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|| News Item: Posted 2002-12-10

Christmas Cheer: Holiday Recipes from Anne's Kitchen
By Anne Ryan

Since my father taught me how to make scrambled eggs when I was five I've always loved to cook. Over the years, of course, I've improved my cooking skills as well as my repertoire of recipes. I'm also always striving to make it easier for myself as well so I don't spend the whole time in the kitchen while everyone else is celebrating in the living room.

Timing is important. I try to make as much food ahead of time as I can. I also usually stick to tried and true recipes that taste good and are easy and can be refrigerated or frozen and reheated without losing quality. The key is to be organized.

One thing you can do to make your life easier is buy a smoked turkey (or smoke one if you have a smoker). A smoked turkey can last in your refrigerator for days. You can slice it and serve it with rolls or crackers on a buffet. it also allows you to save your time and energy for more elaborate side dishes. The turkey also freezes well for up to six months so you can use it later in pastas, casseroles, quesadillas or breakfast stratas.

I usually make the Christmas cookies a week or two in advance, leave a few out for immediate consumption and store the rest in tins in my secret goody cabinet above the fridge, well out of reach of the children. I do want to have some left for Christmas after all. I recommend investing in some Airbake cookie sheets or something similar if you don't have them already.

Christmas Pecan Crescents
(this one is everyone's favorite in my family, but don't wear black when you eat them)

1/2 lb butter
2 cups flour
1 cups chopped pecans
5 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla (real, not imitation)
1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon salt

powdered sugar, later

Soften butter by leaving it on the counter about an hour before mixing. Preheat oven to 325. Combine sugar an d salt in a bowl and stir. Add the butter and mix with a mixer. Add vanilla and water and mix some more. Add flour little by little as you continue mixing. Stir in chopped pecans by hand. Take approximately 2 tablespoons of dough and form small crescent shapes. Put on a cookie sheet. Bake 30-45 minutes. The time will vary depending on the size of your crescents and your oven. Remove them as the edges start to become golden brown. Put them directly into a bowl of powdered sugar and roll them around. Be careful. It's easy to burn your fingers here. Put them on a plate to cool without letting them touch each other until their completely cool. They may be stored in a tin for several weeks when they're completely cool.

Anne's Gingerbread Biscotti
(I got tired of paying Starbuck's a dollar per cookie so I created my own recipe)

1 cup butter (softened)
2 cups sugar
5 eggs
grated rind from one orange
1/2 cup dark molasses
5 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon slat
1/4 cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons powdered ginger
4 cups toasted pecans (or hazelnuts)

melted white chocolate, later

In one bowl blend butter and sugar with a mixer until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and blend until smooth. Add orange peel and molasses and mix well. In another bowl stir well or sift flour, baking powder, salt, cloves, cinnamon and ginger. Slowly add the dry mixture to the wet mixture with the mixer running. Lightly toast and chop the nuts. Add them to the dough mixture. You'll probably have to use your hands to work them into the dough. Chill the dough for four hours.

Divide the dough into several portions. Roll it into logs about 1 1/2" in diameter a little shorter than the length of your cookie sheet. Flatten the logs a little with your hand and space them 2-3 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for 40-45 minutes until done inside. Remove and cool for 10 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 300 degrees.
Handling the baked "logs" carefully. With a sharp knife slice them at an angle into 1/2" to 3/4" slices. Place the slices cut side down on baking sheets and bake 10-15 minutes. Turn them over and bake another 10 - 15 minutes until dry. After they are completely cool dip them in melted white chocolate. I usually dip one side lengthwise. After the chocolate is hardened (pop them in the freezer for a few minutes if you're in a hurry) you may store them in tins or jars for months.

Dinner party

I served this to America On-line photo editor Alex Korab and her family after Alex ran in the Chicago Marathon. It's good and hearty and not too difficult. I like to have time to visit with my guests when I have a dinner party so I usually like to pick combinations that I don't have to baby sit too much. I try to time my dinner party so that I can sit down and have appetizers and wine with my guests, pull everything out of the oven just before dinner, toss a quick salad and sit down at the table. Here's a great dinner party combination of lamb, roast vegetables, baked stuffed tomatoes and salad with a goat cheese appetizer.

Carol's Goat Cheese Appetizer
(This one is very tasty and it's even red and green when you cut it open. You can make this a day ahead and put it in the refrigerator. It requires at least an hour of refrigeration. )

8 oz cream cheese
4 oz goat cheese
4 oz pesto
4 oz sun dried tomatoes packed in oil
Walnuts or pine nuts
parmesan cheese
olive oil

Let soften 4 oz soft goat cheese and 8 oz cream cheese. Line a bowl with plastic wrap and brush it with olive oil. Mix goat cheese and cream cheese with a fork. Spread cheese mixture around the bowl to cover the plastic wrap evenly. Reserve about 1/4 of it. Spread pesto liberally over cheese mixture. Sprinkle with a layer of chopped walnuts or pine nuts Hold a few in reserve. Top with a layer of parmesan. Spread with a layer of chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Carefully spread the remaining cheese mixture on top and fold over plastic wrap. Put in refrigerator and chill for at least one hour. To serve unwrap plastic wrap from top of bowl. Put upside-down on a platter. Pull off remaining plastic wrap. Sprinkle with some more chopped walnuts or pine nuts. Surround with crackers. Keebler townhouse crackers are great with this.

Roast Proven├žal Leg of Lamb

This will most likely be the first thing to go in the oven. I usually marinate it at least four hours ahead of time or even over night. If you don't have a meat thermometer this is a good time to invest in one. The internal temperature of the meat is the very best way to tell if lamb or any meat is cooked properly.

1 leg of lamb (be sure to make note of the weight before you throw away the wrapper)
lemon juice
lots of garlic
fresh rosemary or fresh or dried Herbes de Provence (rosemary, thyme, savory and marjoram)
olive oil

Make a marinade by combining lemon juice and oil with chopped garlic and herbs. Make a few slits in the meaty parts of the lamb and insert peeled garlic cloves. Put the lamb leg and marinade in a sealed plastic bag. Make sure the lamb is coated with the marinade on all sides. Refrigerate until about 1/2 hour before putting in the oven.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place meat in a roasting pan with a rack in the oven. I usually line the pan with foil to make cleanup easier. Immediately reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. Roast it 20-30 minutes per pound. Insert the meat thermometer (not touching the bone). Check the temperature regularly, checking more often as you get closer to an internal temperature of 175 degrees. If you like it more rare, reduce the time and cook until internal temperature reaches 160-165 degrees.

Lia's Rice Stuffed Tomatoes

10 medium tomatoes
1 cup rice fresh
basil leaves
olive oil (I prefer Carapelli brand)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (or put it in the 325 degree oven with the lamb about 1/2 hour to 40 minutes before the lamb is ready to come out). Cook rice until it's al dente (almost fully cooked). Wash tomatoes. Slice tops off and put aside. Scoop out insides of tomatoes leaving outer flesh and skin. Chop insides and put them in a bowl with rice (you may not need all of the rice. It's up to you). Add a little olive oil, chopped basil leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly. Oil the bottom of a baking dish (or use foil in the pan and oil it). Stuff the hollowed out tomatoes with the rice mixture. Put the tops back on. Bake about 1/2 hour until the tops brown a little. These can also be baked ahead and served at room temperature.

Roast Harvest Vegetables
Acorn squash
brown sugar
Potatoes (Yukon gold are good)
sweet potatoes
sweet onions
fennel (if available)
olive oil
rosemary, thyme or sage (fresh or dried, use any or all of them liberally)

Take acorn squash and cut in half. Scoop out insides. Put in 1-2 tablespoons of butter and brown sugar in each half squash. They take about 1 1/2 hours to bake at 325-350 degrees, so put them in the oven about 1 1/2 hours before the lamb is expected to be done.
Peel the potatoes and onions and cut in quarters. Wash and slice the fennel in 1/4 - 1/2 inch slices. If you don't like anise flavor leave the fennel out. Add olive oil, salt, pepper and herbs and stir well. Put them the mixture in the oven in a single layer in a baking pan about 1 hour and 15 minutes before the lamb is expected to be done.

Green salad with French vinaigrette dressing

lettuce (preferably mixed types)
olive oil
red wine vinegar
dijon mustard
fresh ground pepper
cream (optional)

Wash and spin dry lettuce. Put into a salad bowl in the refrigerator with plastic wrap over the top. In a separate container stir 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, teaspoon dijon mustard and a chopped up shallot. Add a tablespoon or two of cream if you like. You may want to double this recipe if you are making a very large salad. Cover and refrigerate the vinaigrette.

Keep a close eye on the temperature of the leg of lamb. If it reaches the temperature you like, 160 -165 degrees for rare or 175 -180 degrees for medium to well done, you should take it out early and cover it with foil. You can warm it a little by putting it back in the oven for another 15 minutes before you serve it. Do not carve it until you are about to serve it. The white potatoes should puncture easily with a fork, but not be mushy when they are done. They should be a little brown on the edges. After you pull everything out of the oven take your salad out of the fridge and toss it with salt and pepper to taste. I recommend a dry red wine like Chianti, Sangiovese, Cote du Rhone or, if you feel like splurging, Chateauneuf du Pape. I usually just serve Christmas cookies with coffee or hot chocolate for dessert.

(Anne Ryan is a former staff photographer with USA TODAY. She currently freelances in the Chicago area with her husband John Zich. You can view Anne's images at her and John's web site at: or at her personal gallery:

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