It’s not the brisk air, the carefully wrapped gifts or the warm hugs from family that make the holidays so special.

Nope — it’s the food. And behind every treasured recipe is a story, usually one involving family, friends and traditions.

Those who understand the value of great recip es — comforting creations made familiar after years of reunions, weddings and weekend trips — hold the secret to genuine holiday happiness.

Several neighbors who make their living in the culinary arts are sharing the stories behind their favorite recipes this month. Their recipes — already passed from generation to generation — could become new holiday traditions for your family this year.

Big Mama’s Cornbread Stuffing

From Paul Wackym (founder and owner of Wackym’s Kitchen Cookies)

Wackym’s great-grandmother, “Big Mama”, taught this recipe to his grandmother, who taught it to his mother when she was a child in South Carolina.

“Mom taught it to me and said, ‘It is just the way to do it.’ ” Wackym says the recipe is not as complicated to make as you might think, and it can be modified to suit your taste.

“It can be baked in a pan rather that stuffed in the cavity of the turkey,” he says. “We now make it with vegetable stock for the vegetarians — that’s how we make it at home to eat along with Tofurkey.”

Click here to print the recipe card

Turkey stock:

Bag of giblets from turkey
Wackym’s note: Don’t accidentally leave these in the carcass of the bird like my English friend did on his first attempt to bake a Thanksgiving turkey
4 qt water
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cracked red pepper
1 clove garlic
onion skins and celery tops (from stuffing)

– Throw all ingredients into a large pot, and put to simmer on the back burner; check after a couple of hours. The meat should fall off the neck bone. Strain and separate out the fat. Hold the turkey bits and extra stock for giblet gravy.

2 tsp canola oil
1 tsp sugar
2 eggs
1 c whole milk soured with 1 Tbsp white vinegar (set aside for 20 minutes)
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp dried marjoram
1/4 tsp powdered garlic
1/4 tsp sage
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup flour
1-1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

– Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Add 1 tsp canola oil to a 12-inch cast iron skillet, and place in oven. Mix the oil, sugar, eggs and milk. Add the soda, spices, flour and cornmeal. Pour into the hot cast iron skillet, and bake 20 minutes until golden brown.
Tip: Wackym likes to make cornbread the night before. After it cools, break it into small pieces, and place it back into the oven. Let it dry out overnight.

1/4 lb butter
4 stalks celery, chopped fine
2 medium yellow onions, chopped fine
cornbread, crumbled
2 boiled eggs, chopped fine
1-1/2 c cooked grits
1 large raw egg, beaten
turkey stock

– Sauté the celery and onion in butter until very limp in a large and deep pan.
– Add the cornbread, boiled eggs, grits and mix.
– Add the raw egg and enough stock to moisten.
– Stuff in the cavity of a turkey, and bake immediately until 165 degrees internal temperature of the stuffing has been reached, and the turkey is done. If baking in a 9×13 pan, bake until firm and golden brown.
– Serve with copious amounts of gravy and a dollop of homemade cranberry sauce, followed by a piece or two of pie and a nap.

Chocolate Meringue Pie

From Kristen Kauffman (co-owner, Café Urbano)

When this East Dallas restaurateur thinks of comfort food, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the paninis or marinated duck plates on her Cafe Urbano menu, though those are delightful. It’s Grandma’s chocolate meringue pie, which she makes for her family every year at Christmas.

“She and I are the only ones in the family that have been able to make the pie. I believe she clipped the recipe out of a magazine in the ’40s, and made it for bridge club, book club, and church functions,” Kauffman says fondly of her grandmother, who passed away last summer at the age of 100. “I’ve given out the recipe, as did she, several times over the years, but no one besides her and me has been able to make it ‘just so’.”

Click here to print the recipe card

Meringue pie shell:
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 c of sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla (optional)

– Preheat oven to 275 degrees.
– Whip egg whites until frothy, and add cream of tartar (and vanilla, if desired).
– Beat until the mixture stands in glossy peaks.
– Gradually add sugar while continuing to beat (it will get very stiff).
– Spread the mixture, forming the shape of a pie shell, into a well greased metal pie pan.
– Bake at 275 degrees for 20 minutes.
– Increase temperature to 300 degrees and bake another 40 minutes.
– Turn the oven off, and leave the pie inside overnight (a gas stove is ideal; the pilot will crisp the shell overnight).

Chocolate filling:
2-3 Tbsp water
6 oz bittersweet chocolate chips
1 c heavy whipping cream

– In a saucepan or double boiler, heat water, then add chocolate chips to slowly melt chocolate.
– Once the chocolate is silky smooth, remove from heat, and allow chocolate to cool completely at room temperature (not in the fridge).
– While chocolate is cooling, whip the cream until stiff (you can refrigerate whipped cream until chocolate cools, if needed).
– Gently fold the cream into the cooled chocolate until completely blended.
– Fill the meringue with the chocolate cream, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Comments and tips: “I make this pie every year at Christmas — actually I make two so there’s plenty — and it absolutely melts in your mouth.

Tip: The egg yolks you don’t use are perfect for making a hollandaise sauce for eggs Benedict or to serve over asparagus.

Flemish Beef Carbonades

From Rene Peeters (owner/chef Watel’s World Piece Café)

The recipe has been in Peeters’ family for a long time.

“My father made this at home as far back as I can remember,” Peeters says. “He was from Brussels. I learned to make it at an early age and still make it to this day. I even serve it in my restaurant, where it is a favorite.”

Peeters says the dish can be served year-round, though he prefers to make it in winter, and that one of the key ingredients occasionally catches diners off-guard.

“It is basically beef stew, but with beer. I tell people, ‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t taste like beer. It tastes like stew’.”

Until now, Peeters has only shared this recipe with his wife, Terri, and daughter, Caroline.

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4 lbs chunked beef chuck
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2-3 Tbsp flour
vegetable oil
3 large cubed onions
2 lbs mushrooms
2 bottles of beer

– Sauté onions and mushrooms until browned, and then transfer to Dutch oven.
– Season beef cubes with salt and pepper, and dredge in flour.
– Brown beef in batches, and then transfer to Dutch oven.
– Deglaze skillet with beer; add to Dutch oven.
– Bring to simmer, and adjust consistency by adding more beer or more flour dissolved in water; leave a little bit thick as it will slacken as it cooks.
– Simmer for 1.5-2 hours, taste, and adjust seasoning.

Famous Mushroom Soup

From Brian C. Luscher (chef/owner, The Grape restaurant)

“I have met people from all over,” Luscher says. “When they find out I am the owner of The Grape, I am most often asked ‘Do you still have the mushroom soup?’ I always reply, ‘Oh yeah! We could never take it off the menu.’ ”

What he doesn’t tell them is this recipe has been passed down through the restaurant “family” over 37 years.

Chef Michael Blackwell, whose first stint at The Grape was from 1973-1977, brought quiche and a French leaning to the restaurant’s cuisine. He perfected the mushroom soup recipe and taught it to his cooks, one of whom was Hector Cruz. Some 10 years later, Cruz taught the recipe to his younger brother, Juan, a dishwasher at the time. Twelve years later, Juan Cruz passed it on to the youngest Cruz brother, Chuy, also a dishwasher at the time. Chuy Cruz is now the morning sous chef at The Grape.

He’s teaching the recipe to another cook there.

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2-1/2 lbs button mushrooms, washed and chopped (it’s easy to do in a food processor)
1 large onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
1 dry bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/4 c dry sherry (optional)
1/5 lb unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 c all-purpose flour
3 qt beef broth or stock, or the equivalent made with beef bouillon cubes
2 c heavy cream
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

– In a heavy-bottomed, 6-8 quart stock or soup pot, melt the butter over medium low heat. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaf and thyme, and cook until onion is translucent.
– Add the chopped mushrooms, and cook until most of the water comes out of them. Add the sherry, if you like, and reduce by half.
– Add the flour, and stir well to avoid lumps (if you do get some, it’s OK — they can be puréed out later).
– Slowly whisk in the broth or stock, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
– Continue to stir the soup at this point, or the bottom may scorch. When the soup comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally.
– Finish by adding the heavy cream and nutmeg, and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the thyme and bay leaf, and purée the soup either in a blender or with a hand-held blender.
Notes: Makes 16 servings; the recipe may easily be cut in half, but it is worth making the whole batch because it freezes well.

Slow Oven-Braised Brisket

From Richard Avila (owner of Mextopia)

“Growing up, this dish was a staple in our household, especially when we had family and friends at our table,” says Avila of his restaurant’s signature beef brisket, which combines the essential Texan slow-cooked brisket with traditional Mexican condiments.

Avila’s mother, a native Texan with Mexican roots, prepared her brisket by braising it with onions, garlic and red wine.

His father, born and raised in Chihuahua, added his fiery salsa to the brisket, which he placed in a tortilla — thus, the birth of the brisket taco. It’s been a staple of Avila’s menu for 25 years, and was even featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” show last year.

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1 whole brisket
2 medium white onions, sliced
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled
1 c dry red wine
salt and pepper to taste

– Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
– Place brisket fat-side-up in pan.
– Season with salt and pepper, scatter onions and garlic over the top, add red wine, and cover with aluminum foil.
– Braise in oven for approximately five hours. Slice against the grain, and serve with tortillas, salsa and pico de gallo.

Apricot Dream Cake

From Jim White and Vicki Briley-White (co-founders of Savor Dallas)

Vicki Briley-White’s longtime friend swore this recipe had aphrodisiac qualities, and she reluctantly gave it to Briley-White only after she promised to keep it a secret for life. Luckily for us, she didn’t keep her promise.

Vicki says she made the so-called “man-snare” cake for Jim, a local radio personality and food writer, while they were dating, and it worked like a charm. Proof? They will celebrate their 15th anniversary this year.

Click here to print the recipe card

1 Duncan Hines Butter Recipe Mix
1/4 c softened butter
2/3 c Kern’s Apricot Nectar
3 eggs

8 oz cream cheese
3/4 c sugar
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 c shredded coconut

3 Tbsp Kern’s Apricot Nectar
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 c powdered sugar

– Beat the batter ingredients for five minutes, and pour into a heavily greased and floured Bundt pan.
– After mixing the filling ingredients together, drop filling on top of batter one tablespoon at a time. Bake for one hour at 350 degrees until the batter pulls away from the pan. Cool on rack at least one hour, and glaze.

Teresa’s Cheese Ball

From Judy Scott (caterer and author)

Cheese balls are a staple of many holiday tables, and sometimes we wonder, “why?” One of Scott’s relatives created this variation that answers that question.

“I am not a fan of cheese balls, but I tried it and loved the taste,” Scott says. “I asked if I could use it when I catered. Every time I made it, people scraped the plate clean. I made it for Christmas gifts, and everyone wanted the recipe.”

It’s so good that Scott included it in her recently published cookbook, “Afternoon Tea at the Arboretum”.

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2 8-oz packages of cream cheese
1 8-oz package of thin-sliced ham, chopped
3 green onions, chopped, include tops
1-1/2 tsp MSG
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion salt
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

– Mix all ingredients together; roll into a ball with your hands.
– Cover with chopped pecans, chill, and serve with crackers. Makes a 1-1/2 lb cheese ball.