Every year, I bake a collection of holiday cookies, and I love the entire process. If there is one time when I am glad that I got the baking gene (and its inherent organization skills), its at Christmas time. I thought that I would share some of the tips I've learned over the years to apply to your own baking marathon. The cookies above, from top: Gingerbread People (with cinnamon candy buttons); Chocolate Wafers with Candy Cane Crunch; Rainbow Cookies; Pfefferneusse; Sugar Cookies (stars); Peanut Butter Blossoms; Sugar Cookies (trees); Diane's Walnut Thumbprints (Sonia Henies); center, Ginger Molasses Cookies. I will be posting the recipes that aren't linked.
Whether you are planning a buffet or a sit-down dinner, baked ham is a great choice for your main course. I have created many a baked ham recipe over the years, but this is my go-to recipe. It touches all of the bases--an easy recipe for a sweet, sticky, and fruity glaze with a little savory kick to balance the salty meat. Always start with a bone-in ham. When I bought a ham for my mom recently, she told me NOT to bring back one of the pre-sliced ones because they are too salty for her. She's right--in order to compensate for the juices lost from pre-slicing, most companies pump the meat with "sodium solution" a.k.a. salt water. If you can't find pineapple preserves, use peach or apricot.
My friend Bruce Aidells wrote a great book on cooking with beer (look for a used copy), and he asked me to come up with a contribution. I offered this stout gingerbread, and the recipe now makes an annual appearance on my Christmas baking list. The caramel notes in the stout work beautifully with the molasses and brown sugar. It keeps forever...but it doesn't last more than a couple of days in our house. Make it as a single cake, and it is a perfect addition to a holiday potluck. Bake it in individual mini-Bundt pans and they are terrific gifts. One tip that I have recently learned that I want to pass on: Never put a Bundt pan on a baking sheet for baking. The inner tube must get hot to bake the cake properly, and the baking sheet would block the heat.
Yesterday, when I was on Martha Stewart Radio with my buddy Sandy Gluck, the subject of meatball lasagna came up. What makes Christmas meatball different is that the ground meat not simply added to the sauce, but rolled into small meatballs first. I hadn't made it since testing for I LOVE MEATBALLS, and my mouth started to water as I described the recipe. Now, I have already planned my Christmas dinner (roast pork of some kind), but I will find room for this delectable pasta on the table sometime during the holiday week.
Readers who know me as a purist may be surprised to see my version of the famous gut-buster, cassoulet. This bean and meat casserole from southwestern France is brimming with flavor (thanks to loads of fatty pork and duck confit), but it also takes a good amount of time to make. In my catering days, I made mountains of cassoulet, and at the request of clients, learned how to reduce its heft while keeping every drop of flavor. My chicken version has become one of my most reliable dishes for a holiday buffet--all you need is a green salad and some crusty bread, and you are in business. For a completely French Christmas menu with an outstanding Francophile dessert, serve the bûche de Noël. I haven't quite decided on my holiday menu yet, but the more I write about this combination, the better it sounds.
You can keep your caviar. When New Year's Eve rolls around, give me crab cioppino. In San Francisco, where I grew up, winter is Dungeness crab season, so cooks are always looking for ways to serve it before it disappears until next year. Nothing warms the soul and makes me look forward to a year of great prospects than a meal of hot cioppino with sourdough bread and Champagne.
Bûche de Noël is one of my first choices for the Christmas dinner dessert. It has a traditional feel, and looks seasonal, and everyone at the table loves it. While there are two versions, vanilla and chocolate, I usually gravitate to the later because it is easy to embellish with secondary flavors like orange and peppermint. This year, Black Forest bûche, is making its debut. With some chopped cherries (available canned or frozen--I have never seen Black Forest cake made with fresh cherries!) and cherry liqueur (kirschwasser is typical, but any cherry booze will do), this will be a Christmas dessert that will require seconds. Interested?
I've already gotten a few personal emails wondering what I am going to make for my own Christmas dinner this year. Usually, it is a big hunk of roast beef, but this year, I need to keep to down to a dull roar with lots of make-ahead dishes. Lasagna has got to be the All-Time Classic Make-Ahead Dish. I've been making this one with both red and white sauces and a light chicken-spinach filling for years. In fact, it gave me one of my first moments of pride as a young chef when I served it at a catered dinner for one of my university professors. He told me, "This is the best lasagna I've had since I left Rome...and I am not kidding!" You just might agree--whether or not you've been to Rome! (Photo by Ben Fink.)
My Christmas cookies are done! I come from a long line of Christmas cookie bakers, and they took the job very seriously. My great aunts taught me to make an annual list of my cookies, and to take notes on the yields, adjustments to make next year, and other details. They also showed me that while those gorgeous cookies in food magazines are inspiring, you had better balance the time-consuming ones with some more practical offerings. Karen Tack, I'm not, but I still manage to make some pretty nice-looking sugar cookies. My secret is to keep it simple. By doing just one design (this year, green trees decorated with nonpareil sprinkles or shiny dragees to simulate ornaments), I am whip through many dozens in no time. Read on to find my favorite sugar cookie recipe, and click here for more cookie making tips.
Eggnog, in all of its creamy, luscious glory, is a must-have at my holiday parties. I love its nutmeg aroma and thick, booze-spiked flavor, even when the flavor is artificially produced with the extract in the supermarket version. Here are my two favorite homemade eggnogs.