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Top Chefs, A Restaurateur and a Food Editor Reveal Their 'Unglamorous' Holiday Favorites

“Growing up in the Soviet Union in the seventies, vodka was an important part of my childhood. My mother (a chemist) always had large jars of fruit infused vodka in the basement. Since it gets really cold in Russia and you can have things built for vodka, instead of currency, we always had people over at our house from the studios. During those years, the good vodka that Russia was famous for was exported for dollars. What was left was this horrible fire water that was so bad it was thought to make you “blind”. To make the vodka better mom used the only things available to her—cranberries that we gathered in the woods, apples, pears and plums from grandma’s yard and juice oranges that were sold at the stores sometimes to make some awesome infusions. The Honey cake with honey vodka is a favorite childhood dessert, made with her infused vodka and just a few ingredients: flour, eggs, sugar, honey and of course honey vodka. The memory of the vodkas that I grew up with are still with me and we continue to share the recipes with our customers in our all natural, home infused vodka.”

– Roman Kaplan,

Owner, Russian Samovar

“Peanut Butter Blossoms! The memory of “helping” my mom make these when I couldn’t even see over the counter is ingrained in my DNA and it’s all I can do to be patient and to make them with here every Christmas Eve!”

- Chef Chris Santos, Owner

Stanton Social, Beauty & Essex

Vandal; FN Judge, Chopped

follow on Facebook: @santoscooks

Twitter: @santoscooks

Instagram: @santoscooks

“I moved to the Bay Area from Illinois in 1987. When my family and I settled in the Bay Area we lived in San Jose. Growing up, San Jose has always been a very diverse city. The area I lived in was predominantly Hispanic. During the holiday there would be little old Hispanic ladies that would sell their fresh made tamales out of the trunk of their cars especially during Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.

During one week leading up to Christmas my mom bought home a bag of tamales that she bought from a parking lot vendor. Up until then my family and I have never had tamales or even knew what they were. After tasting the pork and beef tamale that my mom bought we were in love.

Every opportunity during the holidays we would snatch up all sorts of tamales; sweet corn tamales, pork tamales, beef tamales, chicken tamales, green chile tamales, you name them and we’ve eaten them. Now as an adult raised as a Vietnamese American, one of our traditions that we’ve adopted is a Mexican tradition. Every time I leave a grocery store during the holidays it brings me fond memories of delicious tamales.

– Chef Viet Pham, Host NatGeo Food Forager

Iron Chef Season 11 Winner vs. Bobby Flay

follow on Facebook: @vphams

Twitter: @vphams

Instagram: @vphams

“Christmas is very special for Filipinos. Simbang Gabi or Dawn Masses mean early morning street food comprised mostly of various types of rice based sticky cakes and ginger tea (salabat). My ancestral town is famous for “puto bumbong, a purple hued specialty that is steamed in tubes, rolled in fresh coconut then smothered with powdered panocha.”

The aroma of my mother’s hamonado, which is rolled pork braised in pineapple, is the smell of noche buena . For New Year’s Eve, it’s my Tita Naty’s morcon. Though everyone has their own recipe, neither can be equaled in my mind. And the nutty aroma of chocolate in my Tito Dading’s super thick and decadent hot cocoa was irresistible to a kid, despite almost a guaranteed trip to the “throne room” for those who indulge too much.

But it’s the smell of seasonal baking that dominates my memory. We used to make baskets of goodies to give away: fruitcake, polboron (toasted milk and flour based shortbread), different tartlets, and my mom’s coconut macaroons. My pantry is never without dessicated coconut and Christmas paper cups...and I’m not even fond of coconut desserts!

– Loy Carlos, CM editor in Chief

follow on Facebook @loy.carlos

Twitter: @loycarlos

Instagram: @loynyc

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