3 Family Recipes to Inspire Your Holiday Menu

October 30, 2023

By Christa Protano

As a mom of two picky littles, I absolutely loathe dinnertime. Trying to make a meal that the whole family will love is pretty much impossible these days. Recently, though, I came across some sage advice in Food & Wine and our 5 p.m. witching hour has become a little less frustrating. When “bemoaning a few dinner fails earlier this year”, F&W Editor in Chief Hunter Lewis wrote in the August issue that his wife told him to “just play the hits.” Since school started, this has become my mantra for weeknight survival. And now that the holidays are just around the corner, I’m planning to stick to what I know works best.

Rather than attempt the latest TikTok food trend, I’m planning to serve the oldies but goodies—those classic family recipes that I’ve managed to secure in writing from previous generations. From my mom’s Italian Christmas cookies (recipe below) to my grandmother’s Sunday Gravy, I keep all of my heirloom recipes together in a binder for safekeeping.

Speaking of which, Thunder Bay Press recently launched Our Family Recipes to help you get organized and create your own family heirloom. This practical binder includes nine recipe sections–from apps to drinks—along with a starter recipe for each section. To that end, we’ve asked our Thunder Bay Press team to share their own sweet family recipes that we hope will serve as inspiration this holiday season. From our table to yours, cheers!

Italian Christmas Cookies (aka Tadals)
From Christa Protano, freelance writer, these small Italian treats are big on flavor.

(Makes approx. 50 cookies)

1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
3 tsp. vanilla extract (can also substitute almond or anise extract)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
Dash of salt

For Icing:
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
3-4 T. milk
Food coloring (optional)
Sprinkles (optional)


Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.
Using a stand mixer, beat together sugar, eggs and vanilla, then add softened butter and fully combine. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking powder and salt.  Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients until thoroughly mixed. Using your hands, roll dough into 1-2 inch balls and place on prepared baking sheet about 2 inches apart (they do puff up when baking). Bake at 350°F for 10-12 minutes or until bottoms are golden brown. Let cool completely.

For Icing: Mix together confectioner’s sugar and milk until thick enough to drop off of a spoon onto the cookie. If icing seems too thick, add a little more milk. If too thin, add a little more sugar. It will spread over the cookie slowly if mixed right. At this point, you can also add a few drops of red or green food coloring for a festive touch. If adding sprinkles, wait 2-3 minutes and then add while icing is still wet.

Mochi Butter Cake
From Bernadette Baillie, Senior Marketing Director, this dish is traditionally made by Filipinos, Japanese and Hawaiians. It is also gluten-free.


1 lb. (1 box) Mochiko flour
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
¾ tsp. kosher salt
4 large eggs, at room temperature
3 cups coconut milk* (can substitute with oat or almond milk)
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly,
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut

*NOTE:  if you want to make the cake extra rich, substitute 1 cup of coconut milk with sweetened condensed milk.


Preheat oven to 350°F.  Coat a 9 x 13-inch pan with non-stick baking spray or room-temperature butter. Set aside.
Sift together dry ingredients in a large bowl. Beat together eggs, coconut milk and vanilla extract in a medium bowl until fully combined. Using a wooden spoon, mix together the wet and dry ingredients until smooth. Add the melted butter and mix until combined. Poor in pan and sprinkle with the shredded coconut. Bake for 50 minutes to one hour.

From Jessica Brixie, Social Media Coordinator, this dessert is a Croatian holiday staple.


Phyllo dough (strudel leaves)
4 sticks (1 lb.) butter, melted
2 cups walnuts or almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. cinnamon

For Syrup:
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 tsp. lemon juice
2 pieces medium to large cinnamon sticks


Preheat oven to 325°F. Prepare a 2-inch deep, 9 x 13-inch baking dish by brushing the inside with some of the melted butter. Set aside.
In a food processor, grind nuts then add sugar and cinnamon and mix together. Place three to four strudel leaves at the bottom of the baking dish and brush with some of the melted butter. Repeat until half of the phyllo dough is used. Spread nut mixture evenly over the phyllo dough. Place the other half of the strudel leaves on top of the nut mixture, brushing melted butter in between each layer. When finished, brush top leaves generously with butter.
With a sharp pointed knife, score sheets in a diamond shape, square or rectangle. Bake at 325°F for 30 minutes. Reduce to 300°F for 30 minutes. If top becomes too brown, lay a sheet of foil on top of pan until finished baking. Make syrup 10 minutes before baking ends.

For Syrup: Place all ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil and cook for 10 minutes. Take baklava out of the oven and pour syrup over the entire dessert. Be sure to cover it entirely. Let stand for 4 hours or overnight until all liquid has been absorbed. Serve cold.