I’ve long been planning a dream Christmas brunch. Our family of adventurous eaters has roots in five countries -- England, France, Russia, Canada and the United States -- and the ideal menu would have to please them all. Add to that the trick of preparing most of the meal in advance so dinner can be on the table by noon on the festive day.
This is a family story, so let me introduce the group that’s been celebrating the holidays together for 36 years now: Our son, Simon, who works in Moscow, is the cork puller and heavy lifter of turkeys from the oven. Emma, our daughter, busy director of a large nonprofit here in Los Angeles, extends her talent for organization to the kitchen -- she makes the pastry dough and arranges things on plates. My husband, Mark, chooses the wines and organizes constant liquid refreshment.
Our menu starts in Russia with blini, the little yeast-raised pancakes. For a more earthy flavor, I make the batter with stone-ground whole-wheat flour, which makes a more elastic batter than white flour. The blini rise half an inch high, and with their light texture and nutty flavor, make the perfect background for a topping of tapenade spread made of green olives.
Blini are pleasingly adaptable. Small ones make cocktail hors d’oeuvres to nibble before going to the table; larger ones act as appetizers to the main course. Even better, they reheat well, so they can be made a day in advance without suffering.
We’d represent the U.S. with a grand turkey, roasted with lemon juice, olive oil, chile, nutmeg and a touch of garlic. This marinade adds zip and toasts the skin to an elegant chestnut brown when used for basting. However, the most dominant flavoring for the turkey is fresh rosemary, the herb that most says Southern California to me. Our garden is full of it, growing more or less wild and releasing intense fragrance with a brush of my hand.
I like to start the turkey with the breast downward to keep it moist. When the time comes, Simon hefts it from the oven, but two people are needed to turn the big, sizzling bird; I hold the roasting pan in place on the counter, Emma seizes the legs and over it goes, tail over nose.
The sauce that results at the end of roasting is dark from the turkey juices and rich with onions and chicken broth, laced with white wine -- let’s call it a French-style gravy.
This gravy serves a double purpose. Because it’s an early meal, I want to roast the turkey a day ahead, but traditional roast turkey is never at its best if you try to reheat it. I’m delighted to have found a solution: I let the cooked bird cool and refrigerate it overnight. At the same time I make and store the gravy. To reheat the turkey, I brush it with the golden gravy, wrap it tightly in foil and heat it thoroughly in the oven. The gravy not only keeps the meat moist, it adds flavor and color.
As an accompaniment to the turkey, I cannot resist generous handfuls of wild mushrooms, a memory of our property in France where a dozen varieties grow in the woods. Mushroom hunting is a local sport, and all of us knew secret corners where the best ones grew.
Any mushrooms are delicious with turkey, and a mixture is best of all, with oyster mushrooms for lightness, shiitake for depth of flavor and golden chanterelles for color. For economy, to make the more costly varieties go further, you can replace at least half with button mushrooms.
To go with the bird, we’d probably opt for hedgehog potatoes, a little culinary joke for our granddaughter. I put little boiling potatoes (egg-sized is ideal) in a tablespoon and cut them in vertical one-fourth-inch slices, a neat trick that ensures they stay joined at the base. When roasted with some fat -- olive oil, butter or turkey drippings from the roasting pan -- they become deliciously crispy and fan out to a hedgehog shape.
The Christmas pie would be an English mincemeat, but with a difference. The filling features fresh grapes and chopped apples as well as the customary raisins, candied citrus peel, warm spices and a liberal splash of whiskey from Mark’s stash of booze. This is a double-crust pie, the dough made with heavy cream for richness, and we’d have a tub of ice cream on the side especially for little girls.
By my count we’ve covered at least five countries: blini from Russia, tapenade from France, turkey and potatoes from America, mincemeat pie from England and wild mushrooms from just about anywhere.
And let’s not forget our traditional family ceremony of slicing the Christmas cake beside the tree. The oldest and the youngest in the house grasp a hefty chef’s knife and cut a wedge, at the same time making a wish for the coming year.