Polish babka and Lebanese baklava, Italian panettone and Puerto Rican tres leches cake.
For many of us, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without the treats that reminded us of our parents and grandparents.
While Schenectady and Albany can’t compete with big cities like New York or Chicago when it comes to ethnic eats, we’ve got our share of goodies from the Old Country.
The Gazette uncovered baked goods from seven different nationalities or geographic areas — Italian, Polish, Dutch, Puerto Rican, Russian, Middle Eastern and Swedish — and our story is just a slice of the ethnic cookies, breads, cakes and candy that can be found year-round at local bakeries, delis and farmers’ markets.
From the Netherlands
Marjan Beebe, who came to America from the Netherlands in 1989, bakes Dutch apple tarts from her grandmother’s secret recipe and sells them every Sunday at Schenectady’s Greenmarket in Proctors.
Unlike an American pie, the Dutch tart has straight sides and is baked in a paper mold. Beebe chops the apples into small pieces so the tart is dense with fruit and tops it with a lattice crust.
“The uniqueness is in the crust. It has a lot of flavor,” she says. “We use local eggs, butter, flour [from North Country Farms in Watertown] and fruit.”
While the apple tart is traditional Dutch, Marjan and her husband, Keith, who run Dutch Desserts in Kinderhook, also make tarts with berries and peaches.
Russian and Middle Eastern baked goods can also be found at the Greenmarket.
“We do special Christmas items, such as poppy seeds, kozunak, and Russian tea cookies, says Tanya Lichtenwalter, president of the New Russia Cultural Center, a nonprofit Capital Region group that promotes Russian culture.
Their homemade kozunak is a sweet yeast bread, and poppy seeds are pastry rolls filled with a dark paste of the ground seeds and sugar. And almost everyone, Russian or not, has nibbled on those buttery walnut domes dusted with powder sugar known as Russian tea cookies.
Just around the corner from Proctors, at Villa Italia Pasticceria, a crew of bakers whips up traditional Italian holiday treats.
“We make 1,000 pounds of panettone and 200 pounds of torrone,” says owner Bobby Mallozzi.
Villa Italia uses an old family recipe for their panettone, a sweet yeast bread spiked with golden raisins, orange and lemon, then crowned with an almond meringue. Wrapped in fabric and ribbon, the 1 1⁄2-pound, round bread is often given as a gift when Italian-Americans visit each others’ homes during the holidays.
Villa Italia is also known for its tortonne, a nougat candy made with egg whites, honey and almonds that is sold in 1⁄2 blocks and served in small squares.
“It used to come from Italy in tiny, tiny boxes. Ours is different. It’s not hard and crunchy, it’s a little softer,” says Mallozzi.
At the Old Polish Deli in Watervliet, owner Pete Kuber sells from 500 to 600 babkas and strudels during the holiday season.
“I bring it up from New York City,” Kuber says. While he sells the babka, a sweet, round yeast bread in three flavors — raisin, cheese and plum — all year round; Christmas is the only time that there’s cherry babka.
Customers can also buy packaged Christmas cookies, chocolate and candies imported from Poland.
When he was a boy, Kuber says, all the Polish food was homemade, and you couldn’t buy it in stores, “but now there are more and more imports.”
Known for its pierogis, made by Kuber right on the premises, the Old Polish Deli opened four years ago in Malta and moved to Watervliet in 2009.
From the Middle East
Gihane Mohammed of Glenville specializes in Middle Eastern desserts at the Greenmarket, and last month her catering business, Gigi’s Treats, made “mummy yummies” for an event at the Albany Institute of History & Art.
While many regions of the Middle East are Muslim, Christmas is celebrated by Arab Christians in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Baklava, a pastry made by layering phyllo dough with chopped nuts and syrup or honey, appears on the holiday table in every Mediterranean country.
“Baklava is made in many different shapes and with different nuts. Each has its own distinct character and taste,” according to Mohammed.
“In Egypt, there is a delicious cookie called “khahk,” she says, that is stuffed with nuts, dates or honey and then sprinkled with powdered sugar. Another Christmas cookie, “ghorayba,” is flavored with rose water.
From Puerto Rico
In Amsterdam, you can get babka at Rosito’s Bakery.
“My husband learned to make them when he lived in Germany,” says Diana Rosito, a native of Guatemala who runs the James Street bakery with her husband, Leo Rosito.
All year round, the Rositos make Hispanic and Puerto Rican goodies, like flan (egg custard), besitos de coco (coconut kisses) and pasteles de guayaba (pastries filled with guava).
During Christmastime, they make panettone and Italian cookies and pastries.
“We try to please everybody here, and we make everything from scratch,” says Diana.
For Christmas, a very special item is tres leches cake (three milks cake). Popular in many parts of Latin America, it’s a round cake that’s soaked in evaporated milk and condensed milk, then topped with whipped cream and fruit.
When Swedish-Americans gather during the holidays, there’s a smorgasbord, an assortment of cold fish, meats and cheeses served on a single slice of bread as open-faced sandwiches.
At the Bread Basket Bakery in Saratoga Springs, the Tallman family has been making limpa, a dark Swedish rye bread, since Joan Tallman started the business in 1982.
“It’s very dark because it has molasses,” says co-owner Chad Tallman, who lists orange zest, orange juice, dark beer, caraway seeds, cornmeal and wheat flour as the other ingredients.
“It’s good toasted and goes well with cream cheese, tomatoes and salmon,” he says.
Joan Tallman’s mother, Chad Tallman’s grandmother, was a cook in Sweden before she emigrated to America.
“Everything my mother learned, she learned from my grandmother,” he says.