There may be no place like home for the holidays, but when coronavirus precautions keep you from joining relatives for a traditional Christmas dinner, it’s time to figure out how to make your own.
COVID quarantines have forced New Yorkers who normally leave the holiday cooking to experts — aka, family relatives who’ve honed certain dishes over decades — learning to fend for themselves.
In some cases, they’ve been surprised by the deliciousness of their own creations. In other cases, well . . . let’s just say they’re looking forward to hopefully rejoining the family fold more than ever next year.
The first lesson of holiday cooking: you can’t always please everyone.
It’s a rule novice chef Jennifer Anderson didn’t consider when trying to replicate her Florida family’s famous flour dumplings — a holiday staple she’s missing this year since COVID has her cooped up with her husband in their Long Island house instead of enjoying the Christmas sunshine down south.
“They were a disaster,” said Anderson, an actor and personal trainer who has gone home every Christmas since moving to New York City over a decade ago.
Done right, the dumplings — a simple recipe of flour, baking powder and salt — are fluffy and savory after soaking up juices from whatever delectable main dish Anderson’s Christmas-loving mother makes.
But Anderson, wanting to share her family recipe with her husband’s relatives, tried to hit the same high notes while keeping her flour dumplings vegetarian and gluten-free to accommodate her brother- and mother-in-law.
“They were completely tasteless. Devoid of flavor. My solution was to add a bunch of salt .... and it was way too salty, like burning the tongue salty,” she said. “So, thinking I could ‘balance’ it out with something else, I added a bunch of pepper. Obviously it didn’t help. I had to throw out the entire batch.”
For Christmas, she’ll make them again — and just for herself.
“I’m following the recipe this time!” Anderson vowed.
Accomplished home cook Patricia Chui, who regularly challenges herself to recreate dishes by famous chefs, also got a hard lesson in the perils of recipe-tweaking when she tried to make an entire holiday meal from scratch.
Stuck in her Brooklyn apartment for Thanksgiving, which she normally celebrates with friends, only contributing her famous deviled egg appetizer, Chui laid out an ambitious, multi-dish feast that featured quail and homemade mini-pies. Before long, she was elbow-deep in greasy, sticky dough.
“I always research everything really carefully before I cook and in every recipe I consulted about pie dough it said keep it cold but let it sit for a few minutes before filling it,” said Chui, a media consultant who admits she doesn’t bake very often. “In my head, somehow, that translated to ‘let the pie dough come to room temperature.’”
With her butter crust in full meltdown, Chui did what she could to salvage the plan — but wound up tossing most of her creations.
“I did learn something: you can’t play fast and loose with baking like you can when cooking. Everything has to be exact,” she noted.
She also kept herself entertained by sharing her experience in real time with friends via texts and social media and soliciting advice on what to do.
“Almost every single dish I made had something wrong with it” she said. “But it was a lot of fun. I was connected to other friends cooking all day, too, which made it easier to not be with them.”
Not being with her family over the holidays is what Luvon Roberson, from Harlem, dislikes the most about COVID quarantining. Since childhood, all of her family has gathered at the Queens home of her Aunt Marie and Uncle Joe. But with both of them in their 80s, it’s not worth the coronavirus risk, Roberson said . Not even for her Aunt Marie’s famous stuffing.
“Oh, Aunt Marie’s secret weapon in her stuffing! Known to be the most delicious stuffing by all in our family,” said Roberson, a communication specialist. But her family also enjoys a ton of other holiday dishes, many of them southern specialties brought up from Mississippi, like chitterlings and staples like fried okra and collard greens.
Roberson is going to make her most-loved dishes for herself this year, getting up early on Christmas Day to start slicing and dicing kale and potatoes for a mixed collards and potato salad. She’ll accompany her sides with cornbread and baked chicken — and her favorite adult dessert, sweet potato pie, which has replaced jelly cake, her childhood favorite that Aunt Marie still makes.
“In this COVID pandemic, cooking my favorite family dishes is a most wonder-filled way to relive family memories, of our being together, laughing, being outrageous, dancing ..... embracing, and leaving the house to head to our own homes in the darkness and snow or cold with more warmth than we entered many hours earlier,” she said.
Like Roberson, transplanted New Yorker Eva Sandoval is feeling a double-dose of homesickness this year. Having moved to Italy a decade ago, she can’t fly home to see family or even travel to another city in Italy to hang out with her boyfriend’s family, thanks to “red-zone” restrictions imposed by the government.
“If it weren’t for COVID, I’d be face deep in a Gray’s Papaya hot dog right now,” Sandoval, a food and travel writer, said wistfully. She and her Italian boyfriend have mastered the art of homemade pasta but what Sandoval really craves for Christmas are her family favorites, starting with heavily spiced rum punch.
“We’re making the best of it and focusing on our holiday menu for two. We’ll have an Italian menu, but (with) cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning,” said Sandoval, who lives in Terrracina. “I wanted something American in our holiday meal since I won’t be getting my American food fix this year. We’ve tried making them twice before with middling results but we’re hoping the third time’s a charm.”
Planning her days-long Christmas feast has helped distract her and her boyfriend from the fact that they can’t be with family this year, she said. And cooking favorite dishes fills the house with familiar holiday aromas.
“I think cooking is both an act of self-love and self-reliance,” Sandoval said. ‘And we could all use a little comfort right now.”