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In the mountains of Le Marche, in central Italy, where I grew up, it's pretty cold, and we had lots of snowy Christmases. My parents always bought the ingredients for our feast from neighboring farms or friends' stores, and every year my father would buy fresh chestnuts and roast them in a special perforated pan he kept in the oven. When I decided, at age 13, to make chestnut soup, my dad was skeptical, but he quickly fell in love with it. This soup was one of the first dishes I cooked that made me want to be a chef. It's very hearty; if you add a slice of roasted sausage you have a meal. To me, the holiday season wouldn't be the same without chestnut soup.
Recipe: Chestnut soup
Lydia Shire, Locke-Ober Restaurant, Boston
My father was a passionate cook, always clipping recipes out of The New York Times. At Christmas he'd buy little wooden boxes of salt cod from Wulf's Fish Market in Brookline, near Boston, and soak the cod for two days, changing the water twice a day. He'd poach it in milk with a bay leaf and onion, then blend it with potato and garlic to make the brandade. He'd buy two or three jars of the best caviar he could afford. And then he'd steam Red Bliss potatoes, leaving them al dente so when he sliced them, each piece became a sort of crouton that he'd top with the brandade, some sweet butter, and the caviar. It really is perfect food.
Recipe: Whipped Salt Cod with Caviar on Steamed Potatoes
Stephan Pyles, Stephan Pyles, Dallas
I grew up in West Texas, in a town called Big Spring; we used to say that it wasn't the end of the earth but you could see it from there. My dad owned a truck-stop café that served a mix of Southern food, Tex-Mex, and ranch cooking. Every Christmas, Rosalie, one of the dishwashers at the café, made turkey and sweet potato tamales, which she shared with everyone. I loved them; unwrapping the corn husk around the tamale was like unwrapping a little present. And I loved that at Christmas there was never a limit—no one ever said, "You're going to spoil your appetite." You could always just go for it.
Recipe: Smoked Turkey-Sweet Potato Tamales
Alfred Portale, Gotham Bar and Grill, New York City
In Buffalo, New York, we had beautiful white Christmases. We're Sicilian, so we'd have fish on Christmas Eve and a big afternoon meal on Christmas Day. We'd start with fruit cocktail, then homemade ricotta ravioli— we'd always count the number on each other's plates to make sure they were fairly divided—and then prime rib. My mother went to a great Italian butcher, with hanging salamis and hams, and bins of olives on the floor. As a kid I thought the place smelled strange. The butcher would save the front ribs for her; that's the best cut—the meat's more flavorful. She'd make slits in it with the tip of her knife, press in cloves of garlic, then rub the whole roast with rosemary and salt and let it sit overnight. Christmas Day, she'd roast it with vegetables and serve it with compote of quinces and apples. It was fantastic.
Recipes: Roasted Prime Rib, Apple-Quince Compote
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