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Christmas

Christmas dinner: chicken, candles and company

roast chicken with herb butter

RoastedChicken

For Christmas we had a friend come over, and I wanted to make a meal that would be nice but not overly demanding. I settled on roast chicken, along with roasted potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts (our friend brought some cold appetizers plus truffles for dessert and some vodka), and leafed through my books for a good recipe.

HerbsInButter

You would think roasting a chicken would be part of my basic skills now, but I’ve tried out a number of different approaches trying to find the best one for me. For years I used a technique from Cook’s Illustrated that involved starting at very high heat and with the chicken breast-side down, then turning the bird breast-side up partway through and maintaining the high heat until the skin had browned, then turning down the temperature to finish, plus basting every 8 minutes or so. It was pretty labor-intensive, and I quickly lost enthusiasm for repeatedly reaching into a 500-degree oven. When I got fed up with that one I tried versions with a lower starting heat, more or less basting, some with the bird starting breast-side down and some not, but all fairly fiddly. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything promises simple roast chicken in one recipe title, but I have to say that his roast chicken with herb butter is equally simple during the roasting process itself, which is what matters to me and my oven-heat-warmed face.

PreppingTheBird

The recipe is much like the simple version: starting the bird hotter than the final cooking temperature (450 instead of 500), starting it breast-side down and turning it over partway through (to help ensure that the breast is moist), and basting sparingly. The difference is that first I mashed together half a stick of butter with a tablespoon of minced fresh herbs (I used thyme and chives) plus some salt and pepper, then rubbed the butter mixture all over the bird, loosening pockets of skin and rubbing butter between skin and flesh as well. (This is easier than it sounds.) I also put two quarters of a lemon, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a couple of chunks of ginger root into the bird’s cavity. I melted the other half stick of butter in the roasting pan, then added some water and put the chicken on a roasting rack atop it all, and into the oven it went. I cooked it breast-side down for about 20 minutes; then I basted with pan juices, turned the bird over, basted some more, and returned it to the oven for another 8 minutes or so. At this point I basted it once more, turned the temperature down to 325, and inserted my probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh so it could track the temperature up to the desired 160-165 range without my having to repeatedly stab the hot chicken. At this point Bittman lets you stop basting, which takes away a lot of the fuss factor that you find in other recipes, though I did give it one more wash about 20 minutes later when I was turning the roasted vegetables anyway.

PanSauce

When the temperature was in the right zone — I forget just how long that took, though it was a little longer than the suggested time of an hour total because my chicken was kind of large — I tipped the bird up to pour the juices out of the cavity and confirm they were clear. (This also helps make carving less of a catastrophe later, though for me that is frankly a lost cause and always will be.) I let the bird rest about 5 minutes, and in the meantime I poured the pan juices into a saucepan and added some wine and cooked the mixture until it reduced by about half, whisking periodically. This was not technically a gravy, since I didn’t thicken it, but it was a nice flavor complement to the bird, though the meat was very moist and didn’t need gravy to help in that respect. I carved the chicken as best I could, which is not that great considering I only do this a few times a year. But I wasn’t trying for a magazine spread, I just wanted to have light and dark meat easy to choose from the platter, and I did manage that.

RoastedSprouts

The roasted vegetable sides were very easy. I made the Brussels sprouts as I usually do: trim the stems, cut in half, toss with olive oil, pepper and salt — in this case, paprika salt. For the potatoes I mixed together Yukon golds and purple potatoes, cutting the larger ones to try to get reasonably uniform chunks, and tossed those with olive oil and salt and pepper as well. (By the way, yes, those purple potatoes are purple all the way through. And if you rinse and blot them dry on a towel they’ll bleed a little purple onto the cloth. Heh.) Those I put in the cast-iron skillet to ensure a good crispy crust. I put them into the oven when the chicken went in; the sprouts came out a little earlier than the bird and the potatoes did.

PotatoesToRoast4

I didn’t get any photos of the dining table because we had it candlelit, with votives in the holders that we had made the night before using cheap glassware and Mod Podge and tissue paper. I don’t like the effect of my camera’s flash, and there was nowhere near enough light to go without it, so I didn’t record the moment but let us simply experience it. That was the point anyway, right? To enjoy good friends and a holiday meal, to celebrate in the now, to be fully present.

VotiveHolders19

Holiday baking and catching up

BagsOfCookies

I’m not one of those people who goes bonkers for Christmas; I don’t string the entire apartment with lights or wear comical red-and-green sweaters or collect creche figures. We’ve put up a tree exactly once in our marriage, the one year we were in an apartment that was large enough to accommodate it (and we were as surprised as anyone that the cats didn’t knock it over; we were quite proud of them). But I do enjoy a lot of the more social, friendly aspects of the season, and my own little annual tradition is my cookie baking extravaganza.

PecanCookiesToBake

Yes, the thing I like best about the holidays involves cooking. Don’t act so surprised.

Brittles2

For the past several years I’ve been shipping cookies to distant co-workers. I have a lot of the key details figured out now. The optimal plan is to bake on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and get my boxes into the mail on Monday; I had to juggle my plans a bit this year and ended up baking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then getting the boxes into the mail Wednesday afternoon. It turns out that if you can get the Priority Mail boxes dispatched by the Wednesday after Thanksgiving you can still hit the two-day delivery target. (Possibly you can on Thursday and Friday as well but they’ll spend the weekend sitting somewhere in transit.) I’ve found in the past that the two-day promise becomes very elastic the further you get into December. One year I sent cookies that took a good 10 days to arrive; I started getting emails raving about the goodies, and was about to hit send on a message saying “took them long enough” before it occurred to me that the recipients didn’t want to know that. So I just said thank you, and then shut up.

BagsOfCaramelCorn2

But anyway, the week after Thanksgiving, things are in motion. I take that week as vacation every year, so it’s a fine time to spend the better part of a day in the kitchen. This year was my first baking marathon while still recovering from plantar fasciitis, of which I can say: ouch. Maybe a few other words. I won’t repeat them here. It turns out that standing all day is not optimal for the still-sore plantar fascia. So if you’re my podiatrist and you’re reading this — well, you already know I’m not very good at taking care of my feet, so you won’t be surprised.

GatheringIngredients

This is the kind of project for which a little planning goes a long way. When I was in junior high and we took home ec, we had to write cooking plans, which seemed laughable when we were doing single-dish projects through which we were already being coached. A friend and I lampooned the cooking plan concept for after-school snacking. “3:31: Open the freezer door. 3:32 — no, better make that 3:31:30 — remove ice cream carton and put on counter. Wait, did we say when to get out bowls? Oh, god, this is going to be a DISASTER.” But it turns out that when you’re trying to do, say, five cookies, two nut brittles and caramel corn, a cooking plan helps you save a lot of time and difficulty. If you’re smart, by the second or third year you’re making sure that you mix your doughs that need to chill the night before, and you plan to bake the cookies in ascending order of baking temperature, and you think about how much parchment you need before you go to the store.

CranberryPecanChocCookieDough

I have several favorite recipes, but I wanted to try a new one this year for the sake of the blog. I picked one from the Martha Stewart Cookies special magazine, a cherry and chocolate chunk cookie with toffee pieces that sounded yummy. Of course that meant that I couldn’t find toffee pieces at the store, and dried cherries cost the earth, and I thought, the hell with this. I already have pecans and dried cranberries, I’ll do my own chunk cookie. So I mixed up the regular base dough that I use for chocolate chip cookies and stirred in dried cranberries, pecans, and chocolate chunks. And they were good. Fragile, but good.

ChocolateCookiesBeforeAndAfter

The same Martha Stewart magazine is the source of two of my other favorites, Grammy’s Chocolate Cookies and Cranberry-Oatmeal Cookies. They’re molded in much the same way — you shape them into balls — and they bake at the same temperature. They’re very easy and they taste great.

CaramelCornBaked

That magazine is also where I get the caramel corn. No major spillage of caramel this year, and only one small caramel burn on my hand! A success!

SugarCookiesBaked2

I ran out of time this year, and so I decided to throw the undecorated sugar cookies into the freezer instead of delaying the mail shipments while I frosted and sugared. I’ll decorate those later this week and perhaps make another batch of cookies or a pan of brownies, and bring them into my own office.

BagsOfBrittle5

It’s actually a lot of fun to turn out large quantities of goodies like this, assembly-line style, lining up the unbaked nuggets of dough, lifting the cooling cookies onto the second rack, stuffing the baggies. And it’s a blessing to have people to mail them to; we’d be eating cookies until Fourth of July if we didn’t get them out of the house.

The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook: Tasty Traditions

olive-filled rolls, brussels sprouts salad with roasted shallot vinaigrette, roasted turkey breast, turkey gravy, mashed potatoes with caramelized parsnips

DinnerAftermathIn retrospect it was probably not very smart to spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas laboring in the kitchen to create multi-dish meals. But the results were so good for both, I can’t really fault myself, and I did have two more weekend days to recover.

For Christmas I decided to cook from The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook. SpongeI’ve used this book before, though not for much: a guide to making pot pie, possibly a coffee cake. A number of the desserts repeat recipes in other MSL cookbooks, though since they’re good recipes it’s probably better to have several copies than to be without them. I had never made a Christmas dinner from it, despite the obvious possibilities. So I went SpongeAt24Hrsthrough it, selected some recipes, double-checked oven temperatures and timing, and replaced some recipes with others that would make for a smoother cooking day. I made a cooking plan. I looked at our side table, laden with little bags of cookies and candy, and decided not to make a separate dessert. I invited a friend to join us for the big day.

DoughToRiseThe first thing I started working on was the olive-filled rolls, specifically the sponge for the bread. I mixed a fairly small amount of yeast with warm water and let it sit about 10 minutes, until it bubbled a bit; then I added more water plus some oil and flour and mixed it all together with the dough-hook attachments for my hand mixer, transferred the mixture to an oiled bowl, BrusselsSproutsLeavescovered it with plastic wrap, and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The mixture was thick but soft when I put on the plastic wrap; it expanded during the incubation period, though it never overflowed the bowl as I feared it might. When I removed the plastic wrap the next morning it was a thick and springy mass. The recipe directed me to add half a cup of sponge “pulled into small ParsnipStripspieces” to the olive roll mixture, but I would have had to lay the individual pieces out separately on the counter to keep them from melding back together at once. The half-cup mass blended easily enough into a mixture of water, a bit more yeast, olive oil, flour and salt, and the dough hooks on the mixture did a quick and efficient job of transforming the ingredients into a unified and PeelingPotatoesspringy ball of dough. I had never used the hooks for bread before; I prefer to knead by hand. But at this point I knew I would need the 20 minutes or so that using the mixer would buy me. I did spend about five minutes doing a final hand-knead, then put the dough into an oiled bowl and let it rise for two and a half hours. I put the remaining sponge into the fridge; I should really freeze some of it. RoastedShallotsIt will be handy for making more bread (I think if I follow one more of the recipes calling for sponge that Martha includes, I’ll figure out what I need to know to improvise afterward).

While the dough rose I began my vegetable prep. On paper this did not look considerable, as I had only four vegetables to prep: potatoes for boiling and mashing, PotatoSlicesshallots for roasting, parsnips for roasting, and brussels sprouts. Unfortunately, the brussels sprout salad recipe requires you to separate the sprouts into individual leaves, which sounds reasonable enough until you actually start to do it. Brussels sprouts are really miniature cabbages, and those tiny little leaves take a bit of gentle persuasion to separate. I soon CaramelizedParsnips2developed a system: cut off the stem end and pull away the loosest leaves, cut off a bit more of the stem end, continue until the little core of sprout remaining was no bigger around than my little finger, leave it at that. This was tedious work, but it made for a pretty salad, and it made the peeling and slicing of potatoes seem like a snap in comparison.

ShallotDressingOnce the leaves are separated, the salad is simple: blanch the leaves in boiling salted water 1-2 minutes, then plunge them into an ice bath to stop the cooking and fix the bright color, then drain. This part moves fast, so I couldn’t really get any good pictures of it. For the dressing, I roasted the shallots whole, then peeled them and put them into a food processor with some BlanchedSproutsbalsamic vinegar and pulsed to chop them. I transferred this mixture to a bowl and whisked in some olive oil, then dressed the sprout leaves with the vinaigrette when it was time to serve dinner.

Mashed potatoes are as straightforward as you might expect: peel and slice potatoes, boil them until tender, then mash them together with milk, butter, MashedPotatoesand sour cream. The clever part is to then serve them with caramelized parsnips: parsnip sticks that have been roasted with olive oil, sugars, garlic powder, salt and pepper. The flavors go wonderfully together. The other clever part is to use the dough hook attachments to mash the potatoes, which quickly blend and mash them without overbeating or making them OliveRollsComponentsgluey or tough. Who knew?

Roasted turkey breast was pretty simple too: brush a turkey breast with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, roast it until done. I had to let the turkey breast finish early so I could raise the oven temperature to bake the rolls; when they came out, I put the turkey back in to make sure it was warm, but while it was FillingRollresting I poured the pan drippings into a saucepan to make gravy. I had never really made pan gravy before. The recipes I’ve seen always tell you to put the roasting pan on the stovetop, and I’ve never had a roasting pan that was suitable for putting on a burner. But during the roll-baking hiatus it occurred to me that since the turkey was fully cooked I could PanOfRolls2put it on the platter while I poured off the pan juices, and that it was certainly worth a try. And gravy turns out to be simple. Heat the pan juices in a skillet or saucepan; stir in some flour to make a roux (one could use cornstarch or arrowroot too), then add water or broth gradually while continuing to whisk, until the gravy reaches the desired consistency.

RollsToBake2Ah, the rolls. These were probably the most complicated recipe of the day. Once the dough had risen I divided it into 18 more-or-less equal pieces. I used my fingers to press and stretch each piece into about a rectangle about 4 by 5 inches, and spooned on a bit of olive paste (made by combining kalamata olives, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and garlic in the food processor). I BakedRollsrolled up each piece so the olive paste was sealed inside; I think the filling was supposed to spiral with the dough like a cinnamon roll, but most of them weren’t large enough for the spiral effect to be really evident. I laid the rolls together in loaf pans, nine to a pan, and let them rise once more. When it was time to preheat the oven I put an empty metal baking pan on the bottom TurkeyPlattershelf, and when I put the rolls in I poured water into the pan so it would create steam in the oven. This gave the rolls a¬† nice crusty exterior. When they were done baking, I pulled the pans from the oven, turned the segmented loaves out onto a cooling rack, and let them rest while I reheated and sliced the turkey breast and got everything else ready.

BreadPotatoesGravyThis was a lovely holiday meal. The turkey was juicy and delicious; the salad was tangy; the potatoes were rich and luxurious; and the rolls. The rolls! They were wonderful, the rich olive mixture playing off the tender bread. Even the gravy was a nice complement to both the meat and the potatoes. Our friend brought more sweets, and we had a nicely indulgent Christmas dinner.

PotPiesPlatedOh, and I used the leftovers too: On Sunday I made pie crust (also from this cookbook, as it happens), sauteed onions with celery, carrots, mushrooms and potatoes, added chunked-up turkey breast, and made a bit more gravy; I assembled all these into mini pot pies shaped in muffin pans. They turned out well, and I managed to get all but two of the little pies out of the pan without breaking them.

Verdict: Success. I’m going to have to make the rolls again, and soon. In the future I might just quarter and blanch the brussels sprouts, though it wouldn’t be as picturesque.