Holidays are times when food turns personal. Many families have favorite dishes they cook up each year—special cookies or side dishes that define the holidays by tying us to our pasts, reminding us of our youths and linking us to family members who came before. Without them, the holidays just wouldn’t be the same.

We asked some local cooks for their special holiday treats. Here are their recipes.

Lizette Leanza

Our family’s holiday celebrations are deeply rooted in tradition. Every year we celebrate Noche Buena, or Spanish Christmas Eve, at my parents’ home in New Orleans with a traditional Cuban pork roast and an impressive four-course menu that has remained untouched by time since my grandmother was the hostess many years ago. It’s no secret that great food brings people together. On our holiday table where so many cultures converge, from my mother’s Spanish/Cuban traditions to my father’s Italian/Argentine roots, the spirit and magic of the holiday season come to life and everyone is welcome to join the festivities.

I am proud of my multi-cultural heritage, and it warms my heart to know that my children are growing up surrounded by our unique family customs and traditions. During the holiday season, my girls aren’t dreaming of sugar plums but, instead, eagerly await a taste of Abuelita’s Flan.

Flan is one of the most popular and classic desserts of Spain, and it’s found throughout most of Latin America. In its simplest form, flan is a creamy vanilla egg custard made with eggs, milk and sugar, baked in a water bath and served in a rich pool of sweet caramel sauce. Cream cheese is not traditionally used in flan, but it is my family’s “secret” for making the creamiest and richest flan that you will ever taste! For a step-by-step guide to making flan, visit www.onecraftykitchen.com.

Lizette Leanza of Brookhaven edits the One Crafty Kitchen blog.

Abuelita’s Spanish Flan

Prep time: 20 minutes. Cook time: 60 minutes. Makes two 9-inch round custards.

For the caramel sauce: 1-1/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup water

For the egg custard:

8 ounces 1/3 reduced fat cream cheese, softened

Pinch sea salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

14 ounces sweetened condensed milk

12 ounces evaporated milk

2 cups whole milk

5 large eggs

Whipped heavy cream for serving, optional

Preparation:

1. In a medium saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the water over high heat and cook until a brown caramel forms, about 6 to 8 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a large blender or mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, salt, vanilla and milks until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat just until combined.

3. Coat two round pans with the hot caramel, moving it around to coat all the way up the sides. Be careful—the caramel is extremely hot!

4. Pour the custard filling into the pans. Place the custard-filled pans into a larger pan.

5. For the water bath, fill the larger pans with enough warm water to cover halfway up the sides of the smaller pans. (I will usually do this in the oven to avoid splashing water around while transferring the pans to the oven.)

6. Bake the custards in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for one hour or until set. If it looks like the top is browning too quickly, you can cover it with aluminum foil and continue baking. Let the flan cool. Refrigerate for several hours before serving. The flan will literally be swimming in caramel sauce. To serve, spoon some of the sauce over the flan slice and top with whipped cream, if desired.

Joseph Dabney

Every Christmas back in the 1940’s, our family looked forward to my mother’s big, nutty “Japanese fruitcake” creation, a scene doubtless repeated in households across the South. The cake’s oriental name has been a mystery over the years, since the cake contains no Japanese ingredients. A precursor, “Japanese Cake,” appeared in the 1895 “Tested Recipe Cook Book” in Atlanta’s “Cotton States International Exposition,” something of a world’s fair for its time.

Mama bolstered her masterpiece with nuts and raisins and topped it with shredded coconut. Some friends substitute milk for water. The filling should be made first, followed by the cake layers.

Joseph Dabney of Brookhaven won the 1999 James Beard “Cookbook of the Year Award” for “Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine.”

Mother Dabney’s Japanese Fruitcake

For filling:

2 cups sugar 1 fresh coconut, finely grated

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour 2 lemons, finely grated

1-1/2 cups boiling water 2 oranges, finely grated

For 3 cake layers:

1 cup butter 1 cup pecans

2 cups sugar 3 teaspoons cinnamon

3 cups all-purpose flour 1 box raisins

4 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon cloves

1 cup milk 1 teaspoon nutmeg

6 eggs

For the filling: In saucepan, combine sugar and flour. Mix thoroughly. Add boiling water, then add coconut, lemon and oranges. Cook mixture on low for about 20 minutes, stirring constantly. Cook until mixture reaches proper consistency, but not too runny. Set aside.

For the cake batter: Heat oven to 325-350F. In a large bowl, mix butter and sugar in mixer until fluffy. Add flour, baking powder, milk and eggs (one at a time) and beat everything together. Next, add to batter pecans, cinnamon, raisins, cloves and nutmeg. Pour batter into cake pans and bake until golden brown on top. When baked, punch tiny holes in each layer.

Final step: Place first layer (with holes in it) on cake plate. Pour filling on top. Do same for second and third layers, then pour filling over top, along with shredded coconut.

Donna Lorenz

When my parents married, my mother couldn’t cook. Dad loved to tell a story from early in their marriage that involved dinner guests and stuffed peppers and ended with dinner in a restaurant. But Mom practiced and was good enough by her 50s that she was teaching cooking classes in her kitchen.

Christmas cookies were a specialty. She would bake large quantities, in a dozen or more varieties, and give them to friends and neighbors. These very pretty shortbread cookies were a favorite with her family and everyone lucky enough to get one of her trays of cookies. My copy of the recipe has this note on it: Aristocrats (without which it isn’t Christmas.)

Donna Lorenz of Buckhead bakes at home.

Aristocrats

1-3/4 sticks butter (14 tablespoons) at room temperature

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2-1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/3 cup semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped

course or pearl sugar (sometimes sold as “parl socker”)

In a mixer, cream the butter and sugar, add one egg and beat. Add flour and mix just until well combined. Divide the dough in half. Wrap one half in waxed paper and refrigerate it. Divide remaining dough in half again. Knead the chopped chocolate into one half and nuts into the other half. Roll each half into a 10-inch cylinder, wrap in waxed paper and chill. Remove the reserved, chilled dough from the refrigerator and roll into a 9 x 11 inch rectangle. Cut in half lengthwise, to make two 11 inch by 4-1/2 inch rectangles. In a small bowl, beat the other egg lightly and brush one half of rectangle with the beaten egg. Place the chilled chocolate dough cylinder along the long edge of the rectangle and roll the dough tightly around the cylinder, so that it’s totally encased. Smooth the seam and press the dough firmly around the cylinder. Trim the ends. Repeat with the walnut cylinder and the other half rectangle of dough. Brush each roll with egg and roll in course sugar crystals. Rewrap the cylinders and chill 4 hours or more.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 400 degrees. Remove one chilled cylinder from refrigerator and slice it into 1/3 inch disks. Repeat with other cylinder. Bake about 10 minutes, until cookies just begin to brown around the edges. Remove to a rack to cool.

Note: If course sugar crystals aren’t available, the cookies will be very good without them, just not as pretty.

Gabe Sterling

While many focus on the main dish of holiday meals, my family has always had amazing side dishes. Over time, it has fallen to me to prepare the heartiest of these side dishes—the dressing, which always defines our Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. The tradition began with my grandmothers, on both sides of my family, and the torch eventually passed to me. The secret to this tasty, moist dressing? Bacon grease.

Gabe Sterling is a member of Sandy Springs City Council.

Sage & Sausage Dressing

Tools: 1 large cast iron skillet (I use a 12-3/4 inch); 1 large pot; 1 large bowl; 1 14 x 9 baking dish

Ingredients:

2 rounds of cornbread

1 red onion, diced

1 sweet onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

4 stalks of celery, diced

4 cloves of garlic, diced

1 lb. sage sausage

3 tablespoons dried sage

1 tablespoon poultry seasoning

4 tablespoons salted butter

3 to 4 cups chicken stock (or broth)

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

5 tablespoons of bacon grease (or butter…if you must)

Cornbread: Mix cornbread mix/recipe of your choosing

Preparation:

Place 2 tablespoons of bacon grease (or butter) in cast iron skillet Put skillet in oven and heat to 450º. Once oven and skillet reach 450º, remove skillet and add cornbread mix. Replace in oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the edges are deep brown. Remove from oven and place on rack to allow steam to escape.

Prepare two rounds.

Dice all the vegetables, place in a bowl to the side. Place the sausage in a large pot and brown. Add 4 tablespoons of butter to the pot and melt. Add garlic and stir for 3 minutes.

Add vegetables to pot, stir and start to sauté. Add 2 tablespoons of dry sage. Sauté the mixture until onions look translucent. Remove from heat.

In the large mixing bowl, break up the 2 rounds of cornbread with your hands. Add the sautéed mixture to the cornbread. Mix with a spoon and/or hands.

Begin adding chicken stock, 1 cup at a time.

Add the remaining sage and poultry seasoning, salt and pepper.

Continue adding stock until the mixture in the bowl is firm but moist, to the point of nearly being wet.

Preheat the oven to 350º.

In the baking dish, use remaining bacon grease (or butter) to cover all the inner surfaces of the dish. If any of the grease (or butter) remains, just leave it in the bottom of the dish.

Pour the cornbread mixture into the dish, evenly. Place dish in the oven and cook for 30-35 minutes.

Amy and Beth Arogeti

Sisters-in-law Beth and Amy Arogeti associate fried treats known as burmuelos with Hanukkah. “We never had them any other time,” Beth said. Now they share the honey-dipped goodies with their families and at Congregation Or VeShalom’s Hanukkah Bazaar. “We remember our grandmothers making them and want to pass the recipe on,” Amy said.

Beth and Amy Arogeti live in Sandy Springs.

Hanukkah Burmuelos (Fritters)

1 tsp. yeast

1 tsp. sugar

pinch salt

2 c. warm water

3 c. plain

White Lily flour

1 egg, beaten

Syrup:

1/2 c. honey

1/2 c. sugar

1/2 c. water

Soften yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. Place dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add yeast mixture, egg and the rest of the warm water; mix well. Allow to rise in covered bowl in warm place for 2 hours. Fill a 2-quart pot with 3 inches of cooking oil. Allow to get very hot.

Take a teaspoonful of soft dough and drop into hot oil. Remove with slotted spoon when golden brown.

For syrup: mix all ingredients together in pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until slightly sticky. Pour over Burmuelos while hot.

From “The Sephardic Cooks Comé Con Gana,” compiled and published by Congregation Or VeShalom.