place-setting-2016

I usually do a roast, turkey, or ham for Christmas Day dinner.  This year, however, I wanted something fun and casual but really I was just absolutely captivated by the picture in the cookbook.   Below is the original picture from The Best of Gourmet: 1995. Below the picture is the “Caroling Party” menu.  The items in brackets were not from the original menu, but were my own addition or brought by my guests.  This menu serves 12 and I had 12 guests at my dinner, so it put this menu to the test.

a-caroling-party

A CAROLING PARTY MENU

Starter Course

Crisp Spiced Nuts

[A selection of cheeses from the Northern European Region]

Nose-Warmer Punch

Main Course

Hearty Goulash Soup

Viennese Cucumber Salad

Marinated Vegetables with Mustard Dill Dressing

Wines

Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Syrah

[A selection of other Santa Barbara Syrahs to taste and enjoy]

Dessert Course

Austrian Sweet Cheese Crêpes Baked in Custard

Apricot Carmel Sauce

[Meyer Lemon Pie]

[A selection of Christmas Cookies and Candies]

[Holiday Teas from Simpson and Veil]

My Plan

Saturday, December 17, 2016:  Make nuts.

Thursday, December 22, 2016:

  • Make the crêpes
  • Make the apricot caramel sauce

Friday, December 23, 2016:  Make goulash

Saturday, December 24, 2016:

  • Make Marinated Vegetables
  • Stuff Crêpes

Christmas Day:

  • Set table
  • Make:  Nose warmer punch in slow cooker
  • Set out nuts and cheese plate
  • Reheat soup
  • Finish marinated veggie platter
  • Prepare cucumber salad
  • Place crêpes in oven while we eat

The Holiday and Winter Setting

place-setting-2016-2

This was a Christmas Dinner party, so I did want something elegant, but I also wanted to highlight the cozy Alpine ski lodge quality.  At first I thought I should stick with the “caroling” part of the original Gourmet magazine theme, but eventually I dropped that idea and started to focus on the “cozy” aspect to Northern European winters.  I told everyone to leave the fancy dress and heels at home and wear your UGGS and jeans instead.  For gifts I gave everyone scarves and winter hats, and luckily out here in Northern California the weather was accommodating to this theme and it was actually cold–well, California cold that is.

In doing my Northern European cozy research, I came across a new, fun, and very worthwhile fad–Hygge!  Really, I had no idea this was a thing until after I decided on cozy as my theme.  There are, as I learned, tons of books, articles, youtube clips, and other things dedicated to this concept.  I highly recommend looking it up.

My husband even got on board and set up little decorative lights in my kitchen so we could avoid overhead lighting.  He also spent a fortune at World Market on tea lights and other candles.  He eagerly placed them all over the house making our home a cozy winter wonderland.  Careful to complete his vision of the hygge scene, he set a nice warm fire in the fireplace and put on our TV an 8 hour winter scene that he found on youtube.  That youtube movie really gave a winter feel to our home.  Thanks, Honey, for all your cute holiday charm!

Starter Course

Crisp Spiced Nuts:

My family loves nuts, so I made a double batch.  It made a lot of nuts–enough for our family to enjoy prior to the event, package and give to friends, and still have plenty to serve on the day of dinner.  I swapped out the hazelnuts for cashews and I did not use blanched almonds, just raw almonds and I don’t think it made a difference.  After reading the reviews of this recipe on Epicurious.com, it looks like most people choose the nuts they prefer.

The recipe in the book does not say to line the pan with foil and spray with a non-stick cooking oil, but I highly recommend doing that.  I had two baking sheets of nuts and one I oiled and the other I did not.  The oiled pan was easy to stir during cooking and easy to get the nuts off once completed.  Do not skip the step of stirring every 10 minutes.  That step is very important or the nuts will not get evenly browned and toasted and they could burn.

The final product is a bit spicy with the full amount of cayenne, so if you have guests that are sensitive to spicy food, halve the cayenne and it will still be tasty.  Some reviewers complained that these nuts are sweet with a kick at the end but little flavor in between.  To that I would stress using fresh and high quality seasonings.  Everyone in my family enjoyed them and it appeared that my guests did as well and I made them exactly according to the recipe. I made these a week ahead of time and they store very well.

Nose-Warmer Punch:

I admit, the brandy scared me in this recipe.  I was afraid I would be inebriated in one sip.  I was also worried that there wouldn’t be enough fruit flavor in the punch.  None of my fears were merited.  I thought the punch was a really nice blending of flavors and it lives up to its name as it will warm you all over and make you look like jolly Old St. Nick.  I kept mine warm in a slow cooker, as it cooks it smells fantastic!  Enjoy.

Norther European Cheeses:

I thought this menu could use a cheese plate so I asked everyone to bring a cheese from Northern Europe.  It was fun to see what everyone could find.  My sister was quite creative with her interpretation of this request.  She brought her fondue set for a real Swiss Alps experience.  She set the chafing dish up in the living room and everyone sat around dipping little bread chunks into the gooey cheese.  That really added a bit of fun to the evening’s food.  She also brought another cheese that I have never tasted or seen:  Ski Queen.  This cheese probably requires most people to acquire a taste for it, but this ended up being my husband’s favorite cheese on the table.  The New York Times has a very informative article about this cheese variety.

My personal favorite Norther European cheese is Gouda.   The best Gouda I have found in my area is one made in Oakdale, California by Oakdale Cheese.  If you like cheese, I highly recommend ordering a half or whole wheel of their Gouda.  You will not be disappointed.

Main Course

Hearty Goulash Soup:

One of my concerns when entertaining is:  Will there be enough?  With this recipe, I had plenty for everyone to be served a hearty helping with many people having seconds and enough leftovers for three people the next day.

Now, the next major concern when entertaining or even trying a new recipe:  Will it taste good?  No problem here, the answer is, YES.  Many people in the reviews for this recipe say it is average or nothing special for a goulash.  I don’t know what soup they made, but I thought this was exceptional.  The hardest part about this recipe is the time it takes, but as you are not cooking on the day you serve it, you have some flexibility as to when  you make this dish.  The time consuming part is cutting the beef into nice 1/2 inch cubes, and slicing the veggies into similar sized pieces as the beef.  But, ensuring even sized pieces in this stew key to creating a good product.

Another step to making this soup exceptional is making it in advance.  I made it two days in advance and I am so glad I did.  It is just a different soup with deeper flavors if made a couple of days before eating.  This step should not be optional.  The benefit of this step is, of course, it makes for easy entertaining the day of the dinner.

My last tip:  make sure you trim as much fat off the beef as possible. You don’t want a fatty soup, you want to make sure that the wonderful flavors come through.  Your guest will not be disappointed that you didn’t fix a fancy roast once they have their first bite of this hearty flavorful stew.

Viennese Cucumber Salad:

I loved this salad.  Simple, yet nice presentation with the thin slices and forked decoration.  I have been to Austria, but it was about 25 years ago, so I have no recollection as to if this is an authentic flavor or not.  However, in looking at the reviews for this recipe on Epicurious.com, almost every single person that reviewed the recipe says it is exactly like they had in Austria or from their Austrian mother, and they wouldn’t make any other cucumber salad recipe.  So, for such a simple, humble salad, this has some pretty high praise.

I made this the day of the party using my food processor for thin even slices of cucumber.  Just make sure you make this in advance as the cucumbers need to sit for a little while first after salting, then draining, then with the marinade.

Marinated Vegetables with Mustard Dill Dressing:

Between the cucumber salad and this colorful vegetable platter, there is sure to be a vegetable to everyone’s liking.  This platter features beets, carrots and green beans, all cooked to crisp tender.  The carrots and beets are marinated in separate dishes, the green beans are not marinated.  The next day you arrange them decoratively on a serving platter and drizzle the mustard dill dressing all over the veggies.  My only diversion from the instructions for this recipe is that I cooked my beets in a glass pan with water, and covered, for about 12 minutes in the microwave.  Its just a super easy, super quick way to make beets.  I thought that this recipe was very heavy on the carrots, but the carrots are delicious, so it is not that big of a problem.

The choice of vegetables is very Austrian and thus, it fits perfectly with the rest of the menu.  My point in saying this is, don’t change a thing!  If you want to stick to a menu theme, then don’t add feta or use grilled eggplant.  This is not a Greek vegetable dish, it is Austrian.  I say this because one of my criticisms of the Epicurious.com web site is that these recipes are all on their own with out the context of the full menu that they were meant to be made with.  So, people make comments on the recipe, but then say they served it with all sorts of different things.  No one actually reviews the menu in its original context.  The modifications might be great, but I wish that Epicurious.com would link to the original menu so people could know how the recipe was intended.

The Wine

wine-and-nuts

Syrahs, as I learned after preparing for this meal, are like the espresso of wines.  They pack a punch in flavor and are rich heavy red wines.  They complement the Goulash perfectly.  If you just make the Goulash and nothing else, at least enjoy it with a glass of syrah.

I was surprised when I started my hunt for Santa Barbara syrahs that I couldn’t really find any in my area (Northern California and close to Napa, CA).  I ended up finding two and only two in my town–the Rusack and the Rancho Sisquoc.  No surprise that our local market carried the Rancho Sisquoc, as that winery is owned by the Flood family.  The Flood family is a well known name in San Francisco–so it made sense to find their wine in this area.  My brother-in-law was also up to the challenge of looking for Santa Barbara County syrahs and ran into the same problem in his town.  He ended up bringing the Fess Parker and the Hartley Ostini.  So, we had four for our Santa Barbara County Syrah wine tasting.

My favorite was the Rusack ($26 from the Nugget Market).  From the moment the bottle was opened it was delicious.  Gourmet Magazine suggests the Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Syrah for this menu, and that did not disappoint either.  The Rancho Sisquoc was probably my least favorite, but not horrible, just in comparison to Fess and Rusack is lacked a certain quality.  The Hartley Ostini was a surprise.  It was good upon opening but, to my luck, not all of it was consumed at Christmas Dinner.   It sat on my counter, open for about two days.  I poured the last half glass and couldn’t believe how the flavor had developed–blackberry.  It was like drinking a blackberry that had its sugar removed.  It was superb.

I would love to hear your experience with Santa Barbara Syrahs.  Going to visit that region is on my list of travel ideas now, especially since I can’t really find a good selection of that region’s wines in my local area.  If you want to set up a Syrah tasting at your party I liked this article from WineFolly.com that has some great visual explanations of the variety and also has a link to a comparison of Old World wines and New World wines, which is fun.  You could have an Old World/New World Syrah tasting party.

Dessert Course

Austrian Sweet Cheese Crêpes Baked in Custard:

I chose to serve this dessert from the original menu from Gourmet Magazine, with other desserts because it was Christmas and I like to see a whole dessert buffet.  But, if you decide to make this dessert and no other for 12 people, have no fear, it is HUGE!

Don’t even attempt this recipe if you don’t have a proper pan for making crêpes.  These are easy to make if you have that equipment.  Once the crêpes are made the recipe is just simple assembly after that step.  I had a fair amount of filling left over after filling the crepes.  I filled mine using a two tablespoon ice-cream style scoop.  The recipe does say to use a “generous” two tablespoons, and that is correct.  No need to skimp when filling.

I made the crêpes three days before and I filled the crêpes the night before our dinner.  I poured the custard sauce on the crêpes right before baking, but I had mixed up the custard earlier in the day and left it in the fridge until I was ready to use it.  That timing system seemed to work out just fine.

Apricot Caramel Sauce:

This is the accompanying sauce for the crepes.  This is why making these menus can be fun–it forces me out of my comfort zone for cooking.  I am not a candy maker and while making this recipe I was sure I had done it completely wrong (and maybe I did, but it did taste fine).  The recipe requires that you melt the sugar and only the sugar in the pan.  Then you swirl the pan until the melted sugar is golden caramel.  It goes from clear to caramel in seconds so WATCH it carefully!  I had the stove on fairly low for this process.  Then, once the golden color,  you take the pan off the heat and CAREFULLY add the 3 cups of water.  Well, when you add the water the sugar completely hardens.  It also makes some scary steam noises too–be prepared!  At this point, don’t fret, as I did, place it back on the heat, stir and the caramelized sugar will dissolve.  Whew!

Now you can safely and confidently complete the other steps.  Here are my thoughts on the final product:  Although this sauce had a nice look and consistency, I was a bit disappointed at how little of a caramel flavor I got from the final product.  After the dramatic cooking experience I guess I wanted something more from the flavor.  That said, it is still a nice complement to the crêpes.

If you know something about how to make a sauce such as this Apricot Caramel Sauce then please feel free to leave me a comment about that process, and point out any mistakes I may have made.  I am still sure I did something wrong with this one.  Thanks!

A Caroling Party:  A Design Collection

This Ebay collection is inspired by the table and room design pictured in “The Best of Gourmet: 1995” from the menu titled, “A Caroling Party.”  When I saw this place setting what immediately stood out for me was the amber colored deer figurines used as table decor. I was surprised to learn that these figurines were made with candy. The candy is called barley sugar and was made in antique candy molds. These candy “statues” give this place setting a truly magical feel. I also loved the simple but unusual Christmas colors. It all comes together to create and elegant yet whimsical space for a fun and special holiday gathering. The meal starts out with punch in antique cups and nuts presented in leaf bowls.  Have a look at the collection and let me know what you love!

Barley Candy and Toy Molds: 

As I stated, I was captivated by the candy reindeer, and being daring, yet overconfident with my cooking skills, I attempted to make barley candy figurines.   After finding a recipe on line for Old Fashioned barley candy, I set to work.  The ingredient list was simple, barley, sugar, water, and a pinch of cream of tarter.  Here are some pictures from my two attempts:

In the first picture on the left, the candy was hard, and tasty, but as you can see way too dark from caramelization.  I think part of the problem that I faced was not having excellent equipment.  I had two different candy thermometers, and on the first attempt I focused on reaching the recommended temperature, but I don’t think either of my thermometers were 100% accurate.  So, back to the drawing board.  I read up on candy making, then set to work again.  This time using only my eyeballs to look for the various stages in the candy-making process.    However, this second attempt came out too soft and very cloudy.  Although, the flavor of this second batch was nice as it had a more pronounced barley flavor since I didn’t over cook it.

If I kept attempting the candy I might have gotten a product that I liked, but that wouldn’t have solved the problem of the fact that the gingerbread house mold just looked like a big blob.  The old fashioned style molds are really the only ones that give that statute shape, and these antique molds are quite pricey as you can see from the ones listed on Ebay.

Therefore, if you want to have that magical look and  you are not a candy making expert, you might want to check out these candy-makers who sell beautiful candy statutes.  They would make a wonderful addition to a holiday table:

Dorothy Timberlake Candies

Melville Candy

Shane Confectionary and a nice article about their seasonal candy can be found here.

This is also a nice article about barley candy from Smithsonian.com.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to sharing with you a New Year filled with cooking adventures!

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