There truly is no place like home for the holidays, especially when you’re hungry for your great-great-grandmother’s cookies back in Biloxi or Berlin. Let’s face it — you miss your family and friends, and you miss their holiday treats.
But in Washington, an international city full of expatriates and diplomats, the flavors of home sweet home are not hard to come by. Traditional holiday foods from miles away or generations ago have found their way into local specialty shops and bakeries and onto our tables.
Looking for a holiday meal worthy of the Old Country or of your own new traditions? Here’s where to start.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re a little public service,” says Robert Tramonte, whose father founded the Italian Store in Arlington. “Somebody remembers [a holiday food], and we want to bring back that memory. We’re happy to accommodate them.”
Tramonte, like other restaurateurs and proprietors whose families hail from around the globe, makes it his business to re-create hard-to-find favorites. If Tramonte doesn’t carry a holiday specialty, he tracks it down and imports it for homesick customers. For many Italian families, that means stocking ingredients for the traditional feast of the seven fishes as well as the harder-to-find cookies and cakes his parents and grandparents made.
“The holidays in Italy, they take more time off than we do, and it was time to spend with your family, and the big traditions were to showcase the foods,” Tramonte says. “It’s time to bring out the recipes from your grandmother and your great-grandmother.”
If you’re not much of a baker, however, the store is full of such sweets as the pyramid of honey balls known as struffoli ($15.99 a tray) and torrone (99 cents for a small piece, up to $25.99), a nougat confection from Naples that is the final dessert in a traditional Italian Christmas dinner. Panettone ($13-$30), or Italian fruitcake, is a big seller; Tramonte has more than 1,000 in stock in dozens of varieties.
Elsewhere in Arlington, it’s not panettone but stollen, the German take on fruitcake, that’s being faithfully re-created. At Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe, named for founder Wolfgang Buchler’s home town, the buttery fruitcakes with a sugar crust ($12.95-$29.50) are prepared with a ridge on top, said to resemble the swaddling on the baby Jesus. The bakery also churns out hundreds of springerle ($5.95 a bag), an anise-flavored cookie printed with holiday designs created with a special press Buchler brought from Germany.
Making the springerle is very time-consuming, says Buchler’s wife, Carla, who adds that the bakery gets requests for the rare cookies from across the country. “Mostly [our customers’] grandmothers made them, but no one has the time now. But it’s not Christmas until they get their special cookies.”
For chef David Guas of Arlington’s Bayou Bakery, candy ushers in the holiday season. His shop sells one type in particular that evokes childhood memories: Heavenly Hash ($7 a bag), a fudge with roasted pecans, marshmallow and a hint of salt and vanilla that Guas remembers being sold in every department store in New Orleans when he was a boy.
“We’d see it in the shopping centers while we were Christmas shopping with my mom,” Guas says. “We worked her down while she was shopping, and it wouldn’t even make it to the car.”
For Kemp Mill native Tali Eloul, sufganiyot, fried and jelly-filled donut-like pastries served during Hanukkah, bring back childhood culinary memories. She remembers waiting hours outside the tiny Kosher Pastry Oven in Silver Spring to get the delicacies. Years later, it wasn’t just the pastries that she loved — she married the baker’s son, Ron, and now they run the business with his parents. They work especially hard this time of year. Eloul estimates they’ll make at least 18,000 sufganiyot from a family recipe brought from Israel before Hanukkah.
Sufganiyot are traditional to Hanukkah because the holiday calls for foods fried in oil to celebrate the ancient miracle of the oil for the menorah. The bakery’s sufganiyot are filled with jelly ($1.65 each) or caramel, custard or chocolate ($2 each). Customers scoop them up by the dozen, or in clusters of 18, considered to be a lucky number in Judaism.
“There’s yelling across the store in Hebrew, and people are passing donuts trying a bite,” Eloul says. “People come in and feel like they’re back in Israel.”
American holiday traditions are a cross-cultural mix: The Santa Claus we know, for example, is a composite from legends in several countries and pagan folklore. So, too, with holiday food: Just because you didn’t grow up with a certain country’s holiday flavors doesn’t mean they can’t be incorporated into your meal now.
“We have many expats, especially this time of year, and they are yearning for all of those Christmas things they don’t see anywhere else,” says Lisa Lasell, owner of the British Pantry tea room and specialty store in Aldie, Va. “But a lot of Americans now buy all the Christmas crackers, all of those things that are traditional. . . . They create a Christmas meal that is not traditional for them.”
Lasell’s traditional Christmas tea service ($35, through Dec. 22) features sausage rolls, cranberry and orange scones and mince pies with brandy butter. Historically, mince pies were made with meat, but Lasell’s version combines raisins, sultanas and currants with spices and sugar. Another top seller is figgy pudding ($20-$40). “You pour rum or brandy on top and you set it on fire, and then dust it with sugar, and you add a sprig of holly and it’s your centerpiece,” Lasell says.
“We’ve been making this stuff as long as I can remember,” adds Lasell, who is Scottish. “I grew up with mom making Christmas cake months in advance, and every week we’d open up the tin and pour in more booze.”
Just as Americans have looked across the pond for holiday inspiration, they’ve considered the traditions of our neighbors to the south. For the Mexican celebration of the Epiphany, bakeries will be busy preparing rosca de reyes, a ringed cake with a baby figurine baked into the batter, topped with fruit in the colors of the Mexican flag. Tradition dictates that whoever finds the baby must bring tamales to the Feb. 2 celebration of Dia de la Candelaria, or Candlemas Day.
“After Christmas . . . immediately you were looking forward to the celebration of the Epiphany,” says Elsa Borja, deputy director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, who buys her rosca at La Flor de Puebla Baker Cafe ($10-$40) when she’s in Washington for the holiday. “I remember keeping those little babies each time I got them. You would not get rid of them, you would keep them in a little box.”
La Mexicana Bakery in Alexandria makes hundreds of rosca ($35-45) between Christmas and the Epiphany, using a 50-year-old recipe. And it’s not just expats who come in for the cake, says Evonne Benitez, whose parents own the bakery.
“We’ve had other demographics,” she says. “They’ve found out about it and thought it was fun, and they’re curious as to what is this rosca. We’ve started getting new customers.”
A traditional Japanese New Year’s meal is osechi ryori, a bento-box-like meal of seafood, vegetables, tofu and meat that is said to bring good luck and health. It’s pricey — downtown restaurant Sushi Taro sells the dish for $260 — but manager Jin Yamazaki says it is becoming more popular with non-Japanese patrons.
“Since it is just our custom and tradition, we thought people who don’t know anything about Japanese New Year would not understand, and certainly would not understand [how a] box of meal cost $260,” Yamazaki says via e-mail. “But . . . we have [been] approached [by] customers who have been to our Omakase counter. There was more than our expectation of interest from our counter customers.”
Less expensive and more readily available is mochi, balls of savory, sticky Japanese rice paste that many Americans know only as an ice-cream-filled treat. But authentic mochi is often served in a New Year’s soup called ozoni, and large mochi are custom-made for the holiday and stacked with a daidai, a bitter orange, on top, and are shared among relatives. Because the sticky rice stretches — like cheese on a pizza — it symbolizes long life and good health for the new year, says Ikuyo Chisaka, a partner at Hana Japanese Market downtown, which sells the large mochi for about $30 each (order in advance).
When Columbia Room cocktail pro Derek Brown went to Denmark a few Decembers ago, he was chilled to the bone. Luckily, there was glogg, a sweetened mulled wine served alone and as part of the traditional julefrokost Christmas banquet in Denmark.
“Whenever I’d go, anytime I went to a bar,” Brown says, “you’d get a glass of it to warm up.”
On that trip, an elderly Danish woman gave him a recipe, and he now serves glogg for special events at the Columbia Room, his reservations-only cocktail bar at the Passenger. From Tuesday through Dec. 15, Brown will be serving glogg with other seasonal favorites ($69 for food, drink and tax and tip).
Glogg also is on the menu at Room 11 ($8) and at Domku, where it will be part of a special smorgasbord that owner Kera Carpenter will host Dec. 20 ($70, reservations required). The menu will feature Domku’s mix of Slavic and Scandinavian foods — “We’re calling it smorgasbordski,” Carpenter says — including Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce, sausages, open-faced sandwiches and a potato and anchovy casserole, among other delicacies. The meal comes with glogg (available all winter) and a shot of aquavit, the caraway and anise-flavored liqueur that provides the magic for Brown’s glogg as well.
Other ingredients in Brown’s glogg include crushed cardamom seeds, ginger, orange zest and “almonds and raisins that have been soaking in the alcohol for a long time,” he says. “You traditionally serve this with a spoon; you eat them. It takes those little pangs of hunger and cold away right away.”
That warm feeling even has its own word in Danish: hygge.
“It means to be cozy. In the English language we don’t have a verb that means to be cozy,” Brown says. “It usually means candles, wine, conversations and friends — this general concept of being warm and together during a very cold time in Denmark.”
But who says you have to be Danish to hygge? It can happen over a piece of mochi or a springerele cookie that reminds you of your grandmother. Or when you find a tiny baby figurine in your piece of rosca. It gives you the feel — and taste — of home.
Where to find the goodies
Mochi : Hana Japanese Market, 2004 17th St. NW. 202-939-8853. facebook.com/hana.japanese.market.
Find more food, gifts and events in our 2012 holiday guide.