Christmas dinner, I can say with no hyperbole, is my favorite meal of the year. Unlike Thanksgiving, there are no set dishes or menu. I can make a hulking meat roast or go simple with a store-bought spiral-sliced ham and some biscuits. But the best part is being able to have friends over for a proper holiday supper, either on Christmas Eve or night. Instead of trying to do something outside of my usual playbook, I always stick to my tried-and-true entertaining rules but ratchet up the theatrics to make the meal holiday-appropriate.
Being from the South, I’m used to rich, indulgent dinners, especially for the holidays. There was often a roast of beef for Christmas dinner, but because my dad was a hunter, there would often be pheasants, quail and venison too, all wrapped in bacon and roasted until tender, then served with wild rice and roasted Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes. We had lots of cookies and snack mixes sitting around for pre-dinner noshing with cocktails. And for dessert, there usually was a hot bread pudding with whiskey caramel sauce or a tall coconut or red velvet cake, both coated with frosting as white as the driven snow.
Those great meals instilled in me a desire to reproduce them now that I’m the one hosting the dinners. I believe in being extravagant for this one meal but balancing it with fewer dishes so that my guests leave dinner festively stuffed, not aching in regret. For this year’s dinner, I’ve put together my ideal holiday menu. I hope you’ll be inspired to take on the challenge of making it for your friends and family.
The Christmas meal is part dinner, but also part holiday party, no matter if it’s for four people or a dozen. I always start off the night with cocktails and bites as soon as guests walk in the door. I offer one thing that’s premade, like my classic mixed nuts spiced with chile flakes and rosemary, then another dish that’s really hot, really salty and takes everyone by surprise. This year, that’s English roast potatoes — the kind that are parboiled before being fried in the oven until golden and crunchy — served as hot fries, showered with flaky salt and brought out with icy-cold crudité and a dip of Caesar sour cream, the dairy umami’d up with anchovies, Worcestershire and Parmesan.
To serve with everything salty, spicy, savory and hot, I love a brown-liquor cocktail that feels like the holiday but doesn’t overwhelm your senses with sweetness. This year that’s my favorite tipple — Your Place, or Mine? — from Atrium, a restaurant and bar in my neighborhood that I frequent for its strong drinks. Whiskey is mixed with almond milk and maple syrup then poured over ice and topped with a float of smoky Scotch. An orange peel and grating of nutmeg bring home the holiday vibe, which makes for a great pairing with the crunchy starters.
For dinner, people will be expecting some kind of roast meat in the center of the table, but they probably won’t be expecting something as eye-popping as a bound-and-burnished porchetta, snapping and crackling from the oven. I wrap a pork loin inside a dry-brined pork belly that’s been rubbed with a flavorful paste of rosemary, sage, thyme and fennel fronds that’s brightened with orange and lemon zest, piment d’Espelette and fennel pollen. Rendered slowly in the oven for hours, it’s then blasted with high heat at the end of cooking to puff and crisp the skin. The porchetta is perfectly cooked inside with a shattering, crackling exterior that everyone will be fighting over. Under-sell, then over-deliver; that’s the name of the game here.
To go with such an insane piece of meat, I keep the sides simple so they don’t distract from the main event. Polenta is a must for me with this specific Italian roast pork, and I cook it just like my grits from back home: in chicken stock infused with thyme and then smoothed out with just a little butter and Parmesan. Sautéed cabbage is another oldie but goodie, caramelized lightly until tender but still with a bite. It’s showered with breadcrumbs mingled with nubbly bits of fried chestnuts for a dose of Nat King Cole whimsy.
I round out this kinda-British, kinda-Italian dinner with a special Southern dessert that makes great use of the one niche fruit shared with that region and California: persimmons. The rich, ripe Hachiya persimmons are puréed, then mixed into an olive oil batter spiced simply with nutmeg and cinnamon and brightened with citrus zest. A splash of Grand Marnier makes it holiday-appropriate, as does a drizzle of booze, butter and more sugar after it comes out of the oven. I serve the persimmon pudding cake warm from the oven with macerated, crunchy Fuyu persimmons and a cold dollop of whipped cream.
Once everyone is putting on their jackets to walk out the door, I hand them a nice heavy slice of fruitcake to take home. But this is not just any fruitcake: It’s meant to be baked and eaten right away, not stored for months and tediously tended to with drizzles of booze every week. Based on my aunt’s recipe that she made my entire childhood, it’s a lighter-than-usual brown sugar and cinnamon batter that envelops lots of bitter-rich pecans and bourbon-soaked fruit like apples, cherries and golden raisins.
It’s not meant to be a dessert but rather a snack for afternoon tea, a holiday-time breakfast with eggs and bacon or as a single bite of sweetness after a dinner on a Tuesday. In that way, it’s the perfect gift to bestow upon your guests and let them enjoy on their own time, whether that’s on a plate or shoved into their mouths while standing over the sink. Offerings like that are my favorite part of the holidays, a surprise that lets the memory of the dinner last for days afterward, until it’s time to take down the tree.
Here’s how to get the whole menu done in time for Christmas Day.
Drain fruit, and bake holiday cake. Once cooled, cut and wrap pieces tightly in plastic wrap.
Rub pork belly with salt and sugar. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Make citrus and herb paste for porchetta. Refrigerate in an airtight container.
Boil and cool potatoes. Wrap in plastic wrap.
Rinse and dry pork belly. Rub belly with citrus and herb paste, roll around loin and tie. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap until read to cook, up to 24 hours.
Prepare salsa verde. Cover and refrigerate.
Prepare Bundt pan for persimmon cake. Mix and refrigerate liquid ingredients. Mix and cover dry ingredients in mixing bowl; store at room temperature.
Macerate persimmons for serving with cake. Cover and refrigerate.
6 ½ hours before guests arrive:
Remove porchetta from refrigerator. Heat oven to 275 degrees.
1 ½ hours before guests arrive:
Increase oven temperature to 450 degrees and roast porchetta for 30 minutes.
1 hour before guests arrive:
Remove porchetta from oven and tent with foil to stay warm.
Place roasting pan with duck fat in oven and increase the oven temperature to 500 degrees.
45 to 35 minutes before guests arrive:
Add potatoes to hot fat in roasting pan to fry.
Plate crudité and Caesar sour cream.
When guests arrive:
Remove potatoes from oven and serve hot with crudité.
Make and serve cocktails.
Rewarm cabbage; top with breadcrumbs.
Slice polenta and complete salsa verde for serving.
1 to 2 hours after dinner is served:
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Combine wet and dry ingredients for persimmon cake, pour into prepared pan and bake for 1 hour.
Let cake rest for 20 minutes, then unmold and serve warm with macerated persimmons and whipped cream.
It's a date
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