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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Three onion casserole fresh from the oven.

We decided to spend both Christmas and New Year’s weekends at home this year. We’d traveled for Thanksgiving and that was enough for us. On top of the two long weekends, I also had two personal days at work that I needed to use before the end of the year – so I ended up with two 4-day weekends in a row. For someone who loves to cook, this was pure luxury! Definitely not an opportunity to be wasted – and I tried not to, as I will try to recap in the next couple of posts.

In the spirit of taking a festive approach to this opportunity, I sat down with one of my most appropriately festive cookbooks: The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. Doesn’t the name just say it all? This book does not contain heart- or waistline-friendly recipes. But how often do you have an excuse to cook really decadent party food? (As opposed to a beautiful-yet-healthy potluck dish, for example?) For those rare times when you do – this book does not disappoint.

And indeed, it was not long before I was mentally bookmarking various ideas, but I finally found the one. The one I could not imagine NOT making for a long holiday weekend. It had the simple name of Three-Onion Casserole and was billed as an ‘accompaniment.’ But don’t be fooled: this dish’s size (it filled a 9×13″ pan above the brim), cost (almost $50 worth of ingredients, most of them various kinds of cheese) and flavor (wine, garlicky boursin, herb-flecked dill Havarti, and slow-roasted leeks and onions topped off with crusty, deliciously browned Gruyere) are no side show. If you were to bring this beautiful, fragrant and filling casserole to a winter party, your brilliance and generosity would not soon be forgotten. I didn’t; I just made it for the two of us, for New Year’s weekend.

One more note about this dish: it is labor-intensive, perhaps only suited for one of those 3- or 4-day weekends when cold weather has you trapped indoors anyway. There is simply no way to make light work of slicing this many onions, nor do Havarti or Gruyere typically come pre-grated. Just hang in there and get it done; you will be richly rewarded. It may seem completely inconceivable, but Tomas and I ate this whole casserole by ourselves. Eventually. I think it took about a week… but boy, those leftovers made for the best lunches ever. Like extending the holidays right into the work week.

Three-Onion Casserole (adapted from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, 1985)

3 Tbsp unsalted butter

2 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

2 large red onions, peeled and thinly sliced

4 leeks, tough green ends cut off, well rinsed and thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups grated Havarti (I used Dill Havarti and enjoyed the extra boost of herbs. I was unsure of how much solid cheese to buy at the store, but found that a smallish 1/2-pound block of Havarti made more than enough)

2 packages (5 oz. each) Boursin, crumbled

1 1/2 cups Gruyere, grated (one 1/2-pound block was enough; I couldn’t tell and bought two, which cost me dearly but gives me an excuse to make fondue soon)

1/2 cup dry white wine

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9×13″ baking dish with 1 Tbsp of the butter. Layer a third of each of the onions in the bottom of the dish and season with salt and pepper. Top with the grated Havarti. Create another layer of onions, seasoning again with salt and pepper. Top this layer with the crumbled Boursin, distributing it as evenly as possible. Layer the last third of the onions and leeks on top and top with the grated Gruyere. Dot the remaining 2 Tbsp of butter on top and pour the white wine over all. Bake for 1 hour, covering the dish with aluminum foil after 30-45 minutes or when it is sufficiently browned to prevent the top from burning. Serve immediately (but makes fabulous leftovers).

A mound of onions and cheese (way more than I had imagined - I had to switch dishes to try to fit all the food that this recipe generated!)

The Silver Palate cookbook says that this makes 6 servings, but perhaps that was in 1985. I would argue that it could easily feed 12 people if they help themselves to fairly generous portions. This would be a great side dish for any kind of steak or filet, but I enjoyed it with brussel sprouts, good bread and sweet potatoes.

You might only want to make this once a year, but I can imagine it becoming quite an addictive tradition at that time of year…

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This incredible recipe is apparently originally from Food & Wine Magazine, though I am sure that I first  found it somewhere else – another take-off, no doubt, but I can see why. I made this for Thanksgiving two years ago and promptly made it again for Christmas. Last year, I made something different (still sweet potatoes, but with ginger and coconut) – and I missed the heck out of this recipe and wished I’d made it instead. This recipe produces a super-smooth, lusciously creamy, sweetly fragrant sweet potato puree that has a most tantalizing vanilla aroma. I admit I am a real vanillaholic, but I just can’t find any other sweet potato dish that comes anywhere close to this one.

It’s amusing to me, now that I have this online recipe journal, how often I look up a recipe here when I can’t remember where else I’ve got it written down. So, in the spirit of archiving my favorite cooking experiences digitally, and of adding my voice to the many out there who have already enthusiastically endorsed this recipe – here it is, with credit to the various versions floating in cyberspace.

I should note that the two versions I’ve seen use either heavy cream (Food and Wine) or half and half. I’ve made it with half-and-half both times so that is what I am posting here, but I have no doubt that the original version is even more decadent and wonderful, and frankly I can’t wait to try it that way too.

4 lbs sweet potatoes

1 cup half-and-half or whipping cream

4 Tbsp butter

1/2 vanilla bean

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°. Poke the sweet potatoes several times with a fork and bake for 35-45 minutes, until tender. Let cool, then peel and transfer to a food processor. Puree until fairly smooth. (I had to stop several times and dig around in the Cuisinart to dislodge stubborn chunks of sweet potato; I finally just went on to the next step and added the cream, which loosened things up nicely). 

While the sweet potatoes are roasting, heat the cream or half-and-half in a small saucepan with the butter. Split the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape the seeds into the cream mixture; drop the bean pod in as well. Stir well and heat just until it simmers. Remove from heat and let it steep until the potatoes are done. 

Remove the vanilla bean from the cream mixture. With the food processor on, carefully pour the vanilla cream into the sweet potatoes and process until smooth. Season the sweet potato puree with salt and pepper, transfer to a bowl and serve.

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The days are flying by alarmingly lately; Christmas is hurtling at us (those of us who care, presumably) rather too fast. If you ask me, it’s too late for shopping; you’re guaranteed to get in a fender-bender, so you might as well stay home. It’s even too late for shopping online, as indicated by the sudden cessation of used book sales from my Amazon.com account. What’s left to do? Well, there’s still time to bake!

My mother is German, and part of that heritage means slaving for days (weeks?!) in the kitchen preparing and baking a wide assortment of exquisite and delicious traditional German cookies for the holiday. She would fill about 6 large tins with cookies, make plates of them for all our friends and neighbors, and we’d eat them until well past New Year’s. I knew these cookies had to be good because our friends always raved about them!

This past Thanksgiving, my mom and I spent a couple of days making cookies together. It’s about time I learned the family recipes, and she’s getting tired of doing all the work herself. She brought along a beat-up, faded, torn and very old German cookbook (“Ich Helf Dir Kochen”) stuffed full of clipped recipes and notes, and we dutifully baked our way through 5 recipes – some more labor-intensive than others.

For each of them, we tried some new experimental adjustments for altitude as well, just to see if anything came of it. She lives in Santa Fe at 7000+ feet, where you can just about go ahead and give up on baking anything because it’s sure to be a disappointing experience. So she brought her rolling pin, several pounds of nuts and chocolate, and her cookbook to Denver and we baked here, at the only-moderately-frustrating elevation of one mile high. We reduced the sugar a little here, added extra extract there, raised oven temperatures and shortened baking times. I have to say that overall, our modifications worked. All the cookies came out moist, for one thing – something she’s struggled with for years since moving away from the East Coast.

The final crowning achievement was baking a traditional Christmas “Stollen.” This is a sweet, nutty, dense and moist quick bread topped off with powdered sugar; very festive! The recipe is very easy – just mix, shape and into the oven it goes. The hard part is wrapping it up and freezing it after it comes out; it really does taste much better after a couple of days of rest. We made several altitude changes which resulted in a wonderfully moist and delicious loaf, and I have noted them here.

To my surprise, the original recipe that my mom uses for her Stollen is from Anna Thomas’ Vegetarian Epicure (Book One).  I used the cardamom as listed; my mom leaves it out.

High Altitude notes are indicated by the code ‘HA’ in parentheses.

Stollen

2 1/2 cups flour (HA: add 1 Tbsp)

2/3 cup sugar

1 cup Ricotta cheese (HA: can substitute 1-2 Tbsp of yogurt to add a little acidity, but I didn’t and it came out just fine)

pinch salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp almond extract

1 tsp cardamom (I used already-ground; the book calls for the crushed seeds of 5-6 pods)

1 egg (HA: use 2 eggs)

2 Tbsp brandy

2 tsp baking powder (HA: subtract 1/4 tsp)

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup ground almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (HA: 375 degrees).

 Mix flour, sugar, cardamom and almonds thoroughly. Mix the wet ingredients in a separate bowl.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and mix until moistened. Dump the batter out onto a large work surface (a large cutting board will do); knead just until smooth and form into a loaf (the cookbook says 10 inches long by 8 inches wide; mine was NOT that large, perhaps more like 8×6″; I like it to be at least 3 inches thick so I used that as my guide).

Place the loaf on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. (HA: place rack in lower third of oven; watch carefully towards end of baking time, mine only needed 45 minutes). You can tap on the loaf to see if it’s done.

Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. When the loaf has cooled completely, dust it liberally with powdered sugar. Wrap in several layers of plastic wrap, place in a plastic bag and freeze for a few days. Obviously, this can be prepared well in advance.

My mom makes this with added lemon juice for Easter as well. Personally, I’m addicted to the cardamom variety. Germans add lots of raisins and candied fruit to the recipe; I am not a fan of colored gummy things in my cake so I have never eaten it that way. In any case, you can adapt this recipe to suit your own preferences, but you will have to get very creative about where you hide it. Once discovered by nosy cohabitants, it goes fast.

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