A Holiday Melting Pot

written by LINLEY MOBLEY

IF YOU’VE LIVED IN THE SOUTH YOUR WHOLE LIFE LIKE I HAVE, you may believe that every holiday season looks like this: On Thanksgiving, people stuff themselves full of turkey and dressing, pumpkin pie and mac n’cheese before spending hours watching football (or sleeping) on the sofa. Black Friday begins about five hours after Thanksgiving dinner, when deal-happy family members head for long lines to capitalize on once-a-year sales. Most will spend the next month shopping for every family member, friend, neighbor and pet they have, until Christmas Eve, where many find themselves merrily crammed into one small house with lots of extended family members, knocking back eggnog before the last minute wrapping ensues. On Christmas Day, more turkey – maybe a ham – gets stuffed and served, dressing, green bean casserole and cranberry sauce are passed around, stockings are taken down and wrapping paper covers the floor. 
Imagine if your holiday season is celebrated uniquely – like many families in Metro Atlanta — as they occur thousands of miles from your cozy home or possibly just around the corner. Sometimes we fail to see that there are thousands of people around us who live and celebrate life in a completely different way.
With a little help from these tasty traditions, I hope you’ll discover a holiday treat that you and your family can incorporate into your own special season, no matter what you’re celebrating.

Hanukkah in the South

You most likely know the story already – Greek soldiers descended upon Jerusalem destroying the holy temple. There wasn’t enough oil to keep the lamps burning, so the people living there rode to find more, knowing the lights wouldn’t stay burning. But miraculously, the flames continued flickering for eight nights. That’s why Hanukkah is called The Festival of Lights, and why a menorah holds eight candles, one lit each night. 
The parts of the story you may not know are a little more … tasty. In fact, as Alpharetta resident Gina Kellis tells us, the oil plays a pretty big part today, from a culinary perspective, at least. And when she started describing her friend Ziva’s recipe for sufganiyot (her kids seconding her enthusiasm in the background), I couldn’t help but agree. The jelly-filled, powdered sugar-covered doughnuts are a popular Hanukkah party staple amongst other oil-fried favorites, like potato latkes. 

“Every family has a different recipe for latkes,” Kellis said. “When you go to a party, people will bring them, but there will be all different types depending on where your family came from. German, Austrian and central European latkes are usually made from shredded potatoes mixed with ingredients and then fried. My family, we’re Polish/Russian, we grate our potatoes first, so it’s smoother, more like a pancake.” 
The variation in tradition goes further than the kitchen. “Every night we light the Hanukkah candles,” Kellis said. “We light my grandmother’s menorah. It’s a family heirloom that carries a lot of meaning for us. It’s the same menorah she lit for my father and his family and now we light it for my family. We say prayers. We sing songs and play games like Dreidle. We eat Hanukkah cookies, doughnuts, latkes and give gifts. We go to a Hanukkah party, usually. 

“But I am a Southern Jew,” she added. “My parents were raised here, too. I know that some of the traditions we have are different from the way they do it up north, or overseas. It’s really interesting to hear about those.”


2 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
2.5 tbsp baking powder

Stir all ingredients together, except oil, and make ping pong sized balls to fry in deep oil. Fill each ball with Nutella, jelly or other filling. Sprinkle powdered sugar on top

Want a shortcut?
Let 1 bag of dinner yeast dinner rolls rise for a few hours. Then, fry them in deep oil until golden brown. Fill each roll with desired filling. Sprinkle powdered sugar on top.


3 medium potatoes
1 medium onion
2 eggs
1/2 cup matzoh meal (or flour)
1/3 cup cup oil (for frying)
1 tsp salt

Peel potatoes and cut into small chunks. Grate the onion. Blend the onion and the potatoes, eggs, meal/flour and salt (minus the oil) in a food processor or blender.

Heat oil in pan on medium high heat. Spoon mixture into pan using small pancake-sized scoops. Fry each side until golden brown. To cool, place fried latkes on paper towels to remove excess oil. Enjoy with sour cream or applesauce, as desired.

Makes about 24 latkes

Mexico’s Las Posadas 

This holiday, which means “the inns,” is celebrated in Mexico December 16-24. While each community celebrates a little differently, most people follow along the same theme – honoring the nine-day journey that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Normally, each night a friend or family member hosts a celebration at their home. Children dress up as characters from the story, passages of scripture are read, children take their turns at a piñata and, most importantly, a feast is served.

Traditional food and drink include empanadas, buñuelos (deep fried dough) and a steamy cup of champurrado – a type of hot chocolate thickened using maize flour and spiced using cinnamon, star anise and vanilla.

One of the most traditional foods served during Las Posadas, according to Chef Kevin Maxey at The El Felix in Alpharetta are, of course, tamales. “Tamales are truly a labor of love, and the more hands you have to help, the better,” said Maxey. “It’s the perfect dish to make if you have a couple of days to spend with family, because there are a lot of little tasks that can be divvied out, allowing you to catch up with friends and family while you work.”

Maxey’s amazing tamales recipe will feed the entire family, and then some, which is perfect for a season when hosting responsibilities abound.


The chili paste:
20 dried ancho chile peppers, stemmed and seeded
5 dried morita or chipotle chili

Soak chile peppers in water until soft. In a food processor, grind chilies into a thick paste, adding the soaking liquid as needed. Set aside to use in filling and masa.

The pork filling:
1 5 lb pork butt
1 large onion, quartered
8 garlic cloves 
2 tbsp salt  
1 tbsp black pepper
1/4 cup lard
4 tbsp ground cumin
1 cup chili paste
salt and pepper to taste

Cover the pork with water in a deep, heavy pot and boil with onion, whole garlic cloves, salt and pepper for 90 minutes, or until the meat’s internal temperature reaches 175 degrees. Reserve at least 2 cups of pork stock. Remove the pork, allow to cool, then shred the meat, discarding bone and excess fat. 

Melt the lard in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add cumin and chili paste and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, until fragrant. 

Add shredded meat and enough stock to moisten the mixture. May need additional salt and pepper to taste. Filling may be prepared a day ahead.

The masa:
10 lbs fresh ground masa 
2 lbs lard
1 cup pork stock
2 tbsp salt, or to taste
1/2 cup chili paste, or to taste

On a large work surface, knead the lard into the fresh masa for 10 to 15 minutes, adding pork stock a little at a time until the masa is cohesive and soft.  

Add salt and chili paste to taste. You can test the masa’s readiness by dropping a small amount in a glass of water: if it floats, it is ready to spread. 

The tamales:
5 bags dried corn husks that have been soaked in water overnight

Take a husk and thinly spread 2 or 3 tbsps of the masa on its smooth side, covering the bottom two thirds of the husk (a 2-inch wide putty knife works great for this).  

Down the middle of the masa, place about 1 tbsp of filling. Now fold one side of the husk over the filling, followed by the other side. Then fold the top down to cover. 

Steam tamales 90 minutes. Allow to cool and enjoy.

Makes about 120 tamales

Cuba’s Noche Buena

In Cuba, the open celebration of Christmas is still relatively new. Under Fidel Castro’s atheist rule, Christmas was banned in Cuba in 1969. However, after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1997, the tradition of Christmas started to make its way back into the communities (even if it was a little secretive at the time). With years of persuasion from the pope, the ban on Christmas was officially lifted in 2007 and families were allowed to openly celebrate the holiday.

Cubans celebrate Christmas much like we do in the U.S., with gifts and huge family celebrations. However, Christmas Eve is definitely the heart of their holiday. In Cuba, Christmas Eve is called Noche Buena, which means, the good night. Families come together and celebrate with a large feast incuding roasting an entire pig. Often, the feast starts around 10 p.m. and lasts until it’s time to open gifts at midnight.

“For me, Nocha Buena was safe, warm and comfortable – a time when family got together to eat and make new memories,” said Lazaro Tenreiro, owner and chef of Lazaro’s Cuban Cuisine in Roswell. “We would listen to the elders reminisce on family history and traditions. That always made us (the younger generation) dream of making our own memories and traditions to pass on to future generations.”

Families enjoy dishes such as black beans, fried plantains, rice pudding and rum cake, but according to Tenreiro, Noche Buena could not be complete without roast pork and yuca con mojo.


Mojo Sauce:

20 medium cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp fine sea salt3 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup fresh lime juice 
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a pan, heat olive oil on medium heat and sauté onions for about 2 to 3 minutes depending on your preference. Add minced garlic and turn off heat. Add all other ingredients and mix well. Use about a fourth to pour over Yuca and the rest goes over the pork before serving.

12 to 14 lb bone-in pork butt
2 tbsp fine sea salt

Place pork in deep roasting pan. Set oven at 200 degrees. Rub salt on pork. Cover pan with tin foil making sure foil is tight and pan is completely sealed. Place in center oven rack and cook overnight for 9 to 10 hours. Pour Mojo sauce before serving.

2 lbs fresh Yuca
1 tsp fine sea salt
Fresh parsley to taste

Peel Yuca down to white flesh. Make sure you peel pink second skin. Cut in half lengthwise in 2 to 3 inch chunks. Place Yuca in pot and cover with water. Place on stovetop on high heat. Add salt and bring to a boil then reduce to low medium heat and cook for 25 to 30 minutes until Yuca is tender and breaks easily when stabbed with fork. Remove from stove, drain water. Place in serving dish and top with Mojo sauce. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley.

Iran’s Shab-e-Yalda

Shab-e-Yalda is the winter solstice celebration in the Persian culture, which lands on the 20th this year. This holiday has been honored since ancient times, originally formed to celebrate the birth of Mithra, the goddess of light who defeated darkness.

“Shab-e-Yalda really brings families together,” said Stephen Kaplan, partner and CFO at Rumi’s Kitchen in Alpharetta. “Everyone stays up together until late in the evening just talking, laughing, listening to music and playing games.”

Traditionally, red fruits and nuts are eaten, to symbolize a few different things including: pomegranates, which symbolize the circle of life; watermelons, symbolizing health; and dried nuts, which are the holiday’s symbol for prosperity.

Shab-e-Yalda would not be complete without a steaming bowl of Fesenjoon, which executive chef and owner Ali Mesghali shared with us.


2 lbs skinless, boneless chicken breast tenderloins
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp canola oil
4 cups shelled walnuts (about 1 lb)
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cups pomegranate molasses
1/2 cup grated butternut squash
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground saffron
2 cups chicken broth
4 tbsp sugarSteamed basmati rice

Preheat the oven to 350.

Heat canola oil in a frying pan. Add in thinly sliced onion and pan fry on medium heat until golden brown.
Lightly season chicken with salt and pepper, and add to frying pan. Cook until chicken is browned. Remove from heat and set aside.

Spread walnuts on a baking sheet, and bake until toasted, about 5 minutes. Pulse in a food processor until finely chopped. Transfer to a large pot and add 2 cups water. Place over medium-low heat and simmer, partly covered, stirring it occasionally for 20 minutes. Add 2 cups pomegranate molasses, sautéed chicken, squash, cinnamon, saffron and 1 cup chicken broth.

Adjust flavor with sugar, salt and pomegranate molasses, so it is tangy but also a bit sweet. Simmer gently, covered, until the sauce is a dark walnut color with a layer of oil on the surface, 35 to 40 minutes. If the pan looks dry, add additional broth or water as needed. Adjust flavors again, and stir so the walnut oil is well mixed.

Bring the mixture to another gentle boil with the lid ajar, then continue to simmer on low heat until the sauce has thickened and the chicken is cooked through, 10 to 20 minutes. Make a final taste test, and adjust flavors to your liking.

To serve, stir so that the walnut oil is evenly absorbed. Serve hot with steamed rice.

China’s Dongzhi

Dongzhi is the winter solstice festival celebrated in China, which falls on the 22nd this year. Families come together to celebrate both the darkness and the light, and like any good holiday, it’s not complete without a lot of good food.

Since this holiday focuses on the longest night and shortest day of the year, it encompasses the concept of yin and yang. Since the yin attributes of cold and darkness are the strongest during Dongzhi, traditional dishes are focused around food meant to warm the body and soul including wonton, tangyuan (rice balls), mutton and noodles. After Dongzhi, the yang attributes of warmth, light and positivity are welcomed in.

“For my family, Dongzhi would never be complete without dumplings,” said Mimi Lin, who owns WeiDao in Johns Creek with her husband. “In fact, they are part of any big traditional meal we eat when we get our family all together.”

1/2 lb ground pork
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1/4 tsp freshly ground white pepper, or to taste
2 tbsp sesame oil1/2 green onion, finely minced
1.5 cups finely shredded Napa cabbage
4 tbsp shredded bamboo shoots
2 slices fresh ginger, finely minced
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
200g (1/2 lb) Dumpling wrapper (check your local Asian grocery for this) 
8 tbsp soy sauce 
1 tbsp rice vinegar 
2 tsp sesame oil 

Add the soy sauce, salt, rice wine and white pepper to the meat, stirring in only one direction. 

Add the remaining ingredients, stirring in the same direction, and mix well.

Place a small portion (about 1 tbsp) of the filling into the middle of each wrapper. Wet the edges of the dumpling with water. Fold the dough over the filling into a half moon shape and pinch the edges to seal.

Dumplings can be boiled, steamed or pan fried.

Cheesy Tradition

While there are many different holidays to celebrate throughout the world, there are also a variety of ways that families right here in the Northside celebrate the same holiday.

“To me, Christmas smells like fondue,” said Andie Adkins.

Adkins, who lives in Sugar Hill with her husband and three girls, grew up looking forward to Christmas Eve not because it was a time to open gifts, but because it was a time to crowd around the coffee table with her parents and three siblings and stuff themselves with fondue and all the accompaniments.
Now that most of her siblings are married and have kids of their own, Fondue Christmas Eve has become a much grander ordeal.

“And a new tradition has even been born out of what we all started,” said Adkins. “Chocolate fondue for dessert!”


3/4 lb Emmenthaler or Gruyère cheese
2 tbsp flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
1 garlic clove, peeled and slashed
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp kirsch
Chunks of French or Italian bread

Toss cheese and flour together until all trace of flour disappears. Pour wine and water into fondue pot. Add garlic clove and heat until air bubbles begin to form. Add cheese slowly, stirring constantly with a fork until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Discard garlic. Stir in kirsch. Using fondue forks, dunk french bread (cut earlier so it has time to dry out), boiled potatoes, meats, veggies, and even apples into the cheese and enjoy!

Cajun Christmas Eve

Sharon Rowan and her family also have a unique Christmas Eve family tradition. Rowan has lived in Suwanee for years but grew up and attended -college in Louisiana, which means her holidays are full of Cajun influences. Every Christmas Eve she makes a big pot of traditional gumbo that she and her family enjoy together.


2 cups flour
2 cups vegetable oil
3 lbs shrimp
1 pint crabmeat
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
3 onions, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 bag of frozen chopped okra
1 28oz can stewed tomatoes
1 lb Andouille sausage, sliced into rounds
Tony Chachere’s original seasoning 
salt and pepper to taste

Make roux by heating an iron skillet on the stovetop and combining the flour and oil. Keep heat on a low-medium temperature, constantly stirring them together until the roux color resembles an old penny. This is a slow process and will take 30 mins -1 hour of careful, constant stirring so it won’t burn. 

Once the roux has darkened add the bell pepper, celery, onion and seasonings. Cook until vegetables are tender then transfer the mixture to a larger stock/soup pot. Add can of stewed tomatoes after chopping into smaller pieces. Add okra and bay leaf then cover it all with water. Let simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Add sausage and shrimp. (You can cook sausage on the side first to reduce the amount of grease in the gumbo). Cook until shrimp is pink. Add the crabmeat the last few minutes. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

Serve with rice and french bread. Enjoy … it’s especially better on the second day.

New England Niche 

This next recipe, given to us by Jonathan Schwenk, co-owner of C&S Chowder House in Roswell, comes from a New England Christmas tradition. Schwenk, who grew up in the northeast, remembers his mother making mincemeat pie every Christmas.

“While the adults loved it, it was never my favorite as a kid,” Schwenk said. “We’d make faces at it, and go straight for the pumpkin pie or apple pie instead!”

Although he has vivid memories of hating it during his childhood, Schwenk eventually came to appreciate the aromatic, flavorful holiday treat.


2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and cold
1/2 tsp salt kosher
1/4 lb unsalted butter
1 cup raisins
1 cup dried currants
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint1 tsp grated orange zest
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup molasses
1 Granny Smith apple, cored and chopped
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup dark rum
1/4 cup brandy
2 tbsp salted melted butter
1 tbsp milk
2 tbsp sugar

Make the crust in a small bowl, mix ½ cup of the flour with ¼ cup of ice water until a paste forms. 
In a medium bowl, combine the remaining 1 ½ cups of flour with the shortening, butter and salt, cutting in the shortening and butter until pea-size pieces form.

Add the flour paste and gently knead until the dough comes together. Pat into a 1-inch- thick disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Meanwhile, make the filling in a large saucepan, combine all of the ingredients except the rum and brandy. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and the apples are tender, about 15 minutes. 

Stir in the rum and brandy and let cool to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 375. Cut the dough in half. On a lightly floured work surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out each half into a 12-inch round about 1/8 inch thick. Fit 1 round into a 9-inch pie plate. Spread the filling in the pie shell, then place the other pie crust on the top. Pinch top crust and bottom crust together and crimp decoratively.

Brush the pie with the melted butter and drizzle over the milk.

Sprinkle with the sugar and make 8 small slits in the top. Set the pie on a baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour and 45 minutes, until the crust is golden.

Transfer the pie to a rack to cool completely.