Because we travel for the Christmas holidays, we love to host a party or two this time of the year. There's something a little sad about a decked-out house at Christmas when no one but the four of you get to see it and fill the rooms with laughter and warmth. Plus, we love to entertain, and Christmas parties are always such fun, and such a great occasion for cooking up warm and fragrant treats in the kitchen. We have piles of Christmas records we love to play (remember--we're quirky and collect records) and no matter how digitally mastered CDs are, there's something evocative about a Nat King Cole Christmas record spinning away on the turntable in the kitchen, while your guests help themselves to spiced cider from the crock pot.
We might have overdone things a little this year, because we somehow ended up hosting two back-to-back Christmas parties on two consecutive weekends. I feel pretty accomplished, actually, for pulling off both those parties--especially the first one, since both Scott and I were deep in the throes of final exams and final semester grading. As happens every year, I try new things in the kitchen and old favorites, too; and some of the new things become old favorites for next year. And because 'tis the season for baking and celebrating, I thought I'd share some of this year's top six holiday favorites (it was going to be five, but I remembered the cheese ball, listed last).
1. There is nothing I love more than hot, spicy-sweet cider on a cold day. This year I had my trusty crock pot, and I made a delicious hot cider, which steeped for about four hours on low all morning while I cooked and baked.
Pour in as much apple cider as you'll need. (Don't be tempted to use apple juice. It must be thick, heady cider.) Throw in about 5 or 6 orange slices (keep the peels on, because they're what really add the fragrance, in my opinion). Add about 1/4 cup of honey, and plenty of cinnamon. I also sprinkle in about 1/2 package of mulling spices, but if you have cloves and whole cinnamon sticks (which I couldn't find anywhere), you can probably get by with those. The cider got rave reviews from everyone. After the party is done, if you're lucky enough to have leftover cider, you can splash some brandy into a mugful of cider and sip it down after the kids have gone to bed.
2. The Best Macaroni and Cheese Ever.
I wish I had a fancy name for this recipe, but I adapted it from Emeril's Seafood Mac 'n Cheese, left out the seafood and the creole seasoning, used pipette noodles instead of elbow noodles (elbow macaroni is so boring), and grated Asiago cheese instead of Swiss. I love this dish. I've made it three times for events in the past two months, and it's always a crowd-pleaser. The pipette noodles add more substance to the casserole, and the cheese mixtures blend well with the panko breadcrumb topping.
3. These next two favorites come pre-packaged, and if you don't live near a Trader Joe's, you might want to skip this part. The first is this delicious combination:
I had never tasted lemon curd before this past weekend, but I read about it recently in a book (I think it was this one), in which the characters were busy detecting and enjoying some homemade lemon curd with afternoon tea. When I saw a jar at Trader Joe's, next to a box of their gingerbread cake, I bought it on impulse. Scott refused to try it because it has the word "curd" in it, but I think spicy gingerbread topped with lemon curd is a magical combination, and I plan to make this combo a yearly tradition.
4. Need an extra dessert, or a quick pan of brownies to supplement your trays of Christmas cookies? Or do you need a quick and yummy gluten-free (we're trying to weed out gluten again in L.'s diet) dessert? Even if you don't have any gluten allergies in your house, these are utterly amazing:
I added pecans, and several people at our most recent holiday party just couldn't separate themselves from the brownie pan (I was one of them). If you like cakey brownies, then these are not for you. But if you love your brownies chewy and gooey, then these are just perfect.
5. This year I added two more cookie recipes to my repertoire, and one of them will definitely become a new favorite: Pecan Tassies. They're a cinch to make, and so delicious--like tiny one-bite pecan pies--and because they're so small they don't count at all if you happen to eat three in a row.
6. Last year we went to the best New Year's Eve party ever and I found myself irresistibly drawn to the cheese table, and to one particular cheese ball. I just couldn't stop eating it. When I asked who made it, a happy lady next to me told me she was the one, and that it was the world's simplest (and best) cheese ball recipe.
Take two packages of plain cream cheese and form them into a ball. Mold them around with your hands to make the blocks soft (a great job for kids like T., who lives for getting her hands messy). Sprinkle in one package of powdered ranch dressing, and mix it into the cream cheese with your hands. When you have it all mixed well, shape it into a round ball. Roll the ball into chopped pecans or walnuts until the whole thing is covered. Chill for at least an hour. Serve with wheat crackers or french bread rounds, then step aside and watch as your guests are unable to tear themselves away from the best cheese ball ever.
What are your holiday menu favorites this year?