When Renee Fajardo was a kid growing up in Denver, there weren’t many tamale factories — all she remembers is a taco cart on the 16th Street Mall.
“The guy had a monkey and an accordion, and I’d always beg my grandma and auntie to buy me some tamales. And they’d say, ‘No, wait. Christmas is coming,’ ” she said.
In the Latino community, tamales became important for Christmas and New Year’s meals, she said, “because you couldn’t get them every day. You had to make an effort to go home and make them with your family.”
Fajardo is one of the co-authors of the “Tummy Tales” books, a food heritage series that started in 1996. The latest book, “Frijoles, Elotes, y Chipotles, Oh My! and Other Tummy Tales” features many traditional holiday recipes from local authors who share treasured family recipes, from Czech to German to New Mexican.
Every holiday season, in kitchens across Colorado, families celebrate their heritage with a smorgasbord of the festive foods that includelebkuchen gingerbread from Germany, springerle cookies from Switzerland, and meatballs from Sweden.
And those who celebrate the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa feast on a mix of soul food and West African specialities like chicken yassa, according to Adrian Miller, the Denver author of the James Beard award-winning “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”
“Food is one of the easiest ways for immigrants to re-create home when they get to a new country,” he said. “They try to have the same stuff they had in the old country.”
The roots of Christmas, American-style, date back to some of the nation’s earliest immigrants who, by the 1850s, had begun to fuse various Old World traditions.
The Christmas tree was originally a German custom, and Santa Claus dates to St. Nicholas, a fourth-century monk from Myra in what’s now in modern Turkey — a saint famed for giving to the poor. His legend spread through Europe in the Middle Ages, and the Dutch, who called him Sinterklaas, imported him to America, where he became Santa Claus.
Christmas food traditions came the same way, spreading across America as generations of families kept their heritage alive. Sandra Maresh Doe, an English professor at MSU, celebrates every Christmas with memories of her grandfather, an immigrant from the former Czechoslovakia who worked as a doctor in Iowa City, which had a large Czech community.
“He would go out to the farms and tend to the old Bohemians, who sometimes paid him in chickens, ducks and blood sausage,” she said.
Each Christmas, her mother made kolaces, pastries of raised dough filled with cherries, apricots or poppy seeds.
And Carl Ruby, a co-author of the “Tummy Tales” books, grew up with a traditional German Christmas, the son of parents who emigrated to America in 1929.
His mother made stollen, lebkuchen, crumb cakes called streuselkuchen, and spritzgebacken cookies.
“And my father made nusskugen, nut cake, with a recipe he brought from Germany and always kept in his head,” said Ruby. “I make it now, too.”
This year, chef Patrik Landberg celebrated his Swedish heritage atCharcoal restaurant with a Christmas feast that featured traditional Swedish meatballs, smoked salmon and pickled herring.
And Scandinavian-style Christmas shows up this year in such cookbooks as “Scandinavian Baking” by Danish chef Trine Hahnemann (Quadrille Publishing, $35) with a whole section on Christmas.
“Every year, I invite the children of friends and family to come to my house and spend a whole day baking,” she writes, including her recipes for Finnish sugar cookies, Danish aebleskiver doughnuts and traditional vaniliekranse, or vanilla cookies.
Recipes for winter holidays in “Frijoles, Elotes, y Chipotles, Oh My!” include foods traditional to the New Year’s celebration in the Geechee and Gullah culture on the Sea Islands of Georgia — such as Hoppin’ John with black-eyed peas, collard greens and corn bread.
It’s part of the strong connection between soul food and New Year’s Day, said Miller.
“People have an attitude if you don’t have black-eyed peas, greens and corn bread on New Year’s,” he said. “With Christmas, there are fewer cultural imperatives. Every family and region does different things.”
His family’s Christmas food tradition was either turkey or prime rib with baked potatoes and always salad and vegetables.
“But the full display was dessert,” he said. “That was our Christmas vibe.”
Their spread included sweet potato pie, pistachio nut cake, a rum cake made with his grandmother’s recipe — and red velvet cake, which he says has become a popular African-American Christmas tradition in recent decades.
And for Renee Fajardo, making Christmas tamales is always about connections.
“All the windows in the neighborhood were steamed up because the women were in the kitchen making tamales,” she said.
Behind those steam-fogged windows, families gathered to cook.
“You can make tamales with just one person, but it’s not as fun,” she said. “You cook the meat together, make the chile together and the masa.”
Gathered around the table, the family shared the assembly — smoothing masa corn dough over a corn husk, adding a scoop of pork, then wrapping up the husk and putting it in the pile for steaming.
“It’s a community endeavor that brings people together as a family,” she said. “You sit around and talk to each other, and time slows down. It’s almost like a meditation. You’re doing the same thing over and over, and suddenly the big world is shut out, and you’re in the little, tiny world of tamale making.”
Colleen O’Connor: 303-954-1083, firstname.lastname@example.org or @coconnordp
This recipe from “Frijoles, Elotes, y Chipotles, Oh My!” is from Nelson Moreno Avila, who grew up in Denver and shopped at El Mercado with his mom for the Christmas meal. The three chiles he uses can be found at grocery stores or Latin markets. Makes about 3 dozen.
1½ pounds boneless pork
2 whole cloves garlic
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
For chile sauce
¼ pound Chile Nuevo Mexico
¼ pound Chile Guajillo
¼ pound Chile California
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 cups water (stock saved from boiling the chiles)
1 tablespoon Crisco shortening
5 pounds masa (cornmeal flour)
⅛ cup water
1½ tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups Crisco
2 ounces of the chile sauce
3 dozen dried corn husks
Soak the dried husks in warm water for about an hour or so, or until they become soft. Drain the husks and let dry.
Place pork in a medium-size stock pot. Add the garlic, salt and pepper. Add cold water to cover the pork. On high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and let it simmer partly covered for about 1½ to 2 hours. Remove pork from the stock and let it cool. Once cooled and cooked, begin shredding meat into fine threads.
To make the chile sauce, take a large saucepan and boil the Chile Nuevo Mexico, Chile Guajillo, and Chile California for 10 to 12 minutes or until softened.
Drain chiles and reserve the water. Rinse seeds out of the boiled chiles. Put chiles, garlic powder, and black pepper in a blender and blend until it becomes purée. Add the 2 cups of reserved water. In a heavy, large-size saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon Crisco over medium high heat. Add the drained chile purée.
Be careful when draining because it can get messy. Reduce the heat to low and cook over low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes. Once time is up, take sauce off the heat. Add all of the chile sauce to the pork mixture, except 2 ounces to be added to the masa.
To make the masa, place 5 pounds of masa in a large mixing bowl. Add water and baking powder evenly. Then add salt and begin mixing the masa using your hands.
Add the Crisco and 2 ounces of chile sauce to add color to masa. Knead the masa once more. It’s ready when it starts feeling thick and compact. Then set it aside.
To assemble tamales, spread about 2 tablespoons of the masa mixture on each corn husk, lengthwise down the center. Then add a plop or two of the marinated pork to the center of the corn husk. Roll up the husk. If you want, you may secure with extra strips of cornhusk. Fold up the bottom end.
To steam tamales, use a stock pot with wire lining or steamer insert. Add enough water to keep it below the steamer. You can add some husks to the bottom to prevent the tamales from getting wet.
Tamales must be placed with the open side up along the inside of the stock pot, almost like forming rows of circles. Topping with a foil tent can help.
Steam until the husk peels away from the masa easily, which should be within an hour or so. To make the chile sauce, take a large saucepan and boil the Chile Nuevo Mexico, Chile Guajillo and Chile California for about 10 to 12 minutes or until softened.
This recipe from “Frijoles, Elotes, y Chipotles, Oh My!” is a favorite of Sandra Doe, who got it from Irma Farrell of the Lodge Mile-Hi Czechs.
2 packages yeast
½ 2 cup sugar
¼ cup instant mashed potatoes
1 cup warm water
1 stick unsalted butter
1 stick margarine
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon salt
6 cups flour (Hungarian High Altitude unbleached flour is the best if you are in Denver)
Jar of cherry or apricot jam for filling
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast, sugar and instant potatoes in warm water, and stir. Melt butter and margarine in a 2-cup measuring cup. Add cold water. Stir and add to the mixture. Add salt and eggs; beat well.
Add 4 cups of flour and beat 2 or 3 minutes on medium speed. Change to dough hooks, add rest of flour and beat well. (You may need a little more flour; add it in ¼- cup increments. If you add too much, the dough gets hard.)
Scrape down the sides of bowl; beat again.The dough is ready when it breaks away from a spatula or wooden spoon. Put in a greased bowl, cover with a towel and put in a warm spot for 1 to 1½ to 2 hours.
You could also cover tightly with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight. (Dough will keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.)
To make the kolaces, cut dough into walnut-size pieces and roll into a ball, then place on a greased cookie sheet. Cover with a towel. Let rise until bulk doubles, then punch down centers and brush edges with margarine. Cover and let rise again.
Form a well in the center and fill with cherry or apricot filling. Bake at 400 to 410 degrees for 8 to 12 minutes, depending on oven.
Remove to cooling rack and again brush with melted margarine.
Sweet Potato Pie
Adrian Miller likes this sweet potato pie for Christmas, with recipe adapted from “Southern Pies” by Nancie McDermott from Chronicle Books. Makes one 9-inch pie.
1½ cups mashed, cooked sweet potatoes (about 1½ pounds)
1¼ cups evaporated milk or half-and-half
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten well
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
1 store bought, single layer pie crust
To prepare the sweet potatoes, place 1½ pounds of whole, unpeeled sweet potatoes in a large pot with water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a gentle boil and cook until sweet potatoes are very tender. Depending on the size and shape, this will take between 15 to 30 minutes.
Drain sweet potatoes, and set them out on a platter until cool enough to handle. Peel sweet potatoes, mash them well, and measure out 1½ cups.
To make the pie, heat oven to 375 degrees. Combine sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl. Use a fork or whisk to stir them together well.
Add the milk and eggs, and stir to mix everything together evenly. Add sweet potatoes, butter and vanilla. Mix them together well, stirring them into the egg mixture carefully, until you have a thick, smooth and evenly combined pie filling. Pour the filling into the pie shell and place it on the middle rack of the oven.
Bake for 50 to 55 minutes until the edges puff up and the center is fairly firm, wiggling only a little when you gently nudge the pan.
Place the pie on a cooling rack or on a folded kitchen towel and let cool for 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Little Spiced Apple Pies
These are inspired by traditional British mince pies, which aren’t part of the Scandinavian Christmas tradition. Danish chef Trine Hahnemann lived in Britain for a while, then used mince spicing for small apple pies, as she writes in “Scandinavian Baking.” Makes 20 pies.
For the pastry
⅞ cup powdered sugar, plus more to dust (optional)
2 ⅞ cups all-purpose flour, plus more to dust
Pinch of salt
1 cup butter, chopped and chilled
1 egg, lightly beaten, plus more to glaze
For the filling
14 ounces tart eating apples
½ cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3½ teaspoon apple brandy
For the pastry, sift the powdered sugar, flour, and salt together, then mix in the butter, either in a food processor or by rubbing it in with your fingers, until it has the consistency of crumbs. Add the egg and mix the dough until it is firm and smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or overnight if more convenient.
Peel the apples, core them and cut into small cubes, then tip into a saucepan with the sugar and spices and simmer 10 minutes. Add the apple brandy and let it simmer 5 minutes more, then let cool.
When the apple mixture is cold and you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Roll the dough out on a floured work surface to ⅛ to ⅓ inch thick, cut out 20 rounds with a 2¾- inch cookie cutter, and place them in two nonstick cupcake tins. Fill with the apple sauce.
Cut out 20 smaller pastry shapes, using a small round or star cutter, and place them on top of the apple sauce. Lightly press the rims together and brush the pastry with egg. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack and dust with powdered sugar to serve, if you like.
This dough is great when baking with children, because the cookies can be cut into all kinds of shapes, says Trine Hahnemann in “Scandinavian Baking.” Makes 40.
1 cup superfine sugar
1 ⅔ cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more to dust
5 tablespoons ground almonds
⅞ cup cold butter, chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
Mix the sugar, flour, and almonds in a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingers until the mixture resembles crumbs. Work in the egg, again with your fingers, until you get an even dough, then wrap in plastic wrap and leave to rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface and cut out shapes with a cookie cutter. At this stage you can make a little hole in the top of each so they can be hung up later.
Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake 5 minutes, then let cool on a wire rack, repiercing the holes for hanging if necessary while the cookies are still warm (they may have closed up as they baked).