After a long day of travel, I turn onto River Road, and I instantly feel at home. Despite the brisk December temperatures, I am compelled to roll down the windows and gulp the crisp, delicious air. I loop my scarf around my neck once more, and with one chilly hand out the window, I trace the rows of giant frosted trees with my fingertips. I rack my brain to recall the lush, knee-high corn stalks that lined these grounds last July, but all I know at this moment are these sparkling, snow-kissed fields surrounded by white, wreath-clad fences. Out the opposite window, the icy Ohio River reflects rays of sun that are more blinding in the white and grey winter than on even the most scorching summer days. I flip down the sun visor, but I can’t look away. In the distance, the downtown Louisville skyline peeks through between gaps in the tree line. A view that was once so grand to my childish eyes is now quaint and nostalgic in comparison to my daily New York City sights. I exhale a sigh of comfort.
After living in Louisville for the first 18 years of my life, the reminiscence is overwhelming. I’m instantly reminded of warm, southern hearts and a slow-paced world. And I can’t wait to swing open the greenery-dressed back door of my old Kentucky home.
With one foot in the house, I immediately recall why I impractically hoard bins of Christmas tchotchkes and trim in every nonexistent nook and cranny inside my tiny Brooklyn apartment. But truthfully, I could only hope to mimic a fraction of the winter wonderland that presents itself in this house every December. The twinkle of red, green and gold seamlessly blankets every room and I am intoxicated with warmth and comfort. It’s like dying and going to a cinnamon-scented, evergreen-adorned, nutcracker-filled heaven. Ah, Christmas in Kentucky.
The week leading up to Christmas is almost better than the day itself. Doorbells ringing, candles flickering, cookies baking, friends stopping by bearing baskets filled with sweet and salty treats––the merriment is palpable. But what excites me most is the Kentucky feast that I know awaits on Christmas day. And I have learned in my adult years that I must savor every moment (and every bite), for it will be another 12 months until this jubilant occasion is upon me again.
On Christmas morning, we are no longer lured down the stairs by the anticipation of Santa’s delivery. Instead, it’s the sound of a rocket ship blasting off as my dad warms up the coffee grinder for a big day ahead, and the sweet aroma of dark roast beans, melting butter and cinnamon wafting through the entire house. My mom’s sour cream coffee cake bakes in the oven as we all gather in the kitchen for our annual amuse-bouche, which is completely necessary in order to combat the torture of that warm, sugary, pecan-filled cake toasting away as we wait for family to arrive. We circle around the kitchen counter for coffee and angel dips––a brunch appetizer fit for a queen. Angel dips land on our matching Spode Christmas plates (my mother, the incomparable collector) from Plehn’s Bakery, a historic Louisville spot dating back to the 1920s. These fluffy hunks of angel food cake dipped exquisitely in a thick layer of rich, fudgy, chocolate frosting are as heavenly as their name suggests. And these babies are the mere kickoff for a day chock-full of once-a-year Kentucky treats. After just one bite, we are all reminded of the need to pace ourselves.
The doorbell rings often throughout the afternoon. The coffee continues to pour as family leisurely rolls in. Goodies are scattered around the counter until enough people have arrived to officially declare the buffet table open for business. The superstar of this first course––a recipe that has been passed down for generations––comes tightly packed in a tin from my aunt’s kitchen: my Great Great Aunt Georgia’s Cheese Dodos (I did say this was Christmas in Kentucky). A hybrid between a biscuit and a cookie, the dodo is crisp and chewy, sharp and buttery, and subtly kisses the back of your throat with cayenne pepper. The blessing and the curse of this savory little treat is its size. As a general rule, it’s crucial to double, triple––even quadruple the recipe because of its obscenely addictive qualities. Trust me on this.
Despite the fact that nobody is even hungry at this point, because we never actually pace ourselves, we’re on to the main event! Once half (or so, depending on the collective impatience of the room) of the family has trickled in, brunch is served. Now if there’s one thing to take away from your vision of Christmas in Kentucky, it is this: country ham and cheese grits. It could be December 25th with the family gathered around and the Christmas tree loaded with wrapped presents, but if there were no grits and ham at the table…it would not be Christmas.
The long-awaited, steaming casserole dish of garlicky, cheesy grits topped with a golden brown cornflake crust is the true headliner for the brunch. This thrice-a-year pot of gold (making additional appearances only on Easter Sunday and Kentucky Derby Day) is simple, southern, home-cooked perfection. My mom makes multiple pans––hiding at least one in the basement fridge––to ensure there will be leftovers. Devoured with a fork, mixed up with country ham or slathered on a buttery, toasted bun as a sinful condiment for your leftover turkey sandwich the day after Christmas––no matter how these grits are eaten, it’s pure bliss.
The remainder of the heirloom dining table brims with holly, candles, pastries, biscuits, fresh fruit, cookies, thick roasted turkey, buttery buns, rich and salty country ham, sour pickles, mustard, pimiento cheese, Kentucky-famous “benedictine” spread, warm and crusty coffee cake and more. A flawless, festive feast.
When our plates are clean, we surrender to the couch. The perfect Christmas afternoon. We doze, digest and prepare for the Christmas supper that awaits at my aunt and uncle’s house that evening. What’s on the menu? Country ham and grits, of course.
(Great Great) Aunt Georgia’s Cheese Dodos
I recommend doubling/tripling/quadrupling the recipe because these tiny cracker/wafer/biscuit treats are absolutely addictive. I guarantee you’ll eat half of them before they ever see the Christmas table or holiday gift boxes where they’re meant to live.
- 2 sticks butter, room temperature
- ½ pound sharp cheddar cheese, room temperature
- 2 cups flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 cups crispy rice cereal
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Combine all ingredients into a mixing bowl and mix well with your hands. The dough will seem dry and stiff at first, but continue kneading the dough for 5 to 7 minutes, or until moist and soft. Be careful not to warm the butter too much or the dough will become crumbly. If this happens, place the dough in the fridge to chill slightly.
Roll the batter into small balls, place on cookie sheet and flatten each ball with a fork.
Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden.