With holiday season just around the corner, party food has been on my mind. Holidays put pressure on a cook because in my mind the traditional menu is so limiting. Not that there is a shortage of good recipes out there, but some of the traditional dishes are not something one would cook the rest of the year. Folks expect certain things for a traditional holiday dinner — turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, etc. Since these dishes are being featured but a couple of times a year, good recipes and perfect execution are a must.
If your family is spending the night, there is also the no small task of breakfast or brunch in the morning after Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Who wants to wake up at 6 am and slave in the kitchen? Certainly not me. When it comes to brunches and formal dinners, I am a set-it-and-forget-it gal. I want to sit down in my rocking chair, sipping tea and chatting with the family, not slave in the kitchen.
Today, I am offering three party dishes — one for a traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, another for a festive brunch, and the third one is a sassy appetizer and/or a chaser for your very grown up drink. All three have one ingredient in common — Aged Havarti cheese. This particular cheese by Castello performs beautifully, whether melted, layered, or fresh. This is not the creamy variety most of us are used to. It delivers rich, buttery flavor with light tang and a characteristic nutty finish you would expect from an aged cheese. When eaten fresh, it also offers a distinctive light crunch which comes from the natural crystallization of the cheese. When melted, it looses nothing of its gorgeous flavor, and becomes very smooth, moderately stretchy and creamy, rather than rubbery. Needless to say, it’s heavenly on its own or with a sweet companion, such as apple or dried cranberries, but there is only so much cheese you can eat at a party, so I combined it with various things to see if it plays nicely with others.
First I put together a savory bread pudding, which will happily serve as turkey dressing. Dressing cooked and served outside offers more control over doneness, visual appeal and flavor than stuffing cooked inside the bird. Carefully combined savory, sweet, soft and crunchy play very well here. I layered it with spinach to break up the expected heavy texture. Bechamel sauce adds an elegant silky touch and our Havarti gives it all a nice sophisticated finish.
The brunch ring I like to call Mad Dane is an all grown up twist on a classic breakfast sausage, egg and cheese sandwich. A baguette layered with your favorite deli items and half-dressed in creamy omelette features nicely browned crunchy top. Feel free to improvise with your own filling — my next rendition of the Mad Dane will be Mad Italian, with roasted bell peppers, goat cheese, olive tapenade and proscuitto.
The chaser or snack I am offering here has a long history. I tried it for the first time at my friend’s house, and she called it Nikolashka. The story of Nikolashka is shady — some say it was a cognac chaser invented by czar Nicolai I, who was a huge connoisseur of cognacs. Others claim that this chaser was an accident, which happened when czar Nicolai II, having tried French cognac for the first time, found it extremely strong and grabbed the first thing that was on hand to chase it, which happened to be lemon. In any case, we are dealing with a royal chaser here, people! We went on for years thinking that we were eating a royal snack. Later on I found, however, that Nikolashka has nothing to do with the snack we had. Real Nikolashka features ground coffee (or black caviar, depending on who you ask) and powdered sugar atop a lemon slice. The snack we had was sugar dipped slice of lemon atop a slice of cheese. Having tried both, I fell thoroughly unimpressed with the original royal version and became a huge fan of the latter. While I still don’t have a good name for this snack, I do highly recommend it, chaser or not, as a very refreshing appetizer. Havarti plays very well in this tart/sweet combination, lemon and sugar wake the flavor up in the cheese and make it even brighter.
Ham & Spinach Bread Pudding with Bechamel Sauce
- 1 lbs cubed ham
- 8-10 thick slices of good quality sourdough bread
- 1/2 lbs fresh spinach, stems removed, or whole baby spinach coarsely chopped
- 6 oz Aged Havarti, grated
- softened butter for spreading on bread
- 1/3 cup chopped walnuts
- 1/3 cup dried cranberries or cherries
- 1 sweet apple
- 3 tbsp butter
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 3 cups milk
- fresh ground nutmeg
- salt, pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Spread butter thinly on bread slices on both sides. Place bread onto a baking sheet and toast in the oven until nicely golden on both sides (see photo). You may need to turn them over once. Once done, set the bread aside until cool.
- While bread is toasting, cube ham, peel, core and cube apple, chop spinach and set aside
- Prepare bechamel sauce: in a saucepan cook 3 tbsp butter and 3 tbsp flour together, constantly stirring for 1-2 minutes, until golden.
- Add cold milk, and stir very well. Gently bring to a boil, while stirring, and cook on low for 4-5 minutes, until bechamel thickens. Add a dash of fresh ground nutmeg. Set the sauce aside.
- Cube bread slices the same way you cut ham.
- Toss ham, spinach, cranberries, apples, walnuts, bread and Havarti together in a bowl, reserving just a bit of cheese for sprinkling. Add very little salt, since ham and cheese are already salty. Add freshly ground black pepper.
- Butter a casserole dish.
- Fold the dressing into the dish and distribute evenly with your hands, taking care not to mash or press anything down. We want the dressing to be fluffy.
- Carefully pour bechamel sauce over the dressing. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top of the casserole.
- Let sauce get absorbed into the bread for 10-15 minutes before setting it into the 375ºF oven.
- Bake for 45 minutes covered with foil, and 15 minutes uncovered, until dressing is lightly browned on top.
- Remove from the oven and let rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Mad Dane Brunch
Serves 8-12. Requires a round bundt cake mold
- 1 long thin baguette, homemade or store bought
- 8 oz proscuitto, thinly sliced
- 8 oz salami, thinly sliced
- 8 oz Havarti, sliced
- 4-5 eggs
- 1/2 cup milk
- salt, pepper to taste
- fresh dill, chopped
- Using a sharp or serrated knife, slice baguette into 3/4″ то 1″ thick slices without cutting it all the way through. In other words, we don’t want to separate the slices from one another, but cut them almost all the way.
- Spread thin layer of softened butter on each slice, both sides.
- Whisk eggs and milk.
- Season very lightly, possibly no salt at all, since deli meats and cheese are already salty
- Add fresh chopped dill.
- Pour the eggs very carefully over the baguette.
- Bake in the preheated to 375ºF oven until eggs are set and bread is crisp and lightly browned on top.
- Remove from the oven, let sit for 5 minutes. Carefully loosen the baguette from the mold using a butter knife.
- Cover the mold with a plate, and invert the baguette ring onto the plate. It will be upside down. Cover the ring with another plate and, pressing the plates together, carefully turn it right side up again.
- Sprinkle with fresh dill and serve.
Cheese & Lemon Appetizer
There are no specific quantities here, since we go by the number of servings.
For each serving, you will need a slice of lemon with the rind, about 3/16″ thick, sugar for dipping the lemon, and a slice of Havarti of thickness equal to the lemon’s. Carefully dip the lemon into the sugar, you can do half-circle dip or around the rim dip, up to you. Center a lemon slice atop of Havarti slice. Serve on a chilled plate to prevent cheese from softening too fast. This unassuming simple snack is top notch in flavor, and I guarantee it will be a huge hit at any party.