For me, Hanukkah has always been about savory foods and disregarding my current culinary preferences in favor of the foods I grew up eating around the holidays. There’s the oil-permeated air that saturates your clothes, your kitchen and the rest of your home that ordinarily would be kind of gross, but on Hanukkah it’s comforting. Plus, it indicates that you’ll soon be piling crisp fried latkes onto your plate and topping them with cool sour cream and applesauce. Usually I like my vegetables browned and crisp, right out of a very hot oven. But during the holidays I prefer when my carrots can be smushed apart by a fork, the result of lingering in brisket juices for hours.
My nostalgia for Hanukkah desserts is a little less strong. Some families would have donuts after dinner, to incorporate another food cooked in oil, but my family never did. My memories of Hanukkah dessert aren’t negative, like my memories of sitting down for lunch during Passover in elementary school, eating store-bought, semi-stale coconut macaroons while watching friends dive into piles of Easter candy. For Hanukkah, there was gelt—gold-wrapped chocolate coins—but other than that, it felt like there were no rules for dessert.
Because Hanukkah falls around Christmas (except for this year’s odd placement next to Thanksgiving) and is one of the more secular Jewish holidays, it has taken some cues from its more widely celebrated calendar-mate. Most obviously, there’s the giving of gifts. But in my family, we would also always decorate our house with “Happy Hanukkah” banners and place stick-on menorah decals on our front door. Most importantly, though, we would break out the only cookie cutters we had in my house and bake and decorate dreidel and Star of David cookies.
This year I’ll treat myself to one of the Hanukkah cookies we have at the shop. It’s definitely tastier and undoubtedly prettier than the ones I made when I was little. But whether your Hanukkah cookies are decorated by a child with wobbly hands, or intricately marbled by a professional, whether they’re eaten in November or December, their presence is a sign of eight celebratory days to come, and of the beginning of the holiday season.