Jessica Nicholson shares family recipes, thoughts on Christmas

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Photo by Ann Cipperly

By Ann Cipperly

With a wreath on the door, the fresh tree sparkling with lights and stockings for four children hanging on the mantel, Jessica Nicholson is ready to celebrate Christmas. Jessica has a love for cooking and enjoys being in the kitchen cooking for her husband Adam, their children and family, as well as friends, using recipes collected from her mother and grandmothers.

Jessica grew up in Mountain Brook and met Adam at Auburn University. They began attending Trinity Presbyterian Church in Opelika and became close to families at the church. After they married, they decided to settle in Opelika to raise their family.

Both Jessica and Adam are from close-knit families. Once they decided to make Opelika their home, their parents and other relatives followed. Her parents, Leesa and Rich Street, moved to Auburn, while Adam’s parents, Julie and Tom Nicholson, moved to Stillwater at Lake Martin.

Other members of Jessica’s family who have moved here are her aunt and uncle, Anna and Greg Solomon. Her aunt teaches at Auburn University, and her uncle is a pharmacist at EAMC. Other family members attended Auburn.

Jessica’s roots go back to this area, as her grandfather attended pharmacy school at Auburn and her mother was born while her grandparents lived in student housing.

“This is home for us now,” says Jessica. She and Adam, an engineer with Alabama Power Company, have four children, Mamie, 11; John Stuart, 7; Jude, 6; and Chip, 2 years old.

Jessica home schools the children. “This is what I always wanted,” she says, “I wanted to be a mother and have a big family.”

With her love for cooking, Jessica is following in her mother and grandmothers’ footsteps. She remembers her mother made a big breakfast every morning before school, packed their lunches and prepared a home cooked meal every night.

While Jessica helped her mother some with baking she didn’t know much about cooking when she got married.

“I spent the better part of the first year on the phone with my grandmother and mother trying to find out what is the best way to cook an egg and asking how do I cook this pasta,” she says. “Since marrying, I have learned so much from my grandmother, mother and mother-in-law.

“Just learning through the years,” she adds, “is how my love of cooking has developed.”

Jessica enjoys cooking all kinds of food from different cultures, but she loves to go back to her childhood favorites. With small children, most days she prepares quick, comforting dishes.

Mamie is showing an interest in cooking and helps her prepare breakfast. She has also cooked with both grandmothers.

“Having my family close is important to me,” says Jessica, “and hosting family and friends around the table in our home. I want to sit and fellowship with my family while savoring every delicious bite.”

They wanted a big table to seat many people. Adam and his father are wood workers and built a large kitchen table and benches from reclaimed heart pine her grandfather had saved on his farm.

Jessica is looking forward to cooking for Christmas and having family in to sit around the big kitchen table. She wants to make the Christmas season as magical as her family did for her when she was growing up.

On Christmas Eve, her family would visit grandparents in Birmingham. She remembers her grandmother saying she put so much effort in making Christmas Eve special for her and her cousins because she didn’t have that as a child. “She didn’t have anything,” says Jessica. “She wanted to be able to give us what she never had as a child.”

Her other grandmother who lives in Eutaw often makes the Chicken Pot Pie, which is Jessica’s favorite comfort food.  It was her great-grandmother’s recipe with a creamy filling rich with chicken and boiled eggs, topped with a buttery, lightly crisp buttermilk topping.

Jessica serves the special dish with cranberry sauce or relish and her mother-in-law’s Two Cheese Spinach and Romaine Salad. The Chicken Pot Pie always brings back wonderful memories.

At her parents’ home, Jessica remembers on Christmas morning music would be blaring, the house smelled good and her mom had prepared many dishes. “Santa had toys and gifts all over the living room. It was magical.”

One set of grandparents would come for breakfast and see the gifts. Then the second set of grandparents would visit for lunch. “It was a day of eating, playing with toys and being with family,” she remembers.

Jessica now makes the Breakfast Casserole her mother prepared for Christmas morning along with Sticky Buns and fresh fruit. Adam’s parents will come for breakfast. In the afternoon, they will go to her parents’ home for dinner.

“Christmas to me,” says Jessica, “is all about being with the people we love in celebrating the beautiful gift that was given to us, the birth of Christ. We share it with our children and that it is not about the gifts. It is about giving and sharing with others, and we are hoping to teach that to our children.”

When Jessica learned that many cars drove through their Camelot neighborhood on the night of the Collinwood Luminaries, she arranged last year for her children to have a hot chocolate stand to raise money for Toys for Tots. Afterwards, she took the children shopping to select the toys to give.

“We do three gifts to represent the Wise Men’s gifts to Jesus to celebrate the giving season,” she says, “but we don’t allow the gifts to become too important.”

As Jessica cooks for Christmas, she is grateful for the women in her family. “I am thankful for those women in my life who have influenced my love for cooking and hosting family and friends in our home.”

Ann Cipperly can be contacted at recipes@cipperly.com.

Recipes:

Christmas Breakfast/Brunch Recipes
Honey’s Breakfast Casserole
Tomato Grits Casserole
Shrimp Florentine
Citrus Salad with Spiced Honey
Sticky Buns

Honey’s Breakfast Casserole
1 lb. sausage
1/4 cup chopped onion
2 1/2 cups hash browns
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 3/4 cups milk
1 cup all-purpose baking mix (Bisquick or another brand)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
Cook sausage and onion. Add hash browns.
Combine eggs and cheese and mix next 4 ingredients. Add to egg mixture.
Pour egg mixture over sausage, cover, and let sit in refrigerator overnight.
Bake covered at 350 degrees, 45 minutes. Uncover 10-15 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.
Note: Bags of hash browns can be found in the freezer section.

Tomato Grits Casserole
2 cups water
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp. salt
1 cup quick cooking grits
1 stick, plus 1 Tbsp. butter
1/3 cup green onions, diced
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
2 cups cheddar, shredded, divided
10 oz. can Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilies
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
To make the tomato grits, in a saucepan, bring water and milk to a boil. Add salt. Slowly add grits and return to a boil; stir for 1 full minute. (The secret to preparing good grits is the initial stirring of the pot.) Reduce the heat, cover, and cook for 3 minutes.
Stir the grits and add 1 stick of butter, stirring until it has melted. Cover and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the grits are thick and creamy. Remove from the heat and set aside. Sauté onions in the remaining 1 Tbsp. butter for 1 minute. Add garlic powder, 1 1/2 cups cheddar and onions to the grits, and stir until the cheese is melted. Add tomatoes and green chilies and mix well; stir in the beaten eggs.
Pour grits into a greased 8 x 11 x 2-inch casserole dish. Bake for 40 minutes. Sprinkle remaining cheese over casserole for the last 5 minutes of cooking time.

Shrimp Florentine
2 Tbsp. butter
1 clove garlic, minced
12 shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 to 2 lemons, juiced
White wine, for deglazing
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 cups fresh spinach, packed down
1 dash ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Start with 1 Tbsp. butter in a sauté pan. Add minced garlic and shrimp. Deglaze with lemon and wine. Add cream, cheese, and spinach. Reduce, add nutmeg, season to taste with salt and pepper, and pour over grits.

Citrus Salad with Spiced Honey
1/2 cup honey
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. black peppercorns
1/4 tsp. dried crushed red pepper
4 whole cloves
3 medium sized oranges
3 mandarin oranges
2 Ruby Red grapefruit
2 limes
6 kumquats (optional)
1 (4.4 oz.) pkg. fresh pomegranate seeds
Toppings: extra virgin olive oil, fresh mint leaves, sea salt
Bring first 6 ingredients and 1/2 cup water to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil, stirring often, 1 minute. Remove from heat, and let stand 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf.
Meanwhile, peel oranges, next 3 ingredients, and, if desired, kumquats. Cut away bitter white pith. Cut each fruit into thin rounds. Arrange on a serving platter, and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.
Pour honey mixture through a fine wire-mesh strainer, discarding solids. Drizzle fruit with desired amount of spiced honey, reserving remaining for another use. Top with a drizzle of olive oil, a handful of mint leaves, and sea salt.

Solomon Family’s Chicken Pot Pie
Serve with Grandma Nicholson’s Cranberry-Orange Relish, Two Cheese Spinach and Romaine Salad and Joyce Solomon’s Devil’s Food Cake.
1 whole cooked chicken, cut into bite size pieces
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chicken broth (homemade, if possible), warmed
4 boiled eggs, sliced
Pie Topping:
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup melted butter
1 cup buttermilk
Add cream of chicken soup and pepper into hot broth, whisking until well blended.
Spray a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish and put chicken pieces in, topping with sliced eggs.
Pour hot broth mixture over chicken and eggs.
Mix together topping ingredients with a whisk and pour over casserole, getting as even as possible.
Bake at 350 degrees, until golden brown, for about 40-50 minutes.
If desired, let dish sit up to an hour covered with paper towels to cool and let juices thicken.

Two Cheese Spinach and Romaine Salad
Dressing:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup vinegar
1 tsp. poppy seeds
1 tsp. mustard
1/4 tsp. salt
Put these ingredients in a tight fitting jar with a lid and shake. Refrigerate overnight.
Salad:
5 cups fresh spinach and romaine lettuce
1/2 lb. sliced fresh mushrooms
8 oz. carton cottage cheese
4 oz. shredded Swiss cheese
2 bacon strips cooked and crumbled
Just before serving, toss spinach and lettuce with mushrooms and cheeses; pour dressing over and toss again. Sprinkle with bacon. Enjoy! Serves 12.

Grandma Nicholson’s Cranberry-Orange Relish
(No cooking)
1 lb. cranberries
2 oranges (quartered and seeds removed)
1 small can crushed pineapple
1/2 cup chopped pecans
6 stalks finely chopped celery
1 large package raspberry Jell-O
2 cups boiling water
2 cups sugar
Add boiling water and sugar to Jell-O and let cool. Finely chop cranberries and oranges (with rind) in a food processor. Stir together cranberry/orange mixture with pineapple, nuts, celery, and Jell-O. Refrigerate and serve.

Zesty Cheese Wafers
1 cup butter, softened
1 lb. good quality sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 cup rice crispies cereal
1 cup pecans, finely chopped
Cream softened butter and finely grated cheese until very smooth, at least 10 minutes.
Sift flour, measure again, and resift with salt and cayenne pepper added. Stir into creamed butter and cheese, then add rice crispies and pecans, gently stirring until blended; do not over beat.
Turn out onto surface and divide into 3-4 segments and roll out into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap in wax paper and chill thoroughly, overnight is best.
At this point, if you’d rather not bake them right away, you have the option of freezing the logs in a ziplock freezer bag.
When ready to bake, slice each wafer 1/4 inch thick and place on cookie sheet. Do not let the wafers touch or be close together because they will expand just a bit.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes or until very lightly browned. Do not over bake. Makes about 9 dozen.

Brazel’s Sweet Potato Pie
4 cups cooked sweet potatoes (peeled and mashed)
4 cups sugar, or to taste
2 sticks melted butter
6 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 small can evaporated milk
3 deep dish pie crusts
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease and pierce sweet potatoes then place on a foil lined cookie sheet and bake for 45 minutes or longer. Sweet potatoes will be soft when done.
For filling: Using large mixer combine mashed sweet potatoes with all ingredients and beat thoroughly until unwanted sweet potatoes strings stay on mixer blades. Pour filling into pie crusts and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, or until center is firm.
(Sweet potatoes can be put through a ricer to remove potato strings, which gives a smoother texture.)

Joyce Solomon’s Devil’s Food Cake with Seven Minute Frosting and Chocolate Drizzle
4 squares bitter sweet Chocolate, divided
1/2 cup butter
1 cup boiling water
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp. butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut wax paper or parchment paper to fit two 9-inch pans, then grease and flour. Shake out excess flour. Melt 1/2 cup butter and only three squares chocolate in 1 cup boiling water and let cool. Mix or sift dry ingredients together.
Beat eggs with sour cream, sugar, and vanilla. Stir in melted chocolate mixture. Slowly beat half at a time into flour only until smooth. Batter will be thin.
Pour into prepared pans and bake until done (about 35 to 40 minutes) and center will spring back. 
Frost cake with the Seven Minute Frosting, and then drizzle with Chocolate Drizzle.
Seven Minute Frosting
2 egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/3 cup white Karo syrup
2 Tbsp. water
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
Place egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, Karo syrup, water and salt in the top of a double boiler and beat well. Place over heat and beat with electric hand mixer for about 7 minutes until it holds in peaks. Remove boiler from double boiler and add vanilla. Beat icing for several more minutes.
Chocolate Drizzle
Melt together 1 Tbsp. butter and one square of chocolate and drizzle over top. Let it run down the sides.

Sticky Buns
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. honey
2 Tbsp. water
1/4 cup chopped nuts
8 oz. can crescent rolls
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup raisins
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a small saucepan, heat first 5 ingredients, stirring until smooth. Stir in nuts.
Spoon 1 Tbsp. honey mixture into each of 12 ungreased muffin cups.
Separate crescent dough into 4 rectangles. Spread each rectangle with 1/2 Tbsp. butter.
Combine cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle over butter. Dot with raisins.
Starting with shorter side, roll up tightly. Cut each roll into 3 slices.
Flatten slightly, press lightly into the muffin cups.
Bake 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cool in pan 1 minute, pour onto wax paper.

Katie Street’s Pecan Sandies
1 cup butter
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp. water
2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
Cream butter and sugar. Add water and vanilla, mix well. Add flour and pecans. Chill 3 or 4 hours. Shape in balls or fingers.
Bake at 325 degrees on ungreased cookie sheet, about 17 minutes. Cool slightly and roll in confectioner’s sugar.

Nonna’s New Orleans Pralines
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
6 Tbsp. butter
1 1/2 cups pecans
Bring mixture to a simmer, then add 1 1/2 cups pecans and continue to cook mixture to 238 degrees (soft ball stage). Remove from heat and wait about 3 minutes, then add 1 tsp. vanilla and begin to stir – but don’t over stir or pralines will be too hard.
Quickly drop to desired size. Wrap each praline in plastic wrap to keep fresh.

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