I made an entire Christmas dinner using family recipes, and it finally gave me confidence in the kitchen

Making my family’s recipes while living away from home made me feel closer to them. Samantha Grindell/Insider
  • I come from a huge family, and one of the ways we show each other love is through food, especially on holidays.
  • I’ve never been confident in the kitchen like the rest of my relatives, but I recently decided to try cooking our traditional Christmas dinner.
  • I made a Christmas roast, mashed potatoes, cheesy asparagus, pimento cheese dip, and honey spice cookies.
  • Despite my fears, I was able to replicate my family’s recipes, and I was surprised by how good everything tasted. The only difficulty was how much I had to do by myself, as we usually make everything as a group.
  • The experience made me feel closer to my family, because I know I can recreate the meals we share together no matter where I am.
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I come from a huge family, and food is a big way we show our love for each other.

I come from a large family. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I have a sister, a brother, and five cousins who are more like siblings. When my mum passed away in 2016, my sister and I moved in with our aunt and uncle, meaning nine of us live under one roof.

Because there are so many of us, we cook much more often than we go out to eat, as it’s more affordable.

The women in my family are cooking pros, particularly my aunt Viv, and it’s always intimidated me.

The rest of my family is great at cooking. Samantha Grindell/Insider

My aunt Viv has always been a great cook, preparing most of the homemade meals I ate throughout my childhood.

My sister and cousins have followed in her footsteps, perfecting Viv’s recipes and forging their own cooking ventures as well. My sister has become an expert baker, and my cousin Lauren can make challah from scratch.

I wasn’t interested in learning to cook when I was younger, and I somehow never became comfortable in the kitchen despite being surrounded by so many talented chefs.

I’ve always been delegated as the family taste-tester alongside my grandma. But I decided to try cooking my family’s traditional Christmas dinner.

I’m typically a taste-tester rather than eater. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I felt like it was time to get over my fear of cooking. What better way to do that than make one of my family’s most special meals?

I set out to make a Christmas roast, mashed potatoes, cheesy asparagus, pimento cheese dip, and honey spice cookies.

I was a little intimidated at the thought of making a three-course meal – particularly because I live far away from my family in Atlanta, Georgia, so I wouldn’t have any sous chefs to help – but I was ready for the challenge.

My cooking journey started with stocking up on supplies.

I stocked up on ingredients. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I ended up having to go to three different places to track down all of the ingredients I needed, as the New York grocery stores I frequent aren’t all stocked with the supplies the recipes call for.

I went to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and finally a local New York deli for the roast. But you might already have a lot of the necessary supplies in your pantry, like the spices, flour, eggs, and butter.

I decided to prep the meat first, as it tastes best when it has time to marinate.

The meat has the strongest flavour when it marinates overnight. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The roast tastes best when the meat can marinate overnight, but I unfortunately didn’t have time for that. Instead, I let the meat marinate for around an hour and a half before I cooked it.

My mum usually put roast in a glass Pyrex container when she made it, so I did too.

I cooked the meat in a glass Pyrex container. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I also sprayed the Pyrex with cooking oil before I placed the roast in the container to ensure it wouldn’t stick.

The marinade only requires four ingredients: Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, and garlic.

The marinade only requires four ingredients. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I put the sauce and spices on the meat, and then placed it in the refrigerator to rest.

I felt the most confident about my ability to prepare the roast of everything I was making, as I’d helped my mum do it a few times and knew it was a simple process.

I left the meat to marinate before cooking it for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Next, it was time to start making the mashed potatoes, which I knew would be the most involved dish of the day.

The mashed potatoes were the second dish I prepared. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The mashed potatoes also have a simple list of ingredients: potatoes, sour cream, cream cheese, garlic salt, onion salt, paprika, and butter. But the actual process of mashing the potatoes seemed intimidating to me, as I knew it involved multiple, time-consuming steps.

First, I peeled the potatoes.

I peeled eight russet potatoes. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The recipe calls for eight to ten russet potatoes. I used eight because I was only preparing the dish for myself and my roommate.

Peeling turned out to be pretty easy, though it took a while because my peeler is small. I found the process somewhat relaxing. The hands-on activity forced me to slow down and just think for a bit, which I normally don’t do.

Then, I quartered and boiled the potatoes.

The potatoes have to be quartered so they can fit in a pot to be boiled. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The potatoes have to be quartered in order for them to fit in a pot to boil. I used a sharp knife to chop the potatoes, which made it really easy. They were all quartered in under five minutes.

Once they were quartered, I put the potatoes in a pot and added water.

I called my sister for advice on boiling the potatoes. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The potatoes took a while to boil, and I felt unsure about how soft they were supposed to be.

I ended up calling my sister for advice, and she told me to poke them with a fork as they simmer. She said once they have the texture of a baked potato, they’re ready.

After about 20 to 30 minutes, the potatoes were soft enough to mash.

The potatoes were soft after 20 minutes. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I drained the water, and then put the potatoes back into the same pot. Then it was time to mash.

My family uses a KitchenAid mixer to mash potatoes, which is much easier than physically squishing them yourself. But I only have a hand mixer, so I knew it was going to be a bit tougher.

I mixed the potatoes on their own for about 15 minutes before combining them with the other ingredients.

It took me 30 minutes to smooth the potatoes. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I threw in some butter with the potatoes for the first round of mixing to give them more moisture, as it was hard to get them to mash when they were dry.

It was much easier to mix them once I added the garlic salt, onion salt, cream cheese, and sour cream to the pot, though it still took me about 30 minutes to get them smooth enough to cook.

Once everything was mashed, I put the potatoes into a large Pyrex container and topped them with butter and paprika.

The potatoes bake for an hour. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I used a spatula to smooth the potatoes, and then cut a stick of butter into small squares to place on top of the dish. I then sprinkled a small amount of paprika on top for added flavour, and it was ready to cook.

The potatoes have to bake in the oven for an hour at 350 degrees. I planned to put the roast in alongside the potatoes halfway through the casserole’s bake-time.

Next, it was time to prep the dough for the honey spice cookies, which is a secret family recipe that my sister has perfected.

The honey spice cookies are a secret family recipe. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I can’t show you the full list of ingredients for the cookies, or my family might not let me come home for the holidays this year.

But I can tell you the cookies contain honey, brown sugar, and myriad other spices that make them delicious. They taste a bit like gingerbread, but the flavour is less sharp.

I wanted to start the dough somewhat early in the process, as it has to chill before the cookies can be assembled.

I started to make the dough by sifting the dry ingredients together.

I sifted the dry ingredients. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I’ve used a sifter plenty of times, as I’m more interested in baking than cooking. But I’d never made this recipe before, and I ended up having to start over because I got some of the measurements wrong.

Once they were combined correctly, I set the dry ingredients aside.

Then it was time to start mixing the wet ingredients, which included eggs, honey, and brown sugar.

The wet ingredients included honey and brown sugar. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I again used my hand mixer to combine the ingredients, which was a lot better than using a whisk because the honey and brown sugar were a bit thick.

The wet ingredients came together, and the half-made dough was already starting to smell like the cookies I knew.

I combined the wet ingredients. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I started to feel more confident in my ability to replicate the recipe once I smelled the familiar sweet and spicy aroma.

I stopped working on the dough for a moment to pop the roast into the oven alongside the potatoes.

I put the roast in the oven. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I took a peek at the potatoes as I put the roast in to cook, and the crust was starting to get the desired golden colour. It seemed like the potatoes and roast would be ready at the same time.

Then I slowly added my dry ingredients to the dough and mixed it thoroughly.

I mixed the wet and dry ingredients. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I again used my hand mixer to combine the ingredients, making sure to combine the ingredients smoothly as I didn’t want the cookies to have any lumps.

After I mixed the ingredients, the dough looked like this.

The dough was mixed. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The recipe calls for chilled dough, so I placed it in the fridge while I worked on the rest of the food.

While the potatoes and meat finished cooking, I threw together some cheesy asparagus.

I had made the asparagus before. Samantha Grindell/Insider

Of everything I cooked, the asparagus was the only recipe I knew how to make by myself, and only because it was really easy to make. The recipe calls for asparagus, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and garlic.

The asparagus is also simple to make because it only cooks for 12 minutes at 400 degrees.

The asparagus only cooks for 12 minutes. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I covered the asparagus in spices and olive oil, and put them on standby until the oven was free. The cheese doesn’t go on the veggies until the last few minutes they’re cooking in the oven.

I later realised I forgot to cut the ends of the asparagus in haste, which I’d be sure to do next time.

Then, it was time to take the potatoes and meat out of the oven. I was thrilled when I saw the finished mashed potatoes.

The finished mashed potatoes. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The mashed potatoes looked like my family’s do when they come out of the oven. The slightly brown edges of the crust were exactly the right golden shade.

The roast looked right, too, and I was proud of myself for taking it out while the centre was still pink.

The inside was meant to be pink. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I tend to overcook meat because I’m scared of preparing it wrong, and I didn’t have a meat thermometer to help me. But I managed to cook my roast thoroughly without burning it, which I wasn’t sure would happen.

Next, I popped the asparagus into the oven, and added cheese after it cooked for eight minutes.

I topped the asparagus with cheese. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I had pre-grated cheese, so it was simple to add it. I tried to keep a close eye on the asparagus as I cooked it, as it can burn pretty easily.

The asparagus was done, and it was finally time to taste the fruits of my labour.

The finished dinner. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I carved the roast, spooned some potatoes onto my plate, and gave myself a hearty serving of asparagus. Everything looked right, but I was nervous it wouldn’t taste good, particularly because I was comparing it to the feasts my family makes.

I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the food tasted exactly like it was supposed to.

The food tasted delicious. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The potatoes were the star of the meal, as I managed to achieve the perfect combination of soft texture and strong flavours. I also added extra butter to the recipe, which helped.

The meat was good, too, though it would have had a stronger flavour if I’d been able to marinate for longer. Though I should add that I had leftovers the next day, and the meat was even better than it had been the day before.

The asparagus is a good weeknight staple for me, so I enjoyed it as per usual.

Overall, I was really pleased with the dinner.

I liked the food. Samantha Grindell/Insider

It tasted great, though it took me a long time to make – about three hours – which makes sense because cooking Christmas dinner is typically a team effort for my family. The meal would have been quicker and more fun to make if my relatives had been in the kitchen with me.

Despite my triumph, I wasn’t done. I still had to make pimento cheese dip.

The pimento cheese dip was the last recipe on my list. Samantha Grindell/Insider

Pimento cheese dip usually serves as an appetizer at my house, but it ended up being an after-dinner-treat for me because of the timing of my experiment. This recipe is also really easy to make, as you just need cheddar cheese, Parmesan cheese, pimentos, sour cream, cream cheese, mayonnaise, and garlic salt.

Pimento cheese is one of my favourite snacks, and it always reminds me of summer days in the South where I grew up.

Pimento cheese dip is a breeze to make, especially if you don’t grate your own cheese.

The ingredients are easy to combine. Samantha Grindell/Insider

My aunt Viv swears the dip tastes better if you grate the cheese yourself, but I chose to save myself some trouble and purchase it pre-grated. I combined the ingredients in a reusable container that has an accompanying lid to make it easier to save for later.

I pulled out my trusty hand mixer one more time to combine the ingredients.

I used a hand mixer for the pimento cheese dip. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The dish came together in just a few minutes, as all of the ingredients are soft.

Although it’s not that appetizing to look at, I was able to make the right texture for my dip.

The finished pimento cheese. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The cheese and other ingredients had come together to make a savoury dish that had the same texture as the dip I was used to seeing at home.

And when I bit into it, I was excited that it tasted like my aunt Viv’s dip.

I tasted the dip. Samantha Grindell/Insider

Like the roast, pimento cheese dip is typically better after the flavours have had time to rest for a day, but it was still good when I tasted it. The flavour was nice and strong, and it reminded me of home.

I put the leftovers in the fridge to enjoy throughout the week.

The cookie dough had chilled by the time I was done with the dip, so I was almost ready to bake.

The cookies have a sugar topping. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The cookies have a sugar topping, which you add by dipping them in water and then sugar. The water makes the sugar stick. I put water and sugar into bowls to make it easier to prepare the final cookies.

I rolled the dough into small balls, and then dipped them in the water and sugar.

I rolled the dough. Samantha Grindell/Insider

The sugaring process was delicate, and I knew I hadn’t done it totally evenly because I was working a little quickly. I also wished my dough had been slightly cooler when I rolled it, as it stuck to my hands a bit.

Next, I put the cookies in the oven for 12 minutes.

The cookies bake for 12 minutes. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I checked on them a few times while they baked, as I wanted to ensure they didn’t burn.

They looked good when I took them out of the oven, though the sugar was a little lopsided.

The cookies looked good, aside from uneven sugar topping. Samantha Grindell/Insider

Still, they smelled just like my sister’s cookies. I made a mental note to be more careful sugaring next time I tried the recipe.

The cookies tasted just right, giving off a subtle spicy flavour that reminded me of Christmas parties at home.

The cookies were delicious. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I love that these cookies aren’t too big and that they have a subtle flavour, so you can enjoy them for a long time. I brought some with me to work the next day, and my colleagues at Insider were fans, too.

I felt so proud of myself after single-handedly cooking a Christmas feast.

I was proud of myself. Samantha Grindell/Insider

I feared that if I tried cooking my family recipes and failed, it would feel like I wasn’t part of the secret cooking club.

Even during the challenging parts of the experiment, though, I had fun. Everything reminded me of my family, and I found myself reminiscing on the countless moments I’ve spent in the kitchen with my relatives.

And smelling the scents of some of our most special meals made my family feel close in a visceral way they often don’t when I’m far away from them.

I’m not scared to cook anymore, and I feel closer to my family from the experience.

I felt closer to my family after learning to cook. Samantha Grindell/Insider

Now, I can recreate the comfort of our meals together wherever I am.