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One Sweet Season
It’s December – when everything should be delicious
By Elyse Notarianni

Holiday cooking is about so much more than food. But we all know food does have a certain power. In one sweet-smelling instant, you can go back to the most special holiday morning or a warm winter evening when the family dinner is about to begin. Meals are such an essential part of every holiday for nearly all families. And while food may taste good, what it does to our hearts is even sweeter.

For pastry chef Ruth Scott, a well-worn apple-pie recipe passed down from her mother can instantly take her back to the days when she was first discovering her passion for baking. Truth
be told, she could make the pie by memory, but following the recipe is a cherished holiday ritual.

“The page is covered in stains from having it open on the counter while cooking, and the measurements are all worn off, but I love to look at my mother’s handwriting,” says Scott, who owns Cupcakes by Ruth in Cherry Hill. “I get to think back and remember helping her make the dishes that I’m making for my family now.”

To celebrate this month of family gatherings and parties with friends, we’ve got some tasty tricks and holiday hacks to keep you cooking well into winter. You’re making new memories now, so let’s get cooking.

 

3 Holiday Drinks Your Guests Will Love

While wine and beer are tried-and-true crowd pleasers, a few seasonal spirits can raise the bar on holiday cheer.

“The holiday season calls for you to up the ante a little bit,” says Kae Lani Palmisano, a food and travel writer from Berlin. “What you drink can be just as memorable as the food you serve.”

Preparing mixed drinks ahead of time and setting them out in large bowls adds a personal touch to your party without requiring you to spend the night playing bartender. Three classic drinks – mulled wine, apple cider and eggnog – are not only delicious, but their large serving sizes will keep your guests happily gathered around the punch bowl all night.

Mulled wine
“Spiced wine, also known as mulled wine, is a great holiday drink,” says Palmisano, the host of “Check Please!” a show airing with WHYY next month. “If you’re having a party, it’s perfect for making a lot of cheap wine palatable for a big group of people.”

Heat red wine on the stove and throw in spices like cinnamon, star anise, cloves and a citrus like orange slices. Make it sweet with a shot of rum or add amaretto for a nutty flavor.

“You can top it off with a cinnamon stick, which I think can be really festive,” she says. “All these elements bring in a lot of warm, aromatic spices, which are perfect for those long cold nights in the wintertime.”

Eggnog
And because you can’t talk about holiday drinks without naming this winter favorite, Palmisano says you can’t go wrong with spiked eggnog.

“Traditionally brandy is used, but I think adding bourbon is a better option because it has a great smoky quality that brings out the creaminess in the eggnog, along with the cinnamon and nutmeg undertones,” she notes.

Spiced apple cider
For a non-alcoholic crowd-pleaser, Palmisano suggests spicing store-bought apple cider with brown sugar, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and citrus. Just mix it on the stove and let it simmer.

 

Spruce up your table

With warm drinks simmering on the stove and dinner sizzling in the oven, your home will smell like the holidays. But to complete this picture, presentation can be just as important as the meal itself.

“Holiday décor is all about personal style,” says florist Michael Bruce. “It’s all about what makes you happy when you and your guests sit around the table.”

There’s no right or wrong way to decorate, Bruce says, and some simple steps can help get you started.

“Where you place decorations is naturally where people are going to look,” Bruce says. “So the adornments on your dining room table should complement the meal, not distract.”
You can never go wrong with fresh flowers, but don’t be afraid to think outside the traditional centerpiece.

“A great option is to place individual flowers along the table,” Bruce says. “They’re going to last the evening, so don’t worry about them wilting in the middle of dinner.”

Roses are perfect, he says, because they last for a long time out of water if you buy them fresh, and their scent won’t overpower the meal.

You can even find some of the best table decorations right outside your front door.

“Head out to your garden or yard to see what types of flowers, greens and branches you can find,” Bruce adds.

Place them around the table or even incorporate them into a dish. Just make sure they can be easily taken out – they look better than they taste, he says.

 

Making Memories…

One Christmas Eve, Mom made eggnog. However, 3 different people ended up secretly spiking it with brandy, rum and bourbon. Always make sure you have a “designated spiker” of the eggnog.
William Colarulo, Washington Township

I have no idea how this became a family tradition, but no
holiday in my house is complete without two different types of Jell-O. The weird part is it’s served with dinner, not dessert. The outer edges of my turkey are always stained pink.
Madison Clarey, Voorhees

One Thanksgiving as I was cooking, flames started coming out of the oven. My husband went to get the fire extinguisher, and I yelled that if he sprayed it in the oven, dinner would be totally ruined. He screamed back, “What would you prefer: the house being burnt down
or the turkey and oven ruined?” I opted to keep the oven and turkey. I threw in some baking powder and put out the flames. Crisis averted, and dinner was served.
Jocelyn Price, Voorhees

One year my dad cut down a pine tree in our yard and made it into a Christmas tree. It was 18 feet tall, took up a lot of room and shed needles everywhere. There were so many people in our house on Christmas Eve that we kept finding pine needles on our appetizer plates because we kept bumping into the tree. They smelled great, but I didn’t love getting them stuck in my teeth.
Natalia Maikranz, Cherry Hill

My mom makes the best chocolate cake, but she only makes it for holidays. When my oldest sister decided she wanted to make the cake, no one was happy. Then we found a piece of uncooked pasta in it. To this day, my sister gets upset when we bring it up. If I’m being honest, her cake was actually pretty good. But I wasn’t going to admit that at the time.
Connor Buyers, Camden

Every Christmas morning my mom used to send me to the neighbor’s house with a homemade cheesecake. I’m Jewish, but every year their family always had a pile of presents for me. I think it was my mom’s way of letting me experience a different religion’s traditions and create memories with my neighbors.
Jocelyn Dubei, Cherry Hill

 

5 Baking Blunders (and how to avoid them)

’Tis the season when sweet baking dreams sometimes clash with harsh reality. Even seasoned pastry chefs have taken something out of the oven that looks nothing like the pictures of confectionary perfection they pinned on Pinterest.

That includes pastry chef Ruth Scott who says that behind every baking success is hours of trial runs, near misses and outright culinary failures. She has a few tips to avoid making the most common baking mistakes.

 

 

Not reading the recipe
The very first thing you should do before cracking an egg is read the entire recipe.

“You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this,” Scott says. “There’s a process buried somewhere between the ingredients and the call to ‘Enjoy!’ If you don’t follow those directions exactly, it’s not going to turn out the way you want.”

Reading every step also helps avoid surprises halfway through cooking. Need to sift the flour? Make sure you have that tool on hand, or you may be running to the store mid-recipe.

Playing fast-and-loose with directions
When baking, measurements matter.

“When you’re cooking, the ‘a pinch of this and a pinch of that’ mentality might work, but for baking, one misstep can spell disaster,” Scott says. “If the recipe calls for room-temperature ingredients or for you to cream the butter for three minutes, that’s really what you should do.”

Not checking expiration dates
Everyone has that box of baking soda that’s been sitting in the back of the pantry since 1992, but just because you only use a little at a time doesn’t mean it will stay good forever.
“Those ingredients lose their potency over time,” Scott says. “Especially if you don’t bake very often, it’s easy to overlook expiration dates.”

Typically, baking soda and baking powder will only keep for about 9-12 months.

Mis-timing the transfer from pan to plate
When baking a cake, it’s tempting to want a bite straight out of the oven, but that impatience can cost you. Take it out too soon, and your cake may fall apart. Wait too long, and the condensation will make it stick to the pan. What’s just right?

“Let it sit for five to 10 minutes when you take the cake out of the oven – just long enough that it’s cool to touch with your bare hand,” Scott says. “Then, put a baking rack on top and flip it over. Let it sit for a couple minutes before lifting the pan.”

“Unfortunately,” she adds, “it’s a sweet spot that you learn through experience – and a lot of mistakes.”

Striving for perfection
Baking requires exact measurements and attention to detail, but don’t let that stress you out.

“Baking is about having patience and being able to laugh at yourself,” Scott says. “Everybody makes mistakes, and typically, the people you’re baking for don’t care how crooked it is or that it’s a little bit more cooked on one side. What you’ve done is taken the time to bake a treat for someone to enjoy, and that’s really special.”

 

Dish Decor

Show ’em your creative culinary skills with some recipes that wow

Sugared garnishes
Sugared garnishes bring a wintery feel to any dish. Combine two cups of water and two cups of sugar over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Stir in one package of fresh rosemary and one cup of cranberries until coated, then place them on parchment paper to dry for one hour. Next, roll the dried rosemary and cranberries in two cups of sugar until well coated and return them to the pan to dry for one hour. Place on top of white icing for a seemingly snow-topped treat.

Antipasto wreath platter
Line a 9-inch, round platter with spruce sprigs, overlapping to create a wreath.

Measure 1 1/2 cups each of green olives, black olives, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls. Divide each antipasto into four piles (roughly 4-6 pieces per pile) and place in alternating groups along the spruce, making sure to maintain the wreath’s shape by keeping the middle of the plate open. Your guests won’t know whether to eat it or hang it on your front door.

December 2019
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