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The perfect holiday menu

| Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

In his preface to the "America's Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook" ($35), Christopher Kimball confesses that he finds creating dinner-party menus daunting.

"I was not blessed with the ability to quickly pair recipes and create menus that one can execute without a ton of last-minute work and which don't offer such a strange combination of tastes and textures that one wonders, halfway through dinner, 'What was I thinking?' " Kimball says,

If Kimball, the founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines and the host of the long-running -- 11 years -- cooking show "America's Test Kitchen," struggles to pull menus together, what hope is there for the rest of us?

That answer might lie within the pages of "The America's Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook."

Subtitled "Kitchen-tested menus for fool-proof dinner parties," the book contains 51 menus and 250 recipes composed, tested, timed, tasted, revised and nitpicked to offer home cooks recipes and a game plan for impressing dinner guests. America's Test Kitchen is sharing the book's Holiday Ham Dinner for your Christmas feast.

"It is hard. There's a lot of pressure when you have a dinner party." agrees Julia Collin Davison, the executive food editor for the cookbook division of America's Test Kitchen. "But it doesn't have to turn into a Peter Sellers (farce). It comes down to organizing and planning."

The book, which Davison shepherded to publication, strives to diminish that pressure by having someone else think about what foods go well together and create a timeline for prepping and preparing each recipe in the menu.

A self-confessed list maker, Davison believes a little planning and streamlining can increase everyone's enjoyment: Her suggestions:

• Don't put together a menu of several dishes that require last-minute completion and all four stove burners.

• Be aware that if you have only one oven, you might not have room for both a roast and an oven-finished potato casserole.

• Consider enlisting your slow cooker to keep some things warm.

• Also, every dish doesn't have to be complex and new and exotic. "Pick things you care about," she says.

When creating a menu, choose a few items that are from your everyday repertoire and concentrate your efforts on categories you most enjoy. Appetizers, for example, are Davison's favorite course, so she prefers to focus her efforts on them.

Her go-to dessert often is something simple but elegant, such as ice cream topped with a hand-made sauce (five examples are offered in the book).

"If you don't have time to make creme brulee, make a burnt-sugar caramel sauce and serve it over vanilla ice-cream," she says.

The goal behind the book, Davison says, was to allow home cooks to create an impressive meal with time to spare -- or, at least, time to take off the apron, comb your hair and greet your guests with a relaxed smile.

These recipes come from "America's Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook."

Spiral-Sliced Ham with Carrots, Fennel and Red Potatoes

Make sure the plastic or foil covering the ham is intact and waterproof before covering the ham with warm water. If there is a hole in the covering, wrap the ham in several layers of plastic wrap. Instead of using a plastic oven bag, the ham may be placed, cut side down, in the roasting pan and covered tightly with aluminum foil, but you will need to add 3 to 4 minutes per pound to the heating time.

If the stem ends of the carrots are very thick, slice them in half lengthwise first to ensure even cooking. We prefer to use medium-size red potatoes, measuring 2 to 3 inches in diameter, in this recipe.

For the ham and vegetables:

  • 1 (7- to 10-pound) spiral-sliced, bone-in half ham, preferably shank end, plastic or foil covering intact
  • Water
  • 3 pounds medium-size carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 4 medium-size cloves garlic, peeled
  • 3 medium-size fennel bulbs, stalks discarded, bulbs halved, cored and sliced lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices
  • 3 pounds medium-size red potatoes, quartered
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced, fresh thyme
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large plastic oven bag
  • 3 tablespoons minced, fresh parsley

For the glaze:

  • 1 1/2 cups maple syrup
  • 1 1/4 cups orange marmalade
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

To prepare the ham and vegetables: Place the wrapped ham in a stockpot or large container, cover with hot tap water, and let sit for 45 minutes. Drain, cover again with hot tap water, and let sit for 45 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, combine the carrots, garlic and 1/4 cup water in a large bowl. Cover and microwave until softened, for about 10 minutes; drain. Combine the fennel, potatoes and 1/4 cup water in large bowl. Cover and microwave until softened, for about 15 minutes; drain and combine with the carrots. Toss the vegetables with the oil, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position and heat the oven to 250 degrees. Unwrap the ham, discarding the plastic disk covering the bone. Place the ham in the oven bag. Gather the top of the bag tightly so the bag fits snugly around the ham, tie the bag securely, and trim the excess plastic. Place the bagged ham, cut side down, in a large roasting pan and cut 4 slits in the top of the bag. Arrange the vegetables in the roasting pan around the ham. Bake until the ham registers 100 degrees, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours (about 10 minutes per pound).

To prepare the glaze: Whisk all the glaze ingredients in a medium-size bowl. Microwave until the mixture thickens slightly, for about 5 minutes; cover to keep warm. (The glaze will thicken as it cools between bastings; rewarm as needed to loosen.)

Remove the ham from the oven and increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Cut open the oven bag and roll back the sides to expose the ham. Brush the ham with 1/2 cup glaze and continue to cook until the glaze becomes sticky, for about 10 minutes longer.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven and increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Transfer the ham to a carving board and reserve 3/4 cup of the juice accumulated in the bag; discard the extra juice and the bag. Brush the ham with 1/2 cup glaze, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for 20 minutes.

While the ham rests, stir the vegetables and continue to roast until fully tender, for 20 to 30 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a serving bowl, toss with the parsley, and cover to keep warm.

Whisk 3/4 cup of the reserved ham juice into the remaining glaze and microwave until thickened and saucy, for 3 to 5 minutes; transfer to a serving bowl and cover to keep warm. Carve the ham and serve, passing the sauce separately.

Makes 12 servings.

Baked Brie in Phyllo Cups

You can substitute onion jam with other flavors of jam, jelly or preserves if desired.

  • 45 frozen mini phyllo shells (3 packages)
  • 8 ounces Brie cheese, rind removed, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/3 cup caramelized onion jam
  • 2 tablespoons minced, fresh parsley

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the phyllo shells on the prepared baking sheet. Place a piece of Brie in each cup and spoon a generous 1/4 teaspoon of jam over the top. Bake until the cheese has melted and the phyllo cups are golden brown and crisp, for 6 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve warm.

Makes 12 servings.

Shrimp Salad on Endive

If your shrimp are smaller than 21 to 25 per pound, the cooking time will be slightly shorter.

  • 1 1/2 pounds extra-large shrimp (21 to 25 per pound), peeled, deveined, tails removed
  • 6 tablespoons lemon juice (2 lemons) divided, spent lemon halves reserved
  • 8 sprigs fresh parsley, plus 1 tablespoon minced
  • 6 sprigs fresh tarragon, plus 1 tablespoon minced
  • 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Salt
  • Water
  • 2/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and chopped fine
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 large heads Belgian endive (1 1/2 pounds), leaves separated

Combine the shrimp, 4 tablespoons lemon juice, the spent lemon halves, parsley sprigs, tarragon sprigs, peppercorns, sugar and 1 teaspoon of salt with 3 cups of cold water in a medium-size saucepan. Place the saucepan over medium heat and cook the shrimp, stirring often, until the shrimp are pink and firm to touch, and the centers no longer are translucent, for 8 to 10 minutes. Off the heat, cover and let the shrimp sit for 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, fill a medium-size bowl with ice water. Drain the shrimp, discarding the aromatics, then plunge the shrimp immediately into the ice water to chill, for about 3 minutes. Drain the shrimp well, discarding any ice, and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Chop the shrimp into small pieces.

Whisk the mayonnaise, shallot, the remaining 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, the minced parsley and minced tarragon in a medium-size bowl. Stir in the shrimp and apple, and season with salt and pepper. (The shrimp salad can be refrigerated for as long as 1 day.) Lay the endive leaves on a large platter, spoon 1 tablespoon of shrimp salad into each leaf, and serve.

Makes about 36 leaves.

Baby Greens With Strawberries

We like the combination of baby spinach and mesclun greens in this salad, but any type of baby greens will taste nice here.

  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 13 ounces baby spinach (13 cups)
  • 5 ounces mesclun greens (5 cups)
  • 1 pound strawberries, hulled and quartered (3 cups)

Whisk the shallot, vinegar, honey, mustard, poppy seeds, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper together in a medium-size bowl. Whisking constantly, drizzle in the olive oil until well combined. In a large bowl, gently toss the spinach, mesclun and strawberries. Just before serving, whisk the dressing to re-emulsify, drizzle over the salad, and toss gently to coat. Serve.

Makes 12 servings.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Baking the biscuits upside down ensures a more even rise.

  • 5 cups (25 ounces) flour, more for rolling dough
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 16 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
  • 6 tablespoons shortening, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Pulse the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a food processor until combined, about 5 pulses. Scatter the butter and shortening evenly over the top and continue to pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 12 to 15 pulses.

Transfer the flour mixture to a large bowl. Stir in the buttermilk with a rubber spatula until the dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured counter. Lightly flour your hands and the dough, and knead the dough gently until it is uniform, for about 30 seconds. Roll the dough into a 12-inch round, about 1 inch thick.

Using a floured 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter, stamp out 15 biscuits, gently patting the dough scraps back into uniform 1-inch-thick pieces, as needed. Arrange the biscuits upside down on the prepared baking sheet, spaced about 1 inch apart. (The unbaked biscuits can be covered and refrigerated for as long as 24 hours; bake as directed.)

Bake for 5 minutes. Rotate the pan, reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees, and continue to bake until golden brown, for 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack, let cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve warm. (The biscuits can be held at room temperature for as long as 4 hours; rewarm in a 400-degree oven for 5 minutes before serving.)

Makes 15 biscuits.

Apricot-Almond Bundt Cake

Prepping the Bundt pan with a butter-flour paste ensures that the cake will release from the pan easily and in one piece; be sure to use the paste even if you have a nonstick Bundt pan.

For pan preparation:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon flour

For the cake:

  • 1 cup dried apricots, chopped fine
  • Boiling water
  • 3 cups (15 ounces) flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest plus 1 tablespoon juice
  • 18 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 1/4 sticks), cut into pieces and softened
  • 1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar
  • 1/2 cup apricot jam
  • 3 large eggs plus 1 large yolk, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted (see page 29) and chopped coarse

For the citrus glaze:

  • 1 3/4 cups (7 ounces) confectioners' sugar
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest plus 1/4 cup juice
  • Pinch salt

To prepare the pan: Mix the butter and flour ito form a paste. Using a cpastry brush, coat the interior of a 12-cup Bundt pan.

To prepare the cake: Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, cover the apricots with boiling water and let sit until softened and plump, for about 5 minutes; drain the apricots and pat dry. In a medium-size bowl, whisk the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In another medium-size bowl, whisk buttermilk, vanilla, lemon zest and lemon juice.

Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until it is pale and fluffy, for about 3 minutes. Add the jam and beat until incorporated. Add the eggs and egg yolk, one at a time, and beat until combined.

Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with 2 additions of the buttermilk mixture, scraping down the bowl as needed. Add the softened apricots and almonds and mix until incorporated.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Wipe any drops of batter off the sides of pan and gently tap the pan on the counter to release air bubbles. Bake until a skewer inserted in the center comes out with few crumbs attached, for 50 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking.

Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, and then flip it out onto a wire rack. Let the cake cool completely, for about 2 hours. (The cake can be wrapped tightly and stored at room temperature for as long as 1 day.)

To prepare the glaze: Whisk all of the ingredients in a medium-size bowl until smooth, and let sit until thickened, for about 25 minutes. Pour the glaze over the top of the cooled cake, letting the glaze drip down the sides. Let the glaze set before serving, for about 25 minutes.

Makes 12 servings.

Additional Information:

Holiday Ham Dinner Menu

Baked Brie in Phyllo Cups

Shrimp Salad on Endive

Spiral-Sliced Ham with Carrots, Fennel and Red Potatoes

Buttermilk Biscuits

Baby Greens With Strawberries

Apricot-Almond Bundt Cake

Additional Information:

The Game Plan

One day ahead:

• Make shrimp salad, 40 minutes

• Assemble biscuits, 23 minutes

• Make Bundt cake, 45 minutes, plus 3 1/4 hours for baking and cooling

The day of:

• Bake biscuits, 30 minutes

• Roast ham and vegetables, 1 1/4 hours, plus 3 1/2 hours for socking and baking

• Glaze bundt cake, 1 hour

• Make salad, 15 minutes

• Make mini baked brie, 20 minutes

• Assemble shrimp and endive appetizers, 15 minutes


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