Ah, a family Christmas dinner. It was once so simple: a wintry, hearty meal, perhaps embodying some of the ethnic accents that we all carry with us in this land of immigrants. Being of English origin my family invariably enjoyed a standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. We were usually about twelve at the table and I, being the youngest, had to wait the longest to get my share of what seemed to me pitifully thin slices of that rosy beef. My grandfather, dressed in Sunday spats and vest, was the designated carver and he performed with considerable flair, being particularly adept at those thin slices. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining, and anyway I was rewarded with a generous spoonful of beef blood that had accumulated on the platter as the roast was carved.
For dessert there was always a steamed pudding, set alight and carried to the table as the blue flames flickered around the molded dark cake. The young ones didn’t much appreciate the strong brandy taste that lingered after the flames had burned out but there was lots of foamy sauce to soften the flavor. And we certainly would not have thought of suggesting an alcohol-free serving.
Today it’s a different story. What with the divided and extended families that many of us are a part of, we never know quite who the players will be. In the old days it was not only the menu but the cast of characters at table that remained the same until one by one we fled the coop.
Several days before Christmas I got a call from my niece whose extended family was coming to me for the holiday feast this year. Could her beloved’s adopted son’s girlfriend be invited to dinner? I counted my chairs and fortunately there was still one left that could be fit into my smallish dining so, of course, she should come.
Then I went over in my mind the various dietary restrictions I’d been told about: my niece is poisoned by garlic; she and her daughter are lactose intolerant; my cousin’s son is a near-vegetarian. So I had to devise strategies to get around these constraints (and still have a good dinner). I would forego the slivers of garlic that I like to insert in the lamb as it roasts and instead I’d indulge in the special sauce that Julia Child always loved with her gigot, which calls for a whole head of garlic. However, as she points out with its two blanchings and slow cooking in milk, the cloves turn buttery and tame. But not tame enough for the allergic, and my niece was warned not to go near the sauce. I also served her a little dish of leftover wild rice because the flageolets—those lovely little French dried beans—that I love to prepare with lamb cook gently with several plump cloves of garlic to enhance their flavor. Then I made a rich, filling ratatouille and a big salad for the meat-cautious.
Everything seemed under control until the day before Christmas when I got another call from my niece. She just wanted to remind me that the men in her family have huge appetites. Evidently they all work out fiendishly, thereby charging up their appetites. So I’d better be prepared.
I panicked. Was my 7 pound lamb going to be big enough to offer seconds all around? I rushed out to the Food Emporium to buy a couple of packages of lamb shoulder chops to strew around the roast—just in case. And I chased down an extra packet of those hard-to-find French flageolets.
I need not have worried. Everyone ate heartily and there was plenty for seconds.
For dessert I had decided to forego the traditional steamed pudding (I could predict anxious looks about all that suet in it) and I settled instead on rich, molten chocolate cakes. So far I haven’t found anyone (except dogs) allergic to chocolate so I thought it would be a safe bet. Arranged on individual dessert plates with a garnish of strawberries and several dollops of vanilla ice cream (non-lactose for the afflicted), each cake had been purposely undercooked so that when it is broken into, warm molten chocolate pours out and mingles with the other flavors and textures. A delectable sensation!
It was Joan Nathan who first introduced me to this dessert in her book The New American Cooking. It seems that the extraordinarily talented chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten created these delights by mistake. Somehow the little cakes had been removed from the oven when they were not yet fully baked and, before he could retrieve them, they had been served to his customers, who were in ecstasy as they devoured their first bite.
Trust a Frenchman to turn a mistake into a triumph. It is a good reminder that the goal of a dinner—any dinner for that matter—is to give pleasure. Isn’t that what cooking is all about?