Neighborhood food experts share their most special recipes and secrets for whipping them up right

It’s not the brisk air, the carefully wrapped gifts or the warm hugs from family that make the holidays so special.

Nope — it’s the food. And behind every treasured recipe is a story, usually one involving family, friends and traditions.

Those who understand the value of great recipes — comforting creations made familiar after years of reunions, weddings and weekend trips — hold the secret to genuine holiday happiness.

Several neighbors who make their living in the culinary arts are sharing the stories behind their favorite recipes this month. Their recipes — already passed from generation to generation — could become new holiday traditions for your family this year.

Carpenter Family Cajun-Style Roux

From Michelle Carpenter (chef/owner, Zen Sushi)

Carpenter is half-Cajun and half-Japanese and comes from a long line of accomplished cooks.

According to her brother, Jeffery, who also loves to cook, a roux can be accomplished only as quickly as one can finish three beers. If you cook the roux any faster, it simply isn’t done.

Michelle says a proper roux takes at least one hour — it cannot and should not be rushed.

Unfortunately for those of us who prefer exact recipes, she never measures when making roux; she always eyeballs it. Nevertheless, here is her family’s secret recipe for authentic Cajun-style roux (use dark brown roux for gumbo and medium for étouffée).



vegetable oil

Generally, use a one-to-one ratio of all-purpose flour to vegetable oil. (For gumbo, there is slightly more oil than flour.)


a cast-iron skillet

a wooden spatula


1 stool

3 beers

– Use medium-low heat. When the oil heats up, add the flour slowly so it doesn’t immediately start clumping.

– Instead of stirring the roux in circles, use a back and forth sweeping motion. (Roux is more about technique than it is about ingredients, Carpenter says.) It must be continuous. You cannot leave the roux alone or it will burn. The color of the roux will start turning from blonde to dark caramel to a chocolate brown.

– About halfway through the process (when the roux is dark tan), turn down the heat to low. Right before it turns dark brown, remove the skillet from the heat because the iron skillet will continue to cook the roux. If you see black specks, you’ve burned it. It will smell burned, and unfortunately, you will have to start all over.

– For étouffée, use butter instead of oil. It takes less time because butter has a lower burning temperature. The color will be medium brown, and you will use only low heat, removing the cast iron skillet from the stove before it turns medium brown.

Grandma’s California Walnut Chews

From Jill Inforzato (owner of Hula Hotties Café & Bakery)

“When we were growing up, Grandma used to make a bar cookie that had the greatest texture and was filled with nuts and covered in powdered sugar, so they were messy to eat,” Inforzato says of this family treat.

After her grandmother died, Inforzato’s mother began making the cookies until her health began to decline. The recipe was lost for some time following her mother’s death, until Inforzato discovered it tucked away in a drawer and began making them.

“Every time I make the chews, people want the recipe. I always give it away gladly,” she says.

Click here to print the recipe card


1 tbsp butter

1 c brown sugar

2 eggs beaten

1 tsp vanilla

1/4 c plus 1 Tbsp flour

1/8 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1 c toasted chopped walnuts

sifted powder sugar for finished walnut chews

– Butter an 8×8 pan, and turn on the oven to 325 degrees.

– Cream together the brown sugar and the butter. Add the eggs and blend well. Add the vanilla.

– Sift together the flour, salt and baking soda; add to the creamed mixture, and blend well.

– Add the chopped nuts.

– Pour into prepared pan, and bake 25-30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Do not overbake.

– Let cool.

– Dust with sifted powder sugar, cut into squares, and serve at room temperature.

Grandma’s Secret Chocolate Pie Recipe

From Samantha Rush (owner of Rush Patisserie)

“No one has this recipe”, Rush says, but she decided to share it with Advocate readers.

When she was a girl, Rush looked forward to visiting her grandmother for the dessert, the taste of which made the 10-hour drive from New York to North Carolina worthwhile. Rush considers it “classic comfort food” and understands how the simple and uncomplicated ingredients work after formal training as a pastry chef.

Unlike other chocolate pies, Rush describes this as tasting closer to a “buttery crème brûlée that’s baked as a pie.”

“As a kid, pie was pie, and there were no garnishes,” she says.

Today, she recommends using glazed or candied hazelnuts and pecans to decorate the final product.

Rush also says you can either make a traditional piecrust or purchase a pre-made piecrust for this recipe.

Click here to print the recipe card


1-3/4 c sugar

1/2 stick melted butter

2 eggs

4 Tbsp cocoa powder

2 Tbsp flour

2 tsp cornstarch

2-1/2 c milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

– Mix sugar, vanilla, flour, cornstarch and cocoa powder together.

– Add eggs one at a time. Cream the ingredients. Slowly add milk, and then at the end, add in cooled melted butter. Ensure that all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated and homogeneous.

– Pour batter into prepared pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Spiced Shrimp

From Margaret Guy (resident of Stevens Park Village)

This shrimp recipe is an easy and quick crowd pleaser, Guy says. “People tend to stand around the shrimp, and it will disappear in record time,” she says.

Click here to print the recipe card


21/2 lbs cooked shrimp

1 c sliced onions

bay leaves

– In a bowl, place alternate layers of shrimp, onions and a bay leaf or two.

– Over that, pour the following:

1-1/4 c vegetable oil

3/4 c vinegar

1 tsp salt

2-1/2 tsp celery seed

2-1/2 tsp capers

dash of Tabasco

– Let marinate a few days in refrigerator, stirring a couple times a day.

– Serve with toothpicks presented on a grapefruit as an appetizer.

Momay’s Apple Cake

From David Uygur (chef/owner, Lucia)

Uygur’s great-grandmother’s apple cake was her signature dish, something she cooked for special occasions.

“I never knew her, but my mom said that she was the spitfire, powerhouse of the family,” he says.

The cake has passed through several generations of Uygur’s family and has been altered and adapted over the years. (During WWII, rationing resulted in the butter being replaced with margarine.)

“I like this cake so much that I served it at Lola. I added a splash of Calvados and substituted pine nuts for the pecans it originally called for, but it’s otherwise as my great-grandmother made it.”

Click here to print the recipe card


1 c brown sugar

1/2 c sugar

1/2 tsp allspice

1/2 tsp cinnamon

2-1/4 cups flour

3/4 c butter

2 eggs

2 Tbsp Calvados

1 c applesauce

1 apple, peeled and grated

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 c raisins

3/4 c pine nuts

– Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

– Cream butter, sugar and salt until fluffy.

– Add eggs, applesauce and grated apple.

– Sift in dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, spices). Fold in raisins and pine nuts.

– Bake in greased, floured Bundt pan about an hour, until cake tester comes out clean.

– Serve with whipped cream or with Calvados ice cream.

Note: Says Uygur, “I think the cake tastes better the next day.”