Real Christmas Traditions.

As our lives have changed — growing children, moving households, adding and losing family members — so have our family traditions evolved. Life is nothing but change. And that’s good! Enjoy every freaking minute of it. Because as one of my favorite South Park Christmas carols says, “Dead, dead, dead. Someday we’ll all be dead.”

But, BUT, as Tim Minchin sings to his daughter in another of my very favorite holiday songs:

“you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world”

One of the primary ways we make children – and ourselves, too, I guess – feel safe in this world is to share traditions with each other. It’s comforting and important to recognize the influence of those who came before you and carry their love forward and share it with everyone who comes into the circle of our love. So many different types of traditions are important, of course, but since this is technically a food blog (though you wouldn’t know if from the way I’m blathering on), this post is about the food traditions in our family.

You can see the annual cookie baking with my mom — especially the Krumkakes, one of the delicious traditions from the Norwegian side of our family —  on the Bites page or at

Here, I’ll focus on our family’s annual Italian-American Christmas Feast — influenced, of course, by my much loved and missed mother-in-law, Fran. Italian food is super easy to “Real Food” up. I simply bought organic and local as much as possible, looked for canned goods with no preservatives or added sugar, and used whole wheat flour, breadcrumbs and spaghetti.

So… cooking! (“Finally!” you say.) The great thing about Italian food is that you can make a lot of it in advance and either fridge or freeze it until the big Feast. Everything I describe below was made on a Saturday afternoon/evening a week and a half before Christmas. It takes awhile, I admit, but we stay entertained: Christmas music, joke-telling (amusing boy-anecdote below*), reminiscing, maybe even a little, tiny bit of wine drinking for the grownups.

We have our big Feast on Christmas Day. The “Christmas Eve Shrimp” and the Italian bread I made on that day, because they are best freshly made.  Everything else, I took out of the freezer the day before to defrost in the fridge. Then started heating it up at the same time we open the Prosecco Christmas morning — after the presents are opened. Three boys under the age of 13 meant that packages were torn thru by 7AM and I was into the Prosecco by 10AM this year. I would not necessarily recommend such an early schedule to others. I hope to see it get a bit later each year. Maybe by the time the 5yo is 12, I’ll be able to hold off drinking until 1PM? That seems reasonable. This year we had our Feast around 1:30. I’m not good with math, but you can probably make a good estimate of how much Prosecco I had consumed before we opened the bottles of Amarone and Chianti to have with the Feast. Boy, I really like Christmas.!

Back to the prep-cooking. The order I list below is the order in which I cooked it all — it works best for the assembly, as you’ll see.

First: Tomato Sauce (aka “Gravy”)

  • 2 T or so olive oil
  • 1/2 an med. onion, finely chopped
  • 2 gloves garlic, minced
  • a couple of glugs of red wine
  • 2 1# cans whole tomotoes
  • 1 1# can crushed tomatoes
  • (optional) chunk of a parmesan rind (I keep a bag of these in the freezer from every time we go through a hunk)
  • salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried basil, dried oregano to taste (I recommend LOTS of oregano)
  1. heat olive oil then sautee onions until translucent; add garlic, some salt and pepper, and a couple of glugs of red wine; cook until it thickens (almost “jammy”)
  2. while onions cook in the wine, open the cans of tomotoes — puree the 2 cans of whole tomatoes and their juice in a blender (I know, I know, why not just buy 3 cans of crushed? I’m telling you, the texture is just not right unless you do it this way) then add to pot along with the can of crushed tomatoes
  3. add seasonings to taste and the parmesan rind
  4. bring to a high simmer, cover, reduce heat and let rock for a couple of hours

Meanwhile, make: Braciole

Pouding out the flank steak
Pouding out the flank steak
braciole stuffing
braciole stuffing
sliced braciole with spaghetti and sauce
sliced braciole with spaghetti and sauce
  • flank steak
  • 3-4 T whole wheat breadcrumbs
  • 3-4 T grated parmesan cheese
  • 1-2 T minced onion and garlic
  • 1-2 T minced fresh Italian parsley
  • sprinkling of salt, pepper, garlic powder and oregano
  1. place the flank steak between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound it out to 1/2 inch or thinner (this is a good time to get the kids involved)
  2. remove it from plastic wrap and layer the stuffing in the order listed above
  3. roll it up and tie it closed with twine, pin the ends closed with toothpicks (sorry, forgot to take a picture of it at this point)
  4. brown all sides in a large skillet then add it to the tomato sauce to cook for awhile

To eat: remove from sauce, remove toothpicks and twine and slice crosswise.

Then get cracking on the Eggplant Parmesan

batter for frying eggplant
batter for frying eggplant
fried eggplant
fried eggplant
assembled eggplant parmesan for freezing
assembled eggplant parmesan for freezing
  • 3 medium eggplants, sliced into 1/2 in slices
  • a neutral oil, like safflower
  • dry batter (in one bowl): 1 c whole wheat flour; a few dashes of salt, pepper, and garlic powder
  • wet batter (in another bowl): 1 egg, beaten; 1 c milk; 3 T parmesan cheese; 2 t oregano; 1 T chopped fresh Italian parsley

[The batter is the same we do to make Fran’s famous “Christmas Eve Shrimp”, below. It works well for frying up pretty much anything.]

  1. spread the eggplant slices out on papertowels, salt them, cover with another layer of papertowels and let sit for at least half an hour to draw out the moisture
  2. heat the oil; dip the eggplant slices in the flour mixture, then into the wet mixture, then put in the pan until lightly browned; turn and brown the other side
  3. lay out on papertowels to drain and cool
  4. layer in dish; alternating tomato sauce, eggplant, sauce, etc. Cover and freeze at this point (or bake now). Top with a layer of grated mozzerella; cover and bake for 30-45 mins at 375 degrees. Uncover and bake or broil until top is lightly browned.

Move blithely on to the Manicotti crepes (note hair up now and wine #3 or 4? in the background – I was getting serious!)

manicotti crepe batter
manicotti crepe batter
manicotti crepes
manicotti crepes
filling the crepes
filling the crepes
a pan of manicotti almost ready for freezing
a pan of manicotti almost ready for freezing

I must admit that I am pretty darn proud of these! They taste so, SO much better than the boxed manicotti pasta, but they are one of the more difficult things I make. However, this year I only had 4 failed crepes before I hit my stride — it usually takes me up to #9 or more. Also, this year was the first year I used whole wheat flour for the batter.  Everyone much prefered it to the all-purpose white versions of the past — a really great flavor.

  • 2 c white whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur brand)
  • a drizzle of olive oil
  • 2 lg eggs
  • 3 c water
  • 1/2 t salt
  1. combine in a large mixing bowl and whisk until smooth
  2. heat a non-stick skillet and lightly coat with oil
  3. ladle a small scoopful of batter and whirl it out with the back of the ladle — it should spread easily because the batter is very thin
  4. when edges start to curl, flip it over; then cool on wax paper

When cool, spoon in 2-3 T of the cheese filling (see photo above, recipe below)

  • 1 lb whole milk ricotta
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/4 c finely chopped Italian parsley
  • 2-3 T parmesan cheese
  • salt, pepper, garlic powder and oregano to taste

Fold the crepes into thirds and place fold side down in a baking dish on top of a layer of sauce. Layer more sauce on top. Cover and freeze. Defrost and bake, covered, in a 400 degree oven for 30-45 minutes

THEN, cover or pour into plastic containers everything that’s left and store in fridge or freezer. Empty dregs of wine glass. Start dishwasher. Go to bed.

On Christmas Day!

Italian Bread

homemade Italian bread
homemade Italian bread

I described this at Bread. Same deal for Christmas Day. Started in the bread machine once the presents were open and it was done well in time for dinner. Yummy.

Christmas Eve Shrimp

"Christmas Eve Shrimp" recipe (Fran's instructions, Jane's handwriting, my notes)
“Christmas Eve Shrimp” recipe ca. 2002 (Fran’s instructions, Jane’s handwriting, my added notes)
frying the shrimp
frying the shrimp
"Christmas Eve Shrimp" for Christmas Day
“Christmas Eve Shrimp” for Christmas Day

We call this “Christmas Eve Shrimp” because Fran always made it for the traditional Italian Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes. We don’t do the Christmas Eve Fish Feast, but I do think of her fondly and always recall (and completely relate to) her frustration with cooking this dish: most of it will be eaten off the cooling rack as soon as it comes out of the pan. I suggest that you just give everyone a glass of Prosecco and stand around in the kitchen and eat up. Don’t try to make a big presentation of it. You will not succeed.

  • 2 pounds raw shrimp; peeled and deveined
  • a neutral oil, like safflower
  • dry batter (in one bowl): 1 c whole wheat flour; a few dashes of salt, pepper, and garlic powder
  • wet batter (in a 2nd bowl): 1 egg, beaten; 1 c milk; 3 T parmesan cheese; 2 t oregano; 1 T chopped fresh Italian parsley
  1. heat the oil; dip the shrimp in the dry batter, then in the wet batter; then place in the hot oil
  2. fry till lightly browned on one side; turn and brown; drain and cool on a rack
  3. attempt to stab hands away that sneak in to eat them as quickly as them come out of the pan

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone! Cheers to a wonderful year to come!

*Oh, yeah, the anecdote:

As the Saturday cooking day wore on, the 9y.o. and 5y.o. were trying to one-up-each other with their joke-telling abilities.

  • 9y.o.: “Momma, Momma.”
  • me: “Yes?”
  • 9y.o.: “Why was 6 afraid of 7?”
  • me: “I don’t know. Why?”
  • 9y.o.: “Because 7 8 9!”


  • 9y.o. “And, Momma?! Momma!”
  • me: “Yes?”
  • 9y.o. “If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?”
  • me: “Junebugs?” (I thought that was kind of clever)
  • 9y.o. “No! Pilgrims.”

Ah! Haha.

  • 5y.o. “Mommy! Mommy!” [please realize that they are all this time sitting about two feet away from me — our kitchen is not that big — but they holler for me like I’m a half a block away]. “I gots a good one!”
  • me “Okay… let’s hear it!”
  • 5y.o. “Why did the chicken run down the hallway?”
  • me “I don’t know. Why?”
  • 5y.o. “Because his name was Chicken Running Down the Hallway!”

HA! I actually laughed so hard at that one that tears were running down my face. I love 5yo humor. At that point the 12-practically-13yo slouches in and says “What’s so funny?”  So we tell him the “hilarious” jokes all over again. He barely cracks a smile. Of course. Then says in this deep voice that he occasionaly uses (I’m pretty sure he is faking that, by the way): “Welllll… I have a good joke.”

  • me: “Oh — let’s hear it, honey!”
  • 12/13y.o.: “There once was a man from Nantucket, whose…”
  • me: “WOAH, woah, woah! OK. I’ll think we’ll save that one for another time!”
  • 12/13y.o., slouching out of the kitchen, smirking: “Whatever.”

Well, my goodness. There’s a time and place for a good Nantucket limerick — but I’m pretty sure that was not it! Nor am I quite mentally prepared to hear such a joke from my 13yo son. Yikes.

Ah, Christmas memories.

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