5 Tips for Happy Holiday Cooking with 3 Sweet Recipes from L.A. Chefs

By Christina Elston

holiday dessert recipes

Suzanne Goin, the chef behind L.A. restaurants a.o.c., Luques and Tavern, shares a fun recipe for pumpkin fritters. PHOTO BY DYLAN + JENI

Hooray for the holidays – lights, music, love, joy and a chance to spoil family and friends with delicious homemade food from your cozy kitchen.  

What? Holiday cooking isn’t your absolute favorite thing to do? You avoid the kitchen most of the year, and get stressed out by the pressure to produce a festive meal?  

Relax, take a deep breath and a different approach this year with these tips from local chefs: 

Embrace Tradition 

“Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that we always spend at home with a great table of traditional food,” says Brooke Williamson, season 14 winner of “Top Chef” and owner – with her husband, Nick Roberts – of Hudson House in Redondo Beach and The Tripel and Playa Provisions in Playa del Rey. To Williamson, who says her mom is a great cook with a fresh take on the usual holiday dishes, “nostalgic” food holds special meaning for your loved ones. She loves bringing big platters of comforting food to the table to serve family style. 

No matter what you’re eating, if you put the holiday spirit front and center, everyone will enjoy the food more. “I always like cooking, but during the holidays it feels like everyone is in the spirit and taking the time to be together, eat and drink!” says Suzanne Goin, the award-winning chef behind a.o.c., Lucques and Tavern. 

holiday dessert recipes

Ben Leonard, resident chef at Sur la Table at The Village at Topanga in Woodland Hills, conducts cooking demonstrations and classes. PHOTO COURTESY SUR LA TABLE

Keep it Simple 

That doesn’t mean the recipes need to be complicated. Ben Leonard, resident chef at cooking mecca Sur la Table at The Village at Topanga, favors keeping it simple and advises choosing recipes you know you can manage for your holiday meals. “They don’t have to be super-difficult,” he says. 

Don’t Forget the Sides 

One great way to make sure everyone leaves the holiday table happy is to focus on the side dishes. “Everyone loves the turkey showing up at the table, but I like cooking lots of little things,” says Leonard. A perfect dish of fluffy mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce homemade with love, amazing stuffing, golden corn bread and other fun dishes will take your meal to a new level – and give everyone lots of choices when they fill their plates.  

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare 

Juggling multiple dishes will be easier if you approach the meal with a solid plan. “What always astounds me is seeing people at the supermarket on Thanksgiving Day,” says Williamson. Planning ahead will keep you out of that last-minute rush at the stores, and the stress that goes with it. Know well ahead of time what dishes you are going to make and shop for the ingredients as far ahead as possible. 

If possible, use the days leading up to the holiday to get some of your cooking done as well. “Do the work ahead of time so you can enjoy the party along with everyone else,” urges Goin. You can bake pies and cranberry sauce a day or two ahead and get some of the chopping and prep out of the way.  

Leonard even suggests peeling your potatoes a day in advance and leaving them submerged in water (so they won’t brown) in the refrigerator until it is time to put them on the stove to boil. “The only things you need to do the day of are things that you wouldn’t want to reheat,” he says. 

Let the Kids Help 

Goin is the mom of three, Williamson has a 9-year-old son and Leonard teaches kids’ cooking classes on a regular basis – and all three say you should let your kids help in the kitchen. “Let them do as much as possible. Your kids will surprise you,” says Leonard, adding they can stir, chop (with supervision), measure, taste and give you their opinions. Sur la Table at The Village is offering some great holiday cooking classes, including bake-and-take pies before Thanksgiving and “Kids Cook: Thanksgiving Leftovers” at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Nov. 24. The only restriction on kids in the Sur la Table kitchen is that they not try to lift anything too heavy for them.  

And with that heavy lifting out of the way, here are three fun desserts to finish your holiday meal. 

Baked Pumpkin Doughnuts with Buttermilk Glaze 

Courtesy Sur la Table 

holiday dessert recipesThese make a fun dessert – or a festive breakfast. If you don’t have a pastry bag, you can substitute a plastic bag with a hole cut in the corner. Leonard warns not to over-mix the batter, or the doughnuts will be tough. 

Don’t love buttermilk? You can use regular milk in the glaze instead. 

Yield: 12 medium or 24 mini doughnuts 

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 

1 teaspoon sea salt 

1 teaspoon baking powder 

1 teaspoon baking soda 

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon 

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 

¼ teaspoon ground cloves 

¼ teaspoon ground ginger 

2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar 

1 cup vegetable oil, plus more for preparing pans 

3 cups pumpkin puree 

2 large eggs 

1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted 

3 tablespoons buttermilk 

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease 2 (6-cavity) doughnut pans and fit a large pastry bag with a half-inch round tip. Set aside. 

In a large bowl, add flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and spices; stir together and set aside. 

In a medium bowl, add sugar, oil, pumpkin puree, eggs and vanilla; whisk to combine. 

Add the wet mixture to the dry and fold into a smooth batter using a silicone spatula. Transfer batter to prepared pastry bag and fill each doughnut cavity halfway with batter. 

Bake until the doughnuts spring back when lightly touched, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and invert doughnuts onto a wire rack placed over a rimmed baking sheet. 

Prepare the glaze. In a medium bowl, add confectioners’ sugar and buttermilk; whisk until smooth. 

When the doughnuts are cool, spoon about 2 tablespoons of glaze over the top of each doughnut and allow glaze to set before serving, about 20 minutes. 

Pecan Cheesecake 

Courtesy Brooke Williamson 

holiday dessert recipes


The unusual wrapping and baking process is to keep the cheesecake from cracking as it cools. If it does, you can hide cracks by decorating with whipped crème fraiche, candied pecans and sprinkles. Williamson says you can also substitute other types of nuts – or even crunchy cookies – for the pecans.

Yield: One 9-by-2-inch cheesecake 

4 ounces graham cracker crumbs 

9½ ounces sugar, divided 

1½ ounces melted butter 

2 6-ounce packages cream cheese, softened 

3 eggs 

1½ teaspoons vanilla 

1½ teaspoons lemon juice 

1¼ ounce cornstarch 

½ teaspoon salt 

5 ounces crème fraiche or sour cream 

2 ounces finely chopped toasted pecans 

Preheat the oven to 300F. Combine graham cracker crumbs, ½ ounce sugar and butter in a bowl. Press into the bottom of a greased 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 300°F for 5 minutes. Set aside. 

Whisk together the remaining 9 ounces sugar, cornstarch and salt and set aside. 

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese on medium speed to soften and smooth out. Add the dry ingredients and beat on medium speed to combine, scraping bowl frequently. 

Beat in the vanilla and lemon on low speed.  With the mixer running on medium speed, beat in the eggs a few at a time, scraping the bowl frequently. 

On low speed, beat in the crème fraiche and pecans until combined. Pour the batter onto the prepared crust.  Wrap the entire pan tightly in aluminum foil, covering the top, bottom and sides. 

Place the cheesecake in a large roasting pan, place in the preheated oven, and fill with hot water to halfway up the side of the pan. Bake in the water bath at 300°F until the cheesecake jiggles firmly at the center, about 60 minutes. 

Turn off the oven, prop open the door and let the cheesecake cool inside for one hour.  Let cool completely at room temperature, then chill thoroughly before removing springform and cutting and serving. 

Spiced “Pumpkin” Fritters with Chocolate Sauce and Candied Pepitas 

Courtesy Suzanne Goin 


holiday dessert recipes


The chocolate sauce can be made and the squash roasted three to four days ahead, and the pepitas and fritter batter a day ahead. If you make the batter ahead, refrigerate it before allowing it to rise, then remove from the fridge and proceed with the recipe from there. 


Makes about 20 fritters 

NOTE: While the fritter batter rises, prepare the chocolate sauce and fried pepitas. 

½  kabocha or butternut squash, about 1 pound 

¼ cup whole milk 

2 teaspoons dry yeast 

3 cups all-purpose flour 

1 teaspoon kosher salt 

1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon 

½ teaspoon ground ginger 

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom 

⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 

⅛ teaspoon ground cloves 

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus a little for the bowl 

1 extra-large egg 

⅔ cup dark-brown sugar 

½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract 

1 cup granulated sugar 

2 to 3 quarts vegetable oil, for frying 

1 recipe Chocolate Sauce (recipe follows) 

1 recipe Candied Pepitas (recipe follows) 

Preheat the oven to 400F. 

Cut the squash in half lengthwise and place on a baking sheet, cut side up. (Don’t remove the seeds yet; they give extra flavor.) Cover with foil and roast for about 1 hour, until very tender. Let cool for 10 minutes, then scoop out the seeds and discard them. Purée the warm squash through a ricer or food mill and measure out ½ cup. In a large bowl, heat ¼ cup water and the milk to body temperature. Sprinkle yeast evenly across the surface and allow the yeast to bloom for 10 to 15 minutes. 

Whisk the flour, salt, ½ teaspoon cinnamon and the other spices together, then sprinkle across bloomed yeast. Make a well in the center and set aside. 

Combine the squash purée, butter, egg, brown sugar and vanilla, then pour into the well of the dry ingredients. Fold together with a rubber spatula until incorporated; be careful not to over-mix the batter, or the fritters will be tough. (Some specks of flour are OK.) Lightly brush a large bowl with melted butter. Scrape batter into the bowl and flip the batter upside down, so that all sides are covered with a little of the melted butter.  

Cover with plastic and allow the batter to rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour, until doubled in size. Let the batter rest for at least 1 hour more in the refrigerator, and then bring it to room temperature when you are ready to fry. (Chilling the batter in the fridge develops the flavor and creates more tender fritters.) Combine 1 cup granulated sugar with the remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon in a large bowl and set aside. Heat the oil to 350F on a deep-frying thermometer, over medium heat, in a heavy, wide-bottomed pan. 

Scoop heaping tablespoons of batter, and use a second spoon to push rounded spoonfuls into the hot oil. Don’t overcrowd the pan; the fritters shouldn’t touch each other. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until deep golden brown on all sides. 

Drain the fritters on paper towels and pat to remove any excess oil. While they’re still hot, toss fritters in the bowl with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Pile the fritters up on a platter or divide among six dessert plates. Drizzle with ¾ cup chocolate sauce, sprinkle with candied pepitas and serve remaining chocolate sauce on the side for dipping. 

Chocolate Sauce 

Makes about 1 cup 

3 ounces 68% dark chocolate 

3 tablespoons sugar 

¼ cup good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder 

Chop the chocolate into small chunks and place in a large bowl. 

In a saucepan, combine the sugar with 2/3 cup water and bring to a boil. Add the cocoa powder to the boiling water and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil again, whisking constantly, then immediately pour the water over the chopped chocolate and let sit for 1 minute to melt the chocolate. Whisk together until combined, working from the inside out, to emulsify the mixture. Cool to room temperature. 

Candied Pepitas 

¼ teaspoon cumin seeds 

2 teaspoons unsalted butter 

½ cup raw pumpkin seeds 

1 tablespoon sugar 

Generous pinch each of kosher salt, ground cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg and ground cloves 

1 teaspoon honey 

Toast the cumin seeds in a small pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the seeds release their aroma and are lightly browned. Pound them coarsely in a mortar. 

Melt the butter in the cumin pan over medium heat. Add the pumpkin seeds and sugar, then sprinkle the salt and spices over them. Toss the pumpkin seeds to coat them well with the butter. Cook for a few minutes, until just after they begin to pop and color slightly. 

Turn off the heat and wait for 30 seconds. Add the honey, tossing well to coat the pumpkin seeds. Spread on a plate, and let them cool. 

Excerpted fromthe a.o.c. cookbookby Suzanne Goin. Copyright 2013 by Suzanne Goin. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

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