Decadent holiday feast

The holidays are made of rich memories–and matched with rich food. Three writers share stories on both

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  • We love the earthy, sweet flavor of the root vegetable combination in this cheesy gratin, but you could also go with the classic all-potato version.

    potato gratin

    Annabelle Breakey; styling by Robyn Valarik

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A Chrisman feast 

by Joel Stein

I thought, as all people must, that indulgence was something only my people did. We Jews cooked too much food, all of it heart unhealthy, and our grandmothers made us take home whatever they couldn’t force-feed us. We fasted on Yom Kippur merely so we could eat ourselves sick afterward.

But I learned on one of my first trips to L.A. that WASPs can over-indulge too. Since I was a wandering Jew visiting for my week off work, my college friend Kimberly Chrisman invited me to her family’s house for Christmas dinner, and who says no to Christmas with the Chrismans? We said grace, and then I figured I’d eat a reasonable meal with these reasonable people and their reasonable God-fearing customs.

No. A giant roast of beef—a food display unfamiliar to my people—was placed in front of us like a dare. It was crusty and rare and tender and—to my shock—I was offered serving after serving, even after I tried to refuse. These people were not so different from mine.

There were scalloped potatoes that were more cream than potato. I ate several soft, warm rolls with butter, swigged hot apple cider, and made myself too full for dessert. Until I saw it.

They called it a Mint Dazzler. And not only was it ridiculously delicious, but it tasted like America, like a potluck church gathering on top of the Statue of Liberty. The recipe came from Kimberly’s grandmother in Oklahoma, and I imagined she had brought it over by covered wagon.

I’ve convinced my wife to make a Mint Dazzler for Christmas, and I figured it couldn’t be as good as my memory, taken out of the context of that perfect, welcoming Christmas. But it was just as good. You cannot mess up a Mint Dazzler any more than one bad president can ruin this country. Sure, it looks like a graham-cracker crust with a layer of chocolate topped by Cool Whip and crushed candy canes, but it tastes like honest decadence. You show me another country that would dare serve this thing. WASPs might be overcontrolled back East, but once they cross the Mississippi, the big expanse of real America sets in. So that night at the Chrismans’, feasting upon the foods of their people, I felt completely at home. Because I was totally sick. —Joel Stein is a columnist for Time magazine who lives in Los Angeles. He would like you to send him a Mint Dazzler.

Recipe: Root Vegetable Gratin

Start with the best

Beef: Ideally, use beef that is graded USDA Prime; pre-order it from a butcher shop. Choice grade, more widely available, is also fine if it has lots of marbling. Have the butcher cut it to size and slightly trim outside fat. Don’t even think of removing the fat cap or cutting the meat off the bones before roasting (they add flavor and juiciness).

Chocolate: One of the most satisfying foods in the world, and also one of the most complex. High-quality dark chocolate has a cacao percentage of at least 35 percent. Using a high-quality bittersweet chocolate (with a cacao percentage closer to 70) guarantees that the simplest of recipes will produce spectacular desserts.

Cream and cheese: Potatoes are great, but really, in a gratin they’re just a vehicle for cream and cheese. Ultra-pasteurized cream is virtually indestructible by heat, making it the perfect base for long-baked dishes. Don’t “lighten” these recipes with milk, or you’ll end up with a watery mess. For cheese, you want something flavorful that melts well. Good choices include fontina, gruyère, havarti, and Monterey jack.

 

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