Celebrating Hanukkah, cottage-style, with Amy Rosen

My mom suits up for latke duty in her patterned plastic apron, a tea towel slung over her left shoulder for good measure. I whirl a boatload of russet potatoes with some cooking onions in the food processor and then stir in eggs and flour, salt and pepper. With the potato pancake batter ready, she takes the helm of her electric frying pan, where she will remain for the next hour or so, for a Hanukkah tradition as predictable as the lighting of the menorah. 

I think it was soon after hearing my stirring solo of “Jesus Christ Our Saviour” in the kindergarten Christmas pageant that my mom took it upon herself to peel 50 pounds of potatoes and lug her oversized avocado green electric frying pan to Lillian Public School. Each Hanukkah thereafter (until my three brothers and I had graduated), she went from class to class, cooking up fresh, hot latkes whilst retelling the tale of the Miracle of Light. It’s a ritual that she continues at our cottage on Lake Simcoe, Ont., now with her grown children and six grandchildren underfoot. Getting us all together means double the latkes, but also double the fun. Get frying, Mom!

While the whole family usually gathers for the holidays, this year some of the teens and my brother Marty have to work, and my oldest brother, David, and his family are overseas, so we’re a smaller crew. But we’ve invited other treasured family and friends for brunch tomorrow to fill the cottage with the amount of people and noise that we’ve grown accustomed to. We’ll do our family’s take on a Secret Santa gift exchange, the Secret Mordecai, setting aside presents for the others until they return. 

My parents, Fred and Marsha, come to the cottage most weekends, so the place is always warm and welcoming when we arrive: the front stairs shovelled, the woodstove popping away. I showed up this afternoon, toting enough groceries to feed a bunch of hungry Jews, along with my brother Andrew and his wife, Deborah, and my wee nieces Lily and Ivy. The girls fell asleep during the drive, but perked up as soon as we pulled into the driveway. Four-year-old Ivy, spotting her little red shovel, immediately set to work.

We’ve had this log cottage and its floor-to-peak windows for a decade, but I actually grew up with a different cottage, across the lake, near Big Bay Point. My brothers and I would spend hours exploring in the woods and even more time in the deep, rocky lake. But by the time we’d all reached our teenage years, we didn’t want to go up on weekends anymore, opting instead to stay in the city with our friends. Meanwhile, we spent our summers at camp. My dad finally got fed up and sold the cottage. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later, when David and his family were moving to Budapest for a couple of years, that we got the idea to rent a cottage so we could all have a solid week of quality time before they set off. 

On a hot summer morning that week, David and I went for a run down Irving Drive, and as we reminisced about the old cottage and how much fun we were having here, we jogged around a bend and saw a lovely cottage on the lake with a For Sale sign out front. 

“Hmm,” said David. 

“Can you imagine?” I replied. 

We jogged back a little bit faster and told our parents about the smart-looking place we’d just seen. Four days later, they bought it.

That summer run 10 years ago feels like another planet on this blustery holiday; when I peer out the window of my bedroom at the thermometer when I wake up, it says minus-25ºC and will remain that way for the week. We’re going to need more firewood, I think to myself, as I do a long yawny stretch in my bed.

Despite the extreme cold, Lily and Ivy are as enthusiastic as ever—the cottage is their favourite place to be. It makes sense: imagine you’re four or seven years old and you get to spend all day doing arts and crafts and Wii yoga and pulling your special stool over to the kitchen counter and cracking eggs and licking spoons with your amazing Auntie Amy. And reading endless stories with your Bubi on the poofy red couch. And helping your Zaida start the fire in the woodstove each morning. 

As the sun starts to light up the lake, suddenly ice huts begin to appear on the horizon. The ice has frozen solid enough that the trucks are hauling out the colourful small wooden structures, dozens of them, about a kilometre from shore. They are set against the stark whiteness of winter. They have been taken out far earlier than in years past, but then again, this year has been far colder than any in recent memory. It’s like a seasonal shantytown, and one I always look forward to exploring. But before we take a closer look, Andrew starts piling up wood and paper at the firepit by the lake with Lily as per his Young Judaea leadership training skills. The wind is whipping up, helping to fuel the flames. “Now that’s how you start a fire,” he says smugly of his success. The hope is that this campfire will offer up hot chocolate and roasted marshmallows upon our return. I guess that’s my job.

Deborah goes to fetch the snowshoes while rosy-cheeked Ivy swings on the play structure with a frozen smile—frozen from both joy and the sub-zero temperature. With the fire now roaring and the realization that we’d all probably die if we set out for a long walk on the lake, we decide to roast marshmallows. Ivy wants to toast hers on the giant icicle we’ve snapped off the neighbour’s eavestrough, but once I explain her flawed physics, she concedes, and I help her with one of the long wire skewers instead. 

With everyone happily toasting away, I hop back inside to get the malted hot chocolate going by whisking a homemade base into milk warmed on the stove, before taking it out to the fire and letting it get extra bubbly in the pot we use for camping. Once our scorched marshmallows are added to enamel mugs of hot chocolate, we all sip away at our steamy winter prize. We haven’t done much to deserve it, but at the cottage the rewards often outstrip the efforts.

“Cocktail time!” sings Deborah, who revels in her role as our bartender year round. It’s just before five o’clock and the sun is well into its descent. Almost every night at the cottage means a spectacular sunset over the sparkly lake: warm oranges in the summer, deep purples during winter. Deborah’s stirred Cherry Manhattans (with her own maraschino cherries) and shaken Mandarin Margaritas are two of her recent creations. They’re delightful, and we’re happy to partake. Then comes a casual dinner of pasta, garlic bread, and salad, and my dad making controversial statements followed by his protests of “You can’t say anything anymore!” And yet, my dad would be shocked by what follows once he and my mom hit the sack: an even more controversial game of Cards Against Humanity (if you haven’t played it, it’s a fun and sort of smutty adults-only card game), before my generation turns in for the night.

In the morning I enjoy a few moments of relative peace while listening to the ruckus downstairs. My bedroom is over the kitchen, so I can hear everything, always, including my mom setting the table for our Hanukkah brunch party while whisper-shouting to everyone to “keep it down, Amy’s still sleeping!” I eventually make my way downstairs, hit the button on the espresso machine, steam my milk, and review the menu. 

My mom is definitely the queen of the kitchen, but in the last few years, I’ve been the de facto cottage chef de cuisine, so it’s my job to come up with a game plan. It’s easier for me because
I’m inclined to keep things simple. Full house in the summer? Corn, barbecued chicken, salad, done. Today, within two hours there will be a dozen people here, ready to devour a feast fit for the Maccabees, so we need to get down to business.

I put my dad in charge of washing the sugar cure off of the salmon gravlax I had prepped back in the city, then patting it dry. It turned out great; perfect texture with sweetly subtle notes of honey, mustard, and dill. It’s also my dad’s task to thinly slice the lox on the bias. He may have been an endocrinologist for 50 years, but with decades of experience carving my mom’s briskets, challahs, and chickens, at our table Dr. Fred Rosen is considered a surgeon. 

This honey-mustard gravlax will be the star of your Hanukkah brunch

I amp up a softened half-brick of cream cheese by stirring in some minced red pepper and grated carrots, plus a chopped green onion and a few chopped olives, while Andrew slices the bagels upon which the aforementioned cream cheese shall be schmeared. I roast vegetables, stir together a quick tahini sauce, and then whack the little jewels out of a fresh pomegranate while sipping my morning latte. I get Deborah to dice the tomatoes, cucumbers, and onion for the Israeli salad. Meanwhile, the girls spread dreidels and gelt down the long harvest table, tape up decorations at their eye level, and paint welcome signs. “How do you spell Irit?” asks Lily. “Do you like my cold-shoulder dress?” asks Ivy.

I preheat the oven and grease my Bubi Fran’s old enamel pan. More than a decade after her passing, my grandmother’s bakeware is still helping out in the kitchen, her apple cake replaced by my cinnamon buns for today, by demand. Two years ago I opened a bakery in Toronto, called Rosen’s Cinnamon Buns, so I brought the dough and glaze from the shop, ready to go. All that’s left to do is proof, egg wash, bake, and glaze. 

My Auntie Irit and cousin Avi have arrived—Irit is from Israel and never got used to Canadian winters. “Holy sheet, it’s cold out,” she says in her Israeli accent. “Pardon my French.” She walks in with gifts in hand and smile on face, shaking the snow from her dark curls. 

Our cottage neighbours, Judy and Henry Singer, are the last to arrive, toting a gorgeous “Cranapple Dazzle” galette. The Singers used to own a big pie business in Toronto, where they sold to places including Loblaws and Longos. Now Judy just makes them for friends. She’s a talented artist, and several of her paintings hang in our cottage. She loves seeing them here in the living room, and loves seeing us here too. They rent the cottage next to us in the summer so it’s a real treat to see our warm-weather pals here in the winter, bikinis swapped out for balaclavas.

My mom is finally finished frying, so it’s brunch time! The food is spread down the table, family-style, and we pile our plates high, starting with hot, crispy latkes and homemade applesauce. The laughter is loud and the stories are strong as we sit crammed in together. We get caught up with Henry and Judy—he’s telling old dating stories, she’s filling us in on the art classes she’s giving. My cousin Avi is telling us about the scuba trip he’s about to take—and my dad is telling the same jokes we’ve all heard a thousand times…“An old woman on an airplane is kvetching about being thirsty. ‘Oy, oy, I’ve never felt such thirst’…” Meanwhile, the kids, having finished their plates, are running around the table trying to find the biggest pieces of chocolate gelt. Between bites of cauliflower, we talk about having another campfire, about the animal tracks we’d seen on the lake (were they from the neighbours’ giant dog or a bear? But, wait, aren’t the bears sleeping? And are there even bears in these parts?). We sit elbow-to-elbow, eating and laughing until we have all had  seconds (or thirds) of our favourites. We clear the plates, and my mom brings out Judy’s cranberry-apple galette and a big bowl of mandarin oranges. I present the still-warm cinnamon buns, glazed by Lily and Ivy, and dessert is devoured.

We move on to the lighting of the menorah, its colourful beeswax candles already in place. We watch the flames dance, and we sing the songs and the Hanukkah prayers. Then we shift over to the crackling woodstove, moving from one warming light to the next, so that the children may open their gifts in front of the fire. “Hanukkah happens at the darkest time of the year,” says Judy, looking at the menorah while nibbling on a piece of cinnamon bun. “And the candles bring light.” 

With the meal and the celebrations done, we are craving some fresh air. Most of us head out for a walk on the lake while my mom and Auntie Irit stay behind to clean up (but really, I suspect, to stay warm). Henry is wearing the full-length women’s fur coat he arrived in. “Is it?” he asks incredulously. “But it fits!” The rest of us are dressed head-to-toe in moon boots, snow pants, parkas, ski mitts, and scarves. Who is who? You can barely tell, through the crunch, crunch of the deep snow, the battle against the wind, and the fight to stay upright. Despite the ribbing he gets, Henry is the only one dressed warmly enough to make it all the way to one of the ice-fishing huts on this frigid afternoon.

Where the summer at the cottage is a busy time of barbecues and a revolving door of visitors, winter is a time for quieter gatherings. During the sunny days of summer, the lake can be a mystery; the waters calm one minute, churning into a raging whirlpool the next. In the winter, there are no waves, but the howling winds of the frozen lake can still keep us at bay. Even so, in every season, the lake brings peace.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Cottage Life. Amy Rosen’s cookbook,  Kosher Style, was published in 2019. 

Try Amy Rosen’s family recipe for latkes

Homemade apple sauce recipe to accompany latkes

Honey mustard gravlax recipe

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