Cherished Holiday Dessert Recipes

We asked Beyond readers to send us their most cherished holiday dessert recipe,
the one that has to be on the table each year to make the celebration feel complete.
Here are some of those treasured treats.

Photos by Michael Coons

ALMOND ROCA

Trisha Green from Agoura Hills says her family looks forward to homemade almond roca each year. 

Makes 1 pan

3½ oz. almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 stick butter
¾ cup brown sugar
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped

Spray 9″ cookie sheet. Cover bottom of sheet with chopped almonds, reserving 2 Tbsp. for top. Melt butter in pan over medium-high heat. Add brown sugar and stir with wooden spoon. Continue to stir while bringing mixture to a boil. Boil for 7 minutes, stirring constantly. (Editor’s note: If using a candy thermometer, remove from heat at 290° F, the hard-crack stage.) Immediately pour hot mixture over almonds and spread smoothly to edges with spatula.

While hot, sprinkle chocolate on top and let soften and melt. Smooth evenly with spatula. Sprinkle reserved almonds on top. Place in freezer for 20 minutes. Remove from freezer and break apart.

Store in airtight container.

RUGALACH

Donna Bondy has been making this family favorite every year for Christmas. She says she needs to triple the recipe because her family eats the rugalach like popcorn! The recipe is from her mom, who taught her most of what she knows about baking and cooking.

Makes 3 dozen cookies
1 cup butter
1 8-oz. block cream cheese
2 cups flour
⅓ tsp. salt
¼ cup butter, melted
1 cup ground nuts (walnuts,  almonds or pecans)
½ cup sugar
2 squares semi-sweet baking chocolate, ground
½ cup currants
1 tsp. cinnamon

Cream 1 cup butter and the cream cheese together. Add flour and salt and blend until smooth. Divide dough into 3 parts. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill. Combine last five ingredients. Roll chilled dough into 8″ circles. Brush with ¼ cup melted butter. Sprinkle with nut mixture. Cut into 10-12 wedges. Start at wide end and roll each piece in the nut filling. Place on greased cookie sheet.

Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes or until golden.

PEANUT BUTTER BALLS

Lisa Bailey of Simi Valley sent in this splendid and oh-so-simple recipe for peanut butter balls.

Makes 3-4 dozen
1 stick margarine (melted)
2 cups creamy peanut butter
3½ cups sifted powdered sugar
3 cups Rice Krispies
1 6-oz. bag semi-sweet chocolate chips or Hershey milk chocolate bars
1 tsp. paraffin cooking wax, optional  (used for hardening chocolate)

Mix first four ingredients together. Roll into walnut-size balls. Melt chocolate and cooking wax in a double boiler.  Quickly dip balls into chocolate and place on a waxed-paper-lined cookie sheet. Refrigerate until chocolate has hardened. Store in Ziploc bags or tight-lidded container and keep in refrigerator.

Top to bottom: Almond Roca,
Rugalach, Peanut Butter Balls

Beigli and Biscotti

BEIGLI

Walnut and poppy seed rolls known as beigli are a very popular Hungarian pastry. Beigli originated in Germany, and Hungarians adopted it in the 19th century, making it a customary Christmas treat. For Gabriela Hoffman of Agoura, no holiday dinner is complete without it. 

Makes 10-12 slices per roll

 DOUGH (4 rolls):

1 cup sugar
½ cup milk
1 compressed yeast cake
½ cup powdered sugar
3¼ cups flour
¾ cup butter
2 eggs
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
pinch of salt

NUT FILLING (2 rolls):

½ cup milk
1 cup superfine sugar
2 tsp. vanilla sugar*
½ tsp. grated lemon zest
3 Tbsp. raisins
Pinch of cinnamon
3 cups ground nuts
3-4 tsp. honey
(or 1-2 peeled,  grated apples or  2-3 tsp. apricot jam)

POPPY SEED FILLING (2 rolls):

½ cup milk
1¼ cups powdered sugar
2 tsp. vanilla sugar*
1⅔ cups ground poppy seeds
3 Tbsp. raisins
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
4 Tbsp. honey

OTHER:

1 egg yolk for glazing

To make dough:

Dissolve the sugar in the lukewarm milk, then add the yeast. Mix the remaining dough ingredients with the yeast mixture and knead thoroughly. Cover dough with a dish towel and let rise for about 30 minutes.

To make nut filling:

Put the milk in a pan with the sugar and vanilla sugar and bring to a boil. Add the lemon zest, raisins, cinnamon, nuts, and honey (or apples or jam).

To make poppy seed filling: 

Mix the milk with the powdered sugar and vanilla sugar. Bring to a boil and add poppy seeds and raisins. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from heat and stir in lemon zest and honey. with a knife (usually close to an hour).with a knife (usually close to an hour). Let cool, discard fiber and seeds, scoop pulp into a food processor and puree until very smooth.

 To make pie filling:

Stir eggs with dry ingredients. Add 2 cups of pumpkin puree and evaporated milk.  Pour into deep-dish crust (use your own favorite crust recipe) and bake at 450°. After 10 minutes, reduce oven to 325°. Bake until firm (about 50 minutes, or when knife comes out clean).

BISCOTTI

Connie Gregory of Thousand Oaks submitted this recipe handed down from her mother, Angelina LoPresti, a Sicilian immigrant. Each year three generations of family members gather to bake biscotti and other traditional cookies from age-old recipes.

Makes 4 dozen

6 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
5-6 cups flour
2 Tbsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1 oz. anise extract
2 cups slivered roasted almonds, toasted and blanched

Beat egg yolks lightly with a fork. Add sugar and oil and mix.  In a separate bowl, mix 3½-4 cups of flour and baking powder. Add to egg mixture and mix by hand until firm and doughy. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Add vanilla and anise to egg whites and pour into flour mixture.  Add more flour until dough is firm. Mix in almonds. Make 4 to 5 logs 2″ in diameter and the length of cookie sheet. Place 2 logs on each greased cookie sheet.  Bake at 350° until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

When cool, cut diagonally into 1/2″-thick slices and return to cookie sheets, cut side up, and bake until lightly brown.

PULL-APART APPLE RING

Lisa Bailey of Simi Valley says, “My family loves waking up Christmas morning to a freshly baked Pull-Apart Apple Ring.”    Lisa Bailey of Simi Valley says, “My family loves waking up Christmas morning to a freshly baked Pull-Apart Apple Ring.

Makes 10 servings

½ cup apple jelly
¼ cup chopped pecans
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
1 large apple, peeled and cored
2 10-oz. pkg. refrigerated flaky biscuits
¼ cup margarine or butter, melted

Heat oven to 350° degrees. Spray or grease a 12-cup fluted tube pan. Spoon apple jelly evenly over bottom of prepared pan. Sprinkle with pecans. In small bowl, combine brown sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.  Cut apple into quarters and remove core. Slice each quarter into five slices. Separate dough into 20 biscuits. Press each to flatten slightly, then wrap each biscuit around an apple slice.  Pinch edges to seal and completely cover apple slice. Dip each in melted butter and roll in brown sugar-cinnamon mixture.  Stand biscuits on end around prepared pan. Drizzle with any remaining butter and sprinkle with any remaining brown sugar mixture.

Bake at 350° for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool upright in pan for 8 minutes; invert onto serving plate. Serve warm.

HANUKKAH DOUGHNUTS

Celestine Winston of  Oak Park has been making this delicious version of Hanukkah doughnuts for 30 years and says it’s a family favorite. Fried foods such as doughnuts are often eaten during Hanukkah to symbolize the miracle of the oil that lit the menorah in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for eight days.

Makes 3 dozen

2 cups milk
½ stick butter or margarine
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 envelopes active dry yeast
¼ cup very warm water
6 to 6½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 egg yolks
½ cup dairy sour cream
Vegetable oil
Powdered sugar

Combine milk, butter or margarine, sugar and salt in a small saucepan. Heat slowly until butter or margarine melts; cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast into very warm water (warm but still comfortable when sprinkled on wrist) in a large bowl. Stir until yeast dissolves, then add milk mixture. Beat in 3 cups of flour until smooth. Stir in egg yolks and sour cream. Gradually add remaining flour to make a soft dough. Beat vigorously with a spoon until dough is shiny-elastic, about 100 strokes.  Cover with a clean towel. Let rise in a warm place away from drafts for 1 hour or until double in bulk. Turn dough onto a lightly floured pastry board. Knead a few times and  roll out ½” thick. Cut with a floured 1½” cookie cutter. Place on a lightly floured cookie sheet. Re-roll and cut leftover dough.  Cover with a clean towel. Let rise 20 minutes or until double in bulk. Fill a large heavy saucepan or electric skillet ⅔ full with vegetable oil. Heat to 370° on a deep fat thermometer.

Drop doughnuts 5 or 6 at a time into hot oil. Fry, turning once, 3 to 4 minutes or until golden. Drain on paper towel, cool, and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

CREAMY PECAN CARAMELS

Linda Pistachio, a retired cafeteria manager for the Simi Valley Unified School District, loves to cook, but enjoys baking even more. The Simi Valley resident has been making her Creamy Pecan Caramels to give as gifts to friends and family, especially at Christmas, for 40 years.

Makes 60-70 caramels

1 stick butter (room temperature)
½ cup flour
2 cups heavy whipping cream
⅔ cup light corn syrup
1½ cups granulated sugar
¼ tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. vanilla
2 cups chopped or whole pecans

Mix butter and flour together and set aside. In a heavy 4-quart saucepan, mix the whipping cream, corn syrup, sugar and salt. Insert a candy thermometer and bring mixture to a boil. Cook to 235° and then stir in flour mixture with a wooden spoon.  Cook, stirring to prevent burning, to 242° (about 15-20 minutes).

Remove from heat and add vanilla and pecans.  Pour mixture into a 9″x9″ sprayed pan. Let cool until firm.  Cut into pieces and wrap each piece in a square of waxed paper.

CANNOLI

Rudy C’Dealva of Agoura grew up in an Italian household and remembers having Cannoli at his family’s Christmas dessert table. Rudy’s aunt made them from a recipe similar to this.

Makes 18

SHELLS:
2 cups flour
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter or shortening
1 tsp. sugar
Dash of salt
¾ cup Marsala wine
1 egg white
Vegetable oil for frying

FILLING:
3 cups full-fat ricotta cheese
½ cup powdered sugar
½ cup mini chocolate chips or coarsely grated chocolate
½ tsp. vanilla extract
6 Tbsp. mixed candied peel
Optional: 6 glacé cherries, finely chopped

To make shells: 
Mix together the flour, butter or shortening, sugar, and salt.  Begin to add wine, adding enough to form a fairly firm dough. Knead for a few minutes until smooth.  Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for one hour. Cut the dough in half and roll thinly to about a ¼” thickness. Cut into 4 squares. Place a metal tube diagonally across each square and wrap the dough around the tube. Seal the edges with a little beaten egg white. Heat the oil in a large pan until it reaches a temperature of 375°.  Drop one or two tubes into the hot oil and cook until golden. Remove from the pan, cool, and gently slide the cannoli shell from the tube. Continue the process with the rest of the shells.

To make filling:
Let the ricotta sit in a strainer over a small bowl in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to remove excess water. Mix the ricotta with the rest of the filling ingredients. Chill for at least 30 minutes. Fill each cannoli shell carefully, stuffing the filling with the handle of a spoon. Sprinkle with a little extra powdered sugar if desired. Serve immediately. Makes 18.

Alternately, try adding ¼ cup of orange juice and ½ tsp. orange zest to add a hint of citrus. Finely chopped toasted almonds (¼ cup) also introduce flavor and texture.

*Editor’s note: You will need 3 or 4 metal cannoli tubes, available at most kitchen stores. If you’re short on time, purchase pre-made cannoli shells at a local Italian deli. Italia Deli in Agoura Hills carries them.

PUMPKIN PIE

Tina Marie Ito of Calabasas was a teenager the first time she set out to bake a pie. She opened a can of pumpkin and poured it into a premade crust and baked it, thinking it was that simple. Many years after pulling the tasteless concoction out of the oven, she has mastered the art of a real pumpkin pie, much to the delight of her family and friends. “We love it when it’s still warm with some ice-cold whipped cream on top,” she says.

1 sugar pumpkin
2 eggs, beaten
⅔ cups sugar
2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
Pinch of salt
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk
Prepared pie crust

To make pumpkin puree:
Cut a sugar pumpkin in half. Rub cut sides with shortening and place facedown on a cookie sheet. Bake at 450° degrees until easily pierced with a knife (usually close to an hour). Let cool, discard fiber and seeds, scoop pulp into a food processor and puree until very smooth.

To make pie filling:
Stir eggs with dry ingredients. Add 2 cups of pumpkin puree and evaporated milk.  Pour into deep-dish crust (use your own favorite crust recipe).

Bake at 450°, after 10 minutes, reduce oven to 325°.

Bake until firm (about 50 minutes, or when knife comes out clean).

KRINGLA

Kringla, a traditional Norwegian treat, is a simple bread-like cookie with a hint of sweetness. Making the figure-8 shape out of moist and sticky dough is something bakers take years to perfect. Mim Haukoos brings kringla to her family dinner in Agoura Hills each Christmas.

Makes 2 dozen

1 cup sugar
½ cup shortening, such as Crisco
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
dash of salt
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. mace

Cream sugar and shortening. Add eggs, ¼ cup of buttermilk and the vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients and remaining buttermilk to creamed mixture alternately, a little at a time. Dough will be very light and sticky. Flour your hands. For each cookie, take a heaping teaspoon of dough and roll it into a 5″ cylinder, shaped like a piece of string cheese. A cutting board topped with waxed paper may be used to roll dough.  Shape each cylinder into a figure 8. Place directly on a well-greased cookie sheet in a 350° oven.  Bake 8-10 minutes or until bottoms are golden brown.

*Editor’s note: Kringla are particularly good when dipped into a hot cup of coffee.