By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Dec 22, 2011 at 8:59 AM

Nothing warms the spirit as effectively as a holiday tradition.

Whether it's baking sugar cookies with grandma, lighting the candles of the menorah, or singing carols around the Christmas tree, it's the rituals and customs we observe that become emblazoned on our memories and written upon our souls.

I recently asked a host of Milwaukee area chefs and restaurateurs about their fondest holiday food memories – their favorite dishes, and the traditions they love. Not surprisingly, their recollections centered on the bond of family, the power of memories, and the presence of a whole lot of love.

Jan Kelly, owner and executive chef of Meritage, couldn't help but smile when she recollected the memories caught up in her favorite holiday dishes, the cinnamon pecan rolls that her mother only made for Christmas morning and her dad's special ham.

"He would inject it with a secret mixture of liquors over five days and then slow cook it with a glaze and he would garnish the top with candied fruits he did himself," she explained.

She grew up in a household where both of her parents were chefs, so there were always fellow restaurateurs, winemakers and others in the industry that would stop by their house during the holiday season. As a result, Christmas Day was always memorably filled with great food, wine, family and friends.

Among her best holiday memories she includes last year, when she actually had the chance to travel home to California to spend Christmas with her family.

"My husband and I have lived here (in Milwaukee) for 16 years now and going home for the holidays is difficult when you work in this business," Kelly explains, "but last year I had the chance to go for five days ... and it was wonderful ... all my favorite foods and the chance to cook with my parents and my brother, who still owns and operates my parents' first restaurant that was opened in 1972!"

Chef Kelly still makes cinnamon pecan rolls during the holidays and thinks about her mother. But, she leaves the holiday ham to her father.

"Maybe someday I will master it," she says, "but I think I enjoy the thought of having it only with the whole family."

Although Joe Muench, executive chef at Maxie's Southern Comfort, grew up observing what he calls a "pretty typical Christmas," his own family traditions have morphed into an ever-changing collage of activity.

"Over the years our Christmas traditions have converted from the 'big' traditional meal to eating what we are really hungry for. Along with changing the look of our Christmas tree each year with different colored lights and other trimmings, we are always eating something different. It usually comes down to what my kids are hungry for in the weeks leading up to Christmas," he says.

"One year we had build-your-own homemade pizzas, another we made a massive Chicago-style hot dog bar feast and some years we have fired up the grill cooking steak dinners or other summertime foods."

But, despite their ever-changing appetites, there is at least one dish that appears every year without fail. "Sticky caramel pecan rolls rule the oven each Christmas morning," Muench confesses.

"They are prepped before I go to bed on Christmas Eve and are proofed in the oven overnight. I set the oven on auto along with the coffee maker and 'shazam,' when we wake up the air is filled with a rich yeast and toasted caramel aroma along with the smell of coffee. There is nowhere I have been that can compete with a morning greeting such as this."

"I have a deep affinity for Christmas, which usually surprises people because I'm staunchly unreligious," says Justin Johnson, former executive chef at Hotel Metro. "But, I love the decorations and the songs ... the whole vibe just reminds me of growing up."

And when it comes to the traditional Christmas meal, the highlight for Chef Johnson always lies with his mother's desserts.

"My mom makes a simple cherry cheesecake that is extremely satisfying," Johnson says, "but, all bets are off when she breaks out the 'Next Best Thing to Robert Redford' torte. It's made with a pecan crust, topped with a chocolate mousse-like filling, whipped cream and chocolate shavings. It's complete and utter perfection. Christmas simply wouldn't be Christmas at our house without it."

Dave Swanson, owner and executive chef of Braise restaurant, gave me a bit of a history lesson as he talked about his favorite holiday beverage.

"Consumption of spiced wine dates back to at least 500 BC, when honey and spices were added to compensate for any shortcomings in the wine," Swanson explains.

"In Scandinavia it's called glögg, in Germany it's gluhwein and in France it's vin brulot. It's mulled wine in England and Americans call it hot spiced wine. Whatever name you prefer, it is tied to tradition that goes back centuries in Sweden, and nothing compares to its warm and delicious taste."

For Swanson, glögg is a holiday staple, which he shares regularly with family and friends.

"It is a tradition I look forward to every year that warms my heart and soul. Our family recipe is of Swedish origin, which keeps us feeling connected to our heritage," he explains, adding that the preparation is not nearly as difficult or time-consuming as many think. "I will dispel that myth, much to the dismay of many of my fellow Swedes!"

And on that note, it's time to share a recipe. From Dave Swanson's family to yours ...

Swedish Glögg
Celebrate with glögg not only for the holidays, but all winter long.

Ingredients:

3 L. Red wine
1 ½ L. Port
½ pt. Grain alcohol
½ pt. Brandy
5 Cinnamon sticks, broken
20 Cloves
2 Whole nutmeg, quartered
6 Cardamom pods
6 Oranges, zested
1 c. Golden raisins
4 oz Almonds, slivered
¾ c. Sugar

Directions:

Put cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and orange peel into spice bag (or Cheesecloth).
Put raisins and almonds into another spice bag.
Simmer red wine with both spice bags for 2 hours.
Remove both bags, discarding the spices, keeping the almonds and raisins.
Add port, brandy and grain alcohol, bring to simmer.
CAUTION: Ignite to burn off alcohol, cover after 30 seconds to extinguish flames.
Season with sugar to taste, making sure it is dissolved.
Serve warm with almonds and raisins in each glass.
Enjoy!
Until next time when I discuss another Swedish treat: Lutfisk. (Just kidding).

Note: Slow simmering retains alcohol, fast boiling dissipates it. Also, level of alcohol can be adjusted by how long glögg is burned. The longer it is burned the smoother the product will be and vice versa.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.