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The sweet shapes of Hanukkah

NEEDHAM -- Suzi Johnson grew up in Princeton, N.J., with a Hanukkah tradition that included her mother and two sisters. Every year at the start of the eight-day holiday, the four would bake and decorate cookies.

 

A mother of three, Johnson always baked with her own children -- Erik, 16, Nicole, 14, and Mikaela, 9 -- when they were young.

Five years ago, the guest list changed. It now includes two of Mikaela's friends, Phoebe Melnick of Weston and Rebecca Epstein of Dover, and their mothers, Lisa Melnick and Judy Epstein. "We've been doing this since the girls were in kindergarten," Johnson said. They are fourth grade students at Ten Acre Country Day School in Wellesley. The Johnsons' spacious kitchen, with a large center island, was an ideal work table one recent afternoon. Each girl had a paper plate in front of her with one cookie. Spread across the counter were bowls of blue and white icing thattheir moms had made with confection-ers' sugar and food coloring; two cans of Ready-to-Decorate Icing, which comes with decorative tips; white, blue, yellow, and orange decorating gel; blue and yellow sugar crystals; silver sanding sugar; white and yellow pearl sugar; gold balls; blue and yellow sprinkles; and tiny, edible blue and white Jewish stars. Music from the "Nutcracker Suite" played in the background, which was only fitting, since Mikaela is dancing in this season's Boston Ballet production at the Wang Center. At one end of the row, Phoebe had covered her menorah cookie with white icing and was painting orange gel flames on the ends of the candles. Next to her, Mikaela was squeezing blue frosting on her six-pointed star, using a special tip that made the frosting come out in ruffles. She placed a small gold ball in each corner of the star. Rebecca, at the far end, coated a dreidel with white icing, then sprinkled blue and white star candies over the top.

To keep the junior bakers well supplied with cookies, Suzi Johnson, lightly dusted with flour, was rolling out dough on the other side of the counter and stamping shapes with cutters. Lisa Melnick and Judy Epstein were minding the ovens, slipping one tray of cookies in, pulling another out.

Most years, Rebecca, Mikaela, and Phoebe help their moms make the dough. But this year they had after-school activities. Johnson prepared the dough the night before, since it has to be refrigerated before rolling. She uses a sugar cookie recipe from "Betty Crocker's Cookie Book" that she says is almost identical to her mother's recipe. "My mother is the kind of cook who doesn't even measure," Johnson said. "She uses the age-old recipe that she probably used with her mother."

As they decorated, the girls concentrated on the detail. "The cookies are much more elaborate and intricate than in past years," noted Epstein. "Now they can spend up to two minutes on one cookie," she said. When they were younger, "they'd rush through one and run off."

Though the cookie designs have evolved over the years, the tools to create them haven't changed. Every year Melnick brings over a set of Hanukkah cookie cutters -- a Jewish star, a dreidel, a menorah, a Torah scroll, and a chai, the Hebrew symbol for life -- that she bought at Williams-Sonoma. Johnson has cookie cutters in similar shapes that she bought at I-Party. The sugar crystals and the sanding and pearl sugars are from King Arthur Flour in Vermont (www.kingarthurflour.com); the frosting, sprinkles, and gel come from any supermarket or party store. Trimming a dreidel with a line of white ruffled icing, Phoebe announced, "It's fun putting the frosting on."

"I like decorating," Rebecca agreed, "especially the sparkles."

Their young hostess had something else in mind. She admitted to a preference for eating the finished product.

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