Grandma Joyce’s Christmas Bread

Every family has taste traditions around different holidays they celebrate together. Be it a particular aunt’s potato salad that always made it to a summer picnic, or even your mom’s awful overcooked, over-buttered green beans that no one ever said anything about at Thanksgiving – but for those who grew up celebrating Christmas, there is almost always an annual sweet treat kids and grownups alike look forward to when the days are at their shortest (speaking from the Northern hemisphere, of course.)

My family couldn’t possibly have imagined Christmas without our Grandmother Joyce’s Christmas Bread. It’s sort of like challah bread, sort of like Finnish pullah – but if you try to call it anything else to my cousins, aunts, and uncles – we don’t want to hear about it. Christmas Bread is just Christmas Bread.

Like snow that had fallen on the bread, she’d decorate the soft buttery loaves with a simple white icing. The chopped red and green candied cherries on top were like little elves’ sleds skiing down the slopes of the buttery braided bread. The bright red, white, and green holiday colors always showed through the wax paper bags that she packed them in, folded and sealed with care with a name tag for each family.

At the peak of her Christmas Bread baking career, Grandma Joyce would prepare over 25 loaves during the month of December. She’d photocopy her recipe and make a list on the back of all the people she planned on giving a loaf to. On the grease-stained and torn copy I have, the lists on the back are from 1991 and 1993.

Christmas Breads

Christmas Breads

The original recipe comes from a copy of Parade magazine from a December long gone – not sure which one – and Grandma modified it slightly over the years, I have modified it still.

I’ll be eating some tomorrow morning, as I always have on December 25, and as I always will.

Jen's Christmas Bread

Jen’s Christmas Bread

Grandma Joyce’s Christmas Bread

Makes three loaves

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The Saturation of the Garde-Manger

When we talk about cooking at home (when Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and the like talk about cooking at home,) one of the most important elements discussed is the upkeep of a plentiful pantry. If you have a few tools to work with in your pantry, you can always make a home-cooked meal for a few people. In my opinion, here are some of the must-haves:

  • canned tomatoes
  • canned fish
  • cooking oils (olive, veg)
  • onions, garlic, shallots
  • hard cheeses (parmesan, grana padano)
  • a few herbs – dried, frozen, or outside (parsley, thyme, oregano)
  • grains (quinoa, rice, bulghur)
  • pasta
  • bouillon cubes or broth

I could keep going but I’ll stop there, because I am learning the hard way that there is such a thing as pantry saturation.

Pantry Saturation

Pantry Saturation

My pantry is a sweet little cupboard called a “garde-manger” in French (literal translation: “keep-to eat.”) It’s tucked along the wall in my kitchen, adjacent to the outside wall of my building. There is a little vent in the back letting in the cool, damp air from the outside.

The other day, while frosting Christmas bread (recipe coming soon, photos here), I began hunting for the slivered almonds to top the bread. Among the various bags and jars in the pantry I dug, dove, slid. I creaked my neck in and peered in the back. They were nowhere to be found. I was nearly certain I hadn’t finished them (I’ve developed this cook’s six-sense, always knowing when a key ingredient has been used up, and whether or not it’s been restocked…) In despair I topped the bread a different way – adding the end of a jar of marmalade to the icing. It wasn’t bad but not perfect, either.

Watch your neck

Watch your neck

Later that day I pulled something else out of the pantry and hiding behind, tada! There were my slivered almonds. Drats.

I come to you today asking for help. How do you organize your pantry? Big, open shelves with identical storage boxes, cleverly marked with a label maker? Alphabetically classified ziplock bags? Or better yet – an excel spreadsheet inventory printed out and taped on the pantry door? I’m leaning towards option number three, but so far I’ve been too lazy to spend a whole day compiling the list.

As an annex to this post, I give you a list of some of the contents of my over-stocked pantry, and invite recipe suggestions to use some of this stuff (especially the sunflower seeds!) Continue reading

A Salad for Celebration: Autumn Tabbouleh in Virginia

A backyard barbecue for a hundred was in order to celebrate my Aunt and Uncle’s nuptials, in their backyard in Virginia, early last month. Friends who cater on the side were called in to prepare slow-smoked pork shoulder, “Carolina coleslaw,” baked beans, and hush puppies – which are a corn-based fritter, filled with seasonings and herbs like onions and parsley.

Slow-smoked pork shoulder

Slow-smoked pork shoulder

My contribution was to make an enormous salad bowl of what I like to call “autumn tabbouleh” and can fluctuate depending on the vegetables and seasoning available. This dish is one of my weekly staples this time of year, especially for bagged lunches to the office.

What follows is more a loose method than an actual recipe – many variations are possible, seasonally and tastefully.

Autumn Tabbouleh in Virginia

Roasted vegetables:

Here I used a whole butternut squash, peeled, cut into half-inch cubes, and tossed in about 1.5 Tbs olive oil, salt, pepper, and cumin. You could sprinkle chipotle pepper, ground coriander, a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, the list goes on… The squash was roasted at about 180C/350F for 20-30 minutes. You want it to get tender without getting too mushy or browned.

Roast butternut

Roast butternut

There are also four roasted beets – rinsed and wrapped in foil, cook them at 180C/350F for an hour to an hour and a half. Check if they’re done by piercing them with a knife; if they’re tender, take them out of the oven and let them cool before peeling.

Colorful beets

Colorful beets

Raw vegetables:

Celery wasn’t part of the plan, but there were three stalks left in the fridge – peeled, chopped, and away we go.

Three bunches of scallions went into this, rinsed and chopped.


I used the seeds of one pomegranate and about a fistful of dried cranberries.

Pomegranate, celery, scallion

Pomegranate, celery, scallion


Cilantro (fresh coriander) went in – a bit more than half a bunch. There was fresh mint in the garden, too, so we added a handful.


The autumn tabbouleh needs a bit of texture. In Paris I usually default to chopped hazlenuts or walnuts, but here in the American middle south, I felt inspired by the pepitas (pumpkin seeds) at the food cooperative.


This is where things get really approximate. I always make the vinaigrette in a jar on the side, first. I used the juice of two lemons, a splashing of cider vinegar, a heaping tablespoon of mustard (one kind or two?), salt, pepper, and a mixture of vegetable and olive oil. Lid on, shaken up, and then gently combined into the large salad bowl.


You can use bulgur, couscous, quinoa – even rice (but then I don’t think you could really call it a tabbouleh…) I generally allot for 60-80 grams of grains per portion. Cook according to package instructions!

Autumn tabbouleh

Autumn tabbouleh