Towards the end of November, my mother would start to bake her various batches of holiday cookies while I was growing up. These cookies — Swedish heirlooms, sugar cookies, Bourbon balls (my grandfather’s favorite, they were only for the adults), chocolate chip cookies, pecan butter balls, peanut butter cookies, and more — drew from my mother’s German side of the family, even if the types of cookies themselves gave away our Americanization.
Just as my mother baked cookies, so did her mother before her, and so on. And just as my mother did with my siblings and me as kids, my grandmother would warn my mother and her young sisters not to touch the cookies in the icebox before Christmas — they were special. And even if they were “just” cookies, they were indeed special — the most delicious and memorable part of the holidays during my childhood.
Desserts and sweets are often reserved for the holidays, particularly during this time of the year. I asked a number of chefs, food writers, and food professionals (photographers, videographers, etc.) to share dessert traditions drawing from their childhood memories and backgrounds. Below, you’ll find a number of delicious responses.
Please note that, while the responses are mostly in the first person, they have been edited for clarity and length.
Isa Fabro — Food For The Gods (Philippines)
“I have fond memories of Food for the Gods, a classic Philippine dessert often made during the Christmas season. These date and walnut blondies come wrapped in colorful cellophane, piled high on the dinner table for kids and adults to stuff their pockets. I take this idea and marry it with a traditional fruit cake, studded with luxurious Medjool dates, toasted pecans, and walnuts, all washed with spiced black rum. A final garnish of chocolate and toffee crunch pearls makes it extra special. A slice of this along with your favorite festive drink will make you very merry indeed!”
Jamie Schler — Bûche de Noël (France)
“We are a two-religion, multi-national and multicultural family so holidays are a curious and personal mishmash of our own family traditions, often random and food-related. There are certain foods, usually desserts, though, that my family expects me to make every year and my favorite is the French Christmas Bûche de Noël. It is a genoise or sponge cake roll soaked with spiked syrup, filled with cream, and decorated with ganache, more cream, and sugar Santas or trees, pearls, and crystals. I love trying new flavor combos every year but usually add in seasonal flavors: chocolate, chestnut, citrus, gingerbread. A Bûche is a really festive and spectacular dessert.”
Olga Putiaikina — Honey Cake (Russia)
“Since my birthday is on New Year’s Day, my mom would always make me a honey cake [medovik] to celebrate both holidays. To make it, she would make sponge cake layers, and I help with the buttercream, whipping butter, and condensed milk together until it becomes a fluffy consistency. We decorate the cake with meringue cookies and fresh fruit. She inherited the recipe from my grandmother and has been making it for as long as I can remember.”
Olga Putiaikina is the manager at Los Angeles-based restaurant Paper or Plastik Cafe.
Luqman Barwari — Kade (Kurdish)
“Kade is somewhat regionally specific — the Iraqis, Jewish Kurds, and other neighbors make their own variation, and in Arabic, it is referred to as Koluche.
“The dough is often prepared in bulk and is made out of vegetable oil, flour, salt, and sometimes milk. When the dough is ready, it is stuffed with walnuts, pistachios, almonds, sesame seeds, dates, or coconut flakes. Usually, sugar, cardamom, and cinnamon are added to the stuffing. When visiting your relatives and neighbors to celebrate the holidays, each guest is served tea and coffee with these Kade. Nosh!”
Luqman Barwari is the former owner and chef of Niroj Kurdish Cuisine in Agoura Hills, CA.
Faye Levy — Fruity Chocolate Wine Balls (Israel)
“In my family, chocolate is mandatory for celebrations, no matter what the holiday. Chocolate wine balls with dried fruit have long been favorites of ours. These treats are fun to prepare because they’re so easy to make from pantry staples — chocolate, crumbled cookies, wine, dried fruit, and nuts or coconut for rolling them. Butter helps the chocolates to set, but when we want to make them dairy-free so they are suitable for serving after kosher meals that include meat, we use margarine or what is now called ‘vegan butter.’ Instead of wine, sometimes I use fruit liqueur, rum, or orange juice. Cake crumbs or graham crackers work instead of cookies.”
Faye Levy is the award-winning author of 23 cookbooks and has contributed articles to publications including the Los Angeles Times and the Jerusalem Post along with her husband, Yakir Levy, who photographs the dishes.
Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu — Buñuelos (Mexico)
“I remember my childhood in Jalisco, Mexico, and the Posada — the nine days before Christmas — when we would go nightly from house to house singing carols. Eventually, an owner would let us in and would serve us buñuelos [deep-fried pastries typically sprinkled with cinnamon sugar]. They were so delicious and it was so magical. It’s a favorite memory of mine.”
Stevan Paul — Christstollen and “Christmas Mess” (Germany)
“Christstollen is mentioned for the first time in the late Middle Age, the ‘bread for the feast of the birth’, but at that time it was still a sad affair, without any butter, raisins, or expensive sugar. In its present form and variety, the Saxon Christmas Stollen is one of the most famous German Christmas specialties; its hometown is Dresden.
“It’s traditionally formed like a mountain range and baked in special trays. Raisins, butter, sweet and bitter almonds, orange peel, lemon peel, flour, water, and yeast — these must be part of the dough. Whole milk, sugar, clarified butter, lemon peel, salt, powdered sugar, and stollen spices (like cloves, ginger, cardamom, anise) are also included in individual varieties. Personally, I love Christstollen sliced and spread with butter!”
Stevan Paul is a chef, food and travel journalist, and author of the book Deutschland Vegetarisch.
Christina Xenos — Melomakarona (Greece)
“Melomakarona is one of the most beloved Greek desserts and is traditionally served at Christmastime. It’s a festive cookie — boasting spices like cinnamon and cloves — tender and crumbly, and moist from its final swim in a spiced honey syrup, similar to one that is drizzled over baklava. This recipe comes from my yiayia (grandmother) and namesake Chrysanthe Xenos. When my father was growing up, he used to help her shape them into their signature oval shape, dip them in the honey syrup, and top them with the walnuts. Since they didn’t have a food processor back then, he used to chop all the walnuts with a kitchen knife and then use a rolling pin to further break down the chopped nuts until they were the perfect size to top the cookies.”
Christina Xenos is a professional chef, cookbook author, recipe developer, journalist, and owner of Sweet Greek Personal Chef Services. She is based in Los Angeles.
Kirk McKoy — Sweet Potato Pudding (Jamaica)
“My grandma was from Jamaica, the family matriarch and — in my view — a most amazing cook. Her ingredients were simple and were mostly grown on the family farm.
“One of the crops produced on the farm was sweet potato. The ‘Batata’ as they are called in Jamaica, or ‘Jamaican sweet potato,’ is an interesting variety. Thick, light-green vines produce heart-shaped, dark-green leaves with trumpet-like blooms of pink and violet popping up within. The major difference between the batata and sweet potato we see in stores is that the batata has white flesh and sweet potatoes have a yellow to orange-colored flesh.
“The Jamaican sweet potato is the main ingredient in my grandma’s amazing Jamaican Sweet potato pudding recipe, my personal favorite. I am running the risk of being excommunicated from the family for sharing the recipe, but in her memory, I hope y’all try it and love it as much as I do! Nyam (Eat-N-Enjoy).”
Clémence de Lutz — Tarte Rouche Amandier (France)
“Almonds, lavender, honey, and puff pastry were the building blocks of my Bonne Maman’s most beloved dessert. The Tarte Rouche Amandier, a towering, deconstructed (by necessity, rather than by design) ice-cream topped dish was on the dessert cart at every service. Long after seasonal cooks were brought on to ‘man’ the kitchens at my grandparents’ restaurant, the dessert she created using local almonds, honey, and caramelized puff pastry stayed on the menu.”
Clémence de Lutz is a pastry chef and co-owner of The Gourmandise School in Santa Monica, CA.
Melomakarona (Greek Honey Walnut Cookies) (Christina Xenos)
Yields about 80-100 cookies
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- Orange or lemon peel
- 1 tablespoon orange or lemon juice
- 1 cup honey
In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the sugar, water, cinnamon, cloves, citrus peel, and juice. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved, then continue boiling over medium heat for 10 minutes. Stir in the honey and remove from heat. Cool the syrup to at least room temperature or below, then strain out the cloves and peel. This can be made in advance.
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 7 to 8 cups flour, divided
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup neutral oil (EVOO, grapeseed, canola, etc)
- 1 cup vegetable shortening
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 cup orange juice (from about 2 large oranges), plus their zest (optional)
- 2 ounces whiskey or bourbon
- Prepared Honey Syrup
- Additional honey, for drizzling (optional)
- 2 cups ground walnuts
- In a bowl, combine the baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, and salt with 1 cup of flour. Set aside.
- In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter, oil, and shortening until light and fluffy. With the mixer running, beat in the sugar, egg yolks, orange juice, and zest (if using), along with the whiskey. Beat until creamy and white. Add in the flour/spice mixture and combine.
- Gradually continue adding more flour until a soft dough starts to form and pulls away from the side of the mixing bowl. Once it pulls away, stop adding flour. You don’t want the dough to be too stiff, or the cookies will be tough. You likely will not use all the flour. Cover the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour to rest.
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Form the cookies by taking a tablespoon of dough and rolling it in your hands to form an oval shape. Place the cookies 1 inch apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake until the cookies are light brown on the bottom, 20 to 30 minutes.
- Remove the cookies from the oven. Poke 3 holes in the middle of each using a toothpick. Allow them to rest for a few minutes; then carefully submerge batches of them in the syrup for 10 to 15 seconds. Remove using a slotted spoon, and arrange in a single layer on a wire rack. Top the cookies with an extra drizzle of honey (optional) and the ground walnuts.
- Cool the cookies completely. Store, covered with plastic wrap or in a covered container. The cookies should keep for up to a month, but you’ll probably eat them all before then.
Note: From Chef Christina Xenos.
Kirk McKoy’s Jamaican Sweet Potato Pudding
About 2 ½ hours. Serves 12 to 16
- 5 pounds sweet potato
- 3 cups dark brown sugar
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup raisins, optional
- 1 (1.75 ounce, or 50 gram) packet coconut milk powder, preferably Grace brand
- 5 cups water
- 1/4 cup margarine, melted, preferably Grace brand
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or ¾ teaspoon freshly grated
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
- 1 tablespoon white rum, preferably Appleton
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 teaspoon Grace Browning, optional (but recommended)
- Whipped cream, for serving
- Sliced lime, for garnish
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit or 180 degrees Celsius. Grease a 12-inch by 9-inch baking pan.
- Wash, peel cut, and grate the sweet potatoes into a large mixing bowl (you should have about 12 cups). Stir in the brown sugar, flour, and raisins (if using).
- In a separate bowl, combine the coconut milk powder with the water, mix well, and add to the sweet potato mixture.
- Stir in the melted margarine, nutmeg, salt, cinnamon powder, vanilla, rum, lime juice, and browning and mix well.
- Spoon the mixture into the greased pan and bake until set, 1 ½ to 1 ¾ hours. Remove to a rack.
- Serve the pudding warm or cool, with a dollop of whipped cream and a thin slice of lime for garnish.
Note: From Kirk McKoy.
Tarte Ruche Amandier (Clémence de Lutz)
About 1 hour, plus cooling and chilling times. Serves 8 to 10
Rough Puff Pastry
- 2 cups (240 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 8 ounces (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- ⅓ cup (80 grams) very cold water
- If using a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar, and salt for a few seconds. If you’re doing this by hand, simply mix them to disperse the salt and sugar well.
- Add your butter and pulse until you no longer hear the large chunks bouncing around. This should take between 10 and 12 quick pulses. If doing this by hand, use your palms to streak the flour-coated butter into long, thin streaks. Cut or rub the butter pieces down to about the size of your thumbnail.
- It’s time to add the water! Pour into the food processor as you pulse, just until the dough starts to come together in clumps. If doing this by hand, pour the water in and using your hands as large scoops, gather and incorporate the water to create a shaggy dough.
- Gently gather the dough into a flat disc and wrap tightly. Chill for at least 45 minutes and make your filling right away; it’ll need some time to chill as well.
Honey Almond Filling
- ½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
- ¼ cup (55 grams) brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 cup (240 grams) heavy cream
- 1 ½ cups (105 grams) sliced almonds
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- In a heavy saucepan, bring the sugar, brown sugar, honey, and water to a simmer. Add the cream and cook down over medium heat until noticeably thicker (240 degrees Fahrenheit, if you have a thermometer).
- Remove the pan from heat and stir in the nuts, salt, and flour until well combined. Pour onto a cookie sheet to cool completely.
Tarte Ruche Amandier Assembly
- Prepared Puff Pastry dough
- ¼ cup black currant jam, optional
- Prepared Honey Almond Filling
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Vanilla ice cream, for serving
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
On a lightly floured surface, roll your dough out to about a 14-inch round. Place this circle on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (it will be bigger than your cookie sheet). Spoon the black currant jam, if using, onto the center of the dough. Spread the almond mixture over the jam, leaving the outer 2 inches of dough uncovered. Fold the edges of your dough over the filling and brush the folded-over edges with heavy cream.
Place immediately into the oven, turning the oven down to 375 degrees after 10 minutes. Depending on your oven, this tart should take 25 to 35 minutes to bake to a lovely golden color.
- Serve with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Note: From chef Clémence de Lutz.
Noelle Carter is a chef, food writer, and culinary consultant at Noelle Carter Food. She was the longtime Test Kitchen director and food writer at the Los Angeles Times and a longtime contributor to “The Splendid Table,” a nationally-syndicated radio program from American Public Media. A native Southern Californian, she also holds a degree in film from the University of Southern California. Follow Noelle on Twitter @noellecarter.
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