As you might have guessed I’ve given Christmas Dinner a lot of thought. There have been culinary highs and lows. I’ve made far too much, too rich food. I’ve lost a lot of sleep. I’ve allowed my kids too much Christmas chocolate and suffered some mind-bogglingly bad behavior. Two years ago I had to spend the afternoon on Christmas day in bed, trying to catch-up on rest I was too wired to get the night before. A lost cause. I’d drunk too much coffee!
Figuring out how to have a nice day, a nice dinner and nicely behaved kids forces me to be reductive. I don’t want to spend the whole day in the kitchen. I want to play a board game, do a puzzle, get out of the house for some fresh air with the family and the dog. I want to make food that my kids will look forward to, that will thrill the grown-ups. If we want to be sure to have happy kids, this would not be the time for experimentation, even though my natural inclination is to try something new. Experimentation feels festive to me and I have to shelve that impulse. I have tried to create a tradition that isn’t bogged down by either trendy recipes that will quickly seem passé or uninspired renditions of the menus we had as kids.
After much trial and error I’ve finally arrived at what feels like the perfect Christmas meal. It has been a long haul. One year I prepared a slavishly Swedish smörgåsbord with smoked fish, ham, meatballs, lingonberries and all the trimmings. The next year I made a totally traditional British meal with a haunch of roast beef, billowing Yorkshire pudding, crisply roast potatoes and gravy—followed by plum pudding. Cooking such complicated heavy meals takes weeks of prep and planning and it gets boring. This led to exhaustion (me), bad behavior (my kids) and frustration (Martin). Then I had an illuminating conversation with my aunt.
The answer to my dinner conundrum turned out to be French dip sandwiches. Seriously. And no, they aren’t too pedestrian for the main event on Christmas Day. My aunt takes the French dip sandwich to a whole new level and yet she manages to keep the process easy so that her Christmas day is a relaxing one where she can enjoy her family and still have a meal that everyone looks forward to. She makes a standing rib roast for all of us on Christmas Eve and then, with leftovers, builds the most luxurious French dips the next day.
I can do this! I thought. So now I roast a beef tenderloin, which is a very easy thing to do on Christmas Eve, and slice it up the next day. I stir a little horseradish into some creme fraîche so it’s got a searing edge to it. I open a jar of cherry chutney that I buy at the store—that’s easy. I put par baked little French breads from La Brea into the oven; they are perfect with a crispy crust and an interior with just enough oomph that it doesn’t melt into the brothy dip. (Once I tried brioche rolls – a disaster! They disintegrated.) I butter the bread and layer it with piles of thinly sliced rosy beef. Wrapping the sandwiches in foil, I put them in the oven to make sure they get good and hot and move on to the salad. The beef broth for dipping is made the weekend before, and heated up just before serving.
With the sandwiches there will be a salad, a variation on the one that I made a few weeks ago, the failed salad. I’ve tweaked the recipe and now it works. The watercress gets a much milder blue cheese, blood oranges and candied walnuts. I kept the pickled currants and shallots and added juice from the blood orange to the vinaigrette. Now the salad is perfectly balanced. The colors are vibrant and very Christmas-y.
For starters we have smoked salmon on homemade Swedish rye bread with all the trimmings: minced red onion or chives, lemon, unsalted cultured butter, sea salt. With this you must serve champagne.
The one thing I couldn’t ditch was the plum pudding. And I’m going to tell you how to make it, even though I would put money on the fact that nobody who reads this will actually try making one. My grandfather faxed the recipe to me from England, transcribed from my grandmother’s “norse mutterings”, back in 1991. It really wouldn’t be Christmas dinner if I didn’t serve Granny’s Plum Pudding afterwards.
Smoked salmon, creme fraiche, minced red onion and lemon on Swedish rye bread with fennel seed and orange rind
French dip sandwiches with horseradish cream, sour cherry chutney and strong beef broth for dipping
Watercress salad with gorgonzola dolce, blood oranges, candied walnuts, quick pickled dried currants and shallots
Granny’s Plum Pudding and Hard Sauce
You can make this weeks in advance of Christmas. It will only improve with age.
- 3/4 cups softened butter
- 2 cups soft bread crumbs from white bread
- 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 3 cups dried currants
- 1 1/2 cups raisins
- 1 1/2 cups golden raisins
- 1/2 cup candied citron or orange peel or a mixture of both – chopped
- 1/4 cup dried cherries
- 1/2 cup chopped blanched almonds
- 1 large cooking apple, grated
- 3 eggs
- the zest of one orange and one lemon
- 3/4 cup sherry—or “any booze you have”; some people like Guinness for this. Others, ginger beer.
Stir all the ingredients together until well combined. Pack into a buttered pudding basin and steam in a soup pot for 6 hours. You do this by sealing the pudding basin and placing on a stainless steel vegetable steamer. Fill the pot with water so that it comes a quarter way up the sides of the pudding basin. After six hours let it rest uncovered on the counter until it is cool. Store in the refrigerator for weeks if necessary and reheat in a steamer on the stove. This seems to take about 2 hours. All this cooking will not hurt the pudding in any way.
Martin says that Plum Pudding is really just a vehicle for the following hard sauce and I understand what he is saying up to a point. In my opinion, you do need to serve Plum Pudding with some sort of sauce. We like Hard Sauce. Some people serve it with a sickly rum creme anglaise kind of thing but I don’t approve of that.
- 3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
- 1 1/4 cups soft brown sugar
- 3 tbsp brandy
Cream the butter and then add the sugar. A hand mixer or food processor will make this very quick. Then add the brandy and process until smooth. Taste it; you may want more brandy. Put the hard sauce in the refrigerator to chill. I like this lethally strong as the contrast of the boozy sauce melting over the the mindbendingly rich and steamy pudding is so completely diverting.
It would be very much in the spirit of the Christmas season to have a not-too-small piece heated up in the microwave the morning after with a spoonful of Hard Sauce. Eat it in bed before the kids have woken up with a cup of strong Indian tea with milk on the bedside table, while reading one of the books you unwrapped the day before.
That’s what I would do.