I come from a big Armenian-American family; we're a family of excess—too much food, too many presents. We really pull out all the stops for Christmas. My mom, who's now 78, starts her Christmas baking right after Thanksgiving, so we usually end up with about 15 different types of cookies. One thing remains constant: my mom's cream cheese–chocolate chip cookies. They're just incredible. She found the recipe in a magazine or newspaper in the early 1960s. These days, there are so many of us—all the family members, plus boyfriends or girlfriends, the occasional person stranded in Chicago without family—that I cook dinner for everyone at the restaurant. No matter how fancy the meal, my mom's cookies are always the highlight.
Recipe: Cream Cheese-Chocolate Chip Cookies
Gray Kunz, Café Gray, Grayz, New York City
Until I was 10 years old, my family lived in Singapore among the Swiss expatriate community. It was a strange place to have Christmas: We'd spend the day running around in shorts and then visit Santa Claus, who was an Indian man with a brown face and a white beard. My father had two Chinese cooks who made our Christmas dinner, so there were always a handful of Asian dishes on the table. Just about my favorite thing was the Basler Läckerli cookies my father would have sent to us from Switzerland. The second word refers to the topping— the cookies have the most delicious kirsch icing that you just lick away at. Underneath the icing, they're dense, chewy, honey-spice bars filled with dried fruits and cinnamon. Even now, 40 years later, they're still the taste of Christmas for me.
Recipe: Basler Läckerli Cookies
Scott Peacock, Watershed, Decatur, Georgia
Lane cake is specific to the region of Alabama I'm from. My mother and grandmother made it only three times a year: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my birthday, which falls just four days before Christmas. It's a white cake with lavish amounts of rich frosting made with new-crop pecans and fresh coconut, which were once available only at holiday time. It's traditionally fortified with bourbon, but my family used to be teetotalers, so my grandmother made it with Welch's grape juice. Now I use Jack Daniel's, but a few years ago I made a Welch's version for a nondrinking family: The taste transported me immediately to my preschool days, and my first kitchen job, whacking coconuts with a hammer in our carport.
Recipe: Lane Cake
Surbhi Sahni, pastry chef, Devi, New York City
I was raised Hindu in Delhi by a conservative Brahmin mother, but my father was very open-minded, so I went to a Catholic school and had many Indian Catholic friends. I loved that they celebrated Christmas very much the way we celebrated Diwali, the Festival of the Lights, with candles and fireworks. I'd sneak off to their houses and eat Christmas cake filled with candied fruit, being sure to hide the crumbs before I went home. One day my brother brought home a plastic Christmas tree—he was braver than I was. After that, we began to celebrate Christmas. I've made my friend's mom's Christmas cake from memory, adding dried figs because they're so delicious, and more of the warm, spicy ginger we love so much in India.
Recipe: Fig Cake