Festive decorations and presents are all well and good, but for many, the holiday season is about what’s on the table and in their glass. For some, the most important stop during holiday season travels is to their family’s fridge — and for good reason. Food can be a reminder of a faraway home, or a beloved family member, or a fond memory from the past. Different holiday dishes can offer those eating them a connection to their culture and those cooking them a chance to care for loved ones.
The best traditions can change or develop over time — a family’s beloved cocktail becomes a spritz as years go by or the smell of cheese biscuits with fried eggs becomes a Christmas morning wake-up call. As Sarah Thomas, co-founder of food-related children’s books series and a kitchen gear site for kids, Kalamata’s Kitchen, shares, the smell of her holiday favorites cooking is “almost tactile in the air” during this time of year.
Below, 10 beloved chefs, food entrepreneurs, and cookbook authors share some of the nostalgic holiday foods and drinks that evoke joyful memories for them during the most wonderful time of the year.
André Hueston Mack, Winemaker, Restaurateur, & Founder Of Rye & Sons Whiskey
“My love for eggnog came from my grandfather, who would make his own in the early mornings all throughout the year, but during the holidays, we would actually purchase from Halo Farms. Every time I taste eggnog, it brings me back to that second when I was a child tasting eggnog for the first time at 3 years old. It was so decadent and rich; it just blew my mind! And for the next 20 years, that’s how I enjoyed it [without alcohol]. It wasn’t until I started to date Phoebe, now my wife, that she introduced adding alcohol to said eggnog, which definitely took it to the next level. I must admit, she was a little heavy-handed with the rum, but over the years I have taken over the reins. And now for these holidays, I replace the rum with my very own rye whiskey.”
Erin Jeanne McDowell, Recipe Developer, Author Of Savory Baking
“I’m an early riser and breakfast-lover year round — but lazy morning meals with my family around the holidays are my absolute favorite. It’s one of the few times of the year when we are all under one roof, and I can really pull out all the stops by baking something special and becoming a short-order cook for the morning. Biscuits and gravy topped with a crispy fried egg is one of everyone’s top choices. But some of the pickier kiddos typically like just the biscuits, so I up the ante by making the cheese biscuits from my new book, Savory Baking. I add shredded cheese to the dough and to the top of each biscuit before baking. It forms a crunchy cheese crisp on the surface that makes for a delightful contrasting texture alongside the tender, flaky biscuit — but more importantly, it also makes the whole house smell incredible. Those sweet moments where the baking smells start drawing everyone from their bedrooms is something I look forward to all year.”
Abena Anim-Somuah, Founder Of The Eden Place
The Eden Place is a community-focused organization that coordinates dinners and events to highlight local New York City restaurants and cultivate new connections between attendees.
Cranberry Ginger Ale
“I was super blessed to grow up in a lot of different countries, so holiday tables are often filled with foods from a myriad of different places. The one that rings true is cranberry ginger ale. It’s an unconventional choice at best, and I know my mom would probably shake her head, but this drink brings up so many memories. Considering it’s only available during the three coldest months of the year, it is a sign that cool weather is here to stay. I didn’t grow up in a house where pop was prominent, but this was one that we got every year. My mom liked to zhuzh it up by making her special Christmas punch and that bitter tang of cranberry paired with the classic pop fizz is such a delight. It just reminds me of winter nights huddled around the TV, watching soccer games with my siblings, or sipping on it as I finished those last books of the year.”
Ayesha Curry, Founder & Chef Partner, International Smoke At MGM Grand In Las Vegas
Truffle Whipped Potatoes
“If I’m being honest, holiday cooking is all about the sides for me. Give me extra cheesy mac and cheese, give me cornbread stuffing, give me potatoes in every form — the more the better. Each and every dish should just scream comfort. I like a lot of variety, and I love an update on a classic, like the Truffle Whipped Potatoes we’re serving up at my and chef Michael Mina’s restaurant, International Smoke at MGM Grand Las Vegas. They are so creamy and packed with rich umami flavors. We have to order an extra side of it every time because it’s the first thing that goes. For my 30th birthday, my sisters and close friends planned a girls’ trip to Italy, and we went truffle-hunting! It was one of those bucket list experiences and any time I eat anything with truffles it reminds me of that trip.”
Lukas Volger, Author Of Snacks For Dinner
“There’s a cocktail called a stinger, which my grandpa always made on Christmas Eve — it goes back many decades. It’s a combination of brandy and creme de menthe, and the lore in our family is that it’ll cure whatever ails you — this is to say, it has a medicinal vibe, and isn’t necessarily the most delicious drink. There was a period after my brother and I took over [making cocktails during the holidays] where we got the ratios flipped. It should be two parts brandy to one part creme de menthe, and for a few Christmas Eves, we all felt like we were drinking mouthwash. But when we fixed our error, we were all pleasantly surprised. And so I’ve since ‘spritz-ified’ the drink with soda water, so that we drink it on New Year’s Eve, too.”
Sarah Thomas, Co-Founder Of Kalamata’s Kitchen
Goat Stew & Appams
“I have a very strong Christmas-morning association not just with the joy of ripping open presents but the anticipation of eating my mom’s goat stew and appams. Appam is this beautiful lacy fermented rice batter and coconut milk pancake from Kerala, and the smell of the batter is one of my favorite scents — it’s almost tactile in the air. The goat stew is also full of spices, curry leaves, and ginger, all of which are cooked in several different stages before simmering altogether. The scents and sounds of spices cooking, the physical feeling of warmth and comfort that comes from that — those are all formative memories for me, and very much the inspiration for the first book in our series, Kalamata’s Kitchen. To me, those scents, sounds, and flavors weren’t just a sign of something delicious to come, they were inspirational and exciting, which is a feeling I love to translate to people both through my own cooking these days and of course through stories.”
Vanessa Pham & Kim Pham, Co-Founders Of Omsom
Omsom is a Vietnamese-owned spice and sauce company that celebrates the flavors, communities, and stories of Asian culture.
Fried Rice & Vietnamese Bánh Bột Lọc
“Fried rice reminds me of Christmas morning — my father cooks one meal a year, and this is his specialty. (He essentially just re-fries rice from the night before, but makes it crispy!) He actually made a video on it last year.” — Vanessa
“Our Christmas meal as a family is always a Vietnamese potluck — all our friends plus family would descend upon our childhood home and bring traditional dishes. This one [bánh bột lọc] is my fave and tastes stellar with my mom’s homemade fish sauce!” — Kim
Zoe Kanan, Baker & Pastry Chef
“Growing up in my family, latkes were not exclusively for Hanukkah. They were central to our family’s entire holiday season. My personal favorite was enjoying them for Thanksgiving, schmeared with sour cream and cranberry sauce in place of the traditional apple. My grandmother Helen was always on latke duty. She would arrive at our house with a casserole dish piled high with latkes, neatly stacked and layered between paper towels. I remember my dogs greeting her at the front gate of our house, noses in the air, desperate for a whiff of fried potato and onion. When you cook potato pancakes, there are inevitably bits of shredded potato that break off and drift away into the oil. Helen knew I had a special affinity for the crispy bits and would collect them as she fried. Each of her latke deliveries came with a bonus package of crispy bits, just for me.”
Jorge Gaviria, Founder Of Masienda
Masienda is a marketplace that celebrates the culture around heirloom masa through ingredients, tools, recipes, and stories.
“For me, the holidays mean the start of the champurrado season. Champurrado is a type of atole (a warm, corn masa-based drink popular in many Latinx cuisines but specifically in Mexico), prepared with milk or water, cocoa, and cinnamon, and sweetened with piloncillo or cane sugar. It doesn’t get any cozier than a mug of warm champurrado with a concha or churro to dunk into it. Champurrado tastes like a thick, spiced hot chocolate, with just a little earthiness from the masa harina. It satisfies a sweet tooth but also feels almost like a meal. It’s typically made fresh, but we’ve packaged up a mix and given it a Swiss Miss-style treatment in single-serving packets. If you’re tempted to add those mini marshmallows, I wouldn’t stop you.”
As the days get shorter, the meals definitely get longer, which means more time for creating memories around the table (or in front of the TV with a favorite holiday movie). The holiday menu is so much more than just food — it’s family, tradition, and nostalgia wrapped up in a few tasty bites.