By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Before chefs and restaurateurs were chefs and restaurateurs, they were eaters like the rest of us, coming to the table after Mom or Grandma called everyone in from hours of football watching or Turkey Day games and relaxation. We asked some of Tampa Bay's culinary heavy hitters about their sweet memories of childhood holiday desserts.
For Richard Gonzmart, fourth-generation family member and president of Columbia Restaurant Group, food was always serious business, the family's flagship Ybor City restaurant long established as one of Tampa's major draws. The classic grand finale for the Gonzmart Thanksgiving was "Brazo de Gitano" — Spanish for "gypsy's arm." The dessert is a light and spongy cake, similar to a Swiss roll, usually filled with buttercream, custard or dulce de leche.
"It's a recipe from my great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., the founder of the Columbia Restaurant, and a dessert my family has enjoyed during the holidays since I was born," Gonzmart says. "My mom used to make it for special occasions and holidays. She was famous for it."
What Adela Hernandez Gonzmart did to make it a showstopper was to take the traditional Spanish jelly roll and add a delicate meringue outer layer to it. Well, and then top it with strawberries and light it on boozy fire.
Gonzmart made some variations on the recipe for the Columbia Restaurant's 100th anniversary, celebrated back in 2005. "We take fresh strawberries and slice them up to make a glaze to pour over the cake, then flambé it with cherry brandy. It's baked Alaska meets strawberry shortcake."
Zack Gross, chef-owner of St. Petersburg's Z Grille, grew up in Southern California, a half hour outside of Los Angeles. His mother was from a big Mexican family and, as Gross remembers it, food was central to family gatherings.
"You'd go for a snack at my grandparents' and they'd put out a whole chicken with tortillas for you to eat. For the holidays, a lot of what we did was tamales."
For Gross's nuclear family, though, Thanksgiving morning meant big chorizo and egg burritos (so Zack and his two brothers would stay out of the kitchen until late afternoon) and dessert meant one thing: Mom's pumpkin cookies.
"She found the recipe sometime around when I was in fifth or sixth grade. It was from one of those cookbooks the schools do. What makes the recipe different is that they are super moist, like a cake, so they last for a few days."
Although his mom, Connie, doesn't cook much anymore and Gross has taken over the Thanksgiving cooking duties, she still makes her pumpkin cookies around Halloween as well as for birthdays.
"If we're on good speaking terms, she'll make them for me."
For Kim Yelvington, executive pastry chef of Bern's Steak House, Thanksgivings growing up in Louisville, Ky., and North Florida near the Panhandle meant a big Southern buffet of cakes, pies, puddings and so forth, the feast a collaborative effort of her grandmother, mom Vera and aunts, all solid bakers according to Tampa's most celebrated pastry pro (whose brother razzed her by calling her Betty Crocker while they were growing up).
She shares one of her favorite memories: "My mom made a coconut cream pie one year for Thanksgiving at my grandmother's. My grandmother thought my mother had forgotten to brown a meringue and promptly put the pie in the oven. By the time my mom realized her fragile creation was melting in the oven, it was a little too late!"
Her mom's coconut cream pie didn't fare too well, but it made for an oft-retold family tale.
For Jason Fernandez, owner of Bernini, Carne Chophouse and the new Tequila, all in Ybor City where he grew up, the holidays meant equal parts family and Ybor.
"We spent every Christmas Eve/Buena Noche at my Abuela Eugenia's, my mother's mom. We never missed a year until she passed. My abuela (grandmother) had 12 brothers and sisters, and my Abuelo Palmiro (grandfather) had 12 brothers and sisters — to say there was a large gathering is an understatement."
The party started early and went until late, with eating and telling stories all day and all night, opening presents the grand finale. Fernandez remembers the stories getting better every year, accompanied by traditional Latin/Spanish fare like roasted pork leg, Aunt Corrine's black beans and rice, empanadas, tortillas, yuca, sweet potatoes, his mom's green bean almondine and Aunt Cookie's cassata. He says that as time wore on the feast became a bit more Americanized, with red snapper, ham and turkey added into the mix.
Fernandez's mother, Vivian, has presided over recent years' festivities, culminating in her show-stopping spin on English trifle.
"I could go on with this for hours. The most important thing was that we were all together and passing on traditions to the next generation."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.