This year, we had two Christmases — the big family gathering at Steve's dad's place on Christmas Day and a small family gathering of just the three (well, four) of us at home on Christmas Eve, when we opened our presents. Someone else is usually in charge of what we eat at the big feast, so even though Steve and I usually bring something to contribute, I don't really get to participate in the fun (and energy) of planning out a meal. I miss that sometimes — dreaming up side dishes to go with the ham or the turkey, mulling over cookbooks to find creative ways to do sweet potatoes or green vegetables. So this year, Steve and I began a Christmas Eve tradition of having our own private feast, just for the family. It doesn't have to be huge or perfect — just fun and delicious and maybe a little adventurous. To get in the spirit of it, I turned to one of my favorite cookbook authors, Nigella Lawson, who manages to be laid back about cooking even while she's passionate about it. For Christmas Eve, I browsed through her Feast and decided to go with sausages with onion-cider gravy and a mashed potato dish that also incorporates apples. That, and the Brussels sprouts cooked with pancetta and chestnuts. It was delicious; I nearly literally swooned when we finally sat down and started eating. For dessert, we just had a few slices of chocolate loaf cake that I'd made over the weekend (from Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess). I've baked several batches of it throughout the fall, and it's my biggest addiction at the moment. I cannot stop at just one slice and sometimes have eaten half a loaf in one sitting. Let's hope I don't get gestational diabetes.
If Nigella Lawson is relaxed and laid back in her attitude to cooking, my other favorite cookbook is the opposite and appeals to an entirely different (read: obsessive) side of me. It's The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine. These folks will test a recipe down to its bare bones before settling on the very best combination of ingredients and cooking techniques. It's fascinating and sometimes pretty funny to read their process as they haggle over the minutae of a recipe, often making it dozens of times and having testers taste each permutation. For sweet potatoes — which is what I made for the big family gathering yesterday — it was all about whether to boil the potatoes or bake them to get the best flavor out of them, and whether to cook them whole and scrape them out of their peels once cooked or cut them up ahead of time. Their conclusion: Cut them up raw and braise them in a pot with nothing but a small amount of butter and cream, thereby letting them cook in their own juices. (I used a variation with ginger and brown sugar.) This way, they say, you get the full-bodied sweet-potato flavor without watered-down mushiness. And what do you know? They were right.
In the picture: Here's Daniel, the youngest of the 12 cousins (so far) on Steve's side of the family, with the oldest cousin, Beth, who is a junior in college and studying to be a teacher. He loved her. All the cousins but one were together yesterday, which was a rare achievement. It was a beautiful day — snowy but not too cold — and all the kids were red-faced and sweaty after coming in from ice skating on the pond outside the house. It was nice and relaxing, a very good Christmas.