Like many Americans of my generation, I’m a “mut.” Raised with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, a mish-mash of Irish, English, Italian, and Romanian genetics, the one consistent thing about celebrating the holidays throughout my life has been the presence of varied traditions. Growing up, there was always a tree and a menorah — though Chanukah always took a bit of a backseat to the more flamboyant Christmas.
In my adult life, I’ve either celebrated Christmas or celebrated nothing, depending on my circumstances. Since I will be traveling for half of this December, I’ve been trying to smash as much holidaying into the first 10 days of the month as possible. This year, I decided that should include paying homage to my Jewish roots and giving Chanukah its due.
So, on the first night of the Festival of Lights, the Gastrognome and I headed home after a day of hiking and antiquing in Nyack (more on that later!) with a few pounds of Sculpey, a small brisket, and a vaguely mystical feeling.
Once the brisket was set to braise (recipe at the end), we set to work kneading out terracotta polymer clay on the kitchen table. We decided to make rather than buy a menorah, designed to fit the stock of tealights we always keep on hand. Our goal was to make something rustic but elegant — a menorah that looked like it could have been made thousands of years ago in the desert.
We started by laying out nine tealights on a sheet of parchment and using a pencil and ruler to mark out the dimensions and placement. Then, we rolled a long snake out of the clay, laid another piece of parchment over the snake, and used a rolling pin to flatten it so it fit the dimensions of our sketch.
Next, we fashioned a flat square pillar for the shamash, and used the slip-and-score method to attach it to the base.
Finally, we used actual tealights to make impressions in the base, then hollowed them out using a small clay carving tool. Since we only had one tool, we made an extra with a loop of craft wire so we could both work at the same time. The craft wire actually worked better for the task than tool we had purchased!
Once our design was complete, we removed the tealights and baked it on a cookie sheet for about 45 minutes. And while the menorah baked, the Gastrognome set to work on a “dreidel made of clay”, because he’s cute that way.
Three hours after we walked in the door, Christmas tree and Menorah both alight, the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack reminding us of the importance of TRADITION, we sat down to the loveliest Chanukah meal I’ve ever had.
The Best Brisket
I grew up eating Brooklyn-style brisket in my grandparents’ apartment in Midwood all the time. I elevated some of the ingredients from my grandmother’s classic recipe — like swapping canned imported cherry tomatoes for ketchup — but the essence remains the same.
- 1-2 lb brisket (if you’re feeding a crowd, buy a bigger one and extend the cook time)
- 1-2 large carrots
- 1 medium white or yellow onion
- 3-5 cloves of garlic (or whatever your heart tells you)
- 1 can of whole cherry tomatoes (imported from Italy, ideally)
- 1.5 cups fruity white wine
- Liquid Smoke
- Equal parts salt, black pepper, and smoked paprika
- Season the brisket with liquid smoke on both sides, then rub the spice mixture until the entire piece of meat is well-coated.
- In a cast-iron pan on high-heat, sear the brisket on all sides and remove from the pan.
- Lower the heat to medium and add olive oil + in the whole onion, diced, and smashed cloves of garlic. Cook until translucent, then make a “bed” with the onions and garlic in the center of the pan.
- Lay the seared brisket on the bed of onions (fat side up) and surround with thick slices of peeled carrot. Pour the wine over everything and simmer for one minute, then add the whole can of tomatoes.
- Cover with a lid or foil and simmer on low heat for about 2 hours per pound of meat, turning once halfway through.
- Remove the brisket, slice thinly against the grain, then return to the pan and serve.