“Counting down: three, two, one. Cooks, it’s time to start your ovens!”
The competing teams scurried round the kitchen, spatulas in hand, measuring cups at the ready, ingredients laid out before them. They poured flour, chopped fruit, cracked eggs, greased trays. It could have been a scene from one of those Food Network competitions. But no, the Manns were at home in a fierce battle to determine the best dish in our annual Christmas Eve cookoff. Yes, this is how we roll.
Our fun-loving crew of extended family wouldn’t want to spend the holiday any other way. You see, we’re almost always together and in each other’s business. Literally. I’m a gospel singer. I’ve toured for years and even won a Grammy last summer for my hit, “God Provides.” (He sure does!)
My husband, David, is an actor and comedian who has starred in several Tyler Perry movies. Our daughters Tia and Porcia and our son, David Jr., assist and manage our tour and production company. Our daughter Tiffany keeps the home fires burning along with my niece, Sonya, who’s lived with us since my sister died.
Everyone lends a hand in our family business in some way, despite our competitive spirit, especially when it comes to cooking. During the holidays a few years ago, David pulled out a pot and some lasagna noodles, then grabbed sauce and ricotta from the fridge. He leaned against the kitchen counter and narrowed his eyes at me. “Bet I can make a better lasagna than you,” he challenged me.
“You’re on,” I shot back. What? Did he think I couldn’t make a lasagna? We both got to work and that night we had a mighty tasty meal. Everybody had a little of each version and we called it a draw.
The next year on Christmas Eve, we invited judges to make sure the competition was “impartial.” My mother-in-law and a couple of friends did the honors. I made a Cornish hen and David made a stuffed pork chop that he decided just had to be grilled outside. I took note of the gray skies.
While the pork chop was on the fire David ran back to the kitchen and waved his hands in front of my face. “Pressure! Can you feel the pressure?” No, I couldn’t. My hen was safe in the oven. Indoors. Just then it started to rain. David rolled the grill into the garage and the whole house got smoky. Let’s just say he didn’t win that year.
Once the smoke cleared, I gathered everyone around the kitchen island. “Next Christmas Eve get ready to put your aprons on because we’re all going to cook something. From scratch. We’ll have two teams, chosen randomly. The twist is that ingredients will be kept a secret until I reveal them. Dad and I will be the judges.” After everyone left, texts flew back and forth about who was going to win. The competitive teasing and bragging went on all year!
The kids arrived on Christmas Eve all abuzz. On the kitchen island I had two covered baskets filled with baking supplies to make cakes or cupcakes complete with all sorts of fun toppings. The “contestants” picked names out of a bowl and then highfived each other and huddled up.
I stated the ground rules: They could use cookbooks or the internet to search for recipes. And they’d have 45 minutes. David and I would assess their work for presentation, taste and creativity. I set the timer. “Okay, open your baskets now,” I said. Porcia eyed the flour, sugar and vanilla extract. “Oh, we got this.” “Nuh- uh,” Tia countered.
David and I walked around the teams, observing and giggling. Everyone was taking this so seriously. Porcia and David Jr. were on the same team and disagreed on what they should make. They finally decided to go in different directions. Porcia decided on chocolate cupcakes topped with chocolate icing and crushed candy canes. David went off on an elaborate tangent with a fried-dough treat.
Sonya, Tia and Tiffany cooperated on a remarkable concept. They built a winter wonderland around their cupcakes, complete with a peppermint path filled with marshmallow snowmen and reindeer made from pretzel sticks.
The timer buzzed. David and I ran the taste test. Both teams’ cupcake recipes were good, but David Jr.’s concoction was a doughy mess. David and I compared scores and announced the winner. “You guys argued for ten minutes before you agreed to disagree,” David said to Porcia and David Jr. “That took time away from the cooking and ultimately led to a poor product. The other team worked as a team. Sonya, Tia and Tiffany are the winners!” Cheers rang out! “’Wait ’til next year,” David Jr. said.
We were all winners that Christmas, scarfing down those treats. But the real bonus has been our habit of cooking as a family. Especially for David. After he was diagnosed with diabetes, he changed his whole diet and began to exercise regularly with everyone’s support.
David got his blood sugar numbers down without needing medication. He missed his sweets though. That’s where my “cooking under pressure” skills came to the fore: I found a diabetic-friendly recipe for cream cheese tarts that are low in sugar and perfect for the holidays. That’s something the whole Mann family can agree on.