Christmastime is synonymous with food.
It’s the huge gathering of the family for the feast on Christmas Eve; the warm, cozy breakfast on Christmas morning; and the visit to Grandma’s for that special, annual, home-cooked meal, made the way only Granny can.
But often that food is more than just food — around it, family and friends bond, and memories are made. Food is a way for us to connect.
Sometimes recipes are steeped in tradition, lovingly handed down from one generation to the next. Some become an important part of a young family trying to establish its own Christmas customs. Many times, food becomes a way to share the joy of the season with others.
Altoona residents shared some of their favorite Christmas recipes, cooking traditions and memories.
More than just sugar cookies
For as long as she can remember, Tina Mowry Hadden has been making her Great Aunt Mae’s Sugar Cookies at Christmastime.
It’s a family tradition that Mowry Hadden, the youngest of five kids, has fond memories of.
“We would sit and decorate cookies for hours and just talk and laugh,” she reminisces.
Now she’s passing on the tradition to her son, Caleb Hadden, 7. The two have been making the cookies since Caleb was 1.
Those childhood times Mowry Hadden spent around the kitchen table making cookies have become more poignant for her the last several years, following the death of her mother, LaVonne Mowry, in January 2010.
“I think about her every time I get the recipe out,” Mowry Hadden says. “And I think about her every time I make them. I think I have perfected them where they almost taste as good as hers.”
Great Aunt Mae was Mowry Hadden’s father’s aunt. She passed the recipe down to Mowry Hadden’s mother, who handed it down to her.
“I hope whomever my son marries will want to carry on the tradition,” Mowry Hadden says.
Her earliest memory of making the cookies with her mom was before she was in kindergarten, sitting at the kitchen table.
“She was making the cookies, and she would sit a bowl of frosting in front of you, and would separate it out so that each child had a certain amount of frosting,” she says.
Her mom always rolled out the cookie dough and baked the cookies. She was particular about how the dough was rolled out to ensure using as much of the dough as possible. Mowry Hadden would decorate them.
Their Christmastime cookie-making continued as she got older — while she was home for Christmas from the University of Iowa, after college graduation and into her 20s and early 30s. Later, mother and daughter would expand their cookie-making to other holidays.
The family recipe continues to be passed on, with her siblings sharing it with their children, Mowry Hadden says. What makes it so special is the time spent with family, cultivating the tradition, sharing laughter, talking with one another and teaching their children how to make something.
“It’s more than just a sugar cookie recipe,” she says. “It’s taking time to be in the moment and to really learn how to watch your child and understand what he or she is doing or saying.”
Growing up, the time spent around the kitchen table making the sugar cookies and doing other projects was important to her mom.
“It wasn’t just where you had meals; it was where traditions were started,” she says.
With the holidays approaching, memories of her mom make her wish she was still here. Every time she starts to make the cookies, Mowry Hadden says, she gets a little sad.
“By the time we have finished, I am smiling with all kinds of special memories that have made me laugh,” she says. “And, Caleb gets to hear them all.”
Crazy for cupcakes
Emily Warren loves everything about cupcakes. She loves trying out different recipes and eating the batter. But it’s really all about the frosting for the Altoona resident, who loves making it, putting it on and eating it.
“The frosting is the best part,” says Warren, who has a sweet tooth and loves to bake. “Cupcakes are kind of my favorite thing to bake because I like to frost them.”
If it’s a holiday, Warren will likely be making cupcakes. The last couple of years for Christmas she’s made two types: eggnog and vanilla peppermint. At Thanksgiving, she whips up pumpkin-flavored cupcakes. For Mother’s Day last year, she made vanilla lemon.
She likes making cupcakes because they’re simpler than making a whole cake, and they “always look so cute,” she says.
Warren found the recipes for the eggnog and vanilla peppermint confections online. A fan of eggnog, why not make a cupcake and frosting with eggnog in both, she reasoned? She loves Sprinkles Cupcakes, a gourmet cupcakery, so she searched until she found the vanilla peppermint recipe created by Sprinkles’ owner.
Warren says both recipes are pretty straightforward and aren’t tough to make. Sometimes she’ll add red, green and white sprinkles for a fun holiday touch.
When it comes to the frosting, she’s a “frosting snob,” Warren says, and always makes her own for her cupcakes. She’s learned a few things through trial and error.
“I think the key to frosting is having the butter at room temperature,” she explains. Also, real butter is the way to go, she claims.
Then, there’s frosting the cupcake, which Warren really enjoys doing. There’s an art to it, she explains. First, a big dollop is placed in the middle, which is spread flat on top then worked along the sides of the thick frosting topping. Finish with a swirl on the top, she says.
Last Christmas, she made 72 cupcakes — three dozen of each. She took half of them to her workplace and some to family gatherings. For Warren, who describes herself as a “people pleaser,” she gets a lot of joy out of seeing others happily eat her cupcakes.
She may not be the best cook, Warren says, “but I can make a mean cupcake.”
Steak and Christmas Jell-O
Forget the turkey; forget the ham. For the Carr family of Altoona, Christmas dinner requires the grill.
Their holiday feast has been steak for at least 30 years along with homemade mashed potatoes and corn, says Marla Carr. She doesn’t know how they came up with the idea, but steak was something she and her husband, Jerry Carr, both liked, and Marla had grown up on a farm, where many times they had their own beef.
“We just thought it would be good to have something different,” she says of the meal for her immediate family.
The couple shares many of the meal preparation responsibilities, with Jerry grilling and sometimes making the potatoes. The weather dictates where Jerry will have to cook the steaks.
“Sometimes it’s nice,” Marla says, “and sometimes we’ve had to have the grill in the garage.”
For dessert, they have a fruit salad made with frozen strawberries and raspberries, cherry pie filling and raspberry and strawberry Jell-O. Marla has been making it the past 20 or 25 years and got the recipe from a friend.
The meal is made extra special by being served on Marla’s Christmas dishes, settings that she’s used for about two decades, she says. She puts the dessert in special Christmas goblets.
But Marla’s holiday culinary passion has nothing to do with their family dinner. She is a baking powerhouse, for years whipping up different breads and bars and peanut clusters.
Most of what she makes she gives away. She’ll send her husband and sons off to work with plates full of goodies. She also hosts a holiday party where she gives away bags filled with baked treats.
When it comes to the bars, the two she makes most often are oatmeal chocolate and one with almond paste (flavor wise, think Dutch Lletter-esque). The recipe for the former came from either a neighbor or church cookbook, she says, while the latter was from a student teacher she had worked with.
Marla also makes a lot of bread. The retired seventh-grade English teacher with the Southeast Polk Community School District would give them to her co-workers as gifts.
Baking is a habit that’s been hard to break. Every year, Carr vows to skip all of it. And every year, despite how busy things get, she caves.
“I still enjoy it, and I like being able to give something to people that has a homemade touch to it,” she says.
Made by Marla Carr
One 3-ounce package raspberry Jell-O (Carr uses sugar free)
One 3-ounce of strawberry Jell-O (Carr uses sugar free)
1 can cherry pie filling ( Carr uses the light variety)
1 package frozen, sliced strawberries (no sugar)
1 package frozen raspberries (no sugar)
Dissolve Jell-O in two cups of boiling water. Add frozen strawberries and raspberries. Fold in cherry pie filling. Put in a 9-by-13-inch pan or a two-quart dish. Carr likes to put it in Christmas goblets and top with a dollop of whipped cream or whipped topping.
Vanilla Peppermint Cupcakes
Recipe created by Candace Nelson, owner of Sprinkles Cupcakes. Makes one dozen cupcakes.
Made by Emily Warren
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. coarse salt
1/2 cup whole milk, room temperature
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 tsp. peppermint extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
2 large egg whites, room temperature
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, firm but not cold
1/8 tsp. salt
3 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. peppermint extract
1/2 tsp. milk
To make cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake liners; set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together milk and extracts; set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-high speed, until light and fluffy. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until well combined and fluffy. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly add egg and egg whites until just blended.
With the mixer on low, slowly add half the flour mixture; mix until just blended. Add the milk mixture; mix until just blended. Slowly add remaining flour mixture, scraping down sides of the bowl with a spatula, as necessary, until just blended.
Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups. Transfer muffin tin to oven and bake until tops are just dry to the touch, 22 to 25 minutes. Transfer muffin tin to a wire rack and let cupcakes cool completely in tin before icing.
To make frosting: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat the butter and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Reduce the speed to low, gradually add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until incorporated. Add the extracts and milk and beat until smooth and creamy. Do not overmix or the frosting will incorporate too much air; it should be creamy and dense, like ice cream. Add additional milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, if frosting does not have a spreadable consistency.
To frost: Scoop a generous amount of frosting on top of a cooled cupcake. Hold the cupcake in one hand and with the other hand use a small offset spatula to smooth the frosting over the entire top of the cupcake. To achieve the Sprinkles look, use the length of the spatula to create large swirls around the circumference of the cupcake. Or for a more homespun and rustic quality, use the tip of the spatula to create small ridges and waves in the frosting.
Be careful to handle the cupcake with care and not grip it too tightly, which can crush the delicate cake. In general, the less the cupcake is handled, the better. An experienced Sprinkles froster can frost a cupcake with only a few turns of the spatula!
Top with crushed candy canes!
Great Aunt Mae’s Sugar Cookies
Made by Tina Mowry Hadden
3/4 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1tsp. lemon juice (secret ingredient)
2 1/2 cups flour (last 1/2 used for rolling)
Mix together. Roll out on hard surface. Cut out. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.
Use powdered sugar, shortening and hot water to make frosting. Add colors for the season.