Christmas Menu for Six:
Hors d’oeuvre: Feta-Spinach Stuffed French Bread
Main Course: Coffee-Crusted Pork Roast
Sides: Cheesy Hasselback Potato Gratin, Carrots with Ginger and Whiskey,
This year, six of the miLam crew are spending Christmas in my cozy north-woods cabin, shielded from the deep winter snow by a roaring fire over a bed of coals. Randy, miLam’s randy IT Consultant-to-the-Stars, has agreed to roast the beast. Miguel, who handles miLam’s event lighting, sometimes with evil clown gobos, graciously agreed to do the corn. I’m glad to make everything else. The rest of the crew is providing logistical and clean-up support. Here’s how I’m planning to pull this off:
You can buy just about everything you need well in advance, so rest assured that you can avoid much of the grocery-shopping calamity that occurs around this time of year. The single exception is the raspberries. You can’t count on them keeping well. It seems that more and more they do, and I’m deliberately turning a blind eye to any curiosity about the reason for that, for fear that it involves splicing the DNA of raspberries with jelly fish or whatnot. To be safe, plan to buy them the day before you need them, or perhaps two days. Look them over very carefully as you buy them, to be absolutely sure that there is no evidence of mold, because if raspberries go bad, this is how they do it.
Two Days before Christmas
Start with the Feta-Spinach Stuffed French Bread. It can be fully prepped up to the point of baking, wrapped tightly in foil, and kept refrigerated. It’ll be easy for everyone to nosh on this as a couple of us work up dinner.
Next, move on to the Black Forest Buche de Noël, because it’s a multi-day affair. This involves merengue mushrooms; they keep a long, long time. Consider making them days, a week, or more in advance. The cake itself should be fully completed the day before and kept, tightly covered, in the fridge (sans the shrooms, which should be added to the cake platter only when you’re ready to set the cake out). We’re planning to have dinner on Christmas Day, which leaves me free to deal with the cake on Christmas Eve morning. It’s not a difficult cake, although it’s somewhat time consuming. If you start after breakfast, you’ll have it done before lunch, working at a relaxed pace in your pajamas and a Santa cap, while singing Christmas carols. The single part that requires specialized skill is rolling the thing up, and even then, it’s more a matter of “perfectly fine” vs. “I’m the Beyoncé of Christmas cakes.” If you’re the latter, you’ll create a roll that, when slices are cut, is revealed to be a true Archimedean spiral with 1¾ if not 2 full turns. Otherwise, if you have no real idea what you’re doing but you’re at least careful and patient, you’ll get perhaps 1½ turns and an overall shape that seems more oval than circular – but it doesn’t really matter, because this shape, when frosted, will look like a completely satisfactory log. Most important, it’s a good recipe and it tastes fantastic.
Consider starting with vegetable prep. The Brussels sprouts and carrots and be prepped and set aside until time to cook them.
Three Hours before Dinner
Cheesy Hasselback Potato Gratin spends 1½ hours in the oven. It stays warm for a long time, tastes great when it’s just barely warm, and reheats well. Use that information to back your way from projected dinner time to the time you pop the gratin into the oven. Note that potatoes, once peeled and sliced, don’t keep well. It’s not as though you’re under the gun, but you can’t just leave them out on the countertop or in the fridge. They’ll turn brown. The peeling and slicing goes quickly; I know – it surprised me too the first time I did it. If you absolutely have to prep them in advance, there are workarounds.
Caramelized Brussels Sprouts take a long time, but not as long as the potatoes. You can cook them while the potatoes are in the oven, with plenty of time to spare. They reheat well; plan on letting them cool, and reheating them before dinner.
Carrots with Ginger and Whiskey don’t take very long. Most of their cooking time needs only light attention, so you can quite feasibly multitask them with the sprouts. Like the sprouts, plan to let them cool and reheat them before dinner.
The Raspberries and Cheese need some forethought. The first phase of the recipe involves blending and whipping a cheese mixture. Unlike plain whipped cream, this mixture will fully stabilize in the refrigerator. So, you could prep up to this point early on. However, when freshly whipped, the cheese mixture has a luscious-yet-light texture that is a beautiful complement to the raspberries. Cold, it’s still completely delicious enough to wow your guests, but its texture is more mousse-like. In either case, don’t assemble the dessert until it’s time to enjoy it.
A second consideration is presentation. Especially when freshly made, it’s not easy to remove portions without disturbing the dessert’s beautiful appearance. I’m planning to make individual versions by simply dividing the components up among six small gratin dishes.
One of the major concerns in every holiday meal, it seems, is the use of the oven. Assuming you don’t have two ovens, you have to plan the menu so that none of the dishes competes for oven time. On the other hand, it’s easier to have two ovens than you might think. A roaster appliance – the kind of thing your grandmother probably cooked her Thanksgiving turkey in – comes in just as handy at Christmas time. If you don’t have one, get one that has a buffet insert.
Christmas Menu for Six
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