Easy Holiday Entertaining
December 23, 2009
Despite the prolonged build-up, the holidays often whizz by, leaving many of us a little stunned. For food lovers, slowing down to relax can be especially challenging.
“We like to have people over — our friends and family — and really enjoy them,” says Georgeanne Brennan, author of Gather: Memorable Menus for Entertaining Throughout the Seasons. “We don’t want to do elaborate cooking, and yet we still want to have nice food to honor those guests.”
One of the best ways to achieve all these goals, says Brennan, is to plan ahead. “Know what you’re going to do, so you’re not trying to finish the risotto while you’re whipping up the meringue.”
Create a game plan — decide what to cook first, what you can reheat, and what you can leave until the last minute. You can also borrow a stress-reducing technique from the professionals: “mise en place,” which means having all the ingredients chopped and measured before you begin cooking.
Brennan also recommends keeping your pantry stocked with quick, easy-to-prepare items, like frozen puff pastry; “it thaws quickly and you can work miracles with it.” The chef and author always has olives, almonds, walnuts, and a selection of cheeses and cured meats in the house — basic pantry items that allow her to put together something quick and tasty.
At a recent CUESA cooking demonstration, Brennan prepared gougères, savory French pastries that can be made ahead of time and served on their own or filled with cheese, chicken salad, egg salad, or crab.
Makes about 30
1 cup water
6 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup flour
4 large eggs, plus 1 egg lightly beaten
1½ cups shredded Gruyère cheese
Preheat an oven to 425º F. In a saucepan over medium high heat, combine the water, butter, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring. Continue to cook until the butter has melted, 3 to 4 minutes. Put the flour in all at once and mix vigorously with a wooden spoon until a thick paste forms and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and make a well in the center. Crack one egg into the well and beat it into the hot mixture, either with the wooden spoon or an electric hand-held mixer. Repeat with three more eggs. Whisk in 1 cup of the cheese, mixing well.
Line two baking sheets with a silpat or parchment paper. Use a teaspoon to shape the gougères. Dip the spoon into a glass of cold water, then scoop up a generous teaspoonful of the mixture and push it onto the baking sheet with your fingertips. Repeat, dipping the spoon in the water each time to prevent sticking. When done, brush the top of each with a little of the egg mixture, being careful not to let it drip onto the paper, which will inhibit the puffing. Sprinkle each with a little of the remaining cheese. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350º F and bake until the gougères are golden brown and crunchy, about another 15 minutes. If underdone, they will be mushy and uncooked inside. When done, pierce each with a wooden skewer to let out the steam, and then turn off the oven. Leave them in the oven for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe source: Gather: Memorable Menus for Entertaining Throughout the Seasons (Sasquatch Books, September 2009). Photos of Georgeanne Brennan by Barry Jan.