I love hosting friends and family in our home, but I also love sitting and eating, so I always try to strike a balance of effort when it comes to menu planning. I hosted a Biscuit Buffet and provided plenty of whole grain biscuits, a few staple toppings and invited my friends to bring their favorite toppings as well as some bubbly.
From childhood tradition, straight to adulthood hibernation, sticky buns are a staple that magically bypass the dramas of those confusing, self-absorbed early 20s (as everyone should). If you're already in the clear (ie: your thirties), bake some this weekend, and relish the perspective you have gained (while your 40+ friends laugh at your naiveté).
The Danish word Hygge seems to be resurging with the voracity of a seasonal flu. Perhaps it’s because our weather has finally dipped into real winter temperatures or perhaps because my peer group is reaching the nesting age, the word has been hashtagged and hashtagged again. Despite my knee-jerk reaction to the word’s overuse, I can’t argue the intention: let’s all find better ways to stay home and be cozy without completely cutting ourselves off from society. Shall we?
Winter is one of my favorite times to entertain. Extra bodies in our home means extra warmth without having to crank up the heat- win win. Aside from diminishing my guests to mere heaters, I do enjoy the coziness and comfort of having friends come to my home. I love when friends come to play a round of Clue, or warm up with the antics of charades and sip something toasty- all while I’m in my slippers!
I recently started mapping out my goals for the year, trying to distill them to months and days, and I realized one missing link from the past year: I didn’t host friends as often as I would have liked. I could chalk it up to an unruly schedule, a work overload, a lack of planning, etc, but the more important takeaway is to let the invites flow and start penciling in that calendar!
I recently invited some of the Urban Farmer’s family, who I now am very fortunate to consider my family, for drinks and snacks. In the winter, I love a crock pot full of mulled wine. The scent of simmering spices hits guests before they hit the door, and then warms their hands as they sip. Red wine tends to get all the attention on the mulling front, so I switched to a white wine with hints of citrus, honey and anise.
I tend to go overboard when planning for guests. In order to push this winter cozy idea more, I’m constantly looking for that teetering balance of manageable and special. Homemade crackers ride that fine line. They’re easy to whip up, customize and make a spread feel more homemade.
The major holidays may be over, but the winter merriment should continue. There’s no reason to pack up the oven-dried citrus or the wintry greens. They can brighten the grayest of winter days.
Call it hibernation, call it hygge, or call it some mispronounced version of that word, but don’t call off the entertaining just because the holidays are over. Heat up the crock pot, whip up some crackers, arrange some fruits, and you have yourself a winter gathering to remember!
Mulled White Wine & Homemade Cracker Recipes for Winter Entertaining
This post is a twofer! Using a crock pot to make the mulled wine means it’s easier to devote attention to the cracker making and final preparations.
Glasses with varying levels of optimism/pessimism litter the surfaces of our apartment, creating a steady morning routine of retrieval. The many water glasses form trails of our attempts to beat the heat, a sip here, melted ice there, a refill, a new glass… until the sink is full, and the cycle repeats. Meanwhile, our little fur-baby leaves pockets of heat on the floor, as she shifts from cool tile, to hallway darkness, to that slight office breeze. Poor little one. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s summer, and I love it, but none of our apartment situation really makes me scream, “let’s baaaake!”
So for the most part, the oven finds itself on a summer vacation, its energies reserved for quick bursts of pizza-making on busy nights or warming weekend pancakes. However, when it comes to celebrating two years with the love of my life, I brave the heat. On these sorts of summer occasions, the oven and I really set to work!
I don’t just bake, I commit. I turn on a long playlist, I grate, beat, pour, dance, scurry… and “glisten.” I commit because two years is special and because it’s that time of year when zucchinis demand acceptance and creativity because, like the heat, they are part of summer.
Like so many avoided activities, once I start, I just keep going, and bread leads to pie, but that’s another story. My Southern-Inspired Menu called for cornbread, but the season called for zucchini. This bread is both. It’s hearty enough to pair with fried chicken and deviled eggs but sweet enough to slather with butter and honey for breakfast.
Here’s to summer baking!
Whole Grain Browned Butter Zucchini Cornbread
Adapted from Bon Appétit
About this Recipe: Serve this warm with extra butter and honey. Compliments savory dishes or makes a wholesome breakfast. Can be made one day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature or in the refrigerator if you’re apartment, like mine, is hot.
“How do you feel about chestnuts?” I asked Jill, who was coming for dinner in a few days.
“Like…I like them roasting over an open fire? I actually have no idea!”
Though we sing about chestnuts roasting every year, and the lyrics help put us in that holiday spirit, how many of us actually eat these hearty nuts?
If my friend Jill, who samples an array of precise recipes daily at America’s Test Kitchen, cooks constantly, travels extensively and meets world class chefs as part of her job…if she had never eaten a chestnut, it’s safe to say very few people are eating these nuts. This begs the question, why do we sing nostalgically about this nut but not eat it?
The short answer is blight. Once upon a time, chestnut trees blanketed the east coast of the United States, covering some 200 million acres. Frost resistant and reliable, the tree was a major source of income for many a rural community, both as a source of food for livestock and as a timber source. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, blight, imported through Asian Chestnut Trees, devastated the eastern woodlands. If this feels like a dismal tale from the annals of food history, it is, BUT there’s a glimmer of hope too!
Fortunately, there are organizations and people working to restore the chestnut’s mighty presence. These history lessons are also valuable as more and more of us seek to improve the local food economy. If we spend more time examining our food and its sources, we can better mediate our local agricultural systems. For now, chestnuts cost a pretty penny in grocery stores, and their availability is limited (I hope you can still acquire some as I am sharing this in January!), but hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, every east coast grocery store will offer a regular bin of local chestnuts. Maybe I’ll even be gathering them at Hazelwood Urban Farms!
Here’s to chestnuts roasting on lots of open fires!
Roasted Chestnut Stuffing/Dressing
Recipe adapted from Sift magazine
Yield: 10 servings
About This Recipe: Vegetarians and carnivores can unite on this classic side dish thanks to chestnuts’ meaty flavor! For a more nutrient rich approach, I used a combination of Whole Wheat Sourdough and Mt. Athos Fire Bread (a local favorite- sub any dense, grainy bread). This recipe calls for baking the bread cubes to dry them, but you can also cube and save bread as it starts to harden to avoid wasting a loaf. To simplify the recipe, you can use pre-cooked chestnuts (like these), but roasting draws a lot of flavor. If you have more than 1 1/2 cups chestnuts after roasting and shelling, add them to the stuffing. That quantity is flexible.
Can you come down with a case of the comparisons?
As sniffles and sneezes are to the common cold, the comparisons flare up with equally telling warning signs- frowning while scrolling through social media, looking at a particular photo with a self-deprecating sense of awe, searching Amazon for better lenses, hovering motionless over the keyboard without a single word to type. The triggers of this nasty ailment are sneaky. They can even be ever so sweetly rolled in a coffee cake ring like this one.
After flipping through my new favorite magazine, I sourced the featured ingredient list, kneaded with care, rolled gently, patiently waited and then looked with disgust at the denser rings and apricot oozes that emerged from the oven. I knew I had made some ingredient changes that would explain such a density, but still, all I could think was, “whhhhhhhhhy?” As a commercial food stylist, one might expect me to have a certain immunity from the real-life-vs.-magazine discrepancies. Yet there I was, coffee cake in one hand, magazine in the other, lamenting dough imperfections like some sort of voluntary martyr.
I almost hid these imperfections. I almost refrained from picking up the camera. Then I sat down to breakfast with my friend, who is attempting to say “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry” and not sound like a snarky bitch in the process. “Thank you for bearing with my baking experiments,” I said, taking the theory for a test spin. (It’s not as easy of an adjustment as you’d think!) Then, my wonderfully creative, animated friend took her first bite.
Her face continued to react like a grand finale of fireworks- one enthusiastic expression right after the next, praising the glaze, then the filling, then ceasing to speak so as to savor the bite. My variations, for all their visual imperfections, tasted really good. They deserved to be relished, dense crumbs and all.
I do not dredge up these muddy waters of perfectionist tantrums as a way to fish for compliments, merely to remind myself of their pitfalls. These crumbs litter the trails to my kitchen, and collectively, each morsel accounts for the life I am living. Am I taking risks? Am I growing? Am I sharing, exchanging, conversing and savoring life? Or am I stressing and sweating the small stuff?
2015, with all its wild twists, turns and internal tantrums, is coming to a close. The year may have been dense. The filling may have oozed. Yet, it was a sweet year, filled with many a firework! It’s time to savor and reflect, plan and progress. Here’s to a sweet start to 2016!
p.s: What are your tips and strategies for keeping the evil perfectionisms at bay? If you too suffer from “the comparisons,” you might find this video inspiring. I like to watch it every now and then as a reminder to chill.
Whole Wheat Apricot-Almond Coffee Cake Ring
Adapted from King Arthur Flour/Sift Magazine
Yield: 2 coffee cakes, 32 servings
About This Recipe: Somewhere between a coffee cake and a pastry, this whole wheat version is a little denser than the original recipe but worth the added grainy goodness. Be sure to read the dried fruit labels and choose an organic, unsweetened, unsulphured apricot option. There are often unnecessary, unhealthy ingredients lurking in store-bought dried fruit.
An alarming crunching sound interrupted our late-night dinner preparations. We ran to the window, half expecting to see ruby red slippers pinned under a house. Instead, we discovered a battered and bruised car thrown into reverse. It began to zig and zag away from the parked car it had just launched a good six feet through impact. As if performing the role of a movie extra, the Urban Farmer exclaimed “He’s trying to get away!” and pointed to the ensuing action. The dog barked and jumped in a confused mix of excitement and alarm.
The neighbors flocked to the street immediately, like ripples in a puddle pierced by a droplet of rain. One brave soul waved his arms at the drunk driver, beseeching him to stop. Whether it was the presence of witnesses or the absence of all motor skills, the man swerved onto the sidewalk, hit a planter and a tree, and the getaway was over. Amidst a sea of obscenities and cigarette smoke, the neighbors managed to sequester the vapid and staggering man until the police arrived. Like the nosy neighbor I am, I watched the event unfurl from my third-floor window, my BLT growing colder as I pieced together the incoming evidence.
These neighbors of mine are far from perfect. A lot of them are loud. One is far too nosy and negative for her own good. They yell. They fight. They publicly air more grievances and dysfunction than I would ever care to display. However, I have neighbors who save treats for my dog, look out for our cat, wave to me from their cars, greet me at the local coffee spot and fill me with an unexpected sense of home and comfort. When it comes down to being neighbors, to defending another member of the block and looking out for the safety of the street, I prefer these folks to the quiet types who remain hidden behind closed doors.
This sentiment had been there, had been growing in me for quite some time, but it wasn’t until the accident that I began to appreciate what had been under my nose. Much like my neighbors, this chocolate bread is more than meets the eye. The lurking zucchini is easy to miss until someone or something points out the wholesome goodness waiting to surprise you.
‘Tis the time of year when zucchinis bombard us, so make this loaf and maybe make some to share with your neighbors too.