Merry Christmas to all...and to all a Good Night!

Merry Christmas to everyone around the world who is celebrating this holiday.  This year, we move into the final celebrations of this month with hearts heavy with the tragic loss of life in Connecticut.  

So many Americans are having a difficult time processing the sadness that hangs low over our spirits this year.  We search for positive signs, positive thoughts, positive actions to push ourselves forward and only hope the families of these tiny little victims can find some strength to do the same.

On a positive note, change must be part of our outlook for 2013.  For only with change will we ensure that holidays are not shadowed with such grief, anguish, and despair again.  Our hearts go out to those families who will grieve this year and for many years to come.  

We offer our simple condolences. And as we each come together and share in the bounty of this holiday season, there will be a part of everyone in this country who will be thinking and hoping for peace for the families whose lives are now forever changed.

This year, we have a house full of family.  Our combined families spread far and wide across the U.S.  We have family in Oregon, Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New York.  Thirteen of them arrived for the holiday celebrations and we tucked them in beds here, there, and everywhere!

The menu is full of traditional dishes as well as a few regional ones added to the table.  My "go to" recipe for the traditional turkey never fails to please us.  

It is an Herb Roasted Turkey with Apple Cider Sauce 

The turkey is brined in a salt bath infused with bay leaves, peppercorns, and allspice two days before Christmas.  Then, it is rubbed down with an herb butter mixture of thyme, sage, marjoram, and rosemary.

The apple cider sauce is one of my favorite recipes for turkey.  Chicken broth and cider are simmered on the stove top and reduced to a dark thick consistency.  

When we traveled through Normandy, France we saw many apple farms  selling their infamous Calvados, or apple brandy.  This wonderful brandy is added to the cider sauce along with cream and more herbs.  While making it, memories of driving through the beautiful hills of Northwestern France flow wonderfully through my mind.

What I like about this sauce is that it can be made two days ahead of time.  On Christmas day, after the turkey comes out of the oven, I only have to add the drippings to the sauce base and simmer it down until it becomes a wonderful creamy sauce that smells and tastes delicious served over turkey that has been roasted with herbs.

We love to add holiday touches to guest bedrooms before family arrives.  A touch of whimsy here and dash of festive color there hopefully lets each person know that we are happy to welcome them to our home.

I collect soaps, pillows, and holiday accents from season to season to add to each room of the house.  One of my favorite holiday items is the ceramic angel (below,right).  A little tea light can be placed inside and the light twinkles through the little stars on the angel's skirt.

Madeleine finished off her first semester of college.  It's hard to believe, after all of the decision making chaos of last year, that she has moved away and is happily immersed into her college studies.

I drove up to Austin to meet her after her finals.  I am determined that each time I make the drive to fully enjoy my quiet time on the road.  I love, love, love a road less travelled and I am always eager to slip off onto one that beckons my name.

I leave plenty of time to explore tiny dusty country roads that disappear out into the distance.  On this drive, I left early in the morning.  The mist was hanging low on every field and a graceful blanket of gauzy white draped the country roads and wide fields dotted with rolled hay rounds.

It is so quiet out on these country roads.  The horses truly enjoy the most beautiful part of the morning.  They look so lovely standing among the gentle mist that shroud the oak trees towering over them.

The fields of grasses that usually line the roads up to Austin have turned a soft rosy color.  Fields of sweetly pink hued grasses sway in the mighty winds that blow through Texas.

Pecans and acorns nuzzle every nook and cranny of the fields in Texas.  I love the warm coffee tones of the pecans and know that a pecan pie will make its way to the Christmas Eve table this year.  

But acorns are a sight that I didn't realize was missing all of the years we lived up North and out East.  Acorns, with their little corduroy pointy hats sitting atop those coveted little nuts that squirrels cluster into their jowls, are a regular sight once again, crunching underfoot on each daily walk.

So this year's menu was penciled out.  In addition to Herb Roasted Turkey with Apple Cider Sauce, there are the traditional favorites that are anticipated each year.  

Christmas morning is punctuated by the most delicious savory cheesy grits casserole made by my brother-in-law.  Along with this once a year treat, are my homemade cinnamon rolls.  

My little nephew's birthday is on Christmas day so in addition to the holiday, the cinnamon rolls are made especially for him to celebrate his birthday morning!  Then, I have to send wishes to my older brother who was ALSO born on Christmas Day (who will be running around Disney World with his family this year!)

December is a busy time in the kitchen.  I make the cinnamon rolls two weeks before Christmas and freeze them uncooked in the freezer.  A few days before Christmas, I move them to the refrigerator to thaw and on Christmas morning they rest on the kitchen counter to rise and then in the oven they go.

My kids are thrilled that my nephew likes these cinnamon rolls because they don't even have to beg for them to fit into my lineup of holiday meals to cook.  Seeing the look on Ethan's adorable  face each year holding and enjoying a cinnamon roll is all the inspiration I need.

This year, I tried out a new recipe for the dinner rolls.  I am quite pleased with the result and definitely will make these rolls again in the future.  

Bubble-Top Rosemary Rolls appealed to me after seeing them on the sweet blog Two Peas and their Pod.  Maria, the blog writer, tells the story of making these rolls with her Dad each year as they watched the Macy's Holiday Parade in NYC together.  

Again, I make the dough for the rolls a week before Christmas.  After the first rising, I roll out the little balls, or bubbles, place them in muffin tins and freeze the trays.  A few days before Christmas, I pull out the trays, let them thaw in the refrigerator, and then rest the trays on the counter top for their final rise while the side dishes are in the oven.

Smothered Okra lends a cajun touch to the menu.  Now that we are in the south, okra can be found at this time of year. Slow cooking it on the stovetop with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and spices makes a creamy smokey vegetable side dish that reminds me of Louisiana.

Potatoes au Gratin are a family favorite, especially with Riley.  Yukon Gold potatoes are layered with garlic infused cream and butter then sprinkled with luscious gruyère cheese over the top.

This year I deviated from my traditional Bûche de Noël.  I wanted to try out two new holiday desserts this year.  Flipping through my recipe notebook (in the age of pre-Pinterest), I came across a recipe I saved years ago for 

English Steamed Pudding with Brandy Cream and a Maple Vanilla Sauce drizzled over the top.

On my recent trip back and forth to Austin, I discovered this fabulous European antique store.  Tucked way in the back of the store, I found three copper pudding molds.  That steamed pudding recipe immediately came to mind. 

I scanned the list of ingredients...cinnamon, allspice, mace, dried pears and currants, orange rind, molasses, and vanilla were just some of the flavors for this pudding recipe.

The steamed pudding filled my newly acquired copper mold, steamed away  on the stove top in a big pot of water, and even slipped out onto the platter without a hitch or snag.

The aroma was divine and I can certainly understand why the combination of flavors is so popular at Christmas time in England.  This English Pudding isn't soaked in the liqueur and made weeks before Christmas but is a somewhat lighter version of the traditional pudding.  The recipe came from Cooking Light magazine and I wouldn't hesitate to make it again.

The recipe calls for a hard bread like french bread but I couldn't resist using a dried out version of brioche.  I know, sinful isn't it, but brioche had to enter my holiday menu somehow.

When Madeleine was 10 years old, we lived in an old 1875 Gothic brownstone in Albany, New York.  That year, she was Clara in the Nutcracker so between our brownstone we were renovating and the charming German story of the Nutcracker, we were immersed in all things of that time period.

I found wavy ribbon candy and old fashioned peppermints.  Everything we had that year, we tried to match to the time period.  Those treats were so enjoyed that they have become family traditions to have around the house at Christmas.

I used a touch of brandy in my whipped cream for the English Steamed Pudding.  But, it was the Maple Vanilla Sauce that I drizzled on top that garnered the most comments of delight.

Maple syrup is slowly simmered with sugar and butter in a sauce pan.  After boiling it down to a creamy thickness, a stir of vanilla rounds out the flavors.  Spooned over the Steamed Pudding adds a rich creaminess to this wonderful dessert. 

So what happens in between whisking and stirring, chopping and dicing in my kitchen during the holidays?  Many walks with Chester and runs along this path help to make somewhat of a dent in the caloric hike at this time of year.

If I head out the door sometime between 6:30 and 7:30 am, I am usually treated to misty foggy mornings and beautiful soft sunrises along the trail.

Do you see those birds lined up on that wire at the top of the photo (above)?  They are all queued up waiting for their breakfast delivery I believe.  While I am jogging along, this tiny elderly Indian man can often be seen shuffling to this particular tree along the trail.  

He is usually wrapped up in a long colorful shawl that hangs down to his knees.  In his hands is a bulging sac of bird seed.  He sprinkles it all over the area around this one tree.  He looks to be about 100 years old and he carefully empties the bird seed onto the ground for the waiting birds above.

I glance up overhead at the birds and let them know I'll be moving along so they can swoop down for their morning treat.

I jog along quietly, trying not disturb his morning ritual.  How I would love to sit on the bench and chat quietly with him and hear his story of feeding the birds on the wire.

Whereas I experimented with English Steamed Pudding this year, there are some traditions that are not to be disturbed.

And one of those is Patrick's Apple Pie.  As relatives arrive all throughout the day before Christmas, Christmas Eve dinner is rounded out with Patrick's love of all things pie.

He makes the most delicious pecan pie but it is his apple pie that is truly coveted in our family.  All family were sent to bed on this eve with a slice of hot apple pie and a yearly indulgence of peppermint ice cream.  

Years ago, we went to a party in New York held by family friends from France.  I met them through school when I was helping their daughter transition from France to the American school system.  

We became good friends with the family and had a holiday party at their house that year.  One hot drink they served, entirely new to me, was Wassail, or Grögg, as some people call it.

I found a recipe and tried it out this year.  For Christmas Eve, everyone was treated to a hot mug of this European delight.  The beautiful aromas of many spices are interwoven with the headiness of red wine to make and entirely intoxicating drink...that I love.

Even though the moon won't shine here in Texas on the "breast of any new-fallen snow", there is a wonderful holiday spirit that mingles in the air.  

From the mornings filled with cottony mist and the trees that still haven't dropped all of their yellow and orange leaves, there is a holiday luster that brings friends and family together for traditional times, meals, and memories that add to a feeling of hope that we can come together as a people for the greater good of our children, our countries, and our planet.

So, with this holiday spirit shining down on us all over the U.S. to all the friends I have made this year in far flung countries around the world like Dubai, India, Ho Chi Mihn, Malta,and Istanbul, I lift my mug of Wassail, or Grögg, or Spiced Wine to each of you and give thanks for the constant kindness, friendship and appreciation each one of you has shown to me.

Merry Christmas to All...and to All a Goodnight!

Herb Roasted Turkey with Apple Cider Sauce
(recipe from Bon Appetit 2003)
10 servings

8 quarts cold water
2 cups coarse kosher salt
8 large fresh or dried bay leaves
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole allspice
1 16 to 17 pound turkey: giblets removed, neck reserved

Herb Butter and Gravy
3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
3 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
3 tablespoons minced fresh sage
3 tablespoons minced fresh marjoram
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

4 cups low salt chicken broth
2 cups apple cider
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons Calvados (apple brandy)

2 large Granny Smith apples, quartered, cored
2 large onions, quartered
1 cup apple cider (for basting the turkey)

To Brine the Turkey:
Line extra-large pot or bowl (I used a plastic storage container) with 2 (13 gallon) plastic bags.  Combine 1 quart water, salt, bay leaves, peppercorns, and allspice in large saucepan.  Stir over medium heat until salt dissolves.  Remove from heat.  Add 1 quart cold water and cool to lukewarm.  Pour into plastic bags (2 person job!); mix in remaining 6 quarts water.  Wrap turkey neck and refrigerate.

Submerge turkey in brine (I put the turkey in the bags and then pour all of the liquids over the top).  Gather the bags tightly to eliminate any air:  tie bags closed.  Refrigerate turkey in brine in pot at least 18 hours and up to 20 hours.

Line large roasting pan with 4 layers of paper towels.  Remove turkey from brine and drain well:  discard brine.  Place turkey in prepared pan.  **Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

For Herb Butter 
Mix parsley, thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, and nutmeg in small bowl.  Transfer 1/4 cup herb mixture to small bowl;  mix in 1/2 cup butter.

For Cider Sauce
Combine broth and apple cider in large saucepan.  Boil until reduced to 3 cups, about 20 minutes (I took me more like 35 min).  Pour broth reduction into bowl.  Melt remaining 1/4 cup butter in same saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add flour:  stir 1 minute.  Whisk in broth reduction, then cream, Calvados, and remaining herb mixture.  Bring to boil:  reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until sauce base is thickened and reduced to 2 3/4 cups, whisking often, about 20 minutes.  Cool sauce base slightly (The cider sauce and herb butter can be made 2 days ahead.  Cover and chill)

Roasting the Turkey:
Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 350˚F.  Remove turkey from roasting pan;  drain any accumulated juices from main cavity.  Discard paper towels from roasting pan.  Melt herb butter in small saucepan over medium heat.  Brush bottom of roasting pan with some of herb butter.  Return turkey to prepared pan.  Tuck wing tips under:  tie legs loosely to hold shape.  Place some apple quarters and onion quarters in main cavity. Brush remaining herb butter over turkey;  sprinkle with pepper.  Scatter remaining apples and onions around turkey pan.  Add reserved turkey neck to pan.

Roast turkey 1 hour.  Baste with 1/2 cup apple cider.  Roast turkey 30 minutes.  Baste with remaining 1/2 cup cider.  Roast turkey until thermometer (inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 175˚F., basting turkey every 30 minutes with pan juices and covering breast loosely with foil if browning too quickly, about 2 hours longer (3 1/2 hours total).  Transfer turkey to platter;  let stand at least 30 minutes before carving.

Discard apples, onions, and turkey neck from pan.  Pour pan juices into large glass measuring cup;  spoon off fat from surface.  Pour degreased juices into sauce base and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally.  Boil until sauce thickens enough to coast spoon and is reduced to 3 1/2 cups, about 15 minutes.  Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve turkey with sauce and enjoy!

Potatoes au Gratin with Smokey Bacon and Gruyere
(follow link to recipe)

Bubble Top Dinner Rolls with Rosemary

(from the blog Two Peas and their Pod)

Yield: Makes about 30 rolls
Cook Time: 15-17 minutes


2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast
1/2 cup warm water
3/4 cup shortening
½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup mashed potatoes
1 cup scalded milk
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped


1. In a small bowl, put the yeast in the warm water and stir with a spoon. Let sit for about five minutes or until the yeast starts to bubble. Scald the milk and let it cool for two minutes.
2. In a large bowl, mix together sugar, shortening, and salt. Add the milk and stir in one cup of the flour. Next, add the yeast mixture and the beaten eggs. Add the mashed potatoes and rosemary and stir. Stir in the remaining flour until the dough comes together.
3. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until smooth, about 5 minutes. If the dough is too sticky, add a little more flour. Place the dough in a large greased bowl and let rise in a warm spot for about 45 minutes or until doubled in size.
4. Punch down the dough. To form the rolls, pinch off about a 1/2 tablespoon of dough and roll into a ball. Place three balls into a greased muffin tin. Continue forming rolls until dough is gone. Let the rolls rise until doubled in size, about 30 minutes. Bake rolls at 375 degrees F for about 15-17 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and serve warm.

Steamed English Pudding with Cream and Maple Vanilla Sauce
(coming soon...between cooking!!)

Sinful Christmas Morning Cinnamon Rolls
(follow link to recipe)

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