Holy Guacamole: Thank you, Zack Berger!

Cinco de Mayo is coming up and we have another fun family recipe to help you celebrate this Mexican holiday in style. We are so lucky to be surrounded by a family full of foodies, and my cousin Zack Berger is no exception. Zack is big, bold, clever and funny, and his recipe for “Rough Cut Guac” is a unique and delicious spin to the traditional avocado dip.

Two summers ago Zack and his family spent a week at the family cabin on Lake Melissa, and he made this guacamole for us nearly every day. What makes Zack’s version different is that he uses sautéed chorizo and jalapeno pepper, as well as charred sweet corn, which add wonderful flavor, spice and depth to this dish. Not surprising from Zack, because he embraces life by seeking out these same elements as he pursues his passion as an actor and foodie in New York City.

Chorizo is a flavorful Mexican sausage which can be found locally in hot or mild styles. Once removed from its plastic casing it can be quite soft, so for this purpose we place it in the freezer for about fifteen minutes to firm it up before slicing.

After making Zack’s original recipe we realized that we had enough guac to feed a small army, so we have adapted it for smaller groups. Zack’s original recipe called for three jalapenos, but we’re recommending one to two in this version, depending on your taste. Whatever amount you choose, use half to cook and save the other half to add later.

Cooking the jalapeno, even with its seeds, will mellow its spicy heat and enrich its flavor. Most of this pepper’s heat is in its seeds, so we use them only when cooking, saving just the chopped raw pepper to add at the end.

Zack’s recipe involves a few additional steps than traditional guacamole, so take time to prepare your mise en place first – meaning, put everything in its place before starting. Read the recipe carefully and then chop any  vegetables and herbs, measure ingredients, lay out all pans, utensils and other required equipment. In this recipe, everything but the avocados is an easy rough-chop and can be prepared several hours in advance for quick assembly just before serving.

Lately the avocados we have found in our local stores have been perfectly ripe for guacamole. They should be soft to the touch, and your finger should leave an imprint after pressing it. If you can’t find ripe avocados, we have a great trick to speed up the ripening process. Place the avocados in a paper bag with a ripe banana or apple, or both, folding the top over to close the bag and store in a cool, dark place. Within twenty-four hours the avocados should be ready to use (I’ve even had success after just four hours).

Zack adds the avocados with the rest of the ingredients at the very end, squeezing them from their shell instead of chopping them. Making guacamole is not an exact science, so taste the mixture at this stage and adjust flavors as desired, adding more lime juice, salt, pepper, jalapeno and cilantro to suit your taste.

Zack recommends serving his guac with Southwestern, black bean, or seasoned tortilla chips. We made our own chips with fresh corn tortillas baked in the oven, a perfect weight for this hearty dip, and the experience was almost as good as having Zack here in person. Almost.

CLICK HERE for the RECIPE for Zack’s Rough Cut Guac

Sue Asp’s (Grandmother’s) Date-Filled Cookies: A Holiday Heritage Contest Recipe

The entry phase of our Holiday Heritage Recipe Contest has come to a close, and it’s time to start narrowing down the selections. Tony and I will be spending the next 48 hours +/- reading through each contestant’s entry and story to choose our favorites and with almost 40 recipes entered we know that we have our work cut out for ourselves.

Add to that the hectic pace of the holiday season, especially in the restaurant world, and some days it’s a challenge just to remember my name. We received several new entries in the days/hours leading up to the deadline, and we will get those recipes and stories posted by the end of Saturday, at the latest. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate our way through the fluid waters of blogging and all that goes with it.

In the meantime, we will continue to feature recipes from our contestants here on the blog, and today the Contest Spotlight is shining on Sue Asp of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and her Grandmother’s recipe for Date-Filled Cookies.

Sue has a long-standing holiday tradition of baking with her sisters and her mother each season. While they bake a great variety of goodies each year, these date-filled cookies remain a constant family favorite, and Sue gives credit for this to an unusual source. You’ll have to read on to find out what that is but, as a baker who cherishes a good old-fashioned recipe, I totally get it, and hope you do too.

Thank you for sharing your special recipe and story with us, Sue, and GOOD LUCK!

Sue Asp’s (Grandmother’s) Date-Filled Cookies

The original recipe for these date-filled cookies must be at least 75 years old. The yellowed newspaper clipping, carefully taped to a 3×5 card, belonged to my grandma, Mathilda Alsop. There are notes, too, scrawled on the card beside the newsprint. Some in Grandma’s writing (12 min. @ 350=GOOD!), others in my mother’s (Use Betty Crocker Filling!). Grandma rolled the dough and chopped the dates by hand each Christmas until she was well in to her 80s, then passed the card and the tradition on to her daughter-in-law.

This year, my mother, who is approaching 90, will gather her three daughters for our 26th annual mother-daughter Christmas cookie bake. Grandma worked alone, but after more than two decades, we four have settled into a routine: Mom mixes the dough, I make the filling, Marilyn crimps each edge (she’s good with the putzy stuff), and Karen takes the cookies out of the oven when they’re perfectly golden brown.

We mix up a dozen varieties each year—from spritz to peanut butter blossoms—but the date-filleds have stood the test of time. Sure, they’re delicious, but I think the true draw lies in that old, yellowed card.


For the Dough:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup butter (may use margarine)
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup soured cream*
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in the cream
1/2 teaspoon baking powder sifted into 2 1/2 cups white flour
2 1/2 cups ground oatmeal

*Sour cream by adding 1 Tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup cream

For Date Filling:
3 cups cut up dates
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water

Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened (about 10 minutes). Cool.

Cream sugar and butter together with an electric mixer and add eggs. Combine flour mixture and oatmeal. Add dry ingredients and soured cream mixture alternately to creamed mixture. Mix to form dough.

Roll out cookie dough on a floured surface to 1/8 inch thick. Cut dough into circles with a 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter. Place about 1 teaspoon of date filling onto dough and fold dough in half to cover the filling. Press the edges of the dough together with a fork to seal and prick the top with a fork to allow steam to escape.

Bake on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet for 12 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool completely.

Submitted by Sue Asp of Fergus Falls, MN

Grandma’s Old-Fashioned Soft Sugar Cookies: A Holiday Heritage Recipe from Susan Hanson

Today the Contest Spotlight is shining on Susan Hanson and her mother’s recipe for Old-Fashioned Soft Sugar Cookies.

When Giovanni saw the photos Susan sent us of these colorfully festive holiday sweets, he put his hands to his cheeks and with wide eyes proclaimed, “Award-winning cookies!” While he alone will not determine our contest’s winner, he will be making Susan’s cookies with a school buddy and me next Wednesday. We’ll see what he says once he tastes them, but he’s already a fan of this entry.

Susan’s love for her mother is evident and endearing, and we love the idea of packaging up these pretty cookies to give as gifts. Who wouldn’t love getting that present?

Many of you have shared photos of your special recipes being made by the newest generation in your families, and we have had so much fun reading your stories and seeing the tradition being passed down to the children. Christmas baking is such a part of our own holiday tradition, and we love knowing that we share this ritual with so many others.

Thank you for sharing your special recipe with us, Susan and Mary, and GOOD LUCK!

The entry phase of our contest is coming to a close, but you still have until 11:59 PM TONIGHT, WEDNESDAY, DEC. 11, 2013 to send us your recipe and story. We have received several new entries this week and will be posting them to the blog as soon as we get a free moment.

Tony, Gio, our Sarello’s Staff and I will be reviewing all of the entries over the next few days to select our favorites, and PUBLIC VOTING for our winner will commence online next week, so stay tuned to the blog over the weekend for updates.

If you have a special holiday recipe that has passed from one generation to another, we would love to have you share it with us!

Please send your recipe, along with a short story about its heritage to us via email to dine@sarellos.com. Photos are highly encouraged, but not required. Top Prize is a brand-new Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer!

CLICK HERE to view the RECIPE ENTRIES for our Holiday Heritage Contest.

Susan Hanson’s (Mother’s) Old-Fashioned Soft Sugar Cookies
I was very excited to hear about the holiday baking contest. I am entering this on behalf of my mom ~ the best mom, grandmother, wife, friend and baker out there. I knew instantly when I saw the contest I had to enter her homemade sugar cookies.

The recipe actually comes from my grandmother who unfortunately passed away back in the late 70’s when I was young. My mom was quite a bit younger than her 5 brothers and we didn’t get to spend as much time with my grandmother as I would have liked. However, I remember going to her house when I was a kid and the cookie jar was always full.

My mom has made it a tradition to take her mother’s recipe and pass it down to her kids and now her grandkids. However, nobody makes them quite like she does (my kids would agree). I think it is the love that she puts into every batch she makes.

She makes the dough ahead of time and we get to have all the fun! She makes her own homemade frosting and then anything goes… My kids love to put frosting, sprinkles and glitter all over their cookies. She has a day with them every year where they just make cookies. Each grandchild gets to take home a special creation to eat.

When my mom visits my sister and her kids in Georgia that is one of the first things she is asked to do.  I remember when my sister was in college and had no money – all her friends would ask for was these cookies. She was always happy to comply.

We often buy her a new cookie cutter every year for Christmas so we have another excuse to make the cookies. However, my mom still has the original cookies cutters from when she was married over 45 years ago (and probably still works the best). She tries to make everyone’s favorite shape even though they all taste the same. I actually am not a big fan of frosting so she keeps a few cookies for me without frosting.

To me, this is what the holiday is about. It is the traditions we have, the friends and family we surround ourselves with, and grandma’s homemade sugar cookies. I cannot imagine the holidays without these cookies and the woman who has made them for the past 60+ years for us…

 Grandma’s Old Fashioned Soft Sugar Cookies

½ cup soft butter
1 cup white sugar
1 egg (unbeaten)
2 teaspoon vanilla or almond flavoring
½ cup sour cream
2 ½ cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon soda
½ teaspoon salt

Mix butter, sugar, egg and vanilla together. Add sour cream. Then add flour, soda and salt. Mix well. Chill dough for 2 hours. Remove from refrigerator and roll out and use your favorite cookie cutters.

Bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes. Leave on pan for 5 minutes after baking.


1 ½ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond flavoring
Milk as desired

Mix ingredients together and add mild until you get desired consistency. Add food coloring for added holiday sparkle.

Submitted by Susan Hanson of Fargo, ND on behalf of her mother, Mary Fornes

Holiday Heritage Contest Recipe: Donna Kelly’s (Family’s) Joy to the World Balls

Many of our readers have asked us to extend the entry deadline in our Holiday Heritage Recipe Conthelostitaliantest as the late Thanksgiving this year has set back the holiday baking schedule.

In the spirit of Christmas, we are extending our entry deadline to give you one more week to get your baking done and send us your recipes, stories and photos.

We will now accept contest submissions until 11:59 PM on Wednesday, December 11, 2013. We hope that this added time helps you complete your entry, and we look forward to reading your recipes and stories. Many thanks to all of you who have already sent us your entries – your stories are so wonderfully personal and touching, and full of holiday spirit.

Today we’re shining our Contest Spotlight on Donna Kelly of Provo, Utah, and her family’s recipe for Joy to the World Balls.

We’ll begin by saying that, as chocolate-lovers, Donna has all three of us already salivating at her picture of these decadent-looking Christmas candies. Nestled in cozily by the Christmas tree, who could resist taking one of these perfectly-shaped, glossy goodies?

We love that they can be made several weeks in advance and tucked away in the fridge until ready to serve. For that reason alone they may just make it to our Christmas Eve celebration, but then Donna goes on to tell us that they taste a little like an Almond Joy candy bar (one of Gio’s favorites). I think I’d better go buy some coconut oil, as I have everything else required already in our pantry…

Donna is clearly aware of the power of having a traditional holiday treat, as these special goodies fill us not only with sweetness, but also the warmth of wonderful memories, even from a distance.

Thank you for sharing your family’s special recipe with us, Donna, and GOOD LUCK!

If you have a special holiday recipe that has passed from one generation to another, we would love to have you share it with us!

Please send your recipe, along with a short story about its heritage to us via email to dine@sarellos.com. Photos are highly encouraged, but not required. Top Prize is a brand-new Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer!

CLICK HERE to view the RECIPE ENTRIES for our Holiday Heritage Contest.


There are foods that bring a remembrance of Christmases past. Our “Joy to the World” Christmas candies do that for us.

My mom’s family created this recipe and now my children make these candies, a four generation tradition. If a child of mine is not with us for Christmas, I package them up and send them off and I picture my child opening the box, inhaling the sweet coconutty smell and then biting into a candy, flooding their taste buds with memories of their childhood. Kelly Family Christmas in a bite.

I added my own twist and changed the diced pecans to diced toasted, lightly salted almonds. We loved the change, and my son Jake renamed the candies “Joy to the World” balls, since they now have a little of the flavor of Almond Joy candy bars!

And another tweak added by my generation: I switched up the butter to coconut oil, so now these are *** Healthified*** Christmas Candy. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Christmas candy with healthy fat.


12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon shortening
8 ounces sweetened coconut
2 pounds powdered sugar
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
2 cups diced toasted, lightly salted almonds
1 tablespoon vanilla

In a large bowl with a large sturdy spoon, stir together coconut, powdered sugar, coconut oil, condensed milk, almonds and vanilla. The mixture will be very thick! Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (I once left this in my fridge for a week and it was just fine).

Remove coconut mixture from fridge and roll into balls about the size of a walnut.
In a double boiler, melt shortening over simmering water. Slowly stir in chocolate chips and keep over very low heat.

Using a sturdy toothpick, dip coconut balls into melted chocolate and set on a sheet of wax paper to cool. Dip tops of candies in chocolate to cover the toothpick hole. Refrigerate candies until ready to use – will keep up to one month.