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Oy vey, happy holidays

The menu for the day after Thanksgiving is normally a no-brainer.

You haul out the turkey again, reheat whatever side dish leftovers you've stacked in the refrigerator and set the table with everyday dishes, even the ones with little chips. The most strenuous work is opening another can of cranberries.

There will be no such ease of preparation at Jim and Linda Roberts' home the Friday after Thanksgiving. Like Jewish families all over the United States, the Robertses will be preparing another festive meal full of tradition and meaning.

And leftover turkey just won't do.

This year, Thanksgiving is Nov. 28, and the eight-day Hanukkah celebration begins at sundown Nov. 29.

"It's like an eclipse," Linda Roberts says. "It just doesn't happen very often."

In the past 100 years, there was one time when Hanukkah was closer to Thanksgiving. Both fell on Nov. 28 in 1918. That would feel like a total eclipse. Since then, the closest they had been was 1994, when Thanksgiving was Nov. 24, with Hanukkah following on the 27th.

A lesser entertainer might shy away from double holiday duty. Not Linda Roberts. Some 40 family members will come for Thanksgiving at about 4:30 p.m., and a smaller group of 20 family members and friends will gather about 5 p.m. the next day, the first night of Hanukkah. Other families might split the hosting duties or have their Hanukkah celebration on another night.

So how does a mortal, even one who likes to cook and entertain, survive such a convergence of festivities?

"MAKE LISTS!!! START EARLY!!! DELEGATE!!!" Roberts typed at the top of a page of thoughts about how to pull together back-to-back holiday dinners. It helps that the central figure is an organizer and an ambitious cook who likes challenges and new ideas. And it doesn't hurt that the Robertses have two ovens, two refrigerators and a spacious, modern kitchen.

As if the two holidays weren't enough reason to celebrate, there's a family birthday on Thanksgiving, and the first night of Hanukkah is on the Jewish Sabbath. That's akin to Christmas falling on Sunday; it gives the holiday extra significance.

The Robertses made room in their schedules for a few hours last week to talk about their holiday planning, which started months ago. Jim Roberts, an ophthalmologist at the Largo Diagnostic Clinic, had some down time between surgery and the gym. Their children, Brian, 13, and Stefanie, 16, were at school.

First, they said, they tackled the Thanksgiving menu because more people are coming and the meal requires more "musts." Turkey, stuffing, potatoes and cranberries all had to be incorporated. Plus, some extended family members will be celebrating Thanksgiving with the Robertses for the first time. It is important to include some of their traditions, Linda Roberts says, and that includes the time for dinner. Part of the family usually eats about 1 p.m.; another is accustomed to an evening meal. Late afternoon is the compromise.

To that end, the meal is more or less potluck, with Roberts acting as the commander in chief of who's bringing what. She's not taking chances that a run-of-the-mill green bean casserole is coming in the door. Her reputation as an accomplished cook and graceful host is probably what keeps feathers from being ruffled when she hands willing guests recipes to prepare. She has gathered them from her favorite cooking magazine, Bon Appetit, her well-used recipe box, the Internet (she likes www.epicurious.com) and a stack of cookbooks. Her mother-in-law is bringing pies, and her mom is preparing marinated grilled vegetable kabobs.

Appetizers will be simple: hummus and pita bread, and veggies and dip. "Just something to take the edge off" when the guests begin to arrive in late afternoon, Jim Roberts says.

For the main course, the Robertses will roast two 20-plus-pound fresh turkeys and a couple of turkey breasts, all rubbed with dried porcini mushroom dust. One bird will probably be roasted the day before.

Some desserts will come from Sam's Club. A chocolate birthday cake for a sister-in-law will accompany Thanksgiving pecan pie.

For Hanukkah, the food requirements are far fewer, they say. One is a food cooked in oil, usually potato pancakes (latkes) or doughnuts (soufganiyot). The frying oil represents the small amount of lamp oil that burned miraculously for eight days in the recaptured Temple of Israel. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple and also freedom from religious persecution.

Because the Thanksgiving meal is so heavy, Linda Roberts says, she wanted to plan something lighter for Hanukkah than the typical dinner of beef brisket or roast chicken.

So this year the Robertses plan a "dairy" meal.

"That means no meat," she says. Though the Robertses don't eat fish or shellfish, they keep kosher only at Passover.

The Hanukkah meal will start with smoked salmon cheesecake and crackers, and veggies and dip for appetizers, followed by an overnight French Toast Casserole, latkes, egg and tuna salad, Blintz Souffle, cranberry mold left over from Thanksgiving, bagels, rolls and challah bread. Desserts left from the day before and doughnuts will end the meal. Food will be served buffet-style, with diners sitting wherever they find a good perch.

The casserole, sweet potato pancakes and salmon cheesecake will be made days ahead and frozen. They reheat well, Roberts says. She undercooks the French Toast Casserole about 15 minutes and finishes up before serving.

The Robertses expect guests to gather in the kitchen, eating freshly fried white potato latkes as soon as the latkes are cool enough. It's a festive party after prayers and the lighting of the menorah.

"Hanukkah is really about the kids," Jim Roberts says. Which is why a drawing of a dreidel that daughter Stefanie did as a young child hangs on the side of the fridge.

The big box of blue and white Hanukkah decorations is waiting to be pulled out, but that's causing a wee bit of discussion between Mr. and Mrs.

She has a decorating plan for the Thanksgiving tables, of which there will be many, and it doesn't include blue and white.

Those are not harvest colors, she gently reminds him. There are Thanksgiving napkins to be bound with earthy raffia ties and other harvest-hued decorations to be placed on tables.

Although menorahs will be on display throughout the house Thursday, the full Hanukkah trimmings of chocolate gelt, dreidels, and blue and white will come out Friday morning.

"We did sort of laugh about stuffing the turkey with gelt," she says.

The other sticky question is: plastic or porcelain? He wants disposable plates for Thanksgiving dinner; she wants washable. Good-natured detente is reached. The kids sitting outside by the pool (ah, Florida) will use nonbreakable plastic plates. Those inside get the good stuff.

Linda Roberts is an advocate of including lots of people in the preparations. Her children will help cook and decorate. The Thanksgiving menu even might be juggled a little to include son Brian's killer macaroni and cheese.

She expects the kids to reign on Hanukkah, especially because the first night is Friday and there are no early morning commitments on Saturday.

A gift each of the eight nights of Hanukkah sweetens the deal, and at the Roberts home, the biggest gift often comes first.

"After dinner they'll disappear to play guitar, go on AOL or watch a video," Linda Roberts says. "They'll reappear for dessert."

In the quiet of an early November afternoon, the impending chaos seems faraway. But the Robertses know it's not. Linda Roberts has her trips to the grocery planned and knows when she'll start to assess serving pieces and linens, all of which are stored at the house.

"I'm lucky," she says. "I have a lot of people to help me."

And lucky, too, because there are so many to break bread with.

Sweet Potato Pancakes with Caviar

2 pounds tan-skinned sweet potatoes (about 3 medium)

} cup chopped green onions

2 large eggs

1{ tablespoon flour

1{ teaspoon salt

{ teaspoon ground black pepper

3 tablespoon or more vegetable oil

1 cup sour cream

1 ounce black caviar

Fresh chives, cut into 1-inch pieces

Cook sweet potatoes whole in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but firm, about 15 minutes. If they are cooked until soft you won't be able to grate them. Drain and refrigerate until cold, at least two hours. (Can be made one day ahead; keep refrigerated.)

Line large baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel potatoes and coarsely grate into large bowl. Stir in green onions. Whisk eggs, flour and salt and pepper in small bowl. Gently mix into potato mixture. Form mixture into 48 walnut-size balls. Store on prepared baking sheet. (They can be made 6 hours ahead and refrigerated on a baking sheet.)

Heat vegetable oil in large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Place eight potato balls in skillet. Pressing each gently with spatula to flatten to 1{ inch diameter. Cook until pancakes are golden brown; about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining potato balls, adding more oil to skillet if necessary. Transfer pancakes to platter. Top each with 1 teaspoon of sour cream and scant \ teaspoon of caviar. Garnish with chives.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 48 pancakes.

Source: Adapted by Linda Roberts from Bon Appetit.

French Toast Casserole

1 loaf French bread, cut into medium slices

6 large eggs

[ teaspoon nutmeg

[ teaspoon cinnamon

1{ cups milk

1{ cups half-and-half

1 teaspoon vanilla

Topping:

{ cup softened butter

1 cup light brown sugar

2 tablespoons dark corn syrup

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Grease or butter 9- 13-inch glass baking dish. Layer bread on bottom. Mix eggs, nutmeg, cinnamon, milk, half-and-half and vanilla. Pour over bread. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix topping ingredients and spread over top. Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Serve warm.

Serves six to eight.

Source: Linda Roberts, Clearwater

Smoked Salmon Cheesecake

{ cup crushed round crackers

Two 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened

4 eggs

1 cup Monterey jack cheese, shredded

{ cup sour cream

4 ounces smoked salmon, chopped

\ cup purple onion, minced

\ cup red bell pepper, chopped

\ cup green bell pepper, chopped

1 teaspoon drilled dill weed

\ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Sprinkle cracker crumbs in bottom of lightly greased 9-inch springform pan; set aside.

Beat cream cheese at medium speed of electric mixer until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add remaining ingredients and mix until well blended. Pour into pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Gently run knife around edge of pan; release sides. Cool completely. Refrigerate until serving. Serve at room temperature with crackers. Makes 25 servings.

Source: National Fisheries Institute

Baked Cheese Blintzes in Sauce

{ stick margarine

12 frozen cheese blintzes

4 eggs

1{ cups sour cream

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

\ cup sugar

\ teaspoon salt

Melt margarine in glass baking dish. Lay in blintzes. Mix remaining ingredients and pour over top. Bake for 45 minutes in 350-degree oven.

Source: Linda Roberts, Clearwater.

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