It’s hard to ignore the fact that for most of us, the holidays from Thanksgiving through New Year’s revolve around food, and since I’m in a holiday food mood…

Earlier this week, I spent a good part of a day making two batches of what is known in my Costa Rican family as the Torta Paninski. My Abuelo Carlos was the one who made sure his Prussian grandmother’s recipe was kept alive in Costa Rica by making it himself each year, so it’s named after him. It’s basically a layered torte of shortbread and strawberry preserves and it has been a required dessert on the family Christmas table for as long as I can remember.

My mother usually made the tortas two at a time, and after carefully wrapping them up, hid them in a high kitchen cabinet so that they would have the required week or so of aging to perfection before making their appearance on Christmas Eve. The hiding was necessary lest me or my brother try to sneak a few bites by breaking off the crispy, lemon glazed edges.

My childhood Christmas meals fell into one of three categories—a repeat of a Thanksgiving style meal of turkey with trimmings when done at my Tennessee great-grandmother’s house. Something a little different like duck with wild rice pilaf if my mom was making it at home for our small immediate family, and when celebrated in Costa Rica, it meant roasted pork (the whole fresh ham), tamales, black beans & rice, and tortillas.

Curiously, my mother rarely made any typical Costa Rican dishes at home in Tennessee other than occasional black beans and rice, and even these she seasoned in a style much more reminiscent of East TN.

But always, for a couple of weeks in December and January, there would be slivers of Torta Paninski for dessert, to have with coffee, or to enjoy at breakfast. It’s one of those rare treats that gets better with age, as the strawberry preserves are absorbed by the shortbread layers and the hard lemon glaze forms a protective coating over the top. Eventually, of course, it dries out, but it rarely lasts that long!

I found it interesting to discover last year that in my extended Paninski family, only I had continued to make the Torta, although they all remembered it fondly. They finished off the two I took to the family Christmas celebration in minutes, so hopefully someone else will keep the recipe alive going forward. Last night, one of my daughters requested the recipe—yay!!!

Making Christmas dinner somehow was turned over to me when I moved back to Tennessee in 1996, and bringing Costa Rica back with me, our traditional meal became tamales, roast pork, black beans, rice, tortillas, and a fresh tomato/onion/cilantro salsa that I had introduced to the mix a decade before. My brother, for one, was thrilled as he’s never been excited about turkey, much less several times within a few weeks’ time.

The tamales are usually made a few days before Christmas—an event that involves a full day and a half of work, although when shared with family members, the hours of stirring and assembly are as fun as they are tiring. There’s nothing like that first tamal for dinner, usually devoured as the freshly made tamales are being finished in the pot of boiling water.

The pork slow roasts all day, tempting us with its garlicky deliciousness for hours. Fresh salsa is put together about an hour before dinner time, and an extra sprinkling of cilantro goes into the black beans. Freshly made tortillas cook on the griddle while the roast rests—every newcomer to our family is quickly taught the how & when of tortilla flipping! Lots of paper napkins are ready for our messy, lick-your-fingers meal, and the last minutes are usually spent with me smacking hands that are pulling tender pork off the roast before it’s served.

Still, it’s a relatively simple, down to earth meal, and we dig into it with audible mmmm’s of delight as eating becomes more important than talking for a short time. It isn’t long before conversation begins again amid requests for more tortillas or the pico de gallo type salsa that I can never make enough of.

After dinner is over, we get ready to open presents. Out comes my homemade eggnog–a recipe I created based on inspiration from the boiled pudding of my TN great grandmother, my Costa Rican Abuela’s rum rompope, and American style nutmeg-infused eggnog. Those of us who love it have it with gingerbread cookies or thin slices of Torta Paninski (or whatever other sweets are available), while we gather near the Christmas tree.

Neither my brother nor one of my daughters cares as much for the Torta as they did when they were young, but for my other daughter and I, the opening of gifts just wouldn’t be the same without the eggnog and a slice of Torta Paninski.

The Christmas Eve meals I grew up with—my dad’s chili, or clam chowder, have been added to the menu options of tamales, white beans with lamb, or arroz con pollo that I sometimes make before and after Christmas. We usually get almost everything in during our time together.

Once upon a time I made a wide assortment of decorated cookies of every imaginable type, including gingerbread people, snowmen, and Santas. My dark chocolate truffles shared the plate with chocolate dipped orange peels. Nowadays, the requested sweets include peanut butter pie, tres leches cake, and my super rich brownies with ice cream, as well as any of the other goodies that I am willing to make.

In the end, regardless of where we are, we long for the flavors and aromas that remind us our childhoods, our time spent together, love, and contentment.

I know that as time goes by, our traditions evolve and grow to reflect the changes in our families and where we live. I like to think that some part of my family’s current traditions will survive for at least a few more generations to come, and I continue documenting the recipes that were handed down to me (mostly orally), so that they aren’t as easily lost.

And there you have it! My family’s Christmas holiday food is a reflection of our culturally jumbled traditions, and I suspect many of yours are, too.

I wish you all a happy holiday season from now through the new year. May it be filled with much love and joy and all things wonderful!

Feliz Navidad!


Photos are all my own. The large middle picture is of my mother, my great aunt, and my grandmother making tamales in 1974.