I started in on this year’s Christmas post by rereading last year’s Real Christmas Traditions. For the first time since January 2014.
Woah. A lot of changes since then. Yet, happily, so many things the same. Specifically: my three awesome boys, our fun times together and our family traditions.
Understandably, holiday traditions may take a bit of a hit when a family goes through divorce. It was very important to Bill and me — this being our first holiday season in our “new normal”, as they say — that the boys’ Christmas be as consistent with the past as possible. It helps a lot that we live near family and the kids have enjoyed the same holiday traditions with them for years — things like decorating sugar cookies with the cousins at Grammy and Papa’s house.
So the importance of holiday traditions, particularly the food ones, was on my mind all season. Things like the cookie making, yes, but also the Prosecco, fruit cake and hors-d’oeuvres on Christmas Eve after church; the Christmas Day Italian feast using family recipes that have been around for generations; and the day after Christmas brunch at Grammy and Papa’s with my sister’s family.
I felt a deep obligation to the boys — as well as to remember the rest of the family we love, but wouldn’t be seeing this year –to keep up my usual contribution to the holiday traditions: the Christmas Day Italian Feast.
As an aside: my role in the two other annual eating “events”?
- The Christmas Eve post-church party isn’t cooking, per se. I just have to remember to order our favorite fruit cake from Mary of Puddin’ Hill; buy a couple of bottles of Prosecco; then pop into Fresh Market on Christmas Eve and load up on great cheeses, proscuitto, nuts, and fruit to have after Christmas Eve church with Grammy & Papa. While we all eat and drink, the boys write a letter to Santa and make a plate of cookies for him (and peel carrots for the reindeer, and put out some cheese for Santa Mouse — it’s quite a production).
- My cooking contribution to the day-after-Christmas-brunch at my parents’: drink a couple of glasses of champagne then crack some eggs into one of the brunch casseroles. Every year, I perform these grueling tasks in stellar form.
The Italian Feast, though. That’s on me. And it takes some Planning with a capital P and some serious hours in the kitchen (I roped the boys in to help some this year — increasing their help each year is definitely the long-term plan). I love every minute of it, though, because I know how thrilled the boys will be to see all their favorites at the table on Christmas Day.
Here was the menu plan for Christmas Day:
1) biscotti to have with our tea while the boys open their presents in the wee hours of the morning (this year: 5:45 AM!! — that’s about as “wee” as it gets)
2) Fran’s Christmas Eve shrimp at brunch-ish time, after all the presents are opened and the various technological gifts have been figured out
3) Italian Feast late lunch/dinner
- homemade Italian bread
- spaghetti with “gravy” and meatballs
- eggplant parmesan
- lots of freshly grated Parmigianno Regionno (Parenting tip: make random teenagers stand in the kitchen and grate the parmesan — it takes a good 15-20 minutes with the box grater. It’s an excellent way to pull him into a conversation with grown-ups without the pressure of “Now. It is time for you to talk to the grownups. Go!”)
- Pinot Grigios and Chiantis supplied by Papa; dessert cookies from Grammy
Unfortunately, we’ve never had a copy of Fran’s biscotti recipe, but years ago I made these (slightly modified from Giada De Laurentiis Everyday Italian) and Bill said they were the closest to his mom’s that he’d ever had — so we stuck with them. I make either almond ones or dark chocolate chip ones. Or, as for this year, both!
- 2 C all-purpose flour
- 3/4 C fine yellow cornmeal
- 1 1/2 t baking powder
- 1 t salt
- 3 large eggs
- 3/4 C sugar
- 2 t almond extract and 3/4 C chopped unsalted almonds
- OR 2 t vanilla extract and 3/4 C dark chocolate chips (I used Ghiradelli brand)
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F
- Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper
- Stir flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl
- With an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar in another large bowl until pale yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes
- Add the almond or vanilla extract
- Add the flour mixture to the eggs and sugar and stir just until blended (the dough will be soft and sticky)
- Stir in chopped almonds or chocolate chips and let stand for 5 minutes
- Using a rubber spatula transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet forming two mounds spaced evenly apart
- Moisten your hands with water and shape the dough into two 11 by 4-inch logs
- Bake until lightly brown, about 35 minutes
- Cool the logs for 5 minutes. Using a serrated knife, cut the logs crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick diagonal slices
- Arrange the biscotti cut side down on the same baking sheet and bake until the pale and golden, about 25 minutes
- Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes; then use a metal spatula to transfer to a rack to cool completely
Christmas Eve Shrimp
The recipe is the same as I used last year. Still “real food-ing” it up, using whole wheat flour. And, look, teenager helping!
The Friday evening before Christmas I did the following (you could do this weeks ahead because these dishes all keep really well in the freezer):
- put on favorite apron
- put on holiday music and open beer (see below)
- make two pots of gravy
- make meatballs
- make eggplant parmesan
- make lasagna
- wrap everything up to go to freezer (to defrost the day before the big dinner)
For how I make “gravy” and eggplant parmesan look at last year. Here’s how I do meatballs and lasagna:
Meatballs (using the recipe my father-in-law wrote down for me YEARS ago)
- 2 slices bread, thoroughly soaked in milk (I use my homemade wheat bread)
- 1 # ground beef
- 1 egg
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 T finely chopped onion
- 1 T chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 3 T grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet. Mush by hand all ingredients above (make sure to pour in the extra milk from the bread soaking) it should have a pate-like texture. Round by hand to about golf ball size and space evenly on baking sheet. Cook for 25 minutes. Either freeze then (on the tray, then place in a freezer bag); or put them right into a pot of tomato sauce to eat when ready.
For the cheese filling, I use Fran’s same recipe as in last year‘s manicotti.
- 1 lb whole milk ricotta
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/4 c finely chopped Italian parsley
- 2-3 T parmesan cheese
- salt, pepper, garlic powder and oregano to taste
I used whole wheat lasagna noodles. Cooked them, then layered gravy, noodles, cheese filling, gravy, noodles, cheese filling until the pan was almost full. Then wrapped it in foil and froze. Mozzarella topping was put on at the end of baking it on Christmas Day.
Christmas Day Prep
- put on “fancy” apron (see top photo)
- 4 hours before eating: started Italian Bread in the bread machine; finished in oven a couple of hours later (recipe here)
- an hour before eating: warm up pre-made dishes (that were defrosted the day before) in a 350 degree; while they heat up:
- put pot of gravy on the stove to simmer
- make salad (this year: romaine and arugula, chopped hard boiled egg, toasted pine nuts, carrots, fresh parsley, lots of grated parmesan; seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and a little dried basil; dressed with olive oil & white wine vinegar)
- remove foil from baked dishes; top with mozzarella and parmesan; return to oven to brown on top while pasta cooks
- boil water and cook a pound of pasta
Ask parents and children to set the table, slice the bread, put out the parmesan, pour the wine, etc. Transfer all food to the table. Mangia!
Of course there had to be something. Whether to blame it on being a divorced mom of three boys with all the new logistical challenges that entails — OR just to write it off to “I have three boys! It’s Christmas time! Give me a break!” — is debatable. But, as I put the last dish on the food-laden table — surrounded by my parents and the three boys, giant dog underfoot as usual — my middle son looked up at me and said “But, Mama? Where is the squid? Where?” (In a spot on Cindy Lou Who voice — you know? when she wakes up and finds the Grinch about to shove their Christmas tree up the chimney? — “Santy Clause? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?”)
The squid! I forgot the damn squid. Well, maybe not “forgot”, so much as chose not to remember it … it’s so good, but pretty labor intensive. A synopsis of the process: you buy some squid bodies and tentacles (finding those can be a challenge in itself), make a delicious stuffing using Fran’s famous “galamad” recipe, get the stuffing into the little squid bodies (another challenge as you can imagine, if you’ve ever held a raw squid body in your hand — and who hasn’t?!) Then you delicately cook the stuffed squid bodies and the tentacles in a light tomato sauce and serve it over angel hair pasta. It is DELICIOUS. And it is one of the 10 year olds most favorite things to eat in the whole world. And I let him down. On Christmas Day! Oh, the guilt.
Fortunately, he is the middle child. They are all about rolling with the punches. “That’s okay, Mama! You can make it next year.” Which, of course, only made me feel worse.
So, in a very NOT Real Food approach to assuage my guilt, as the end of Christmas Break neared, I said “Boys, tonight we are going to have a Squid Fest to make up for Mom forgetting to make the squid this year.” We hopped in the car and headed over to Biaggi’s and ordered 3 plates of fried calamari. And root beers. And two glasses of wine (another little trick I’ve found for quick guilt assuagement). They were pretty happy :
Merry Christmas! Or “Merry Squidmas!” as the 10 year old put it. 🙂
A Final “Cultural” Note
I see that I was prattling on last year about the South Park Christmas special and Tim Minchin’s Christmas hymn, “White Wine in the Sun”. So I’ll fill you in on this year’s aural and visual background to the Christmas Feast prep-cooking-marathon:
The boys were watching Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! One of their favorite Christmas TV specials. Chock-a-block full of hilarious (and beautiful and touching) songs. Here’s one: a lovely duet he sings with Elvis Costello.
Sufjan Steven’s Songs for Christmas. (Thank you Chris & Tania — Christmas gift from you YEARS ago!)
Not “holiday”, but the Glass Animals on Pandora was highly motivational as I leaned in to hour number three in the kitchen. Oh, and here’s the beer that kept me motivated as well.