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A time for tradition

From tamales to pierogi to baklava, families prepare much-loved Christmas recipes

During the Christmas season, food traditions abound.

It’s a time when special, once-a-year recipes bring families together. A time when memories are made, stories are shared and kitchens are filled with the comforting aroma of dishes made from family recipes, passed down from generation to generation.

And it’s a time when our nation’s rich cultural diversity shines on holiday tables.

Polish families are busy preparing pierogi to serve for Wigilia on Christmas Eve. Hispanic households are assembling and steaming tamales. In Greek communities, trays of baklava are enjoyed alongside the traditional holiday cookie assortment. And then there’s the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes, an array of seafood dishes served on Christmas Eve.

My Polish-Ukrainian family is no exception.

At my uncle’s Livonia, Mich., home this weekend, we’ll be busy making kielbasa — 400-500 pounds of it. It’s a holiday tradition my late father started in 1961.

Today, we take a peek into the kitchens of four families for just a taste of the treasured food traditions taking hold this holiday season.



For more than 40 years, Angie Bournias of Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., has made baklava for Christmas.

She learned how to make the traditional Greek pastry from her late father-in-law, Nick Bournias.

“He told about crumpling up the phyllo sheet and baking the baklava slow in a 325-degree oven,” she says.

Since then, Bournias has carried on the tradition and now makes it with her grandchildren.

“This is one of those family recipes that are best taught to the children while making it together,” says Bournias. “They love the job of brushing the butter, and as they grow older, become meticulous with the job.”

Bournias says she hopes “they will remember those little tips and carry it on.”

Bournias’ tips: Use lemon juice in the syrup to prevent it from crystallizing. And be sure to keep the phyllo covered to prevent it from drying out. Baking the baklava in a low oven ensures that it bakes evenly, doesn’t brown too much on the top or bottom and allows the layers in between to crisp.



Makes: About 30 pieces / Preparation time: 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours (not all active time)


2 cups sugar

2 cups water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 stick cinnamon

1/3 cup honey


4 cups chopped walnuts (6 cups walnut halves equals this amount), or use chopped almonds, pecans or pistachios

1½ cups granulated sugar

1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

l pound phyllo dough, thawed

3 sticks (or more as needed) unsalted butter, melted

Have ready a 9-by-13-inch rectangular stainless, glass or heavy aluminum foil baking pan.

To make the syrup: In a saucepan combine all the syrup ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, make the baklava. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl combine the nuts, sugar and cinnamon. Taste the mixture and make sure it has the right balance of cinnamon. Set aside.

Lay out the thawed phyllo and cover with a clean kitchen towel.

Using a pastry brush, brush pan bottom and sides evenly with butter; place one sheet of phyllo in the pan, brush again. Add 3 more sheets, brushing each one with the butter. Crumple a phyllo sheet into smaller pieces and place on top of the 4 buttered sheets. Add one more sheet and brush with butter again. Sprinkle one-quarter of the nut mixture evenly over entire pan.

Repeat process with phyllo sheets, butter, crumpled phyllo sheet, another phyllo sheet and then the nut mixture so that you have four layers of nuts. Finish pan with another phyllo layer, butter, phyllo, butter, crumpled phyllo, and two more top layers. Tuck sides all around the pan under, brush again with butter.

Before baking, use a sharp knife to cut through the baklava into the size pieces you want. At this point the baklava can be frozen, unbaked. (When ready to use, place in a 325-degree oven without thawing.)

Bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from the oven and pour the cooled syrup evenly over the hot pan directly from the oven. It will sizzle and rise up. Do not cover. When cool, loosely cover with foil.

From Angie Bournias, Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.

Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. Nutrition information not available.



Every Christmas Eve, Angela Casali of St. Clair Shores, Mich., hosts the Feast of the Seven Fishes at her home.

And she has done so since 1960.

An Italian tradition, the Feast of the Seven Fishes commemorates the birth of Jesus with a meatless meal composed of seven seafood dishes (though some serve nine or 13).

“My favorite part is the fact that it is a tradition,” says Casali, 78. “Not everyone eats the food, but they sit at the table.”

Casali says she has served a variety of fish dishes over the years but she always includes three shrimp recipes — a shrimp cocktail and two recipes she crafted herself. One is a spinoff of shrimp scampi, with lots of garlic. The other is a spicy shrimp creole with tomatoes.

“I love seeing the next generation as we are trying to teach them and they are holding on to the tradition,” says Casali, who always includes an extra place setting for unexpected guests. “The food is amazing.”

Casali’s tips: For the scampi, don’t skimp on the garlic. She recommends using Red Gold brand canned petite diced tomatoes for the creole.



Serves: 4 / Preparation time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

1¼ pounds extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 can (14.5 ounces) plain petite diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon creole seasoning

Pat the shrimp dry. In a skillet add the tomatoes and creole seasoning. Heat over medium for about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp. Cover and cook until the shrimp are cooked through and just start to turn pink, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and serve over cooked pasta, if desired.

From Angela Casali, St. Clair Shores. Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. Nutrition information not available.



Serves: 8 / Preparation time: 20 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

1½ to 1¾ pounds extra-large or jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 stick unsalted butter

4 cloves (or as desired) garlic, thinly sliced or chopped

1 tablespoon lemon juice

½ cup bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place shrimp in a layer in a baking dish. In a saucepan, melt the butter with the garlic until the garlic is fragrant. Stir in the lemon juice. Pour the mixture over the shrimp in the pan and sprinkle the top with bread crumbs.

Bake until the shrimp just start to turn pink and are cooked through, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and serve.

From Angela Casali, St. Clair Shores, Mich. Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. Nutrition information not available.



Jerry Dwornick’s granddaughter Monica Patterson is only 4 years old, but she’s already skilled at making pierogi.

This was her second year helping Dwornick, 54, of Wyandotte, Mich., who took over the family tradition 20 years ago after his father, Arthur, had a stroke.

“It’s a labor of love, a tradition,” says Dwornick, a power operations supervisor at the Wyandotte Power Plant. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t do this.”

Every year, Dwornick sets aside a stretch of days a couple weeks before Christmas to make about 36 dozen pierogi for the family’s traditional Christmas Eve Polish Wigilia — a meatless affair. Dwornick makes four varieties: cheese and potato, sauerkraut, ricotta cheese and plum. The pierogi are boiled, bagged and frozen.

“It’s about the tradition,” Dwornick says. “Hopefully my kids will take it over.”

Over the years, the dough recipe has been tweaked a bit and now includes what Dwornick says is the key “secret” ingredient: sour cream.

“It (the sour cream) was something that was handed down to me by a friend at work,” he says.

Dwornick’s tips: When adding the pierogi to the boiling water, “feather” them in rather than dropping them in. They are done when they float to the top. When you remove the pierogi from the boiling water, dip them in a bath of melted butter to prevent them from sticking in the pan.



Makes: About 5 dozen / Preparation time: 3 hours

Total time: 3 hours

It’s best to have a pierogi maker to shape these.

4 cups all-purpose flour

4 tablespoons melted and slightly cooled butter

6 egg yolks

1 cup sour cream

Filling of choice (see note)

Additional melted butter

In a large bowl place the flour and spread it out. Drizzle in the melted butter. Add the egg yolks and sour cream. Mix until a firm but pliable dough forms. Set the dough aside and let it rest at least 30 minutes.

When ready to roll, fill and shape, put on a big pot of boiling salted water with a drizzle of oil in it. Melt some butter in a smaller saucepan.

Pull off a piece of dough and roll it out to a 1/8-inch thickness. Cut out circles about 3½ to 4 inches round, using the bottom edge of the pierogi mold. Place about 2 tablespoons of filling in the center and close the mold to shape. Cut off the excess dough and reuse the scraps.

To cook the pierogi: Working in batches, ease them, one at a time, into the boiling water. Cook about 5 or so minutes or until the pierogi float to the top. Remove them and dip them in the melted butter before setting them in a tray to cool.

Once cool, refrigerate or freeze until ready to use. To serve, sauté them in a melted butter along with onions if desired.

Cook’s note: Dwornick had no specific amounts for the fillings but here are the ingredients he typically uses.

—Cheese and potato: Mashed potatoes mixed with cheddar cheese, onion and salt.

—Sauerkraut: Rinsed cabbage mixed with a tad of sugar, diced canned mushrooms and cooked and diced polish kielbasa. Season to taste.

—Plum: Dried canned plums or prunes, drained of syrup, skinned and then rolled in a bit of sugar if desired.

—Ricotta cheese: Ricotta cheese sweetened to taste.

From Jerry Dwornick, Wyandotte, Mich. Tested for the Free Press Test Kitchen by Susan Selasky. Nutrition information not available.



Making Rudy Mendez’s family recipe pork tamales takes a village.

A few weeks before Christmas, about a dozen or so relatives and friends gather to make this popular Mexican dish. Typically arriving in shifts, each person is given a task in the multistep process, from spreading masa on pre-soaked corn husks to wrapping the pork-filled tamales, which are then piled up on a tray, ready to steam.

Making tamales has been a holiday tradition for 36 years, says Mendez, 60, of Lincoln Park, Mich. And, over the years, the family has perfected the technique. The meat, for example, is boiled in huge pots for hours until it’s fork tender. And, be sure to save the water in which the pork shoulder was cooked.

“It’s paramount,” says Mendez, who lets the water cool overnight so that the fat rises to the surface and gels. He uses a little of that congealed fat on the bottom of the pan for roasting the cooked, shredded meat. The water is used to steam the tamales.

Those are just a few of the tips Mendez found handwritten on a recipe card from his mother, Lillian.

Mendez’s tips: Use dried, de-seeded chile ancho to make the sauce and adjust the heat with crushed red pepper flakes. If the tamale is steamed properly, the masa should puff away from the corn husk.



Makes: More than 400 / Preparation time: 4 hours

Total time: 4 hours plus tamale assembling and steaming time

35 pounds pork shoulder roast

1½ pounds dried chile anchos

1 tablespoon ground comino seeds

6-7 cloves garlic

Crushed red pepper to taste

40 pounds masa dough

Bags of dried corn husks, soaked in hot water until pliable

A day before making the tamales, boil the pork roasts in water until the meat is fall-apart tender. Remove the roasts from the water, reserving the cooking liquid. Set water in the refrigerator and chill overnight. Skim off and reserve some of the fat that rises to the top of water.

Using a fork, shred the meat.

Meanwhile, make the sauce. Remove the stems and seeds from the dried chiles. Place the chiles in a saucepan and add water to cover. Place over medium-high heat and boil until the chiles are tender and the mixture is slightly thickened. Remove from the heat, cool slightly and then transfer to a blender. Blend until the mixture is smooth and has a sauce-like consistency.

Place some of the reserved fat in the bottom of a large roaster. Add the shredded meat and pour the sauce on top. Grind the comino seeds and garlic to a paste-like consistency and add to the meat mixture. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed with crushed red pepper. Keep the meat mixture warm in the roaster.

Have several pots ready with a steamer insert. Add the reserved pork cooking water to the pots, heat to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer.

Lay a corn husk flat on a clean work surface with the shiny side up and the wide end facing you. Using a spatula (a putty knife works great), spread the masa mixture in an even thin layer, no more than ¼-inch thick, all over the wide part of the husk, leaving the pointed end clean. Spread the masa all the way to one side (right or left) of the husk, but leave at least ¼- to ½-inch clean on either side so the masa layer doesn’t overlap when the husks are sealed. Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of the shredded meat in the center of the masa. Fold the husk over to enclose the filling and roll to completely close; fold the top (narrow end) of the husk over the tamale. Place in the steamer 45 minutes until the masa is puffed.

From Rudy Mendez, Lincoln Park, Mich. Recipe not tested. Nutrition information not available.


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