Family Gatherings: Holiday Recipes, Traditions, & Memories

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By Eric Magana

The holiday season is here again as many families look forward to rest, relaxation, and family fun. Whether it is about bonding over a family recipe, holding a house party, or just remembering the holiday season as a child, it is a time that can be celebrated in a variety of ways. Here are a few traditions and recipes from around the Brazos Valley.

The Bonarrigo Family
mulled-wine-2Merrill Bonarrigo, one of the Messina Hof Winery founders, celebrates the holiday season by hosting a company Christmas party for the employees and grape growers from around the state. “All come together to celebrate and give thanks,” says Bonarrigo. The Bonarrigo family does a “Papa Noel” tour from Thanksgiving to Christmas to celebrate the holidays. “Guests sip on Mulled Wine and listen to stories about our German and Italian holiday traditions,” she says.

An annual food dish that is brought out is Port wine-soaked blue cheese. Around Thanksgiving, the family takes a baby wheel of cheese, scoops out a bowl in the center, fills it with Port, covers it, and then refrigerates until Christmas. Two days before Christmas, they remove the cheese from the refrigerator and let it warm up to room temperature, says Bonarrigo. Then on Christmas Eve, the cheese is set out and served with ginger snaps.

This recipe for mulled wine is a traditional Christmas drink dating back to the 1500s that typically features spices like cinnamon, cloves, and honey.

Messina Hof Mulled Wine with Beau
Start to finish: 30 minutes. Servings: 2-3.


  • 1 bottle of Messina Hof Beau
  • 1 ½ cups water or brewed green tea
  • ½ cup raw or brown sugar
  • 8 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Pinch of allspice

Place all ingredients in a saucepan; warm over low heat (do not boil). Steep for 30 minutes. Strain and discard cloves and cinnamon; serve in mugs.

The Lee Family
depositphotos_5205253_originalFor the last 38 years, Jan Lee, branch manager at Dealers Lighting, and her family have had a tradition of serving chili on Christmas Eve.

The tradition began in the early years of her marriage, says Lee. “It started because my husband, Alan, participated in chili cook-offs,” she says. Since then the family always makes a big pot of her husband’s award-winning chili. For the first 25 years of her marriage, the family would host a Christmas Eve party at their home. “Our parties were so big that everyone from friends, family, and neighbors came,” says Lee.

As Lee and her husband began having children, the festivities got hard to manage with such a crowd. Instead the party was reduced to mostly family, with standing invitations for anyone invited to come again the next year. “We get the occasional visitor,” she says. Even with just family, their home is still full.

When the family takes trips out of town for the holidays, the family tradition does not change. The Lee family WILL prepare chili!

The Martin Family
Deana Starkey Martin, sales manager and marketing director for BCR Realtors, had a unique Christmas tradition when her four kids were growing up. “When they were young we used to pick a country and learn about their Christmas,” says Martin. She and the kids would try to cook entrees and desserts from the country they were studying. They would even decorate in the style of the country and culture they examined, she says.

This tradition allowed Martin’s kids to learn about other places and gave them the opportunity to try and put themselves in other children’s shoes. On a few occasions, the family would even write to other children in different countries.

The Fortin Family
honduran-torrejasGrowing up in Honduras, Melissa Fortin, co-owner of Fred & Fred Seafood Market, recalls how Christmas was a big deal, especially when it came to food. “Turkey and ham is a must and very similar to the USA,” says Fortin.  But the family gets a special treat when it comes to sweets, she says. One of those treats is called a Honduran Torreja. It resembles French toast, but it is served with a different kind of syrup.

In Honduras and many other Central American countries, it is customary to cook these delicacies in large quantities. Latin families are usually quite large with many children and relatives always prepared to join the festivities. It is also considered good etiquette to visit your neighbors during the holidays and bring something to share. For example, instead of gift-giving on Christmas Day, many guests cook up Torrejas, fruitcake, and ladyfingers, and wrap them up. They are handed out to loved ones before the big day, says Fortin. “Sort of what you would do in the USA when bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner,” she says. “Except you bring food instead of wine.”

Growing up, Christmas was a big event for Fortin. Her family began celebrating on Christmas Eve, where every family member is invited to the main relative’s house — usually the grandparent’s home. It is the time where everyone wears their best outfits, or “estrenos,” which means new clothes in Spanish. Ladies have their hair and makeup done and wear nice dresses and shoes. Once everyone has arrived, it becomes like a potluck dinner, except everyone is assigned a specific dish to complete one meal. Wine and Caribbean eggnog, also called Rompopo, are served. Once midnight comes around dinner is served and a prayer is said before the dinner takes place. “Usually the story of Jesus’ birth is read out loud from the Bible,” says Fortin.

Before the dinner begins, the children get the most excited because presents are opened at midnight. When the clock signals that it is time to open gifts, everyone races down to the tree and tries to find as many presents as possible with their names on it. The fireworks can be heard in the distance as family and friends kiss and hug to celebrate Christmas. After the dinner, the real party takes place. “That’s when the music starts playing and everybody gets up and starts dancing in the living room,” says Fortin.

Honduran Torrejas:
Start to finish: 20 minutes. Servings: 4-6


  • 1 1/3 cup of brown sugar or panela (can be found in a Michoacana or Fiesta grocery store), it’s a block of brown sugar and spices, in Honduras it is called Dulce de Rapadura)
  • 1 1/3 cup of water
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 2 or 3 baguettes of stale bread, preferably egg-yolk bread
  • 3 egg whites, beaten
  • Oil for deep frying (preferably oil that can withstand high heat i.e. Coconut oil)


  • Boil the water, sugar/panela, and cinnamon in a pan for about 10 minutes until the syrup is well formed. It should be a sticky mixture, but do not touch with your hands. Contents will be very hot.
  • Cut the bread in 1/2” slices. Heat up a skillet on high heat. Dip the bread slices in the egg white mixture and deep fry in the skillet until brown on both sides. Lay each slice on a piece of paper towel to absorb the oil. After all slices have been fried, place them on a medium-deep serving dish and pour the syrup over them. Add the 2 sticks of cinnamon to the syrup and leave in for extra flavor.
  • Torrejas may be served warm or can also be served cold. Store in refrigerator.


  • Arrange all the bread slices together flat, in a baking dish after soaking them in the egg whites. Pour the syrup over and let it stand a few minutes, so the liquid enters into the bread. Serve them hot.

Bread Substitute:

  • Use ladyfingers instead of bread slices. If using ladyfingers, use baking method.

Rudy’s Red Fresh Cranberry Sauce
cranberry-sauce-3Recipe provided by Donna Stolpman from Peach Creek Winery.

Prep time: 10 minutes. Cook time: 25
minutes, Passive time: 8 hours


  • 2 cups of brown sugar
  • 4 cups of fresh cranberries (about 1 pound)
  • 1 ½ cups of Rudy’s Red Wine
  • ¼ cup of Grand Marnier


  • Stir together sugar and wine in a heavy 3-quart saucepan over heat until blended. Add cranberries, bring to a boil, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until cranberry skins begin to split (around 10 minutes or so). Remove from heat and mash with potato masher to desired consistency for whole berry sauce.
  • For a more pureed type sauce, let the mixture cool for 15 minutes. Put mixture into a food processor and pulse mix 3 or 4 times, or until the cranberries are pureed to desired consistency.
  • Once the sauce is at the desired consistency (whole berry or pureed), stir in Grand Marnier. Cover and chill 8 hours before serving. Serve chilled or at room temperature. It can be enjoyed as an accompaniment to a meal, and it’s also great served over vanilla ice cream.