Holiday Traditions in the Kitchen - MetroFamily Magazine
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Holiday Traditions in the Kitchen

Jen Nguyen and her three boys

by Kirsten Holder, photos provided

Reading Time: 7 minutes 

For most of us, even the mention of the phrase “holiday traditions” evokes warm, cinnamon-scented memories. Sweets and treats are near synonymous with togetherness and festive celebrations this time of year. Read on to learn how four local families incorporate holiday culinary traditions, why they matter and how they’re passing these recipes to the next generation.

Bountiful breakfast + healthy competition

Madi Pontikes and her family enjoy a traditional Christmas morning with a little bit of competition!

“Each year my parents, my in-laws, my sister and all the kids look forward to a gingerbread decorating contest,” said Madi. “It’s a really fun activity where the kids can get messy and enjoy togetherness. Each of the kids then gets to show off their creations and gets an award such as ‘most sprinkly, most colorful, most snowy;’ you get the idea!”

The Pontikes family also enjoys stuffed French toast, a recipe passed down from Madi’s mom.

“As soon as we had Christmas with our own family, we knew it was a tradition we wanted to incorporate,” said Madi. “Everyone looks forward to Christmas morning stuffed French toast for breakfast!”

Readers might recognize Madi from her popular Instagram platform, Move by Madi. With her focus on health and fitness, we couldn’t help but wonder about her family celebrating with indulgent foods.

“We mix real, energy-giving foods into our big meals,” said Madi. “The sweet, indulgent foods just taste so good, and a big part of life for us is enjoying food! We usually add some eggs to our breakfast so everyone feels good and big meltdowns don’t ensue. It’s all about balance, and we like to celebrate with butter and sugar around here!”

Stuffed French Toast


8 slices of white bread, cut into substantial cubes

2, 8-oz packages of cream cheese

1 dozen eggs

2 cups milk

1/3 cup maple syrup

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons allspice


Grease 9×13 casserole dish.

Whisk together eggs, milk, syrup and spices.

Place half of cubed bread in casserole dish. Cube the cream cheese and place it on top of the bread. Add remaining cubed bread to the dish. Pour egg mixture over bread and cheese.

Cover with Saran wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Bake uncovered for 45 minutes (or until egg is cooked through); then serve with powdered sugar and syrup.


Main course with family ties

Simi John and her family are originally from India, and they reflect on their heritage through food every time there’s a celebration in their home.

“In Indian culture, hospitality is a big deal, so even just having guests in our home is cause for celebration!” said Simi.

The joy of cooking was passed to Simi from her mother, who is currently teaching Simi’s daughter, Moriah, to cook as well.

“I love cooking; it’s so therapeutic for me … it’s my me-time!” said Simi. “Thankfully my mom has more patience for kids in the kitchen and I love watching her with Moriah just like she was with me when I was little.”

The go-to meal for gathering is Biryani, an Indian casserole dish usually paired with nubian fried lentils and traditional Indian salads.

“When I was a kid, it was my job to help with prep work, as well as taking charge of the side salads,” said Simi. “Having this responsibility and being part of creating a meal for our guests reminded me to be proud of my culture. To be surrounded by the aroma of these traditional foods – it was a reflection of who I am.”

Simi feels strongly about intentionally celebrating her roots with her children.

“Tradition is important because it connects you back to the core of who you are,” said Simi. “Preparing recipes like Biryani reminds me that traditions have been around much longer than I have, and if we don’t honor these roots, they will dissolve.”

Shrimp Biryani


• 1/2 pound jumbo shrimp

• 1/4 cup oil

• 2 cloves garlic, chopped

• chili pepper to taste

• 3 cardamom pods

• 7 cloves

• 1/2 stick cinnamon

• 1/4 teaspoon fennel

• 1 star anise

• 2 onions, diced

• 2 green peppers, diced

• 2 tomatoes, diced

• 2 tablespoons ginger

• 2 teaspoons masala

• 1/4 teaspoon turmeric

• 1 tablespoon coriander

• 1/4 fenugreek, optional

• 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

• 1/4 cup plain yogurt

• 2 cups basmati rice, cooked

• 6 tablespoons butter


1. Marinate shrimp in 1/8 cup oil, garlic and chili pepper.

2. Pour remaining 1/8 cup of the oil in a skillet; heat and then add shrimp. Cook over medium to high heat for 3 minutes until shrimp turns pink and opaque. Remove shrimp from oil and set aside.

3. In the same pan and oil, add cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, fennel and star anise. Add onion and peppers and cook until soft and onions are brown. Add ginger, masala, turmeric, coriander and fenugreek, if using. Stir. Add diced tomato.

4. Add shrimp and 1/3 cup of water back to the pan. Stir in cilantro and yogurt.

5. Place shrimp mixture in an 8×8 baking dish. Layer cooked basmati rice on top of the shrimp. Place 6 pats of butter, 1 tablespoon each, evenly spaced on top of rice.

6. Cook in 350 degrees F oven for 20-30 minutes.

Sweet treats that give back

For the good days, the bad days and every day in between, let there be cookies! Jen Nguyen and her boys look forward to baking chocolate chip cookies each year around the holidays. This year they plan to include baby sister in the process, too!

“There’s so many sensory aspects of cooking that we are excited to get Evelyn involved in this year,” said Jen. “My oldest, Mason, wasn’t always totally on board with baking together, but he watched his dad enjoy making cookies with the family. Now he’s the one who is calling all the aunts, uncles and cousins to come over and help!”

Jen didn’t grow up with many holiday traditions. Both her parents and her in-laws immigrated from Vietnam without much in tow, so it has been really important to Jen and her husband to create moments of togetherness around the holidays and to establish new traditions.

She describes how they make several batches of cookies at a time, some to freeze and pull out for a quick treat, others to enjoy with their extended family and gift to homeless shelters in the metro.

“The give-back tradition did come from my mom,” said Jen. “She owned a convenience store where she would open her doors every Christmas to the community so they could take what they needed. We feel it’s always important to give back, especially around the holidays.”

To Jen, this simple baking tradition has brought her family so much closer.

“No matter what else is going on: work, sports, school, life … our kids know that we are going to stop everything to honor family time, to have fun together and enjoy each other.”

Chocolate Chip Cookies

recipe from Whole Foods


• 1 1/4 cups butter (2.5 sticks), room temperature

• 2/3 cup granulated sugar

• 2 1/4 cups brown sugar

• 3 medium eggs

• 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 3/4 teaspoon salt

• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda

• 3 cups all-purpose flour

• 16 oz chocolate chips


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2. In a large bowl using electric beaters, cream the butter and both sugars. Add the eggs one a time; then add the vanilla extract. Add salt and baking soda. Then add flour 1 cup at a time. Stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Drop dough by tablespoon onto cookie sheets, allowing 2-3 inches between each cookie.

4. Bake about 10 minutes, until golden brown. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Making messy memories

Cookies and catch-ups are a staple in Samantha Young’s family.

“Every year about a week before Christmas, my mom, my sister and I and our children get together and bake dozens of traditional Christmas cookies,” said Samantha. “We bake and taste test cookies all day long, while sharing memories of past Christmases and catching up on each others’ lives.”

Some cookies are kept for the families to enjoy, and some get boxed up to give away. It’s a tradition that was recently reinstated when Samantha moved her family back to Oklahoma after living away during her time as a travel nurse.

“I think us all being apart made us realize how important doing those special things together really is, especially around the holidays with our own little ones,” said Samantha.

The good thing about cookie cutting and decorating is that kids of any age can be involved! Whether it be mixing ingredients, creating new shapes or finding funny and creative ways to ice the cookies, Samantha’s son and all his cousins look forward to the festivities. While cookies are seemingly the main event of the tradition, the real treasure is togetherness.

“Family time is so important, and we are creating fond memories with our extended family that our children can look back on in a positive way,” said Samantha. “Hopefully it will encourage them to create similar traditions with their own families in the future.”

Rolled Sugar Cookies

from All Recipes


• 1 1/2 cups butter, softened

• 2 cups white sugar

• 4 eggs

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 5 cups all-purpose flour

• 2 teaspoons baking powder

• 1 teaspoon salt


1. Cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl with electric mixer until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt.

2. Cover and chill dough for at least 1 hour (or overnight).

3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

4. Lightly dust a work surface with flour. Roll out dough to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets.

5. Bake 6 to 8 minutes, until cookies are lightly browned.

6. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and cool completely before decorating.


Frosting Ingredients

• 1/2 cup shortening or butter

• 4 cups confectioner’s sugar

• 5 tablespoons milk; more as needed

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• food coloring (optional)


1. Beat shortening (or butter) in a large bowl until creamy. Gradually mix in confectioner’s sugar in small amounts, alternating with milk until smooth. Mix in vanilla and continue to beat until frosting is stiff and glossy, about 5 minutes, adding more milk if needed.

2. Mix in food coloring, separating into smaller bowls if using multiple colors.

3. Spread on cookies or fill piping bags to decorate cookies as desired.

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