Thursday, December 27, 2007

'Twas the Night Before the Night Before Christmas

by Erin and Xani

Every year, our family gets together with some of our oldest and dearest family friends, the Smiths, to celebrate the holidays. The Smiths and the Podolnys go way back - BCD Dad and Bob went to law school together back in the day, and since then our families have been very close.

For our holiday/Christmas dinner this year (which happened on the 23rd - the night before the night before Christmas), instead of doing a traditional three-course meal (appetizer, main, dessert), we wanted to do something a little more complicated (shocking, we know), and instead chose to do a tasting-style menu. Here was the menu:

  • Hors d'oeuvres
  • Roasted Butternut Squash and Ginger Soup
  • Beet and Goat Cheese Salad with Mint Vinaigrette
  • Potato-Turnip Latkes with an Apricot-Fig Compote
  • Beef Tenderloin with Shallots
  • Green Beans with Pancetta
  • Dessert (which included a Pear Crisp with Vanilla Brown Butter and a Bouche de Noel)

We split up the dishes and the BCD family was tasked with the soup, the salad, the latkes, and the pear dessert. The first thing we did was make a shopping list, and then BCD Mom and Dad were kind enough to do the shopping.

Let's start with the soup. The recipe was from The Joy of Cooking (a classic), and the soup started with cubing some butternut squash and roasting it in the oven with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper for about an hour, until it was caramelized. Meanwhile, we began sauteing up some leeks and ginger in butter. We chose to use larger pieces of ginger that we could remove later, since we didn't want anyone biting into a big chunk of ginger while enjoying the soup.

Before roasting...

After! All caramelized and yummy...

While the squash was roasting and the leeks and ginger were going on the stove, Xani made some homemade croutons to go on top of the soup. She cubed some baguette, and then took butter and oil, and some thyme, and toasted them up in the oven. Delicious!

When the squash was done, it was added to the leeks and ginger, along with some homemade chicken stock. That cooked for a while, and then we removed the ginger pieces, and busted out the immersion blender to break everything down.

We brought the soup to the Smiths and reheated it there, and had to add some extra chicken stock since it had thickened quite a bit. We served it with a few croutons on top and it was FANTASTIC! This dish was a favorite for almost everyone - it was creamy and rich, with lots of different flavors going on from the squash, the ginger, the stock, and the crunchy croutons.

Next we made the Beet and Goat Cheese salad with Mint Vinaigrette that we had for EP's belated birthday dinner, and it was just as good this time around. We roasted and peeled the beets (using gloves to prevent red stains all over all our hands, or what we came to call "Beet Hand"), and then sliced them up. Instead of slicing the beets super-thin to emulate carpaccio, we sliced them into wedges, which are easier to eat. Like before, we modified the recipe to incorporate the shallots into the mint vinaigrette, instead of putting them on the plate with the beets and the goat cheese.

No pink hands here!

The salad was delicious and refreshing, and the sweetness of the beets played off of the tart, savory flavor of the goat cheese. The minty vinaigrette was light and brought the whole salad together. The only bad thing about this salad is that the moment you place the goat cheese on the beets, everything turns hot pink! So if you ever want to serve this salad, put the cheese on the plate at the last second!

Next we made Potato-Turnip Latkes for the starch of the meal (hey, we had to get a little Hanukah shout-out in there!). For these latkes (potato pancakes), we shredded potatoes, turnips, and yellow onions, drained them, and then added a mixture of eggs, flour, thyme, and salt and pepper. Xani found this recipe on Chow and it required that the latkes be cooked in duck fat (!!) but we were all out, so we cooked them instead in chicken fat (normal!). The only issue we had with cooking them is that they were falling apart in the pan when we would try to flip them - we attribute this problem to not enough binder (the egg mixture). We should have added more, but of course hindsight is 20/20!

Instead of serving the latkes with the traditional applesauce (or sour cream, or BOTH), Xani had the idea to make a compote of dried fruits, to sort of class it up a bit. We found a recipe for a dried apricot and fig compote in The Joy of Cooking cookbook. We started by soaking the apricots and figs in red wine to plump them. Then we chopped them up and put them over a flame with some red wine and sugar, which we cooked down until it was almost like a jam consistency.

The latkes with the compote were awesome! However, this dish had to be transported to the Smith's, and as is true with all fried foods, the latkes would have been much more delicious right out of the frying pan, instead of having been reheated in the oven. Despite that, the flavor was great and it was a nice upscale version of traditional latkes and applesauce.

The last dish we made was a Pear Crisp with Vanilla Brown Butter, a dish featured on one of our most favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen. The recipe is originally from Gourmet Magazine and says to do individual ramekins of the dish, but we decided to make one big pear crisp for the group instead of messing with individual ones.

The first thing you make for the crisps was the crumb topping, which was made of flour, whole skin-on almonds, brown sugar, salt, and of course butter. Then we made the filling, which began with lots of butter and the seeds from a vanilla bean, which was browned together. Let us just mention that the smell of vanilla brown butter is out of this world, and we almost lost focus just standing over the pot and breathing deeply! Anyway, the vanilla brown butter was added to cut up pears, some flour, brown sugar, white sugar, and pear brandy (!), and placed in a baking dish. The pears were then covered with the almond crumble topping, and the whole thing was baked until bubbly and delicious.

Crumb topping

Gellie at the ready

Real vanilla beans!

The dessert was a big hit! It was sweet but not too sweet, and there was lots of crumble to go around, so every bite had a bit of pear and a bit of topping. We served it with whipped cream (or ice cream if you were smart enough to request it!).

The rest of the meal prepared by the Smiths was also great. It was a delicious meal with good friends, lots of good wine, and of course, PRESENTS! Also, how adorable is this Bouche de Noel from Touche Touchet Bakery in Columbia??

Look at that mouse!

We hope everyone had a great holiday, and is gearing up for 2008! Don't forget: more holiday-related posts coming soon!

Happy holidays,

E & X


  1. wow, I didn't even know you guys did anything for x-mas!

  2. Duck fat latkes sound like a must-try for next year. I'm just sayin.

  3. I'm really curious how the turnips combined with the potatoes flavor-wise with turnips being so strong.

    Stef for a small fee I'll start cooking ducks and saving up fat.

    As in inveterate 'old fashion' sort of guy, my heart was warmed that you were delving into the good old Joy of Cooking

  4. Uncle M: Actually, I didn't really notice much of a flavor impact from the turnips. I would say that mostly they had a negative influence since they added a lot more liquid to the "batter" than we are used to with just regular potatoes and onions, and we had to do a lot more squeezing than usual. Still delicious though!

  5. Wow, taht looks incredible! Those latkes...mmmmm! I am so hungry now. Note to self, must go get some duck fat!

  6. Does anyone have a good recipe for someone who hates beets? I've tried so hard to like them...roasted them, boiled them, tried to hide them in things...bleh. Would yellow beets taste better than the red? Anyone?

  7. It looks like guite a feast! The latkes are particularly impressive.


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