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Chefs Get Nostalgic Over Favorite Holiday Dishes

Over the past year, NPR has covered the merits of the summer tomato, the glories of stuffed pumpkin, why your zucchini bread is flat, and why you just need to chill out when your chicken breast sticks to the pan.

So why should Christmas be any different? NPR asked four of the chefs who enlightened us this year to tell us about the dish that most reminds them of the holidays.

For Atlanta-based food chemist Shirley Corriher, author of Bakewise, it's her grandmother's sweet potato pudding.

"It's an old, old recipe," she says. "Not like the souffle -- that's more modern. It makes a very rich-looking deep golden-brown dish, similar to very, very fine hash browns."

Corriher's sweet potato pudding is flavored by ginger and brown sugar. She says she remembers her grandmother grating the sweet potatoes by hand.

"It used to be a real chore," she says. "Today, you just throw some chunks in the food processor and zip zip zip!"

Another chef, Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table, laughs when talking about gingerbread cookies, the food that reminds her most of the holidays.

"I decided when our son was about 2 or 3 that I would use these gingerbread cookies as decorations for the Christmas tree," she says. "And I made little holes in them and tied them to the tree with ribbon and had decorated them with royal icing and had names on them and little messages on them. And they were so cute."

The day after she hung them, Greenspan says, she had a friend and her little girl visit. Both mothers were chatting away with each other when they looked over at the tree.

"There were our two little kids, lying on their backs, munching on whatever were the lowest cookies they could get to," Greenspan says. "It was totally adorable, but I never put low-hanging cookies on a tree again."

Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, co-owners of Frankie's Spuntino in Brooklyn, N.Y., remember heavy meals and light desserts for Christmas. Castronovo's grandparents would always have lasagna, seven or eight layers, made fresh that day.

And then there were the grain pies. Both Franks remember these.

"They were basically barley pies with a very light citrus custard in there with a light thin pastry with latticework on top and baked off until they were crispy on the top then soft and moist on the inside," Falcinelli says. "After having a big meal at Christmas, you could kind of nip at that, have a thin slice of the grain pie and then rate it from last year's grain pie -- if it was good, if the barley was overcooked, if it was too lemony. It's hard to be a cook in an Italian family, because everybody has their opinions."

"Everybody thinks they can do it better," Castronovo adds. "They don't realize how much work it is."

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