Food traditions help define the holidays and spark joyful memories

by | Dec 22, 2021

Sheri Castle has been writing about food and talking about food professionally for 30 years, always with the goal of helping home cooks become more confident and passionate about cooking.

She understands the powerful connection between food and holiday memories.

“We all know the feeling of getting a whiff of an aroma of a ham baking in the oven, or hot apple cider, or a Christmas pie or hearing a favorite song. The power of association of these things are strong with people, and that is especially true at the holidays,” Castle said.

As host of the popular PBS television program The Key Ingredient with Sheri Castle and with 16 cookbooks under her belt, who better to turn to for some great recipes for holiday leftovers than this North Carolina native.

Sheri Castle  Photo Credit Baxter Miller
Sheri Castle Photo Credit Baxter Miller

Among the favorite holiday memories Castle recalls from childhood growing up near Boone was the array of sweets — cookies, cakes and candies — at her grandmother’s house during the holidays. And always finding citrus fruit and nuts in her stocking.

“We weren’t the people that had sweets around all the time or after every meal,” she said. “And what a treat citrus fruits were, as were the fresh nuts. Because that stocking tradition was special to my grandparents, it was shared with us.”

As an adult, Castle established two holiday traditions with her own family.

“I would prepare a big ol’ country breakfast with biscuits and sausage gravy, eggs, fried apples, hash brown casserole, bacon, country ham and city ham. That was tremendously joyful to me.

“There is something about waking up to an aroma of breakfast that someone has cooked for you that brings up such good memories. It means someone loves you enough to get up before you to make it for you,” she said.

“And before my daughter moved away, I made the same dinner for 20 years of beef tenderloin with red wine sauce, potato gratin and hot molten lava cakes.”

Those cakes, she explained, predate their current availability and popularity on the menus of some popular chain restaurants today.

Throughout her career, Castle has proven herself to be a trusted source for recipes that are approachable, using ingredients that are attainable and offering time-honored cooking tips and tricks that can help elevate the skills of any level cook.

As its name implies, her TV show focuses on one ingredient each episode, with six of the eight episodes featuring a field trip to source, use or understand the ingredient better.

One field trip involved the harvesting of oysters on the coast “on a perfect blue sky day.” (At this point in the interview, I was both hungry and envious of her adventures.)

As fun as the day of oystering was, her favorite episode still has been episode one on corn meal, because she was able to include her dad and the use of the family’s antique grist mill.

“All these people wrote in and commented how cute and sweet my daddy is,” Castle said.

You can check out her show on PBS. Find times here, by searching The Key Ingredient.

Castle graciously shared two recipes for leftovers — specifically leftover ham and leftover biscuits — and both sound delightful and delicious. Enjoy!

Ham Salad

This is my take on an old-timey recipe that cooks once relied on as a tasty way to use up the leftovers from a large holiday ham. However, it’s just as tasty made from ham steaks or a thick slab of good quality baked ham from the deli. Thinly sliced sandwich ham is not a good choice.
Makes about 4 cups
1 1/4 pounds baked ham, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 celery stalk, chopped (1/4 cup)
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped (1/4 cup)
1 bunch green onions (white and tender green parts), chopped (1/3 cup)
1/3 cup mayonnaise, plus more if needed
1/4 cup Creole or other coarse mustard
1/4 cup dill pickle or sweet pickle relish, drained
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Ground black pepper, to taste

  1. Working in batches, pulse the ham, in the bowl of a food processor until the ham is coarsely chopped, about 10 pulses. Return all of the ham to the food processor. Add the celery, bell pepper, and green onions.
  2. In a medium-size bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, mustard, relish, parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice, hot sauce, and dry mustard. Pour over the ham mixture and pulse only until combined and the ham is finely chopped, about 12 pulses; do not puree. Season with pepper.
  3. Transfer into an airtight container and refrigerate at least 2 hours to give the flavors time to blend. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, then stir well and check the seasoning before serving.

Biscuit Bread Pudding with Bourbon-Pecan Caramel Sauce

The point of bread pudding is to use leftover bread, whatever that daily bread might be. At my house, that’s often biscuits, both plain and sweet potato. Unlike pudding made from crusty yeast bread, the tender biscuits nearly dissolve in the sweet custard, so biscuit pudding is very soft. With the Bourbon-Pecan Caramel Sauce, it’s ethereal. Really, really sweet, but ethereal. Makes 8 servings

3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups half-and-half
4 cups loosely crumbled plain or sweet potato biscuits
1/4 cup dried cherries or golden raisins
Bourbon-Pecan Caramel Sauce, for serving (recipe follows)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 1 1/2-quart baking dish. The pudding bakes in a water bath, so set the dish inside a large baking pan.
  2. Whisk the eggs in a large bowl until the yolks and whites are blended. Whisk in the sugar, vanilla, and half-and-half. Stir in the biscuits and cherries. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Add enough very hot tap water to the baking pan to come halfway up the outside of the baking dish. Bake until the top is puffed and the pudding is just set, about 50 minutes. A thin knife inserted about 1 inch from the center should come out moist but not wet.
  3. Remove the pudding from the oven and let it sit in the hot water bath for 5 minutes before serving warm with Bourbon-Pecan Caramel Sauce, if using. Bourbon-Pecan Caramel Sauce This sauce is a liquid praline, and it is almost too good. There are people who will pretend they hear something in the backyard and offer to be an intrepid investigator, when they are actually sneaking into the kitchen to eat this straight from the jar by the spoonful. Or so I am told. Makes about 2 cups 1 1/4 cups sugar
    1/2 cup water
    1/4 cup light corn syrup
    1 1/4 cups whipping cream
    1 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
    2 tablespoons bourbon
    1/2 teaspoon large-crystal garnishing salt, such as fleur de sel, Maldon, or kosher salt
  4. Stir together the sugar, water, and corn syrup in a large, heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat without stirring until the sugar dissolves and turns the color of amber, about 7 minutes. Use a pastry brush dipped in cold water to wash down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour in the cream; it will bubble vigorously and the caramel will harden. Stir over low heat until the mixture is smooth.
  5. Bring the sauce to a boil and cook until it thickens enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the pecans, bourbon, and salt. Serve warm or let it cool, then cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Reheat gently for serving.

©Copyright 2011 Sheri Castle. Excerpted from The New Southern Garden Cookbook with express written permission of the author.