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Festive Fare

[whitespace] holiday breads
Michael Amsler

Rising hopes, golden dreams: Holiday breads from Europe follow one basic formula--some flour, some fruit, and great expectations for the year to come.

A sugar-coated tradition for the New Year

By Marina Wolf

EVERY CULTURE has its special-occasion foods, the ones prepared at certain holidays to ensure that happiness and good fortune will enter the dwelling and stay for a while. In Europe these foods are often breads of some kind, studded with fruit and spices, enriched with eggs and as much fat as the flour will hold. Italian panettone, Russian kulich, German stollen, even the unjustly maligned fruitcake ... these are all richness incarnate, a prayer for prosperity rendered in dough and baked for an hour at 350 degrees.

In my family, the festivity of choice was New Year's Eve, and the food that went with it was oliebollen. These humble, knobby little cakes, deep fried until golden, then tossed with sugar, epitomize the spendthrift nature of holiday fare: they require ingredients that must have taken my Dutch peasant ancestors a year to save for. And like other holiday dishes, oliebollen are complicated and sensitive to skill, so that the maker really does appear to be weaving a spell for the year to come.

My father was the unlikely spellweaver in our family. He brought the memories of oliebollen to America, along with an accent and libertarian tendencies, when his family left the war-shattered Netherlands more than 40 years ago. My mother, a WASPily eager woman from Utah, found a recipe to match the memories, and the tradition of New Year's Eve oliebollen was reborn in our house.

We mixed the stiff dough in a vast Tupperware bowl, breaking a wooden spoon on it at least every other year. After the thick batter had risen twice, filling the stuffy-warm house with its yeasty burps, my father dropped bits of it into the seething amber oil, where the sticky lumps of dough bloomed into puffy golden balls that bobbed lightly to the surface, and even rolled over sometimes on their own when one side was done.

We children never got to see that part, being barred from the kitchen before the first dollop hit the oil. We did get the run of the rest of the house, though, which, in the absence of adults, became cavernous and thrilling, like a cave or somebody else's church. After the four "little kids" went to bed, we three older children hunkered down for desultory Monopoly games that often ended prematurely in an angry hail of red plastic houses if somebody was losing too badly. The loser stomped off to watch bad New Year's Eve countdown shows on TV, and the other players shrugged.

The outcome wasn't important. We were just killing time until the first platter of hissing-hot oliebollen was borne out to the table.

We took eager turns at shaking the paper bag full of powdered sugar and oliebollen: the person holding the bag got first crack at the contents. The sizzling oil stained the brown paper, and eventually wore holes in the bag for the sugar to sift out in a nose-tickling haze. We laid out the still-hot cakes on layers of newspapers or paper towels on the broad dining room table, snitching a few as we went.

OF COURSE, part of the thrill of making oliebollen was staying up so late. Usually we went to bed at 3 or 4 a.m., and still the adults bustled in and out of the kitchen, or sat at the table telling stories about people we didn't know. When we staggered out of bed the next morning, Oma (Grandma) and Dad still sat there, and the table was covered with the little bollen, in some places layered two or three thick.

No matter how many we ate, there were always more than enough to wrap up a platter of 30 or 40 oliebollen for each child's classroom (7 classrooms getting 40 oliebollen each!), one platter for my dad's work, if he was working, plus a big bag to keep on top of the refrigerator for the next few days. The sharing was the point, said Oma, who told tales of the old country, where happy, chatting people held open houses under windmills and stuffed themselves silly on one another's food.

Not so here. Here the other children sniffed at our offerings--which smelled like doughnuts but looked so weird! And who knows what our neighbors did with the foil-wrapped packages we left on their doorsteps on New Year's Day morning. But the indifference of our suburban environs never stopped my dad, who every year stood over the stove for hours on end, his usually stern face rosy from the heat.

Of the seven children, all grown now, I'm the only one who makes oliebollen. I'm not the only one who celebrates the New Year, of course. Three of my brothers married Japanese women, who make mounds of Japanese festive food for days before Dec. 31. They have friends over; they have a lot of fun. But there's no room or time to make the oliebollen. Every December my older brother asks me, with just the faintest hint of envy in his voice, "Are you making oliebollen this year?"

The answer has almost always been "yes," ever since I've had my own kitchen and people to cook for. Over electric or gas stoves, in cramped galleys or spacious country rooms, I've learned to listen to the dangerous whispers of the seething oil, to feel the rhythms of the dough. The first New Year's after we met, my girlfriend and I invited all our friends to her cramped apartment and fed them oliebollen fresh from the powdering bag: there wasn't room to set them out on the table. Once in Russia I spent tens of thousands of rubles on the phone call to my mother to get the recipe, and two hours on tracking down yeast in the bare stores.

Here finding ingredients is much, much easier. But I find myself already planning the production, marshaling my resources: the yeast, the fruitcake fruit, good light oil, thank God!, instead of the rancid sunflower seed oil we had in Russia. Our cupboard is full. Our life is good. As generations before me have done, I make ready to wish the same for all of us, in the language that I know best.

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From the December 24-30, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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