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A Christmas repast of times past

By VICKY VELOSO-BARRERA, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 07, 2023 5:00 am

Much of what we love about Christmas is rooted in our memories, and the memories we now create and recreate for our children.

Whether it’s covering the Christmas tree with pretty ornaments; a tradition of attending Simbang Gabi or the frenzied yet fun shopping for perfect gifts, the memories we have of Christmas are as evocative as puto bumbong and the scent of pine and spice.

The sparkling décor sets the mood, as do the happy and familiar jingles. For my family, Christmas is not Christmas without those classic ballads performed by Ray Conniff and his singers—the same music I grew up with, and which we made our children grow up with. 

High up on the list of indispensable Christmas joys is the food we’ve loved since the holidays of our childhoods. Each family has their own traditions and customs, all delicious. What they all have as an ingredient is that the meals are cooked with care and a lot of love since Christmas is all about family and friendship.

That my lola Marina Antonio loved both to cook and to entertain is an understatement. That was her way of showing affection and treating friends like family. This gift of hospitality has been passed down through four generations of home cooks and hosts, bakers par excellence (that’s Tito Chito Antonio) and party givers in the clan. 

I recorded a number of my lola’s recipes including her langlang and adobo in A Worldwide Feast (Anvil Publishing). More tributes to her table appear in the cookbook Celebrations: A Feast of the Roces-Reyes Table (Anvil Publishing), which won a National Book Award. 

High up on the list of indispensable Christmas joys is the food we’ve loved since the holidays of our childhoods. Each family has their own traditions and customs, all delicious. What they all have as an ingredient is that the meals are cooked with care and a lot of love since Christmas is all about family and friendship.

My lola’s Christmas table included a nice, Virginia-style ham and because she loved pork, lechon was always ordered. Her fresh lumpia had alimango (blue crab) in it and her candied kamote derived its marron glacé-like texture from lye (which I am a bit hesitant to use.) She served that sublime kamote with a pitcher of gata on the side. She was famous for her rimas, or candied breadfruit.

Lemon Meringue

There were a lot of sweets to look forward to and we also contributed our own specialties to that groaning dessert table.

If our family has a fondness for American desserts, it’s because my lola Marina and her family lived in San Francisco when my youngest uncle Pancho was born. So we all like that tangy taste of lemon meringue pie and pineapple upside-down cake and, of course, apple pie. 

Apple pie

I keep memories of my lola’s royal bibingka and bread pudding alive by teaching them at Tiny Kitchen. It’s the use of flour instead of galapong that makes the bibingka royal, giving it a cake-y texture. The humble bread pudding is elevated by soaking in custard to keep it moist, and serving it with a vanilla sauce. My mother Malu Veloso also recalls the bunuelos my lola made at Christmastime.

Recently my classmate, Senator Loren Legarda, reminded me of my lola’s pochero, a colorfully festive dish that is a great crowd pleaser. The only difference between pochero and cocido is the addition of saba bananas. Whatever you want to call it, this generous dish isn’t even that difficult to do. Here is the recipe.

My lola’s Cocido/Pochero
Cocido, aka pochero, is hearty and a crowd pleaser.

Place into a large stockpot:

  • 1 whole fresh chicken
  • Chorizos
  • Chunks of ham
  • Pork and beef cubes (choose lighter-colored meat for tenderness)
  • Whole onions
  • Salt and pepper
  • Cover with water and simmer, removing each meat as it becomes tender.

Use that broth to cook:

  • Cabbage
  • Garbanzos
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Saba bananas
  • Baguio beans (I prefer the smaller French beans)
  • Petchay

Again, remove each vegetable as it is just cooked and not mushy. Check the broth for seasoning. Serve it separately, as a soup. My lola Marina made a big deal of presentation. The meats are cut into eating portions and the chorizos are sliced. All the meats and vegetables must be attractively arranged on the platter. She stressed this to me as I jotted down her instructions, preserving her recipes for future generations of Antonios to enjoy. Serve with two sauces on the side: a tomato-based one and another of grilled eggplant that you mash and mix with chopped onions and a little vinegar.

Lang Lang

This is a soup of the Tagalog region that can make a complete meal, be a hearty addition to a holiday dinner, or become a bowl of comforting goodness. I included it here because my cookbook, A Worldwide Feast, is already out of print.

Please note that the wood-ear mushrooms known as tenga ng daga and even snow peas (chicharo) are not always easy to find. In which case just substitute any nice greens and other mushrooms.

Lang Lang

Make the soup stock by boiling a whole fresh chicken with onions, salt and pepper. Strain the stock and shred the chicken, saving the bones for the cats.

Make the meatballs by combining ground pork with chopped onion, grated carrot, chopped chives and salt and pepper. 

Drop the one-inch meatballs into the simmering soup stock. When they float, add the shredded chicken, soaked tenga ng daga (wood-ear mushrooms), sotanghon noodles that have been softened in water and chicharo, or snow peas. Do not allow the chicharo to become mushy.

Serve with crisply fried, minced garlic and more chopped chives or green onions.

I am going a step further and compiling more of her favorites in a forthcoming book called Love, Marina: Fashion, Flowers and Food (Far Eastern University). The recipes for the apple pie, lemon meringue, candied kamote, rimas and bunuelos mentioned here will be in that book.

This way her recipes are shared not just with her family, but with all Filipinos and with the world.

Bibingka Cupcakes
For me, royal bibingka is the best because that’s what my lola Marina liked.

Combine in a bowl:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs

Blend in:

  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 cup gata
  • Mix in well:
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 3/4 tsp. baking powder

Place paper liners in a muffin pan and fill each cup 3/4 full with batter. Sprinkle with grated cheese and sugar. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 20 minutes or till lightly browned.

Bread Pudding

Whisk together in a bowl:

  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. melted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • Layer in a disposable pan:
  • 10 slices bread, cut into cubes
  • 1/3 cup raisins

Pour the custard mixture over the bread cubes and raisins in a baking dish. Let sit 20 minutes. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes or till top is lightly browned. Carefully separate the bread cubes. Prepare the vanilla pudding. To serve, gently combine the bread-pudding cubes and vanilla custard; serve in individual bowls.

Vanilla Custard

This can be enjoyed just by itself.

Combine in a saucepan for the filling:

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla

Cook until thickened and set aside to cool.

Salabat Nipa Hut

This DIY Christmas project is almost self-explanatory. Instead of a gingerbread house, which doesn’t really fit into our tropical culture— especially now that there is a renewed interest and love for everything local—why not make a yummy nipa hut out of salabat-flavored dough? It’s a fun activity, a centerpiece, a topic of conversation and ultimately, it’s delicious.

Combine together for the dough:

  • 3 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. cloves
  • 2 tsps. ginger
  • In a mixer combine until well blended:
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup honey

Blend in the dry ingredients by hand.

Form the dough into flat panels on baking sheets just using your hands.

You need two rectangular pieces for the roof, two smaller ones for the walls along the sides and two walls that are triangular on one end.

Then you will need four “stumps” for the nipa hut to stand on and a flat piece of dough for the “land” underneath.

Bake at 350F until set, about 20 to 30 minutes depending on the thickness.

You will need royal icing sugar to bind this all together.


  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 egg white

Decorate as you like!