This Thanksgiving, our years-deep gathering of 12 to 17 fractured into small, sad tribes, leaving one solitary best friend to join us for dinner. The pod of three sipped Champagne and devoured Kay’s amazing dinner. We then made the now-familiar pandemic pivot to Zoom for an extended visit with friends who had not been at our table, diving into an extemporaneous exchange of shared anecdotes and humor, sympathy, and cautiously hopeful plans. It was gratifying. But we missed the experience of conviviality that melts over a room amid the warmth and laughter of in-person gatherings.
What’s next? We all want to know. Kay and I have pondered this while raking leaves, tending our overactive bird feeder, cooking side-by-side, and, most importantly, walking and running our “children,” Cricket, Hilly, and Nora—a diva chihuahua and her two feral Scottie sisters—out in the wilds. In South Carolina this fall, I planted winter wheat and harvested a ratoon crop of Carolina Gold. I milled and test-cooked grains from a beautiful fall harvest. This sense of peace and seclusion lies in stark contrast to the larger world, we know. For this reason Kay, and I decided to keep the holiday simple and close to home.
In this warm and bright but uncertain time, we wish all of you genuine cheer, whether your traditions are religious or secular. Bring the sparkle of the holidays into your homes. Celebrate with us and connect—making, tasting, and sharing some of Kay’s favorite recipes from Christmases past. From our kitchen to yours, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Christmas Coffee Cake ••◊••
It’s Christmas morning. Are you really going to whip out the blender and wake the cat by making a smoothie? Doesn’t a hot, strong pour-over and a slice of this coffee cake sound infinitely more festive? The batter for this cake, as we mention in the recipe, runs straight through muffin territory—an American-style quick bread, rich and fine of crumb with a tunnel of strawberry preserves on the inside and icicle drips of soft white icing on the out. This Christmas Bundt cake doesn’t go all burnt nuts and cinnamon-streusel crumb—it’s too elegant for such folly. But yes to sour cream it did say! Truth be, this batter could certainly produce a set of, say, six muffins. A divot in the center of each raw muffin, in drop the preserves, atop goes a dollop of batter to cover the secret, off to a 350-degree oven they go, etvoilà! Petits gâteaux de noël!
Rye Gingerbread with Hard Sauce ••◊••
Oh, gingerbread, dark and brooding in brown velvet astride the breach between dessert and snack. You are so winter solstice, so perfectly tucked into Santa’s pocket! To jazz you up, we added rye flour for special spiciness and made this little hard sauce—which is easy, not hard—a powdered sugar and butter frosting spiked with liquor (we used Grand Marnier) or a few drops of vanilla. This recipe evokes special nostalgia in me because its spice notes waft straight out of my memories of a German Christmas market.
Profiteroles with Ice Cream
and Hot Fudge Sauce ••◊••
Let’s assume this is not the year for a towering croquembouche wrapped in spun sugar. Who needs spun sugar anyway? Profiteroles, on the other hand, are perhaps the lightest, most delectable way to enjoy pastry after a big meal. We can’t recommend this combination enough. The choux-paste formula produces profiteroles—“wind bags” as the Germans call them—with exactly the right interplay between outer-crisp and inner-creamy texture. We’ve served them upon a Christmas Eve or two to enthusiastic reviews. Hot fudge and strawberry sauce recipes await you, too.
Mulled Bartlett Pear Crisp ••◊••
If a slippery-slidey, warm fruit crisp spells Christmas for you, look no further. Here, cranberries climb into a hot red wine and cinnamon-steeped bath to become a vibrantly hued court bouillon for the pears. And while I did just casually diss streusel in the context of a coffee cake, fruit and streusel tell another story. The fruit brings juices to the streusel and the streusel brings crisp to the fruit. Here, expect those contrasts to go into overdrive when brown sugar streusel gets sweet on puckery cranberries and creamy poached pears. Pre-poached fruit and prebaked streusel take the pressure off the final quick ensemble bake, too.
Butternut Squash Pie ••◊••
My grandmother made this pie every Thanksgiving and Christmas. She called it “punkin pie.” The recipe skipped a generation to me. In my small immediate family, we call my grandmother's pie “Mr. Pie,” a designation reserved for this pie and this pie only. Mr. Pie is the most beguiling pumpkin pie filling we know. A suavely smooth, exquisitely spiced squash custard in a crisp, buttery crust. When my stepdaughter, Ansley, was 10 years old, she pocked the center of an exceptionally pretty Mr. Pie I had baked for guests with a forefinger. She also became Mr. Pie’s most ardent fan. This Thanksgiving, Ansley made the recipe herself. I wasn’t there to commemorate the event with an imprimatur of my own, but I’m happy that after nearly two decades, Mr. Pie has passed safely to the next generation.
Pecan Crescents ••◊••
The soft sugar dust conceals an ultra-buttery, fine nut crumb that is the heart of these crescents—and that dusting is virtually the only sweetener in this recipe. Our original recipe uses walnuts, but pecans are just as good, if not better! A Christmas favorite reminiscent of wedding cookies, my mother baked hers in round ball form, and we absolutely adored them. But they were not as delicate or sublime as these. Irresistible.
The name “peppernuts” sounds weirdly unappealing in English. So don’t translate it! These snappy little two-bite drops have a texture unusual among American cookies. A firm exterior succumbs with a chew to an explosively flavored gingerbread-spiced crumb, minimally sweet, not moist, not dry, but deep and mysterious. And they’re all dressed up with royal icing caps. These Pfeffernüsse, created from taste memory, are my all-time favorite Christmas cookie.