Lost Holiday Desserts

Lost Holiday Desserts That Deserve a Comeback

Family recipes that deserve a comeback.

When it's time for holiday baking and dessert making, many of us return to the same beloved recipes each year. We prepare dishes that are as integral to the season as the decorations and family gatherings. Perhaps we learned these recipes from someone who loved us, and we plan to pass them along to those we love. That's the thing about timeless Christmas treats. Recipe trends come and go, but holiday traditions endure.

That being said, sometimes we want to reach farther back into the family recipe box or shake loose recipes on scraps of paper that someone tucked into their favorite cookbooks, to bring back recipes that have been temporarily misplaced and perhaps slipped our minds. There's special joy in a bite or whiff of something we've not had in a while, and it can feel like time travel to visit with cooks gone by.

That's the beauty of these "lost" recipes. Some are welcome reminders of dishes that deserve to return to our tables. Others might be new to us, even as they are tried-and-true favorites of other cooks. But all of worthy of a spot on our holiday celebration tables because they come with a story, and we know that the best Southern recipes –old or new – have one.

Tipsy Parson

Tipsy Parson Dessert
Credit: Joy Howard

This is a classic trifle with a curious name. To look so fancy, a trifle is surprisingly easy and unfussy, nothing more than layers of cake, custard, jam, and generous lacings of sherry or other spirits. The booze, apparently, is the part that could potentially turn the local parson and any other teetotaling guests tipsy. In some cookbooks, this recipe goes by the name Tipsy Squire and Tipsy Pudding.

Trifles have British roots, but have been on Southern tables for decades. Mrs. S.R. Dull (a big-time food celebrity in her day) included her recipe in Southern Cooking, her 1928 cookbook that people who love old Southern recipes still keep on their shelves.

Trifles are usually assembled in a large footed glass bowl that let us see all the goodies inside. We know a recipe is special when it warrants its own serving piece and we appreciate a dessert that can double as a holiday centerpiece. In lieu of a dedicated trifle bowl, however, any deep-sided, see-through bowl will do, from as small as canning jars or highball glasses (for individual servings) all the way up to punch bowls (for a crowd).

Most trifle recipes are more of an idea than specifics. So long as the flavors and textures are balanced and the layers look nice, all is well. It's fine to buy the cake, but when it comes to our once-a-year Christmas trifle, it's worth making homemade custard. Tipsy Parson is best made ahead, which means you can get dessert out of the way early.

Tips for your Tipsy Parson:

  • The key to trifle that isn't soggy is to make sure the cake is stale enough to not collapse or dissolve. Arrange the cake pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet and let them sit on the counter uncovered overnight, or place in a 200° oven for 3 hours.
  • Once assembled, don't rush a trifle to the table. They need time in the fridge to chill and settle in. When served, each layer should hold its own, yet meld with the others.

Forgotten Kisses

Forgotten Cookies
Credit: Joy Howard

These are meringue cookies, notably tasty ones thanks to bits of chocolate and nuts, but their charming name makes them all the more appealing. In addition to Forgotten Kisses, they are also known as Forgotten Cookies, Overnight Cookies, and Sleep-On-It Cookies. That's because they spend the night in an oven (that's preheated, then turned off) where the soft dollops turn into crisp cookies with fluffy centers. Overnight cookies are popular with many families because children (and let's be honest, grownups) are delighted to wake up to an oven full of cookies, as if by holiday magic.

Meringue cookies are a smart choice for busy bakers. They require only a few basic ingredients and come together in minutes. Their overnight stay in the oven requires no monitoring. These cookies are a delicious way to use up excess egg whites often left from other holiday recipes. They also are gluten-free.

Tips for memorable Forgotten Kisses:

  • No peeking. Opening the oven door prematurely can cause the cookies to crack and removing them from the oven too soon can leave them sticky.
  • Finer sugar dissolves more easily and making lighter, more delicate meringues. Superfine sugar is available in most stores, but you can make it in a food processor by processing granulated sugar until as fine as sand.
  • For the best results, use egg whites that are several days old instead of freshly purchased. To age the egg whites quickly, whisk them lightly, then cover and let sit at room temperature overnight.
  • To ensure the whites beat to their full loft, make sure the glass or metal bowl, beaters, and egg whites are free of fats and oils. Even a tiny speck of egg yolk can interfere, as can greasy fingerprints,  so if a drop of yolk falls into the whites, use a piece of the broken egg shell to remove it, not your fingers.

White Fruit Cake

White Fruit Cake
Credit: Joy Howard

Consider the Christmas fruit cake, the most traditional of all holiday cakes, dating back centuries. Many people prefer not to, actually. They've probably heard the perennial joke about there being only one fruit cake in the world that people keep re-gifting. Or maybe the one about the only good use of a fruitcake is a sturdy doorstop. C'mon now. Some fruitcakes are amazing, such as this one. It's called a white fruit cake because light-colored, delicate batter encases the candied fruit and nuts. It resembles a good pound cake studded with jewel-tone sweets, a far cry from dark, stodgy, sticky fruit cakes. This particular white fruit cake has a literary pedigree; it comes from the recipe files of Eudora Welty, one the South's most celebrated authors.

This cake is often referred to as Eudora Welty's Fruit Cake. Ms. Welty lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and despite being a Pulitzer Prize winner, lived pretty much like any other local. Neighbors described her as a fine cook who enjoyed exchanging recipes. She wrote the introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, a community cookbook produced by the Symphony League of Jackson in 1981. In her essay titled "The Flavor of Jackson" she wrote "I make Mrs. Mosal's White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend's fine recipe is to celebrate her once more." The recipe in The Jackson Cookbook was submitted by Mrs. Mosal's daughter, Mrs. D.I. Meredith. In 1980, Ms. Welty and one of her publishers sent out a limited edition Christmas card in which she greatly expanded on the original recipe, adding details and personal preferences.

Precise measurements and careful instructions make a recipe reliable, but a recipe writer's personal tips, hint, and turns of phrase make it a treasure – and in some cases, a literary treasure. This is Eudora Welty's White Fruit Cake, in her own words. It yields quite a lot.

Grasshopper Pie

Grasshopper Pie
Credit: Joy Howard

This pie takes its name from the sweet, bright green cocktail known as a Grasshopper, often described as liquid after-dinner mint candy. It's a mix of cream, white crème de cacao, and crème de menthe that is shaken with ice and strained into a serving glass. Cocktail historians tell us that Philip Guichet invented the grasshopper at Tijugaue's, his bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, probably during Prohibition no less.

The 1950s and 60s were the heyday of grasshopper cocktails, which also happens to be when chiffon pies were all the rage. This isn't the only time that a popular dessert cocktail inspired an actual dessert, but few are more popular or successful. Grasshopper pie's pretty green filling fits in with traditional holiday décor and makes it a popular retro favorite to serve on the Christmas table. 

Recipes for Grasshopper Pie started popping up in magazines and newspaper magazines in the 1950s, and also in a recipe flier called High Spirited Desserts, a joint publication from Knox Gelatin and Heublein Cordials, which is no surprise when you consider that chiffon pies require gelatin and a Grasshopper relies on two types of cordial. The flier describes the pie with great flourish and enthusiasm, including "Dinner guests sometimes click their heels with glee over a superb dessert." and "Serve with pride. Await applause modestly."

Most Grasshopper Pie recipes call for an Oreo cookie crust, although once Nabisco introduced Oreos with Mint Flavor Creme, many bakers switched to those to double down on the chocolate and mint. There are updated versions of the filling that replace the unflavored gelatin with melted marshmallows (which also contain gelatin), but for a proper fluffy chiffon pie, go with the gelatin. It's easy to use. 

Cherry Winks

Cherry Winks
Credit: Joy Howard

Few of us can say with much accuracy who created our most beloved holiday baking recipes. The time-worn recipe card might be in Nana's tidy penmanship, but perhaps she got the recipe from a neighbor or clipped it from a magazine or the back of a box. Recipes become "ours" through years of making them, even those that do have a well-documented point of origin, such as Cherry Winks, a simple drop cookie rolled in crushed cornflakes and topped with a cheerful sliver of red maraschino cherry.

They come from Ruth Derousseau (or Mrs. Bernard Derousseau, as she was called in the press release, a sign of times), a teenage mother of two from Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Ruth entered the recipe into the 1950 Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest, a competition that drew over 100,000 entries from home bakers. Cherry Winks took first prize in the junior division, which earned Ruth a long list of dazzling prizes, including new appliances and furniture, and a check for $5000, which was enough to buy a house. (The winner of the senior division took home $25,000, nearly ten times the average annual salary in 1950.) Phillip W. Pillsbury signed the checks and the Duchess of Windsor presented them to the winners on an elaborate cooking stage in the glamorous Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. 

Tips for giving your cookies a wink and nod:

  • Be sure to blot the cherries dry with paper towels dry so that their liquid doesn't turn the cookies soggy.
  • If baking in batches, leave the dough refrigerated until time to shape it. Let the baking sheet cool between batches so that the cookies don't spread too much.

Benne Wafers

Benne Wafers
Credit: Joy Howard

These wafer-thin drop cookies get their caramel flavor from brown sugar and butter, and their delicious crunch from benne seeds, an African name for sesame seeds. They are simple, but sophisticated, and also irresistible. Tins of Benne Wafers are timeless holiday and hostess gifts, and many travelers to the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia come home with several packages to enjoy as tasty souvenirs.

Enslaved West Africans brought benne and their expertise in growing the plant to the Carolina Sea Islands in the early 18th century. Benne grew well in the hot and humid Lowcountry climate, providing a source of food and oil. The plants can be as much as six feet tall, bearing plump pods that can hold a hundred or more seeds. Over time, as fewer gardeners raised benne, cooks turned to other sources of sesame seeds, usually imported from Asia. Heirloom benne, both the seeds and flour made from them, is experiencing a renaissance in recent years thanks to seed-saving and crop restoration projects, which means we can once again order Southern-grown benne online and find it in some specialty markets. No matter the source or the name, the key to these cookies is fresh and fragrant sesame seeds.

Tips for the best Benne Wafers:

  • Sesame seeds taste best when lightly toasted to bring out their flavor and nutty aroma. Spread them in a shallow layer in a pie plate, and bake them in oven at 250° for 8 to 10 minutes or until they turn the color of butterscotch and release their aroma, stirring once or twice so that they brown evenly. Don't turn your back on them because they can go from perfectly toasted to scorched in seconds. Pour the seeds onto a plate to cool so that they don't continue to darken from the heat of the baking sheet.
  • Because of their high oil content, sesame seeds can have a short shelf life (especially the unhulled ones), so it's best to purchase a fresh supply before baking. Store an opened package in the refrigerator.
  • If baking the cookies in batches, let the baking sheets cool between the batches. Otherwise the cookies can spread so much that they lose their shape.