Making Stuffed Mushrooms Became a Time-Honored Tradition

Things changed through the years, but this family recipe remained a Christmas constant—just like God’s grace. 

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Posted in , Dec 27, 2021

An illustration of angelic mushrooms; Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

Christmas dinner was being hosted by my elder daughter, Nicki. Her sister, Ella, and I pitched in to help in the kitchen. I finished washing the mushrooms and brought them to the cutting board. “Ella and I will do the chopping,” Nicki said. “You just relax, Mom.”

As Ella took my place at the cutting board, a memory flashed into my mind: tiny Ella cutting the stems off her first mushrooms with a plastic knife. A lot has changed since then, I thought, watching her now.

Both of my girls had grown up to be excellent cooks. Nicki was an expert at baking pies; Ella specialized in layer cakes. Our Christmas menus had evolved too. Salmon and brisket instead of turkey. Whipped parsnips and latkes instead of mashed potatoes. Pies, cakes and lemon squares for dessert. Nicki had decided on brisket for our main course this year. But we’re still making our stuffed mushrooms, I thought.

The stuffed mushrooms hadn’t started out as a Christmas dish. It hadn’t started out as anything special at all. While setting Nicki’s table, I remembered the first time I’d tasted the recipe. Our family had gone to France to visit our good friends, Judith and Jon, who were vacationing there one summer.

“Let’s see what we have for dinner,” Judith said one afternoon. She looked in the refrigerator, opened the cupboards, pulled out some basic ingredients and sat them next to a big basket of fresh mushrooms. “Now we’ll improvise,” she said.

I was so intrigued that I followed behind her with a scrap of paper, writing down everything that eventually went into our meal. Without any weighing or measuring, Judith added a splash of sherry and white wine to a mixture that smelled divine. That evening, sitting outside under a fig tree, I enjoyed the most scrumptious stuffed mushroom I’d ever tasted. “Variety is the spice of life,” Judith said, laughing.

When we got home, the scrap of paper went into our family recipe book. Somewhere along the way, the stuffed mushrooms had become a Christmas tradition. I heard the sizzle from the stove as Nicki sautéed onions, shallots and garlic in olive oil. None of us needed to check the recipe anymore; we knew it by heart. We’d embraced Judith’s attitude. Measurements didn’t matter, as long as we had the basics. And lots of butter!

That was never so clear as the Christmas when Nicki was 12 and Ella was 7. Two weeks before the holiday, a moving van pulled up at our house and my husband left with it. I didn’t know where to begin making things work that Christmas Eve. I looked at my basket of fresh mushrooms. Then I pictured Judith opening her cupboards to see what she could find there. I called the girls into the kitchen and opened mine. “Ella, you’re in charge of washing the mushrooms. Nicki will help me cut them up. We’ll make our mushroom dish together.”

“I want to chop too,” Ella pouted.

“Only if you use a plastic knife,” I told her. Ella got to work at the sink. Nicki and I pulled ingredients from the fridge. Nicki and I chopped and mixed. Ella ran back and forth to the tree, her Santa hat flipping from side to side, filling red wicker baskets with candy and hanging them from the branches. After we’d enjoyed a successful batch of stuffed mushrooms with our dinner, I videotaped the girls setting out milk and treats for Santa. Nicki insisted on positioning the angel on the top of the tree herself, bravely wobbling on the step-stool as she stretched up to reach the top of the tree.

When the girls were asleep, I wrapped their gifts. I took a big sip of Santa’s milk, ate one cookie and left a lot of crumbs on the plate. I’ll make it through this Christmas, I thought, and went to bed looking forward to Christmas morning. Things would be different, but I could improvise, because no matter what changed over time, Christmas assured me that God remained the same. Just like the basics of our stuffed mushroom recipe.

Over the coming Christmases, Ella graduated to real knives; Nicki took a hand in setting the menus. We experimented with main dishes, appetizers and desserts. Now we traded off on who would host our Christmas meal. But the stuffed mushrooms were always the centerpiece, the heart of our celebration. A reminder that whatever changed around us, I could trust that with God’s grace we would always have what we needed. Our cupboards were full.

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