November 12, 2008 12:00 PM

Food was very important,” says Maria Menounos of her family’s Christmas gatherings, which typically began with mass in their hometown of Medford, Mass., the night before. “It didn’t matter where we were financially; the holidays were the holidays. Weeks before, we would start making pastries.” Along with a younger brother Peter, the Access Hollywood correspondent, 30, grew up helping her Greek immigrant parents, Litsa and Costas, who worked as janitors in a nightclub in Boston. “I remember getting to the nightclub at 5 a.m. on Christmas, so we could clean and get home fast to change,” say Menounos. “If Roy Orbison or the B-52’s performed, it was a mess.” Litsa, who “knows how to produce huge quantities out of a little stove,” would cook for days to create a Greek feast. “One aunt made an ouzo cake I was obsessed with,” Menounos recalls, “and another aunt was really good at potatoes au gratin, but my mom was the best at everything.”

The day after, the expansive family (“40 first cousins”) would go from home to home for leftovers. “Dinner at one house, coffee at another, dessert—baklava, kourabiethes [sugar cookies] and finikia [honey cookies]—at another.”

Now living in Los Angeles, Menounos, who also contributes to the Today show and NBC Nightly News, admits that her celebrations are considerably smaller. Still, she is preparing to carry on the traditions—in a somewhat untraditional manner. “When my mom is making something I don’t know how to make, I film her, step by step. I have these tapes logged, so if I ever want to make these dishes I can play the video.” She often hosts Thanksgiving or Christmas, both for her parents, who now live in Connecticut, and for friends who can’t make it home. “It’s always nice whether it is big or small,” says Menounos. “The feast is the same because we definitely cook for double the amount. That is the only way we know how to do it.”

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