Local chefs make dishes that delight the holiday table

Get inspired by what these Madison chefs put on their holiday menus at home.
Local chefs collaged against a white background.
Chef photos (clockwise from top): Nicole Peaslee, Patrick Stutz, Sharon Vanorny, Nikki Hansen, Courtesy of Joslyn Mink, Nicole Peaslee, Courtesy of Mickey Walker, Nikki Hansen

Whether you celebrate the harvest, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Festivus, the holiday season is upon us, and the one true constant is food. When it comes to feeding families and friends, it turns out Madison chefs are just like the rest of us: The dishes they set out on their holiday tables are made with love and often a splash of heavy cream — be it dairy or cashew. Anchored in tradition and meant to comfort, everything from mashed potatoes and seafood stews to sugar cookies and cheeseballs is showing up on your favorite chefs’ tables this holiday season.

The dish the whole family is always looking forward to on Christmas is a khmer soup [a Cambodian sour soup] called somlor machu that we usually have as an appetizer. If you are more familiar with the Thai tom yum soup, it is relatively similar in taste. The whole house would get so fragrant! It’s a very aromatic dish combining saltiness, sourness and spiciness, thanks to lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, tomato and pineapple. And what makes it so special is that we use lobster on special occasions instead of shrimp or fish. It is the perfect opening dish for a cozy and warm family dinner. – Virginie Ok, La Kitchenette

The dish I always make for family and friends is potato gratin. I had to make it every day when I worked at Craft in New York City. It’s just russet potatoes, cream, milk, salt and a sachet of garlic confit, thyme, bay leaf and peppercorns. I made it once for my family, and my nieces liked it a lot and asked for it again — so now I just bring it to every holiday gathering. I bring other things, too, but the gratin is always on the table if I’m there. – Itaru Nagano, Fairchild

A family favorite we always make for the holidays is my bourbon apple cake with lemon glaze. [My husband] Tory [Miller, executive chef of Graze and L’Etoile] and my brother are big bourbon fans, so I tend to incorporate it into my holiday baked goods. This is a crazy-moist cake I bake in a Bundt pan, so it comes out beautifully molded, and then I drizzle it with tart lemon glaze. I love to use Ela Orchard Ida Red apples. The cake itself is chock-full of apples and uses brown sugar and bourbon to create a caramel flavor that sets off the apples beautifully. It’s a fun way to incorporate apples into something other than traditional apple pie, since apples are still in abundance through December. – Kristine Miller, Graze/L’Etoile/Dough Baby Bakery

Our family is a mixture of a couple of different cultures, and so our main meal is rarely the same from year to year. Sometimes Dad [chef Vicente Sacramento] will make a big paella, or Mom [chef Claudia Gamoneda] will make Honduran tamales, or my husband and I will take a turn and make a more traditional American meal. What we do always have are my dad’s delicious dinner rolls and his scratch-made tiramisu. He makes it all — from the spongecake to the cream — and it is incredible. I don’t think we have gone a single holiday or special event without that dessert. It is what we all ask for as a birthday cake and what we bring when holidays are hosted by someone else. – Claudia Topel, Monona Bakery & Eatery

Our Christmas Eve tradition with family is a three-course fondue dinner. We keep it pretty classic, and I love it because it keeps everyone engaged, together and gathered around the table. We have a cheese course with fresh breads, sliced apples and vegetables. The second course is coq au vin style and features savory broth with red wine, mushrooms and onions. We dip a variety of seafood, meats, vegetables and roasted potatoes. The final course is dark chocolate with fresh fruit, spongecake, marshmallows and even classic Bloom sugar cookies. – Annemarie Maitri, Bloom Bake Shop

Honestly, our go-to family gathering food is dips! When we’re not hosting, I’m always hesitant to step on anyone’s toes by bringing a side dish, so we love to bring food to help break the ice and give people something to snack on when the family first gathers. When thinking about the holiday season, I recall that my mother used to always make and bring a classic 1960s port wine cheese ball. Thanks to the variety of amazing cheese in Wisconsin, I love taking this to the next level. My personal favorite cheese to use is Sartori MontAmore, which is a cross between a white cheddar and Parmesan. – Evan Dannells, Cadre

One of my favorite things I’ve started making for my family in the past few years at Thanksgiving is a creamy vegetable dish. It doesn’t sound like much of anything on the surface, but it’s quite delicious and pairs so well with everything else on our holiday plate. It’s a simple but nurturing and nostalgic side dish. Since I was a little kid, my dear grandma would often make a scrumptious creamy cauliflower dish and would sometimes add peas, broccoli or carrots and a touch of dill along with a base of heavy cream and butter. After she passed, I thought I would start making it because I truly missed eating it, and it also conjures such a sweet memory of her. I had to veganize it for myself and substitute a rich and velvety cashew cream, which I think even my grandma would approve of. – Mickey Walker, Heirloom Bakery and Kitchen

Both my fiance and I love cooking, so our holiday tables often include wacky dishes and cuisines that we are excited to try — but the one constant is my mom’s baked mashed potatoes. They are dairy-laden and have finely grated onion, which we create using that weird pokey side of a box grater. The onion juice adds a little acidity and depth to it that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s a very simple hack, but it really takes it to another level. – Joslyn Mink, Settle Down Tavern

Erica Krug is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

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