We hold an annual post-Christmas party and invite more or less everyone we know to stuff themselves into our completely packed house and catch up and eat frightening quantities of food. This year, due to Christmas being on a weird day, actually ended up being held after New Years, on Sunday.
The night before my mother looked anxiously at our list of menu items and went, “God I hope we have enough food. I guess we can always just order a pizza.”
Well, yes, I think we had enough.
Party prep begins a few months in advance, when my mother and I begin poring over cookbooks and recipes and going “Ooh, I wanna make that! Ooh, that too! Yeah, yeah, that one!”
Obviously some editing is required or we’d be making 75 kinds of cookies (well, actually, that could totally end up happening) but one I knew I’d be making from the get-go was the Date, Walnut and Blue Cheese Ball from this year’s Cooking Light holiday issue.
It involves any number of yummy ingredients. First and foremost, DATES, of the fat and juicy Medjool variety that we bought at the Greek store, along with cream cheese, blue cheese, and buttermilk; shallots and lemon zest for flava; and toasted walnuts and parsley for a beautiful outer coating.
I used my hand mixer for the first time in awhile to whip up the cheeses and buttermilk and man that thing is kind of pain. See that little hook on the edge of the bowl? I was holding onto that to hold the bowl steady… til it broke off from the force of the mixer. Oops!
Anyway, we ended up with wonderful snowdrifts… of cheese :D
Then you add the dates and shallots and lemon zest, at which point you’re supposed to roll the mixture into a ball. Thing is, anticipating so many people, I had doubled the recipe and it was just not conducive to a ball shape.
So check out my cheese…mound!
It meant that instead of rolling it in the parsley-walnut mixture, I instead sort of… dunked and flipped and patted.
We were also imminently anticipating guests, so I did this in my cute lil party dress wearing my cute lil apron. And force my cute lil sister to take pictures.
The ensuing dish? Fortunately, both beautiful and delicious. People understand cheese. They love it. They eat lots of it. It makes me happy watching people go crazy on my creations.
And since cheese makes people happy, we got quite a bit of it: prosciutto-wrapped, cranberry-coated, something Italian with herbs, and a big ol’ slab of gouda.
Plus crackers for a carb accompaniment, plus labneh and taramosalata from the Greek store, in case people sought something else to dip things in.
More to dip things in: in an effort to incorporate something for the health nuts (all… one of…me, basically) I revisited the roasted red pepper bagna cauda dip that I made for Christmas… and promptly spilled some on the napkin in the basket.
I went with it. I want people to feel like they are allowed to spill things in my house. Good hostessing is not prissy.
I thought with the broccoli the red and green color scheme was quite beautiful… but guests seemed not to get it. I guess the dip looked like tomato sauce? How does one label foods (THIS IS DELICIOUS AND CONTAINS ROASTED RED PEPPER, YUM YUM!) without making your house look like a cheesy caterers? Tricky.
Anyway, we had a lot of leftover dip. But as it is delicious, we’ve managed :D
Speaking of leftovers, we had some pretty ancient Camembert.
I decided to go sweet-savory, salty-fruity, and combine it with some beautiful dried apricots (the ones at the Greek store are infinitely better than anywhere else).
This is where the recycling gets brilliant: I pulled out some phyllo from another project (you’ll see in a bit) and filled it with the apricot-cheese mixture.
Then I rolled it up and baked it until golden (honestly it could’ve gone longer but you know when you get to the point where you have like three things in the oven that you’re monitoring, you’re slicing things and spooning things and your guests are showing up and you’re like AGH GET OVER WITH PLEASE? That happened. It was brown enough)
Sliced and plated, it was vair adorable. It got good reviews and got eaten very quickly, so I was pleased :D
Obviously, meat is always a bit part of our party. Ham ‘n turkey. Blessedly my aunt Dena and uncle Louie are usually first to arrive and, as is our custom, we got Louie to carve up all the meat (though as you’ll see, he is an ARTIST).
(Also, our party marked Dena and Louie’s 40th WEDDING ANNIVERSARY! Can you imagine liking someone that long?! Go them.)
We did the all-time favorite apple cider brine for the turkey- it has allspice, cloves, ginger, the eponymous apple cider… makes the whole house smell good!
The finished turkey, expertly carved, was GORGEOUS! Plated with mustard and mayo for making sammiches.
Then lovely friends and family started showing up with food.
My aunt Kathy’s Extra Green Green Goddess dip seriously made me want to force the rest of the guests to leave so I could just… sit there… eating it. Watercress, tarragon, chives, and basil. YUM!
My aunt Nan arrived with this aromatic dome of goodness, I went “?!” and she said it was
“Two Potato Gratin with Mascarpone”.
Except she pronounced gratin correctly, unlike me, the girl who talks like a hick and calls it graw-tin.
Then it got cut open and wowsers it was beautiful. I actually wouldn’t have gotten to taste it (it got scarfed down SO QUICKLY! Seriously, PEOPLE LOVE CHEESE!) but I had the lucky task of clearing it off the table and I licked the spoon :D
So you all saw pictures of the gleeful afternoon of cookie decorating, but marvel at the fact that I had the foresight to make the cookie dough in advance!
It actually made me a bit nervous: I’d doubled the recipe to make it for our 40 kids at work, but the single recipe actually turned out a bit… crumbly.
Fortunately, an evening of refrigeration suitably mellowed it out, and it turned out lovely.
And- marvel at my foresight- I packaged it with BAKING DIRECTIONS! There are times my life feels utter chaos and there are times I label anything that holds still long enough. It is deeply, deeply comforting.
The finished beauties went out on a square plate, for proper display. My sister, as we decorated them, had bemoaned the fact that you put such work into decorating cookies and making them ornate and detailed… and then people eat them in literally two seconds.
Her idea for a solution to this problem was to not allow someone to eat a cookie you’d decorated until they had admired it for twenty minutes.
Next we have a recipe I’ve loved since the Cooking Light issue in which it was published first came out: Macadamia Butter Cookies with Dried Cranberries. Be still my beating heart.
This recipe and me go so far back that I first made it at a time before I read food blogs, before I knew one could make one’s own nut butter, and I stared in wonder at my food processor as the macadamias turned crumbly, then to silky smooth butter.
I was feeling lazy and, somewhat unwisely, decided it was unnecessary to dirty both the food processor and the stand mixer, and mixed the nut butter into the sugar and flour mixture by hand. This proved unwise, as the dough was highly reluctant to combine.
I was forced to add a few splashes of milk, and was worried about the health of the final cookie. Happily, they were fine. Studded with cranberry jewels!
But vegan and light recipes be damned, a proper Christmas celebration involves a proper Christmas cookie- this means lots and lots of butter.
I strolled downstairs one morning and discovered what my mother had softening:
What for, you ask?
That glorious sweet, pride of the Viennese, rich and crumbly and beautiful and utterly a labor of love: Linzer hearts!
For those of you who aren’t familiar it involves a dough filled with (obviously) butter, as well as ground walnuts, which add a wonderful richness and a hint of excitement to the texture.
Preparation really is a kerfuffle.
You make the dough… then chill that… then cut out the cookies… then chill those.
Then bake the cookies. Then cool the cookies. Then FILL the cookies!
Traditionally one uses raspberry jam, but my mother over the years has gone in a creative direction and now prefers sour cherry preserves. They add a wonderful tang to the finished product!
I mean come on.
They take up a lot of time, but for me this is what the holiday season is all about: hanging out in the kitchen with my mom, talking about all our loved ones who are coming to see us, chatting about the goings on in our life and our plans for the future… eating hunks of raw cookie dough.
A time commitment, to be sure, but it’s quality time. And look what you get! A beautiful, itty bitty cookie of love.
People tend to eat them by the dozen.
Another morning I strolled down to this gorgeous (and, I discovered, snackable :D) mixture of ground walnuts, almonds, cinnamon and sugar.
Classic filling for BAKLAVA!
Reminder: in Favorite Recipes, you can find the recipe and a step-by-step tutorial, complete with family secrets, on making the best baklava in the land.
And there we had our dessert table: resplendent. Obviously this is the “before.” Many, MANY guests brought many, MANY cookies.
I am notoriously bad at photographing people in addition to food, and this party was no exception.
It was a great one, though! Despite the fact that probably 100 people passed through my house, I had an impressive amount of meaningful chats. It’s such a great mix of people: different generations, people from different places in our lives, people I’ve known since birth and people I’ve just met this year (on that topic, Steve came and probably talked to more people than I did. You extrovert, you!)
At a certain point I threw my camera into my sister’s hand and went, “Take pictures!”
Well, she took a. Picture. Jamie and Eve, enjoying the splendor.