We had our friends Steve and Gayle over for the holidays last week (here’s the meal we made). Our grown daughter and their two grown sons (one of whom played Simon Birch just as an aside!) were over too, and we told them about a New Year’s Eve in about 1979 or 1980, when, as the poet says “it snowed and it snowed.”
Steve and Gayle had arranged a New Year’s Eve party. And then a blizzard hit, and then the temperature dropped to well below zero (we’re talking Fahrenheit here). We decided it was just too awful out, so we stayed home. About 11 they called us and told us we had to come, as they had food for 70 and no one was there yet.
So we relented, got on the L (it only costs a penny on New Year’s Eve in Chicago, to this day), and trekked to their place.
You have to know a little about Chicago apartments to appreciate what happened next. Many old Chicago apartment buildings are 3 to 5 story U-shaped structures around an open central courtyard. About 2 a.m. the 20 or so intrepid souls who had come headed outside where we built a huge snow dragon the size of the whole courtyard (the picture is the actual building).
As we were celebrating this amazing artistic feat, a neighbor leaned out his window (it must have been close to 4 a.m. by this time), yelling, “I’m going to come down there and show you what I think about you!”
Now, this worried us, but we waited for him. And what he thought about us was that we needed a bottle of pink champagne and some whisky. We poured the champagne into the dragon’s eyes to turn them pink, and drank the whisky.
My daughter’s response to this story: “Today I learned that my parents are human beings, and were once young and did crazy young people stuff.”
Here’s a traditional Greek New Year’s bread which I try to make every year:
This recipe is from Adventures in Greek Cookery by Kapulos and Jones.
1 cup milk
2 yeast cakes if you can find them (or equivalent dry yeast)
3/4 cup + 2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup melted butter
3 eggs, well-beaten
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon mahlepe
1/3 cup lukewarm water
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 or 2 clean coins
3 tablespoons light cream
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/3 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sesame seeds
Scald the milk and set aside to cool. Crumble the yeast in a small bowl, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons sugar, and set aside for 10 minutes, or prepare dry yeast per packet directions. Don’t put the dry yeast straight into the mixture, however careful you are with temps. It doesn’t work as well. *
When milk is cool (I cooled mine in the fridge, to about 100F/38C, or just warm to the touch) combine it with remaining sugar, and the next 5 ingredients (through the mahlepe) in a large bowl. Beat with electric beater for 5 minutes. If using fresh/cake yeast, add the lukewarm water to the yeast, blend until smooth, then stir into the mixture. For dry yeast, simply stir the foamy, activated yeast into the bread. Add the flour and knead the dough until soft and pliable. Place on a floured board and continue kneading for 10 minutes. Thoroughly grease the sides and bottom of a large bowl. Turn the dough into it and rotate until all sides are greased. Cover with a heavy cloth and put in a warm place to rise for two hours. It should at least double in size.
After two hours, turn the dough out on a floured board and knead lightly. Divide into two parts and put a clean coin in the center of each, or for one loaf leave dough in one piece and use one coin. Then knead until the coins are well hidden. Shape the dough to fit into two greased 9 inch round cake pans or one 12-inch round pan. Combine the cream, sugar and cinnamon, brush over the tops of the loaves and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Cover with a cloth and put in a warm place to rise for two hours. It will double or more in size again.
Bake at 350F/175C for 50 minutes (check at 45) for 9-inch loaves, or 1 hour for 12-inch loaf. Remove from pan immediately and cool.
The first slice is for the lord (or the goddess, depending on how you roll). The second is for St. Basil, patron saint of Greece. Dole out the remaining slices from the youngest person at the table to the oldest. A coin in either of the first two slices means good luck for the entire household; if an individual gets the coin, they get the good luck all to themselves.
What are your New Year’s tales and traditions?