photograph by Matt Hulsman

here aren’t all that many silent nights during the Christmas season. Halls must be decked, stockings hung, carols sung (since Labor Day, it seems), and then there are all those treks to the store for just one more thing that was forgotten when we were there earlier. Eventually, the moment comes when it’s time to actually have Christmas instead of getting ready for it. For me, that’s in the sweet stillness of Christmas Eve night. When everyone else is sound asleep, I mix up a breakfast casserole to tuck into the fridge before bed. The next morning, while we open gifts, it bakes and bubbles. My daughter and I devour it with delight and gusto — but only once each year. Making hash brown casserole is my holiday ritual because, at my house, many of the ties that bind are apron strings.

Most of my heart is filled with love for my two favorite people I’ll ever know: my grandmother, whom I called Mama, and Lily, who calls me the same. Mama wasn’t a fancy cook, but she was a brilliant one, making incredible meals from the big garden that she tended and groceries from the Winn-Dixie. When Mama went to see her only sister up in Indiana, she’d return with a heart brimming with joy and a pocketbook bursting with new casserole recipes that she’d jotted down on the back of the envelope that held the light bill and such. One of those recipes was for hash brown casserole. Indiana is flat country, far different from my Blue Ridge Mountain home, so I knew that this dish was exotic from the first bite.

A few decades later, I had a baby who needed to be not only fed, but also nourished by family traditions. It’s never too late to begin a tradition, so when Lily was a toddler, I started making the casserole for us to eat on Christmas morning. We gobbled it in the living room, by the glittering light of the tree, kicking our way to the sofa through the tumbleweeds of paper and ribbons left from tearing open our gifts.

I’ve never skipped a year, even the hard ones when grief and loss were duking it out with holiday joy. Each year, when I take that first bite, I think: Wow, this stuff is good. And: Wow, here it is Christmas again. Then: Wow, my daughter is already 2, or 10 — or grown. It happens in the twinkle of Santa’s eye.

 

Hash Brown Casserole with Cornflake Topping

Yield: 8 to 12 servings.

32 ounces frozen diced or shredded hash brown potatoes, thawed
12 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded (about 3 cups)
1 (10-ounce) can or 1 (12-ounce) box cream of chicken or celery soup
2 cups sour cream
1 teaspoon flavored (such as Lawry’s or Old Bay) or regular salt
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
½ teaspoon ground pepper
2 teaspoons hot sauce, such as Texas Pete, or to taste (optional)
2½ cups cornflakes
¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
6 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400º. Lightly butter a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or mist with nonstick cooking spray.

Stir together potatoes, Cheddar, soup, sour cream, salt, garlic, pepper, and hot sauce (if using) in a large bowl. Spread the mixture into the prepared baking dish.

Note: At this point, you can proceed with the recipe or cover and refrigerate overnight, which is what I do on Christmas Eve.

Bake (uncovered) until golden brown on top and bubbling around the edges, about 40 minutes.

Toss together cornflakes, Parmesan, and melted butter in a medium-size bowl. Sprinkle mixture evenly over the casserole. Continue baking until cheese melts and topping is golden brown and crunchy, about 15 minutes.

Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

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Sheri Castle hails from Watauga County, but came down off the mountain to go to Carolina and now lives in Fearrington Village. She is a writer, recipe developer, cooking teacher, and popular public speaker. She is fueled by mountains, excellent bourbon, farmers’ markets, and searching for the right word. Sheri believes that stories happen only to those who can tell them. Check her out at shericastle.com.

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