When I was a kid, my favorite Christmastime food was something my Estonian immigrant mother called pierogis.
When I moved from Michigan to western Pennsylvania (via Texas, North Carolina and New Mexico), I learned that there’s more than one kind of pierogi – but my mother’s version remains my must-have holiday dish.
More akin to a hand pie than a dumpling, the Estonian pierogi is made with a filling of ground ham and hard boiled eggs, liberally laced with parsley, encased in a white flour yeast dough.
Of course, my mother made her own dough, but I — never having had much luck with yeast-related baking — make do with frozen dinner roll dough.
Flatten a lump of dough into a circle, fill with a large spoonful of the filling, fold into a crescent shape, crimp the edges, brush with a little egg wash and bake to a light golden brown.
These pierogis can be eaten for any meal, hot, cold or at room temperature. I like to spread butter on mine, probably thanks to my Finnish father who was known to say, “Even an old boot tastes good if it’s fried in butter.”
Next year, if we talk about our most hated holiday food, I’ll tell you about my childhood memories of lipeakala, the stinky cod dried in lye, more commonly known by the Norwegian name lutefisk.
Here are a few other favorite yuletide yummies:
Spaghetti alla mollica
Chef Rizzi DeFabo, Rizzo’s Malabar Inn, Crabtree
DeFabo learned to make his favorite Christmas Eve dish as a child, cooking with his grandmother.
It’s traditional for Italian Catholics not to eat meat on that night, and that’s when the spaghetti alla mollica would be served.
The pasta was tossed with olive oil, garlic, toasted breadcrumbs, raisins and walnuts.
“Some people put orange rind or anchovies in it, depending on the area of Italy they’re from,” DeFabo says. “If grandpa didn’t like anchovies, then you didn’t put anchovies in.
“I learned to cook by helping my grandmother. This dish is symbolic of Christmas to me,” he says.
Crown roast of pork
Kary Milan, Director of Development and Alumni Relations, Penn State New Kensington
“I’m a foodie and love experimenting and showcasing my skills at the holidays,” Milan says. “The ‘showstopper’ of Christmas dinner is a crown roast of pork seasoned and roasted to perfection.
“Because of our German-Austrian heritage, my mom always made pork over the holidays,” she says. “The first time I prepared and served the pork crown was about four years ago, and I think everyone was shocked I even attempted it. I was intimidated but up for the challenge with the pork crown.
“I roast it for about four-five hours with herbs and seasonings. It’s critical to have a good cut of pork (and Bardine’s guarantees it’s always good) and roast it at a moderate heat for several hours. It can’t be rushed. The crown really adds a ‘WOW’ factor to Christmas dinner. I serve it with mint jelly and stuffing.”
Milan says she pre-orders her roast from Bardine’s Country Smokehouse, a family owned custom butcher shop in Crabtree.
Norma Skillings, President, YWCA Westmoreland County Board of Directors
Skillings makes a savory/sweet stuffing that is a favorite on her holiday table.
“This dish is so fortified with great ingredients that it can be eaten the next day as a meal in itself, if there is any left over,” she says. That’s probably a big “if,” though.
To a long-simmering broth, she adds turkey wings and legs and veggies. The hearty broth, with the pulled meat, is mixed with Jiffy Corn Bread baked with lots of butter and Pepperidge Farms savory seasoned croutons. Skillings adds salt, pepper, poultry seasoning and sage. She likes to make enough to stuff the turkey and bake an extra pan.
“The dish is loved because it’s rich and comforting,” she says. “This dish, I’ve made for over 30 years, something I learned from my mother and have tweaked over the years. Once or twice a year I make this and am able to have the warmest heartfelt memories of my beloved mother.”
Spaghetti aglio e olio
Michael Nestico, Tarentum Borough manager
Christmas Eve is when 60 to 70 members of the Nestico family gather to celebrate the holidays together.
“There’s always quite a big spread of food,” says Nestico, whose family also owns The Nest Restaurant in Jeannette. The aglio e olio is “the favorite, the one everybody goes for.”
Until her death a couple of years ago, Nestico’s grandmother traditionally made the big bowl of pasta tossed with olive oil, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and — at least for the Nesticos — a little bit of anchovy.
“Now my mom makes it, and it’s pretty close,” he says. “I don’t know what she does, but it’s delicious.”
Anne Kraybill, Richard M. Scaife Director/CEO, The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg
“For me it is Indian takeout on Christmas Eve. I’ve done this since I was a child, and my mother comes to visit every Christmas and we have continued the tradition,” she says. “I lived for three years in New Delhi when I was a child so I love good Indian food.”
Favorite dishes include chicken vindaloo, lamb saag, vegetable korma, samosas, naan and raita.
Kraybill, formerly Director of Education and Research in Learning at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., moved to Greensburg last summer with her husband and two sons. One thing they didn’t find locally is Indian food.
“We are going to have to drive to Monroeville this year to find any,” she says.
Barbara Jones, Chief Curator, The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg
Jones’s favorite Christmas food is also a favorite for Thanksgiving and Easter.
“It’s a cranberry salad that was my mother’s favorite and always makes me think of her when I make it. She passed away in 1987,” Jones says. “She never made it but loved when others did.
The recipe is simple: “Combine fresh cranberries, apple, orange, celery, pecans, all chopped together, and sugar. It is bonded with jello, any flavor (usually red), but for vegetarians I use an unflavored vegan gelatin. Orange juice subs for one-half of the water.”
It sounds like a healthy alternative to all the cookies, fruitcake, egg nog and other fattening holiday fare. And, Jones, says, “It’s really delicious.”
Rosie Wolford, Latrobe mayor
A simple soup does fills the bill for Wolford.
“My two sisters and my brother, along with whatever family members are available, get together on a Saturday in December and make the cappellettis: homemade dough made into little hats filled with ground pork, chicken and veal and spices,” she says. “We usually make about 900, freeze them and then plop them in the chicken broth late Christmas Day when all the Italian aunts and uncles and cousins come over.”
The pasta is named after its shape, literally translating into “little caps.”
“This is a tradition from my mom and her sister that they made when they were girls, brought over from their family in Italy, and we want to continue that tradition,” Wolford says.
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shirley_trib.