Each year the food magazines whip together their own distinct Christmas fantasies, filled with big pink roasts, clever side dishes, and fluffy desserts. I've often looked at these menus and wondered, who cooks them? Oh, I'd pick up a recipe here and there, but I'd never ventured to complete a magazine-generated meal. This year, in a fit of folly I set out to cook one Christmas menu a day from the top-five cooking magazines, with the hope of defining the ideal cook for each one. After one huge, draining day of grocery shopping, I got to work. My tasters? My mother- and father-in-law, who love food but are not especially adventurous eaters, my always enthusiastic husband, and my two-month-old son, whose nursing schedule has a knack for postponing our dinner hour.
Wednesday, Dec. 15 Food and Wine What I cook: mini Alsatian tarts, escarole and fresh herb salad, pecan-crusted beef tenderloin, endives with roasted prosciutto, prune custard tart.
What I omit from the prescribed menu: smoked-salmon stuffed puffs, mushroom soup with chorizo, salsify gratin, frozen fruit nougat.
Food and Wine delivers a chic New-York dinner party hosted by restaurateur Danny Meyer and Chef Gabriel Kreuther. The spread strives for a modernist vibe, with black, white, and crimson décor, a white Christmas tree in the background, and monochromatic burgundy flower arrangements marching down the table. I fail to reproduce the tiny paper models of modern buildings that adorn each place setting in the magazine.
This F&W meal is urbane bistro fare, with a whiff of Kreuther's native Alsace. It's not too complex, and a clean meal like this underscores the importance of a good butcher. The Alsatian mini-tarts would be ordinary if our local butcher's custom-smoked bacon weren't the highlight, but they are, in fact, scrumptious. The bacon, onion, and sour cream are poised on wonton skins instead of a buttery crust—a timesaving trick I'll use again. Since filet is the quickest of roasts to prepare, it's ever popular—each magazine except Saveur includes a recipe for beef tenderloin of some sort. In F&W, the pecan crust, attached via a peculiar mix of ketchup, mustard, and egg yolk, takes the filet in a more festive direction, as does the piney aroma of juniper in its sauce. Though tender and rosy, this filet is a little neat for my conception of a holiday meal. Tenderloin lacks the voluptuous grandeur of other roasts, like a standing rib roast. I'm not sure my audience agrees, though: The beef is a big hit.
Endives with prosciutto are an easy side, illustrating the kitchen saw that everything is better with a little cured pork. The prune tart is a deconstructed take on an Alsatian classic: a stratum of cinnamon custard, a layer of prune spread, and a crown of whipped cream. It's nice, but I'd prefer the more down-home version where the prunes and the custard are cooked together, mingling the flavors.
Who should cook this meal: chic urban DINKs who read the Design Within Reach catalog with fervor.
Thursday, Dec. 16 Bon Appetit What I cook: cumin-roasted potatoes with caviar and smoked salmon, duck breasts with pomegranate-wine sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts with cauliflower and orange, spiced sugarplum and caramelized apple tartlets with calvados cream.
What I omit: bronze and red lettuce salad with Serrano ham and goat cheese spirals, toasted Israeli couscous with pine nuts and parsley.
The Bon Appetit dinner (one of several menus in the issue) is all over the place, with Mediterranean touches like cumin, pomegranate, and couscous, contrasting with northern flavors present in the duck, Brussels sprouts, and calvados. The table setting is similarly complicated—the monotone maroon-colored dinner is placed on fine china of teal and gold, and sprigs of blue spruce dot the tabletop.
I enlist a patient overnight guest to tend to the calvados cream, which needs about 20 minutes of gentle stirring over a pot of simmering water. Meanwhile I assemble the appetizer, which has one too many ingredients: I'm not sure the cumin-roasted potatoes and preserved lemon cream need both smoked salmon and caviar. But as it turns out, the appetizers are a hit, and five of us consume what the magazine says serves eight.
Of all the main courses, this one garners a little less praise. The pomegranate molasses is a hair strong for the duck, and although I like the simplicity of the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, it's a dish that might be happier alongside a less fruity sauce.
Dessert is a different story: The painstaking tarts, each topped with spiced prune spread and petals of caramelized apples, are full of Yuletide flavor, helped in no small part by the deliciously boozy calvados sauce, a fluffy take on the brandied hard sauce that goes with most Christmas puddings. Our guest has two at dinner and one more for breakfast.
Who should cook this meal: worldly empty-nesters with time on their hands who've moved beyond holiday classics.
Friday, Dec. 17 Cooking Light
What I cook: calvados-glazed crown roast of pork with chestnut apple puree, sweet-potato casserole with meringue topping, cheese dip with shrimp (in lieu of crawfish tails), cranberry ginger upside-down cake.
What I omit: many recipes, including fig-and-Stilton stuffed turkey breasts, peppery baked onions with sage and gruyere, red raspberry velvet cake.
Cooking Light is the sensible shoe of cooking magazines. It does not set a fantasy Christmas dinner, but rather provides a sourcebook of holiday recipes to mix and match. The dishes are photographed on solid earthenware, not fine china, lit with simulated sunlight and minimally decorated tables. This is not the stuff of envy but approachability—and probably explains why CL is the best-selling cooking magazine in the country.
True to its name, CL trims fat calories but often replaces them with copious doses of brown sugar, maple syrup, and the like. They also aren't afraid to use scary low-fat substitutes. As an appetizer, I serve a cheese dip made with light processed cheese, a springy substance I'd never before touched. It's melted and combined with tomatoes, green chilies, and shrimp (I'd hoped to make it with crawfish, like the recipe specified, but our grocery store didn't oblige). The result: a dead-on impression of stadium nachos, plus shrimp. But there's a reason stadiums sell hordes of nachos: The dip proves popular with the family and even my cheese-hating friend.
I don't consider crown roast of pork a light dish, but it is a personal big-dinner favorite, and it pleases this crowd. It's a good thing I bought a big bottle of calvados for Bon Appetit's apple tartlets, because there's more called for with the roast and its accompanying apple-chestnut puree: a surprisingly elegant combination for a middlebrow magazine.
On the side is a sweet-potato casserole, the already sugary veggies loaded with an alarming dose of sweeteners: dried cranberries, brown sugar, and maple syrup. On top of the whole affair is a piped-on lattice work of meringue. My diners enjoy the casserole, even though I light the meringue on fire while attempting to brown it under the broiler. I have to admit, grudgingly, that I like it, too, even if I could put it in a pie shell and call it dessert.
Come actual dessert, the upside-down cake is full of piquant cranberry flavor, despite the reduced-butter cake's stolid texture. We forgo the recommended frozen fat-free whipped topping (Cool Whip will never enter my home!) and serve it with the leftover calvados cream.
Who should cook this meal: time-scarce soccer parents who need to bribe picky eaters with sweet treats in every course.
Saturday, Dec. 18 Saveur What I cook: cheese crackers, baked ham, spicy creamed onions, string beans almondine, bourbon balls.
What I omit: standing rib roast, homemade eggnog, breakfast biscuits, gingerbread cake.
Saveur strives for an air of romantic authenticity. Its Christmas spread juxtaposes documentary-style photos of candlelit domestic revelry with shots of a wintry landscape. The food is photographed in sharp focus with a blur of activity or the faint twinkle of Christmas lights in the background. This menu taps into the author's South Carolina roots with die-hard southern classics.
Even before I begin, I have fallen off the authenticity wagon: I haven't had the foresight to order and soak a salt-cured country ham. Instead I fall back on my butcher's house-smoked ham, which is stupendous, though not as pink as the magazine's. Several hours later, salty ham juice collects in the roasting pan—enhanced by the anesthetic quality of cloves—it is so good I can't help dipping my fingers, Nigella Lawson-like, into the pan.
The buttery cheese crackers are scrumptious highbrow Cheez-Its. Alongside the ham, creamed pearl onions are tasty (like creamed just about anything). My father-in-law and I discuss the quality of bourbon to use in the bourbon balls—the recipe calls for small batch bourbon, but can you really use $40-a-bottle Woodford in a confection that calls for Nilla Wafers? We settle on Makers, and the bonbons turn out chewy, boozy, and too rich to eat in quantity.
This meal is unsurprising, but it is also mercifully easy to prepare. In the end, it all comes down to how good your ham is—and your bourbon, for that matter. In its big-meat predictability, this meal strikes me as the most holiday-friendly of the lot.
Who should make this meal: Civil War buffs and other Southern fantasists who are seeking flavor and relative ease in the holiday kitchen.
Sunday, Dec. 19 Gourmet What I cook: Spanish olive-and-cream cheese canapés, beef tenderloin with mushrooms and sauce espagnole, creamed spinach, ambrosia cake.
What I omit: spicy toasted pecans, radish flowers, oysters Rockefeller, shrimp court bouillion with rice, deviled roasted potatoes, mâche salad with Creole vinaigrette, pineapple anise sorbet.
Gourmet is conjuring fantasies of rich sophistication with its Christmas spread. Crystalline close-ups of oysters on rock salt echo glimmering shots of Waterford china. As per usual with Gourmet's photography of late, the look is of a fashion shoot rather than a real dinner party.
By this time, my fifth night, I am getting tired of cooking. I've been putting off the Gourmet menu, not because it doesn't look good—it's full of interesting, old-fashioned flavors—but because it's the most demanding. First, the dinner has enough recipes to be split into two meals, and the Creole theme means several roux-based sauces that demand attentive stirring as they get started. On top of that, the dessert is a cake, with lots of fiddly components: cake, filling, frosting, and topping.
My solution? I simplify and improvise. I refuse to run out and buy the proper round cutter for my canapé croutons, so I use the mouth of a baby bottle. I want to make the oysters Rockefeller, but realize that my husband and I would be the only oyster fans at the table, and frankly this Christmas chef is too tired to shuck oysters. Instead I make the creamed "spinach," for which I enlist all the greens in my fridge: mâche, arugula, and watercress intended for the oysters. The creamy greens are undeniably good—they serve as a counterpoint to the lush espagnole sauce with its undertones of celery and sherry. Despite my prejudices, it's hard to go wrong with beef tenderloin, and no one minds having it a second time.
But it is the damn time-suck of a cake that makes the meal: rich butter layers split and filled with citrus custard, then coated with the fluff and crunch of the seven-minute frosting embedded with toasted coconut. Not only is the cake the standout of all five desserts, it is, at least gauging by the happy commotion of my guests, the single best dish of all. It is a pain in the neck, but for attention-seeking cooks like me, it is well worth the work.
Who should make this meal: the hardcore arriviste who's got at least two leaves in her dinner table and needs to impress more than delight her guests. Who should make the ambrosia cake: everyone.
Have all these meals managed to suck the holiday spirit out of me? I plan to eat out on Christmas Eve, but even after so many days of cooking other people's menus, I still look forward to the improvisation that will come from the leftover ingredients in my refrigerator. I'm envisioning a pasta dressed with mushroom espagnole sauce and sliced duck, or a sandwich of sliced ham and Spanish olive cream cheese on pumpernickel. As they say, après le déluge, the leftovers.