When we asked readers for their most beloved holiday traditions, I thought I’d hear a few tales about sugar cookies and fudge. I didn’t expect to hear about spaghetti carbonara, grapefruit and grilled cheese sandwiches.
That’s the beautiful thing about traditions: They are as unique as the people who carry them on. Every story that arrived in my inbox carried the weight of family, history, ritual and nostalgia. Many of them brought a fondness for memories made long ago and a longing for loved ones who made those Christmases and Hanukkahs feel special.
The word nostalgia, in fact, means the pain of returning home, and those wistful feelings are as much a part of the holidays as the popcorn strings that now hang on my own tree. It takes a certain kind of bravery to embrace them, while also making new memories filled with merriment and cheer. That’s an annual ritual we can all take part in.
Happy holidays to all of you, from all of us.
A magical orange
I grew up in an Air Force family that was stationed in England in the late 1950s, early 1960s. England was still recovering from the war, so many food items were either in very short supply or not available. For the holidays, the mess hall on base did their best to create a "traditional" holiday meal. I was only 3 to 6 years old, so I really hadn't developed an idea of traditional. What I remember is being in an enormous room with lots of airmen in army green fatigues. I don’t remember the meal, but every child got a mesh stocking filled with nuts, some candies and the most amazing prize of all — a fresh orange! It was a brilliant pop of color in an otherwise drab world and smelled incredible. My two brothers and I made the oranges last three days as we shared one each day. The intense citrus fragrance as we peeled them was absolutely magical. Our mom showed us how to twist all the peels to extract all the aroma, and we didn't want to wash our hands until the scent had faded. That was 60 years ago now, but I remember the joy of that orange still.
— Robert Godwin
That special cake
One of my most memorable family traditions probably began in the early 1970s: For Christmas morning breakfast, my parents, brother and I enjoyed sweet ruby red grapefruit from the Valley, which had been an annual gift from one of my dad’s colleagues. We also always ate Sara Lee pecan coffee cake and crisp bacon. My family sat around the breakfast table while eating the light meal and opening stocking trinkets before moving into the living room for "The Tree" before enjoying a big homemade holiday lunch. Although my parents passed away long ago, my brother and I each have continued this tradition, despite having many other tastier options. One year, I went to three grocery stores before finding my childhood cake.
— Laura Bustin DaSilva
Grilled cheese and cinnamon rolls
We have two annual holiday food rituals in our family. Our families have always lived far from us, and we usually spend the Christmas season with just the four of us. When we are home, we celebrate a low-key Christmas Eve, dining on tomato basil soup and four-cheese grilled cheese sandwiches — these days we make them with Baguette au Chocolate sourdough bread — then a walk through the neighborhood, then homemade Christmas cookies.
On Christmas, my husband and kids, now young adults, bake homemade cinnamon rolls, which we share with our neighbors that morning. After that, we drink mimosas, open gifts and start preparing a lavish feast that we will eat later.
— Elizabeth Mason
Christmas must have chestnuts. I grew up in the 1950s with our Italian grandmother in our home in Chicago, then in Fort Worth. Adele Batastini told stories of having them in Italy growing up and always roasted them for us. I still cook them every year. I use the pottery chestnut roaster, which my mom gave me about 20 years ago. Most of my family doesn't like them. I call them a "memory food," which is why I must enjoy them each year at Christmastime. I always smile when I hear the verse in the Christmas song about the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire."
— Gail Pitchford
The right ratio
We always have sausage balls for breakfast Christmas morning that we made the day before. They are quick and easy to nibble on while opening presents and will keep hungry tummies happy until brunch. Through the years, I perfected the ratio: 1 pound sausage, 1 1/3 cup biscuit mix and 2 cups cheese. Mix by hand. Cook in a 375-degree oven. Start with a cold cookie sheet. Cook for 9 minutes, then turn the cookie sheet and cook for 9 minutes more on other side.
— Jane A. Miller
Dozens of latkes
For me, it wouldn’t be Chanukah without latkes with applesauce. Also Chanukah gelt. Gelt is Yiddish for money. Chanukah gelt are gold- or silver-foil wrapped chocolates that look like coins.
I make my latkes thin and crispy. Others like them thick, but I find those have undercooked innards. My father was the only one I know who put ketchup on his. Blasphemy! I used to have a big Chanukah party every year and made at least 100 latkes. I spent most of the party making them. Years ago, I found a recipe from the Texas Jewish Post, a weekly publication in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, for freezing them and heating them up. It made for a much easier and more fun party for me.
Put the latkes onto a cookie sheet in a single layer. Put in freezer until frozen. Put into freezer storage bags with parchment paper between layers and store in freezer. To reheat: heat oven to 425 degrees. Put frozen latkes on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Heat for 15 to 20 minutes until hot. So much easier when cooking for a crowd.
— Marsha Wilson
Sharing with others
When I lived in El Paso, my grandmother, a few of her lifelong friends and our families would get together on Christmas Eve and prepare enough food to feed the soldiers at Fort Bliss, which we actually did on occasion! She, my sisters, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, next-door neighbors and lifelong friends would get together at our house, and it would lead to a night of singing Christmas carols, preparing food and eating a midnight dinner. We would make tamales from scratch, rice and beans, enchiladas, pozole, menudo. The table wasn’t nearly long enough to accommodate all of us, so most of the kids would sit in the living room eating and watching TV. After the feast, we would walk around the block, saying hi to the neighbors, singing carols and wishing them a Happy New Year. Most of the kids didn’t really enjoy the walking and singing part, but we knew we’d be opening gifts shortly after. I’m sure quite a few families continue similar traditional Christmas rituals, but I don’t know if it’s as peaceful and simple as it used to be.
— Bob Pena
The best brunch
When my sons were very young, I began fixing a baked ham and cheese brunch sandwich for Christmas morning. They loved it. After doing this for 10 years, I decided to make a change and fix scrambled eggs with sausage. What a mistake that was. They let me know how disappointed they were because they looked forward to it every year. They had their usual brunch the following year and for many years to come. My daughter-in-law has taken over the Christmas brunch tradition, with a gentle nudge from my son. Now, their children look forward to it every Christmas morning. And my sons, to this day, remind me of the big mistake I made that Christmas Day. Never again!
— Esther King
The next generation
Our ritual of eating monkey bread on Christmas and Easter mornings started with great-grandmother Elsie Wilson in Iowa, who had a recipe for cinnamon knots that she used to make Swedish tea rings and cinnamon rolls. Using her recipe, I usually make the pull-apart bread for Christmas and Easter mornings, but in September, my 10-year-old granddaughter, Jocelyn, chose the recipe to prepare for her school’s family history project. It was her first time baking it, which made our tradition even more special.
— Jan Marie Ozias
’We like cheese’
Every Christmas Eve, my family makes cheese fondue. It’s a recipe we’ve perfected over the years, and we all gather around and offer critiques to whomever is in charge of making it that year. It is basically sacred and involves an ungodly amount of Gruyère and Emmental cheese. We usually quadruple the recipe to feed our family. What can I say? We like cheese. This year, my brother suggested some ideas on how to change the family recipe. He got shut down. But then my mom felt bad, so now our compromise is to make three different cheese fondues. And while we were at it, we also decided to add chocolate fondue for dessert. It just wouldn’t be the holidays without it.
— Shannon Miller
When I was growing up in Fort Worth in the 1950s, my mother was a very creative cook and put great effort into our holiday celebrations, with a different menu every year. The one tradition we had was making painted sugar cookies. We would invite friends over to cut and paint cookies and send them home with a cookie plate for their families.
When we moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid-’80s, Andrew was 5. We invited his two best friends over to make cookies and realized they did not know the Christmas carols we always sang as we baked. That is when we realized they were both Jewish! That’s when we added six-point stars to our cutter collection.
My sons, now 38 and 29, loved this tradition and have insisted that we continue even today. When they start their families, I suspect they will pass it on to their children.
— Cathryn Seymour Dorsey
Bacon, eggs and ... pasta?
My early Christmas food memories involve a lot of candied fruit, including a strange uncooked refrigerator fruitcake made with graham cracker crumbs, a baked fruitcake with too-sweet apricot liqueur and Lebkuchen, a German cookie made with candied citron. We'd start making these on Thanksgiving weekend, but I never liked them as much as my mother did.
What I did like was a much later tradition. After hearing Calvin Trillin talk about food on some late-night talk show, my husband and I adopted his Christmas breakfast repast: spaghetti carbonara. What's not to like about bacon, eggs, pasta and cheese? We'd open our presents while drinking strong coffee, then go all out with the spaghetti, fresh orange juice, maybe some fruit- and nut-studded bread, and maybe a glass or three of prosecco. The final Italian touch was our dining soundtrack, a CD called "Movies Go to the Opera." It's a wonderful collection of arias used in various movies. Along with that decadent breakfast, it comprises my favorite holiday food recollection.
— Jennifer Ellis Dinger
Almond toffee forever
Aunt Wilma’s toffee is the herald of Christmas, and the making of it is my personal Christmas rite.
My aunt was widowed, leaving her with a college-age daughter and a young son, about 8. For Christmas, Aunt Wilma always delivered tins of homemade candy to her family and friends. Along with the toffee, she included divinity and fudge, and perhaps some other delights, but the toffee was the candy that I searched for in the tin. Browned butter and chocolate — how could anything be any better?
Aunt Wilma herself was pretty special — she was the center of a large group of both married and widowed friends, loved to play cards and brought laughter and cheer to all family gatherings. Her candy tins continued to arrive in my family’s home long after I was married, and I still loved the toffee so much that I not only wanted the recipe, I wanted to be there and watch while she made it.
She agreed to pull back the curtain, and my cousin Sally, her daughter, also wanted to be part of the demonstration day. We gathered in Aunt Wilma’s kitchen and started melting the butter and sugar. She would test the doneness of the toffee by dropping a few drops of caramelized sugar in a glass of cold water. If it hardened to a glassy brittle, it was done! I also remember that the process took place over several hours, because there are some waiting times — first while things melt and then while things get cool and then while things melt again.
Having mastered the various steps, I began my own Christmas gift-giving tradition. Each fall, I buy 5-pound bags of sugar, several pounds of butter, bags of slivered almonds and so many Hersheyls bars the grocery checker must think I bathe in melted chocolate. And I look for tins of various sizes and colors. I used to tell people they had to return the tins if they wanted almond toffee the next year, but some sneaks would return larger tins than the ones I had given them. There are friends who start asking me in October if the Christmas candy is ready yet. Some accuse me of being a shill for the dentist who will happily fill their sugar induced cavities. Still, I love knowing that their Christmas memories taste like almond toffee, too. So, Aunt Wilma’s tradition goes on, and I cherish the making and the joy of many Christmases past and, I hope, many in the future.
— Paula Smith
5 sticks butter
3 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light Karo
1/2 cup water
2 1/2 cups chopped pecans
12 ounces Hershey’s chocolate (melted in a double boiler)
3/4 cup almonds
Run almonds through blender to make crumbs. Put in pie pan and brown at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Set aside.
In heavy saucepan, melt butter. Add sugar, Karo and water. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. Cook, stirring, until temperature reaches hard crack (300 degrees). Immediately remove from heat, stirring in chopped pecans.
Pour into buttered cookie sheets with 3/4-inch to 1-inch rims. Refrigerate until cold.
Melt Hershey’s chocolate in double boiler. Turn toffee over in pan. Don’t worry if it breaks. You are going to break it up later anyway. Spread melted chocolate on top. Top with browned almonds. Cool. Refrigerate until chocolate hardens. Break into pieces.
I prefer to brown the almonds right before putting on the chocolate top. I think they stick better.
— Paula Smith
Jeff Trigger, president of La Corsha Hospitality Group, has fond childhood memories of his mother’s latkes. Esther was the queen of entertaining during the holidays, he says, baking for days and clearly labeling trays of cookies and cakes with "not for the kids," so there would be plenty to go around for all the guests. However, when it came to latkes, Esther always made sure the kiddos received equal if not better treatment to get first dibs on the traditional Jewish dish. A version of these "with perfectly burnt edges" is sold at Trigger’s restaurant, Sixth and Waller.
Some tips: Grate the Yukon Gold potatoes on the smallest holes, and grate the onion on the largest holes, and serve them fresh out of the pan, or the oven where you are keeping them warm.
— Addie Broyles
2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or other golden potatoes, scrubbed and unpeeled
1 large onion
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour or matzah meal
2 teaspoons of salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
High heat safflower oil, for frying
Peel the potatoes if the skin is coarse. Otherwise, just clean them well. Keep them in cool water until ready to prepare the latkes.
Starting with the onions, alternately grate some of the onions on the large holes of the grater and some of the potatoes on the smallest holes. This will keep the potato mixture from blackening.
Using your fingers, pick up small amounts of the potato mixture by the handful and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Reserve all liquid and allow it to settle in a bowl for a few minutes. Put pressed potato and onion mixture in a clean bowl.
Carefully pour off watery part of the reserved liquid, but do not discard the thick starchy sediment at the bottom of the bowl. Scrape that into the potato mixture.
In a small bowl mix eggs, salt and pepper, and combine with potato mixture. Add matzah meal or flour to batter, starting with 3 tablespoons and adding more, if necessary, until potato mixture has enough body to stick together.
Heat 1/2-inch depth of oil in a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron.
Form potato mixture into pancakes of approximately 3 inches in diameter and drop into oil, taking care not to crowd pancakes.
Fry, turning once until golden on both sides for a total of about 6 minutes. Drain on clean paper towels over a clean brown paper bag. Keep pancakes warm while the rest are frying by placing the cooked, drained pancakes in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes.
Serve with sour cream and applesauce. Serves 8 to 10.
— Adapted from a recipe from Jeff Trigger
Christmas Yule Log
Our favorite family dessert is a yule log. The tradition began in 1980. Our family of four moved from California to Minnesota. Talk about culture and temperature shock! It was the first Christmas our little family was alone with no relatives at all, so we had to make our own new traditions. I tried to think of a festive dessert that young boys, ages 5 and 9, would eat, so nothing with crème de menthe like I had made in previous years for adults. When I found the recipe for the yule log, with chocolate sponge cake, whipped cream and chocolate frosting, I realized it was something all four of us would eat with gusto. I have made it every Christmas since.
— Julie Albrecht
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the filling:
1 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
For the frosting:
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar, add more if necessary for consistency to frost the cake
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 tablespoons milk
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 15-inch-by-10-inch jelly roll pan with aluminum foil or waxed paper and grease the sides of the pan.
In a small bowl, stir together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In small mixer bowl, beat eggs abut 5 minutes or until very thick and lemon colored.
Pour eggs into large mixer bowl; gradually beat in granulated sugar. On low speed, blend in water and vanilla. Gradually add flour mixture, beating just until batter is smooth. Pour into pan, spreading batter to corners.
Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Loosen cake from edges of pan; invert on cloth towel sprinkled with powdered sugar. Carefully remove foil or waxed paper; trim off any stiff edges if necessary.
While hot, roll cake and towel from narrow end. Cool rolled-up cake on wire rack.
Whip the cream with the vanilla and powered sugar until it forms stiff peaks.
When cake is cool, unroll cake and remove towel. Spread whipped cream over cake. Roll up again and place in refrigerator.
Make frosting, and frost cooled cake. When finished, use fork to make lines to look like bark. Garnish with sprigs of holly.
— From "Betty Crocker’s Cookbook"
Festive Fudge Recipe
One of my few food claims to fame is my fudge, which I give to family and friends and take to my beauty shop and my hairdresser every year. It is taken from a recipe out of the newspaper from many years ago and is called Lower Calorie Festive Fudge Recipe, which was advertising Pet Evaporated Skimmed Milk. It’s important not to let the fudge boil over. I use medium heat on a gas stove, but turn it down if it gets close to the top of the pan.
— Kay Pinckney Braziel
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
12 regular marshmallows
1/2 cup butter or margarine
Pinch of salt
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup nuts, chopped (optional)
Mix sugar, evaporated milk, marshmallows, butter and a pinch of salt in a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat to a boil. Mixture will be bubbling all over the top. Boil and stir 5 more minutes. Take off the heat.
Stir in chocolate chips until melted and then add vanilla and nuts, if using. Spread in a buttered 8-inch square pan. Cool and cut into 30 pieces.
— Adapted from a recipe by Pet Evaporated Milk
Sugar Cookie Cinnamon Roll
When our daughter was 2 or 3, we went to see the grandparents in Galveston. I promised fresh cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning breakfast. Well, we got to talking, reminiscing, etc. I totally forgot about those rolls until about 5 a.m. Christmas Day! In a panic I went to my mom’s very well-stocked kitchen and started pulling stuff out of the fridge, pantry, under the tree, everywhere. That year I created my own version of cinnamon rolls. Twenty-plus years and four more kids later, my whole family comes over Christmas morning to get their rolls, even if it is only "drive-thru."
— Lianna Mills
2 cans Pillsbury crescent rolls
1/2 tube sugar cookie dough
1/2 stick butter, cold
For the icing:
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon water or milk (or more)
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out both cans of crescent rolls and pinch seams to make a single sheet of dough. Sprinkle or dollop the cookie dough and butter on top and sprinkle the cinnamon and brown sugar, to taste.
Roll the dough into a log, starting with the short side, and then cut into rounds. Place on cookie sheet. Dollop another bit of butter with more cinnamon on each roll. Bake on 375 degrees until golden brown, about 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the icing. Place the powdered sugar in a glass mixing cup and add 1 teaspoon of water and milk and stir, adding a little more liquid each time until you have a smooth, pourable icing. They will look more like flowers than cinnamon rolls, but they are good!
— Lianna Mills
This is the recipe from the Statesman. We do not use the pecans in the topping, just the sugar. This recipe was a finalist in the 34th Pillsbury Bake-Off in 1990. I might add that while these cookies are still warm, they are so delicious as the middle of the cookie is gooey!
— Janet Tracy
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1 cup margarine or butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans (optional)
1 cup sugar
48 Rolo caramels in milk chocolate, foil removed
Additional sugar, for topping
Heat oven to 375 degrees. In small bowl, combine flour, cocoa and baking soda. Blend well. In large bowl, beat sugar, brown sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs. Beat well. Add flour mixture, a little at a time, Stir in 1/2 cup pecans (optional). For each cookie, with floured hands, shape about 1 tablespoon dough around 1 Rolo, covering completely.
In small bowl, combine remaining 1/2 cup pecans (optional) and 1 tablespoon sugar. Press one side of each ball into pecan mixture. Place sugar side up, 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes or until set and slightly cracked. Cool for 2 minutes; remove from cookie sheet. Cool completely on wire rack.
— Adapted from a Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe by Janet Tracy
Traditions change, traditions remain
When I think about Christmas traditions, I think about how they’ve changed over the years. As a child, Christmas Day was spent with our mother's parents and family in Deanville, Texas. They had a very old simple home, and cooking was done on a wood-burning cook stove. For several years, an older cook stove was outside, and Grandpa was in charge of keeping the fire going as the turkey cooked. The men gathered around and visited until the turkey was done. There was plenty of good food for the meal, and the one thing I remember was Grandma's "teacakes." They were round roll-and-cut sugar cookies sprinkled with colored sugar and baked in that stove for the occasion.
Back in Austin, we did not have a Christmas Day meal. After Mass, we loaded the car and went to Deanville. Mama made cookies, cakes and pies for us. Her recipe for icebox cookies is one I continue to bake.
After the grandparents died, Mama had the Christmas meal at their home. Her homemade noodles in chicken broth were a must-have. She made a lot of sweets, including those icebox cookies.
My husband, Beno, and I have 10 children. Christmas Eve, for a long time, was homemade flour tortillas. I would make the dough, and each child would roll it out. We enjoyed them, even though they were not always round. One year, a son-in-law was there. An engineer, he rolled his tortillas until they were perfectly round.
Our children would help make paintbrush cookies for Christmas. I would make the dough, and they could choose a cookie cutter and then paint the cookies with egg yolk paint before baking.
As our children started school, we would give the teachers homemade goodies for Christmas gifts. I would bake batches of several kinds of cookies and snack mix. Cookies that could be mixed ahead and held in the refrigerator were useful: pistachio cookies, chocolate crinkles, apricot Jell-O icebox cookies were some of our favorites. We continued this until all of them were out of high school.
Our traditions continue to change. Now with over 40 in our immediate family, our married children usually spend Christmas Day with their spouses’ families, and then we choose a day, usually New Year’s Day, to feast and exchange gifts at our country farmhouse. Each shares their special dish for the meal, and the desserts always include icebox cookies.
— Jane Hellinger
My mother received this recipe from a friend sometime in the early 1940s. It was during World War II, and some grocery items were rationed. Her friend had extra brown sugar and gave Mother some so she could make the cookies. We had a cow for the butter, chickens for the eggs and pecan trees. The original recipe included raisins, but Mother omitted them from the recipe. I always use butter, pecan halves and large pieces; this looks good when sliced. I bake them on parchment paper.
— Jane Hellinger
1 cup butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups pecans
Cream butter, and add sugars gradually. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Sift flour with baking soda; add to creamed mixture. Stir in pecans. Form into rolls about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and place on a sheet pan. Cover in waxed paper, and chill until firm. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Slice dough about 1/4-inch thick and bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 12 to 15 minutes until light brown.
— Adapted by Jane Hellinger