Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cookie Party!

Visiting family in Maine this week for Christmas, and was too busy to post yesterday because we were having a COOKIE PARTY, which may just be the best idea ever for a holiday open house. My Mom made five different kinds of cookies, and supplemented with a few from Trader Joe's. (Yes, five different kinds of cookies, the week before Christmas. See where I get it from?)

My mother and sister, with a display of about half the cookies actually baked!

Mom flipped through recipes that are family favorites, and chose a few new ones from (of course) the Martha Stewart Cookie cookbook, and provided an amazingly tasty variety with coffee and tea and spiced cranberry apple cider.

We had almond cookies, a butter cream cheese walnut cookie, chocolate cookies, pinwheels, gingersnaps, and peppermint cookies from Trader Joe's.

Among the winners was our traditional favorite, Mamie Ruth's chocolate cookies, a recipe that's been in the family for generations. It's one I make every year, and was actually features on our Christmas Card this year.

Here's the recipe:

4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
confectionary sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the unsweetened chocolate in a double boiler and allow to cool. Cream the eggs, vegetable oil, sugar, vanilla and chocolate together in a mixer. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, then add to the wet ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate for an hour and a half or overnight. Drop by rounded tablespoon into confectionary sugar, flatten slightly, and bake 10-12 minutes on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Cookies should still look slightly moist as you pull them out of the oven - do NOT overbake! I often will make a batch, cool them slightly, and then try one to ensure I haven't overbaked them.

Makes approximately four dozen cookies.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Christmas Dinner

Greg and I recently watched a documentary from the History Channel about the History of Christmas, and it got me all fired up to host my own Christmas dinner complete with an eclectic mix of my favorite Christmas traditions. One of the interesting things in the documentary was just how much Christmas "traditions" have evolved and changed over the centuries, and the origins of the varied ways we celebrate the season. (Christmas trees? German. You can thank Queen Victoria's husband Albert for introducing the custom to the English speaking world.) One take-away from the film was that it really is in the Christmas spirit to borrow and mix your favorite holiday ideas to develop your own family "traditions" for how you celebrate and make it a special time of year.

So this year, I decided I'd like to celebrate by having a small gathering of friends over for a Christmas dinner early in the season complete with warm, spiced wine and figgy pudding for dessert. (I've never even had figgy pudding. But hey, it's tradition.) Part of the fun of hosting your own holiday dinner is choosing to make your own favorite holiday foods; I served just the foods I loved and had a blast making them.

Here was our menu:

Goat cheese and fig jam on toasted baguette slices
Warm spiced wine

Main Course:
Roasted Orange Chicken
Caramelized Onion Glazed Ham
Baked Stuffed Portabello Mushrooms
Paula Dean's "Ol' No. 7 Yams"
Spiced Buttered Carrots
Wild Rice with Cranberries and Walnuts
Cranberry Sauce (sort of - I left it in the fridge :/)

Warm figgy pudding with caramel cream sauce and a dollop of vanilla iced cream
Chocolate Almond Butter Balls

We served dinner at 5:30 so Will could join us. I prepped everything in the morning and had it ready to go in the oven or on the stove-top before guests arrived.

I had a wonderful time. It was so much fun to plan a menu of my favorite foods to share with friends and have a chance to cook it while my amazing husband alternated between chasing after our toddler and cleaning up my dishes. It also gave us incentive to finish decorating the house for Christmas, and have the decorations enjoyed by more than just the two of us.

I am so, so, so lucky

It's now, while Will is young and our second isn't even born, that we'll start figuring out what celebrating Christmas means for our family, and develop the traditions our children will look forward to each year that will make the season special. I'm looking forward to everything from Christmas stockings and cookies for Santa to that mulled wine and figgy pudding with friends!

He might grow up thinking everyone has figgy pudding at Christmas :)

Merry Christmas :)


Warm Spiced Wine: Burgundy is traditional, but a pinot noir or grenache mix would also work well. This is not something we'd do to an expensive bottle of wine, but something mid-range is going to taste better than the least expensive bottle you can find. (Spend more than you would if you're making sangria, less than if you're serving it alone or with a nice meal to company.) Heat over very low heat just until warm with a stick of cinnamon and some cloves secured in a cheese cloth or tea ball. Can remain on low heat, just don't let it come to a boil!

Roasted Orange Chicken: Rub the outside of a chicken with orange slices, then place the orange in the body cavity and truss the chicken. Brush the chicken with olive oil, sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and pepper to taste, and roast at 425 degrees until the exterior skin is krispy and the chicken has reached a safe internal temperature according to your meat thermometer and juices run clear. (About one hour for a five pound roasting chicken.) Let sit for twenty minutes tented with foil prior to carving.

Caramelized Onion Glazed Ham: This recipe was inspired by "Jimbo's Hambo", a Guy Fieri recipe from the Food Network. The original is excellent - I just didn't have all the ingredients on hand.

Olive oil
1/2 a yellow onion finely chopped
2 Tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 cup of coarse mustard
1 six ounce can of pineapple juice
1/2 cup of honey
1/4 cup of Jack Daniels
2 Tablespoons Brown Sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Lightly coat a large saute pan with olive oil and turn heat to medium. Sautee the onions until translucent (they'll caramelize as the glaze reduces and in the oven). Add the garlic and stir for another thirty seconds. Remove from heat to add the Jack Daniels and deglaze the pan. Add all other ingredients, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until greatly reduced to a glazing consistency - I let it simmer on very low heat for about an hour and a half while I prepared the other dishes.

When the glaze is ready, take an uncut, precooked ham and place it in a roasting pan with a little water to prevent burned drippings. Cut it about half an inch deep in long diagonal cuts, then criss cross the other side. Dot the ham with cloves to hold the cuts open so the glaze can seep into the ham. Pour the glaze over the ham and cook it until heated through - this will vary based on ham weight, see directions on the ham you've bought. I glazed my ham in advance and left it in the refrigerator for the afternoon.

Baked Stuffed Portabello Mushrooms: I used Mark Bittman's recipe in "How to Cook Everything" for stuffed button mushrooms, but substituted Portabello mushrooms for a heartier version to serve with the meal.

Paula Dean's Old No' 7 Yams: This is a runny, delicious sweet potato casserole that makes amazing leftovers. I double the amount of sweet potato and reduce the water called for by a cup because the sauce is always so runny. Recipe is available online at the food network website.

Spiced Buttered Carrots: I used a recipe from the Bon Appetit "Fast Easy Fresh" cookbook.

Wild Rice with Cranberries and Walnuts: This is inspired by a Martha Stewart recipe from one of her Thanksgiving magazines. It calls for candied pecans, which I had trouble finding at Whole Foods, so I substituted plain chopped walnuts this time. I sauteed onions in olive oil until transluscent, then added wild rice and toasted it for a few minutes until fragrant. I added water according to package directions, simmered an hour, and then drained away excess liquid. I then tossed the wild rice and onions with about half a cup of orange juice until reduced to a glazed consistency, and mixed in dried cranberries, dried parsley, and topped with chopped walnuts just before serving.

Figgy Pudding: I found a modernized version of figgy pudding online on the food network website. The recipe makes way more than it claims in terms of batter and sauce. I used muffin tins instead of individual ramekins, and made 18 individual figgy puddings. (The recipe's instructions say to fill four one cup ramekins 1/2 to 3/4 full. If you do the math on the recipe's ingredients, that would require absurdly less batter than you make.) I used half figs and half dates for the dried fruit, and I used half brandy and half water when I brought the fruit to a boil and pureed it. I also reduced the sauce recipe by about 1/3 and still had plenty of sauce. I made the batter and placed it in muffin tins in the fridge for the afternoon and then put them in the oven shortly after we began eating in order to have warm pudding ready after the meal. Reheated the sauce and served! Despite it's being a little non-traditional (baked, not cooked by immersing a container in hot water, not nearly enough booze, etc) it was an easy recipe, had a very nice fig flavor, and certainly felt like Christmas to me!

Mimi's Chocolate Peanut Butter Balls: I used almond butter for this gathering, trying to be all gourmet. Big mistake. They weren't bad, but they weren't my great grandmother Mimi's peanut butter balls. I will stick to her original recipe in the future!

Makes approximately four dozen peanut butter balls.

2 cups finely crushed graham crackers (About 12 graham cracker squares, use food processor)
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
One jar creamy peanut butter

2 cups chocolate chips
1/4 cake of paraffin cooking wax

Combine the graham crackers, peanut butter and confectioners sugar and mix well. Chill. Drop by rounded teaspoon full onto wax paper and chill several hours. Melt paraffin wax over double boiler. Add and melt chocolate chips. Dip balls into the chocolate (I use two spoons) and then place back onto wax paper and into the fridge to cool and harden. May be served at room temperature but store best when chilled.

Happy Cooking!

Don't wear yourself out :)