And to All, a Loosened Belt

A Delicious Christmas Dinner to All…

This year is the second of my recent decade-to-lifelong election/takeover as Christmas Dinner Host; thank you again for being so gracious about the whole thing, Mrs. S! In the case that you, too, are preparing the yuletide feast, but have yet to finalize your menu, allow me to suggest one that seamlessly combines New England tradition with festive flair, and reinforces that your children never prefer their future spouses’ cooking to your own. Speaking of children, while they are often delightful, we don’t consider them actual people when determining food quantities, especially turkey poundage. That leaves my diner total at ten, requiring a twenty-pound turkey to ensure enough white meat for all with a few leftovers to sustain Mr. P during his annual Christmas night toy bender.

20-Pound Butter-Basted Roast Turkey with Giblet Gravy*

The Wood Sisters’ Pork Stuffing

Whipped Russet Potatoes*

Mashed Butternut Squash with Honey and Crushed Red Pepper*

Fo Show Green Beans (Green Beans with Toasted Almond Butter)

Red Pearl Onions Tossed in a Balsamic-Brown Sugar Glaze*

Orange Scented Cranberry Sauce

Dessert will be a gingerbread train cake with an individual car for each plate, and of course we’ll have a wasply assortment of spirits ranging from wine and sherry to gin and rum as liven-uppers for the nog and cider.

*The recipes for the unlinked dishes involve little more than their descriptions, and I’ll trust you to use your judgement when determining quantities. After all, if you weren’t confident in your potato whipping or onion boiling skills, you wouldn’t have any business hosting the most stately of annual feasts.

Weather you celebrate the holidays with faith, aesthetic, or a combination of both, I wish all of you a transplendent meal, and a quiet moment afterwards to consider how delightful it is to be you.

Tidings of Spendy Cheer!

Once again, it’s time to stifle our own material desires for a month and go shopping solely for others. If you’re lucky (I most certainly am), the ultimate recipients of your selections are individuals you at least like and preferably adore, and gifting any of the following items will leave you nestled in good graces for another 365 days. If there are any special people in your life for whom Christmas is your opportunity to passive-aggressively send a snarky message, the suggestions below would be completely inappropriate, and you’d be better off bestowing a certificate for laser hair removal, a Proactive regimen, or a basket brimming with Dr. Scholl’s products. But for the good boys and girls on your list, especially those with any culinary flair, here are a few items certain to delight and enchant.

Chef’n Strawberry Huller $7.95, Williams-Sonoma
I usually avoid single-purpose kitchen tools, having a small kitchen and CCD (Compulsive Chucking Disorder), but if you know someone who loves serving food in other food, this is a must. I’m not sure with what you’d stuff the strawberries, or how you’d get them to stand upright for serving, but the recipient won’t even think of these quandaries until well after you’ve received a glowing thank you note.

Rösle Garlic Press $39.00, Williams-Sonoma
Is forty dollars too much to spend on a garlic press? Not if it’s the Carl Lewis of garlic presses. The perforated bin flips out for easy cleaning, and you don’t have to peel your cloves before pressing. I do anyway, having received my press from gift-giver extraordinaire, Mr. S, but knowing that it’s unnecessary gives me a tingle of smugness.

Stainless Steel Breading Pans, Set of 3 $34.95, Williams-Sonoma
If I have to use two dinner plates and a shallow bowl to flour, egg, and bread my schnitzel once more, I may wash my hands of the whole thing. This would be a hint to anyone who’d like to get something for their humble content provider. A little costly to buy for oneself, these are priced to be gifts, so let’s remind ourselves why we came to the mall in the first place.

Kaiser Stainless Steel Cookie Press Set $49.95, Chef Tools
Best to keep this one in the immediate family, so that you can enjoy the fruits of the giftee’s labor, again and again.

Small Treat Boxes $3.29/3, Wilton
Anyone who goes the homemade route at Christmas with coworkers, friends and family would be beside themselves to receive a few dozen of these bad larries. Never again will they have to shop at dollar stores for the least atrociously decorated tins, and now they can throw away that intimidating Incoming/Outgoing Tupperware log.

AK Bullet Ice Tray $6.99, Amazon
I don’t often go in for novelty cookware, even though the Tardis Cookie Jar would work so well with my kitchen’s blue and yellow color scheme, but ten dollars is absolutely worth being able to ask your companion if they’d be so kind as to pop a couple of caps in your Diet Coke.

Night Baking: Never a Good Idea

Waker-Upper Animal Crackers

I usually don’t begin thinking abut Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving, but after stumbling upon the yuletidiest cookie I’ve ever tasted, I’m ready to start the season before we even hit Halloween. Billy the Kid has a knack for randomly remembering items we used once, over a year back, and last night while we had some “us time,” waiting up late for Mr. P after the ladies retired, BK declared he had a great idea. Indeed, it was the perfect time to dig out the five small animal-cracker cookie-cutters/stampers from Williams-Sonoma we bought two summers ago, our singular attempt thwarted by an inappropriate dough that melted over details and puffed out when baked, yielding cartoonishly cloud-shaped cookies. But Mrs. Peña runs a tight ship, and they were exactly where they should have been, as I had already learned when BK was one that throwing away anything he deemed “his” was a very bad idea.

In my end-of-day haze, I quickly scanned several holiday baking magazines until I saw a picture of a cinnamon cookie that looked like it could stand up to our stampers with a few slight modifications. I only noticed the call for espresso grounds once I had started assembling the mis-en-place, but it was already late, so how bad could one small coffee-infused cookie be for a toddler at 9:00 PM? Gleeful cries of “my feet  can’t stop running!” finally tapered off around 10:30 when BK fell asleep while talking, and a steady stream of the little “crackers” kept me fully alert until Mr. P’s arrival around midnight.

If you’ve ever been the lucky recipient or partaker of a Pepperidge Farms Entertaining Cookie Collection, you’ll recall the thin, unassuming, simple Bordeaux wafers, and the uncomfortably urgent desire to put all of them in your mouth at the same time. The following recipe produces the same flavor and crisp consistency, but with more heft than flake, and if you bake for just a minute less than indicated, a hint of chew. The combination of small and thin with the descriptor “cracker” will encourage gluttony, so keep a mental count as you visit the plate throughout the day in case you need to shame yourself into restraint.

1 stick butter, softened
1/4 C shortening
1 C sugar
1/2 C brown sugar, packed
1 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp instant espresso grounds
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
2 C flour

Assemble the dough in the standard manner. Shape it into two discs and refrigerate them for an hour. Roll out the dough to 1/4″ thickness before cutting out shapes, and bake single sheets at 375 degrees for 6 minutes (check every minute after 4 during the first batch to determine exact baking time). Cool the cookies on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a sealable plastic container or bag before hiding them under your bathing suit in the corner of your top drawer.

Gooseneck Revisited

Better Late than Never Goose Gravy

I wasn’t going to share this with you before successfully executing it twice, but after slamming it right out of the polo field on Christmas, I’m going to introduce you to one of the most wealthy-tasting sauces you’ve ever experienced. Mr. S noted the absence of fruit from the goose gravy recipe after the introductory post. When Mr. S gives you a note, you would be well advised to read heavily into it. So I began digging, and found an encouraging recipe on epicurious for Roast Goose with Oranges and Madeira. My only knowledge of this Portuguese wine is that everyone’s out of it at Christmas. So, I substituted a Cabernet Sauvignon in the first round, which yielded a wincingly acidic and tart sauce. For the big day, I used a Port, and the resulting sauce was so enchanting that I doubt I’ll ever try with the elusive Madeira. I won’t include goose preparation in this entry, as I stuck to these directions. I don’t know how goose neck wound up being the most magical ingredient ever, but I do not suggest attempting this with any other gullet. I’ve altered the epicurean recipe slightly, since I stuffed my goose with pork stuffing instead of shallots and oranges. Otherwise, this would be embarrassingly redundant.

1 goose neck
3 shallots, sliced into thin rings
1 1/2 C + 1/3 C + 2 tbsp Port
1 small orange, peeled and sectioned
4 C low-sodium chicken broth
1 C freshly-squeezed orange juice (do it!)
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp cornstarch
salt and pepper

In a medium pan, heat the butter over medium-high until frothing subsides, then throw in the neck. You want to cook it for 5 minutes, and turn it once halfway through; otherwise, don’t touch. Ding! Leave the neck in the pan and throw in the shallots, saute for a few minutes until they’re tender. Add 1 1/2 C Port and the orange sections, and boil it down to 1/3 what you started with. Then add the chicken stock and orange juice and boil it for about 45 minutes to end up with 2 C of stock. Pour it through a strainer into a medium bowl, wrap it up, and stick it in the fridge until a few minutes before your goose is cooked.

Pour the stock into a medium saucepan about 5 minutes before you’re ready to take the bird out of the oven and set it over low heat. Once you relocate the goose, put the roasting pan (fat poured off) on a burner set to low heat, and pour in 1/3 C Port. Stir it over the entire pan and scrape up any sticky bits, then add the contents of the roasting pan to the stock. In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and remaining 2 tbsp of Port, then pour that into the saucepan and give it a good whip. Season with salt and pepper, and stir in 2 tbsp honey. Taste and adjust accordingly, then simmer over low heat until the sauce thickens to your desired consistency; I gave mine 5 minutes.

A word to the wise: this sauce is extremely mauve, which is a lovely color given the right background. When selecting your tableware, try to stick with whites or eggshells; a bolder colored plate could result in a presentation misinterpreted as a dare.

And the kitchen is closed until 2010.

I didn’t have a single drink on Christmas, so I can only attribute my 48-hour hangover to my straight month of binge cheer. Yesterday, for the first time since I can remember, I found myself with time to lean, but not to clean, such was my Christmas coma. Our company could not have been better, with Mr. and Mrs. S, my brother CA, and one of my favorite non-relatives, Mr. C, who gets an honorary uncle title, all traveling up from North Scituate, RI. As the successful goose and expensive-flavored sauce dwindled, my shoulders slowly dropped from my neck, where they’ve been standing guard for weeks, and the rush of blood to my upper back was both refreshing and painful, but only in that reverse shapeshifting kind of way.

During my time spent planning and executing corporate functions, I acquired the useful habit of the post-party review. No matter how successful your gathering, it could have been better. Let me clarify that this should not be a negative, flagellant exercise. On the contrary, reflecting on your event after it’s over provides an opportunity to relive the best moments, note star dishes (as well as those untouched), while challenging you to inch a little closer to perfection for the next one.

For example, my coordination of food was almost impeccable, but next year I will serve one less hot dish, and add a cold one. Unless the double-oven fairy pays me a visit first. Additionally, I was too involved with meal preparation to ensure everyone received a timely cocktail and incremental refills, so next year I’ll make sure to task Mr. P with drinkmaster duty. Finally, I completely forgot the music. I’m having a little trouble forgiving myself for that omission, but one must remember one is merely a carbon-based life form.

I suggest you start a notebook where you designate at least a page to each party, dinner, and shindig that you throw. Column 1 should contain the positive elements; its length will correlate directly with the degree of your need for affirmation. Column 2 can itemize potential improvements and avoidable oversights. Use the notebook as the first reference you pull out each time you begin the planning process anew, otherwise you’re just being masochistic.

I didn’t mean so fresh that it argues…

Billy the Kid, the lovely and charitable Mrs. S, and I went to pick up the goose today at Antonelli’s on Federal Hill in Providence. A Christmasy nip was chapping faces, so my mother and BK waited in the car while I very nearly ran to the tiny market, and opened the door to find the thin strip of floor space in front of the counter crammed full of people. As soon as the door closed behind me, I was in the middle of New Year’s Eve in Times Square. I asked the woman with whom I was practically dirty dancing to point me toward the back of the line, and she directed her young son to explain the process to me. I was to take a number and wait in line. Everyone was in line. I heard loud chatting in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, and had a moment of tilde shame before plodding on.

Having called weeks in advance to order the bird, I assumed there must be a VIP area and walked toward the rear of the shop, where I could make out bright lights and several figures behind a plastic curtain. As I stepped in, the closest twenty heads turned to me briefly, and the gleam in everyone’s eyes struck me as odd, as did the thick, pungent odor that took a moment to punch me in the neck. As bodies shifted and my line of sight cleared, I noticed several hundred various live chickens, turkeys and geese stacked up in a tower of wire cages like something from Brazil, as well as a great deal of attention being paid to a point just beyond.

Since I was obviously not in the preorder area, I exited before getting hooked on the show; I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to stare my dinner in the eye. Back in the featherless area, I realized as I glanced around for a clerk that my intent on circumnavigating the queue was garnering some nasty looks from the hoard. So I went outside and got my mom. Billy the Kid and I hung by the exit as my mother marched up to the register, spoke quietly with the cashier, and then returned with one twelve-pound goose, freshly cleaned and butchered.

Mrs. Get-the-Job-Done Smith somehow manages to find time for a career while routinely coming to the rescue of my immediate family, and I plan to do my part in making that easier for her by eventually moving back to RI. Several of the more memorable anecdotes starring my mother’s archangelic efficiency involve single-handedly (literally) stopping her Saturn wagon from rolling down a driveway with my brother in the back while appearing totally unphased; shaming my high school into running AP French in my senior year even though I was the only student; and a short-lived but terrifying policy under which shoes left out were considered trash and thrown away.

So, thank you Mrs. S, for making our Christmas feast possible, and now let the performance anxiety nightmares of burnt goose begin.

Run, run, run, fast as you can, can’t catch me ’cause you had some of this.

Good Night Gingerbread

Mr. Peña and I turned in before 9 last night, partly due to overenthusiastic helpings of shepherd pie, but mostly from the effects of one too many return trips to the best gingerbread I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot of gingerbread. The following recipe produces a single-layer iced cake perfect for a holiday dessert, but you could also serve it plain for breakfast, hot from the oven with a slab of salted butter and a tall glass of milk.

2 1/2 C flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp dried ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 C shortening
1/4 C butter
1/2 C sugar
1 egg
1 C unsulfured molasses mixed with 1 C hot water

1/2 C powdered sugar
2 tbsp maple syrup
cold water

Set your oven to 350, then grease and flour a square 8×8 or 9×9 cake pan. Mix the flour, baking soda, salt and spices in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, shortening and sugar until fluffy. Stir in the egg, then dump in the dry ingredients as well as the molasses water and mix well. Use a stand mixer or hand-held to beat on high for 3 minutes before pouring into the pan, then bake at 350 for 50 minutes, but check at 40 to make sure the edges aren’t in danger of burning. If they are, cover them with aluminum foil, leaving the center exposed, and continue baking until an inserted pick comes out clean. Let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes, run a knife along the edges, and flip it out onto a work surface. I cut the top off with a cake leveler, then ice it bottom side up. I suggest you do the same.

To make the icing, put the sugar and maple syrup in a small mixing bowl and stir, adding water by the tbsp as needed until you achieve the desired consistency; it should drizzle but not weep. Cover the ball of a whisk with the icing and flick it back and forth over the cake for some artsy striping, and serve while it’s still warm. If you plan to consume the entire cake yourself, you can retain some semblance of dignity by going through the motions of cutting individual slices and using a plate, as opposed to taking the whole thing into the bathtub.

Never let toddlers decorate outgoing cookies.

Tastefully Understated Gingerbread Cookies

It’s extremely difficult to find a recipe for gingerbread cookies that doesn’t assume you want to bake in bulk. Merry Christmas.

3 C flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 C / 1 stick butter
1/2 C dark brown sugar
1 tbsp  cinnamon
2 tsp powdered ginger
3/4 tsp cloves
1 tsp salt
1 large egg, plus 1 egg white for brushing
1/2 C molasses (unsulphured)
nonpareils (white or multicolored)

Cream together the butter and sugar, then add the egg and, after incorporated, the molasses. Stir vigorously until the mixture is uniform in color. Mix the dry ingredients in a separate bowl. I usually omit this step if called for in a recipe, but it’s important when you have various minuscule amounts of spices. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet, using a wooden spoon as far as it will take you, then kneading with your hands to form a dough. Wrap it up and stick in the fridge for an hour.

Set your oven to 350. Once you’ve cut out cookies somewhere in the 1/8″ thickness neighborhood (I assume I don’t need to walk you through flouring a surface and using a rolling pin), place them on sheets, spacing at least 1″ apart. Lightly beat the egg white and brush a thin film onto each cookie, then sprinkle with nonpareils. Bake single batches at 350 for 10 minutes, then leave them on the sheet for 1 minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Seriously, use the rack; if you’re passing out warped cookies, you’d have been better off buying everyone a bag of Chips A’Hoy.

While baking is a wonderful activity to share with small children, we must don our USDA hats when preparing food intended for consumption beyond our immediate family. Tiny fingers are tempted easily by tiny nostrils, and every time you look away from your little angel, you risk adding nasal contents, hair, and a variety of other unsolicited enhancements to your ingredients list.

Billy the Kid has his own prep station next to, but clearly defined from mine, and he stands on a chair while we work to ensure that he can’t reach far enough over to contaminate my sterile field. When “we” make cookies, I give him a small piece of dough to play with and make his own for decorating. He seems to appreciate the independence, especially after I’ve given him the all-clear to start eating the scattered nonpareils. Once a child is old enough to process the yuck factor of germs, they can bake for an audience. Until then, I advise you to employ these or similar means of keeping adorable but potentially filthy hands off.

No recipe, just cheer.

I’m smack in the middle of the best holiday season I’ve had since my parents ran the entire production. It’s also been the most financially creative in light of my unpaid employment, and I think that may be why I’m having such a fantastic time. The base of our festive and economic Christmas is a combination of daily baking to cover most of our gifting, lights all over every coverable surface, and a running game of spot-the-yule with the elfiest fella ever. While Billy the Kid is vaguely aware that a fat man’s going to break in at some point and put toys in his big sock, he’s still free of stressful holiday expectations and checklists, and the seeming meaninglessness must make it even more magical to him.

Obviously, my main focus for the day itself is the dinner, as all grandparents and uncle will be coming to our house for the first Christmas. This presents a great crafting opportunity for me and my little glitterphile, and instead of table cards, we’ll be decorating and personalizing candles for the place settings. To do this, we’ll get 6 small candles with plain glass holders, and use double-sided tape to add ribbon, glitter, and a small name tag to each. We’re also working on homemade gift tags and couture wrapping (embellished construction paper, newspaper, scrap fabric).

Some may be starting to wonder what room I’ve left for “the true meaning of Christmas.” BK’s bedtime routine includes three songs: two standards (“You Are My Sunshine” and “Tommy Snooks”) and a floater (usually an Astrud Gilberto or Mazzy Star), the latter of which is substituted with alternating Silent Nights and Personent Hodies for the month of December. Grandma sent his first advent calendar, and BK is slowly catching on to the theme of waiting as he lobbies for and is denied multiple doors every night. As a content atheist, I consider that generous, as well as informatively sufficient for now. BK presently has his hands full wrapping his mind around Claus, as he calls him; I don’t think we need to complicate things with the concept of extra-special babies just yet.

Lest I appear callous, I should clarify that the nativity story always reduces me to a quiet tear, and even though I may not appreciate a literal interpretation, it really is a lovely idea. To anyone having a difficult time locating their Christmas spirit, I suggest you wind a string of lights around your biggest plant, bake some gingerbread, and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (followed by Elf to help stop the weeping) with a wineglass full of slightly spiked nog.

Christmas Shopping for People Like Me

This year I’m taking care of a few household needs with my wishlist, including a new rug for the living room and a Singer machine, as I tire quickly of hand-sewing my curtains. There are still, however, a few kitchen items that have managed to elude me over the years, of which I was freshly reminded while perusing the Williams-Sonoma holiday catalog. Here are some delightful gifts for the kitchen enthusiasts in your life, and don’t be afraid that they might already have one; an excuse to patronize the most justifiably overpriced store on earth is always appreciated.

Microplane Rasp Grater – $14.95
A zesty gadget that doubles as a creative weapon.

Kuhn-Rikon Bread Knife – $19.95
I was excited about this one even before the description promised to reduce my fatigue. Completely unnecessary, deliciously specific.

Oval Scooping Strainers Set of 3 – $49.95
The only time I think to replace my strainers is while I’m watching food fall through the holes. Be somebody’s hero.

All-Clad Cook-Serve Tools Set of 6 – $99.95
Save a friend’s counter-top from the visual abscess of a paint can full of dollar-store cooking utensils.

All-Clad Stainless Steel French Skillet Set – $129.95
This is as close as WS comes to an actual deal. Perhaps Mr. P would like to take advantage of it; I don’t think it’s possible to top the Shun Ken santoku he gave me a few years back, but he can certainly try.

%d bloggers like this: