Ask Special Sauce, Holiday Edition: Stella and Daniel on What They Hate About the Holidays

Stella Parks and Daniel Gritzer are back for the second part of our Ask Special Sauce holiday edition, and we tackle some of the most pressing issues many of us face when cooking during the holidays.

For example, take the sticky subject of royal icing, which, according to Stella, is great for making a bunch of holiday-appropriate treats far in advance.”You can make a bunch of frosted snowflakes, and they’ll keep for weeks, without any kind of loss of quality, because there’s nothing really perishable happening,” Stella says. “The high sugar content of the frosting ensures that there’s not really any bacterial activity coming from the egg whites.”

Mr. Gritzer offers up some advice for prepping and storing fresh herbs, including the importance of using a salad spinner to wash and dry them. The key to storing tender herbs like cilantro and parsley? “Treat them like fresh-cut flowers,” Daniel says. For further instructions, you’re going to have to listen, but I will give you a hint that the next thing to do involves herb millinery.

Daniel also answers the vexing question of how to cook a beef tenderloin to satisfy both the people who like their meat rare and the folks who like their meat medium, which I will similarly leave for you to discover.

Finally, I asked both of them to tell me what they don’t like about the holidays. Daniel’s answer won’t surprise you; his is a fairly common complaint. But Stella’s, on the other hand, is most decidedly not commonplace. In fact, it’s a hilarious, Grinchian shocker. But this is one gift I’m not giving away. You’re going to have to find out for yourself by checking out the episode.

Happy Holidays, Serious Eaters, from all of us here at Serious Eats World HQ!


Ed Levine: Welcome, Serious Eaters, to a special holidays Call Special Sauce. Serious Eaters from all over the country have sent us holiday related questions they would like us to answer. And we are back with Daniel Gritzer and Stella Parks, answering important cooking and baking questions.

So Stella, you’re on deck to talk about royal icing. First of all, what do we mean by royal icing, besides an icing that some British royal would make? And, what would be a cut-out dough recipe? Would it be using the royal icing? This is a question from William Kreiner.

Stella Parks: Yeah. Royal icing is a style of frosting that is made from essentially egg whites and powdered sugar, typically with very little else going on. I did not research this particular aspect of the question in advance, so this is pure conjecture on my part. I suspect its name comes from its use in really elaborate wedding cake decorations, and probably originating with a baker making this for a royal wedding of some sort, where they’re doing this all-out, intricate lattice piping, or making lace out of a frosting. It’s the kind of frosting that can be piped incredibly thinly, and it dries very hard. So, it was used in a lot of really elaborate decorations, and if you see some beautiful picture of like Queen Victoria’s wedding cake, all those embellishments are royal icing.

EL: Got it.

SP: So, that may be just how it gained popularity, but it’s not known for being delicious. It’s known for being technical edible-

EL: Pretty.

SP: … And pretty, yeah. So it’s the kind of thing you would use to do the smile on a gingerbread man, or help secure his little buttons to his little ginger body, or to frost a reindeer, or snowflakes, or something.

EL: It’s edible glue, is that what you’re saying?

SP: Yeah, it’s kind of edible glue, and because it dries so hard, it’s good for make-ahead options. You can make a bunch of frosted snowflakes, and they’ll keep for weeks, without any kind of loss of quality, because there’s nothing really perishable happening. The high sugar content of the frosting ensures that there’s not really any bacterial activity coming from the egg whites, et cetera.

It is a status quo recipe, that it’s egg whites and sugar, mix them to whatever texture you need it to be. Like, very stiff and thick for piping more elaborate designs, or a little bit thin and runny, if you need to fill-in larger sections, like a shape. Like, if you made the outline of a Christmas tree, and you want to fill it in, you might use a little bit thinner style for that. So it’s very common and popular for decorating holiday cookies of any sort, and all year around. If you see those fancy cookies you buy that have people’s names on them, or designed like a beach ball or something, it’s almost always royal icing.

I do a couple things differently when I make royal icing that can help it be substantially more delicious than just normal. One of those things is I use organic powdered sugar. I’m not a huge proponent of organic, I think, sometimes the labeling can be a little misleading, as to the level of quality that you’re getting. And, a lot of times organic formulations can be non-standard in baked goods. I definitely don’t mean say across the board that buying organic is best or better, or you should try and do that, but in the specific instance of organic powdered sugar, the way sugar is manufactured, in order to meet the organic label, the sugar is refined to a lesser degree, and it still contains a portion of its natural molasses content.

As it so happens, completely unrelated to the fact that it’s organic, retaining that molasses content makes the powdered sugar more delicious. It adds a little bit of complexity of flavor. So, instead of it being 99.9% pure sucrose, it has some different organic compounds in there, left over from the molasses and the processing of cane sugar. So that to begin with, is just slightly more delicious. There’s a little bit depth of flavor, a little bit of complexity, and a little bit of a reduced sweetness.

Incidental to it also being organic, most organic powdered sugars are cut with a little bit of tapioca starch, and the reason is, it’s easier and more affordable to source organic tapioca starch, than organic corn starch, which is the more common starch in typical, conventional powdered sugars. And, a lot of folks who tend to be on the organic end of the spectrum, may be avoiding corn products for various reasons.

So again because the sugar is made with this tapioca starch as its cutting agent, it has a little bit less gritty texture, because tapioca starch is a smaller grained starch, and also has a lower point of gelatinization. So, it has some different physical properties from corn starch, that can make its texture a little better in raw or uncooked items.

So those two things are kind of a double-whammy that help organic powdered sugar be more tasty, and have a better texture, compared to conventional powdered sugar in raw applications. But, I take that a step further, by also cooking my royal icing. I combine the powdered sugar and egg whites over a water bath, and just warm it up to about 150 degrees. This helps ensure that the powdered sugar is fully dissolved, and that makes a big difference, texturally speaking. It also drives off a little bit of water, because you have some time for evaporation to happen, and that kind of helps add some stability.

In addition to that, I also spike it with a very small amount of vanilla, rum and cream of tartar. These three ingredients are all there for flavor, they’re not really playing a huge structural role. The rum and vanilla work together just to create a general vanilla vibe, add some complexity, make it more than just a pure, sweet, vanilla frosting. It just adds a little bit more aroma to it, and the cream of tartar is an acid, so it just helps cut through some of that sweetness of a really high sugar recipe, and I also use a pretty generous amount of salt.

So those are some other factors that come in. Many recipes for royal icing don’t contain salt at all. It’s like they admitted, and given up to it being disgusting, so they’re like, “Yeah, why bother? There’s not even salt.”

EL: Got it.

SP: Which, is kind of a bummer. And those things come together and make a much tastier royal icing.

EL: I had no idea about royal icing. It’s like, go figure.

So, we’re going to switch gears here, because Nancy Alfaro has a question on herbs that are frequently used in holiday cooking. She say, “I love using fresh herbs such as cilantro and parsley, but never know how to get them washed and dried perfectly, so they are perfect when cutting and using in recipes, without being soggy from the water remaining on it. I try washing just what I need, right before cooking and laying on a paper down, to soak up the water, but there are still plenty of droplets left. In all cooking shows I see, they never show them washing the herbs prior to prepping them, so I don’t know what trick they are using. Help me Gritzer.”

Daniel Gritzer: I would wager that on cooking shows, they’re pre-washing them off camera, and that has been … Kenji actually did, a couple years ago, some herb storage tests, and found that pre-washing tender herbs like cilantro and parsley is the one of the steps towards guaranteeing better longevity in the fridge. So the process that he ended up recommending, was to first wash these tender herbs in cold water. Obviously warm water would have a wilting effect on them, and if you have a salad spinner, which you’re going to need for step two of this process anyway, you can wash them in the salad spinner because essentially the strainer basket in the salad spinner functions as a colander.

DG: So put them in your salad spinner, fill it with cold water, give them a good wash. Drain it, then spin the herbs dry in the salad spinner, so that’s first step towards getting excess water off of the herbs. Just blotting dry is often, yeah, it leads to water that still clings, and then you have wet herbs, and they get clumpy when you try to mince them, and it’s annoying.

DG: Once you’ve spun them dry, you can then blot them on paper towels, and I think you’ll find that there’s better success at getting them dry at that point. Then, if you’re not using them right away, he actually found that it’s best to treat the tender herbs like flowers, like fresh cut flowers. So, trim off the bottom inch or two of the tender stems on something like cilantro or parsley. Put them in a mason jar or a quart container, or something like that. Fill it with an inch or so of cold water so that they can continue to drink and stay refreshed, with the tops, the tufts of actual herb not in the water, so they stay dry. Then, slide a plastic bag or a zipper lock bag or something over the top, which just helps trap some humidity, and create a nice humid environment-

EL: Ah, see, that’s what I don’t do. We put the herbs in the water, but we don’t give it a hat.

DG: You need to give-

EL: We don’t give it the hat.

DG: You need to give it a little greenhouse. Well, not really, because it’s in a dark fridge, it’s not a greenhouse, but it’s in a humidity-controlled environment. And, a rubber band right around that bag, to secure it to the jar, and in the fridge they go. And if you do that, they will likely last a hell of a lot longer.

EL: Than leaving them out.

DG: Than leaving them out, or doing a million other potential ways to prep the herbs before using, and they should be nice a dry when the time comes to chop them up.

EL: That’s cool. So Stella, we have a question for you about chocolate syrup, which is something near and dear to my heart, because I love chocolate syrup.

SP: Yes.

EL: Doesn’t everyone love chocolate syrup? Bosco, Hershey’s, it’s a little sweet, it can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

DG: Right, right.

EL: So Hilary Moffet has a question about chocolate syrup. “I’m truly desperate for a chocolate syrup recipe that won’t get grainy, flaky or gummy. I have a great quality cocoa powder, but not sure if maybe I should use chocolate instead. I have questions about refrigeration, shelf life. I have no idea. I love chocolate syrup in so many applications, but would really prefer to make a deeper, better tasting version of my own. I have a great espresso machine, I make my own coffee drinks too, and salty, cinnamon, mochas are my favorite. I am willing to pay a ransom.” She’s willing to pay a ransom.

SP: Wow.

EL: “I am seriously desperate,” Hillary Moffet says about this chocolate syrup question. You gotta help her out, Stella.

SP: I’m ready, I’m so ready. The ransom is either buying a copy of my book or checking it out at a local library, because I’ve got my all-time, go-to recipe for a Hershey’s-style chocolate syrup. We’re talking about a really thick, viscous syrup that can be poured straight from a storage container in the refrigerator. So you should never have to warm it up to use it. It’s not going to congeal into a hard block. It will stay emulsified, so you don’t have to worry about having to shake it or stir it before use. It’s thick enough that you can pour it straight over a big scoop of ice cream, and it kind of drapes or enrobes itself over the ice cream in a big, thick sheet, but it also dissolves really quickly in just a glass of cold milk. All the more so if you were putting it into a hot coffee or an espresso drink of some sort.

SP: So it has all the properties it sounds like she is looking for in a chocolate syrup, and it uses a couple of key ingredients. It does use Dutch cocoa powder, as well as dark chocolate, and these two items work in tandem to give a more well-rounded flavor to the syrup. I also make it with a little bit of brown sugar and then, it’s an optional ingredient but it certainly makes it better, a vanilla pod. Not necessarily a fresh one, but if you have a left over one from another project, where you made some vanilla ice cream, or you made some kind of vanilla custard, or whatever you’re using a vanilla bean with, you can rinse it off, dry it, and then reuse it for other projects. So this syrup is a really good excuse to use up an empty vanilla pod that has already seen some use, just to let it over time steep its flavor into the syrup.

I’m pretty happy with it. I spent a lot of time as a child eating Hershey’s syrup. We did chocolate milkshakes at home, chocolate sundaes, all kinds of things. I spent a lot of time consuming Hershey’s syrup. So it’s near and dear to my heart, but I also recognize as an adult that I am craving something that’s going to deliver more of what I remembered as a kid. It’s not that I want it to be better than Hershey’s, necessarily, it’s just that when you’re a little kid, you haven’t tasted a lot of different types of chocolate, so you taste a syrup like this, and you’re like, “Wow, this is the most chocolatey thing I’ve ever had.” Then you become an adult, and you eat a lot more chocolate products in the time between your childhood and adulthood.

EL: Right.

SP: So, you have a bigger range of experience. So then you back to maybe what was your first love of a chocolate syrup, and it doesn’t taste like you remember. So, I’m kind of aiming to make it taste like you remember. It tastes really chocolatey and rich, and just ultimate in a way that can satisfy the adult cravings, but I wouldn’t say it’s an adult … It’s not an adult recipe, I think kids would love it also, it would just kind of shift their paradigm of chocolate.

EL: It sounds to me like your brother, who told you that you could make these classic, American confections, but you shouldn’t make them too good.

SP: Yes, words to live by.

EL: Right, so this seems to be in that sweet spot of it not being too good.

SP: Yeah, I’m definitely trying to keep it … It’s a sweet syrup. I want to keep that flavor profile, so people … If you have a recipe for a milkshake, or chocolate milk, or something that you’ve always made, that you’re not having to use substantially more of it as a sweetener. That it functions in the same way. It is quite sweet, but also a balanced sweetness and a richer flavor. I don’t know, I like it. I’m partial to it.

EL: Someone wants to know about beef tenderloin, which is not the same thing obviously as prime rib. What they want to know, is they’re planning on making … This is Paige Kelley, who’s planning on making beef tenderloin. “Kenji’s recipe for Christmas dinner. Some family members prefer it rare to medium rare, while others, to my dismay, prefer it closer to well done. Is there a way I could please both, which is especially difficult with tenderloin.” She suggests maybe she cut it in half. I mean, tenderloin is such a tricky thing to cook, because it dries out so easily. There’s no internal moisture, there’s very little fat.

DG: Yeah, I know. It opens up a can of worms. My first temptation when I encounter someone who wants to have something like a tenderloin, and they want it medium well, or well done, is to suggest that maybe there are some other cuts of beef that might be more appropriate to their done-ness preferences. But, you know what? They know what they want, and if they want a tenderloin that’s cooked well done, that’s their business, and it’s not my place to talk them out of it, necessarily.

It’s already enough to host a big gathering, cook all the food, and then it’s like you’re running a restaurant, because you’re actually taking orders on done-ness, which is like, “Just come on. Cut me some slack, here.”

EL: Right.

DG: I think it depends on the roast. The question here is tenderloin, but this is a question I struggle with this, with my family because there are different people who have different doneness preferences. So, there are a couple ways to do it.

DG: One is, a lot of roasts are tied, to try to give them as uniform a shape as possible, for even cooking. But, there are some that do have some level of unevenness, so you may get a natural gradient of doneness, even in whatever you’re cooking. Maybe if there is a thinner portion of that tenderloin, it may cook a little bit more, and that may be more appropriate for people who want it more well done.

DG: If not, if it really is something that is even, and it’s going to cook relatively evenly, you always have the ends. So, if there’s just one person who wants a well done piece of tenderloin, you might be able to just slice off the ends, and give that to them. Maybe you have to throw the ends back into the oven for a couple of minutes, to just push them the rest of the way, but they definitely will be more well done from anything cut from the center portions of the roast.

DG: And, if, it sounds in this case it’s more than one person who’s jonesing for some dried out, well done beef-

EL: I believe that’s not the opinion of the management, here.

DG: … I think what was suggested is exactly what I would do. I would cut the roast into portions. If you had some people who want medium rare, and some people who want medium, and some want well done, you’d go into three portions. I would generally assign the thicker, if there is a piece, that would generally be the one I would try to cook to the lower temp, because it’s going to take longer anyway.

DG: But yeah, just put some in the oven for longer, and some for less time, and-

EL: Call it a day.

DG: … Call it a day. And, one thing to always keep in mind, is if you’re struggling with how to time it. How do I time these different pieces of this roast to different temperatures, and get them all at the table at the same time. You can always cook things a little bit earlier. Meat, I’m talking about. You can cook it a little bit earlier, let it rest. Get it to the temperature you need to get it to, and then throw it back in the oven right before serving to hit it with some heat. You do not need to perfectly time the end of cooking. It doesn’t have to line up that well, with when you sit down at the table.

EL: Got it, and it won’t dry it out.

DG: No, it’s totally fine. Meat needs to rest anyway, but you still have more time, so finish an hour early. Get everything done an hour early, and then it has plenty of time to rest. 10 minutes, 15 minutes before it’s time to serve it, throw it back in the oven, to just slap it with some heat, and get it hot.

EL: Is that a restaurant technique?

DG: Absolutely.

EL: Yeah, that’s what I figured.

EL: So Stella, everyone is always interested in cookies for the holidays, because we got so many cookie questions. Carol Lorelli wants freezing instructions for cookies, and then she says, “I’m pretty paranoid. I’d like to know how long cookies can stay at room temperature.” I guess she wants to know how long they can safely stay at room temperature. I don’t know if she’s talking about cooked, or baked or unbaked cookies there. Then she goes, “I wish storage and shelf life were included in every recipe.”

SP: Yeah, well I feel the same way, and all of my cookie recipes do include directions for storage on both the dough and the cookie, because with my background in restaurants, being able to make and store cookie dough in advance to have fresh, baked cookies, was a huge part of what I did and really important to me. So, I’ve always tried to include that information somewhere. We don’t actually have a field for that, and I think that’s something we’re working on, on the site, to have a special field just for shelf life and storage information. So, it’s not something you might notice with a casual glance, but within the text of the recipe itself, it is there.

I realize that people make more recipes than just mine however, so as a general rule of thumb, cookie dough can be made in advance and typically refrigerated for about a week, or frozen for up to three months. In either case, I recommend portioning the dough first, not to refrigerate a big, mass of cookie dough, because then it takes forever to thaw. If you’ve got a bowl of cookie dough that you’ve just stuck in the fridge or frozen, whether it’s coming up from zero or 40, it’s going to take forever for it to hit soft, creamy, room temperature at around 70, where then you could make it into portions. So always, always, always, portion cookie dough before freezing it or refrigerating it. That way it will thaw really fast and you don’t have to worry about portioning it later. You get all of that work out of the way up front, when you’re making your dough.

The only exception would be with a rolled cookie dough, that you can freeze it in a block to roll out at your leisure, at another time. That’s obviously a more convenient way than trying to freeze 7,000 individual gingerbread men, or something. And, with a rolled cookie dough, you just want to bring it back out to like 70 degrees. Just let it sit at room temperature for a few hours, until that happens. Or, if you’re cavalier, you can give it a couple tentative zaps in the microwave. It’s entirely possible you’ll overshoot your goal, so start small, and be careful. And, once the dough is thawed, you’ll just want to give it a light kneading to homogenize the temperature and texture that’s going to arise of the dough being different temperatures and textures throughout.

They’ll keep really well, whether it’s a scooped cookie dough for drop cookies, or a slice-and-bake log, or a rolled sugar cookie dough. Those do keep really well. The key in any of those recipes is to really, really, really, wrap the container very well, and make it as airtight as possible, because cookies are very inclined to absorb odors. The dough is just ready for it. You know people will put a dish of baking soda in their refrigerator to try to absorb funky odors? Cookie dough will do that job for you. If you have an uncovered mass of cookie dough in the fridge, it will just taste like everything that’s in your refrigerator. So however it is, wrap it up really well, double bag it, wrap it in foil for an extra layer of protection, whatever it takes. You just want to be really careful.

Once the cookie dough is baked, its shelf life is really going to depend on personal preference. I have a very low tolerance for stale cookies, so that rules out any soft …

EL: I love stale cookies.

SP: I want all my cookies, all my soft cookies, I want all my soft cookies to be fresh-baked. Crisp cookies tend to keep really well, so things like biscotti and gingerbread, or Oreos, homemade Oreos, or gingersnaps. Anything that’s got a crispy, crunchy texture, that’s going to keep for weeks and weeks. From a food safety perspective, there’s really not much cause for concern. You can let it go for whatever is convenient for your own lifestyle, I guess I’d say.

But with a soft cookie, those tend to have a shelf life of technically more like three days, but again, I don’t want to have it any longer than when it’s no longer warm in my hands.

EL: I love that.

SP: I’m the worst.

EL: So this is a question for both of you, about nut allergies, from Carol Lorelli. “I have to deal with a family member with nut allergies. Can I substitute vanilla for almond extract in recipes? And, how would I handle it, if it calls for vanilla and almond extract in the same recipe?” There’s a lot to unpack, here. There’s this issue of substitutions for people with nut allergies. That’s really the question she’s asking. Which, applies to both sweet and savory things, right?

SP: Yeah.

DG: Right.

SP: So with something as specific as an almond extract, one thing that they could do, is potentially call the manufacturer, most companies have some kind of customer support line, type of thing. A lot of almond extract is not actually made from almonds. It’s made from the pit of certain types of apricots and peaches. So, it may not actually made from almond at all, and that may be within their diet. Or, I know that they are related families, so perhaps it is still falling under a nut allergy label. I-

DG: Yeah, it’s the same family of stone fruit, so it is … I don’t know whether the allergy extends to …

SP: Yeah, so that’s something you’d have to both work out on a personal level and with the doctor, perhaps, and by calling the manufacturer to find out, but it’s something to consider. Any recipe that actually calls for whole nuts used in some way, unless the nuts have been ground up into a flour, they’re not playing any structural role. If they’re in a cookie, or a handful in a pound cake, or something, they’re there for a texture and crunch. So, you can easily do a one-to-one swap for whatever crunchy thing you prefer, whether that’s like pumpkin seeds, or a different nut type from a different family. I know there’s tree nuts and ground nuts, and different kinds of things that work for different people. Just do a substitution, a one-to-one swap for something crunchy that you prefer.

Generally with that, I’ll say to do that swap by volume, instead of weight, because volume is a better indicator of how much physical space that product is going to be taking up in the dough or batter itself. So if it calls for a cup of almonds, that might be something like five ounces, but five ounces of pumpkin seed might be some entirely different quantity that would not be desirable to have in the dough. So, you want to stick with the same physical amount of things, so I would stick with a cup as a substitution there.

And if a recipe calls for an almond extract and that’s not a way you can go, the ideas is just to generally introduce an aromatic element. I think it’s often not even necessary that it be nutty, per se. It’s just that having an aromatic in the dough helps elevate the other flavors, and helps make the vanilla seem rounder, and helps butter seem butterier. So you can get around that with different types of flavoring agents. A spoonful of bourbon can be really great, or a spoonful of rose flower water, or something. A similar, highly aromatic ingredient that can step in to play a similar role.

EL: I can’t help but notice Stella, Kentucky native, that bourbon always enters the conversation.

SP: It’s in my contract somewhere. When you’re born, you get this contract, and it’s you have to talk about horse racing, mint juleps, and bourbon.

EL: And Kentucky basketball, which you know nothing, or care nothing, about.

SP: Yeah. I had a rider, just to get out of it.

EL: In your birth contract?

SP: Yeah.

EL: That’s awesome. So what about savory nut substitutions? What do you do with a pesto?

DG: Yeah, it’s so recipe-dependent. Nuts oftentimes in savory recipes, are either, and sometimes it’s not always an “or”, it can also be an “and”. Either providing texture, which Stella mentioned and/or flavor. You have nut butters. I certainly wouldn’t do a peanut stew and try to substitute that, because it’s too primary of what that dish is, but I guess that’s stating the obvious. But I think you have to size up the dish, and figure out how essential those nuts are to the dish.

So a pesto’s an interesting case. I hadn’t thought about it. You could omit the nut entirely, and just mash up garlic with the cheese and the basil, and do it that way. Now, the nuts do add. They add a kind of … They temper the more assertive flavors of the garlic and the basil.

EL: They add a certain, I believe you would say, “nuttiness”.

DG: Yeah, kind of a round, sweet, thing. Yeah, I have to think about the pesto a little more. I’m sure people with nut allergies are probably screaming at their computers right now, because they know a good substitution.

SP: The answer is always pumpkin seeds.

DG: Oh, there you go, pumpkin seeds.

EL: Pumpkin seeds.

DG: I didn’t even think of that.

EL: The answer is always … Whenever anyone has a question about anything at Serious Eats, we just say-

SP: Pumpkin seeds.

EL: Pumpkin seeds.

DG: Pumpkin seeds.

EL: Like, “What time is the meeting?” “Pumpkin seeds.”

DG: Yeah, for other things, nuts are often a garnish or for texture, and so then along Stella’s line of thinking, you can maybe try to think of something else that could fulfill that same function, that isn’t a nut, or is a pumpkin seed I guess.

I would just also advise caution. All allergies should be taken seriously, but nut allergies in particular are serious. There are a lot of products that are made, you’ve seen it on packages, “In a facility that also handles nuts.” Get a sense of the-

EL: They’re not to be trifled with.

DG: No, you just find out from whoever has the allergy, of what’s the severity of the allergy. I mean obviously, if it’s life or death, hopefully that person knows how to communicate that. But, proceed with caution, and just play it safe.

EL: I have to ask both of you a very, controversial question, but I’m going to demand honest answers. What’s the least favorite holiday tradition, for you? What’s one that you just wish would go away?

DG: Stella, you want to go first?

SP: No, no, Daniel, by all means, you should.

DG: I have an answer, it’s easy. I just hate the holiday music that …

EL: Ah.

SP: You don’t like show tunes, either.

DG: That’s true.

SP: It’s that kind of high-energy, thematic music, seems to not be in your wheelhouse.

DG: Yeah, that stuff kills me. I just, I want to jump out a window when I hear it.

EL: So it doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas carols, those silly Hanukkah songs.

DG: All of it.

EL: There must be Kwanza songs. There must be-

DG: Yeah, I-

EL: You’re just not ready for them.

EL: What about you, Stella?

SP: I don’t like receiving presents.

EL: Wow.

DG: Wow.

EL: Now that is … We are getting into some deep stuff here, man.

SP: Well, it’s because … So, I’m a very, introverted person, and I would say that the bulk of all facial expressions that people witness from me are just artificially generated, for me to avoid giving that resting bitch face vibe that some people can have if they leave just an expressionless … You know?

So I don’t experience a huge of emotions in my day-to-day life. Emotions are a little bit more of a private affair for me. So when someone gives me a present it doesn’t matter if I’m genuinely pleased, I feel like I’m Data from Star Trek. I’m like, “Oh, thank you. I see that you have observed my interest in video games, and purchased me a new controller. How thoughtful of you.” It’s just like it’s a nightmare.

And so then I realize that that’s an emotionally unsatisfying response. So then I’m like, how to the humans do it? “Oh, hey guys, thanks so much. Aww, this is so sweet.” I don’t know how to do it, and I feel like my voice rises three octaves higher than it should be, and start to kind of get a nervous sweat, and it’s really not great.

EL: Oh, all right. That’s awesome.

EL: So now, I want to end on a more positive note. So, what’s your favorite holiday tradition?

SP: Hot cocoa and marshmallows.

EL: Ooh.

DG: Ooh.

SP: Yeah.

EL: And you don’t mind, it could be anything from Swiss Miss to Jacques Torres, to everything in between, or your hot chocolate?

SP: Yeah, it’s all … It’s just like the ritual of holding this warm, frothy, beverage, and having this perfect, melting confection on the top of it. It’s just perfect, and there’s no way to go about it incorrectly. It’s the actual best.

I know you can have a hot cocoa any time of year, but when it’s cold outside, and you got this cozy vibe going on, and it’s been a chaotic year, and you’re kind of … It gets you in the mood for introspection. You think back over the past year, and you’re kind of dreaming about the new one. And, it’s just, it’s absolutely perfect.

EL: Daniel, you probably like that, but you don’t want, “Da, da, da, where they listen …”

DG: Oh, God.

EL: “Da da, no, now walking in a winter wonderland.” No, you could just drink the hot chocolate.

DG: I do not need the cheer.

EL: Yeah, so what is something that brings you good cheer, in the holidays?

DG: My family had a kind of a mish-mash tradition on Christmas Eve which was, my dad’s side of the family are Swedish and German, and my mom’s side of the family are Jewish. We would do this smoked fish latke kind of extravaganza.

EL: Mash-up?

DG: Mash-up, and so it was like there was clearly the Jewish influence, with the latkes and smoked salmon, and stuff like that.

EL: Which, is something that Wolfgang Puck made famous.

DG: Oh yeah, that’s … That’s funny, I didn’t even … Yeah, I grew up with that.

EL: Wolf probably was at your table, you didn’t even know it.

DG: He stole it from me.

EL: Yeah.

DG: I should have gotten credit, all along.

EL: So, is the Christian side of the meal the smoked fish?

DG: My dad always kind of spearheaded that, but I don’t know. Latkes, it seems like latkes are fairly Jewish, but maybe there’s some Scandinavian? The Jews who came from that part of the-

EL: Alsace.

DG: … The world, it was all mixing together for a long time before, anyway. So, I don’t quite know how it all pieces apart.

EL: Every culture has potato pancakes.

DG: And that for me, is very nostalgic.

EL: And do you top it with crème fraiche and caviar? Do you go the whole nine yards?

DG: We would do sour cream and applesauce, like the traditional latke.

EL: Traditional, got it.

DG: I wouldn’t push crème fraiche and caviar off the table. Not in the least.

EL: Nor would I. All right. First of all thank you both, this is awesome, for taking the time to help everybody out with their holiday questions, and on behalf of Stella, Daniel, everyone here at RadioArt, and myself, the Serious Eats overlord, we want to wish all of you happy holidays.

And, thanks to also obviously Marty Goldensohn, our tremendous producer, and Grace Chen, our associate producer.

May these next couple of weeks be filled with friends and family enjoying each others’ company, and much seriously delicious food.

DG: Thanks, Ed.

SP: Thanks for having us, Ed.

EL: Happy holidays from all of us at Serious Eats, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you in the new year.