For Christmas, he might serve it with potatoes and salad. For Hanukkah, he would swap out the pineapple for apple cider and add latkes to the mix. And for an Asian-theme meal, he'd serve it with rice and watercress soup, he says. "It's a crowd pleaser and it's what I would prepare if my Vietnamese family met my American family."
Seven fishes and mandelbrot
Growing up, Michael Schulson (Independence Beer Garden, Sampan, Graffiti Bar) celebrated only Hanukkah. "I always felt like I was missing out on something, and then I met my fiancée four and a half years ago and I realized what it was: Italian food."
Thanks to his betrothed, Nina Tinari, Schulson and his two sons were indoctrinated into the annual Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. The first year Schulson visited her family, he didn't cook. The second year, he was encouraged to bring a few dishes. By the third year, Schulson and Tinari took over the reins.
"We make crabs sauteed in garlic and chili, stuffed clams, shrimp oreganata, seared scallops, and usually some broccoli rabe. And it's gluttonous. If I have 15 people I'll make 200 stuffed clams and 100 scallops," he says.
Christmas Day is devoted to red gravy and meatballs, with the pot simmering on the stove all day long. Eggnog, limoncello, pizzelles: Schulson has embraced all of the wondrous flavors of his expanded family.
Hanukkah, by contrast, is a much quieter affair. "I make latkes and my aunt's mandelbrot. We give gifts and call it a day. Hanukkah was never a huge celebration for me either way, so it's hard to compete. We just try to be respectful of both religions and enjoy it for what it is."
Still, the customary biscotti-like cookies flecked with maraschino cherries are an ingrained expectation, and Schulson isn't about to fancy them up with some artisanal small-batch, syrup-soaked fruit. "Even if I made something 'better' it wouldn't be as good," he says. "That's the best thing about the holidays. It's all about tradition."