Category Archives: Holidays/Traditions


Cheers! Ganbei! Salud! Tchin chin! Prost!

Why save toasts for holidays and rare milestones? New Year and all the other traditional holidays when toasts are made only come once a year. The last wedding I went to was about 10 years ago, and the next one might not be until the DD gets married. Instead of waiting for an occasion to raise a glass to, we should raise our glasses and create occasions to celebrate.

My family has gotten into doing this in the last couple of months. As we sit down for dinner, we’ll raise our glasses — no bubbles in a fluted glass, just cold milk or maybe beer or wine — to something good or positive in our day. Here are some things we’ve toasted to:

  • celebrating a good swim or run (*gasp*pant*)
  • getting through a(nother) test at school
  • good deeds
  • finishing a blog post
  • finishing a project
  • friends
  • meeting a goal
  • surviving the week
  • the dinner in front of us
  • the rain (we live in California, a.k.a. Land O’Lakebeds)

You get the idea. We’re not curing cancer or achieving world peace, but each of these small accomplishments deserve a nod. And we’re not religious, so we don’t say grace over our meal, but pausing for a moment to acknowledge what is going well in our lives, or what we are thankful for, transcends religion and feeds our spirits. According to psychological studies, participating in rituals before eating increases our enjoyment of food. Maybe that’s one reason why the family has been saying that dinner tastes so good ;-)

What will you raise your glass to at dinner tonight?

Source: “To Savor the Flavor, Perform a Short Ritual First,” in Association for Psychological Science. Published: July 22, 2013. Accessed: May 18, 2014. <>


“If all else fails, try chocolate!” or, “Happy birthday, DS!”

Everyone in my family has a favorite sweet treat for his birthday. For me, it’s chocolate cake, for the DH and the DD, apple pie à la mode, and for the DS, ice cream cake. Until this year, we got the ice cream cakes made-to-order from the premium ice cream store. He loved making the cake unique, choosing the flavors, the base layer, the toppings, and the frosting color. Since he also hated drawing attention to himself, he would balk at letting us declare “Happy Birthday!” on top, so there would always be a tug-of-war over whether to have any writing on top, and what it should say — “No, I am not getting you a birthday cake that says: If all else fails, try chocolate!”

We skipped that particular negotiation this year because of Thanksgiving. (I don’t know about you, but for this Cozy Foodie, it always comes back to Thanksgiving!) Anyway, I found an over-the-top recipe for pumpkin ice cream pie (Bon Appétit, November 2008, on a graham cracker crust, a layer of pure vanilla ice cream topped with another layer of pumpkin-laced vanilla ice cream, all studded with chocolate-almond bark. Oh my goodness!

I’ve been on the look-out for another chance to make ice cream cake ever since then, and when the DS said he’d like an ice cream cake for his birthday, I said: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we made it? Remember Thanksgiving?” Well, that settled it.

He chose vanilla-brownie chunk for one layer, and cherry-chocolate chip vanilla ice cream for the other. Since there wasn’t anywhere near enough chocolate in this sugar-and-cream hunk ‘o’ happiness, I suggested a base made from chocolate cookies, with more chocolate cookie crumbs sprinkled in the middle, and chocolate-almond ganache on top. There were no cherries at the supermarket, but no problem, strawberry was his second choice, and I made the switch on the fly.

If you have an ice cream maker, ice cream cakes with homemade ice cream are dead easy to make. They just take a little advance planning to allow the freezer insert for the ice cream maker to refreeze in between the two batches of ice cream, and for the second layer to firm up. Of course, they’re just as delish if you simply pick up a couple of quarts of your favorite ice cream.

This cake had a lot of love packed into it: everyone in the family wanted to share in the glory of claiming, “I made that!” The DD and the birthday boy himself made the vanilla-brownie layer — they’re actually usually the ones in charge of making ice cream in our house. The DH and I made the strawberry layer, and I made the base, the middle, and the topping. This cake really made the DS feel special as he officially crossed into his teen years. And it didn’t say “Happy Birthday!” on top, either.

The cake was so good that the DH was busily planning what flavors ice cream he was going to get for his birthday ice cream cake, when I asked: “So does that mean that you don’t want apple pie for your birthday?” I could hear the gears grinding in his head as he mulled over this painful choice. Finally, I let him off the hook. “Father’s Day is just a month after your birthday….” I’m already plotting the perfect ice cream cake just for him: maybe favorite flavors like mint chocolate with chocolate chunks, cherry vanilla with white chocolate chunks, and chopped chocolate covered almonds in between the layers? Or ice cream layers of vanilla with chopped macadamia nuts and chocolate chunks, and guava sherbet, topped with a “sand” beach of finely-ground graham cracker crumbs, a cocktail umbrella, and an “ocean” of blue icing to remind him of our vacation in Hawaii?….I feel another tradition being born!

Here’s the recipe for the DS’s (Birthday) Ice Cream Cake. What would make an ice cream cake truly special for you?


Birthday traditions

My mom’s birthday is just two days before mine, and my birthday is just a few weeks before my dad’s. Baba passed away more than 25 years ago, and Mama lives on the other coast, but I always feel close to them around my birthday.

Birthdays weren’t a big deal when I was a kid. We had cake, candles, and presents, but these weren’t an important focus of the day. What I remember most clearly was that we would have noodles, a hard boiled egg, a chicken drumstick, and an obligatory lecture: “work hard, be good, be thankful for your parents.” My parents told me, “It’s the way we do it.” For Chinese people, noodles represent wishes for a long life, a whole egg represents birth and wholeness, and a chicken drumstick is a symbol of prosperity.

My parents were working-class immigrants who stretched every penny they earned, and they never spent money on things they considered extravagances, like birthday parties. Maybe they figured that with four of us kids, we were always already a party, no extra guests needed. Maybe they never felt like they could pull off an American-style party. Maybe they were too tired just getting through the day to think about birthday parties. But they leaned on Chinese tradition to justify it: “Chinese people don’t celebrate children’s birthdays.”

I guess the idea stuck, at least in part. We’ve had our share of parties—I think I’ve recovered from staging Swan Lake for the DD’s 5th birthday—and sleep overs and special weekend get-aways. But birthdays are intensely food-centric for my family. At the core of our birthday celebrations is a week of special food for the birthday guy or gal. I still always serve noodles on each of our birthdays. I like having a hard boiled egg, and a chicken drumstick, too — even if it’s served as fried chicken! And the special birthday meal grew to meals over a week. We get a special breakfast, a restaurant meal, a cake or pie, and whatever other favorite dinners we want.

And a week can really be 7 days, or it can be more like 14 days, depending on what else might be on the calendar. For instance, this weekend, the kids have a big swim meet, and it’s right after my birthday. In preparation for the meet, they are sticking to a healthier diet than usual for a week or two beforehand. They even got special permission from their coach to have a slice of birthday cake! So my birthday week will trickle on for a couple of weeks, and it’s not over until I get my fried chicken!

But love of fried chicken aside, abiding recollections of my parents’ dreams and hopes for me and how they wanted us kids to know something of our Chinese heritage even while planting us in the security and promise of American soil inspire my birthday wishes. So, for my birthday week, I choose lots of what I think of as Chinese celebration foods: dim sum, hot pot, wonton noodle soup, and Peking duck. And when I called to wish my mom happy birthday a couple of days ago, she told me that she went out for dim sum, and I told her I was going to have dim sum too, and that I made steamed azuki bean buns. She asked what I was having for dinner on my birthday, and I said noodles. But I know she was hearing me say, “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”

What are your favorite birthday traditions?


Happy Halfgiving! Or, how we came to celebrate Thanksgiving twice a year

(Skip the gabble; get ready to gobble! Go straight to the recipe for puréed sweet potatoes with Grand Marnier and buttered pecans.)

A sudden cacophony of pin-ball machine clangs, rings, and pings deluged the sunny room where I was working. I jumped in my seat. It was my phone, set to the most annoying ringtone possible. On the other end was the DH, at the supermarket: “Hey.”

“What’s up?”

“Did you mean to have yams and potatoes on the list?”

“Er…. No? Why do we need to have yams and potatoes?”

“How can we have Halfgiving without yams or potatoes?”

Let me explain: my family loves Thanksgiving. Not that we have a zeal for proto-American why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along historical fantasies. For us, it’s a celebration of fabulous late-fall harvest food and a momentary pause to recall the many blessings in our lives. (And if I keep saying the second part, maybe the DD and the DS will actually believe it one day!) We love Thanksgiving so much that not only do we celebrate Thanksgiving, we make more sides to join the leftovers in the days following Turkey Thursday (who needs Black Friday?) because even we recognize that it would be a tad crazy to try to make all the dishes we absolutely can’t do without on Thanksgiving Day itself. We love it so much that a few years ago, the kids declared that we also need to celebrate Halfgiving, six months after Thanksgiving. So every year, on the weekend following the fourth Thursday in May, we make Thanksgiving Dinner Lite.

So when the DH made his urgent call from the grocery store, I knew I had crossed the line. You see, I had planned on making the buttery fantail rolls that we all love, plus stuffing, so I thought that would more than take care of carbs for the four of us. What was I thinking!? Who am I to tamper with Tradition? Yams were duly, and speedily, added back into the lineup. It was really a no-brainer; we’ve been making these heady, citrusy yams for Thanksgiving since before the kids were born. And, yeah, yeah: technically, they’re sweet potatoes (so that’s the way I’ve labelled them in the recipe), but I grew up calling them yams, and between you and me, that’s what I’m going to keep calling them.

Here’s our final menu for Halfgiving 2013:

  • Grilled, stuffed turkey breast
  • Green beans with walnuts and dried-cherry dressing
  • Puréed yams with Grand Marnier and pecans
  • Buttermilk fantail rolls
  • Cranberry-orange sauce
  • Gravy

It’s not as extravagant as the actual holiday, but it tides us over until November when we can really do it up right. BTW, the DD and DS are still lobbying for Halfmas, but we’ve told them not to hold their breaths.


Recipe: Puréed sweet potatoes with Grand Marnier and pecans

Serves 5-6


  • 2 cups pecan halves
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, divided
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 4 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (like Red Dianes, often labelled “yams”), about 4 lbs.
  • 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier, or another orange-flavored brandy liqueur
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar


Preheat oven to 325°F. Place pecans in a shallow roasting pan in one layer. Roast in the middle of the oven until fragrant, about 8 minutes. Remove from the oven, and immediately toss with 1 tablespoon of the butter and kosher salt, stirring until coated evenly. (The pecans can be made up to 2 days ahead, cooled to room temperature, and stored in an airtight container.)

Increase oven temperature to 425°F. Prick each sweet potato 6-8 times all over. Place on a roasting pan lined with parchment paper or foil. Roast them in the middle of the oven until easily pierced through the middle by a fork, about 1 hour.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.

As soon as the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel half of them them, and place them in the work bowl of a food processor. Add 2 tablespoons of Grand Marnier, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and 2 tablespoons of butter. Purée the sweet potato mixture until smooth. Scoop the purée into a gratin dish. Repeat with the rest of the sweet potatoes, Grand Marnier, salt, and butter. Level the sweet potato mixture in the casserole dish. (The sweet potatoes can be made up to this point a day ahead. Cool and cover before storing in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)

Arrange the pecans in one layer over the top of the sweet potato purée, and sprinkle with the brown sugar. Bake in the middle of 325°F oven until heated through and pecans are slightly browned, approximately 30 minutes (or, 35-40 minutes, if starting from room temperature purée).