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Claire Hopley’s Table Talk: Jump the gun with make-ahead holiday fare

  • Stickey Cocktail Sausages

  • Stickey Cocktail Sausages

  • Holiday Bread Wreath with Baked Brie, Sweet and Sour Christmas Chutney GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Holiday Bread Wreath with Baked Brie GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Holiday Bread Wreath with Baked Brie GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sweet and Sour Christmas Chutney GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS


Thursday, December 08, 2016

The holiday cooking marathon daunts all but the most intrepid. Whether it’s a neighborhood party, a Hanukkah gathering, Christmas dinner or a New Year’s Eve fling, there are so many dishes to think about.

Some traditional dishes may be nerve-racking because you cook them so infrequently you never become adept. Others may be in your comfort zone, but because it’s a special occasion you want to prettify them with frostings and garnishes. That takes time.

And lots of cooking requires lots of pots and pans and utensils and oven space. It can be harrowing if it has to be done at a sprint just before the guests arrive. The thing to do is to jump the gun and make a bunch of things well before the big event.

Dishes that can be frozen and emerge from the freezer still tasting fresh and looking gorgeous can be made days, even weeks, in advance.

Breads, cookies and muffins are terrific examples. As you plan your menu for your gathering, think where some of these could play a part. A donut-shaped bread ring with a dip or melted Brie in its center will tempt all comers to the appetizer table. Traditional Christmas breads such as stollen and cranberry quickbreads always please.

If you are expecting overnight guests, homemade muffins will make breakfast special. Of course, you don’t want to get up at dawn to make them; much better to have them stashed in the freezer, so you need only warm them up.

Many cakes, too, can be frozen. Yellow cakes made by either creaming the butter and sugar or whisking the eggs with sugar are fine in the freezer, though frostings and toppings may not be, so freeze cakes before decorating them.

Chocolate Christmas logs also freeze well without the decorations.

Perhaps surprisingly, meringues and choux puffs survive happily in the freezer — again without fillings or toppings. Both shortcrust and puff pastry can also be made well ahead and frozen.

As for main dishes, if you are having a roast it needs to be made just before it’s served, but casseroles and stews in which the meat is cooked in liquid can be made ahead and frozen or just refrigerated for a couple of days. Typically they taste even better when they are heated for a second time.

Some hearty vegetable side dishes behave similarly. Red cabbage is one example, and so are dishes of mashed winter squash or ratatouille and other mixtures of Mediterranean vegetables.

Among desserts, dried fruit compotes keep well in the fridge, and cheesecakes are happy there for three or four days, though hold off on adding the fruit or toppings until shortly before serving.

The showy main dishes of the holiday season win the oohs and aahs, but often it’s the modest dishes such as salads, relishes and chutneys that add the sparkle.

While salads should be freshly made, the opposite applies to chutneys. These mixtures of vegetables and fruit preserved with sugar and vinegar are easy to make ahead. They are a comfort to have, too. When they have done duty at the big meal, they are ready to brighten up a plate of leftovers. Plus, if you make an extra jar or two, you have gifts on hand.

Here are recipes that will give you a head start on cooking for holiday parties.

Sweet and Sour Christmas Chutney

Lots of chutneys look densely brown so it’s hard to figure what’s in them. Here’s a paler one, with pieces of apple prettily speckled with tiny bits of sweet red pepper and little chunks of kiwi for holiday color. Chutneys add an appetizing zing to meat and fish dishes, and make a plate of holiday leftovers or a sandwich special. Cheddar-and-chutney-topped crackers are a quick appetizer. The number of spices lengthens the ingredient list, but that shouldn’t suggest that making them is hard. You just boil everything into a tasty sweet-sour confection.

For the spiced vinegar

1¾ cups white vinegar

1-inch chunk ginger

1 teaspoon coriander seed

3 cloves

1 bay leaf

For the chutney

½ cup golden raisins

2 medium large onions, peeled and coarsely chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped

3 large Cortland or Golden Delicious apples, peeled and cored

3 medium large green tomatoes or 4 tomatillos, washed and chopped

2 teaspoons powdered ginger, or more to taste

2 teaspoons powdered coriander, or more to taste

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1½ cups granulated sugar

4-5 drops Tabasco or small pinch cayenne (optional)

2 large kiwi fruit

1 small-medium sweet red pepper

To make the spiced vinegar, put the vinegar in the pan with the ginger cut in slices, coriander seed, white peppercorns, bay leaf and cloves. Bring to the boil and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Let stand until you are ready to use it.

To make the chutney, cover the raisins with hot water. Let stand for 10-15 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.

Combine the onions, garlic and half a cup of water in a big pan. Cover and simmer for about 5 minutes or until the onions have softened. Cut each apple into 8-10 big chunks and add to the onions along with the chopped tomatillos. Drain the spiced vinegar into the pan, discarding the spices.

Add the powdered ginger, coriander and nutmeg, stir then and cook over low heat stirring occasionally to mix the ingredients.

When the apples have softened a little, stir in the sugar and the drained raisins. Turn up the heat and let the mixture bubble for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often until it thickens and is almost like jam. Remove a teaspoonful, let cool and taste. You can stir in more spices ginger to taste.

Cut the kiwi into circles and then cut these into 4 wedges each. Slice the red pepper into thin strips about -inch wide, then cut across to make tiny squares. Return the mixture to the heat and when it is bubbly and thick stir in the kiwi and pepper bits. Cook just 2-3 minutes longer. Pour into sterilized jars. This chutney keeps well in a cool place for 6 weeks.

Stickey Cocktail Sausages

Sausages always disappear at holiday parties. The charm of these is their spicy stickiness. This recipe depends on ready-made ingredients, so it’s easy, and the spices can be adjusted to suit your taste. For a hint of Indian flavor substitute 2-3 teaspoons of curry powder for the cumin and cinnamon.

2 tablespoons canola or other vegetable oil

1 tablespoons finely chopped onion

1 garlic clove minced

4 tablespoons bottled steak sauce, such as A1

3 tablespoons tomato ketchup

4 tablespoons light brown sugar

2-3 teaspoons vinegar

1 teaspoon powdered cumin

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch red pepper flakes or a few drops Tabasco or sriracha to taste

14-16 ounce package heat-and -serve cocktail sausages

Salt to taste

Cherry tomatoes and green peppers for serving

Heat the oil in a frying pan over moderate heat. Stir in the onion and garlic and cook gently for 2-3 minutes, so they soften without browning. Stir in the steak sauce and ketchup. Then mix in the sugar, 2 teaspoons of vinegar, the cumin, cinnamon, and a small pinch of red pepper flakes or 3-4 drops of Tabasco or sriracha.

Cook, stirring occasionally for 3-4 minutes then taste. You can add more of any of the spices, and also additional vinegar to taste. Don’t add salt because the sausages may provide enough.

When the sauce tastes as you want it, add the sausage. Cook for a 3-4 minutes spooning the sauce over the sausages. Taste again. Add salt only if needed. Let the sausages rest in the sauce for at least 15 minutes, or longer if more convenient.

For serving, arrange them on a plate with cocktail sticks, adding halved cherry tomatoes and green pepper pieces for holiday color. You can make ahead and store in the fridge for up to 3 days or freeze in a plastic box or bag and freeze for up to a month.

Holiday Bread with Baked Brie

This bread has a lot going on. Cranberries, pistachios and cherries speckle it with holiday color, while rosemary and poppy seeds infuse it with heady flavors. It’s a perfect for tearing and dipping into a meltingly baked Brie or Camembert. To make sure it fits into the center, the bread is baked with a heatproof bowl slightly bigger than the cheese. Or you can forget the cheese, and serve with hummus or other dip, or you can simply slice it and top it with ham or cheese.

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

1½ tablespoons brown sugar

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon butter

4 teaspoons poppy seed

4 cups flour plus more as needed

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup shelled pistachios

½ cup dried cranberries

1 teaspoon rosemary snipped small plus a few sprigs for garnish

About 15 crystallized red cherries

1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water

8-ounce circular Brie or Camembert cheese

In a small bowl mix the dried yeast and 1 teaspoon of the brown sugar with about ½ cup warm water and set aside for about 10 minutes until frothy.

In a small saucepan warm the milk with the butter just until the butter melts. Set aside.

In a small frying pan toast the poppyseeds over a stove burner for about 45 seconds or until fragrant.

Warm a large mixing bowl. In it mix the flour with the salt and remaining sugar. Make a well in the center and add the yeast mixture, the milk mixture, then three teaspoons of the poppyseeds and the pistachios, cranberries, and rosemary.

Mix well, adding enough tepid water as needed — probably about half a cup — to make a dough. Knead until it is silky and no longer sticks to your hands or the bowl — about 6-7 minutes with an electric mixer; 15 minutes by hand.

Cover the bowl with a plastic bag or wrap and set in a warm draft-free spot until it has doubled in bulk, which takes about an hour depending on the ambient temperature.

While the dough is rising, line a baking sheet with parchment and find a heatproof bowl just slightly wider than the Brie. (Typically most 8-ounce Bries are 4½ inches wide). Put it upside down in the center of the baking tray.

When the dough has doubled, tip onto a lightly flour board. Punch it down then knead and flatten it into a large rectangle.

Cut the cherries in half. Reserve 10 halves but scatter the rest evenly over the rectangle. Roll it up as for a jelly roll then form it into a snake and coil it around the bowl, though not touching the bowl, and join the ends. Cover again loosely with plastic wrap and let rise is a warm place for about 45 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When the ring has doubled, brush lightly with the egg yolk mixture and sprinkle on the remaining poppy seeds. With scissors make snips at about 2-inch intervals along the top and similarly along the base so that the wreath emerges with a rough surface.

Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes then reduce to 350 degrees and bake for a further 20 minutes. Should the top get too brown, cover lightly with aluminum foil. Cool on a wire rack before removing the bowl. To garnish make some cuts in the wreath with a sharp knife and sit the cherry halves and sprigs of rosemary in them. To freeze, pack in plastic when cold, and freeze for up to a month.

For baking the Brie, preheat the oven to 350. Take the Brie from its box and remove wrapping. Return it to the box, make 4-5 cuts, each about an inch, radiating from the center to enable it to expand. Bake for as and place in the oven for about 12 minutes or until it is molten.

Pepperonata

Pepperonata is the most thrilling of vegetable dishes, grabbing attention with its dazzling colors. Though the local peppers have now gone, the scarlet hue of supermarket peppers makes it a natural on holiday tables. It’s obliging too. You can serve it cold as a salad or warm as a side dish. Or use it to garnish quiches or other party fare. It’s easy to make and keeps well for several days, refrigerated. No need to worry about the exact number of peppers and tomatoes as long as about 80 percent of the total is peppers.

5-6 medium-large red bell peppers

4-5 tablespoons fruity olive oil

1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced

3 large cloves of garlic, crushed

5 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 -2 teaspoons dried oregano

salt to taste

a sprig of basil with 5-6 leaves plus basil sprigs for garnish

Halve all the peppers, remove the seeds and stems, trim the pale ribs from the inside of the peppers, and cut the flesh into ½-inch strips.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over moderate heat. Add the onion and garlic, cover the pan, and cook gently for 5-6 minutes to soften. Add the pepper strips and continue gently cooking for another 6-7 minutes, stirring occasionally and making sure they do not brown. Now add the tomatoes, oregano, salt to taste and the basil sprig. Cover and cook for about 15 minutes until all the vegetables are tender.

Most of the juice should evaporate, but the dish should remain juicy and tender. Discard the basil sprig and transfer to a serving dish. Garnish with fresh basil sprigs.

Red Cabbage with Apples

Red cabbage has many aficionados, and in Germany it is a must-have with the Christmas meal. The acid tang of the apples and the red wine makes it an excellent accompaniment to any rich holiday meat dish.

1 medium red cabbage to yield about 1½ to 2 pounds chopped

2 medium to large onions, coarsely chopped

2 medium tart apples, peeled and sliced

9 juniper berries

6 whole cloves

3 tablespoons brown sugar

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons vinegar

¾ cup red wine

For garnish

2 apples peeled and cut in 8 slices each

3 tablespoons butter or oil

4 strips bacon (optional)

About 8 ounces chorizo, cooked (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Wash and coarsely chop the red cabbage, discarding coarse or damaged outer leaves. Put a third of this in a large pan or casserole that can go on the stove or in the oven. Scatter a third of the onions and a third of the apples on top, distributing them more or less evenly.

Crush the juniper berries slightly with something heavy and add three of them. Add a couple of cloves, a tablespoon of the sugar and a little salt. Repeat this layer using another third of each ingredient.

To make the final layer, mix the remaining cabbage, apple and onion together with the juniper, cloves, and sugar. Season with a little salt, plus the vinegar and ¾ cup of water.

Cover, bring to simmering point on top of the stove, and cook for 10 minutes. Transfer to the preheated oven, and cook for about 1½ hours or until the cabbage is tender.

There should be little liquid left. If necessary, return the pan to the stove without a lid and boil until most liquid has evaporated. Now add the red wine, and simmer for a further 15-20 minutes or until you are left with just enough liquid to moisten the cabbage; it should be moist but not swimming. For freezing, pack into a plastic box or bag and freeze, without garnishes, for up to a month.

To garnish at serving time, fry the apple slices in the butter or oil until they are golden brown, and arrange on or around the red cabbage. If using bacon, fry until lightly gold, then cut in 1-inch pieces before scattering on the cabbage. For chorizo, cook according to package directions, then slice and add to the cabbage.