Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Cooking

Tampa Bay Times readers share their treasured holiday food traditions

When we opened this year’s call for reader submissions to any treasured holiday food tradition, I had no idea what to expect.

That was kind of the point. I wanted to see what such a wide gamut would inspire. And you delivered.

The stories that readers share on the following pages are varied and delightful, all inspired by food, that powerful driver of nostalgia, and all infused with the warm feeling of the holiday season.

There is Rory Anne Eubank of Land O’Lakes, who recalls her grandma’s celebrated Christmas cookie making, and the time grandma stashed a batch of Chocolate Bourbon Balls and forgot about them, leaving Eubank and her sister to come upon them months later.

And Jodi Kaufman of Dade City, who shares memories of the edible gifts her father would get from the Amish families on his postal route: chocolate-covered cherries, fudge and more.

Bryan Crews turned his family’s Thanksgiving key lime pie tradition into a local business, selling key lime jellies at markets around the Tampa Bay area.

Others tell stories of classic Swedish and Norwegian dishes for the holidays, famous Christmas day brunch spreads, and traditional pastries made by their mothers. Gina Rehberg of Wesley Chapel still has one such pastry in her sister’s freezer, made by their mom decades ago. They can’t seem to throw it out, a testament to the power of such food traditions that are formed during this time of year. They are often about so much more than a collection of ingredients.

I hope you enjoy what these readers have to share, as your own traditions come to life from old recipe cards, beloved dishes and time with loved ones.

HOLIDAY TRADITIONS

My dad was a rural mail carrier in western Pennsylvania. He had a lot of the less-traveled dirt roads with Amish farms. The Amish continue to use the postal service today as their main means of communication.

At Christmas time, my dad would come home with small gifts from his mail patrons, including the Amish who appreciated his timeliness and dedication and the fact that he knew their whole families by name despite many having the same surnames and given Biblical first names. Many names could only be differentiated by the middle initial.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when my three brothers and I were young, we were always excited to see what he brought home. Sometimes there were little gifts from his "English" (non-Amish) patrons, such as little Avon decanters of after-shave lotion in the shape of mailboxes. We quickly scanned past those since they held no interest for us.

What we were looking for were the goodies, such as chocolate-covered cherries, home-baked cookies and fudge. The Amish gifts were always home-baked goods and not purchased gifts.

We were allowed to choose one or two of these treats after we ate our dinner.

Especially since my dad passed away, I look back on this Christmas tradition as a joyful, simpler time when we all had dinner together as a family and appreciated the joys of home-baked cookies and something as simple as anticipating the surprise thank-you gifts that just may include some homemade fudge.

Jodi Kaufman, Dade City

•••

My father was pure-blood Swede, while my mother was a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Mother embraced the Swedish traditions wholeheartedly, so Christmas Eve was always picked herring in wine sauce with Swedish crispbread (WASA or Ryvita) and butter.

Second course was usually thinly sliced jellied veal (no fat). Main course was usually Swedish meatballs with a traditional creamy sauce, kidney beans (not our favorite), and mashed potatoes. Dessert had to include peppermint stick ice cream with spritz and pepparkor (Swedish ginger snaps — I cheat and purchase Nyakers since I couldn’t possibly improve on the thinness and spiciness of these gems).

Other folks may not appreciate these things, but they remain important to my brother, my husband and me.

Pat Vassar, Clearwater

•••

During the holiday season it has become a tradition for me to make and share Sausage Bread. It started with the neighbors, then some friends and now even extends to my grown children and their spouses. Some neighbors have moved away over the years but still live in the area. I think one of their comments when I deliver the bread on Christmas Eve afternoon pretty much sums things up: "It just wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t have a loaf of your bread to enjoy for breakfast Christmas morning."

Jason Sango, Tampa

•••

Our Thanksgiving dinners would not be complete without this sweet start to our meal. When my mom called us to the table, there in the middle of our plates would be a cut glass crystal goblet filled with cranberry juice and a small scoop of orange sherbert. This treat was only served at Thanksgiving, so it made it extra special.

Deborah Green, Sun City Center

•••

At home during the holidays in the Lincoln Gardens neighborhood of Tampa, my mother used to fill up a huge, round oversized glass dish with all various types of fruit, a mixture of unshelled nuts and small colorful cellophane wrapped pieces of hard Christmas candy. It was the only time of the year that we could serve ourselves and our friends! Recently, she gave me that beautiful dish. It is pictured on our dining room table below in 1963. I was kneeling to take a tree trimming pose and the fruit and dish are captured behind me, as a centerpiece, in the photo and as it is today.

Jacqueline N. Cotman, Tampa

•••

I was raised to be very proud of my Norwegian heritage. My Dad was born and raised in Scandinavia, Wis. We would have a fairly tradition Norwegian meal on Christmas Eve after church and then open presents.

It consists of "Norwegian" (never Swedish) meatballs (the nutmeg makes them special); lefse (like a potato tortilla) that I usually have to order from somewhere like Minnesota or North Dakota when not living around like-minded Norskes; mashed potatoes with gravy and lutefisk ("lye fish"). My brother said it tastes like fish jello, but it’s tradition! Actually, we usually compromised and used "pseudofisk," another white fish like cod. You could add green beans or a salad for a little color.

In today’s trend of foodies and exotic foods, it is actually quite bland, but it’s tradition and we like it. Uffda!

Tara Trinrud Augustine, St. Petersburg

•••

A fondly remembered holiday tradition from my past is my father’s and my brother’s love of my mom’s mince pie, which we only had at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oh, how they both loved that pie! I remember my brother snatching the pie and running up the street with my father chasing after him. Another time, my father, who had false uppers, took them out and used them to mark a big section of the pie to stake his claim. Haven’t had mince pie since I left home.

Willie Dixon, Clearwater

•••

My first memories of Christmas, nearly 80 years ago in Michigan, always include hot blueberry muffins that my grandmother made from her own home-grown berries, which she canned specifically to have berries in December. When I married and had children, I thought I would continue that tradition, the aroma filling the house first thing on Christmas Day. After the kids grew older, we continued the tradition. To this day, I will always think of Christmas if I catch a whiff of baked blueberries.

Judy Batson, Tampa

•••

My favorite holiday food memory is when, as a child, my family and I would load up in our car with a thermos full of hot chocolate and drive around our town listening to Christmas music and hunting down the best Christmas light displays.

Brandice Lardner, Clearwater

•••

My maternal grandmother was a formidable personality. She was headstrong about everything; Christmas was certainly no exception. Every year from the beginning of December, Grandma would take over the kitchen to bake dozens of Christmas cookies for the family. Now, I must clarify here: the family consisted of my parents, Grandma, my sister Kim, and me, both of us girls in elementary school. No other relatives, no hordes of friends possibly stopping by, no one else. That, however, did not matter to Grandma. It was Christmas, therefore you baked cookies. Lots and lots of cookies. No discussion.

Most years, Grandma baked so many cookies that she would forget where she stashed some of them. The year I recall most vividly was when Grandma made Chocolate Bourbon Balls. In February, my mother discovered the tin way in the back of a dark cupboard. Now, you may know that there is a gentle warning on a Bourbon Ball recipe stating that they are not a treat for children. If you have never tasted a three-month old Bourbon Ball, the bourbon becomes fortified, and permeates the fudgy chocolate which disguises a creamy velvet smoothness that packs a punch. Kim and I stuffed down one Chocolate Bourbon Ball after another; we started to giggle … ate a few more, giggled a lot more … you get the idea, I’m sure. (Woo hoo!) This was definitely one Christmas cookie we wished that Grandma would bake and forget every year. And to this day, over 50 years later, my sister and I still enjoy a giggle every time we recall the "happiest" batch of Christmas cookies Grandma ever made.

Rory Anne Eubank, Land O’Lakes

•••

Pittinchiusa making was a labor-intensive, time-consuming Christmas tradition that my mother did almost every year while we were growing up. Using my grandmother’s recipe, mass quantities of olive oil-flavored dough were rolled out paper-thin on the kitchen table. The dough circles nearly covered the entire table. The dough was then sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar, walnuts and raisins. Next, the dough was rolled over like a sleeve, so narrow strips could be cut without the nuts and raisins falling out. Mom would carefully take the long, filled strips and start coiling them around on pieces of foil. She would make small pittinchiusas to give away as gifts and larger ones for the family and freezer.

After all the dough was rolled and coiled, honey was drizzled over the finished product before baking. As little kids, we would help by sprinkling (and eating) the nuts and raisins.

On Christmas Day, my mother would bring out her prized pittinchiusa to have with coffee and dessert. It was not a flaky or tender pastry. Hard like a cookie (and somewhat dry) it was dense, sticky, sweet and rich, loaded with nuts and raisins. Only problem was, I didn’t like raisins. I’d always ask my mother to make one without raisins, but she insisted pittinchiusa had to have raisins in it. So when she wasn’t looking, I’d pick the raisins out of the piece I was eating.

A few weeks ago, my sister called and asked: "What should I do with this pittinchiusa I’ve had in my freezer since Ma died?"

It was found in my mother’s freezer after she died, and my sister didn’t have the heart to throw it away. I’m sure if we decided to thaw it out and eat it, it would be just as hard and dry as when my mother made it 20 years ago. That’s just the nature of pittinchiusa. But nothing else says Christmas quite like it — raisins and all.

Gina Rehberg, Wesley Chapel

•••

Comics for decades have made the winter holiday "fruit cake" into a punching bag among baked goods. Sample: "What’s good about this cake?" Punch line: "It makes a great door stop!"

But these critics never tasted my grandmother’s Dark Fruit Cake. It followed a recipe brought to America and Chicago from Sweden by her parents more than a century ago. Mmmmm, what a sweet treat!

Gram baked cakes for each of her two sons and two daughters and families every Christmas. Ours was gone soon after New Year’s Day.

Perhaps what made gram’s cakes so special was the use of real fruits — raisins and currants, mainly, some pineapple and cherries — all soaked in red wine two days prior to mixing and baking. Brown sugar and molasses helped, too.

Commercially made fruit cakes never got close to being as good as gram’s, in my opinion.

Some years after gram passed on, a club I was a member of in the nation’s capitol was putting together a cookbook for winter holiday sales. The Sailing Club of Washington’s membership was co-ed. We were sailors interested in cruising. I offered gram’s recipe for the cookbook. Again, the wisecracks. But the recipe lives on, there on pages 284 to 285 of SCOW COOKS.

Tom Feare, Land O’Lakes

•••

Growing up in New England in the ’40s and ’50s, Christmas morning began by retrieving our stockings from the fireplace mantel, the toes of which contained an orange (thanks to an aunt who wintered in Florida!) and a 50-cent piece. After getting dressed and making our beds, we’d troop down to the kitchen for breakfast, the yearly highlight being my mom’s Christmas bread that included maraschino cherries (which imparted a lovely pink color to the dough), citron and lemon peel.

Sue E. Conrad, North Redington Beach

•••

One of my fondest Christmas memories is the tradition of making springerle cookies using a cast iron mold that my great grandparents brought with them from Germany in the 1800s.

The dough is pressed into the mold, which leaves an embossed design on each cookie. The anise seed gives the cookie its unique flavor.

Gail Dold, St. Petersburg

•••

Olive oil, garlic, fresh parsley, fresh oregano, tomatoes and Barolo wine begin the base of our exciting seafood bonanza. The addition of seven treasures from the sea — scallops, shrimp, clams, lobster tails and three firm fish — completes this Italian Christmas Eve feast known as "Night of the Seven Fishes."

We all adore deciding what seafood to include, as well as enjoying the aroma while it’s cooking. This tradition has been a part of my life for 70 years and now resides within my immediate family. We sit around our dining table and dive in with forks and hands, similar to Vikings. This event is the perfect lead-in to Christmas morning.

Lisa Bazzanella Smith, St. Petersburg

     
 
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