DINING IN…

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A pet peeve of mine: When stores begin selling their holiday decorations months before the holiday has even come close. (Can we just celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving first, please?) It’s annoying, really. I don’t even want to think about Christmas in October when I’m trying desperately to put together my last-minute Halloween costume. Let’s keep them separated, people.

Another pet peeve of mine: Playing Christmas music in October. Or November.

Just stop.

I appreciate the wanting to get into the holiday spirit deal, but I just can’t justify listening to Bing Crosby singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” 100 times before Christmas. I just can’t. And as much as I love Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, I don’t want to hear it every single day leading up to Christmas.

I can’t.

I like to wait a good four to three weeks before the holiday to get everything done. That includes shopping, getting the tree, decorating, and watching all of my usual holiday favorites (The Holiday, Love Actually, Home Alone, Hook, Bad Santa, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and While You Were Sleeping).

And The Family Stone. With an all-star cast–Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, and Craig T. Nelson, to name a few, The Family Stone circles around the Stone clan during Christmastime.

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The story starts off with the Stone’s prodigal son, Everett, (Mulroney) who brings his uptight, conservative girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Parker), with him to his family’s New England home for the holidays. Everett intends (albeit a bit skeptical) on proposing to her with his mom Sybil’s ring (Keaton), but is met with a bit of resistance from Sybil, who also has a terminal illness, and disapproves of her eldest son’s choice for a wife. None of the family approves of Everett’s girlfriend, either, and gives her a hard time at every opportunity they can. (Except Ben, played by Wilson, who shares a connection to Meredith.)

When Meredith sends an emergency SOS to her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come stay at the Stones’ home with her for support, things get interesting when Julie arrives, and her growing mutual attraction to Everett cannot be denied. These star-cr0ssed siblings endure a few fights, misunderstandings and an engagement ring stuck on someone’s finger. Uh-oh.

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One of the more pivotal scenes in the movie is when Meredith plans to make her family’s traditional “Morton Strata”, a savory bread pudding, on Christmas Day for the Stone’s. But things quickly turn upside-down, quite literally.

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Without further giving away anymore spoilers, I encourage you to watch this heartwarming movie.

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This week’s post is dedicated to Meredith’s Christmas Strata, which includes mushrooms (even though Everett is allergic to them…oops!). Perfect for Christmas morning, make this recipe a day-ahead, as it’s important for the bread to absorb all of that custardy goodness.

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Meredith’s Christmas Strata with Swiss Chard, Mushrooms and Gruyère

Recipe slightly adapted from NYT Cooking
Serves 6

INGREDIENTS
½ pound stale bread, sliced about 3/4 to 1-inch thick cubes
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pats
2 1/2 cups milk
1 ¾ cup mushrooms, quartered
1 cup cooking greens stemmed and cleaned (Swiss chard, kale or spinach)
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup Mozzarella cheese, grated
½ cup Gruyère cheese, grated
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons fresh thyme, picked and chopped
 3 Tablespoons Kosher salt
1 Tablespoon red pepper flake
4 large eggs
½ teaspoon salt

METHOD
Lightly butter a 2-quart baking dish.

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In a large pan, toast the bread cubes lightly in 2 Tablespoons of the butter. Place in a large bowl, and toss with 1 cup of the milk. Set aside.

Sauté the mushrooms in 2 Tablespoons of the butter, then add in the thyme. Remove from the pan and into the bowl with the bread and milk.

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Using the same pan, heat another 2 Tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat, and add the cooking greens.

Stir for about 5 minutes, then add the garlic. Cover the pan, and allow the steam to cook the greens till it has completely collapsed, about three minutes. Uncover and stir, season with salt and red pepper flake.

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Remove from the pan, roughly chop and transfer to the bowl with the bread and mushrooms. Add the cheeses, and mix to incorporate. Arrange in the buttered baking dish.

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Beat together the eggs in a separate bowl, add in the remaining milk. Then pour over the bread mixture. Press the bread down into the custard mixture. Cover with foil and place into the refrigerator overnight.

On the next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place in the oven, and bake 45 to 50 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Remove from the oven, and serve hot.

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots in this story are property of Twentieth Century Fox.)

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner…

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It’s National Cookie Day, and to celebrate this grand occasion (I think it’s worth a day off from work and school, whattya think?) I wanted to share a recipe much similar to the one my half-Italian grandmother made during Christmas. If you love the taste of anise (licorice) then you’ll certainly love these.

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Pictured above with my Aunt Sandy, my Grandma Irma always had her coffee table adorned with platters of various cookies and fudge she made during the holidays. Us kids would run to that table before having Christmas dinner and nosh on the sweet treats despite our parents’ scolding. But she didn’t mind. She loved it that we loved them so much. She, too, was a cookie monster, and devoured them with us when the parents weren’t looking. I’m pretty sure I got my sweet tooth and love of baking from her.

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Italian Anisette Cookies
Recipe adapted from Vittles and Bits
Yields about 2 1/2 dozen

FOR THE COOKIES
INGREDIENTS
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoon pure anise extract

FOR THE ICING
INGREDIENTS
1 1/2 C. powdered sugar
4-5 T. milk (first try 4, then add a little at a time if necessary)
1/2 t. anise extract
1/2 cup nonpareils aka “Jimmy” sprinkles

METHOD
Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and baking soda.  Set aside.

In large-sized bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugar, and eggs on medium-low speed until combined. Lower the speed and gradually add in the flour mixture, scraping the sides with a rubber spatula as needed. Increase the speed to medium-low, and whip till a dough forms. It may be a little dry. That’s OK.

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Using a small ice cream or cookie scoop or tablespoon, scoop the balls of dough and roll them into uniform-sized balls.

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Place the dough onto a prepared baking sheet, and bake for about 7-10 minutes (depending on your oven’s convection) till puffed and lightly golden.  Allow the cookies to cool for one minute before transferring to a wire rack.

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Once the cookies have completely cooled, sift your powdered sugar through a sifter till all clumps are gone. This way, the icing doesn’t come out chunky. Whisk in the milk and anise until smooth. Check for consistency, it should be somewhat runny.

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Now dip the tops of the cookies into icing, and then finish with Jimmy sprinkles.  Allow for the icing to set completely.  Cookies can be stored in an airtight container.