I’ve done remarkably little cooking over the holidays, and even less baking. This is simply a consequence of the happy busyness of the season—and because luckily other people are baking and cooking for me. But there are so many excellent holiday traditions that revolve around recipes. And I do seize the chance, when I have it, to make old favorites (cinnamon rolls and sugar cookies) and attempt new, festive-sounding ones (gingerbread brioche and peppermint chocolate Bundt cakes).
In the days leading up to Christmas, there’s been so much to do: picking out gifts, wrapping presents, packing up the car, and so on. There are holiday parties with parades of hors d'oeuvres and glasses of Champagne hiding around every corner, ready to leap into your hand. There were flights to and from Toronto, gift exchanges, busy brunches, and cocktail hours.
So my cooking has revolved around simple, comforting dishes—the sort I could plan and make in the morning while I worked and heat up at night. Or, in lieu of trying something new, I’ll pick up salads from Sweetgreen around the corner or make scrambled eggs or pastas tossed with the odds and ends in the fridge. More often than not, I’ll roast spaghetti squash (in the Instant Pot, always—7 minutes for the win!), scrape out the insides and mix it with tomato sauce and Parmesan, serve it all over greens, and call it a night.
But despite the simpler cadence of my own kitchen rhythms, there have been some standout meals: both recipes I made at home and dinners out. A few worth mentioning:
- Mark Bittman’s Chinese-style short ribs—which I adapted to great success in the Instant Pot (I followed his recipe mostly but after reading the comments, opted to use low-sodium soy sauce, extra ginger and five spice, and cooked it at high pressure for 45 minutes then let it naturally release. I removed the meat and shredded it, cooked down the remaining liquid to thicken it slightly, then added the meat back it. I served it over sautéed bok choy and coconut rice—which was just brown rice cooked with a blend of water and coconut milk, and some unsweetened shredded coconut stirred in at the very end.)
- Everything we ordered at the Dabney in Washington D.C., where we spent Christmas Eve. The restaurant is exceptionally lovely—tucked into a back alley with a big barn-like wooden door that slides open to reveal a low-ceilinged room, bright with white wooden walls and a brick floor that makes it feel like a carriage house. The kitchen is entirely open to the restaurant and the main event is the huge wood-fired grill that takes up nearly a full wall.
Emphasizing seasonal, local, mid-Atlantic food, the nightly changing menu is full of intriguing-sounding small plates like ember-roasted sweet potato with walnut streusel, mustard & coffee and fried Chesapeake sugar toads with hot honey and winter radishes & fried oysters with koji and green garlic remoulade.
Between the four of us, we feasted—my favorite things being first, the wood-fired winter squash with a brown butter vinaigrette, bitter greens, pecans, and maple syrup; second, the crispy rockfish over a sunchoke puree with sunchoke chips; and third, a deceptively simple plate of chicory and lettuces atop a swipe of sweet pear butter, all dressed with a warm bacon vinaigrette.
We shared a bourbon brown sugar ice cream sundae with homemade toasted marshmallows, candied ginger, and chocolate shortbread and a teeny skillet of not-too-sweet apple crumble topped with a scoop of sorghum ice cream.
- On Christmas, we drove an hour north to the farm to be with my family—parents, sisters, babies! For dinner, my mom made a version of the Silver Palate chicken Marbella (okay stick with me here, the components don’t sound earth-shattering but altogether it sings: chicken cooked in a big casserole dish with prunes, brown sugar, olives, capers, and white wine).
So, there you have it. Good things. And if you, too, manage to find yourself with a few quiet moments in your own kitchen—here is the perfect (seriously! perfect!) recipe to make.
Actually, it’s perfect for everyone at this time of year. If you’re the person hosting (family staying for days, friends coming for brunch or dinner, throwing a cocktail party), then it’s ideal because it’s easy, pretty much foolproof in my experience, a crowd-pleasing flavor, and also kind of gorgeous so people will think you pulled a real Martha Stewart move to make it.
If it’s just you and family, but you want to make something a little more festive than pancakes or cold cereal, it’s really excellent for breakfast—like a sticky bun in cake form, with none of the fussiness of messing about making a yeasted dough. The cake itself is moist and tender with a close crumb, like a very good homemade yellow birthday cake, and then the top (which you bake on the bottom then flip over in traditional upside-down cake style) is a glorious cap of caramelized, gooey, sticky nuts.
Pecan Sticky Bun Cake
For the topping
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup pecans
For the cake
½ cup (50 grams) almond flour
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
¼ cup honey
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 eggs, separated
½ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9” round cake pan. Line the cake pan with parchment and grease it again.
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine the honey, brown sugar, salt, and butter. Stir until the butter is melted and the ingredients are blended.
Pour the sugar mixture into the bottom of the prepared cake pan and swirl slightly so it coats the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the pecans on top of the sugar mixture in one even layer.
In a clean bowl, whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Set aside.
Cream together the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy.
Add the yolks to the butter and sugar and mix well.
Add the honey, vanilla, and buttermilk to the butter and sugar mixture and beat until combined.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the almond flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and stir gently with a spatula to combine.
Add the egg whites to the batter and, using a spatula, fold them in gently until the batter is well-mixed.
Pour the cake batter over the pecan layer in the cake pan and smooth the top.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert it onto a cooling rack and let it finish cooling.