In the Advent Kitchen -- December 24
Italian Wedding Soup
Sweet Potato Scones
Amaretti Cake with Raspberry Sherbet
Many of you probably have foods that you “must have” on Christmas Eve. Making Italian wedding soup is a tradition in my house, but it isn’t a family practice. My mom always fixed oyster stew for Christmas Eve. I hated it. The stew featured strange-looking alien things (the oysters) submerged in milk with butter blobs and crumbled saltines on top (apparently to hide the nasty alien things). Yuck. Now, I’m sure many of you like oyster stew, and I know my son would love it, as he does all things with seafood. Nonetheless, I haven’t tried it on him for obvious reasons.
Instead, I make Italian wedding soup, which everyone in my household likes. It’s inexpensive, healthy, uncomplicated, and a warm, filling meal in a pot. What more could you want on a busy day of final preparations for Christmas and rushing to get to church on time? To go with the soup, try a spinach-pomegranate salad. It mirrors some of the flavors in the soup but adds a sweet-tart punch with pomegranate seeds. The toasted pecans add a nice crunch. If you’d like a salty bite to the salad, add the feta. To accompany the soup and salad, how about baking some sweet potato scones? They are quick to mix up and bake in about 20 minutes. Plus, if you have any left, they’re a great pre-breakfast snack for anyone who gets up extra early on Christmas morning! Dessert is an Amaretti cake accompanied by raspberry sherbet (or sorbet). The cake is a bit of fuss, but only because you’ll need a mixer to whip the egg whites (or you could do it with a balloon whisk and a lot of energy). Otherwise the cake is not hard to make and comes together quickly. You will need to bake the cake for close to 90 minutes, so be forewarned and do it early in the day or the day before. The cake is fine served plain, at room temperature. The raspberry sherbet is a refreshing, colorful addition. If you don’t have the time or inclination to bake the cake, consider simply serving the raspberry sherbet, perhaps with some Christmas cookies.
Spinach-Pomegranate Salad – Serves 6+
This is a good salad to serve when lettuce is expensive or of poor quality. The crisp spinach goes well with the sweet-tart taste of the pomegranate arils, and the dressing is super simple. The salad can be prepared in advance with the dressing left in the bottom of the bowl and the rest of the ingredients put on top, unmixed. Refrigerate the salad until serving time and then toss it just before serving.
6 cups of fresh baby spinach, washed and picked over
½ cup of pomegranate arils (seeds)
½ cup of shredded carrot
½ medium red onion, chopped
¼ cup of chopped, toasted pecans
¼ cup of pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons of cider vinegar
2 tablespoons of olive oil
¼ teaspoon of salt
¼ teaspoon of pepper
¼ cup of feta cheese crumbles (optional but very good)
In a large bowl, whisk the pomegranate juice, vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. Add the spinach, carrot, onion, pomegranate arils, and pecans, and, if you like, the feta and toss to mix and coat all the ingredients with the dressing.
Italian Wedding Soup – Serves 8+
This soup is warm and wonderful. It is loaded with nutritious ingredients, including spinach, carrots, tasty little meatballs, and orzo pasta. The soup is quick to cook, too! It’s special and a great meal in a pot for busy nights.
16-20 ounces of lean ground beef (93 percent)
¼ cup of dried Italian breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese (the kind from the round green
container is fine)
1 teaspoon of dried basil
2 tablespoons of dried minced onion
12 cups of reduced sodium chicken broth (96 ounces)
1 cup of shredded carrots (or chopped is fine, too)
1 16-ounce bag of frozen spinach
1 cup of uncooked orzo (whole-wheat, preferably)
Shredded Parmesan to serve (optional)
Combine the beef, eggs, breadcrumbs, basil, onion, and cheese and mix them well. Set the mixture aside for 10-15 minutes. In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, bring the broth to a boil. Stir in the pasta and the carrots. Stir the meatball mixture and then form small meatballs (3/4 inch or marble-sized) and drop them in the bubbling broth. Stir the soup mixture gently and then return the pot to a boil. Add the spinach and again bring the pot to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook the soup until the pasta is tender and the meatballs are done, stirring frequently to prevent the orzo from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle each serving with a bit of shredded Parmesan cheese if you’d like.
Sweet Potato Scones – Makes 10
These simple, slightly sweet scones are quite good and go well with the savory food usually served during the Advent season. The mashed sweet potato adds moisture to the scone, and the addition of cornmeal contributes an unexpected texture. The small amount of allspice provides an interesting, warm flavor to the scone but lets the flavor of the sweet potato shine through. If you don’t have buttermilk, plain yogurt will work instead, but the scones will be softer. Yes, you also may substitute dried cranberries for the raisins.
¼ cup of raisins
¼ cup of water
2 cups of flour
1/3 cup of yellow cornmeal
2½ teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of allspice
1/3 cup of canola oil
1/3 cup of low-fat buttermilk
1 cup of cooked, mashed sweet potato
¼ cup of dark brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or coat it with nonstick cooking spray. Combine the raisins and water and microwave them for 30 seconds or until very hot. Set them aside for 5 minutes to plump. Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and allspice. Make a well in the center and add the canola oil. Stir in the oil with a fork until a course meal forms. Stir in the milk, potato, and brown sugar. Drain the raisins well and add them. Stir the ingredients with a spoon to combine them into a dough. Dump the dough out onto a floured countertop or piece of waxed paper, and knead it a few times to bring it together. Put the dough onto the parchment lined baking sheet and pat the dough into a large circle about ½ inch thick. Cut the dough into 10 wedges but don’t separate them. Bake the scones for 15-20 minutes or until they’re lightly browned. Re-cut the scones and let them cool at least 5 minutes before serving them. Alternatively, cut the dough into rounds and bake the rounds for a little less time, depending on the size of the rounds (usually about 10 minutes will do it for 1½-2-inch rounds).
Amaretti Cake – Serves 10-12
This is a celebration cake—light, sweet, and redolent of almonds. The cake has a few steps to it, but they aren’t hard, and the finished product is a little unusual and well worth the small amount of extra effort. I usually make the cake in advance and serve it at room temperature. It has a slight crisp to it and is particularly good with raspberry sherbet (or sorbet) and a few raspberries strewn alongside. You also might consider, as an alternative to the sherbet (or, in my case, in addition to the sherbet), drizzling pieces of the cake with a little chocolate sauce. Oh, yummm…
1 cup of flour
½ cup of almond meal or flour + 2 tablespoons (divided)
½ teaspoon of cinnamon
1½ teaspoons of baking powder
¼ teaspoon of salt
1½ cups of sugar, divided
¼ cup of canola oil
3 egg yolks
¾ cup of plain, non-fat Greek yogurt
½ teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 teaspoon of almond extract (divided)
3 egg whites
¾ cup of sugar
¼ teaspoon of cream of tartar
¼ cup of sliced almonds
Heat the oven to 350 degrees and coat a 9 or 10-inch spring-form pan with nonstick cooking spray with flour (or use regular cooking spray and dust the pan with a teaspoon or so of flour, tapping out the excess). In a large bowl, whisk the flour, ½ cup of almond meal, the cinnamon, baking powder, and salt together. In another large bowl, combine ¾ cup of the sugar, the oil, egg yolks, yogurt, vanilla extract, and ½ teaspoon of almond extract and whisk the mixture well. Gradually whisk the flour mixture into the wet mixture until the batter is smooth. Set the batter aside.
In a large bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar with a mixer until soft peaks form. Beat in the remaining ¾ cup of sugar gradually until the mixture is smooth, glossy, and holds stiff peaks. Gently fold in ¼ teaspoon of almond extract and 2 tablespoons of almond meal. Spread 2/3 of the egg white mixture (meringue) up the sides of the prepared spring form pan (don’t spread the meringue on the bottom of the pan). Pour the cake batter into the center of the pan (inside the meringue sides). Top the cake batter with the remaining 1/3 of the meringue. Swirl a little of the meringue on the top of the cake into some of the cake batter. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the sliced almonds. Bake the cake for 85-90 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake and then open the pan. Serve the cake warm or cold. Store the cake at room temperature.