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A gift that comes from the hearth

It may sound strange, but one of the best Christmas presents I ever received was a brown three-ring binder.

It was a gift from my sister, a baker trained at the Culinary Institute of America. She was short on cash that year, so rather than buying a sweater or a handbag, she made me something cheap and easy: a cookbook. At the time, she didn't know how much more valuable it was than a store-bought trinket.

Tracy didn't fill her homemade cookbook with recipes for the elaborate pastries and artisanal breads for which she won so much acclaim in school. (She knew that I, a novice cook, would never dream of attempting those.) Instead, she tracked down dishes from our mother and grandmother.

She called it The Nosnhoj Collective - our unmarried name spelled backward. The name is a play on Ak-Sar-Ben, the once popular racetrack in our hometown of Omaha, which spells Nebraska when flipped.

When I opened the book, memories from our childhood tumbled out. There was my mom's famous spaghetti sauce, so thick with ground pork that we ate the leftovers between slices of toasted bread. We thought it was so good we challenged one of our neighborhood friends to a taste-off against her mom's sauce. Of course, our mom won.

Turning to another section, I found my grandmother's recipe for frikadeller, Danish meat cakes studded with onions and served with yellow mustard. My sister also included the recipe for Duchesse potatoes that Mom piped through a pastry bag to give the whipped spuds their distinctive, fluted shape.

Tracy even added a few of the dishes we weren't so crazy about as kids, like bacon-wrapped hamburgers bound with oats that sank in our stomachs like paperweights. Trying them again as an adult, they weren't as awful as I remembered.

Since we are natives of Nebraska, the beef capital of America, the book is heavy on meat and potatoes. Tracy is a fitness nut now, so she lightened the family offerings with a few easy recipes she picked up after leaving culinary school. She also included elementary instructions for cookies and cakes that even I can follow.

The best part of the book is the notes about each recipe. They're mostly remembrances about our family, like the way Dad sometimes dances a soft-shoe when he eats something he really loves. Or how we got in trouble every Christmas Eve for complaining to Mom about the pajamas she wanted us to wear for pictures the next morning.

"Mom blew her stack last night because we hated our PJs," Tracy wrote in the introduction to Christmas Morning Cheese Strata, a deliciously gooey concoction of cheddar cheese, butter, eggs and bread. "But all's well with the world because there's a mound of presents under the tree, strata in the oven, bacon perfuming the air and a big honking cinnamon roll to round out the menu."

The cookbook is now splattered with grease and ketchup and a few of the pages are stuck together. I'm trying to follow Tracy's lead, albeit in a small way, and learn a little more about cooking. The Nosnhoj Collective is the resource I turn to most.

My no-nonsense sister would probably cringe to hear me say it, but that cookbook means more to me than anything from a store. It's amazing how a few simple recipes can provoke such strong emotions. I guess that book is what Christmas is really all about: family, food and lots of happy memories.

And, of course, a big honking cinnamon roll to round out the menu.

Carrie Weimar can be reached at (813) 226-3416 or



1 pound ground beef (or turkey)

1 small onion, grated

1/2 cup saltines, crushed to crumbs

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 egg

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup milk

1/3 cup shortening (or non-stick vegetable spray)

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except milk and shortening. Mix in milk. Shape into eight oblong patties. Melt shortening in large skillet (or coat skillet with cooking spray); brown patties on medium heat on both sides.

Breakfast casserole

Christmas Morning Cheese Strata

1/2 pound sharp cheddar

1/2 cup butter

12 slices bread, cubed

4 eggs

2 cups milk

- On the day before you plan to serve the strata, grease a two-quart casserole.

- Melt the cheese and butter in top of a double saucepan over simmering water, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Alternately, put cheese and butter in microwave-safe dish and melt together, stirring every couple of minutes.

- Put six slices of bread in the casserole, cover with half the cheese mixture. Top with remaining bread and the rest of the cheese.

- Beat the eggs well, stir in milk. Pour into casserole; cover, refrigerate overnight.

- Next day, preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

- Set casserole in larger pan containing 1-inch water. Bake for one hour, then reduce temperature to 225 degrees. Bake for one hour longer.

Source: Johnson family recipe