Christmas is a holiday that comes wrapped in layers upon layers of tradition. There are the classic movies watched again and again: It's a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street. There are the well-worn decorations: a nativity scene crafted by Grandpa decades ago, the ornament memorializing a kindergarten-sized handprint, the Advent calendar a favorite uncle mailed from Germany. There are the cookies: green spritz shaped like miniature trees, sugar cookies dusted with red sugar, pans of peppermint fudge. There are the events: a Christmas Eve drive to look at lights, midnight Mass, Christmas dinner at Grandma's.
But life is marked with change. Even though it seems like it should be sealed into a snowglobe, forever unchanging, Christmas is affected by the events that unfold during the rest of the year. Babies are born, grandparents move into nursing homes, and then pass away; parents get divorced and remarried; siblings move across the country. Religious beliefs lose their resonance and sometimes new ones take their place. The Christmas tree-shaped lime Jello salad just doesn't taste as good as it did when you were ten.
My Christmases changed in 2009, the first Mike and I spent together as an engaged couple. Since most of his family is in Colorado while mine is here in Minnesota, there's no way to split Christmas--we need to pick one family or the other. So that year became the first Christmas I spent in Boulder.
It was a perfect Christmas for Mike, because it included all of the cherished things from his childhood: his grandma's house, décor unchanged since the 1970s; a traditional turkey dinner, with the family's special recipe for apple salad; and his grandma herself, a four-foot-ten woman in her 90s who totters around in high heels and has very specific ideas about How Things Should Be Done.
For me, that Christmas was all wrong, starting with getting sick on the bus ride from Denver. I was used to an informal buffet instead of a rigid sit-down meal with china and silver. Mike's family doesn't do much in the way of gift-giving, and the few presents they do exchange are opened in the evening instead of first thing in the morning like my family. I didn't like the apple salad, and I missed my aunt's gingerbread cookies. But the biggest problem was that I felt like an interloper in someone else's Norman Rockwell holiday, while my family was several states away celebrating in the way that was comforting and familiar.
Holidays with Mike's family have gotten easier since then. I've gotten used to the elaborate dinner and no longer feel like an awkward outsider. And there is something that seems inconsequential yet is incredibly important, because food is tied up with so much emotion at this time of year: I fell in love with Banoo's baklava cake.
I have never actually met Banoo, an Iranian-American friend of Mike's grandma who drops off a baklava cake every year before Christmas. But oh, do I know her cake. It is delicately moist, cut into diamonds and arranged into an elegant star-shaped tower, plastic wrap carefully placed between each layer. What first drew me to the cake was the cardamom, which reminded me of the bread my dad sometimes makes for breakfast on Christmas morning. But then the cake is flavored with an unexpected touch of rosewater, at first unfamiliar but now intractably tangled with Christmas for me.
This year, we're celebrating Christmas with my family in Minnesota. Since I can't imagine the holidays without Banoo's cake, I wrote to her for the recipe. There are a couple ingredients--rosewater and almond flour--that may not be on the shelves of your supermarket. I found the rosewater at a local Middle Eastern grocery store and the almond flour in the bulk bins at Whole Foods. Because the cake needs to be sliced in the pan, be sure to use an aluminum one--your knife may damage a non-stick pan (since my 10x15 pan is non-stick, I bought a disposable aluminum foil pan to use for this recipe). The cake itself is quite dry--it gets its moisture from a rosewater syrup poured on after baking.
Adapted from Banoo Khosravi
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon rosewater
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup canola oil
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups almond flour
- 1 tablespoon cardamom
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup rosewater
Prepare the syrup:
Combine 1 cup granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the 1 tablespoon rosewater. Allow syrup to cool to room temperature.
Prepare the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Grease a 10 inch by 15 inch aluminum pan.
In a large bowl, combine the eggs, oil, and 1 cup granulated sugar. Mix until smooth.
In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, almond flour, cardamom, baking powder, and salt and mix until well combined.
Add the dry ingredients and 1/2 cup rosewater to the egg mixture and mix until smooth. Pour the batter into prepared pan.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until edges of the cake are lightly browned and pulling away from the edges of the pan. Allow the cake to cool for 5 minutes.
Cut the cake into diamonds by cutting lengthwise 1-inch sections and then cutting diagonals 1 inch apart. Evenly pour the cooled syrup over the cake.
Allow the cake to cook completely and the syrup to set before removing the cake pieces from the pan.