Chef, cookbook author and cohost of The Chew, Carla Hall knows good food. The holidays are no exception. We chatted with Hall about how she handles the holidays, her favorite (and least favorite) dishes and how she plans to make 2018 a better year. She also generously shared some of her favorite holiday recipes and tips for dressing up a classic pound cake.
SheKnows: With the holidays coming up, how do you plan to tackle your holiday shopping? Are you a last-minute online shopper or do you like to get it all done early?
Carla Hall: I think I’m a combo of both. I always think I want to do it early but early for me is a week out. But I really try to order my turkey ahead of time. Mind you, I have not done that. I’m very methodical about my list so I have everything — dairy, the meats, poultry — in categories based on where it is in the store to get stuff. I like to get my stuff in the store, I don’t like to do online.
I’m so last-minute. Every year I think that Christmas is going to be further away from Thanksgiving than it is. I’m like, oh my gosh, why is it Christmas Eve and I’m still doing things?
SK: What’s the best/worst gift you’ve ever gotten?
CH: The best gift that I’ve ever gotten… my husband is such a good gift giver. He listens all year-round so he has things that I’ve said, that I’ve talked about. It was a collection of books that I wanted. He gives me lots of little things. So this collection of books that he gave me that I love.
But also he does these stockings, we have this tradition now of doing stockings — we didn’t really do stockings growing up, we did but it was like candy — but he would give me all little things, just little things… it could be like little toiletries or paper and pen and they’re all stuffed in this stocking and I love it. It is honestly one of my favorite things to get. It’s the gift that keeps on giving because they’re little things and they’re all around you so I love that.
The worst gift that I got was clearly something that was regifted to me, that was something that had nothing to do with my life or anything. A plate with a bowl attached. It was old looking, like somebody’s grandmother’s. And I know I have gray hair, but really, not yet.
SK: What’s your favorite holiday food and/or tradition?
CH: My grandmother is my inspiration for all holidays because we went to her house for Sunday supper. A lot of our holidays would be at her house and the family would come and she would make her pound cake, her rolls and everything. So the one thing that everybody looks forward to is my grandmother’s five-flavor pound cake.
To dress it up for the holidays, I just take a lemon glaze (which is one of the five flavors) and I put the lemon glaze, which is simply powdered sugar and lemon juice, over the cake and I let it drip down the sides. I don’t need to cover the entire thing. And then I take some sugared cranberries — these are so simple, you take simple syrup, just sugar and water, but I add a little bit of ginger because I love ginger and cranberries together, and then you dissolve the sugar — you put the cranberries into that simple syrup and you just leave it in the refrigerator overnight for at least eight hours.
Then when the next day you drain the cranberries from the simple syrup you save that liquid because that’s going to be for your mocktails or your cocktails. You roll those cranberries in fine sugar. They are not only just a delicious snack, but they make my cake really festive and beautiful with the white and the red. Then you take a little bit of mint and you decorate it.
I love to do things that have two purposes, like making the cranberries and also the simple syrup.
SheKnows: Any traditional holiday dishes you absolutely can’t stand?
CH: I do not like a layered salad. I don’t like some kind of seven-layer thing where it looks pretty in theory and then when you go to eat it, if you’re the last person, you get the mush. You get all the mixed-up-like-it-was-on-somebody’s-plate. That’s just me, but I don’t like that. I also don’t like a Jell-O salad. But I love ambrosia! Go figure. I don’t understand it, but I love ambrosia.
But I don’t like Jell-O with nuts in it. Not my favorite.
SheKnows: What about Matthew and Noah? Any holiday dishes they really love?
CH: Noah does not like cranberry sauce. He doesn’t like cooked fruit. He loves cornbread dressing. [Matthew is] a vegetarian, so it’s all about the sides for him. I generally make all of the sides vegetarian, so he loves collard greens, cranberry dressing, stuffing, green bean casserole, sautéed mushrooms. I just love the sides, rolls, we love bread. Noah loves my sweet potato rolls.
But another thing that I love is I do a peach cobbler. Everybody loves a peach cobbler. To make it look festive for the holidays, I take the dough and I press out leaves.
The other thing I love to do — I love to get my little nieces who are 9 and 12 involved — is cookie making. One dough, three different cookies. I have this Linzer dough. It’s so soft and just melts in your mouth. When you put that with raspberry jam, it is just delicious. The same dough will make thumb prints. You just use a different jam — you can do sandwich cookies with maybe a chocolate ganache — and then even the cutouts and just have the kids make their own little decorative cookies. It’s just so simple to get everybody involved.
Linzer dough has some spices in it, so it’s not just your regular shortbread dough. And when I say you put it in your mouth and just melts… you’ve got to toot your own horn, I’m just saying. If you’re not tooting your own horn when you’re making dinner, you need to be making something else now. If you don’t like it, nobody else is going to like it.
SK: What’s your New Year’s resolution?
CH: Honestly, it has to be about family. I think spending more time… I took my first vacation this year in nine years, and I feel like I have to do more of that even if it’s something very simple. Even if it’s having a vacation in my town, taking time out to just unplug and be with family. Especially my nieces. I don’t want them to grow up and not know me. I want to make time for them.
This interview has been edited for clarity.