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Christmas cookie plate from the Czech Baker

I love when readers send me suggestions. (Seriously, do it!)

After my story about all the wonderful bakers making challah in the Twin Cities, I got an e-mail from an expert in Czech and Slovak culture at the U, who steered me toward Michaela "Míša" Giancarlo Kotek — also known as the Czech Baker.

What I hadn't known was that challah is strikingly similar to vánočka, the Czech Christmas bread. It's egg-enriched, sweet and braided, though the taste is slightly different, with a hint of lemon. Few shops carry vánočka, but home-based bakers like Giancarlo Kotek have been selling them this holiday season, made in her Savage kitchen. I ordered one for pickup at the Czech and Slovak Sokol, the cultural organization in St. Paul. For fun, I added a pound of her Christmas cookies to my order, and to put it simply, they are gorgeous.

Giancarlo Kotek credits intricate molds from the Czech Republic that turn out cookies shaped like beehives, which she then transforms into little trees and penguins. There are beautiful little candle-shaped cookies as well, and gingerbread wreaths, jelly-filled trees, stars and more — about 20 different cookies. And this isn't even her day job.

She started baking on the side a little over a year ago, and has popped up at the farmers market in Prior Lake. It came pretty naturally. Having grown up in Moravia, and, for a time, under Communism, "we never went to restaurants. Everything was cooked at home and baked at home, and my grandmother was a great cook." Giancarlo Kotek moved to Minnesota about a decade ago.

A few years ago, she and her family went back to live in the Czech Republic for a while, and she got used to the fresh sourdough bread that was so easy to come by. So, when she returned to Minnesota, she started making her own. And from there, things grew.

Though Minnesota has a significant population of descendants of long-ago Czech immigrants, their recipes — largely Bohemian — vary somewhat from the more modern — and more regionally Moravian — delicacies Giancarlo Kotek makes. Her koláče, for example, don't look anything like the ones you might see at Czech bakeries here. Hers, she explains, are open-faced, while more traditional Minnesotan-Czech pastries have the fillings inside.

Sadly, her Christmas cookie season is done, though she's thinking about bringing them back in 2021 for a fun Christmas in July sale. But come January, you can order her sourdough, koláče, poppy seed rolls and that beautifully braided vánočka. (She's also cooking duck, dumplings and more for the Sokol hall's Curbside Cuisine night, on Jan. 23. Sign up at sokolmn.org/curbside-cuisine.) (Sharyn Jackson)

Order via Facebook at facebook.com/TheCzechBaker or over e-mail at theczechbaker@gmail.com.

Kimchi from Pizzeria Lola.

Kimchi from Pizzeria Lola

Holiday gift alert: Ann Kim's family recipe for kimchi is now available by the pint. The Korean condiment has been served atop her Lady Zaza pie at Pizzeria Lola for a decade, and this is the first time you don't need a pizza to get your hands on that tart, savory, funky fermentation. (Although, by all means, get the pizza.)

The recipe dates back at least to the 1970s when Kim's family came to Minnesota. "If you can picture what the grocery landscape looked like in the late '70s in suburban Apple Valley, you can imagine that kimchi was not something you could readily buy," Kim said. But in a Korean household, it was a staple, and her grandmother oversaw the household kimchi assembly line each fall.

"We would get I don't even know how many pounds of napa cabbage and we would gather in the laundry room. We needed a bowl that was large enough to brine all this cabbage, so my mother used the plastic kiddie pool. I just remember sitting with my mom and my grandmother and taking the brined kimchi and putting the kimchi paste in it and putting it in jars." They'd store the jars in what they called their "kimchi fridge" and the stock would get them through the winter until it was time to pickle something new.

Kim put it on everything, and when she opened Pizzeria Lola, she knew she wanted to introduce everyone to kimchi-topped pizza. At the time, the flavor was new to many customers, she said. In a way, her pizza became a "gateway" for non-Koreans to discover how much they loved her family's kimchi, too.

Her mom even came into the restaurant to make it for a while. Eventually, she told Kim to make it herself. And since the recipe wasn't written down, Kim got together with her mom to make it once more, to study the process, and make it her own.

Enter the pandemic, and the need to find new revenue streams. Kim wondered whether customers "would like to eat kimchi the way it was meant to be, on its own," and she jarred it up.

I've been snacking it straight from the jar, and I've also mixed it with rice and eggs and put it atop Pizzeria Lola's frozen parbaked pizzas for some added tang and depth.

"It's funky," Kim said. "And who doesn't need a little funk in their life right now?" (S.J.)

5557 Xerxes Av. S, Mpls., 612-424-8338. Open for takeout 4-8:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sun.

Grandma's chicken sandwich from the Gnome.

Grandma's chicken sandwich at the Gnome Curbside Cinema

The Gnome Craft Pub in St. Paul was "days away from closing until spring" when owner Brian Ingram found a lifeline.

A big screen made out of white sheets, set up in the restaurant's parking lot, and the modern-classic holiday film, "Elf."

"This saved us," Ingram said about the Gnome's new drive-in movie series, called Curbside Cinema. It also saved my Saturday night. 'Going out' is not something that's been on the social calendar for a long time, and it was exciting to actually have somewhere to go where I could stay maskless, eat and be entertained without worry. Turns out, my own car was the place to be.

The delightful "Elf" ran for three nights last weekend, and this week, all five showings of "White Christmas" are sold out. Reservations haven't opened up yet, but next week, you'll be able to drive up for "Polar Express" and "Scrooged." Ingram says he'll continue the screenings all winter long. After all, "sales exploded for us!"

Tickets are $25 and don't include food. But the restaurant's takeout menu is available to order from the lot, with food delivered to your car window.

You can get dishes like a 14-ounce rib-eye and roasted salmon. I can't vouch for how well those do balanced on the dashboard. Easier to eat in the front seat are handheld sandwiches like the fig jam grilled cheese with crispy potato wedges, and "grandma's" chicken sandwich (above), which was designed by culinary director Justin Sutherland as a tribute to his Japanese grandmother: Japanese spiced fried chicken, pickled cabbage and candied jalapeño mayo. I'm not saying it won't make a huge mess in your car, but at least they bring you lots of napkins.

Best of all, there's a special cinema snacks section. Movie theater popcorn and a big fountain soda, oh how I had missed you. (S.J.)

498 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-219-4233. Movie dates vary, check dates and times and make reservations on Tock at exploretock.com/thegnome.

Flaherty's Tom & Jerry batter.

Flaherty's Tom & Jerry Batter

What is a Tom & Jerry? This is my seventh winter in Minnesota; you'd think I'd have been invited to at least one holiday party with a big punch bowl of this stuff. But no.

First, I saw it on the Christmas menu at Petite León. Then on a quick run to the grocery store, I saw this red carton in the freezer case. So I took one home and tried it out, and I have questions.

Why is the mix to make it called 'batter'? How is it not eggnog? What on earth is the ingredient 'angel cream'? And why have I never heard of it?

Denny Flaherty clued me in.

The history goes back 1736, when two tavern owners, named Tom and Jerry, of course, invented a new egg-sugar-vanilla drink inspired by Yorkshire pudding. In the centuries to follow, families across Europe each developed their own special recipes — including the Flahertys of Ireland.

"It was like the Italians with spaghetti sauce," Flaherty told me. "Every Irish family had the best Tom and Jerry batter."

The Flahertys' story goes back to 1947, when Billy Flaherty (and Denny's father), an Irish immigrant in Minnesota, was working at a relative's restaurant in St. Paul. He began tinkering with the family's Tom and Jerry recipe that had been brought over from Ireland 20 years earlier. He wanted to come up with way to package the raw-egg drink for wider distribution. Over the years, the family invested in pasteurizing equipment and it took off, becoming a popular holiday drink of the midcentury Midwest. (The family also opened an Irish candy store known for its toffee.)

The company would cater Twin Cities office holiday parties, then dubbed "Tom and Jerry parties," complete with branded glassware. But the drink fell out of fashion somewhere around the '70s, when the dangers of driving home drunk from a company happy hour became clearer, and people turned more to wine and beer at home. That's all changing now, Flaherty said.

Though it's mainly sold in 10 states in the Midwest, Flaherty gets orders to ship it on dry ice as far as New York and California. A rediscovery of the retro drink by a new generation, and an appreciation for the batters' many uses is helping it make a comeback. You can use it to make French toast (if candied bread was a thing, this would be it), top a coffee or hot chocolate with it, or just eat it like a soupy ice cream if you so desire.

For the classic, here's how you make it: fill a mug halfway with the goopy mix, dropped in a couple ounces of booze (it calls for ½ jigger rum and ½ jigger brandy), and top it off with boiling water. Stir, and grate nutmeg over the top.

It's different from eggnog in that it's served warm, and, according to Flaherty, it's less "eggy." Instead, "it's more of a rich, creamy flavor." And it's called batter because it's truly the consistency of raw cake batter, whipped and held together by that angel cream — a stabilizer. To me, it's like warm, spiked milk. Rum and brandy are tasty as always, and fresh nutmeg never hurts. It's also powerfully sweet in the way that makes your teeth hurt. But hey, I was in it for the adventure of trying something both old and new.

If you're not a fan of super-sweet drinks, Flaherty says you can just adjust the proportions to your liking. "It's versatile," he said. "You can shampoo your hair with it." Not advised, he added. (S.J.)

Available in grocery stores, including Lunds & Byerlys. Additional drink mixes at flahertyscandy.com.

Swedish meatballs from Hazel's Northeast

Swedish meatballs at Hazel's Northeast

Owner Adam Sieve is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his cozy northeast Minneapolis restaurant with a heck of a deal: for a limited time, the kitchen's terrific Swedish meatballs are just $10.

Not only are they a steal, but the sturdy meatballs make for an ideal winter meal. Chef Ali Koroglu uses a cherished Sieve family recipe as a starting point ("I don't know if I've ever had Swedish meatballs outside the ones that we make," said Sieve), adapting a 50-50 beef-pork blend that's mixed with onions and lightly seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.

They're doused in a luscious cream gravy and served on a pillow of fluffy, dairy-infused mashed potatoes. The requisite pop of tangy lingonberries hits just the right Nordic note.

They've anchored the menu since Day 1, outselling every other entree, even another popular house specialty, the wild rice gumbo.

"We had a couple of chefs who had worked in New Orleans, and so I charged Ali with creating a gumbo with wild rice," said Sieve. "People love it. Everyone is worried that it's too spicy, but it's not, it's just the right spice level. We calibrated it for the northeast Minneapolis palate."

If Hazel's — named for Sieve's grandmother — recalls some of the cherished attributes of a small town Main Street cafe, there's a reason. Sieve grew up at his family's Traveler's Inn in downtown Alexandria, Minn.

The original plan was to reserve the $10 deals (the promotion also includes Koroglu's chicken pot pie and pasta Bolognese; all are usually a highly reasonable $15) as a one-day special for the restaurant's actual birthday last week. But the response was so overwhelming that Sieve decided to keep the Costco-like prices going for a few weeks.

"We probably had our busiest night in the history of the restaurant," he said. "It went crazy, so I thought, 'Let's just run it for the rest of the month. Let's provide a service for the neighborhood.' We're making people happy, I see it when I run food to their cars. Now more than ever, we need to make people happy." (Rick Nelson)

2859 Johnson St. NE., Mpls., 612-788-4778, hazelsnetogo.com. Open for takeout 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Wed., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Thu., 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.

Sharyn Jackson • @SharynJackson

Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib