For some, a cherished Christmas tradition includes going to the mountains to cut down a fresh spruce for the living room. For others, it's about participating in a live nativity scene. But for many, it's all about making and sharing delicious food.

Among Latinos, Christmas Eve or Nochebuena is one of the most important family gatherings of the year. It is also the time when culinary traditions are passed down to the next generation.

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, cookbook co-author Yvette Marquez-Sharpnak remembers how precious Christmas time was for her family. As children, Yvette and her sister, Veronica Gonzalez-Smith, were welcomed at their grandmother's home with the sweet smell of champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate) and the sight of freshly baked biscochos (sweet pastries). But this was not the time to just sit down and enjoy the hot chocolate; the treats were the fuel they needed to participate in a traditional tamalada (tamale-making party).

Yvette Marquez-Sharpnak laughs alongside her aunt during one of her family s typical tamale-making parties in El Paso, Texas. Her family has kept the
Yvette Marquez-Sharpnak laughs alongside her aunt during one of her family s typical tamale-making parties in El Paso, Texas. Her family has kept the tradition alive for four generations. (Photo courtesy of Leah Audae)

Yvette, who now lives in Highlands Ranch, said that the tradition is now being passed down to the fourth generation. Each year around Christmas someone in her family hosts a tamalada, either in Denver, El Paso or in Germany, where her sister lives. The recipe is a gift from her grandmother Jesusita Mendias Soza, originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, who made her specialties until the age of 96.

Tamales are Yvette's favorite Christmas dish because "they are little gifts of love and they remind me of grandma," she said.

This desire to share and preserve her grandmother's recipe turned into the Muy Bueno Cookbook blog and eventually the "Muy Bueno Cookbook: Three Generations of Authentic Mexican Flavor" where the two sisters and their mother, Evangelina Soza, share traditional and modern family recipes.

Yvette talked about her Christmas memories with Viva Colorado and shared with readers a gourmet, Mexican-inspired appetizer that can be prepared in minutes.

What are your most cherished Christmas memories?
The thing that I always remember is family. It was always a big event. We spent a lot of time with my cousins, playing tag or hide and seek, but there was always good food.

I remember everyone getting together for a potluck. My grandma would make tamales days before Christmas, and that was her gift to the family. People will pick up their pot of tamales from my grandmother and bring them to the party. Each person would also bring a specialty dish, like chile con queso, empanadas, biscochos and all kinds of baked goods. Biscochos are my mom's specialty, she would always make her little wedding cookies for the parties.

Through time and distance, many people are unable to keep their traditions alive. Given that you and your sister are second-generation Mexican-American, why is it important to you both to keep your family culinary traditions alive?

The Muy Bueno Cookbook features 100 recipes.
The Muy Bueno Cookbook features 100 recipes. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

I think because we were so close to our grandma and they were just very special memories that we did not want to lose. Those are the memories that will be with us forever. So when my mom is visiting and I see my daughter, Maya, with my mom helping her in the kitchen, it totally brings back memories of me helping out my grandma, listening to her old stories. It is something that is very special to me.

Even though my daughter does not have the privilege of having her grandma, I am here to make those types of recipes. She loves making sopes (thick tortillas) with me. She is really good at the tortilla press, and my son, Blake, loves making empanadas. My traditions are a gift to my children.

Why did your family decide to share your recipes with the public?

No matter where you come from, I think everyone has special memories with their grandma or mother and their recipes. The dishes in the book just happen to be the recipes that are special to us.

Initially, we were not going to publish a cookbook, we were writing down the recipes to create a keepsake for our family. We started sharing our recipes in a blog, and it grew. It was amazing to hear people making our recipes or telling us that they been looking for a certain recipe for years and found it on our blog. The recipes are for traditional Mexican dishes that people may not be able to find easily.

 

More and more, people move and lose touch with their family, and it is the food memories that always remind them of home.

How do you get your children involved in cooking?

Letting them pick the recipes. My daughter loves trying new dishes from magazines.

At the grocery store my children are my little helpers. I have an app on my phone with a list of groceries, and one of them is in charge of checking things off while another puts bags in the cart. They like the entire process.  

I have them help me make salads. They feel like they are cooking because they prepare their own salads. As they get older I give them different tasks that make them feel important and involved in the process.

My son loves baking. For Christmas he wants pirate-shaped gingerbread cookies. This idea came from a book he has, where gingerbread cookies are dressed as pirates and they come to life in the middle of the night, and so that is what he wants for Christmas.

What dishes do you plan to have for Christmas dinner this year?

This time we'll have a traditional American Christmas but with a Latin twist. We'll make biscochos, tamales and ponche Navideño (Christmas fruit punch). It's non-alcoholic, but we always keep a little tequila on the side.