Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Live Blog 2017

Thursday, December 21st

2:30 PM

I'm not spending any more money this Christmas.  I'm finished with this whole spending money thing.  Christmas is expensive.  It's not even about the gifts.  I have to buy food and alcohol and decorations and utensils.  It never ends.  

Welcome to the 2017 Christmas Live Blog.  This is where I narrate, vent, and otherwise tell the tale of putting Christmas dinner together.  I update my readers as much as possible on how successful I am at feeding my family a feast.

I know I complain, but after every Christmas dinner I make, I can't wait to do the next one.  I have been waiting two years to have this chance again and I have been planning the menu for just as long.  It takes time, money, organization, and a few headaches to put together a three-course dinner for a large number of family members, but I don't want to do it any other way.

Actually, I would like to do it another way.  I'd like a house  - a decent-sized house - with a bigger kitchen and a real dining room and an attic and basement for storage, but that's a subject for another post.

Today's agenda is about spending the last few dollars I still have left in my account.  After extracting my Christmas tableware from my storage locker, I headed to Kohl's.  I needed glassware.  I break glassware all the time.  Almost twenty years ago I moved into my first apartment and my friends Mike and Sean gave me a 40-piece glassware set with the intention of giving me plenty of glass to break.  Well, I have broken most of those glasses.  I needed glasses for non-alcoholic beverages.  Kohl's has decent housewares selection, so I headed there.  

I don't really need a centerpiece, but this year I felt I just had to have one.  I want my tables to look more festive.  I scoured Home Goods for something that would look nice on the table.  It was a tea light holder, so I had to buy tea lights.  

My final stop was at Party City.  I needed the clear plastic mugs to serve the hot apple cider. I have nothing at home that would look nice for the cider.  The clear plastic mugs are attractive enough and I don't have to keep them.  I do hate the idea of waste though.

Next I'll be at the liquor store buying brandy for the hot cider and at the Italian specialty store for panettone and some fresh mozzarella.  

I started out with a leisurely morning, but that will be my last leisurely morning for a long time.

7:50 PM

Closing out the day with a Baileys-spiked hot chocolate and my beloved copy of Paul Theroux's A Christmas Card.  This is a time-honored Solstice ritual for me. 

Friday, December 22nd

8:21 AM

I just got back from the gym.  I may let my healthy eating habits fall by the wayside a bit during the holiday season, but I am determined to keep up my fitness.  Exercise keeps me sane and I think it helps me eat better.

When I left the house at 7 this morning, I saw a small school bus waiting outside my building.  I was still under the influence of reading A Christmas Card and was in fantasy mode.  I had a hope that bus was there for me and that it was a magic bus ready to take me on some kind of Polar Express-type adventure.  Alas, it was not to be and I had to go to the gym.

Today is the least fun day of prep.  This is cleanup day.  This is the day I make my apartment shine from top to bottom.  I dread it, but I have to get through this.  I go one room at a time.  I start at one end of the apartment and work my way from room to room until I get to the other end.

The first order of business is trash removal.  I am emptying every receptacle so I have room for all the trash I'll be generating during the cooking and setup process.

I have to take these boxes to the compactor room before I do anything else.  These are the by-product of gift shopping and supply shopping.  This is what I mean about not wanting to spend more money.  Look at all this stuff!

11:15 AM

My order from Fresh Direct arrived.  I don't have to worry about Christmas dinner not making it here.  I do have to go back to the compactor room now to dispose of the boxes.  Grrrr...

There was nothing in that small top box except two lemons.  That is what I call monumental waste!

2:00 PM

Finished cleaning the master bath, bedroom, and living room.  I am not sure if I want do any further cleaning of the living room floor.  It's vacuumed, but I didn't mop it.  I did that last week and it still looks okay and it's only going to get really dirty again anyway. Maybe save that for after Christmas. I'm saving the kitchen and the guest bathroom until the end of the day on Sunday when we are closer to the big day.

So while I have this lull in my duties, I should talk about the menu.  What am I serving?

Every year I do a different theme for Christmas dinner.  In 2014 the meal was what I would consider classic American.  I made roast beef, mashed potatoes, turkey breast, green bean casserole, and a layer cake.  In 2015 I decided to take a virtual trip across the pond and had an English inspired dinner with goose, ham, roasted parsnips, and trifle.  

This year I decided to go Italian.  When I say Italian, I do not mean the kind of traditional Italian-American dinner so dear to my readers with the requisite lasagne or other heavy pasta dishes, and finished with struffoli.  I did my research and decided to try to emulate a dinner that would actually be served in Italy.  This is no small feat considering that meals in Italy are going to vary from region to region.  Still, an Italian Christmas dinner is going to follow the same format as most formal Italian meals: antipasto, primo (rice or pasta), secondo (meat and vegetables) and then dessert and coffee. One popular dish for the Christmas pasta course is tortellini in brodo and porchetta is a popular meat course.

Keeping that in mind, this is my menu for Christmas Dinner.

Antipasto (I have two kinds of dry sausage, prosciutto, mozzarella, provolone, roasted peppers, and olives, with grissini and flatbreads)
Tortellini in Brodo (tortellini cooked in homemade chicken stock)
Porchetta (I ordered one from Heritage Foods USA)
Whole chicken breasts cooked with grapes and white wine (adapted Melissa Clark recipe)
Parmesan roasted cauliflower
Spinach sautéed with raisins and pine nuts
Pandoro (store bought)

The remaining dessert will not be Italian.  I was planning to make a chocolate ricotta cake for dessert.  In addition, my mother is making one of her monster cookie trays.  When I was growing up she always made a tray of various types of cookies at Christmas.  They were a major part of my childhood Christmas memories.  Mom stopped making them years ago, but she decided to go back to it this year.   A few days ago my sister-in-law said she is bringing cookies too.  I decided we didn't need more dessert.  I bought the ingredients for the cake, so I have to make it eventually, but I won't be making it for Christmas dinner.

While I have been cleaning all day, I have also been making a pot of homemade stock.  I always keep veggies bits and bones and carcasses in my freezer for stock-making.  I save whatever I can from the chicken every time I roast one.  It comes in handy when I want the perfect stock for a special meal.  I put that thing on to simmer in the morning and at the end of the day I hope to have a rich and hearty stock for my tortellini.

5:17 PM

This is why I want a house with a big kitchen that can hold a big refrigerator.  There is nothing else that can go in here.  

We're going out for any meal that can't already be obtained from what's already in here.  No leftovers either.

Saturday December 23rd

8:30 AM

This is going to be as close to a day off I'll have this weekend.  If I were doing any baking, today would be baking day, but I'm not baking, so I'm taking it easy.

One of my few cooking tasks today was to dry brine my chicken.  The original recipe doesn't call for it (and uses a whole chicken instead of breasts) but I wanted to try it and see if it would keep my chicken crispier after roasting.  I used a mixture of salt, lemon zest, and fennel seeds and rubbed it all over the chicken.  This will go in the fridge until it's ready to be roasted Monday afternoon.

What is my plan for the rest of the day?  I am going to spend the day with my horses.  It will be my only day this weekend to do so.  I will have to do laundry as well as pick up some necessities from CVS.  It's a mix of business and pleasure.  

11:43 AM

Wrench, meet works.

Just received a call from Mom.  She was starting in on the Christmas cookie baking when she discovered her oven wasn't working properly.  No oven, no cookies.  Two of her cookies are no-bake, so she will still bring those, but otherwise, we're a tad short on desserts.  It looks like I'll be baking that cake after all.  So much for spending the day with the horses.  I don't have time to ride now.  

It's a miserable day out.  It's not the kind of day I want to make a 70 mile drive, so I guess it's a blessing in disguise.

I joke with Mom that she always manages to get out of making requested dishes for holiday dinners.  

So let's talk about the cake.  What exactly is this cake I'm baking?

I went to my Number One resource for dessert recipes when looking for the best ricotta cake recipe.  That would be Emily's blog.  She provided me with exactly what I needed.  She always does.

In other news, I just got an unexpected and lovely gift from my BFF.

I adore Penzey's.  I think my cake might have a little extra orange in it.

I removed them before I took the photo, but this box was filled with cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, and whole nutmegs.  I will be using those cinnamon sticks for my hot spiced cider.  

4:00 PM

Cake is baked.  Nothing else to do today.  Just dinner, Netflix, and bedtime.  Lots to do tomorrow though.  I need to do more major cleaning and some minor food prep.  Also Star Wars.  

Here is the cake.

I don't know if there was any way to prevent the center from falling in a bit.  I followed Emily's recipe mostly.  I added a bit of that new orange extract.  I also baked it in a springform pan rather than a regular cake pan.  I just felt the cake would be easier to unmold if I used a springform.  Most cheesecakes use a springform after all.  Since a springform is a little bigger than a regular cake pan, I shaved 5 minutes off the minimum baking time. 

The cake seems so quintessentially Italian with the almonds, citrus, and ricotta, doesn't it?

Sunday December 24th

7:30 AM

Rise and shine!  Happy Christmas Eve morning.  This morning's agenda consists of breakfast and yoga.  Then I have to get serious again.  

Today I'm prepping anything that can be prepped in advance.  I'll be cutting vegetables, assembling a spice blend for my hot spiced cider, toasting nuts, and taking inventory of all necessary pots, pans and serving dishes.  Then I clean the kitchen thoroughly and give a good cleaning to the guest bathroom.  Finally I will set up my tables and chairs.  Tomorrow I'll set them.

But first, breakfast.  

2:00 PM

I probably spent way too much time procrastinating this morning, but I managed to be productive in the end.  I even put off cleaning the kitchen by saying I didn't have enough kitchen cleaner and needed to go out and buy some more (so much for not spending any more money).

My first goal was food prep.  I cut up a large head of cauliflower so I can easy coat it with olive oil and pop it in the oven tomorrow.

I toasted some pine nuts so they would be ready for the sautéed spinach.

I made a gremolata for the pork.  This is made of a bunch of arugula, the juice and zest of a lemon, four cloves of garlic, about a half a cup of toasted almonds, and a good glug of olive oil.

I also put my spices together for the hot spiced cider.

I realize as I write this I forgot to grate the parmesan for the cauliflower.  Do I do that now, or do I wait until tomorrow since the morning will be relative quiet?  Hmmmm...

The bathroom is next.  Luckily it's a smallish bathroom and won't take too long to clean.

What comes after that?  Star Wars!

Monday, December 25th

10:05 AM

The big day has arrived!

It was a busy morning.  I got to bed late last night after seeing an 8:00 movie and then a late night dinner at the diner, but I could't sleep in this morning.  There was just too much to think about!

I was still trying to keep up my fitness so before breakfast I did a Kinect Zumba workout and ate what will probably be the last healthful meal of the day.

Next it was time to set up my tables.

I never seem to have enough linens or glassware and often my stuff is wrinkled or ill-fitting.  I have a round (and wrinkled) tablecloth on a rectangular table.  I only had 8 Christmas themed napkins and there are 9 people having dinner tonight.  I also have two different sets of water glasses.

I think I'm the only one who cares.  It only distresses me because I read so many food blogs and I see so many beautifully set tables where everything looks so smooth and perfect.  I want my tables to look like that and not like everything was thrown together.  I guess that's the problem with apartment living.  I am so limited with how much stuff I can have and can store and can put out.

True story.  One year I had more guests than I had place settings with my "good" china.  I was serving a salad course and each place setting had a bowl matching the plate.  I took the bowls into the kitchen to dish up the salad and family members came into the kitchen to help me distribute them.  When I came back to the table, I saw the bowls were not all matched to the corresponding plates.  I had a hissy fit while my family hadn't even noticed the green bowls were now sitting on top of the blue plates.  Yes, I truly am the only who who cares.

Now that I am set up, I don't have a whole lot to do for the next two hours.  Everything else needs to be done closer to guest arrival.  At noon I'll be taking my pork out to bring to room temperature.  I can actually relax for a bit.

Relax?  What's that?

4:08 PM

Pork is having a nice slow roast.  Even though it's a little early, I put out my antipasto tray.  Let's hope I don't eat it all before the guests arrive.  I have sweet sorpresata, hot salami, prosciutto, mozzarella, aged provolone, and olives and cured peppers.

I always clear the mail off the front hall table to use as a drinks table.  Guests can pour one as soon as they come in.

I know there isn't much on it, but wine is the one thing I assign my guests to bring.

In addition, my hot spiced cider is in the slow cooker getting nice and warm and spicy.

Lights dimmed, tree and candles lit.  We are ready for company.

10:09 PM

...and just like that it's over.

The meal was a roaring success (if I do say so myself).  The pork was perfect.  The chicken was tender and tasty.

Here is a shot of the buffet.

The porchetta is sliced up and displayed front and center.  To right right are the vegetable dishes of cauliflower and spinach.  At the upper left is the gremolata.   The far left is the chicken.  I cut the meat off the bones to make it easier for the family to eat.  The gravy boat contains a mixture of pan juices and roasted garlic.

Before the buffet we had our tortellini soup.  These are Rana tortellini I bought from Shop Rite.  They were delicious.  They were just as good as the fancier kinds you buy at gourmet pasta shops.

After dinner we opened gifts and ate from the dessert buffet.  We had my cake and my mother's rum balls and cornflake wreaths.  We had panettone and pandora.  My brother brought chocolates as well.

But the best part of Christmas dinner is the company.

I hope everyone had as happy Christmas meal as I did.  

Saturday, December 16, 2017

New Series: Literary Inspirations

I'm taking on a new project for 2018.

I often write about how inspiration can come from anywhere.  It can come from watching Food Network.    It can come from a movie.  It can come from spotting a new ingredient at the store. It can come from mistakenly reading a food label.  It is always exciting to me when one of these ideas come to me and I find myself thinking, "I want to cook this."

Some of that inspiration comes from the books I read.  It was The Bone Clocks that inspired me to create my Banana Cherry Muffins (please note if you click this link, you will be forced to relive enduring another one of my bad puns).  It was another novel that inspired me to stuff tiny chickens with a cherry-infused stuffing.  One of the things I love the most about reading is the ways it stimulates my imagination - including in the kitchen.

I'd love to say my new project is completely original, but it was a blatant five-finger discount, even though it's something I should have thought of myself long ago.  Earlier this year one of my friends made a post on Facebook asking for book recommendations.  One of our old high school classmates posted a link to her blog for her Book, Look, and Cook Project.  Her goal was to read 100 books and cook a recipe inspired by each of them.  Since she is a professional photographer, she did beautiful photo shoots of her food and books.  One hundred books and recipes is a lofty goal, and I'm not sure she did all 100 (her IG feed only has about 30), but I think she covered a broad range of literary and culinary tastes.

So this is going to be my new project.  While I don't have a set number, I aim to cook a recipe inspired by every book I read.  Maybe the recipe will be in the book itself, maybe the food will be specific but there won't be a recipe for it, or maybe something in the book will just suggest an idea for a recipe for me.  In any case, I will do my best to associate everything I read with food. (That shouldn't be difficult because I associate just about everything in my life with food.)

Although I say I'm doing the project in 2018, I'm giving it a head start.  I recently finished The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman.  It is the prequel to her more famous book Practical Magic.  It tells the story of the mysterious aunts, Franny and Jet, who raised the two sisters who were the protagonists of Practical Magic.

The book doesn't have much focus on food with one exception.  Franny and Jet learn to bake a "Tipsy Chocolate Cake" from their aunt Isabelle, who occupied the big house on Magnolia street before they did.   The cake was so laden with rum, it could make you drunk just smelling it.  I don't want my chocolate cake to be too alcoholic to the point where you drown out the chocolate, but I do think that chocolate is well complemented by many forms of alcohol.

I didn't make a chocolate rum cake.  I took a different route.  This recipe on Delish was popping up all over my social media feeds.  I love Baileys and it mixes well into all kinds of desserts.  This cake would definitely be tipsy since the alcohol isn't boiled into syrup or baked into the cake.  This is straight up liquor.   I knew I wanted to make it, but it's the kind of cake I usually like to have an excuse for baking.  It's an occasion cake.

This week my office announced we were having holiday bake-off in December.  I knew I wanted to participate.  I can never resist that kind of challenge.  I didn't know what recipe to make.

When I remembered my book challenge and how my most recent book contained a booze-soaked chocolate cake, I realized I had a chance to kill three birds with one stone.

The recipe calls for a cake mix, but we all know I don't do cake mixes.  I mixed up my go-to chocolate cake recipe, My First Chocolate Cake.   I poked the holes in the top with the end of a wooden spoon poured a  mixture of Baileys, condensed milk, and cocoa powder.  Finally it was topped with the simple buttercream flavored with Baileys and chocolate.

Staging photos is tough in the winter when you don't have enough hours of natural light and you're too lazy to take out the light box and do something decent.

I had no expectations of winning the bake off.  My office is mostly men and men tend to be picky about sweets and chocolate.  I also know soggy cakes can be divisive.  Many people feel soaking a cake in liquor destroys the texture.  Frosting is also a divisive food.  Some people can't get enough of it and some people think globs of buttercream are gross.

I didn't have to worry about competition.  As it turned out, no one else entered.  The cake was well received and I had some of the guys tell me even if I had competition, I would have won.

I will definitely make this cake again when I need a chocolate cake with a kick!