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Nov 29, 2016 04:27PM

Eat, laugh and be merry: Holiday gatherings are for love and grub

By Chris Cashion
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Todd Mizener/tmizener@qconline.com
Rockin' Restaurant Spinach Dip, whose recipe is from hungry-girl.com, is served with pita chips for an easy and delicious holiday side dish or snack.
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Todd Mizener/tmizener@qconline.com
Oreo balls
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"Friends are the family we choose ourselves." I've seen these words handcrafted in needlepoint and written in fancy calligraphy, and they are etched in my heart.

I'm not sure how the stars aligned to create my merry band of friends turned "framily," but somehow, early in my life, that's exactly what happened. These ladies have been through thick and thin with me since my teenage years, and together, we have navigated the trials of college, boyfriends, marriages, divorces, births, teenagers, grown children, deaths, careers, aging parents you know, life.

As with any family, ours has its traditions, and one of those is a holiday gathering on the first Sunday of December. The location changes each of us has a chance to host. We joke that we are only required to clean our homes every six or seven years, thanks to the rotation.

Children are always welcome, but it's a rare significant other who's been brave enough to enter the fray.

For many, the word tradition conjures up a variety of foodstuffs, and this particular tradition was built around it. The first year we got together, we were barely more than children, only beginning our 20s. We had no idea we were creating a tradition at all. My friend, Cindy, had simply suggested we get together and make candy, and that's exactly what we did. She had some recipes we followed, and we made them together.

We also made a giant mess and some incredible memories.

There were only about six or so of us that year, and one baby girl the only infant to have entered our world at that point. It was fun, and sweet and easy.

A year later, someone suggested we get together again. Pretty soon, it was just a routine. We began adding recipes and children and the party grew into something we cherished; an integral part of our holiday season, as much a part of our holidays as bell ringers and snowflakes.

Ten years into it, I decided to collect all of our recipes into a binder, and some photos, too. What began as a simple collection of recipes became a full-fledged scrapbook. Each year, we take snapshots, including a group photo, for the keepsake of recipes and photos, labeled by year.

I made copies of each page, slipped them into a binder for each of the ladies, and gave them as a gift that 10th year. I continue to add to them annually. And every December, we add a group photo.

As the families grow, it becomes harder and harder to fit everyone into the viewfinder. The ranks of children swelled to the point that we gave up trying to make candy together and instead made treats in advance and brought them to exchange. Some years, we made crafts with the kids, and other years, we forfeited any kind of group project, and everyone just laughed and made merry.

Santa began to attend our parties, and everyone took turns sitting on his lap. The children loved him, but I think secretly, we adults may have loved him more.

As we tried new recipes to bring along for our exchange, the ones we raved over made their way into binder. The ones that ended in disaster became fun stories to tell at the party.

Some recipes weren't recipes at all, but a bottle of wine because, well, sometimes life gets too busy and traditions are about love, not rules.

Our exchange has evolved over time, too. For years, we exchanged heaping plates piled with goodies every sugar- and carb-laden creation the palate could ever crave. But a couple of years ago, we decided that while there were some dishes that were a must if I show up without fudge, I might not be welcome none of us really needed all of that sugary goodness.

There are some treats I dream of every year, and if I have to run a few extra miles to make sure my arteries are happy, it's worth it to enjoy Oreo balls and oatmeal cookies.

As time has marched on, the children have grown. Some still drop in to the party, but most are off beginning their own traditions and creating their own memories. We hope for a guest appearance this year from the first grandbaby the tiny son of the lone baby girl who was at our very first December gathering.

All of us "girls" may now be in our mid 40s, but when we get together, the memories and the joy are strong, and we are simply the girls again, transported back to a time before life transformed us into adults.

And there sits the food the heart of the tradition right at the center of it all, created in our individual kitchens as a kind of tribute to the love that binds us all.

Rockin' Restaurant Spinach Dip
Steffanie Adams shared this recipe with our group one year when she hosted our annual party.
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fat-free mayonnaise
1/4 cup fat-free sour cream
2 tablespoons light plain soymilk (or fat-free milk)
4 ounces fat-free firm block-style cheese (any kind), shredded
10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/2 cup canned sliced water chestnuts, drained and chopped
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon reduced-fat Parmesan-style grated topping
Salt and black pepper (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray a loaf pan with nonstick spray.
Bring a medium nonstick pot to medium heat. Cook and stir shallots and garlic until slightly softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove shallot-garlic mixture from the pot.
In a medium bowl, whisk mayo, sour cream, and soymilk until smooth. Transfer mixture to the pot. Bring to low heat. Cook and stir until hot, about 3 minutes.
Add shredded cheese to the pot, and cook and stir until melted, about 8 minutes. Add shallot-garlic mixture and all remaining ingredients. Thoroughly stir.
Transfer mixture to the loaf pan and bake until hot and bubbly, 20 to 25 minutes.
Recipe Source: hungry-girl.com

Oreo Balls
About 35 Oreo cookies, crushed
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
16 ounces white or semi-sweet chocolate, melted

Mix Oreos and cream cheese. Roll into 1-inch balls. Dip balls into melted chocolate. Place on wax paper on baking sheet and refrigerate until firm. Refrigerate to store.
Chris Cashion is a writer on staff with Radish.

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