Chefs Get Nostalgic Over Favorite Holiday Dishes NPR asked four chefs to divulge the dish that most reminds them of the holidays. Atlanta-based food chemist Shirley Corriher says her favorite is her grandmother's sweet potato pudding, while Dorie Greenspan thinks fondly of gingerbread cookies -- and what happened when her son was young.
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Chefs Get Nostalgic Over Favorite Holiday Dishes

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Chefs Get Nostalgic Over Favorite Holiday Dishes

Chefs Get Nostalgic Over Favorite Holiday Dishes

Chefs Get Nostalgic Over Favorite Holiday Dishes

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/132292741/132311313" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table, says she used to make gingerbread cookies as decorations for the Christmas tree. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table, says she used to make gingerbread cookies as decorations for the Christmas tree.

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Over the past year, NPR has covered the merits of the summer tomato, the glories of stuffed pumpkin, why your zucchini bread is flat, and why you just need to chill out when your chicken breast sticks to the pan.

So why should Christmas be any different? NPR asked four of the chefs who enlightened us this year to tell us about the dish that most reminds them of the holidays.

For Atlanta-based food chemist Shirley Corriher, author of Bakewise, it's her grandmother's sweet potato pudding.

"It's an old, old recipe," she says. "Not like the souffle -- that's more modern. It makes a very rich-looking deep golden-brown dish, similar to very, very fine hash browns."

Corriher's sweet potato pudding is flavored by ginger and brown sugar. She says she remembers her grandmother grating the sweet potatoes by hand.

"It used to be a real chore," she says. "Today, you just throw some chunks in the food processor and zip zip zip!"

Another chef, Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table, laughs when talking about gingerbread cookies, the food that reminds her most of the holidays.

Share Your Dreaded Holiday Dishes

Now it's your turn, but we don't want to hear about the good stuff. We want to hear about dreaded holiday dishes: the ones that kept showing up, year after year. Dishes nobody loved, like the yam souffle drowning in Jack Daniel's, mashed potatoes with peeled hot dog bits, and the mincemeat pie made from real venison — venison that was put in the freezer 18 years ago.

Tell us about it in the comments below. We'll share some of your stories on All Things Considered.

"I decided when our son was about 2 or 3 that I would use these gingerbread cookies as decorations for the Christmas tree," she says. "And I made little holes in them and tied them to the tree with ribbon and had decorated them with royal icing and had names on them and little messages on them. And they were so cute."

The day after she hung them, Greenspan says, she had a friend and her little girl visit. Both mothers were chatting away with each other when they looked over at the tree.

"There were our two little kids, lying on their backs, munching on whatever were the lowest cookies they could get to," Greenspan says. "It was totally adorable, but I never put low-hanging cookies on a tree again."

Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, co-owners of Frankie's Spuntino in Brooklyn, N.Y., remember heavy meals and light desserts for Christmas. Castronovo's grandparents would always have lasagna, seven or eight layers, made fresh that day.

And then there were the grain pies. Both Franks remember these.

"They were basically barley pies with a very light citrus custard in there with a light thin pastry with latticework on top and baked off until they were crispy on the top then soft and moist on the inside," Falcinelli says. "After having a big meal at Christmas, you could kind of nip at that, have a thin slice of the grain pie and then rate it from last year's grain pie -- if it was good, if the barley was overcooked, if it was too lemony. It's hard to be a cook in an Italian family, because everybody has their opinions."

"Everybody thinks they can do it better," Castronovo adds. "They don't realize how much work it is."

Old-Fashioned Grated Sweet Potato Pudding

Makes 8 servings

1 pound sweet potatoes, 2 large or 3 small, peeled and cut into chunks

1/2 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground ginger

3 tablespoons cornmeal

1 large egg

2 large egg yolks

1 cup heavy or whipping cream

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (163 degrees C). Spray a 9x6x3-inch casserole with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Finely chop the sweet potatoes to the texture of large rice in several batches in a food processor with the steel knife using on/off pulses. Mix together the sweet potatoes, brown sugars, salt, ginger and cornmeal in a large mixing bowl. Stir the egg, egg yolks, cream and vanilla into the sweet potato mixture.

3. Pour into the casserole and bake for 15 minutes. Stir from the outside to the middle (see Note). Continue baking and stir again after 10 minutes. Cook until lightly browned and just set, about 40 minutes in all. Can be served hot or at room temperature.

Note: The typical problems of a baked casserole are that the edges tend to overcook and get dry before the center is done. My grandmother minimized the problem by stirring twice during cooking before the custard set firmly. Another solution is to use Bake-Even Strips, which are strips soaked in water that evaporates during cooking to cool the sides of the pan.

From CookWise

Speculoos (Gingerbread Cookies)

If you want to decorate a Christmas tree with these cookies, cut out larger pieces of dough in any shape you wish. Before baking, cut small holes in the dough, so that you'll be able to run ribbon or string through them to hang the cookies. If the holes close a bit during baking, recut them as soon as the cookies come out of the oven.

For munching, the cookies need nothing more than coffee, tea or milk. But if you want to dress them up, put some royal icing into a piping bag fitted with a small writing tip and go to town.

These cookies keep really well, making them perfect to pack up in tins and give as Christmas presents.

Makes about 70 cookies

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 (packed) cup light brown sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

Whisk the flour, salt, baking soda and spices together in a bowl.

Working in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with a hand mixer in a bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until creamy. Add the sugars and continue to beat until well blended, about 2 minutes; beat in the egg. With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions, mixing only until the flour disappears into the soft dough. You may have some flour at the bottom of the bowl or the dough may not be entirely smooth, but that's normal. Using your hands (always my first choice) or a spatula, reach into the bowl and knead or stir the dough 2 or 3 times, just enough to eliminate any dry spots. Divide the dough in half. (The dough is very soft, even after you refrigerate it for several hours, so if your kitchen is hot, you might want to divide the dough into thirds -- that way it won't take you as long to cut out the cookies and the dough won't soften as much.)

Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll the dough between two sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap until you have a circle that's a scant 1/4-inch thick. As you're rolling, turn the dough over a couple of times and pull away the paper or plastic, so you don't end up rolling creases into the dough. Put the rolled-out rounds of dough on a tray or cutting board and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. (If it's more convenient for you, you can freeze the dough for up to 2 months.)

When you're ready to bake, center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.

Choose a cookie cutter -- I like to use a scalloped cutter that's 1 1/4-inches in diameter -- and remove one circle of dough from the refrigerator. Peel off the top piece of wax paper or plastic and cut out as many cookies as you can from the dough, carefully lifting the cut-outs onto the lined baking sheets. Collect the scraps and set them aside to combine with the scraps from the second piece of dough.

Bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are lightly golden and just slightly brown around the edges. Allow the cookies to rest on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack to cool to room temperature.

Repeat with the second round of dough, making certain the baking sheet is cool before you put the cut-outs on it. To use the scraps, press them together, roll them into a circle and chill before cutting and baking.

Storing: Kept in an airtight container, the cookies will be fine for a week or more.

Adapted from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)