Favorite Fall Recipes

Even though it’s a high of 80 degrees today, the calendar says it’s the start of fall.  And I’m itching to do a bit of baking.  So, in no special order, here are a few of my perennial fall favorites.  These are recipes that I go back to again and again every autumn.  

1. Mom’s apple cake.  Deb Perlman of Smitten Kitchen is right up there with Ina Garten in my book.  And it’s because her recipes work.  This apple cake is delish.  It’s dense and moist.  It’s also a pretty easy recipe, but you need to give yourself time to peel and core the apples. 

Photo courtesy of https://smittenkitchen.com

Photo courtesy of https://smittenkitchen.com

Speaking of peeling apples… I love this heavy duty apple corer/peeler for fall baking & applesauce making.

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

Final note about Smitten Kitchen: If you’re baking for a crowd, Deb’s apple slab pie is also delicious. This recipe makes a half sheet pie and is so good.

2. And speaking of Ina, this crostata is amazing.  In the fall I use apples, but she also has a version with peaches and berries.  I’ve been making the apple version for years and it’s always a crowd pleaser. 

Photo courtesy of https://barefootcontessa.com

Photo courtesy of https://barefootcontessa.com

I also love her apple crisp recipe, which I have been making for nearly 20 years. If you are only feeding a few people, cut the recipe in half because it’s made to serve a crowd!  

You can serve either of these with ice cream, or homemade whipping cream, which is super easy to make in my Kitchen Aid. For that, I use very cold heavy whipping cream and whip it until it has stiff peaks. Then I add sugar (or powdered sugar) to taste, along with vanilla flavoring.  The key to successful whipping cream is using very cold cream and a cold bowl for mixing. I sometimes throw my mixing bowl in the freezer for a couple minutes beforehand.

3. What would a fall recipe round-up be without pumpkin?  For years I made a family pumpkin roll recipe, but then a friend brought these pumpkin bars to my house last year and I fell in love.  The bars are so good and easy to make. No baking, filling and having to roll the sponge anymore! It’s one of those recipes that people always ask me for.  I make it in a half sheet pan, and it also feeds a crowd. So good, that when it was served alongside pies at Thanksgiving, I chose it over pumpkin pie.

Photo courtesy of https://www.tasteofhome.com

Photo courtesy of https://www.tasteofhome.com

The one change I make to the recipe is that I use this banana bar frosting recipe instead of the one included in the original recipe.

4. These chocolate chip cookie bars via Martha Stewart. This is not exactly a fall recipe, but I tend to make it more in the fall and winter.  It also feeds a crowd (are you sensing a theme here?). Quick note, it gets mixed reviews, but I think it may have something to do with the baking time.  I bake it for half the time that the recipe calls for (more like 18-20 minutes). 

Photo courtesy of https://www.marthastewart.com

Photo courtesy of https://www.marthastewart.com

Martha’s soft and chewy chocolate chip cookies are also a go-to recipe.  I have tried others, but these are the best when I need something quick and uncomplicated.  We host and feed a lot of people (including many college students), so good and simple is the name of the game for me. 

So these are just a few of my stand-by fall favorites.  What are some of yours? I’m always looking for some new recipes, so I would love to hear a few of your favorites!

Cooking with friends: Prepping & Roasting Lamb

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This week I’m sharing our Easter dinner menu, as well as tips for preparing a holiday meal. For Easter, I often make ham with a grainy mustard & brown sugar glaze, but this year I wanted to try lamb—It feels special and seasonal.  But while I love lamb, but I’m slightly intimidated to make it.  The meat is tough if over cooked and can taste gamey if not properly prepared. 

Me & Steph. Excited to pass along her impressive tying & trussing skills.

Me & Steph. Excited to pass along her impressive tying & trussing skills.

With this in mind, I’m excited to introduce my friend, Stephanie Maxwell, who walks me through a step-by-step tutorial on preparing and roasting lamb (check out videos at the end of this post). Steph is a great cook (think modern-day Julia Child), and I know I will be referencing her tying and trussing tips for years to come!

Below is what’s on the menu for Easter dinner. And what I really like about this menu is that everything can be prepped the day before, which makes day-of prep much easier.  

Menu

A couple quick planning suggestions. Split the work into three days if possible—Trust me, it’s much more enjoyable for everyone if you plan ahead. My natural inclination is towards procrastination, or overfilling my schedule, but years of holiday meals and event planning has taught me that slow and steady is the better course of action.

Day 1 (Friday). Make grocery list and shop.

Day 2 (Saturday). Prep as much as possible (including setting the table).

  • Prepare popover batter.

  • Make pie crust & filling. Pie should set overnight in fridge.

  • Make lamb rub, prepare & truss lamb, refrigerate overnight.

  • Peel and slice potatoes (store in water in an airtight container).

Day 3 (Sunday). Finish assembling and cooking food.

  • Prepare a timeline. (Often I just use a scratch piece of paper to make sure I know what time everything needs to be in and out of the oven in time for dinner, but both my mom and Stephanie keep spread sheets for events). Not only does this keep things super organized, it’s also helpful from year to year to look back at menus & timelines. It’s amazing how much you forget from one year to the next!)

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Lamb: Make the rub, trim and truss lamb the night before.

Stephanie’s rub for a 5-6 lb. leg of lamb:

  • 3 cloves of garlic

  • 2 tsp of salt

    Pound garlic and salt in mortar with pestle until a paste forms. (A small food processor would also work if you don’t have a mortar.) Add rosemary, oregano & lemon:

  • 2 TBSP rosemary

  • 1 TBSP oregano

  • Zest of 1 lemon (Make sure not to get the pith or white skin beneath the yellow lemon zest.)

    Grind the herbs and zest into the garlic-salt paste in the mortar (or food processor), and then add:

  • 1/4 cup of olive oil

  • 2 TBSP lemon juice

  • 1 tsp of ground pepper

  1. Trim as much fat as possible from the lamb. As I learned from Stephanie, the gamey taste resides in the fat, so remove as much fat as possible before butterflying.

  2. Butterfly the meat. Place lamb fat-side down and score interior of the lamb so the rub can penetrate the meat. (Be careful not to cut the meat all the way through).

  3. Spread half of the rub into the scored meat, and then roll the meat before trussing.

  4. Truss the lamb and cover with rub. (Watch the trussing and tying video for detailed instructions). Marinate a few hours or overnight.

Roasting Lamb:

Roast at 450 degrees for first 20 minutes, and then reduce the oven to 375 until the roast reaches an internal temperature of 130-140 degrees (usually about an hour). In this case, we roasted a 4 lb lamb, and it took about an hour total. Note that your roast will continue to cook as it rests. So if you plan to let it sit for more than 10 minutes, take it out when the internal temperature reaches 130 degrees to ensure you don’t end up with overdone meat. Serve warm with one or both of the sauces below.

Yogurt sauce: Mix together

  • 1 cup whole milk plain yogurt,

  • a squeeze of lemon to taste, salt to taste,

  • 1/4 c. diced onion,

  • 1/4 c diced cucumber,

  • chopped chives,

  • a pinch of cayenne,  and

  • feta on top (optional)

Chimichurri sauce: Mix together

  • 1/4 c. olive oil

  • 1/4 c. red-wine vinegar

  • 1/4 c. finely chopped onion

  • 2 TBSP minced red bell pepper

  • 1 1/2 tsp minced garlic

  • 2 TBSP chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • 1 1/2 tsp oregano leaves

  • 1/4 tsp hot red-pepper flakes

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Cheddar Popovers with homemade jam. Popover recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated Baking Book. I added cheddar cheese—so good.

Cheddar Popovers with homemade jam. Popover recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated Baking Book. I added cheddar cheese—so good.

Popovers—Recently, Brock and I ate at a steakhouse and had the most delicious cheddar-cheese popovers. This started me on a quest to find a recipe for Easter. They feel like fancy holiday fare, but truthfully, the batter is simple to make. I use a 12 cup mini-popover pan, though I read a number of recipes that say you can use non-stick muffin pans as well (you fill half full). After making a recipe from The Joy of Cooking and a Cook’s Illustrated version, I settled on the Cook’s Illustrated recipe.  There are a few key differences between Cook’s Illustrated and The Joy of Cooking.

First, to get tall, substantial popovers, Cook’s Illustrated doubles the batter, and they also use bread flour.  Second, because they use bread flour, they have you rest the batter for an hour or over night. This is a bonus for me—it allows me to make the batter the day before and bake the popovers the day of.  You can also make them ahead and warm up in the oven.  Also, I added cheddar cheese to my recipe. Pour batter into each mini-popover cup (about half full), sprinkle the batter with cheese (about a 1-2 TBSP) and then top each cup with more batter. Each popover cup should be about 2/3rd full before baking. Serve with homemade jam & butter.  I find that the trickiest part of making popovers is really knowing your oven—With both recipes, my popovers cooked in 1/4 of the time listed in the recipe. I suggest using the oven light to watch that they get a deep golden brown, but do not burn.

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Cheesy Hasselback Potato gratin. This has become a favorite at our house. A couple of tips:  I peel and slice my potatoes the night before, cover with water and store in the fridge.  The water & dark fridge keep them from browning.  I drain them before tossing with the garlic, cream & cheese mixture. And once I stack the potatoes in rows in the baking dish, I immediately pour the remaining cream mixture over the potatoes—I’ve found that half way up the side of the potatoes is good coverage (enough that it’s rich and creamy, but not too much that it spills over the pan).

Baby peas—frozen baby peas (I used Birds Eye brand).  Stephanie taught me a great way to gently prep peas so they don’t get shriveled and over cooked.  Boil water, place peas in a colander and pour hot water over the peas.  Toss as you go to defrost peas.  Serve with a pat of butter and salt to taste.  So easy & delicious.  Thanks, Steph! 

Lemon pie from the Magnolia Table Cookbook.

Lemon pie from the Magnolia Table Cookbook.

Lemon pie. I found this delicious and simple recipe in the Magnolia Table Cookbook.  It reminds me of key lime pie.  I made an easy graham cracker crust (also the day before), and made the custard the day before as well.  Future tweaks: I would add some lemon zest to kick up the lemon flavor a notch. 

So that’s my Easter menu. Check out the prepping and roasting lamb videos below. And of course, I would love to hear what’s cooking at your house!

Best way to cook St. Paddy’s-inspired corned beef (and it's not what I expected!)

Photo by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

Photo by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

To all of my Irish friends & wannabe Irishmen (this includes me), I’ve been on a quest for the perfect corned beef. How many of you the week of St. Paddy’s Day think, I want to make corned beef at home but don’t because either you don’t make it often enough, never make it, or find yourself overwhelmed by the endless recipes online? If so, this post is for you. This year, I purchased two corned beefs and made them two ways—by oven & Instant Pot.

Irish Soda bread, recipe via Ina Garten , Photo by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

Irish Soda bread, recipe via Ina Garten, Photo by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

Quick backstory: Each year, as long as I can remember, my Italian grandmother celebrated St. Patrick’s day with a traditional corned beef and cabbage feast. And since I moved away from my hometown of Cleveland nearly 8 years ago, I had to learn how to make it for my family. So year after year I would call my grandma and ask her to remind me how to cook cabbage and noodles, how to boil corned beef, and glaze carrots. Slowly, I’ve added my own traditions. I found a delicious Irish Soda bread recipe via Ina Garten (she’s often my go to), and I started to experiment with corned beef recipes. Instructions on the package are fine, but I knew there were ways I could add a little pizzazz.

Two years ago, I found a corned beef recipe via Rachel Ray that included a brown sugar & stone ground mustard glaze (I also included it at the end of this post). You roast it in the oven for about two hours, wrapped in foil and covered with the glaze. My favorite thing about this recipe is the glaze, but I struggled to get the beef super tender. This year, I decided I would experiment with oven vs. the Instant pot. Increasingly, my Instant Pot has become my go to. In my opinion, it’s way better than the crockpot—I find that most things in the crockpot end up tasting the same.

Despite my growing love for the Instant Pot, I was a bit nervous to try it with the corned beef. The verdict (taste tasted by friends with refined palettes): While both the oven and the Instant Pot took about two hours, the Instant Pot corned beef (see adapted recipe at end of post) was fall apart tender—not mushy. Because my favorite part of the oven roasted recipe is the glaze, this weekend I plan to make more corned beef in the Instant pot, and finish it off in the broiler with the brown sugar/mustard glaze. I will keep you posted!

Corned beef roasted in the oven , Photo by Rachel Cuthbert

Corned beef roasted in the oven, Photo by Rachel Cuthbert

Oven vs. Instant Pot Corned beef

Corned beef cooked in the INstant Pot , Pictured above is a reuben sandwich—a great alternative if you aren’t a straight up cabbage and noodles fan, or a great way to use up leftovers. I follow a  recipe from Zingerman’s Deli —A well known & loved deli in Ann Arbor, MI. Their thousand Island dressing is delish (it’s the only time I use thousand Island, and I love SauerKraut from Mcclures.—a small batch company out of Detroit/brooklyn. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert

Corned beef cooked in the INstant Pot, Pictured above is a reuben sandwich—a great alternative if you aren’t a straight up cabbage and noodles fan, or a great way to use up leftovers. I follow a recipe from Zingerman’s Deli—A well known & loved deli in Ann Arbor, MI. Their thousand Island dressing is delish (it’s the only time I use thousand Island, and I love SauerKraut from Mcclures.—a small batch company out of Detroit/brooklyn. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert

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Tablescape pre food: Platter, Williams Sonoma; plates, Homegoods; grass charger, Ikea; Glassware, Hearth & Hand, Target; runner, Hand sewn by friend, Peggy Stewart, fabric from Waverly/purchased at Walmart. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

Tablescape pre food: Platter, Williams Sonoma; plates, Homegoods; grass charger, Ikea; Glassware, Hearth & Hand, Target; runner, Hand sewn by friend, Peggy Stewart, fabric from Waverly/purchased at Walmart. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

Instant Pot Corned Beef

(adapted from a Striped Spatula recipe)

  • 1 Large onion, pulled and quartered

  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with back of a knife

  • Package of pickling spices (that comes with the corned beef)

  • 2 cups water

  • 12 oz of beer (in my case, I just used 12 oz of beef broth because I didn’t have beer on hand)

  1. Combine onion, garlic cloves, pickling spices and water in the bottom of the Instant Pot. Place corned beef, fat side up on top of mixture. Cover with beer or in my case beef broth.

  2. Seal lid and set the unit to HIGH pressure for 85 minutes. Let pressure release naturally for 20 minutes, then manually release the remaining pressure.* Remove corned beef and place on a dish or a cutting board, spooning a bit of the cooking liquid over the top. Cover with foil to keep warm.

  3. Slice corned beef against the grain. Spoon a little bit of the reserved cooking liquid over the corned beef slices on your platter. Serve corned beef with mustard, horseradish, etc..

*Read some of Amanda at the Striped Spatula’s notes on venting the Instant Pot. For instance, she mentions that you should NOT use a towel while venting because it can damage the pot or cause a malfunction. This was news to me—I’ve used a pot holder while venting, but after reading this will take precaution not to cover the spout with a potholder or towel while releasing the steam.

Brown Sugar Mustard Glaze

via Rachel Ray

  • 1/3 cup dijon or country-style grainy mustard (I used grainy mustard, but you could even mix dijon and country style)

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar or plain water

Mix ingredients in a bowl. Set aside. Once meat is finished in Instant Pot, place it on a large piece of foil, fat side up, cover with glaze. Broil in oven on high for 2-3 minutes. Slice meat against the grain.

Things I can't stop talking about: 3/11/19

Brunch—This may be one of my favorite meals. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert Photgraphy

Brunch—This may be one of my favorite meals. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert Photgraphy

Here’s a very “recipe heavy” list of things I can’t stop talking about. Clearly the end of winter, beginning of Lent is a good time for cooking.

One. Brunch with friends. I realize this is something I discuss often, but it’s because I believe that shared meals are a fundamental part of relationships—whether with friends or family. Recently I gathered with a few friends for a birthday celebration. I brought a crustless bacon, mushroom, and onion quiche.

REcipe & Photo from Epicurious , PHoto by Romulo Yanes. Delicious!

REcipe & Photo from Epicurious, PHoto by Romulo Yanes. Delicious!

I’ve been looking for a good crustless quiche recipe and was pleased when I happened upon this Epicurious recipe.  Like many comments suggested, I added a 5th egg.  Also, I did not have heavy cream on hand so I used whole milk and half/half.  I also added 3/4 cup of crumbled bacon & I used a mix of gruyere and cheddar cheese that I had in the fridge.  I love a recipe where I can improvise a bit.  

Two. Paczki: Ahh, Fat Tuesday, thank you for giving us an excuse to eat fried dough filled with creamy, sweet deliciousness. 

And for the first time ever, I made my own and I’m sold. I used this recipe (it made about 4 1/2 dozen small Paczki). It wasn’t difficult as much as time consuming. I started the dough around 3 p.m., and we were frying them by 8 p.m. at night. I also made dinner in between, so there was a time lapse. I suggest making it a family affair. My husband fried the donuts, I took them out and drained them, and my mom rolled them in powdered sugar and filled them. We made custard, lemon filling, and raspberry preserve Paczki.

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Three. This quick homemade mac-n-cheese recipe. You cook the pasta in the water & milk and then add cheese. Brilliant! And literally took less than 30 minutes. My husband shredded the cheese so that was a huge help. Also, the blogger recommends not using pre-shredded cheese because it’s coated to keep it from clumping in the bag. Totally agree. Finally, if you want to take it to the next level, I suggest using a quality cheddar. A family favorite is the white, extra sharp from Cabot cheese. You can buy it in large blocks at Walmart and Costco. I also added a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce based on a recommendation. Definitely adds to the flavor!

My old school system for filing recipes. Three ring binder, Masking Tape & Sharpie.

My old school system for filing recipes. Three ring binder, Masking Tape & Sharpie.

Four. This is a bit of rabbit trail, but… printing recipes. For longer than I would like to admit, our printer was broken. Seriously, why didn’t we replace it?  I was always looking up recipes online and cooking via my phone or computer. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of online recipes. They are amazingly convenient, and I find all the comments & feedback helpful.  

However, I do not love reading/cooking from them. My screen saver always turns on, then inevitably my screen gets dirty, and soon enough I forget where I found  my “favorite” recipe.  I also like writing cooking notes on my recipes. Needless to say, I was delighted when my MIL gifted me with a new printer.  I love quickly printing a recipe and adding it to my recipe binder.

Finally, here’s my very rudimentary system for storing recipes.  I don’t have the patience for label printers, so a sharpie and masking tape it is! 

I always love hearing favorite weeknight recipes and people organize recipes, so please share.

Winter Gatherings

An amazing spread of grilled vegetables, fresh greens, nuts, olives and cheeses assembled by my friend, Jaminda. Delicious! Photos by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

An amazing spread of grilled vegetables, fresh greens, nuts, olives and cheeses assembled by my friend, Jaminda. Delicious! Photos by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

The holiday fog has finally cleared.  Post New Years, it takes me about two weeks to dig out, regroup, and to start missing people again. ; ) As January draws to a close, and winter has clearly set in (currently digging out from 8” new inches of snow and prepping for Polar Vortex 2019), I’m often looking for ways ways to stay active when my body is screaming, “hibernate!”, to engage my mind & gather friends. As you can imagine, winters in Michigan are long and often the skies are gray. Human connection makes a big difference.

The last two Christmas seasons, I’ve hosted a book swap with a few friends and we’ve had so much fun. I love books, friends, great conversation, the holidays season & brunch!  So why not combine a few of my favorite things? It’s a really fun way to celebrate the season together. But I think it also translates well into a good winter gathering. I truly believe that meaningful conversations, shared meals, and good books are a natural mood booster.

And it’s flexible. Last year I suggested people bring their favorite non-fiction and favorite fiction book.  This year, friends brought a recent favorite and a favorite from last year.  I served coffee, mimosas, my favorite Mushroom Swiss Chard Sausage Strata and friends brought food to share as well. The goal was to swap books throughout the year. Unfortunately, trading books throughout the year didn’t go as planned so I had people bring a favorite book from the previous year. Each guest drew a number and then picked 2 books. We chose White Elephant style, so the person choosing could unwrap a book or steal a book.

Wrapped books to be swapped. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert photo

Wrapped books to be swapped. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert photo

2018 books:

  • Educated by Tara Westover (I read this book in a few days—great read and leaves so much to discuss. Though it impeded some of my pre-Christmas work. Oops! I’m one of those readers who can’t begin a good book if I actually have things I need to accomplish.  The author drew me in to her harrowing family story, but I also appreciate the care she takes care to present facts as faithfully as possible. Throughout the book she recognizes that memory can be a tricky thing, and she tries to corroborate as many details as possible.

  • Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance—One of my favorite memoirs from the last couple of years. I’ve recommended it often. Much has been written about it in light of the 2016 election, and I certainly think it lives up to its reputation as a behind the scenes account of life in modern rural Midwestern America. If you’re an audio book fan, check this one out. The author narrates, and it really brings some of the characters, like his grandmother, to life.

  • In His Image by Jen Wilkin

  • Joel: A Boy of Galilee by Annie Fellows Johnston

  • Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett—I've heard good things about this and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve been a bit apprehensive to start because it’s a longer read and I fear that once I start, I won’t be able to put it down.

  • Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi This was my selection, and a book that I often think about and want to discuss. Dr. Qureshi, was a Christian apologist who came to his Christian faith as a medical student. His mind is razor sharp, and his journey to faith in Christ compelling. I first read this book in 2016 and later followed his apologetics ministry along with his battle and eventual death to stomach cancer in the fall of 2017 at the age of 33.

A few 2017 favorites: 

  • A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg—if you love food memoirs, this is a great one. 

  • A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken—Have read this a few times and it’s a tear jerker.  A beautiful love story with poignant spiritual depth. Includes letters between the author and CS Lewis.

  • Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

  • Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt—I hope to read this soon. I have an almost teenager and three on his heels, so I’m always looking for good Young Adult lit.

Quick note: The above books were favorites of a group of friends. Some of the books I haven’t read so I am not necessarily recommending, just sharing what we traded with one another. I think that’s what makes this a fun gathering—I love seeing what friends are reading and also being challenged to read outside my comfort zone. My personal favorites from the two lists (understanding that I haven’t read all of the books so there may be new favorites lurking) are Educated, Hillbilly Elegy, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, A Homemade Life, and A Severe Mercy.

Funny, I’m noticing a theme here… human narratives. It’s true. I’m a people person and I love the deep dive into real stories—how people deal with life—tragedy, conflicts, limited resources, etc… and ultimately how they persevere. With that said, I would love to hear some of your reading favorites from 2018 and what you plan to read in 2019.

 

Channeling Your Inner Holiday Hostess

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This post is for my life long best friend and partner in crime, Monica.  She messaged me a few weeks ago needing some recipes for an upcoming holiday party she was hosting.  She remembered a thinly sliced beef tenderloin served for my 40th birthday celebration and requested that recipe along with a few others.

Entertaining doesn’t have to be stressful!  After you’ve created your guest list & type of event you plan to host, plan your menu. For this particularly party, they are hosting work friends for appetizers and drinks.  Here are a few holiday hosting tips and recipes:

 1.    Don’t make everything from scratch.

Pick a few recipes to make and then assemble the rest.  

Food to assemble: Cheese platter with fruit and nuts.  Find your favorite platter & fill with 3+ cheeses, an array of nuts, seasonal fruit (for Christmas I think honey crisp apples, pomegranates, clementines and small berries fit the bill.  A good cheddar, soft cheese (brie or goat cheese), or a blue cheese if you like something strong

For sweet treats, go to the bakery for desserts. When I lived in Cleveland I had a few favorites that I frequented.  Fragapane’s for cannoli and cassata cakeDick’s Bakery in Berea for Date and Nut cake, and A Cookie and a Cupcake for special events, to name a few.  

Also, bowls of your favorite chocolates, nuts, and such go a long way.  Trader Joe’s and Costco are great sources for delicious, affordable nuts and chocolates.  A few of my favorites from TJ’s: Turbinado sugar dark chocolate almonds, dark chocolate covered peanut butter cups, chocolate covered salted graham crackers. From Costco: Sanders dark chocolate covered salted caramels.

Finally, don’t be afraid to say yes to guests that offer to bring something—whether it’s a bottle of wine, an appetizer or plate of cookies, say yes to help!  

Amazing variety of holiday cookies brought by friends—molasses, peppermint chocolate chunk, and Italian lemon cookies.

Amazing variety of holiday cookies brought by friends—molasses, peppermint chocolate chunk, and Italian lemon cookies.

2.    Choose a main dish and appetizers that feel special.  

My very favorite is roasted beef tenderloin sliced thin, served with horseradish, gourmet mustards, and a variety of rolls, good cheese and crusty bread.  

Here’s how to prep the tenderloin, according to my friend Stephanie. I promise, she’s the master.

Roasted Beef Tenderloin

Trim and tie the tenderloin and the season with Montreal steak seasoning blend by McCormickand Flavor by Penzey’s. Sear in olive oil until nicely browned and then pat with butter and roast at 475 until med rare. (Side note from Jen: I recommend investing in a good thermometer.  This was never clearer to me than this Thanksgiving when neither my mom or I could find a working meat thermometer. Here’s the thermometer I have on my Christmas list—I’ve read a lot of good reviews about it, and hopefully Santa is taking note.) I then freeze until almost frozen—about 3 hours. Remove string. Cut crosswise into very thin slices. (Put between parchment to store if doing the day before.). To serve, cover large platter with arugula or watercress and the slices of beef. Drizzle with a little oil, lemon juice, Parmesan shavings and serve with rolls or baguette slices and the sauce detailed below.

Mustard Horseradish sauce

¾  Cup good mayo (I prefer Helman’s)

1 ½ Tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 Tablespoon Whole grain mustard

½ Tablespoon Prepared horseradish

2 Tablespoons Sour cream

Kosher salt to taste

Side note: challenge yourself by learning from people who are better cooks than you.  When I moved to Michigan 7 years ago, I felt pretty confident in my cooking ability.  In my twenties, I even had a side hustle catering. But when I moved, I connected with people who took cooking to the next level, and Stephanie is one of those people.  I had made roast tenderloin for years and it was delicious, but hers was next level.  She took the time to properly trim and tie her meat before searing and roasting which creates a more even heat distribution.  I learned how important it was to quickly sear the meat and lock in flavors. Thanks, Steph! : )

Glazed Ham  

This is one of my favorites for feeding a crowd.  Ham seems fancy, it’s plentiful and not only is it a festive addition to any table, it’s also very affordable. Skip the glaze packet that come with the ham—making your own glaze is quick and so much better. My go to glaze is from the cookbook, Hungry, Feeding Men and Boys by Lucinda Scala Quinn.

Side note: this particular cookbook is a favorite.  Lucinda Scala Quinn was the food director for Martha Stewart for years and hosted her own cooking show.  She has also raised 3 boys.  I resonate with her approach to cooking, entertaining and feeding her family.  She loves gathering her family & friends, and her recipes are down to earth and achievable. Her Insta feed—in particular her stories where she cooks—are great!  

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Roasted Shrimp Cocktail

My favorite way to prep shrimp—toss in whatever spices you prefer and roast it for 8-10 minutes in the oven (until shrimp are pink and firm to touch).  Also learned this from Ina Garten.  It’s quick, simple and fool proof.  Sometimes I do this the day before an event and keep it chilled in the fridge. 

A good dip - Artichoke and spinach is a crowd pleaser, for good reason.  It’s so delicious and feels warm and cozy on a winter night. Honestly, I’ve been known to buy the Terre Fina brand at Costco, sprinkle with parmesan, warm in the oven and serve with crackers or pretzel thins. Or some type of veggie dip (homemade hummus, Sundried tomato dip, or a favorite that pairs well with veggies.    

Drinks: You can keep it simple with sparkling water, wine & favorite beer.  If you’re feeling fancy, serve a signature drink. 

Here’s a favorite that my friend, Jaminda, makes during the holidays:

Eggnog Martinis

Two parts vodka, 1 part Eggnog, 1/2 part Buttershots (flavored liquor).  Shake that and then pour into glasses.  Add a splash of cream soda at the end.  This gives it some fizz.  So good! 

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3.   Employ music, candles and simple décor to set the tone. 

 I know using the word simple sounds a bit ridiculous coming from the woman who decorates Christmas trees for a living, but you really can keep it simple and beautiful at the same time.  

Candles and greens go a long way. Tea lights, pine roping or clipping from a pine tree in the back yard are perfect accents on the holiday table. Before guests come, turn on the holiday music, have drinks ready to go, and light the candles.  Easy peasy!

Do you have any go to recipes for holiday parties? I would love to hear from you. Happy hosting & happy holidays!

Treasured Celebrations

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This fall my husband and I hosted friends for our 20th college reunion, a celebration of some of my most treasured, life changing friendships.  Needless to say, when Tree Classics invited me to kick-off their Treasured Celebrations blog hop, I knew that this was exactly what I would share with you as we head into Thanksgiving… the beauty of gathering friends and creating memories, along with approachable menus for feeding a crowd and simple décor ideas.

Décor: Front door & table decor

It doesn’t have to be complicated.  For real! I’m laughing a bit as I type this because prep for our Homecoming gathering was a little crazy & complicated. But, that’s because we did a full remodel on our main bath this summer, our master bath is currently gutted and one month out from friends arriving, we started a DIY update of our basement bath. Ha! I will share these bathroom remodels in future posts, but let’s just say, I wouldn’t recommend this level of home improvement this close to a major event.  However, it was a huge impetus to keep moving and get work done. And miraculously, with much thanks to my husband, a handful of college students, and local friends who pitched in last minute, we got most of it done.  

My real recommendation is that you add a few seasonal touches to the house: some fresh flowers, candles, and music right before guests arrive. On the front door, this is one of my favorite wreaths from Tree Classics because it’s beautiful for fall, Thanksgiving or Christmas. Countryside Wreath

Fluffing Tree Classics Countryside Wreath

Fluffing Tree Classics Countryside Wreath

On the inside, I hung this Classic Fraser Fir Wreath.  Again, this is another wreath that works well from fall to Christmas. I added this Thankful sign that a dear friend recently gave me. I love little reminders sprinkled about the house, and truly, I am thankful.  Thankful for decades of friendship, and the bounty that comes from gathering with those we love and cherish.     

Classic Fraser Fir Wreath from Tree Classics. I added the Thankful sign from Hobby Lobby.

Classic Fraser Fir Wreath from Tree Classics. I added the Thankful sign from Hobby Lobby.

For table décor and food, I often employ a few strategies. First, I look to the season.  It’s fall so I pull in the rich colors of the season, thus pumpkins, squash and gourds.  Also, I often buy flowers at my local Kroger—they have great prices for roses and sometimes I even find great prices on discounted flowers. Second, I shop my house. After years of party planning and hosting, I’ve collected quite an array of cloth napkins.  I’ve even made some of my own as well.  And I layer my dining table with a runner, seasonal décor, placemats and mix & match dishes.  

Fall harvest tablescape—table runner & placemats from Ikea, plates from Pioneer Woman (Walmart), print napkins and silverware from World Market, bowls and burnt orange napkins from HomeGoods.

Fall harvest tablescape—table runner & placemats from Ikea, plates from Pioneer Woman (Walmart), print napkins and silverware from World Market, bowls and burnt orange napkins from HomeGoods.

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Dining table as it gets darker outside. Loving the pillar candles from Hearth and Home collection at Target.

Dining table as it gets darker outside. Loving the pillar candles from Hearth and Home collection at Target.

Food fit for a crowd

We host friends and family. A lot.  Often, I am quickly throwing together a dinner party, but when I hatched the idea to invite a dozen friends to visit for Homecoming weekend, I knew I needed to be organized in planning—many friends were coming from a distance (East Coast, West Coast, and even Europe!). I couldn’t potluck this shindig.  

Though I did enlist help from a close friend who also happens to be Italian and a fantastic cook.  No joke, she made homemade lasagna (noodles and everything) and traveled 2 hours with them on ice along along with a delicious Italian Cassata cake from Mannino’s Bakery in Detroit.  She also brought Italian bread and real deal mediterranean olives and parmesan and Romano cheese from a speciality grocery store. I promise, I did make a few things—homemade meatballs, salad, and steamed green beans (I really like the French green beans from Costco, also great for feeding a crowd).  

I think we’re all more likely to host if we say yes when people ask to help.  Obviously, this doesn’t work when people are travelling on planes or super long distances, but when in-state friends asked if they could bring things, I said yes.  And it was a huge help to me—fresh fruit, even bottles of wine, snacks from Costco and Trader Joe’s (places that I can’t readily shop) were a great addition to the festivities.  

Side note: We’ve lived in a small town for the last seven years, and there are so many things that I love (living close to everything—school, work, friends, church—you really develop daily community in a way that is more challenging in a bigger city).  But, I do miss the Cleveland food scene.  Specialty grocery stores, bakeries and ethnic food that I took for granted, oh how I miss you!  

Homecoming weekend menu:

  • Friday dinner: Artisan cheeses, crackers, assorted olives, homemade lasagna, sauce, meatballs, green beans, Italian bread, Italian Cassata cake 

  • Saturday breakfast: Ham & veggie egg bake, fresh fruit, coffee and toast

  • Saturday lunch: A la carte—cold cut sandwiches and such

  • Saturday dinner:  Barbecued chicken, pulled pork, grilled hot dogs, assorted salads, baked beans, dips (one of my favorite easy go to dips is Costco’s prepared spinach artichoke dip) and a variety of potato and corn chips, salsa, etc…

When feeding a crowd, I often choose desserts that are plentiful and not overly complicated. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re nearly 90 minutes from the nearest bigger city (Ann Arbor is my go to) and so buying desserts is not a great option for me).  Thus, my friend carted a cassata cake all the way from Detroit for our Friday dinner! For Saturday evening, I had my mom make the Pioneer Woman’s chocolate sheet cake.  Everyone always loves a bit of chocolate, and this recipe feeds a crowd.  

PSA: Along with Ina Garten, the Pioneer Woman is one of my go to’s for recipes.  She cooks for a crowd, people always enjoy her recipes and they’re mostly fail proof!  Don’t believe me, check out Jennifer Garner’s#PretendCookingShow.  By the way, I want a pretend cooking show!  

 A friend who lives in town brought these Pumpkin bars (seriously, I have made this recipe three times since last month).  Delicious and not labor intensive.  It reminds me of pumpkin roll, but easier.  No trying to gingerly remove from the pan, cool and roll.  Just fill pan with batter, bake, cool and frost!  

Pumpkin cake —I wish I had a better photo. I promise, it feeds a crowd and is delicious. Way better than the photo depicts.

Pumpkin cake—I wish I had a better photo. I promise, it feeds a crowd and is delicious. Way better than the photo depicts.

Pumpkin cake topped with  cream cheese frosting .

Pumpkin cake topped with cream cheese frosting.

As October is quickly drawing to a close, holiday prep is on many of our minds.  From décor to menu planning to strategies for getting the house in order, it can seem like a daunting task.  I think it’s often so overwhelming many of us choose not to do it.  But my encouragement for today is that yes, it requires some extra work, but gathering friends and family over the years has been the most rewarding “work” I have ever done.  Don’t let your house or fear of feeding a crowd keep you from gathering people.  Memories and friendships really do begin around the table.  

Thanks again for Tree Classics for sponsoring this blog hop, Treasured Celebrations. Starting next Monday, October 29th, these other bloggers will be joining me, sharing their home decor and fall traditions: Emily of smallstuffcounts.com, Monday, October 29, Kathy of uptodateinteriors.com on Tuesday October 30th, Kendra of joyinourhome.com on Thursday, November 1st, and Kaitlyn of @freshandvintageliving | freshandvintageliving.com on Friday, November 2nd! And of course, I would love to hear about your fall gatherings and traditions!

Celebrating our 20th college reunion & 24 years of friendship! So thankful for these women and the rich heritage we have built.

Celebrating our 20th college reunion & 24 years of friendship! So thankful for these women and the rich heritage we have built.

Join us as tree classics kicks of the holiday season with our treasured celebrations blog hop! Each of us will be offering our design ideas for creating a welcoming fall home.

Join us as tree classics kicks of the holiday season with our treasured celebrations blog hop! Each of us will be offering our design ideas for creating a welcoming fall home.

It All Begins at the Dining Table

It All Begins at the Dining Table

I’m not particularly trendy or cutting edge with my cooking, my approach to feeding people is—keep the kitchen stocked with good food & your doors open.  If you feed them, they will come. : ) Sometimes it’s fancy feasting, but most of the time it’s simply an open invitation to come and sit, have a cup of coffee, a biscotti (or whatever I can pull together), and chat about life. 

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