What’s in Your Bag? Karen Haram

Bag Karen Haram DT1 1693 NovDec23 web

By Lainey Berkus | Photography by David Teran


The IT bag this holiday season does not come from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Bottega or Prada. The most sought-after and important bag this festive time of the year is….drum roll please — the GROCERY BAG! This iconic universal bag, usually paper, plastic or recycled, often with handles, comes in all shapes and sizes to carry groceries and sundries. High-quality reusable, eco-friendly, and insulated bags (in a variety of colors and fashions) are in the mix, too.

I usually peek into bags that hold wallets, gum, books, notebooks, pens, pencils, iPhones, tissues, baby wipes, keys, chargers and ear buds. The bags I am dipping into today have none of these essentials. These bags hold tantalizing ingredients that turn into sweet and savory meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, and a variety of other special celebrations during this jolly time of the year.

Simply put, these bags hold lifelong treasured memories, recipes, traditions and rituals that fill your holidays with joy.

Don’t we all enjoy holiday foods that have been passed down for generations?

That is certainly true for our bag lady today. Meet Karen Haram, a master in the kitchen. Readers may remember her as the Food/Taste/Dining Editor of the San Antonio Express News for 34 years. She has won national and regional recognition for her food writing and editing, including the Association of Food Journalists’ Award for best feature story and the National Federation of Press Women Award for best food section. Her Taste section was named best in the country five times in the Association of Food Journalists’ competition.

Karen was awarded the prestigious Hearst Eagle Award, the company’s highest honor, for her excellence in journalism. She was named to the People’s History in Texas Gallery of Stars, which features individuals who made invaluable contributions to Texas history. She was regional editor for Cook’s Illustrated, a restaurant reviewer for San Antonio Monthly magazine, and the author of “San Antonio Cuisine.”

Karen has judged hundreds of culinary competitions, including the first million-dollar Pillsbury Bake-Off, the National Beef Cook-Off, the National Chicken Cooking Contest, the World’s Championship Chili Cook-Off, the Kraft National Outrageous Sandwich Contest, and the Bay’s English Muffin Recipe Contest. She has also taken cooking classes throughout the United States, Asia and Europe. Needless to say, this lady can cook and knows her way around a kitchen. Did I mention she cooks nearly everything from scratch on the day of the holiday?

Let’s peek into Karen’s holiday grocery bags!

How do you prepare for holiday shopping?

“I shop at H-E-B Lincoln Heights, Central Market, Costco, Trader Joe’s and the Commissary at Ft. Sam Houston. My lists are categorized according to store layout and can be as long as several pages. Items are listed in columns titled produce, meat, dry goods, paper, dairy and frozen foods.” She gives herself two days to shop for everything she needs to prepare her traditional holiday feasts. Once everything is marked off her lists, she heads home to unpack her seven or so brown grocery bags, a red insulated H-E-B bag and her reusable eco-friendly bag designed for H-E-B by local artist Clif Tinker.

What goes into your holiday bags for Thanksgiving?

“A 16-pound kosher turkey, bread cubes, sage, parsley, rosemary and thyme, cornmeal for the cornbread, milk, pecans, tart cherries and canned pumpkin for three pies plus flour, butter, corn syrup and sugar, potatoes, sweet potatoes, heavy cream to make whipped cream, cabbage, petite peas, onions, celery, carrots, cranberries, chicken to make broth or prepared broth, salted and unsalted butter, yeast rolls and spices.

“Many of the Thanksgiving foods I prepare come from cherished family recipes and traditions from my late mother. My menu never varies because my family likes this exact combination of flavors and textures. One unusual twist to the menu is the addition of coleslaw.” Karen says the contrast in flavor and texture of an oniony, mayonnaisey coleslaw with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy is amazingly delicious. Her mother served coleslaw with her holiday dinners, and it is a tradition that her family will never give up.

What’s one of your family recipes served during Thanksgiving?

“My mom was a wonderful cook, especially her cherry cobbler. And I loved watching her make Pumpkin Chiffon Pie every Thanksgiving. I have been enjoying making and eating this pie since age 8. Now, many years later, my husband, two daughters, their spouses, and my four granddaughters are enjoying my childhood dessert, too. It’s a more complicated recipe than most pumpkin pies, but I get such joy in making it for my family.”

Karen makes her stuffing just as her mother made it without a recipe, sautéing celery and onion in lots of butter with a combination of bread cubes and cornbread and generous amounts of chicken broth, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. Her recipe for scalloped eggplant came from her work at the Express-News. In the late ’80s, Karen wrote a Best Cook on the Block article about a retired Air Force colonel who told her about a favorite recipe for scalloped eggplant packed with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, butter, onions, and cracker crumbs. At 35 years old, it’s the “new” family favorite.

Why are food traditions so important to you?

“Food is associated with memories of childhood, simpler times, growing-up years, time spent with loved ones, and remembering those who have passed. Gathering around a table is also magical. I love seeing my family having a good time together and enjoying each other’s company.”

Gertrude Wolfe’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

(Karen recommends using Trader Joe’s graham crackers for the crust, and grinding them to make crumbs.)


1 cup canned pumpkin

3 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar, divided use

1 cup whole milk

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 tablespoon plain unflavored gelatin

¼ cup cold water

1 9-inch Graham Cracker Pie Crust (recipe follows)

Sweetened whipped cream

Graham Cracker Pie Crust:

1 ⅔ cups (5⅓ ounces) ground graham crackers

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, melted

Cook pumpkin in top of double boiler 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix egg yolks (reserving whites), ½ cup sugar and milk. Add to cooked pumpkin with salt, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and 2 tablespoons melted butter. Stir and cook until mixture is of custard consistency. Remove from heat and add gelatin, which has been softened in the ¼ cup cold water.

Stir until dissolved. Chill. When mixture begins to stiffen, fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, to which has been added 1/2 cup sugar. Pour into graham cracker crust. Chill 3 hours. Top with sweetened whipped cream.

For Crust: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients, mixing well. Firmly press mixture evenly over bottom and sides of 9-inch pie plate. Bake 7-9 minutes.

Serves 6-8


What is on your Christmas grocery list?

Ground chuck, spinach, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, onions, garlic, heavy cream, beef broth, Romaine lettuce, asparagus, olive oil, Italian plum tomatoes, tomato paste, butter, two loaves of hearty sourdough bread, apple cider, grains of paradise, cinnamon chips, flour, sugar, powdered sugar, eggs, butter, pecans, tart cherries, lemons, vanilla, spices, and red and green food coloring.


What is your Christmas menu?

“Our Christmas menu this year features an authentic Italian cannelloni made with homemade pasta stuffed with a seasoned spinach and ground chuck mixture topped with béchamel and marinara sauces, served with asparagus or broccoli, classic Caesar salad and garlic bread.”

The Haram family gathers together the night before Santa arrives to open stocking stuffers. For the past 20 years, the evening begins with Karen’s homemade spiced apple cider served in ceramic demitasse cups by Italian artist Giovanni De Simone, purchased at Plate and Platter during the ’80s and now at estate sales and antique stores. “I started collecting De Simone before I became Food Editor because I love the bright colors and whimsical designs. It’s beautiful with an Italian table or, with different placemats and centerpieces, a Mexican menu.”

Mulled Apple Cider

(Karen got this recipe from Central Market and says to get the best apple cider you can; the less refined the cider, the better. Grains of paradise are available at Central Market.)


1 (64-ounce) bottle apple cider

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

1 teaspoon grains of paradise

1 (4- to 5-inch) cinnamon stick (1-2 tablespoons Vietnamese cinnamon chips or ground Vietnamese cinnamon to taste can be substituted)

Peel of 1 clementine

Combine cider with coriander seeds, grains of paradise, cinnamon sticks and Clementine peel in pan. Bring just to a simmer, and simmer about 30 minutes. Strain. Serve hot.

Makes 10 (6-ounce) servings

After cider, the family enjoys a buffet of Mexican appetizers. The menu includes tamales, seven-layer dip, hatch green chile and artichoke dip, chile con queso, cilantro dip, guacamole, salsa and tortilla chips. Desserts, made with family help, include frosted and decorated sugar cookies and thumbprint cookies filled with red and green buttercream frosting, and triple-chocolate brownies for the chocolate lovers. The thumbprint cookies come from a cherished memory, too. Karen and her late sister made 1,000+ thumbprint cookies as holiday gifts when they were young brides, had no children, and a small budget.


Karen’s Thumbprint Cookies

The thumbprint cookies make a perfect treat for Santa when he visits your home on Christmas Eve. Karen says it’s important to use both butter and shortening because butter adds flavor and shortening helps the cookies hold the proper shape as it has a higher melting point than butter.



½ cup butter, at room temperature

½ cup shortening

½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 ¾-2 cups finely minced pecans



4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

2 cups powdered sugar

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

About 1/2-1 tablespoon cream or milk, as needed

Red and green food coloring

FOR COOKIES: Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixer bowl, combine butter, shortening, brown sugar, egg yolks and vanilla well. Add flour and salt and mix until dough holds together.

Beat egg whites slightly in a shallow bowl. Place nuts in a separate bowl. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Dip each ball into egg whites, then roll in nuts. Place on parchment- or Silat-lined cookie sheets 1 inch apart. Press thumb deeply in center of each cookie.

Bake cookies 10-12 minutes or until light brown. Immediately remove cookies to cooling racks and cool completely. When cool, fill centers with Buttercream Frosting.

FOR BUTTERCREAM FROSTING: Combine butter, powdered sugar, salt and vanilla in mixer bowl. Beat well, adding a bit of cream or milk to get to spreading consistency. Divide into two bowls and tint one bowl with red food coloring and the other with green food coloring. Pipe in the frosting or spoon in the frosting to fill the center of each cooled cookie.

Makes 6 dozen cookies.


Karen’s tips:

1. No appetizers served before holiday meals so everyone comes to the table hungry.

2. Some foods like pie crust, cornbread for dressing, eggplant casserole, sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce can be made ahead of time. But turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, salads and pies taste best made the day of serving. Karen wakes up at 7 a.m. to start her holiday meals, and her husband of 50+ years is always at her side washing dishes as she cooks. It’s always good to have a cleanup team.

3. Don’t try new dishes; go for traditional foods that are family favorites during the holidays. Save new dishes for another time.

4. Consider buying a kosher turkey. Salting during the koshering process results in a turkey that tastes like it’s brined, but with no effort on your part.

5. Buy quality ingredients; what goes into your food is essential.

6. Season as you go. Taste as you go, too, and use a clean spoon with each taste.

7. Buy more than you think you need. How many of us run out of something we need more of — like ice, butter or whipped cream?

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One Response

  1. I have had Gertrude Wolfe’s pumpkin chiffon pie made by Mrs. Haram herself. I’m told it was quite a bit of labor. But as someone who has always been meh on regular pumpkin pie, it was indeed quite airy and delicious!!

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