My tiny mother gained Herculean strength around the Indian New Year in late November. She seemed to simultaneously stir cinnamon-scented rice pudding, chop almonds for semolina-almond pudding, and grate carrots for sweet milk-carrot halva. My favorite “helping” activity was to hold the precious saffron threads before sprinkling them over the desserts. The saffron stained my tiny fingers crimson and left a lingering aroma: the smell of happiness.
I wanted to revive these beloved holiday food traditions with my two American-born children, but to my dismay, they were not excited.
Then one Christmas I noticed that they loved to spend time with their American godparents, Janet and Jim, doing something I had never done as a child: baking cookies. It was just not part of my North Indian family’s culture. But my sons showed a remarkable aptitude for it. I watched in envy as they rolled the dough with their tiny hands and waited impatiently while the cookies baked. “We made whiskey balls, sugar cookies, moldy mice, anise cookies, and gingerbread,” they announced proudly. I wondered sadly if my own traditions were going to die.
I mentioned this to a German friend married to an Indian man and also raising boys in America. She responded with a German saying: “Tradition is not about preserving the ashes but keeping the fire going.”
The following year, I taught my boys to make the only “cookie” I knew: saffron-cardamom macaroons. They helped grind the cardamom and mix the coconut. My five-year-old crushed the saffron and sprinkled it over the mixture. He smelled his red fingers and smiled. I smiled, too: happiness had come home.
In this age of globalization, melting-pot traditions are the norm, not the exception. The food writer Casey Barber grew up in western Pennsylvania, where her big, hungry Italian family adopted the food traditions of the area’s German and Polish immigrants, always braising an industrial-size slow cooker of kielbasa and sauerkraut to bring good luck in the coming year. My friend Nancy Singleton Hachisu moved to Japan more than two decades ago, but it took a while for the local New Year’s tradition of pounding rice for mochi cakes to become her own. But as her Japanese husband adapted to her American Christmas traditions, so too did she embrace his. “We have lively differences of opinion on how the food will be prepared or how the holiday will unfold.... But we do find a common place, so we are able to continue celebrating these Japanese holidays following the countryside customs that gave heart and soul to those days for generations,” she says. New Orleans–based blogger Shannon Lane’s family always makes gumbo on Christmas Eve. “In Louisiana, we’ve taken the cultures of the Spanish, French, African, and Native Americans and blended them together in what is found in today’s traditions.”
My children and friends have taught me the true meaning of tradition: accepting the past with fond remembrance, assimilating it into the present, and opening our arms for all the new traditions the future holds.
Cardamom and Saffron Macaroons
These macaroons are remarkably fragrant and sweet.
1 (14 ounce) package sweetened shredded coconut
10 ounces sweetened condensed milk (about 2⁄3 of a 14-ounce can)
11⁄2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1⁄4 teaspoon table salt
2 small egg whites, at room temperature
Dash of lemon juice or a pinch of salt or cream of tartar (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly spray it with nonstick spray.
2. Thoroughly combine the coconut, condensed milk, cardamom, saffron, and salt in a bowl. It will form a crumbly mixture that is not like typical cookie dough, but once the egg whites are folded in, the mixture will hold together.
3. To whip the egg whites, start whisking slowly. I like to whisk in a touch of lemon juice, salt, or cream of tartar to help them get to peaks. Stop whisking once they reach the soft peak stage, when a point forms and falls over when you lift the beaters. If you continue to whisk them, the proteins will break down and you will have a soft mess on your hands. Gently fold the whipped egg whites into the coconut mixture.
4. Using a tablespoon, mold the mixture into balls. Place them 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet.
5. Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, until the exterior is very slightly brown, the middle is still soft, and the bottom is beginning to turn golden brown.
6. Transfer the macaroons to a wire rack and allow to cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. These can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Makes 35 to 38 small macaroons or about 20 larger ones.
Recipe from Modern Spice, by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Photo by Kelsey Banfield, The Naptime Chef, thenaptimechef.com.