Christmas Stories, Told in Food

December 18, 2018 Updated: December 19, 2018

The holidays are a time for family and food, and for carrying on the traditions that continue to bring them together throughout the generations. The festive foods that grace our tables this time of year can be especially evocative—the particular crumble of a cookie calls to mind a home country an ocean away, a whiff of warm spices is a time machine to grandma’s house.

To spread that seasonal magic, chefs from around the country—and across the pond—share their families’ most cherished Christmas traditions in the kitchen.

A Very German Christmas

By Karl Guggenmos, Global Master Chef
Senior culinary adviser, Healthy Meals Supreme
Providence, Rhode Island

Cooking together is one of my cherished traditions from early childhood in Germany, and continues today with my own family, kids, and grandkids. Some of my fondest memories are of my mom’s (Mutti’s) preparation for the holidays, specifically her baking of the most traditional Christmas bread: the famous stollen (pronounced SHTOH-luhn).

This bread, made from a yeast dough and containing delicious ingredients such as almonds, marzipan (almond paste), currants soaked in rum, candied orange, and lemon rinds, as well as fresh butter, is a signature dish of German Christmas feasts.

It was first introduced in the 14th century to honor church dignitaries; the most prominent was when Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, commissioned an oversized stollen to be baked for the Christmas season. Today, the most well-known type of stollen is the Dresden stollen—named for the capital city of Saxony—containing fair amounts of butter and marzipan.

Times were not easy for us in the ’50s. Germany was still recovering from the effects of World War II, and while my dad had good work and my mom was a seamstress, money was tight. But for Christmas, my parents always went all the way; as expensive as the ingredients for stollen were, my mom baked at least 10 of them.

She would start in early December, because stollen needs to rest for several weeks to develop the right texture. She would gather the ingredients as she got the money, and when all was in place, she would bake. As soon as I was about 6 years old, I would help, more or less.

It took days to bake all 10, and lots of ingredients. We had a very small wood- and coal-fired oven and no refrigerator, and everything had to be made, mixed, and kneaded by hand. After the stollens were baked, they would be placed in wooden boxes, covered, and kept until Christmas Eve.

The first slice would be served after the Christmas gifts were opened. Germans and many other Europeans share gifts on Christmas Eve, believing the tradition of the Christ child (Christkind) bringing gifts under the Christmas tree at night, followed by a nice meal.

Christmas Day was another feast day, cooking goose, potato dumplings, and lots of other food. At 3 p.m., we had coffee with stollen and whipped cream. This was served all throughout Christmas week, up to New Year’s, and into January.

Now, I have continued this tradition in my own family. I bake stollens every year. My kids are grown and have moved to different cities, but I bake in the beginning of December and ship them to my kids. I also bake with my granddaughters, if the opportunity arrives.

In this day and age, when family traditions have taken a backseat and are no longer a priority, it is high time we get back to appreciate the great impact they have or had on our lives. Traditions as a whole are under attack and considered old-fashioned, but in my opinion, they have supported healthy family living and a stable mental attitude, and safeguarded against life’s pressures.

Traditions such as this bring and keep families together. I will continue to do so, hoping that once I’m gone, my kids will continue them.

The Guggenmos Family Stollen Recipe

Prep time, including proofing: 3 hours

Makes 3 loaves

For the fruit:

  • 3 cups of fruitcake blend candied fruit, including raisins, candied orange, and lemon peel
  • 1 cup sliced or slivered almonds
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons rum

For the dough:

  • 1 tablespoon dry yeast
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup dry milk
  • 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup golden cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pinch each mace, cardamom, and cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling and topping:

  • 1/4 cup marzipan, divided in three portions
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

Mix all fruit ingredients together.

Combine all dough ingredients in stand mixer bowl and knead for 3 minutes with dough hook. Add fruit ingredients and slowly incorporate into dough. Set dough aside for 1 1/2 hours in a warm place and let it proof to double size.

Remove dough onto working table and form into 3 flat, oval loaves. Roll each portion of marzipan into a tube the length of the loaves. Place 1 tube in the middle of each loaf, and fold dough over it to make an oval-shaped loaf. Place on greased baking sheet and let proof for 30 to 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place baking sheet in oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. Store in a box for at least 2 weeks before eating, to allow full flavor, moisture, and texture development.

Recipe courtesy of Karl Guggenmos

Christmas baking
Christmas baking background with fir tree made from kitchen utensils, cookies, spices, cinnamon sticks, anise stars on rustic baking tray, top view – Image. (Shutterstock)

Notes From Great Grandma’s Cookie Files

By Kim Alter
Chef and owner, Nightbird
San Francisco

I would say we weren’t the most “in the kitchen at the holidays” kind of a family, but we would always make cookies from my great-grandma’s recipes. Most of them stem from Romanian vanilla walnut cookies. I still have the note cards with her writing and the old-school cookie cutters. I only make them at Christmas, and it brings up memories from when I was a child.

My great-grandma would make these cookies every year. She would fly to California to spend Christmas with us. In the kitchen, it would be my great-grandma, my grandma, and my mom; I would normally just decorate. All the recipes came from my great-grandpa’s mother, and this tradition has been occurring since before I was born.

I try to make the cookies every year, and when the restaurant takes over my life, my mom bakes them and brings them to me and my staff. (Then she’ll make taco salad and deviled eggs for the staff too.) I try to bring them to the farmers market on the Saturday before Christmas too. It was pretty hectic last year, so my mom flew up for Christmas and half her luggage was cookies, since I didn’t have time to make any. Moving forward, I am trying to have a better work-life balance.

We continue the tradition to spend time together. Both my mom and I have crazy lives and it is very hard to get together, so when we do get time together, we want to actually be present with each other. Baking is always fun. My mom went blind a few years ago, but luckily had surgery that restored her vision in one eye, so we want to make sure we make memories that she can always remember, especially if her vision fails again.

Great Grandma’s Horns

Makes about 25 cookies

For the dough:

  • 1/2 pound butter, unsalted
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 pound sour cream
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling:

  • 1 pound ground nuts (we like almonds, or traditionally, walnuts)
  • 1/3 pound raisins (I personally leave this out when I make them!)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 egg whites, for brushing the cookies
  • Powdered sugar, for coating

Mix the ingredients for the dough like a pie crust. It will be crumbly when you are first mixing it, but it comes together in the end. Refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix all the ingredients for the filling. Set aside.

Take the dough out of the refrigerator, roll thin, and cut into 2-inch squares. Take a square, place filling in a corner, and roll into a horn shape. Brush with egg whites. Repeat with remaining squares.

Bake on a greased sheet for 18 to 21 minutes, rotating every 7 minutes, until very light golden brown. Let cool and sprinkle powdered sugar over the top.

Recipe courtesy of Kim Alter

Christmas Fruitcake, Caribbean-Style

By Nina Compton
Chef and owner, Compère Lapin
New Orleans

Growing up on St. Lucia, Christmas was a month-long event. Everyone would house-hop around the neighborhood and enjoy each family’s special treat. For my family, it was always Caribbean black fruit cake and my dad’s milk punch.

Black fruit cake is a traditional holiday dessert in St. Lucia and on other islands. My grandmother and mother would make the cake and I would always help. The type of liquor you use depends on what island you’re from. We use sherry, but you can also use a dark rum or a brandy. The fruit is soaked in the sherry, and the combination of the fruits, allspice, nutmeg, and sherry just screams Christmas.

My dad always made his milk punch to accompany the cake—so needless to say, stopping by our house was a lot of fun! Unlike milk punches in the States, which typically use brandy, on the island, they’re made with rum.

The cake and punch just remind me of all things family holiday. I continue to make the cake every year during the holidays, and will actually be putting it on the Christmas family-style menu this year at Compère Lapin.

Caribbean Black Fruit Cake

Makes a 1-pound cake

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • Zest of 1 lime
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 pound dried fruit (dates, apricots, cranberries, raisins, etc.) soaked in rum or wine (usually a sherry, or can use brandy), half of it pureed (see note)
  • 1 1/2 cup molasses
  • Pinch rosewater (optional)

Note: If you do not have fruit that has already been soaking for a few days or months, such as store-bought bourbon soaked cherries, you can boil the dried fruit in wine to speed up the soaking process.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cream butter and sugar together until well incorporated and the mixture drops off a spatula or spoon.

Sift together flour, baking powder, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

Add eggs, one at a time, to butter and sugar mixture, incorporating thoroughly. Add lime juice, lime zest, vanilla, dried fruit, wine, molasses, and rosewater (if using) and mix well. Add all sifted dry ingredients slowly and mix until it comes together. Do not overmix.

Pour batter into a greased bundt cake pan. Bake 30 to 45 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool down in pan, then turn over to remove cake.

Recipe courtesy of Nina Compton

Korean Pancakes for Santa

By Judy Joo
Chef patron and owner, Jinjuu Restaurant
London

Every Christmas, we have a rather international gastronomic spread on the table. One very traditionally Korean item that my sister and I make every year is hotteok, a type of flat, stuffed “donut.” We even leave some out alongside cookies and milk for Santa for his midnight snack.

This slightly chewy donut is made with glutinous rice flour, which gives it an addictive, toothsome quality. It’s pan-fried to a gorgeous golden brown, making for a delightful crispy crust to bite through before hitting a sweet, gooey, molten core. The filling can vary; feel free to stuff in anything from chocolate, to nuts, to praline, etc. My favorite, which has become a staple on my restaurant’s menu, is salted caramel studded with roasted peanuts.

Hotteok is a common street food snack in Korea, and is often sold near subway stations. I remember waiting in the cold for one, watching anxiously while they were delicately fried before my eyes and then handed to me in a folded newspaper or paper cup. Waiting to bite into it was the hard part, as they were so hot, the filling would burn your tongue if you were not careful. My parents brought the love of this snack back home with us, and my mom used to fill it with classic Korean winter ingredients such as cinnamon-spiced pine nuts, brown sugar, dried persimmons, and jujubes for the Christmas season.  

My mom started this tradition simply because she longed for that taste of home, so far away from it in New Jersey. Now my sister and I do most of the cooking, and change the fillings every year for fun. This year, I think we will stuff our hotteoks with various seeds and nuts mixed with salted caramel, served with vanilla ice cream and sprinkled with crushed pretzels.  

Judy Joo’s Salted Caramel Pancakes, Hotteok

Makes 10 hotteok

For the dough:

  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 packet (7 grams) instant yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 cup sweet rice flour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt

For the filling:

  • 1/2 cup firmly packed muscovado sugar
  • 1/2 cup peanuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Tip: If you can’t find muscovado sugar, use dark brown sugar. The pancakes will still be delicious.

For the dough: In a very small saucepan, heat the milk to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove from heat, add the sugar and yeast, and whisk until they have dissolved. Let stand in a warm place for 3 to 5 minutes, or until bubbling, to activate the yeast.

In a large bowl, combine the bread flour, rice flour, cornstarch, and salt. Slowly stir in the warm milk mixture until a sticky dough forms. Shape the dough into a ball in the bottom of the bowl and cover the bowl with a clean damp kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Punch it down and let it rise until doubled in size again, about 1 1/2 hours more.

For the filling: Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the muscovado sugar, peanuts, cinnamon, and salt.

After the dough has risen a second time, dust a clean work surface with flour and turn the dough out onto it. Dust the top of the dough with some more flour and knead it a few times. Shape the dough into a fat, long log.

Cut the dough into 10 equal pieces, shape each piece into a ball, set on the floured work surface, and cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Dusting with flour as needed to prevent sticking, press a dough ball into a 4-inch-wide disc using your fingertips. Make sure the disc is uniformly thick so the finished pancake will be evenly filled with caramel.

Put the disc in your hand and slightly cup it. Spoon 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the filling into the center of the disc. Seal the disc closed by wrapping the dough around the filling and pinching the edges together at the top. Once sealed, reshape gently to form a ball, set with the seam side down on the floured work surface, and cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining dough balls and filling.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Put 2 or 3 dough balls seam-side down in the skillet and immediately flatten them with a spatula to a width of about 4 inches. Reduce the heat to medium-low and fry the pancakes until golden brown and crispy on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip them and cook until slightly springy to the touch, 3 to 4 minutes more.

Transfer the pancakes to a wire rack or paper towel-lined plate when done. Repeat with the remaining dough balls, wiping the skillet clean and adding fresh oil for each batch. Let the pancakes cool slightly before serving. It’s easy to burn yourself in your haste to gobble these up, as the insides are hot and oozing.

Recipe reprinted with permission from Korean Food Made Simple” by Judy Joo. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

A Pot of Mexican Punch

By Richard Sandoval
Chef and owner, Maya
New York City

My grandmother used to make ponche navideño and share it with family and friends during the holidays. I remember she’d have a large pot simmering and it made the entire house smell delicious from the warming spices used in the recipe. It was the perfect drink to savor with her homemade tamales and mole dishes. I love the recipe because it’s great for kids and adults alike—you can serve it plain for the kids or with an extra kick of tequila or rum for the adults!

There are many different variations of ponche navideño, but they all have sugar (or piloncillo), various local fruits, and warming spices (like anise). In addition to being a traditional home recipe during the holidays in Mexico, local market vendors will sell it out of steaming cylindrical vats, which have the most incredible smell that wafts through the streets.

Ponche navideño always reminds me of my childhood “posadas,” or the nine days of fiestas leading up to Christmas with family and friends. It reminds me that food brings people together—which is why I love what I do and continue to recreate these traditional recipes today.

Ponche Navideño (Mexican Christmas Punch)

  • 1 red apple, peeled, cored, and sliced
  • 1/2 mango, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup cranberries
  • 1 cup pineapple, diced
  • 4–5 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 6 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 cups water
  • 6 ounces blanco tequila
  • 1 cinnamon stick, for garnish
  • 1 whole star anise, for garnish

Combine all ingredients except tequila, cinnamon stick, and star anise in a large pot. Simmer over medium heat for 45 minutes and reduce down to about 12 to 14 ounces. Allow mixture to cool and mix in the tequila. Refrigerate and serve over ice. Garnish with cinnamon stick and star anise.

Recipe courtesy of Richard Sandoval

Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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