Christmas’ Past and Present Always Include Ambrosia

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Christmas’ Past and Present Always Include Ambrosia

By Johnnie Gabriel

I remember summer fun at Uncle Johnny and Aunt Irene Paul’s home (Paula’s grandparents). We enjoyed their cool swimming pool in the hot Georgia sun, and a breeze around a big wooden skating rink in lace up shoe skates! There were nights filled with laughter, Southern pit BBQ, homemade peach ice cream and twinkling outdoor lights! When the two families came together, there was comfort, yet also that feeling of wild abandon that gregarious family gatherings can bring to a young child. Even though my cousin Paula and I didn’t get to spend the winter holidays together, because my mother thought it was important to have Christmas in our own home, memories of our times spent together in the summer continued to warm our hearts through the holidays. 

My family has always loved celebrating the holidays with food and family gatherings. Though money was tight, my mother and grandmother would show their love with the special dishes they joyfully prepared. There was never a shortage of good home cooking! They loved to pop a big turkey in the oven and prepare all the delicious side dishes. At Christmas and Thanksgiving there were pans of cornbread dressing and gravy with giblets and eggs, sweet potato soufflé, green beans, pickled peaches, olives and sweet gherkins, all served in crystal. My favorite treat was ambrosia with its bright red cherries, fresh snow-white coconut, Georgia pecans, and delicious winter orange and grapefruit sections all mingling together. It was a feast that was topped off with Big Mama Howell’s dessert beauties. We devoured her amazing Red Velvet and German Chocolate cakes, and homemade Divinity. 

I still love the warmth, joy and comfort that the Christmas holidays bring. They are a time of anticipation, preparation and thinking of others. As I have grown older and wiser, gone are the days of making lists of things I would like. Now I look forward to spending time with family and friends, and determining what to cook to say I love and care for you, just as my folks did. I look at time together in the kitchen as a way to spend special moments with those I love.

Christmas morning is now spent at my daughter Stephanie’s home, along with Laura, my youngest, and my grandchildren, Wyatt and Heath. We open gifts together and it is a time I cherish even more than when I was a child. The emphasis has shifted from receiving to giving! It is my greatest joy to see the smiles and children’s glee for the treasures they find under the tree. Now, like my mother who spent hours in the kitchen cooking family favorites, I understand the true joy that comes from giving! 

Over the years I have come to realize that what we love about Thanksgiving and Christmas is not only sharing good food, but also giving thanks for our blessings, the celebration of the birth of our Lord, and spending time with those we hold dear. The true gift is the anticipation of the love and joy that we experience in time spent with family and friends. The willingness to work diligently in the kitchen and the daily sacrifices my parents and grandparents made, speaks of the depth of their love and commitment. The traditions and memories created in years past, especially the laughter and the love steeped in the preparation of a good home cooked meal, continue to bind us as a family.


1 bag of Navel oranges*
1 bag of grapefruit, pink if possible, as they are more colorful*
1 large fresh pineapple (I use 1 large can of pineapple chunks in pineapple juice, 20 oz. can or more or less to taste)
1 jar of maraschino cherries, drained and cut in halves, optional
1 small call of flaked coconut (3 ½ oz), optional
1 cup chopped pecans, optional
sliced bananas, optional

* Your best friend when preparing this dish is a good, sharp knife.  I use a filet knife; the blade is long but narrow and lightweight and very sharp.

Peel the oranges, removing as much of the pith (the white lining under the skin), discarding the pith and the peeling. 

Over a large bowl, section the oranges, removing the membranes, any pith left and the seeds, retaining all of the pulp and juice. 

Over the same bowl repeat the process for the grapefruit mixing the fruit sections together.  Add the fresh, peeled, cored and chopped pineapple or add the canned pineapple including the juice.  Stir well to blend the fruits and the juices.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. 

Many families like to add other fruit and nuts such as the cherries, coconut, bananas and/or pecans.  You may want to serve these additions in small bowls beside the fruit and let each make their own combination.  The bananas, coconut and pecans will soften if you have leftovers, so I like to leave the oranges, grapefruit and pineapple separate.  These three will keep 3 days easily in the refrigerator.

Yield is based on the size of bags that you purchase. 

Johnnie Gabriel has been baking since she was a girl and making cakes professionally for 20 years. In 1996 she opened her first restaurant, Gabriel's Desserts, in Marietta, GA. Johnnie is not only known as the cake lady, she is the Southern vegetable darling of Marietta, winning four Best of Atlanta awards. Johnnie lives in Marietta with her husband Ed and numerous supportive friends. Visit her at

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Reader Comments:

Hey Margaret! What great memories you have! These feature articles are not a part of our recipe base for the most part. It is easiest to cut and paste the recipe section of this article to create a separate document. Happy Holidays and thank you for reading!

By Libbie Summers, Paula Deen Online Food Editor on December 17, 2009

I am making ambrosia right now, Wednesday, December 16th to serve on Christmas Eve.  How should I store it ‘til then?  I will only have oranges, coconut, cherries and sugar.  volume 34

By Pat Shays on December 16, 2009

Christmas was my Daddy’s birthday and we always had coconut cake, lemon pie, oyster soup [for breakfast] and ambrosa for Christmas Dinner.

My Daddy would crack the fresh coconut, and grate it for the cake. He would help mother with all the fruits that went into the Ambrosa.  WE did not put in grapfruit, but added apples instead and lots of freshly grated coconut.  I am now, 71, and these memories mean so much to me.

Merry Christmas To All and Happy Memories.

PS: Is there an easier way to copies these receipes without coping the whole web page?

By Margaret L. Martin on December 15, 2009

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