Saturday, January 11, 2014

Christmas Baking

The holidays have come and gone, but I'm only just now getting around to the photo- and recipe-sharing part.

My family hosted a Christmas Eve buffet dinner for 14 people. We tried to keep the dishes fairly simple, and came up with a menu where we could do a lot of prep work in advance and cook almost everything in the oven, so we could have a relaxed evening and not be chained to the stove!

About a week earlier I'd been to a party where the hosts served a delicious flatbread topped with apples, blue cheese, and walnuts.  I decided to make a variation on this as an appetizer, using quince rather than apples since we had some on hand.  I made a basic pizza dough and topped half of it with crumbled goat cheese, and the other half with bacon "jam" (a confit of slow-cooked bacon and seasonings, for which I can take no credit -- it was made by C. and M.)  Over this went slices of quince, sautéed in butter with brown sugar, salt, and black pepper; fresh thyme; thinly sliced shallots; pecans.


I failed to get photos of the other appetizers, which included olives, salumi, cheeses, and endives with a blue cheese and walnut spread (a perennial favorite).

Salad: Romaine hearts, cherry tomatoes, parmesan cheese, chopped toasted pistachios. Pistachio oil and blood orange vinaigrette.

Roasted green beans and yellow and red bell peppers; walnuts and mustardseed.
The salad dressing, the baked chicken, and two of the desserts below include blood orange in the ingredients. This isn't for want of creativity; it's because my parents have a very prolific blood orange tree!  All the fresh herbs and other citrus fruits (lemons, limes) used in this meal are homegrown.

Chicken pieces baked with onions, garlic, green olives, blood oranges, fresh oregano.
The pasta dish was inspired by a fabulous movie, Haute Cuisine, based on the career of the first woman who worked as a personal cook for the president of France. Early in the film she describes a "gratin de macaronis aux cèpes," or a baked pasta with porcini mushrooms.  It sounded so delicious that I had to try it!  Fresh porcini can be hard to find and fairly expensive, but dried ones are more economical and intensely flavorful.

Soak dried porcini in hot water for about 20 minutes; drain, chop, set aside. Strain and measure the remaining porcini water. Make a béchamel sauce (roux + milk) but swap out about half the milk for the porcini water.  The roux is made using equal parts flour and butter: one tbsp each plus one cup of liquid. Melt the butter, and cook the flour with it until it is slightly golden and the raw-flour taste has cooked out; then whisk in the liquid. For one pound of pasta (I used penne; any short pasta will do), you will want at least 4 cups of sauce (4 tbsp each butter & flour, 4 cups liquid).  This dish is great for parties since the pasta and sauce can be cooked (separately) in advance, then combined and baked just before heating. Remember to toss your cooked pasta with olive oil so it doesn't stick, and leave it slightly underdone (more than usually al dente) -- it will continue to cook in the oven. Bake at 375 F until browned and bubbly.

Porcini pasta gratin. Topping: breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, garlic.
And finally -- of course! -- the desserts.

Ricotta cheesecake with pomegranate and blood orange syrup, both made by C.

These are our traditional family recipes; the cookies, pudding, and cake appear every Christmas. Sometimes we'll add other items to the menu, but it is not Christmas without these three items on the table!
Sablés (sugar cookies)
The pudding is a Lebanese specialty called mighli. It's made simply with water and rice flour; sweetened with sugar, and flavored with cinnamon (hence the color), anise, and other spices. It is delicate and delicious.  The pudding is allowed to cool and then topped with shredded coconut and nuts. It's traditionally made for the birth of a baby -- which is, naturally, how it came to feature in Christmas meals. 

Mighli without garnish. Like any pudding, it can be served either in individual cups or in a large dish.

Mighli topped with shredded (unsweetened) coconut, walnuts, and pine nuts.

And the pièce de résistance: the bûche de noël, or yule log cake. It's made by the same process as a jelly roll: a basic sponge cake batter, baked in a sheet pan, then rolled up while still warm and allowed to rest in a roll overnight so it holds its shape. We make the bûche every year but sometimes vary the flavorings of the cake, filling, and frosting. This year the cake was flavored with blood oranges (zest and juice); the filling is vanilla chantilly cream; the frosting is dark chocolate ganache. Chocolate curls and powdered sugar are added for extra decoration, to give the illusion of snow-covered tree bark.

I hope your holidays were as delicious as ours!