Monthly Archives: December 2011

Perfect Dessert

Parfait (French for perfect) is the ideal term for this easy, elegant, no-bake dessert, introduced to me by a cousin who’s a wonderful cook and creative hostess while she was visiting us in the country. It requires only three ingredients, can be made the night before, adapts to the seasons, and looks and tastes as though it involves a lot more work than it really does.

To make the individual servings, simply layer fresh seasonal fruit (we did it with mango chunks and blueberries in late summer) with full-fat or reduced-fat sour cream, and dark brown sugar in whatever clear glass stemware you own, and put the glasses in the frig overnight. For added panache, you may want to sprinkle on some crushed nuts or spear the parfait with a cookie or chocolate stick just before serving.

There is one drawback to this dessert: You have to wait so long to eat it.

Holiday Ham Hassle

I put myself through a lot of unnecessary pain on Christmas Eve, when I violated my own rule by making something for company that I’d never cooked before: Fresh ham. In my own defense, I did it to please my husband, who remembered fondly the fresh hams his mother made when he was a child, but couldn’t tell me how she made them. No problem, I thought, I’ll just do a little research. But it wasn’t that easy.

The order-taker at the renowned, New York City epicurean shop where I ordered my 10-pound, bone-in fresh ham told me over the telephone to pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees, turn it down to 375, and plan on cooking the meat for five to seven hours. But when I picked up my ham the next day, the store personnel told me to cook it at 325 for an hour and a half. These are the kinds of frustrating contradictions that can create anxiety in even the calmest cook.

Checking the Internet only compounded the problem. The oven settings and cooking times were all over the place. Fortunately, an informative Web site (www.http://whatscookingamerica.net/Pork/Ham101.htm) helped me sort out the situation, by reminding me that there is ham and there is ham.

Apparently, fresh ham, which is not cured or smoked and needs to be fully cooked, isn’t as popular as it was when my husband was a boy. When you ask people how to make it, even the experts (especially butchers busy battling the holiday crowds on Christmas Eve) may give you instructions instead for the more common, cured, smoked ham, which only needs reheating. Be aware that there are many other possibilities, including uncooked smoked ham and dry cured country ham, both of which need to be fully cooked.

Once I understood the difference, I was able to find a recipe I trusted among many on the Internet that oddly say fresh ham in their titles but list smoked ham as their key ingredient. I generally followed one that called for cooking the meat at 325, since I believe that slow cooking yields the tenderest result. First, I removed the skin (a necessity that nobody had bothered to mention),cut a quarter-inch deep cross hatch pattern in the remaining layer of fat, rubbed the meat with a little soy sauce, a paste of garlic and salt, a sprinkling of cayenne, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and set the meat thermometer to 155 degrees, figuring 25 minutes per pound. In fact, the roast reached that temperature in a little over three hours, after which I covered it with foil and let it rest for 15 minutes to allow the juices to settle and the temperature to rise another five degrees.

The ham was delicious, but was it worth the aggravation? I don’t think so. Next time, I’ll follow my own good advice.

Brunch Strategy

When a friend who rarely cooks turned to me for advice about what to serve for brunch, I knew just what to tell her: Make a strata. If you’re hosting a morning meal for the holidays, it’s a dish you should consider.

A savory bread pudding, made with custard, cheese, and often a vegetable or some kind of breakfast meat, a strata is the perfect brunch dish for those who feel uncomfortable cooking in front of company, especially before noon. You can prepare a strata the night before and refrigerate it for up to 24 hours. In the morning, you can have your first cup of coffee, while you let it warm up on the counter; and then bake it for 45 minutes or so, while you toss together a salad and crisp up some bacon.

The recipe I shared was a spinach and cheese strata from The Gourmet Cookbook (Conde Nast Publications, 2004), edited by Ruth Reichl, but strata variations abound. After wisely doing a trial run a week in advance and treating me to a tasting (yum!), my friend served the spinach and cheese version, but made the meal more impressive with some elegant, make-in-advance accompaniments: an appetizer of prosciutto and melon (easily prepped before guests arrived) and a dessert of poached pears (prepared the day before but drizzled with chocolate sauce at the last minute).