Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Go-to Christmas Recipes

This Christmas marks my second as Cleveland Magazine's food writer and my seventh as a chef. As such, my family turns to me often for menu suggestions, shopping lists, recipes and techniques. So when that email comes — the one with the subject line "Christmas menu ideas" — I'm usually left straddling a line somewhere between exasperation and terror, anticipation and a sense of pride. I want to bring my gourmet flair to the meal, but despite the myriad Christmas cookbooks and grandma's recipe collections available online, trying something new is a gamble: Surely that four-out-of-five-star review for caramelized onion biscuits means something is wrong with it.

Yet here is the best tip I've picked up through the last half-decade of pulling off elaborate holiday dinners for upward of 20 people with a range of preferences and dietary restrictions: You can spend two days in the kitchen whipping up maple gastriques, herbed leg of lamb and brunoised parsnips, and the family will still scan the table for your aunt's lumpy mashed potatoes and the HoneyBaked Ham your mother in law bought. Meanwhile, you've missed out on the last four bottles of wine, your nephew's newest magic trick and at least one tenner slipped from grandma's wallet and into more available pockets.

In fact, it's tradition and time together that everyone really wants.

Here, then, are my tried-and-true picks for updated favorites that will warrant heaping helpings of seconds but won't bind you to the kitchen.

If You Like Sweet Potato Casserole, Try:
Sweet Potato Classic
Adapted from's Gourmet Sweet Potato Classic
Serves 8

Marshmallows are nixed in favor of a more sophisticated crumb topping, while eggs and cream create a smooth, custardy potato filling.

4 sweet potatoes (I like the pale white ones rather than ruby sweet potatoes or yams), peeled and quartered
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup butter, softened
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (use oats ground in a food processor for gluten-free version)
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup pecans, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9-inch square or 10-inch round baking dish.
Add sweet potatoes to a large pot of heavily salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes. Drain, allow to cool and finely mash.
Mix the mashed potatoes with the salt, 1/4 cup butter, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, sugar and heavy cream and transfer to the prepared baking dish.
In another bowl, mix the 1/4 cup softened butter, flour (or oats), brown sugar and pecans. Using a fork, blend until the mixture is the consistency of wet sand. Sprinkle over the sweet potatoes.
Bake 30-40 minutes, until topping is crispy and golden. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

If You Like Stovetop Stuffing, Try:
Savory Sausage-and-apple Dressing
Adapted from Jasper White's Country Sausage and Sage Dressing
Serves 10

Using a rustic loaf rather than white bread ensures this savory, fragrant dressing, which is safer baked outside of the turkey cavity, can hold its liquid.

2 loaves rustic bread, such as French baguettes or sourdough, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound seasoned pork sausage (not links)
1 large yellow onion, large diced
4 stalks celery, medium diced
2 Granny Smith apples, cored and large diced, skin on 
1/2 bunch Italian flat-leaf parsley, destemmed and roughly chopped
bunch fresh sage, destemmed and roughly chopped
4 eggs
2-3 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
6 tablespoons unsalted butter

Dry out the bread cubes by toasting about 1 hour in a 250-degree oven (or dice bread up to two nights before and leave out on a baking sheet).
Heat olive oil in a large skillet. When shimmering, add the sausage, crumbling into bite-sized pieces. Don't overstir, allowing the meat to brown.
Remove sausage from the pan, leaving the drippings. Add onion and celery, stirring to coat. Season with salt and pepper and cook about 2 minutes. Add apples and red pepper flakes and cook 2 minutes more.
Combine vegetable mixture and reserved sausage in a large bowl, then add bread cubes and herbs.
In a medium bowl, whisk eggs into 2 cups stock. Slowly pour over bread mixture, tossing as you go. The mixture should feel slightly spongey but not mushy. Add more stock if needed.
Butter a large baking pan and fill with dressing. Pinch off small chunks from the remaining butter and sprinkle over the top.
Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour, or until a golden brown crust forms.

If You Like French's green bean casserole, Try:
Green Bean Gratin with Bechamel
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman's Green Bean Casserole
Serves 8

Crisp-tender green beans introduce texture into this old standby, while a bacon-and-cream-sauce base keep the mixture cohesive and delicious.

2 pounds green beans, trimmed and halved
4 slices bacon, diced (it's easier when bacon is slightly frozen)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 yellow onion, small diced
1 pint fresh button mushrooms, sliced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil, then add green beans and cook until bright green, about 3 minutes. Drain and plunge the beans into a salty ice water bath to stop the cooing process. Drain again and set aside.
In a large, dry skillet, cook the bacon until crispy. Remove from pan and place on a paper towel-lined plate.
Add onion, mushrooms and garlic to bacon drippings and cook until onions are translucent and the liquid from the mushrooms has been evaporated. Remove from heat.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter. Sprinkle flour over the butter as you whisk, then cook for several minutes until sandy blonde.
Slowly pour in milk, whisking constantly. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and Parmesan, stirring as the cheese incorporates. Remove from heat.
Combine the bacon, mushrooms and onions and beans in a baking dish. Add bechamel sauce and gently toss, then top with panko crumbs.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden brown.


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