To look at supermarket endcaps, one would think holiday tables are a beige monolith of turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes. But the reality is that in many households, winter feasts are full of edible idiosyncrasies — preserved cultural traditions, inside jokes, and the occasional unexpected delight that someone brought one year on a whim and is now a must-have item.
Ask around, as I did when I posed the question on Facebook. People happily volunteered the ways they've put their own stamp on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dan Buskirk's South Jersey uncle always begins their meal with a just-for-him serving of waffles with turkey gravy. Bonnie Widger grew up assuming everyone made stuffing the way her family did — spiked with pineapple juice and pineapple chunks, baked in a casserole dish and topped with pineapple rings. In a completely different twist, Jan Young says her crew always has a crab dinner the day after Thanksgiving, replete with paper-covered tables. It gives loved ones another chance to gather but a break from the heavier foods from the previous day.
Many of the most offbeat-sounding holiday eating customs have a historical precedent, harkening back to olden times in the U.S. Think scalloped oysters, British suet pudding, and mincemeat anything. At Alison Korein Novak's family gatherings, their Ohio-born grandmother's onion pudding topped with bread crumbs makes an annual appearance. The retro relish tray lives on in my husband's Aunt Sandy Felder's celery salad, which she in turn adopted from her mother.
Other families bring a piece of their own heritage to the proceedings. Italian American families are famous for slinging trays of baked ziti, manicotti, and lasagna as (let's face it) more flavorful accompaniments, and Jewish American families often have a bowl of chicken soup with either matzo balls or homemade noodles/dumplings. (Also good, by the way, to make with the leftover turkey carcass.)
Joe Kim's Korean American Thanksgiving meal has always included pungent and spicy kimchi and dubu jjigae, served after the turkey and stuffing are cleared away as a palate wake-up call. Margie Gelbwasser's Russian relatives customarily serve a salad called vinaigrette made with beets, pickles, potatoes, and peas. Dina Cohen, a vegetarian of Swiss Moroccan heritage, brings North African spiced carrots to her holiday potlucks.
The Brussels sprouts we usually eat with chestnuts or bacon this time of year are reimagined as a Polish classic with the Bercy chef Joseph Monnich's galumpkis, a recipe that goes back to his childhood. Instead of the traditional cabbage, his grandmother would stuff individual sprouts with a ground-meat-and-rice filling. The roasted vegetables are then bathed in a sweet tomato sauce.
"It started actually as kind of a joke," Monnich said. "But it caught on because we loved them. We'd eat them as a funny appetizer before the turkey was served. I started making them myself about two years ago as a Thanksgiving potluck dish and they were a big hit, so I will do them again."
Bobby Saritsoglou, executive chef and owner of soon-to-open Stina in South Philadelphia, can't remember a holiday when there wasn't a Greek phyllo pie stuffed with leeks or winter squash and feta on the table, plus a dish of tzatziki to slather on the turkey.
"Since my parents are immigrants from Greece, they were very grateful for the life that the U.S. gave them. Even though we were poor, life was beautiful, and we often incorporated Greek food and flavors into our Thanksgiving Day feasts, as our culture specializes in feasts for the family."
Michael Sultan, executive chef of 33rd Street Hospitality, has a dessert tradition that's strictly about personal history. His family's legendary cheesecake hails back to the time his now-101-year-old grandmother lived in Atlantic City and worked at a local bakery.
"When the baker retired, he gave her his famous cheesecake recipe, which was very popular in the Russian Jewish community there," he said. "From then on, she would bring it for every holiday. It's very light and creamy, different from what you think of when you imagine a New York-style cheesecake. I started making it and selling it as my first culinary business when I was 20, and now I make it for her during the holidays. It's also something we do a lot when we cater events."
Jet Wine Bar executive chef Yasi Sapp has her own cheesecake tradition. A pastry chef by training, she's worked tirelessly in her own time to develop seasonal cheesecake recipes, each year bringing a new one for her Paterson, N.J., family to try. When she came up with her bowl-of-oatmeal inspired version in 2010, all bets were off.
"My family can be complacent about food. They were like, 'Why do you always have to be so extra?' Then they tried it, and now they won't let me in the door unless I bring the oatmeal cheesecake. I top with different things, depending on my mood. It can be raw apples tossed with lemon juice and caramel sauce, or bananas Foster or even a peach cobbler on top," she said.
This year, she will make seven of the cheesecakes in addition to some kind of cobbler, an apple or cherry pie, and German chocolate cake for her crowd of 25 people. Thankfully, her recipe is easy to make and foolproof.
"I'll put five of the cheesecakes in the fridge, and by the end of the night, after everyone's been drinking and playing card games for hours, there's none left."
And here's one more, even easier addition that can liven up a holiday gathering: Julie Leffler says her Thanksgiving always features a pie in the face. It's specially made for the occasion, old-movie style, with whipped cream in a crust. The only thing guests know is that it will happen to somebody, sometime, usually between dinner and dessert.
2 pounds large Brussels sprouts
1 pound ground pork, preferably pork belly
1 cup bacon, minced or ground
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
¼ cup heavy cream
1 cup cooked basmati rice, cold and loosely separated
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon ground fennel
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
caul fat (optional)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter
For the gravy:
2 cups turkey gravy, fresh or jarred
1 cup canned tomato puree
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
5 thyme sprigs, 1 bay leaf, and 1 rosemary sprig tied together with kitchen twine
- Using a paring knife, carefully core the Brussels sprouts with the knife, creating a hollow cavern in the center of each sprout. Gently use your hands to expand the hole, loosening up the leaves to make more room for filling.
- Combine pork, bacon, bread crumbs, cream, rice, parsley, fennel, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl. Set aside.
- Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Bring a 6-quart pot of water to a simmer and blanch the Brussels sprouts. Cook the sprouts for 20-30 seconds, then submerge in the ice water. Gently take sprouts out of the water and set on a paper towel to slightly dry. Stuff the Brussels sprouts with the pork and rice mixture. Optional: Use the caul to encase the stuffed sprouts to hold them together.
- In a saucepot, combine tomato puree and light brown sugar and warm over medium heat. Add gravy and bring to a simmer. Drop the herbs in the pot, and allow them to steep for 20 minutes while the sauce lightly simmers. Remove herbs and remove saucepot from heat.
- Preheat oven to 375. Heat a very large cast iron or oven proof pan to smoking, then add vegetable oil and butter. Working in batches if necessary, add galumpkis and set pan in oven for 12-14 minutes, stirring them halfway through. When the galumpkis are hot and meat is cooked through, about 155, place galumpkis in a serving dish. Pour hot tomato gravy over top and serve immediately.
— Courtesy of Joseph Monnich of The Bercy
Serves 6 as a side
1 pound winter squash (pumpkin, acorn, or butternut), peeled and seeded
2 cups butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup small-diced onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon torn sage leaves
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup crumbled feta
1 package phyllo dough (10 sheets), defrosted and covered with a damp towel
- Make the filling: Grate squash into a bowl.
- In a large skillet melt 2 tablespoons butter with the olive oil over medium heat. Add onion to pan and cook until translucent. Add squash, garlic and sage and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until squash is soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Remove mixture from skillet and transfer to a plate or pan lined with paper towels. Let cool.
- Squeeze excess liquid from squash mixture and transfer to a large bowl. Combine with feta until incorporated.
- Preheat oven to 350°. Melt remaining butter. Brush a 9 x 12 square pan with butter and start layering phyllo. Layer 5 sheets on the bottom, brushing each with butter before you place the next one on top. Add filling to the pan, spreading evenly over the dough. Add five more sheets, brushing butter on between layers. Tuck in the sides, crimping to make a decorative look. Bake for 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool slightly before serving.
—Courtesy of Bobby Saritsoglou of soon-to-be opened Stina
1½ cups quick oats
½ cup finely chopped pecans
½ cup brown sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
½ cup sugar
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 green apple diced
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Combine oats, nuts, brown sugar and butter. Press mixture onto bottom and sides of 9-inch springform pan. Bake for about 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.
- Combine cream cheese and sugar, mixing at medium speed until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Mix in heavy cream, condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg Pour into prepared crust. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until set.
- Loosen cake from rim of pan. Let cool completely before removing rim. Add desired toppings and chill several hours before serving.