Faith Ford Comfort & Joy

updated 12/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

First, a few rules about the food. And for Faith Ford and her Louisiana relatives, Christmas is all about the food. "You eat your first meal at 11:30," says the star of ABC's sitcom Hope & Faith. "You absolutely eat before opening gifts and before the football games begin." Second, you cook vast amounts of food. When she was growing up, that meant two types of turkey—roasted and smoked—ham, corn bread dressing, sweet potato casserole and an array of sides and desserts. "You always make enough for everybody to have some and then take a meal or two to go. Everyone takes food home!" Third, never mess with tradition—something even a proud southern hostess can forget on occasion. "One year I got this wild idea I wanted to do an English Christmas, with prime rib and Yorkshire pudding " Ford says. "I wanted to take it to a higher level." Her timing was off the food took forever to bake and her family didn't eat until well into the night "I don't know what I was thinking " she says "But I will never do that again When you're entertaining the rule is stick with something tried and true."

Make that tried and loved. Ford's culinary skills were legendary on the set of her decade-long TV hit Murphy Brown, where she played Candice Bergen's bubbly sidekick Corky Sherwood. Ford would wow coworkers with still-steaming homemade biscuits, peach cobbler and jambalaya. Bergen, who recalls "sumptuous-looking, delicious-smelling, mouthwatering, my-mama-taught-me meals," convinced Ford, 40 to turn her ideas into a cookbook, Cooking with Faith: 125 Classic and Healthy Southern Recipes (Scribner $25), written with Melissa Clark.

Ford's move to New York in 2003 to star opposite Kelly Ripa in Hope & Faith has admittedly cramped her cooking style. Castmates haven't had the pleasure of Ford's piping hot treats popping from the oven between takes (although she has arrived with pastries baked the night before). And although her two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side is spacious by city standards, she misses her roomy kitchen in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, with husband Campion Murphy, 42, a personal trainer turned screenwriter, and her beloved mutts Bosco and Tess, Ford has infused their home with small-town (she hails from Pineville, La.) charm and is intent upon down-home holiday values.

"The holidays are about recharging and reevaluating life," says the Emmy-nominated actress. "It doesn't matter what your background is or your religious beliefs." Raised a Southern Baptist who always went to church on Christmas, she likes "connecting on a spiritual level more than a material level around the holidays. This is a time for turning over your past year and letting it go. About thinking about the New Year and setting goals for yourself."

Learning to let go has gotten easier since Ford married Murphy in 1998. "Campion and I say there are no mistakes," she says, "only lessons learned." The couple met in Sedona, Ariz., where Ford was vacationing after the end of her first marriage to aspiring actor Robert Nottingham. She attended a fitness/nutrition program where Murphy worked and the two clicked instantly, she says. "My husband is a real good thinker. We can go really deep in about two seconds flat." As a result, the couple have adopted a holiday ritual of jointly compiling a list of things they want—and things they want to leave behind. "I'll sit down and write a dream list for the New Year," Ford explains. "We put it in a box and don't look at it until the end of the next year. It's a good time to resolve things." These days the couple's wish list may reflect their desire to have kids "If it's meant to be for us to have children that's one of our wishes " Ford says "My husband comes from a large Irish Catholic family I know when we have kids we're going to want keep the traditions alive."

Meanwhile, Ford is wary of excessive Christmas commerce. As a high schooler, she worked as a gift wrapper at the local Wellan's department store ("I loved anything I could be creative at," she remembers) in order to afford gifts for her friends. But now, she says, "the gift-giving thing can get out of hand. It seems everyone I know has everything they need or want. If you're getting a gift for somebody, really think about it. It doesn't have to be a crazy expensive gift. It has to be well thought out."

Ford's perfect Christmas guest list includes her mom, Patricia, a retired elementary school teacher, her dad, Charles, an insurance executive, and her older sister Devon O'Day, a Nashville radio personality, whom she describes as her "mentor." She also gathers with her husband's large clan ("If only half of them come, it's 16 people," she says). "I'm a very family-oriented person," Ford confirms. "The meal is about sharing and having time together. It forces everyone to sit down at the table and talk. That doesn't happen very often. We give ourselves an excuse to do that at holidays."

Joanna Powell. Liza Hamm in New York City

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