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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014

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In Dining Commentary

Holiday dinners are all about traditions, even for Milwaukee's top chefs.

Stirring up memories: Milwaukee chefs reflect on favorite holiday traditions


Think Christmas. Or Kwanzaa or Hanukkah. What favorite traditional dishes come to mind? What do you really love and miss if it's not on the table? Be honest, now.

When I think about Christmas, I can't help but think about my mother's fruitcake. Slammed full of dried fruit and saturated with rum, I've enjoyed this dense dark cake for as long as I can remember – slathered with butter for breakfast, eaten as a mid-day snack or sliced thinly and served with a cup of espresso for dessert.

It's actually one of the things I look forward to most as the holidays approach. Say "ugh" if you must, but there's something to be said for the power of food traditions.

In keeping with this mode of thinking, I asked a host of Milwaukee area chefs and restaurateurs about their fondest holiday food memories – their favorite dishes, and the traditions they love.

When they responded, their answers weren't particularly exotic. In fact, no one focused on the lure of haute cuisine alone. Rather, their recollections centered on the bond of family, the power of memories and the presence of a whole lot of love.

Although Nell Benton, new owner and chef at The National, enjoys cooking all year round, she says that there's something particularly special about creating delicious things to share with her loved ones during the holiday season.

"For me, more than anything else," she says, "Christmas means giving, connecting with family, and eating great food."

For many years, Benton lived overseas and wasn't able to spend time with her family, so she treasures every moment spent with family around the holidays. One of her fondest food traditions includes the construction of an enormous croquembouche, a traditional French wedding cake, built up in a cone shape resembling a Christmas tree. The dessert, which is made up of choux pastry puffs filled with vanilla and chocolate pastry cream, is held together by gleaming caramel threads.

"It is exquisite to look at and sumptuous to eat," Benton remarks. "It's also something that everyone can help make, including my little nieces, who each claim to be my 'sous chef.'"

For Chef Zak Baker, chef de cuisine at Lake Park Bistro, the holidays are also all about spending time with the ones he loves. Since he and his wife, Sarah, both work in the restaurant industry, it can be difficult to find time to spend together. So, they've happened upon a tradition that allows them to enjoy the best of both worlds.

A few days before Christmas, they purchase a small amount of white truffle, shave half of it into some grated Parmigiano and then seal it in an airtight container. A day or two later, they make risotto with the cheese, shaving the remainder of the truffle on top. It's perfect alongside a bottle of Nebbiolo Langhe.

"It's become an annual tradition of ours," Baker remarks, "and it's my favorite meal of the year. All I really want for Christmas anyways is white truffles and dinner with my wife."

"One thing that just 'makes' our Christmas every year is oyster stuffing for the turkey," says Mark Weber, executive chef at Mason Street Grill. "My grandmother always stuffed the breast of the turkey with it. There wasn't always a lot, so it was treasured. Everybody at the table only got one big spoonful, and we would all eat the stuffing slowly and carefully in case we would come across a pearl."

He tells the story of how his Uncle Phil was always the luckiest and would find at least one pearl in his stuffing every year. As kids, he and his brother and sister would each hope fervently for a pearl in the stuffing, but they never found one.

"Fifteen years later," Weber recalls, "we discovered that the pearls he 'found' all had tiny holes drilled in them! Busted! Uncle Phil was always known for his practical jokes, especially at holiday meal times."

For Kevin Sloan, Milwaukee native and chef at The Pabst/Riverside Theaters, the holidays were always filled with tradition.

"My folks still have the same cozy house on the North Side that they had when I was growing up," he muses. "We have a small family with not a lot of extensions so it's always been Mom and Dad, my sis and me, a dog or two and possibly a friend. More recently, it includes my brother-in-law and my now 3-year-old niece.

"My favorite thing about spending time at my folks' house during the holidays is the aroma. The scent of a fireplace that gets stoked first thing, a potpourri of orange peels, cinnamon sticks and dried herbs that Mom always has on the stove top, a real Christmas tree in the front room, as well as slow simmering food, is always the first thing that one experiences when walking in the front door, which is nice."

As for that slow simmering food, Sloan's mother and her German friends knew a farmer who raised ducks and geese, so it was tradition to roast a whole duck or goose, or, more recently, Cornish hens. Pickled red cabbage, or rotkohl, slow cooked with bacon or duck fat, spices, apples and vinegar, is a staple, as well as German dumplings, known as knodel.

"They have such a great texture and are the ultimate sponge for juices from the bird," Sloan remarks. "A couple of years ago my mom skipped the dumplings, just to 'switch it up' for a year. I didn't actually start crying, but I do think my young niece probably learned a little about throwing a proper tantrum that day. Now I make the dumplings just to be sure they are part of the meal."

But in the end for Sloan, it's all about simple tranquility. "Muddle up a couple brandy old fashioneds after dinner, turn up the Bing Crosby, grab a seat by the fireplace with the hound ... and you have yourself one very happy boy."

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