I have always been at home for Christmas, except for once when we flew to Colorado on Christmas morning to go skiing. It was one of the most invigorating, memorable Christmases our family has ever experienced. For the first time we built snow men and wore scarves, hats and boots and watched the sun go down over white mountains while warming our hands and hearts by the fire.

This year brings our second venture away for the holidays. The extended family will spend them in Los Angeles at the home of one of our daughters. As much as I love tradition, I can’t wait.

Not the least of my excitement is that I’ve decided not to get the decorations down from the attic. That may sound like a Scrooge in the making, but Christmas is my favorite time of the year. It is just that I’m glad to escape all of the hard work for once in my life, especially the part that comes with taking decorations down and putting them away.

Yes, this year I’m as free as a bird and looking forward to it. Now all I have to do is come up with some old family favorites to do my share of the cooking. I will start with the sweets.

There’s no doubt about the all-time favorite there: it’s the Toffee Butter Crunch that my mother always called “crack candy” because you cracked it with an ice pick, though sometimes she used a hammer. This rates right up there with red-and-green cheese balls to decorate a party as well as feed the crowd.

There is little question about the favorite side dish: it’s a spinach-cream cheese-water chestnut dish that won a cooking contest at the New Orleans Press Club back when I was working at The States-Item. The judge was the late Richard Collin, who put restaurant criticism on the map locally. The recipe belonged to a women from Plaquemines Parish whose name I’ve long forgotten.

The perpetual breakfast casserole – my Louisiana version, that is – must be readied the night before to bake the next morning while presents are opened, be it New Orleans or Los Angeles.

And we are leaning toward gift certificates since we can’t carry bundles on the plane. That means I don’t have to shop. Looks like I’ve gotten all the breaks this year.


Toffee Butter Crunch

2 sticks butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 Tablespoons water
1 Tablespoon white corn syrup
1 cup coarsely chopped almonds, toasted
4 4 1/2-ounce milk chocolate candy bars, such as Hershey’s, or 18 ounces milk chocolate without
   nuts, melted
1 cup finely chopped almonds, toasted

In a large saucepan, melt butter and add sugar, water and corn syrup. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, to hard-crack stage – about 300 degrees. Quickly stir in coarsely chopped almonds, abd spread in a well-greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Cool thoroughly.

When toffee is cooled, turn out on waxed paper.

Melt chocolate in top of a double boiler and pour half onto one side of toffee and spread. Sprinkle with the other cup of finely chopped almonds. Cover with waxed paper. Invert and spread other side with chocolate and sprinkle with remaining nuts. Cool until chocolate is firm. To speed the firming, cool in a refrigerator. When set, crack the candy into pieces using an ice pick. The pieces should be about 1 or 2 inches in size. Store in a closed container. This will keep for a week to 10 days, and can be served gradually in candy dishes. Makes about 1 1/2 pound

Breakfast Casserole

10 1-inch-thick slices poor boy French bread, preferably
1 1/2 pounds bulk pork sausage,
   preferably hot
6 green onions, chopped
3 Tablespoons chopped flat-leaf
9 eggs
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1 1/2 cups extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, divided

Grease a 9-by-13-inch glass casserole dish with butter. Line dish with French bread slices.

In a medium skillet, brown the sausage, turning and crumbling into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces. Add onions while sausage is browning, and cook until wilted. Drain off grease. Mix in parsley.

In a medium bowl, whisk eggs until mixed. Add milk, seasonings and 1/2-cup of cheese. Pour into casserole dish over bread. Add sausage mixture and top with remaining cup of cheese. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

An hour before you plan to serve the casserole the next morning, remove casserole from refrigerator. Heat oven to 350 degrees. When casserole is no longer chilled, remove cover and bake about 45 minutes or until casserole is firm and light brown on top. Serves 8 to 10

Christmas Cheese Balls

2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
2 cups shredded pepper Jack cheese
2 Tablespoons finely chopped onion
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted
3/4 cup chopped curly parsley
3/4 cup chopped dried cranberries
   (about 3 ounces)
Assorted crackers

Bring cheeses to room temperature. In a large bowl, mix cheeses, onion, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and pecans until smooth. Divide in half and form into two round balls.
Place parsley and cranberries on two separate sheets of waxed paper and spread evenly. Roll one cheese ball in parsley and the other in cranberries. Refrigerate for several hours before serving. These can be made a day ahead. Serve on separate plates with assorted crackers. Serves a crowd at parties

Spinach Casserole

2 packages frozen chopped spin-
1 large can whole artichokes
1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons butter,   
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 can sliced water chestnuts
Breadcrumbs, about 1/2 cup

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cook spinach according to package directions and drain.

Cut artichokes into fourths.

Melt stick of butter in medium saucepan and remove from heat. Add cream cheese and blend together until smooth. Add spinach and water chestnuts.

Line pie plate with artichoke pieces. Cover with spinach mixture. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Dot with extra butter, about 2 Tablespoons.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Serves 8