It’s been said that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

The same can be said for starting traditions. It would be lovely if you’ve established a few over the years, but if you’re lamenting the fact that you don’t have enough of them in your life, there’s no time like the present.

They are powerful things, traditions. Especially those centered around the holidays. It could be the making of your Great Aunt’s turkey dressing recipe, or the first night’s lighting of the beautiful menorah passed down through the family, or the hanging of an ornament on the Christmas tree. Each act will inevitably trigger a cascade of comforting memories.

For me, an essential tradition each December is making my grandmother’s Scottish shortbread. It just wouldn’t feel like Christmas without it. I still make it by hand, even though a food processor would make the task much easier. It always lands me back in the family kitchen on Paloma Avenue, where I feel the warmth of Grandma Skinner’s hands guiding me through the process. And then I share it with my expectant relatives who are also invested in its significance.

My mother lived by a simple rule when it came to hosting: The meal is never more important than the people eating it.

She also believed in not fretting the small stuff. So try to remember that the magic, hope and joy of the season is all around us. We just need to slow down, take a breath, listen. Then set some time aside to break bread with the folks you really care about, at a time of year when we’re all buoyed with the feeling that anything is possible.

Candied Hazelnuts

This is one of those simple recipes that has become a standard on my Christmas gift list. It’s also part of my entertaining repertoire, because they’re a wonderful treat to have on hand for drop-in friends, along with a glass of wine this month. They’ll also come along when we hit the cross-country ski trail in a few weeks.

5 cups shelled hazelnuts

1-1/2 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup light corn syrup

Place hazelnuts on a jelly roll pan and toast in a 350-degree oven until very pale golden brown and the outer papery skins are beginning to crack and separate from the nut. Remove from oven and let cool. Pour into a large terry-cloth towel and either fold it over or place another towel on top. Rub vigorously back and forth through the towel to peel away the skins from the hazelnuts. This can be done several days ahead and the nuts stored in an airtight container.

When ready to candy the hazelnuts, preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Place 1 tablespoon of butter in the center of a jelly roll pan (or any baking sheet with sides), and put the pan in the oven to melt the butter. When the butter has melted, mix in the Karo syrup, then add the skinned filberts. Sprinkle lightly with salt, and using a wide spatula stir the nuts around in the syrup/butter mixture to evenly coat the nuts and spread them into a flat layer in the pan.

Begin roasting the nuts, stirring about every 5 to 7 minutes so they stay evenly coated with the syrup as it cooks.

In preparation for cooling the nuts, spread a large sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper on the counter. When the nuts are a lovely golden brown, remove them from the oven and pour them out onto the paper to cool, quickly spreading them apart so they don’t touch each other during cooling. (It’s not a tragedy if some stick together; they break apart very easily after cooled.)

That’s it. When the nuts are completely cool, store them in an airtight container.

San Francisco Spread

I get so many requests for this recipe that I have to include it in one of my holiday stories every few years. My Aunt Nida started making a version of it over 30 years ago and it became a family tradition. After combining the cream cheese, salami and green onions, she would stuff the mixture into hollowed-out San Francisco sourdough rolls, and then, after chilling them thoroughly, would slice each roll into 1/4-inch thick pieces, which she would arrange on a platter. We called it Nida’s Cream Cheese Rolls, and there was major disappointment at family gatherings if she didn’t produce a platter of them, believe me. These days, I opt out of the messy stuffing procedure and simply serve the spread in a lovely ceramic pot, surrounded by baguette slices.

About 1/4 pound salami, finely diced to yield 1 cup

1 cup finely chopped green onions (use all of the white portion, about 2/3 of the green)

24 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 baguette, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices

Nida used to mince the salami and green onions by hand, but a food processor does the task in a fraction of the time. Just don't over-process or you'll wind up with ground salami. Also, process the salami and green onions separately.

Combine the finely diced salami and finely chopped green onions in a medium bowl with the softened cream cheese. Stir well to evenly distribute the salami and onions. Scrape the mixture into an attractive serving bowl, then cover and refrigerate until about 30 minutes before serving so the cream cheese is slightly softened. To serve, place the bowl of spread in the center of a serving platter and arrange the bread slices around it. Be sure and provide a serving utensil with the spread so guests can scoop and spread a portion onto the bread.

Potato Cheese and Beer Soup

Yields about 8 servings.

I guess you could say this is the most traditional soup in the Roberts-Dominguez household. It’s delectable, hearty-rich and cheesy. When relatives hit town, this is the soup we make and pack along for day hikes in the Cascades and cross-country skiing. During the annual Thanksgiving weekend wine touring, if I don’t bring along a batch to share with the Tyee Winery folks, the sad faces are just too much to bear. I’ve shared it with readers so often over the years that perhaps it’s well known to you. But it bears repeating.

1 quart chicken broth (homemade or canned)

2-1/2 pounds potatoes, unpeeled, coarsely chopped

2 cups chopped green onions, whites and about half the green stalks

1 quart light cream, half-and-half or milk

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

6 ounces shredded Swiss cheese

6 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese

1/2 cup craft beer (preferably an amber or nut brown style), dry white wine or dry sherry (or extra chicken broth)

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the potatoes and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are very soft. Add the green onions and remove the pot from the heat. Add the half-and-half or milk to the pot.

Puree the potato-broth mixture in a blender or food processor (you will have to do this in batches; when blending, fill the container only half full and cover the lid with a dish towel because the soup "spurts" quite violently as it's being blended). Return the puree to the pot. Stir in the soy sauce and pepper and slowly bring the soup back to a simmer.

NOTE: The soup can be prepared to this point up to 48 hours ahead and refrigerated, or prepared and frozen for 3 months.

When ready to serve or pack into a thermos, proceed with the recipe by placing the pot back on the burner, over medium heat. When the soup begins to simmer, stir in the grated cheeses gradually, a handful at a time. Then gently whisk in the beer, wine or sherry (or extra broth).

My Easy Chocolate Truffle Sauce

This has been a favorite specialty of mine for many years, and I can always count on requests for it every December. NOBODY suspects just how easy and fast it comes together. So in no time flat, I have a decadently rich and chocolatey topping for bowls of ice cream. It also makes a great Christmas gift, which I jazz up by presenting in lovely jars, with a simple-yet-colorful homemade label. The recipe can easily be doubled or tripled. And skip the homemade labels, if you want to.

1 pound semisweet chocolate (use the best quality you can afford), cut into very small (1/4-inch) chunks

1-1/3 cups heavy cream

5 tablespoons butter, softened and cut in chunks

Place the chocolate chunks into a large heat-proof bowl. Place the bowl over a saucepan filled with hot (not boiling) water. Let the chocolate mixture start to slowly melt while you proceed with the recipe.

In a small heavy saucepan, bring the cream to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and immediately pour it over the chunks of chocolate, stirring constantly until the chocolate has melted. Keep the bowl positioned over the hot water because this will help keep the temperature at the melting point. Once the chocolate is smooth and creamy, stir in the butter and continue stirring until the mixture is well blended and smooth. Pour the sauce into clean jars and let cool completely before screwing on the lids. Refrigerate the sauce. It will become firm, but just tell the lucky recipient to scoop out the sauce as needed and either warm in a pan on the stove, or at low power in the microwave. Makes about 2-1/2 cups sauce (recipe can easily be doubled or tripled).

Frozen Hot Buttered Rum Batter

Make a batch of this wonderful substance to have on hand for drop-in guests, or as a bracing nose-warmer after a day on the slopes or cross-country ski trails. I have to give a shout out to the Junior League of Eugene Cookbook for this wonderful recipe.

Makes 6 cups of frozen batter

1 quart French vanilla ice cream, softened slightly

1 pound butter (4 cubes), softened

1 pound brown sugar

1 pound powdered sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

For the drinks:

Rum

Boiling water

Nutmeg

In the large work bowl of a food processor (or in a large bowl, using an electric mixer), combine the ice cream, butter, sugars, cinnamon and the 2 teaspoons of nutmeg. Mix thoroughly. Pack into a freezer container(s) and store in the freezer.

To use: place 2 to 3 tablespoons of the frozen batter in each mug. Add desired amount of rum (1-1/2 to 2 ounces), and 1 cup of boiling water. Stir to blend, then top with nutmeg.

— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.