The holiday season is for eating. All around the world, food and drinks are the centerpieces to gatherings of family and friends. What’s on the menu depends on where you are, and the dishes that make it to a plate and the drinks poured into glasses are often cherished regional and family recipes.
We caught up with chefs who’ve run Michelin starred restaurants, home cooks, recipe developers, and writers to learn more about the recipes that make the holidays sing.
- West African peanut soup
- Fried ahi poke omelet
- Roast pork sandwiches
- Christmas pudding
On Christmas Eve, many Icelandic people enjoy a feast of ptarmigan, or wild grouse. This small, pheasant-like bird roams the country’s grassy hillsides. Once upon a time, rjúpa, as its known in Iceland, was strictly peasant fare that was reserved for poor families who couldn’t afford to eat lamb around the holiday season. In fact, ptarmigan was flat-out looked down on by the aristocracy. Then in the 1920s, the bird became a much more popular and widespread addition to the Icelandic Christmas dinner.
According to Adam Biernat, the blogger behind Bite of Iceland, a traditional Christmas ptarmigan is hunted in the wild. But the crafty birds are hard to catch, so some families opt to simply buy a British grouse instead. Regardless of how the bird is obtained, it’s often served with potatoes, boiled red cabbage, and a sauce made with red currant jelly and blue cheese or brown whey cheese.
Lori Bogedin, a chef and culinary expert from Pennsylvania who has run TwigsCafe for more than 20 years, has a traditional Christmas ptarmigan recipe if you’re able to get your hands on a bird.
- 3 rock ptarmigans, plucked, cleaned, and ready for cooking
- 75 grams fatty bacon
- 90 grams butter or margarine
- 450 milliliters boiling water
- 450 milliliters boiling milk
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 300 milliliters cream
- 2 tablespoons flour
- Caramel coloring for the sauce (optional)
- Make cuts into the bird’s chests and fill them with strips of bacon fat to ensure that the meat remains moist.
- Truss the birds.
- Melt some butter in a cooking pot and brown the birds on all sides in the fat.
- Mix water and milk, heat to boiling and pour it over the birds.
- Add the salt and cook for 1-1 1/2 hours.
- Remove the birds and strain the cooking liquid.
- Add cold water and flour to thicken the mixture.
- Next, add cream and adjust the flavor according to your taste.
- Divide the birds and serve with pickled red cabbage, mixed vegetables, redcurrant jam and caramelized potatoes. You can even add some redcurrant jam to the sauce for extra flavor.
Around the coastal regions of Spain, seafood is often a centerpiece on the holiday dinner table. That was very much the case for chef Dani Garcia when he was young, who grew up in Marbella, a small coastal town along Spain’s stretch of the Mediterranean. Christmas meals would start with cuts of Iberico ham and then transition langoustines, and then to a spider crab called centollo. After, there was always lamb (usually shoulder).
Garcia’s grandmother, mother, and father shared the cooking duties when Garcia was growing up. These days, the chef, who ran his eponymous three Michelin star restaurant until 2019 and recently opened Casa Dani at Citizens New York, says he has to do the cooking on family holidays now. And while things are carefully measured at his restaurants, he adds that the crab was always cooked by taste growing up.
- Centollo (preferably female crab)
- Olive oil
- Brandy, Sherry or monte llano, a Spanish red wine
- Laurel (or bay) leaf
- Cook the crab in water with salt and herbs.
- Take out the crab and boil the juice with a little bit of egg and sherry, as well as salt and pepper to taste. Cook it down with the remaining ingredients.
- Flip the crab upside down and put the cooked down mixture along with the crab meat in the shell to serve.
West Africa: Peanut soup
Few things can warm up a person’s soul on cold winter days like soup. Every culture has its own soups, and for James Beard award winning chef Nina Compton, who is currently heading up Compère Lapin at INTERSECT BY LEXUS, West African peanut soup is the perfect dish to add some warmth and spice to the table.
“The peanut soup is great for the holidays and is a soulful soup, especially on cooler nights,” Compton says. “I like to call it a warm hug in a bowl that makes you smile.”
- 450 grams skin-off peanuts, roasted and soaked overnight
- 375 grams lavalle peeled tomatoes
- 100 grams shallots fine julienned
- 25 grams toasted cumin seeds
- Chili oil to taste (per bowl)
- 10 grams small diced chayote, sauteed (per bowl)
- 10 grams small diced sweet potato sauteed (per bowl)
- 15 grams jasmine rice, steamed and cooled and fried (per bowl)
- 10 grams jerk peanuts, roughly chopped (per bowl)
Fried Rice: Place the rice in a noodle basket and fry until golden brown and crispy at 325 degrees, season with salt immediately and reserve.
Jerk Peanuts: Toss the peanuts in olive oil and gently coat evenly with jerk seasoning and bake at 300 degrees for 12 minutes. Cool and pulse in the robocoupe three times.
- Sweat the onions and cumin, season with salt.
- Caramelize on medium heat, add the tomato paste and cook for 6 minutes on low heat. Add a little water if there is sticking to the pan.
- Add peanuts and add double the volume of water to cover and simmer until peanuts are VERY tender (cooks for 3 to 4 hours).
- Puree in vitaprep until very smooth, add water if necessary and salt to taste.
- Pass through a chinois and cool.
Lechon is a whole roast pig cooked slowly for hours over a spit, and it’s one of the most treasured Christmas meals in the Philippines. Its signature crispy, dark red skin that’s rubbed with coconut water, soda, or soy sauce is cherished, but the whole pig is mouth-wateringly delicious — the belly is often opened and stuffed with herbs and aromatics like leeks, garlic, and lemongrass.
Roast pig originally came to the islands with Spanish colonists along with Christianity (hence the Spanish name for the dish — lechon translates to suckling pig). If you’re in the Philippines for the holidays, you can expect to see lechon on the menu at both household gatherings and restaurants. Cebu, a city in the southern Philippines, is known for its exceptional lechon — in fact Anthony Bourdain called the lechon he tried there, “the best pig ever.”
While your barbecue may have the choicest cuts of meat, nothing matches the whole-hog experience of lechon. This recipe is from Bogedin, of TwigsCafe.
- 20 garlic cloves
- 1 bunch cilantro, trimmed
- 1 cup loosely packed fresh oregano leaves
- 5 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons black pepper
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 1 ½ cups olive oil, divided
- 4 cups fresh orange juice
- 4 cups fresh lime juice
- 1 (15- to 18-pound) whole suckling pig
- Blend together some garlic, cilantro, oregano, salt, pepper, cumin, and 1/2 cup of the oil.
- Remove 1 cup of mixture, and reserve for later use.
- Place the pig in a large container. Coat it completely with the remaining marinade mixture.
- Cover the container, and let it chill for 8 to 24 hours. Make sure to baste it from time to time.
- Preheat the oven to 275°F.
- Place a wire rack in a large, aluminum foil-lined rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan.
- Remove the pig from the marinade, and place it on the rack.
- Inject the pig with the remaining 1 cup of marinade mixture. Also, run it with oil.
- Roast the pig in the preheated oven until a meat thermometer inserted into the shoulder joint shows 160°F. This might take around 4 hours.
- Increase oven temperature to 425°F, and roast until the skin is golden brown and crispy. Do this for almost 1 hour.
- Allow the pig to rest for about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
Slowly add orange and lime juice to the marinade, and pulse until smooth.
Thick holiday drinks are lovely in colder weather, but people on the Caribbean island of Martinique opt for something a little more uplifting: shrubb (not to be confused with vinegar-based shrubs with one “b”). This infused drink is made with overproof rhum agricole, citrus, cane syrup, and spices. It’s drunk from All Saint’s Day on November 1 (called Toussaint) through Christmas Eve. Importantly, it holds a special place during caroling parties on December Fridays called Chanté Nwel.
While every family has their own special recipe, there are also store-bought shrubbs available from Rhum J.M. in the United States. Making it yourself is easy and the most sure way to get the exact flavors you’re looking for, though. Just make sure you start with rhum agricole from Martinique, which is fermented from raw sugarcane juice rather than molasses and has a funky vegetal flavor.
- 1 bottle of Martinique rhum agricole
- 1 sliced citrus of your choice
- Spices to taste: cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, star anise, allspice, and vanilla
- Add your chosen ingredients to a bottle or mason jar
- Add the rhum until full
- Taste test until it’s the right flavor — start tasting around three days in
- Add simple syrup or sugarcane syrup to taste, stir it in completely
These flat cookies are an Italian favorite at weddings and around Christmastime. They look somewhat like flat (pizze means flat), tan snowflakes and require a special waffle iron to make. Sometimes the cookies are covered in powdered sugar, other times they’re served plain. Pizelle originally hail from Abruzzo, and by some accounts, the cookie’s history can be traced back to the Ancient Romans in the 8th century. However long they’ve been around, they’re a holiday season staple today.
“My Italian grandmother used to make them every year for the holidays,” says Liz Mincin, the blogger behind Waiting for Blancmange, “and the technique was passed down to me.”
- 6 eggs
- 4 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoon anise extract or ½ tbsp anise oil
- 3½ cups all purpose flour or plain flour
- 1½ cup sugar
- ½ cup unsalted butter softened to room temperature or melted
- Begin by making the pizzelle batter. Cream together the sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl.
- Add the eggs (two at a time) and beat after each addition.
- Then add the anise extract and beat to incorporate.
- Sift the flour and baking soda into the mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate – making sure there are no pockets of unmixed flour.
- Heat the pizzelle iron. Once this is hot, dollop out about a tablespoon into the middle of each mould space. Press the iron lid firmly shut and latch this. Allow to cook for about 30 seconds before unlatching and lifting the lid. Carefully remove the pizzelle from the press. Discard the first two. Repeat the process and place pizzelle a piece of parchment paper or wire rack to cool. Repeating until done with the batter.
Hawai’i: Fried ahi poke omelet
True poke from Hawai’i is a special dish. The name simply means “to slice or cut,” and it’s not restricted to pieces of fish — though some of the most cherished are made with ahi.
Ahi poke is always on holiday tables in Hawai’i, says Kiki Aranita, who ran Philadelphia’s Hawaiian-inspired restaurant Poi Dog and now has her own line of signature sauces. And if there’s every any leftovers the next day, Aranita’s dad’s secret weapon was make fried poke omelets in the holiday season.
“Poke Omelettes are special to me because they taste like a memory,” Aranita says. “Packed into my grandmother’s tiny kitchen at Thanksgiving and Christmas, my family hovers over a vast array of food: fresh fish pokes, fried noodles, creamy dips, and so much more. Over the course of the night, as people start to leave, my aunts, uncles, and dad divvy up the leftovers and make plans for them. As we divide, we get hungrier and at some point — maybe that night, maybe the following morning, he’ll make these poke omelets.”
- 2 pounds ahi
- ½ cup very thinly sliced sweet onion
- 2 tablespoons thin sliced green onion
- 2 teaspoons minced ginger
- ¼ cup limu (ogonori)
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- ¼ cup shoyu
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons crushed macadamia nut
- Small pinch of red Hawaiian alaea salt
- Poi Dog Chili Peppah Water
- Slice ahi into ½ inch cubes
- In a mixing bowl, add the remaining ingredients to the ahi and gently mix
- Serve immediately with rice or poi. Or on a taro chip.
Poke omelet instructions
- Heat up a tablespoon of a neutral oil (canola or vegetable oil) in a non-stick pan.
- Place the leftover ahi poke in the oiled pan and sear quickly, for about a minute.
- Flip the poke with a spatula, treating it like a pancake and sear on one other side, so that you have two seared sides.
- Move the poke out of the pan and onto a dish but keep the pan over the stove on medium heat.
- Beat one or two eggs with a splash of shoyu or a pinch of salt.
- Re-oil the pan.
- Spread the beaten egg in a thin layer on the pan. After a minute, before it is thoroughly cooked, add the poke onto the egg and fold it over into an omelette.
- Cook the other side of the omelette.
- Serve with steamed rice, sliced green onions and a big splash of Chili Peppah Water.
Ecuador: Roast pork sandwiches
“In my family, the big Christmas meal happens on Christmas Eve,” says Jose Garces, a James Beard Award winner, Iron Chef, and entrepreneur. “For as long as I can remember, Christmas Eve meant Slow Roasted Pork served with traditional Ecuadorian sides like warm hominy salad and my mom’s mashed potatoes. The next day, we make roast pork or Cuban Sandwiches in our pajamas and enjoy the time with family. This recipe for Cubano Sandwiches is simple and delicious.”
Roast pork ingredients
- 2 lb boneless pork shoulder, tied in an even roll
- 2 Tbsp plus 1 Tbsp kosher salt
- 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 Tbsp ground mustard
- 2 Tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup Dijon mustard
- 1 tsp mace
- 1 Tbsp smoked Spanish sweet paprika
Roast pork instructions
- To cure the pork, combine 2 tablespoons of the salt with the sugar and mustard powder, rub the mixture all over the meat, cover, and set it in the refrigerator to cure for 6 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F, with a rack in the center position.
- To roast the pork, rinse the cured pork under cold running water to remove the seasoning, then pat it dry. Combine the Dijon mustard, mace, paprika, and the remaining 1 tablespoon of salt and rub the mixture all over the meat.
- Set the pork in a roasting pan, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and cook until the internal temperature reaches 175°F, about 45 minutes. Allow the meat to cool completely before slicing.
Pork sandwich ingredients
- 4 (6-inch) light, crisp-crusted bakery rolls
- 2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 12 ounce best-quality domestic ham (unglazed)
- 4 ounce Swiss or Gruyère cheese, thinly sliced
- 1 large dill pickle, thinly sliced lengthwise
- 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
Pork sandwich instructions
- Preheat a sandwich press or griddle to medium-high heat.
- Split the bread lengthwise down the middle and pull it open. Spread the mustard on one side of each roll and layer on the roast pork, ham, gruyère, and pickles.
- Spread the butter all over the outside of the sandwiches and griddle until the cheese is melted and the meats are warmed through, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Alternatively, wrap the sandwich in foil and toast in a 350°F oven for 5 to 7 minutes.
- Slice each in half on the diagonal and serve.
England: Christmas pudding
Christmas pudding is known by a couple of names, plum pudding and figgy pudding among them. For those in the US who are more familiar with the type of pudding you eat with a spoon, this is more like a bread sausage of suet (beef fat), dried fruits, and spices. And boy is it beloved. It’s featured in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and is the food carolers demand in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as they scream for more figgy pudding.
“I regularly make British traditional Christmas foods for my husband, who is English,” Mincin, of Waiting for Blancmange, says. “Christmas Pudding is a particularly special food for the holidays. The Christmas pudding is essentially a rich and dense fruit pudding, soaked in rum and customarily made by the whole family on Stir Up Sunday (the last Sunday before Advent). The Christmas pudding also has a fun tradition where you add a token (usually a coin) to the batter before baking. Whoever gets the coin when the pudding is sliced is meant to have good luck. My mother-in-law always adds one coin for everyone who will be at her Christmas table!”
- 4 ounces self raising flour
- 4 ounces dried currants
- 4 ounces raisins or sultanas
- 4 ounces plain bread crumbs
- 4 ounces dark brown sugar (muscovado)
- 4 ounces shredded suet
- 1 large apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 eggs
- Juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 4 tablespoons of dark rum
- 1 cup milk
- Grease a 2 pint pudding basin with butter.
- In a large bowl mix together the dry ingredients – the flour, currants, raisins, breadcrumbs, sugar, suet, apple and spices.
- Next add the lemon juice and zest, eggs, rum and about half of the milk. Stir together and continue slowly adding the milk until your mixture reaches a dropping consistency. You may not need all of the milk.
- Once your mixture is at the desired consistency, pour into the pudding basin.
- At this stage you can add your coins — if you’re using pennies (like my mother-in-law), wrap these individually in a bit of parchment paper and foil and gently press into the batter. Best placed near to the edges, but be sure that they’re in the pudding enough that they will be covered and hidden.
- Cover and seal the pudding with greaseproof parchment paper and aluminum foil.
- Steam for 3 hours, checking the water level occasionally and topping up as necessary. If you are making in advance, steam again for a further 3 hours before serving.
- To serve, pour a bit of rum or brandy over the top and carefully light with a match set alight.
- Once the flame extinguishes, slice and serve with brandy cream.
Whereas Italy has its pizzelle, Norway has its krumkake. This holiday season treat is another type of thin cookie with seasonal patterns pressed into it from a specialized waffle press, but in Norway it’s traditional to roll it and fill it with whipped cream, fruit, or chocolate. The deviation from pizzelle is right there in the name: krumkake roughly translates to bent cake.
The best krumkakes are made with a dedicated krumkake iron, notes Ben Myhre of Ramshackle Pantry, and each one has its differences. He adds that the Norwegian holiday sweet is also popular in the US in the upper Midwest.
- ¾ cup of sifted all purpose flour
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- ¼ teaspoon crushed cardamom
- 2 eggs
- 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 tablespoons melted butter, but not hot
- Add flour, sugar, corn starch, cardamom to large bowl. Mix well.
- In smaller bowl, beat eggs and then add cream, vanilla, and butter. Mix well.
- Add liquid mixture into dry mixture and combined until a smooth peanut butter like consistency
- Preheat krumkake grill
- Each Krumkake will require about 1 ½ tablespoons of batter. Add one to your Krumkake maker and cook until golden brown. For my tool, this is about 1:30 seconds.
- Remove with fork and use Krumkake tool to form into cone before it cools down
- Allow grill to heat back up, repeat until batter is gone
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Fill with whipped cream and fruit. Eat!
United States: Eggnog
You’re probably familiar with eggnog. This creamy concoction is thought to have started with 13th century monks in Britain who drank a warm eggy, figgy punch called a posset. American colonists would mix their egg and cream with rum, which was the most available spirit, and even George Washington is said to have had a house recipe. Today, it’s often available in grocery stores before the Halloween decorations are put away. For the best eggnog, you have to make it yourself, though.
True eggnog fans can follow the advice of Aaron Goldfarb, drinks writer and author of Gather Around Cocktails: Drinks to Celebrate Usual and Unusual Holidays, who ages his eggnog. Goldfarb has a batch of five-year-old eggnog in his fridge, but told Matador in 2019 that homemade eggnog peaks in the first couple of months. In his book, he offers the following recipe.
- 12 eggs
- 6 cups whole milk
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 6 ounces bourbon
- 6 ounces dark rum
- 6 ounces Cognac or apple brandy
- Whole nutmeg, for garnish
- Separate the yolks from the whites, and beat the whites until they have soft peaks
- Whisk the yolks with the mlik, cream, sugar, bourbon, rum, and Cognac until smooth.
- Transfer the yolks mixture into a big serving bowl and fold in the egg whites
- Chill for at least a few hours before serving with grated fresh nutmeg
Puerto Rico: Coquito
Just because Puerto Rico is a tropical island doesn’t mean everyone ditches the creamy holiday drinks. Coquito translates to “little coconut” in Spanish, and refers to a drink made with a mix of condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream of coconut (plus a heavy hand of rum, of course). As Aryana Azari wrote for Matador in 2019, the Puerto Rican drink can be found around the Caribbean and Latin America, and each country — and each family — has their own specific recipe with small twists that make the beverage special. If you lack a recipe of your own, Discover Puerto Rico offers a good basic recipe to start with.
- 1 can of condensed milk
- 1 can of evaporated milk
- 1 can of cream of coconut (most Puerto Ricans prefer Coco López)
- ½ cup of white rum (Preferably Don Q or Bacardí)
- ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon (add more to taste)
- In a blender, add evaporated milk, cream of coconut, sweetened condensed milk, rum, vanilla extract, and cinnamon. Blend on high until mixture is well combined for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Transfer mixture into glass bottles and chill in the refrigerator until cold.
- To serve, pour coquito into small serving glasses (almost like a shot portion) and garnish with ground cinnamon or a cinnamon stick.