text: Jenny Bennett / images: Travis Swiatlo and Jannice Tu
December is a time for holidays of all different cultures and religions. Try mixing up your holiday season by cooking a new dish this year. Each of the three dishes are from a different cultural background and hold a special meaning to the family who provided the recipe. Each dish does not have specific measurements because they are family recipes which are made in large quantities.
Dish name: “Wang Choy Jou Sou” (Cantonese phonetic spelling)
“hair moss” or “hair weed” (scientific name is “Nostoc Flagelliforme” — it can be acquired at any Asian grocery store)
mushroom (any kind)
Holiday: Winter Solstice (Dec. 21) & Chinese New Year
Notes: The phrase “Wang Choy Jou Sou” in Cantonese means to have “fortune in hand” and is a dish served at auspicious holidays such as Chinese New Year. The name is a play on words because the ingredients are tongue-in-cheek. Pig’s feet in Cantonese are referred to as “pig hands” when referring to the front legs of the animal, hence its presence in a dish called “fortune in hand.” Hair moss in Cantonese is also “fat choy” which, if you recall the phrase “Kung Hei Fat Choy,” wishes you a happy new year, but is literally translated to “hope you have lots of fortune.” The name for hair moss sounds similar to “fortune.”
How to make or use ingredients: There are no specific measurements for this dish. It is completely up to the chef how much of each ingredient to use. Everything is sautéed together in a pan until cooked, then chicken stock is added in, and finally, a bit of cornstarch to give the sauce some body. It is seasoned very simply with salt and pepper, but seasoning is also up to the preference of the cook.
Recipe from: Jannice Tu
“We mostly eat this dish on special holidays where all of our immediate family come together to eat dinner. My favorite ingredient in the dish is the ‘hair moss.’ It actually has very little flavor on its own, so it absorbs the flavors around it. Also, you don’t eat it directly because, when cooked, it becomes scattered all over everything on the dish so it adds texture and flavor to whatever you are eating. Although I don’t find anything offensive about eating pig’s feet, it is very difficult to eat and I tend to not like foods that take too much work. There’s a lot of bone and cartilage to work through and all for very little pay-off. Since it is a special holiday dish, however, we all have to eat some of it or else its superstitious benefits won’t have an effect on us.”
Dish name: Cuccidati cookies / Holiday: Christmas
4 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup 2% milk or whole milk
2 cups dried figs, diced
1 cup dried dates, diced
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup candied fruit, diced
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup brandy
3 ounces semisweet or dark chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup apricot preserves/jam
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 to 2 tablespoons orange juice
Preheat oven to 375 F.
In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, add flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix well.
In the same bowl, add the butter and pulse to combine. Then add eggs, milk, vanilla extract and mix until a dough is formed.
On a floured surface, roll the dough. Then wrap it in tin foil and refrigerate.
In a food processor, add figs, raisins, dates, walnuts, chocolate, cinnamon, candied fruit, nutmeg, cloves and pulse until a smooth consistency is formed.
Put this mixture in a bowl and refrigerate. Typically you want to refrigerate filling for at least eight hours, but this is not mandatory.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a floured surface. Add a small quantity of flour. Knead the dough until it is smooth.
Roll the dough until flattened. Cut the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each dough piece into a 12 inch flat square. Then cut each square into 4 by 3-inch rectangles.
Put about 2 to 2 ½ tablespoons of filling in each rectangle. Fold the side over the filling and enclose cookie. Flatten seams.
Cut each rectangle into smaller pieces.
Put the cookies in the oven to bake. Before you put them in the oven some people use an egg wash and brush it on the top of the cookies, but this is optional. Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden. Let them cool.
Mix confectioner’s sugar, vanilla extract and orange juice together to make frosting
Once cookies cool, decorate with frosting and sprinkles.
Sidenote: Swiatlo’s family likes to add different food colors to different bowls of frosting to make cookies colorful.
Recipe from: Travis Swiatlo
Travis’ great grandmother brought this recipe with her when she moved from Sicily, Italy to the United States. Every year the family gathers to make the cookies the first week of December, with family members flying or driving to make it. Each person helps and has a specific task to do. The cuccidati is a traditional Christmas cookie.