We had a leisurely late-afternoon Christmas lunch here in Brooklyn with our Australian neighbors, Jennifer and Mark Henry. It was the kind of cozy day spent cooking, eating, and lazing about, in between playing with their two daughters, April and Rose. They not only believe in Santa, they left him a beer--how could you not fall in love with these girls?
It was such a nice day that I won't dwell on the accident. I feel like I write about mishaps a lot here and this blog isn't called Dinner Party Disasters. So I won't really get into the misfortune that was the walk downstairs with all of the food we made. And how the uncooked potato gratin started leaking out of the baking dish, dripping down someone's coat and all over the stairs. And how when someone pointed out the mess, the other person tried to set down the potatoes, inadvertently dropping a bag holding caramel sauce and six dessert bowls, so that there was a caramel explosion all over the stairs as well. (Note to landlords: we cleaned. And the stairs are a filthy mess to begin with.) And then someone twisted an ankle trying to reach for the falling dishes and missing a stair. Luckily no dishes or ankles were broken and the caramel was superfluous anyway. But let's just say that if we were discussing mishaps, it wasn't exactly the smoothest start to Christmas dinner.
Soo, moving on.
Christmas celebrated without your family always feels a little strange even though the holiday is usually spent in a universal way for most people: opening gifts, eating a big meal, possibly attending church. The difference is in the particulars. Do you eat turkey or ham? Do you open gifts before or after dinner? Do you say grace before the meal? Are you from Australia and eat roasted pumpkin? It's the little specific things that make it your family's holiday.
Last Christmas, Dan and I stayed in Brooklyn and had a quiet day by ourselves. But because we were spending the day with another family this year, I think I felt more conscious of being away from my own relatives. Instead of helping my mom make her sweet potato casserole, I made a potato gratin by myself in our apartment. Instead of catching up on the breezy back porch with Nanny, Dan and I chatted with Jennifer and Mark Henry and ate roasted chestnuts in their warm living room. Instead of being peppered with questions like "So, how is work?" and "How much snow have you gotten in New York?" around the dinner table, we had a late lunch and talked about traveling and food and our neighborhood. We ate turkey of course, but instead of Nanny's cranberry sauce I made cranberry relish. Instead of Mom's sweet potatoes, we ate the aforementioned roasted pumpkin. And instead of watching my parents doze off on the couch post-dinner, we played Brooklyn Monopoly after watching the girls do an impromptu dance performance, making dizzy circles in the kitchen.
In many ways I missed my family, but in many ways this was a more relaxing and fun way to spend Christmas. It was a holiday that felt more like my adult life, rather than re-entering my childhood again and again. Although that's what makes the holidays the holidays.
Christmas with the Henrys
Roasted turkey with gravy
Chestnut and barley stuffing
Potato gratin with goat cheese and garlic
Apple-cherry crisp with cinnamon whipped cream
This is cranberry relish the way I like it: spicy, tart, and chock-full of whole berries. The original recipe is by Jasper White, a chef who specializes in New England cuisine. Be sure to make the relish one day in advance and chill it in the refrigerator so the mixture takes on a jelly-like consistency and the flavors deepen.
(Makes 3 cups)
2 tsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
1 bag (12 ounces) fresh cranberries
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Peel 1 orange and cut the zest (orange part only) into a very fine julienne, as thin as possible; set aside. Squeeze both oranges for juice; set aside. Combine sugar and lemon juice in a small pan. Heat up slowly and continue cooking until the sugar begins to caramelize. If necessary, wash down the sides of the pan by brushing with a little water to keep the sugar from burning.
When the sugar is caramel colored, add the julienned ginger and orange zest. Cook for about 1 minute, then add the cranberries, orange juice and pepper. Continue to cook on medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes or until the cranberries are slightly broken but not mushy. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Potato gratin with goat cheese and garlic
Christmas dinner isn't complete without potatoes of some sort, and while I love them mashed, I wanted to try something new this year. This gratin, from Bon Appétit, is mild and creamy, with a slight tang from the goat cheese and a hint of spice from a little nutmeg. To make the potatoes a little livelier, you could add one tablespoon of thyme or rosemary. Carry with care if uncooked.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup crumbled soft fresh goat cheese (about 5 ounces)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly sliced
Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter an 11 by 7 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Whisk the first 7 ingredients in medium bowl until smooth. Arrange 1/3 of potatoes in bottom of prepared dish, overlapping slightly and covering completely. Pour 1/3 of cream mixture over. Repeat layering potatoes and cream mixture 2 more times. Bake uncovered until potatoes are tender and top is golden brown in spots, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Serve hot.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)
1 butternut squash or Japanese pumpkin