Remembrance of Holidays Past

Gourmet Girl - December 4, 2013

"For me, food played a huge role in every holiday..."

Lynn with her mother, Patricia (1965).

Growing up, holidays were always the highlight of the year for me. What kid doesn't love the thrill of baking Christmas cookies, lighting the menorah, making garlands from construction paper, stringing cranberries and popcorn to hang on the tree, wrapping carefully chosen presents and anticipating the joy they bring when opened?

For me, food played a huge role in every holiday, from the pies and cookies my mother and I baked together for Thanksgiving and Christmas to the incredibly decadent cannolis my grandfather brought for Easter from an Italian bakery in Philadelphia. I loved baking chocolate chip cookies and decorating gingerbread men for Christmas as a kid, then later, as a teen, assembling rum balls, mincemeat for pies, Mexican wedding cookies, French macarons studded with dried fruit and Christmas plum pudding with a rum frosting.

My mom was a whiz in the kitchen, a natural, whose homemade barbecue sauce and broiled tomatoes with parmesan cheese, salt and garlic had everyone who tasted them begging for the recipe. To my great dismay, my mom's barbecue sauce recipe was never written down and I never thought to ask her for it before she passed away from cancer in 1991. I've tried to recreate it countless times, but there's some secret ingredient I'm always missing.

My mother came from a family of cooks. Her grandmother, who raised her as a young child, was from Virginia, and her cooking was steeped in the flavors of the South. My mom often used her grandmother's recipes for potato salad, chow chow, fried chicken homemade cakes and that barbecue sauce everyone raved about whenever they tasted it. But my mom explored new territories, which weren't available to her grandmother.

Julia Child, for instance, pioneered a brave new world for American cooks in the '60s with the publication of her seminal book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and my mother was one of her fans. She'd cook all sorts of French dishes out of that cookbook, from cheese and chocolate souffles to roast chicken and beef bourguignon. My favorite was the Chocolate Reine cake, which she'd make for dinner parties my parents used to throw when my brother and I were growing up. I searched high and low for that recipe after my mother had passed away, mistakenly thinking it was a flourless chocolate cake. I found it one year when I was looking for a recipe for my husband's birthday cake and found it in the pages of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It wasn't flourless, but it called for pulverized almonds and was frosted with a rich, thick mixture of buttercream, coffee and chocolate. It's the best cake I've ever made.

Holidays in my family revolved around food, whether chopping onions and sauteing them with bread cubes and celery salt for stuffing or basting the turkey for hours as it turned a deep, golden brown. My brother would help make the mashed potatoes, and my dad would sharpen the knives, until we purchased an electric knife sharpener that still works to this day. Some years, it was ham—maple-glazed and honey-sweet—or roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. I remember one Thanksgiving when I was a teenager and my mother had invited a visiting professor at Princeton University from China, who was alone, without his family. He had never experienced an American Thanksgiving before, and his bafflement at what to do with all the food piled high on his plate was sweetly amusing. He did manage to clean his plate...

Every Christmas Eve, my parents would host an open house, and we'd spend days baking cookies and making pies in preparation. On the day of the party, my father would start the Glögg,Swedish drink he discovered during his days as a graduate student in Lund, Sweden, where I was born. A potent libation, Glögg, is made with claret, pork, aquavit and spices, including cloves and cardamom. It's simmered for hours, and one drink will keep you buzzed all night. My mom made another Swedish Christmas tradition, Janssen's Frestelse, a rich dish of baked sliced potatoes, onions, cheese and anchovies.

For Christmas breakfast, we'd have my mom's perfect scrambled eggs, bacon and English muffins while opening presents beneath the tree in the living room. Or maybe Entenmann's coffee cake, heated up with butter. Christmas dinner usually featured a roast turkey, buttery and golden brown, along with a simple bread and onion stuffing seasoned with celery salt, mashed potatoes and gravy, canned cranberry sauce, green beans and Parker dinner rolls. For dessert, mom's special mincemeat pie, which my brother and I didn't eat much of, along with pumpkin pie and homemade Christmas cookies.

No matter what was on the menu, everything was always homemade (except for the cranberry sauce and Parker rolls), and today, as I recreate the dishes in my own kitchen, rolling out pie crusts, shaping rum balls, sauteing onions for stuffing and basting a beautiful, golden brown turkey, I recall those special holiday dinners all those years ago, with loved ones—some now absent but always in my heart.

I'm sure that you have wonderful memories of food from your holidays growing up. I'd love to hear about them. Feel free to share in the Comments below.