December is in full swing, and soon we’ll be toasting to 2021, a year that really just has to be better than this one. But along with December comes a slew of massive expectations: picking the perfect gifts for the people you love, sending out your annual holiday card, decorating the house in top-to-bottom holiday cheer, and planning out your holiday cooking and baking. So in the spirit of let’s-just-get-through-this 2020, I invite you to spend time on the traditions you love and (seriously) scrap the rest for a no-stress holiday.
I mean, do you even have a family photo for the holiday card where you aren’t wearing surgical masks? Make this the year you decide to make things easy on yourself. I can’t help you with streamlining your decorating or gift-buying, but should you be stressing about what to serve your people this month, I have thoughts.
I’ll tell you a secret: my favorite recipes are the elegant, amazingly-delicious ones that actually take a whole lot less time than you’d think.
Foolproof easy recipes for a holiday menu
You can have a simply fantastic meal without cooking for days and days on end. So, here are some ideas for a holiday menu that won’t take forever to make but will still feel special. Feel free to pick and choose, and pair a couple of homemade recipes with some store-bought courses too for a memorable no-stress feast.
Let’s start with appetizers!
Les entrées can be the easiest part of the menu, especially since you can just serve a bowl of nuts or a charcuterie platter. But consider adding one of the following options that are both easy to make, and beautiful on your table.
Also, if you have a small group this year, there’s no reason you can’t put together a fabulous appetizer spread and then go straight to dessert!
Smoked Salmon Cucumber Canapés
I love pretty much anything with smoked salmon, but these pretty and delicious canapés make a lovely start to a meal. And they are easy! Just whisk together a dressing of crème fraîche, dijon mustard, lemon juice, and dill, then stir in chopped smoked salmon. Serve on cucumber slices for a light and elegant first course.
1 English cucumber
130g smoked salmon or smoked salmon lardons
1 T. crème fraîche
1 t. lemon juice
1 t. dijon mustard
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
2 t. chopped fresh dill
- Slice cucumber into thin rounds. You will probably only need 1/2 the cucumber, depending on how thick you decide to make your slices.
- Place smoked salmon slices on top of each other and slice thinly, then rotate the cutting board and slice again so that you have small squares. If you have smoked salmon lardons, then just chop into small cubes.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together crème fraîche, lemon juice, dijon mustard, pepper, and 1 teaspoon of the dill. Gently fold in salmon.
- Spoon salmon on top of cucumber rounds, then sprinkle with additional teaspoon of dill and serve.
Proscuitto-Gruyère Puff Pastry Pinwheels
These pinwheels take a bit more effort than the canapés, but if you can roll out dough, you can make these. And there are only 5 ingredients! Just layer prosciutto and shredded gruyère cheese on puff pastry, sprinkle on some chopped sage, roll up, slice, and bake. Even better – you can prep these well in advance, freeze them, then defrost, slice, and bake when you’re ready.
70g gruyère cheese
250g puff pastry (pâte feuilletée pur beurre)
80g thinly-sliced prosciutto
2 t. chopped fresh sage
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Grate gruyère.
- Roll out puff pastry dough to 32 x 24cm, with the wider side horizontal. Then cut in half in the middle of the long side to make two tall rectangles, each 16 x 24cm.
- Cover each piece of puff pastry with a layer of prosciutto, leaving a 2-cm border on one of each of the long sides.
- Sprinkle gruyere evenly over the prosciutto, then sprinkle with chopped fresh sage. Whisk the egg with a fork in a small bowl. Use a pastry brush to paint the egg wash on the border of the puff pastry sheet that you left clear.
- Then, starting from the other end, roll up lengthwise as tightly and gently as possible. Press gently along the edge with the egg wash to seal. Place on a cutting board or plate and put in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Remove from freezer when firm, and slice into 1-cm slices. Arrange onto sheet pans leaving space around each pinwheel. Bake for 15 minutes.
Note: Many times, French grocery stores sell pâte feuilletée that has already been rolled out in a circle. This is very helpful for many recipes, but not this one! You need pâte feuilletée that is in rectangular sheets already or in a block. Picard sells a very good one in a block – I recommend that for this recipe.
Stellar side dishes
Let’s move on to side dishes. I’m featuring two of my favorites here, both of which brighten up a holiday table. You could easily make these and buy a rotisserie chicken or roasted turkey breast for the main course – or do what I did for Thanksgiving this year and serve these with store-bought duck confit! Fantastic, and so easy.
Green Beans Almondine with Pomegranate Seeds
This green bean dish is a holiday staple in my family, so much so that I don’t need a recipe to make it anymore. And in fact, after you make this once or twice, you won’t need one either. Just toss cooked green beans with almonds toasted in butter and garnish with pomegranate seeds. Festive and delicious!
450g green beans
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1.5 T. unsalted butter
1/2 c. (40g) sliced or slivered almonds
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 c. pomegranate seeds
- Trim the stems off the green beans, leaving the tails intact.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. When water comes to a boil, add the green beans and boil for 5-6 minutes, until they are bright green and just barely crisp-tender. (Note: if you have very thin haricots verts, they will only need 1-2 minutes in the boiling water.)
- Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process. Make sure the green beans are well-drained (pat dry if they are not), and transfer to a large bowl. Toss with olive oil, kosher salt, and pepper.
- Meanwhile, melt butter in a small skillet and add the almonds and garlic. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until almonds are toasted golden brown.
- Add to bowl with green beans and toss. Garnish with pomegranate seeds to serve.
Sweet Potato Au Gratin with Blue Cheese
This version of a holiday sweet potato dish pairs the sweet potatoes with salty, creamy blue cheese, creating a savory-sweet flavor I can’t get enough of. This dish is stunning and very easy to put together.
750g sweet potatoes
175g Fourme d’Ambert or other creamy blue cheese
2 T. heavy cream
2 T. olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (60g) pistachios
- Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius.
- Wash sweet potatoes, then poke several times with a fork on all sides.
- Place on a microwave-safe plate and microwave for 5-8 minutes until potatoes are just starting to soften, turning once halfway through. They should not be completely tender at this point. (Your microwave cook time will depend on how big your sweet potatoes are.)
- When potatoes are cool enough, start removing peel with vegetable peeler or paring knife, then use your fingers to peel the rest off. The skin should come off relatively easily.
- Cut potatoes in half lengthwise, then into 1cm slices.
- While potatoes are being microwaved, crumble blue cheese into small chunks.
- Shell pistachios and chop roughly.
- To assemble, fill the bottom of a medium-sized baking dish or gratin dish with a layer of sweet potatoes, then sprinkle with blue cheese.
- Repeat with the remaining sweet potato and blue cheese.
- Next, drizzle baking dish with heavy cream and olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until cheese is melty and beginning to brown, and sweet potatoes can be pierced easily with the tip of a knife.
- Serve warm, garnished with chopped pistachios.
La pièce de resistance
Moving on to the main course. I love to do a roast beef tenderloin for Christmas Eve dinner, but with just a small family celebration this year, pan-seared individual steaks are the way to go. Perfect if you’re cooking for 2 or 4 people.
Pan-Seared Filet de Boeuf with Red Wine Sauce
This recipe will have you thinking you’re in a fabulous restaurant and not the comfort of your own home. But believe it or not, it’s very easy to make, even with a rich red wine sauce. Perfect for a special meal.
4 filet de boeuf steaks or médallions de boeuf, about 5cm thick/225g each
2 large shallots, about 85g
5 T. (71g) butter
1 c. (236 ml) red wine
1 t. dijon mustard
2 thyme sprigs, plus chopped thyme for garnish
1 garlic clove, crushed
Freshly ground black pepper
- Sprinkle steaks on both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Peel and finely chop shallots.
- Cut 2 tablespoons of butter into small dice, and refrigerate (for sauce).
- Heat large heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high, and add 1 tablespoon butter.
- When butter melts, add steaks. Cook 4-6 min on each side for medium-rare (54-57 degrees Celsius on a meat thermometer).
- If your steaks are very thick and are not cooked to medium-rare after 6 minutes on each side, you can place them on a baking sheet and bake them in a 200-degree Celsius oven until done.
- Remove steaks onto plates and cover with foil. Turn down heat to medium.
- Add another 2 tablespoons of butter, stir until melted, then add chopped shallots.
- Cook until softened and lightly browned, stirring often, about 2-3 minutes. Then add red wine, dijon mustard, thyme sprigs, and crushed garlic clove. Pour any juices under the steaks on their plates into the wine sauce. Turn up heat to medium-high and simmer until thickened, 3 min. Remove thyme sprigs and garlic clove.
- Turn down heat to medium and whisk in the cold butter, a couple of cubes at a time, until you have a smooth sauce. Season sauce with salt and pepper.
- Serve steaks with sauce on top, garnished with fresh thyme.
Note: In the United States, we would call these filet mignon steaks. However, in France the term generally refers to a pork or veal tenderloin. So don’t go to your boucherie and order filet mignon for this recipe!
Sweet endings to a delicious meal
Finally, it’s time for dessert. France may be the best place on earth if you want to buy a dessert rather than making one. You can order a gorgeous bûche de Noël from a bakery, or any of the usual pastries and tarts on offer. But should you want to make something yourself, I propose the following, which has the added advantage of making your house smell like cinnamon!
Apple Almond Cake
This Apple Almond Cake is dreamy and moist, and studded with apples. Topped with a cinnamon-almond crumble, it’s the perfect cake for almost any occasion but makes a fantastic seasonal dessert around the holidays. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream for extra decadence!
3/4 c. (70g) slivered or sliced almonds
1 T. (14.2g) butter
1 1/2 T. sugar
1/2 t. cinnamon
5 1/2 T. (75g) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan
1 large tart apple, such as Granny Smith
1 c. (130g) all-purpose flour
1/2 c. (45g) almond flour
3/4 c. (150g) sugar
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. kosher salt
1 t. baking powder
2 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius.
- Use a small amount of butter to grease the bottom of a 20-cm springform pan, then dust with flour.
- Prepare the topping by combining sliced almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon in a mini-food processor and pulsing until the almonds are chopped into very small pieces (about 6-8 pulses). Set aside.
- Now start the cake. Melt the butter in a microwave-safe container, such as a glass measuring cup, then set aside to cool slightly.
- Peel apple and chop into roughly 1-cm dice.
- Combine the dry ingredients for the cake in a large bowl (flour, almond flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder).
- In a smaller bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla extract. Then pour the slightly-cooled butter slowly into the smaller bowl as you whisk.
- Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients until just combined, then stir in chopped apples. The batter will be very thick, almost like cookie batter.
- Scrape into the springform pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle the almond crumb topping over the top.
- Bake 35-40 min, until a cake tester or toothpick comes out almost clean and the top is nicely browned. Let cool on a rack. Cut gently around the edges of the springform pan before unmolding, then slice and serve!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these recipes, and I hope you’ll try a few over this holiday season. If you do, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section – or take a photo and tag me on my @vanillabeancuisine Instagram feed! Wishing you all low-stress holidays filled with delicious food.