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Early View: In the Christmas Kitchen

In the Christmas Kitchen -- December 25, Christmas Salad Cranberry Salad Honey Wheat Rolls Ham Cinnamon Apples Coconut-Pecan Sweet Potato Bake Peas with Onions Green Bean Casserole Christmas Date Cake with Eggnog or Vanilla Ice Cream

This menu is for December 25th--Christmas Day. I'm publishing it early in case you would like to consider it, or some of the items listed, as part of your Christmas menu.

Christmas Salad

Cranberry Salad

Honey Wheat Rolls


Cinnamon Apples

Coconut-Pecan Sweet Potato Bake

Peas with Onions

Green Bean Casserole

Christmas Date Cake with Eggnog or Vanilla Ice Cream

This menu is for a traditional Christmas dinner—nothing too “froufrou,” expensive, or complicated, and something similar to what you may have had way back when and once upon a time. The Christmas salad celebrates the tastes of the season with dried cranberries, apples, and pears and has a bit of crumbled blue cheese for a creamy, savory bite. Because it’s Christmas, and tradition is more important than food fashion, a cranberry-jello salad is on the menu. In addition to cranberries, the not-too-sweet jello salad includes pineapple, chopped apple, clementines, and yogurt. The fresh, puffy yeast rolls are a treat. They also are easy. Nonetheless, if you are short on time, you may use my super-secret recipe (that you may share or not, as you choose). To accompany the centerpiece ham are spicy-sweet cinnamon apples and a sweet potato bake that is topped with crunchy pecans and actually tastes like sweet potatoes instead of just sugar. To add green to the menu and something less complicated, try peas with onions. They steam quickly in the microwave and offset some of the richness of the rest of the meal. Also on the menu is green bean casserole. It’s slightly slimmed down, but the casserole relies on the traditional recipe with mushroom soup (yes!) and French fried onions on top. Enjoy it! And for dessert, the menu includes a very old recipe—date cake—with a few healthy updates. The cake tastes of Christmases past and includes chocolate chips, pecans, and maraschino cherries. It’s good plain, but serve it with eggnog or vanilla ice cream as a special treat!

Christmas Salad – Serves 4-6+

This is a family favorite and is full of seasonal fruits. If you want to use all apple or all pears, feel free. The salad is good either way. You also can substitute toasted pecans for the almonds.

10-12 ounces of mixed baby greens and/or spinach

¼ cup of dried cranberries

¼ cup of sliced almonds

¼ cup of chopped green onions

1 medium red apple, cored and chopped

1 medium ripe pear, cored and chopped

2 tablespoons of orange juice

¼ cup of crumbled blue (or gorgonzola) cheese


3 tablespoons of olive oil

¼ cup of wine or cider vinegar

2 tablespoons of sugar or 2 tablespoons of raspberry preserves

1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard

Whisk all the dressing ingredients until smooth. In a large salad bowl toss the chopped apple and pear with the orange juice so that all the pieces are coated. Add the greens, dried cranberries, almonds, onions, and blue cheese. You may refrigerate the salad until serving time. When ready to serve the salad, whisk the dressing again and add it to the salad. Toss everything gently before serving the salad.

Cranberry Salad – Serves 8+

Some salads come in and out of fashion, and congealed salads now seem to be passé. Nonetheless, this one—probably similar to one your grandmother served—seems to disappear quickly at holiday dinners whether the salad is fashionable or not. I have lightened it somewhat to reduce the calories and sugar, and it’s quite good. The salad also is a refreshing contrast to some of the traditional rich fare served at holiday gatherings. You can serve it in squares on top of lettuce, from a large glass bowl, or you can divide it among fancy wine or dessert glasses. Any way you choose, the salad looks pretty and festive.

2 packages of sugar-free cranberry gelatin (4-serving size)

2 cups of boiling water

1 cup of chopped cranberries

1 cup of crushed pineapple (juice reserved)

1 small apple, cored and chopped

2 clementines, peeled, and sections divided and chopped into ½ inch pieces

1 cup of cool liquid (including reserved pineapple juice and water to make

up the remaining liquid, if necessary)

1 cup of fat-free, sugar-free vanilla yogurt

½ cup of chopped toasted pecans (optional)

Pour the boiling water over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin dissolves. Pour one cup of the gelatin into a separate bowl and set it aside. To the remaining gelatin, add the cranberries, pineapple, apple, clementines, and ½ cup of juice (if you don’t have enough juice, add enough cold water to equal ½ cup). Stir the mixture well and refrigerate it. Meanwhile, whisk the yogurt into the remaining cup of gelatin until it’s smooth. Set it aside. Stir the cooling cranberry gelatin mixture periodically until it is partially set. Pour it into a large oblong casserole dish, bowl, or dessert cups. Gently pour the cooled, thickened yogurt mixture on top. Refrigerate the jello mixture until it’s almost firm and sprinkle it with the nuts, if you’re using them. Return the congealed mixture to the refrigerator until serving time. If you prepare the congealed mixture in an oblong casserole, you can cut it into squares and serve the squares on top of lettuce or other greens, if you’d like.

Honey Wheat Rolls or Bread – Makes 12 Rolls or 1 Loaf*

This bread is an exception. I write this because I generally don’t make yeast bread much. I think it takes too long, makes a mess, and, for me, is easier to buy. Nonetheless, this recipe turns out nutritious rolls or a loaf of bread quickly and with little fuss. The dough is actually fun to make. The rolls and bread are even better to eat, preferably with a little butter, jam, or even peanut butter. Try the recipe and see what you think. Admittedly, you won’t have an “artisanal” bread (or 38 pages of directions to make the “artisanal” loaf). What you will have are warm, moist, honey-infused wheat rolls (or bread) that are nice and soft and squishy and perfect for breakfast and dinner. These are the sort of rolls and bread our grandmothers made—simple and perfect for just plain eating. If you really feel inspired, you also can use the dough to make sweet rolls for breakfast.

1 cup of hot water (zap cool water in the microwave for about a minute)

1 cup of white flour

2 tablespoons of honey

1 tablespoon or packet of active dry yeast

1 teaspoon of sugar

½-1 teaspoon of salt

1 tablespoon of canola oil

2 cups of white whole-wheat flour

Coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. In a mixing bowl, whisk 1 cup of white flour into the hot water. Whisk in the honey. Add the yeast, sugar, ½ teaspoon of salt, and oil and whisk everything together to dissolve the yeast. Let the mixture sit for about 30 minutes until bubbly and spongy. Add most of the white whole-wheat flour and the remainder of the salt (if you’d like saltier bread) to the mixture and stir it with a wooden spoon. When the dough becomes too thick to stir, knead it by hand for 5-10 minutes, adding enough of the remaining flour to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands. I knead the dough in the bowl (because I don’t want to have to clean the counter when I’m finished), but you can also do it on a floured counter.

For Rolls

Pull off little walnut shaped pieces of dough, roll them into balls between your palms, and place the balls on the baking sheet. Coat the rolls with nonstick cooking spray and cover them with plastic wrap. Let the rolls rise for at least 30 minutes or until about doubled. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (while the rolls are rising) and bake the rolls for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown.

For Bread

Pat the dough into a round and put it on the baking sheet. Cut an X across the top about ¼ inch deep and 2 inches long. Coat the bread with nonstick cooking spray and cover it with plastic wrap. Let the bread rise for 30-60 minutes or until doubled. Bake the loaf for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown.

For Sweet Rolls

Pat the dough into a rectangle about ¼ - ½ inch thick. Stopping about ½ inch from each edge, spread melted butter over the top of the dough (about ¼ cup), sprinkle cinnamon sugar over the butter (2 tablespoons of sugar, 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, mixed together), and sprinkle chopped nuts and/or raisins over the cinnamon sugar (1/2 cup each). Starting at one of the long ends of the dough rectangle, roll the dough up into a cylinder. Cut it into 1-inch slices and place them on a baking sheet coated with non-stick cooking spray or covered with parchment paper. Coat the sweet rolls with nonstick cooking spray and cover them with plastic wrap. Let the sweet rolls rise for at least 30 minutes or until about doubled. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (while the sweet rolls are rising) and bake the sweet rolls for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Dust the tops of the sweet rolls with powdered sugar or drizzle them with orange glaze (1 cup of confectioner’s sugar and 1-2 tablespoons of orange juice, mixed until smooth).

*Are you really short on time? You can try the not-so-secret recipe above, but if you are really feeling pressed, you might want to make my “Super Secret Rolls” instead. My secret recipe is to buy a package of frozen roll dough and follow the directions on the package for plain rolls—put them on a baking sheet, spray them with nonstick cooking spray, let them rise, and then bake them. The rolls are fluffy white pillows, fast, and easy. And I hide the packaging in the trash.

Christmas Ham – Serves 8-10

This is a classic Christmas ham. The maple-spice mixture adds a nice sweetness to the smoky ham flavor and doesn’t mask it. Don’t bake the ham too long. It’s already cooked, and all you really need to do is warm it. Also don’t forget to let the ham stand for at least 15 minutes before trying to slice it. The standing time will help the ham juices stay in the ham and not flow out into the pan or onto your countertop when you slice it.

6-8 pound fully cooked, smoked bone-in ham, preferably reduced sodium

½ cup of maple syrup

¼ cup of dark brown sugar

¼ cup of orange juice

½ teaspoon of cinnamon

¼ teaspoon of cloves

¼ teaspoon of allspice

1 tablespoon of grainy Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the ham, cut side down, in a shallow roasting pan coated with nonstick cooking spray (a cast iron skillet also works well). Add ½ cup of water to the pan, cover the ham loosely with aluminum foil, and bake the ham for an hour. Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl and reserve ½ of the mixture. Brush the other half of the mixture over the ham and return the ham to the oven, uncovered, for 20 more minutes. Remove the ham from the oven, cover it loosely with foil, and let it stand for 15 minutes before slicing it. Heat the remaining maple syrup mixture until warm and drizzle it over the sliced ham or serve it on the side.

Cinnamon Apples – Serves 6-8

People will come back for more of this dish. It’s an easy and old-fashioned accompaniment to any kind of pork. The apples also are fantastic served as a warm dessert with low-fat vanilla yogurt or ice cream.

6 large apples

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

¼ cup of dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons of flour

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

¼ teaspoon of nutmeg

¼ teaspoon of cloves

2 tablespoons of melted Smart Balance (or butter)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Core and cut the apples into slices. Put them into a large casserole dish or 9 x 13-inch pan coated with non-stick cooking spray. Drizzle the apples with lemon juice. Sprinkle them with the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Drizzle on the Smart Balance. Mix the ingredients in the pan a bit to distribute the flour, sugar, and spices among the apples. Cover the apples and bake them for 20 minutes until they start softening. Uncover the apples, stir them, and continue baking them until they are tender and their sauce has thickened, about 15 minutes. Serve the apples with ham, pork, or low-fat ice cream or yogurt.

Coconut-Pecan Sweet Potato Bake – Serves 8-12

This simple sweet potato bake is great with holiday roasts and ham. The small amount of brown sugar combines with the pineapple and orange juices to bathe the potatoes in moisture, and the pineapple and coconut add a bit more sweetness and texture. The dish is easy to put together, and you can certainly make it early in the day and refrigerate it until you want to bake it. Just give the potatoes a little extra time in the oven.

½ cup of chopped pecans, divided

½ cup of shredded coconut

1 cup of canned pineapple chunks plus ¼ cup of the juice (reserve the

remainder of the juice for another use)

1/3 cup of dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

½ teaspoon of nutmeg

¼ teaspoon of salt

2 tablespoons of Smart Balance (or butter), melted

¼ cup of orange juice

1 teaspoon of grated orange zest

½ teaspoon of vanilla extract

6 medium or 4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine ¼ cup of the pecans and all the remaining ingredients in a 2-quart casserole or a 9 x 13-inch dish coated with nonstick cooking spray. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake the sweet potatoes for 45 minutes. Uncover them and sprinkle on the remaining ¼ cup of pecans. Bake the potatoes another 15 minutes or until they are soft and beginning to brown on top.

Peas With Onions – Serves 6+

You can’t get much easier than these peas and onions for a side dish. The little onions are quite cute and dress up the peas. If you like your onions softer, cook them a few minutes before adding the peas. You don’t want to cook the peas long. They should be barely tender (not gray and mushy!). Choose a serving bowl or dish that you can microwave, and you’ll have less cleanup.

1 16-ounce package of frozen small peas

½ 16-ounce package of frozen pearl onions

1 tablespoon of butter

¼ teaspoon of salt (if you must)

3 tablespoons of water

Combine all the ingredients in a microwave safe bowl or casserole, cover the container with plastic wrap and microwave the vegetables for 5-6 minutes on high. Stir and microwave the peas and onions an additional minute or two if necessary or until the peas are just barely tender. Do not overcook them!

Green Bean Casserole – Serves 6 +

No, this casserole doesn’t qualify as “health food” with canned soup and French-fried onions involved. Nonetheless, this old standby is good, comforting, and a holiday tradition. So make it and enjoy it as a special treat that you have rarely. And enjoy the crunchy onions on top!

1 16-ounce bag of frozen French-style green beans

1 can of reduced sodium condensed mushroom soup

¼ teaspoon of pepper

½ cup of low-fat milk

2 cups of French fried onions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and coat a 2-quart casserole or 11 x 8-inch dish with nonstick cooking spray. Cook the green beans as directed on the package but only until crisp tender. Stir in the soup, milk, pepper, and 1 cup of the French fried onions. Pour the mixture into the casserole dish and scatter the remaining French fried onions on top. Bake the casserole for about 30 minutes until bubbly and the onions on top are golden brown.

Christmas Date Cake – Serves 15+

Many variations of this cake have been passed down through the decades. This is the one I prefer. The cake is simple but incredibly good. Chopped dried dates provide plenty of sweetness and moisture, and chocolate chips, maraschino cherries, and crunchy pecans create a special topping. Serve the cake plain, perhaps dusted with a little confectioners’ sugar. Or you could let some low-fat ice cream befriend squares of the cake. I do.

1 cup of chopped dried dates

1¼ cups of boiling water

1¾ teaspoons of baking soda (divided)

½ cup of canola oil

¾ cup of sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1 cup of flour

½ cup of white whole-wheat flour

¼ teaspoon of salt

1 cup of chocolate chips (divided)

1 cup of chopped maraschino cherries

1 cup of chopped pecans

Confectioners’ sugar (optional)

Mix the dates, boiling water, and 1 teaspoon of baking soda in a glass bowl. The mixture will foam a bit, but don’t worry. Let the mixture stand until it’s lukewarm. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 350 degrees and coat a 9 x 13-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. In a large bowl, mix together the canola oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract. Add the cooled date mixture and combine the ingredients thoroughly. Add the flours, salt, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and ½ cup of chocolate chips, stirring them into the date mixture until everything is combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the top of the batter with the remaining chocolate chips, maraschino cherries, and chopped nuts, pressing them slightly into the batter. Bake the cake for 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with just a few crumbs attached. Let the cake stand for 10 minutes before cutting it. Serve the cake warm or cool, dusted with confectioners’ sugar, if you’d like.

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