Five seconds flat. If that's your holiday entertaining philosophy, you're in luck. Santa's made a list of lucky ingredients and he checked it twice and wants you to know that if you keep these in your kitchen and sprinkle them on easy store-bought or homemade dishes, you'll immediately give those meals the gift of holiday spirit. That's part of the magic, which makes these my favorite simple steps that I repeat year after year.
Often, cooks who never have a spare moment -- especially during the busy holiday season -- assume this time of year means they must make everything from scratch. Soon, though, that idea can get scratched off the list by frustrated would-be chefs.
Strategic ingredients can turn everything around in an instant:
--Mint. Crushed peppermint candies or candy canes, chocolate mint patties, peppermint extract, peppermint syrup or chopped fresh mint can do wonders in a whiz.
Add the crushed hard candies as a topping to your favorite store-bought or homemade brownies. For easy homemade results, like the clever recipe below, first add peppermint extract to your brownie mix, then top warm brownies with chocolate mint patties that will melt into a quick spreadable frosting and then crown with the crushed candy canes.
For salads and side dishes, whether store-bought or homemade, toss in a handful of finely chopped fresh mint and a dash of peppermint extract.
--Cinnamon. Cinnamon sticks, ground cinnamon and especially cinnamon-sugar (sold in the spice aisle or quickly mix up your own) lend seasonal scent and flavor to everything from beverages to desserts.
Take inspiration from Rebecca Rather's fun recipe below for cinnamon crescents from her "Pastry Queen Parties: Entertaining Friends and Family, Texas Style." For an even quicker alternative to her homemade version, add ground cinnamon, grated orange zest and Grand Marnier-soaked raisins to refrigerated crescent roll dough before rolling it up and baking.
--Candied fruit. It's not just for time-consuming fruitcakes anymore. The colorful chewy pieces (usually sold in mixes including cherries, pineapple -- often colored green -- orange peel, lemon peel and citron) turn any dish into an instant holiday masterpiece. Toss a handful into salads or vegetable side dishes just before serving.
As Diane Morgan did in "The Christmas Table: Recipes and Crafts to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition," simply place chunks of the candied fruit inside strips of puff pastry you've sprinkled with holiday spices, such as cinnamon, allspice, ginger and nutmeg. Roll into spirals. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for eight hours or overnight. Bake in a preheated oven at 400 F for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown.
--Panettone: The traditional Christmas bread, often sold at supermarkets or Italian markets, is full of citron, raisins, anise and, sometimes, pine nuts. Make a mark by substituting it in either a bread pudding or a bread salad recipe.
Other handy ingredients that are gifts that conveniently keep on giving this season:
--Fresh or ground ginger.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 package active dry yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup lukewarm water (105 F to 115 F)
2 1/2 cups bleached all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Grated zest of 1 medium orange
1 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
Yields about 32 mini crescent rolls.
Melt the butter and let it cool for about 15 minutes.
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the 1/4-cup warm water; let the mixture stand for about 10 minutes. (If it does not bubble or increase in volume, the yeast is dead.)
Place 2 cups of the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Pour into the well the beaten eggs, yeast mixture and melted butter and mix together with a large wooden spoon or, if preferred, with your clean hands. Add the remaining 1/2-cup flour, orange zest and salt and mix thoroughly. The dough will be somewhat soft. Gently pat it into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. In a small bowl, toss the raisins with the Grand Marnier. Cover overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Grease a baking pan with cooking spray or butter.
Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into 4 equal parts. Dust a work surface with a liberal amount of cinnamon sugar. Using a rolling pin, roll out each portion of dough 1/4 inch thick on the sugar-coated work surface. After each stroke with the rolling pin, flip the dough, adding more cinnamon sugar to the work surface as needed. Cut the dough into 2-inch triangles. (Dough scraps can be reformed into a ball and rolled out at least once.)
Sprinkle a thin layer of cinnamon-sugar on each dough triangle. Scoop 1 teaspoon of the macerated raisins onto the wide end of the triangle; roll up the dough beginning at the wide end. Place the crescents on the prepared baking sheet and bake until they are lightly golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Note: Crescents can be made up to 1 day in advance and kept in an airtight container. Wrap securely and freeze up to 3 weeks. Unwrap and defrost the day you plan to serve them.
--"Pastry Queen Parties: Entertaining Friends and Family, Texas Style" by Rebecca Rather and Alison Oresman.
AFTER-WORK GOURMET COOKBOOK SHELF
A keepsake book for gift giving or cooking from is "Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother's Kitchen" by legendary actress Audrey Hepburn's son Luca Dotti. The famed waif, according to her son, loved chocolate, ice cream, pasta and other indulgences. Recipes, family photographs and personal stories fill the lovely scrapbook.
Lisa Messinger's weekly column, "After-Work Gourmet," can be found at creators.com.