Christmas dinner.

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It’s a magical time we’re in now, isn’t it?

Magical except for the constant traffic, frightening encounters with last-minute shoppers, and annual family conflict reenactments. It’s a bummer that life gets stressful during the times we hope to savor; but, hey, this is why we have sugar cookie highs and mulled wine! To keep Christmas sane and the candy canes and silver lanes aglow, my family’s planning a simple Christmas dinner.

We’ll have smoked ham glazed with Byrd & Duncan beer syrup, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, my grandmother’s famous cream of chicken soup dressing, deliciously southern sorghum green beans, and a couple homemade pies. There will be plenty of wine and a cocktail or two. There will be the conversation about civil war ethics, how much we love/hate Charles Dickens, and, of course, a ridiculous amount of laughter, even more than the amount of wine we will drink.

Happy Christmas! Here’s to peace, good food, and your crazy-wonderful family.

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Green Beans with Sorghum and Sesame

Makes enough for 8 as a side. Adapted from Bon Appétit.

  • 2 pounds green beans, trimmed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper & kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sorghum syrup or 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  1. Preheat oven to 450°. Cook beans in a large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Drain, transfer to a bowl of ice water, and let cool. Drain and pat dry.
  2. Toss beans and oil on a rimmed baking sheet; season with salt and pepper. Roast, tossing occasionally, until tender and lightly charred in spots, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, whisk soy sauce, sorghum, sesame seeds, and cumin in a large bowl; season with salt and pepper. Add warm beans and toss to coat.

A savory pumpkin pie.

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Can you believe it? Thanksgiving is almost here!

I was impressed at how quickly holiday spirit happened this year. Only one day after Halloween, radio stations started to play Christmas music, candy canes showed up at the grocery store, and my email inbox bulged with the blogosphere’s proliferation of Thanksgiving recipes; I blame/thank all the people strung out on pumpkin spice lattes. The holidays are a happy time (come on, who doesn’t like an excuse to overindulge or to get presents) and, even after too many glasses of eggnog, I always wish they would stay around longer.

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Because the pumpkin spice latte craze and winter celebrations are here to stay, I’ve been experimenting with creative takes on traditional holiday fare to keep November interesting.

Consider the pumpkin pie. Creamy, cinnamon and nutmeg spiced, the pumpkin pie’s a Thanksgiving staple I want to like. But I can’t get over its often overly sweet filling or soggy, bland under-baked crust; most pumpkin pies are too disappointing to even call pies. So when I found a recipe for savory pumpkin pie from Nigel Slater, a Brit who most likely does not celebrate Thanksgiving and (thankfully) is not familiar with disgraceful American pumpkin pies, I got excited.

Nigel calls for puff pastry in place of pie dough, a choice that yields perfectly crisp, golden, anti-soggy crust, and I love how just a pinch of cinnamon and salt brings out pumpkin’s natural sweetness. In short, savory pumpkin pie actually tastes like pumpkin. (Yes!)  I’m thankful this pie will earn a annual spot on my Thanksgiving table.

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Savory Pumpkin Pie

From Notes from the Larder: A Kitchen Diary with Recipes by Nigel Slater.

Serves six as a side.

  • 2 and 3/4 lbs peeled and seeded pumpkin
  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • Thick slice of butter
  • Generous pinch of cinnamon, salt, and pepper
  • 13 oz puff pastry
  • Egg, lightly beaten, for brushing
  1. Preheat oven to 400° F. Prepare two baking sheets, one with foil and the other with parchment.
  2. Cut pumpkin in to uniform, small cubes and steam for 15 to 20 minutes, or until flesh is tender.
  3. Remove from heat and transfer to foil-lined baking sheet. Toss with oil, butter, cinnamon, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 30 to forty minutes, until the pumpkin begins to lightly caramelize. Remove pumpkin from oven and mash with a fork. Maintain oven temperature.
  4. Lightly flour a cool surface, cut pastry in half, and roll out each piece to a 9 x 14 inch rectangle. Lay one rectangle on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Leaving a margin on the corners, pile pumpkin on the pastry. Brush pastry margins with egg. Lay second piece of pastry on top and press edges firmly to seal. To prevent splitting during cooking, make 3 slits on the top of the pastry. Brush pie with egg, then freeze for 20 minutes. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until crisp and golden. Let cool for 5 minutes and serve warm.

Make bread.

While back home in Georgia, I noticed that the cherry trees decided to blossom a couple months early. Time has been folding upon itself of late. I’m under a spell and I think it might be the smell of baking bread.

For break, I journeyed over the Appalachians to Kentucky to visit with my cousin and friends. In Kentucky, the air smells smoky and raw and baking bread seems like the right thing to do. With dinnertime fast approaching, my friend and I tried our luck with quick-rise yeast. We melted butter with milk, added flour and kneaded any frustrations into the counter-top,  and luxuriated in the feeling of dough as soft as a baby’s bottom. In no time (well, about 20 minutes) the loaf had risen double its size. We popped it in the oven and 30 minutes later the lovingly lumpy, bread “baby” was born. The whole process took about 1 hour and 30 minutes, half the time it takes to make bread with standard yeast. Now I know how heaven can rapidly produce the endless loaves of fresh bread that I pray will be there: quick-rise yeast.

Above: admiring my mom’s hand-written recipe book, kneading dough with the dough hook and grinding wheat berries. Below: taking a break for turkey.

Le Pain, Painless

makes 2 loaves or 24 rolls

5-1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour (can also use bread flour; I use freshly ground red wheat for my whole wheat version)
3 tablespoons sugar
2 envelopes Fleischmann’s RapidRise Yeast
2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter (coconut oil is great too)

Combine 2 cups flour, sugar, undissolved yeast, and salt in a large mixer bowl.  Heat water, milk, and butter until very warm (120° to 130°F; my grandmother knows if it’s hot enough by putting her pinky finger in the warm liquid and holding for 3 seconds without burning her finger.)
Stir into flour mixture.  Beat 2 minutes at medium speed of electric mixer, scraping bowl occasionally.  Stir in 1 cup flour; beat at high speed for 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally.  Stir in enough remaining flour to make soft dough.  Knead on lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Cover; let rest 10 minutes.
Divide dough in half.  Place in greased 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 inch loaf pans. If you want rolls, form the dough in to your favorite roll shape and place in a circular pie pan. Cover; let rise in warm, draft free place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Bake at 400°F for 25 to 30 minutes or until done.  Remove from pans; cool on wire rack. Eat immediately for wonderful melt-your-butter bread.