By Donna Cornelius
You usually can count on several things spread out on the table for Christmas dinner: turkey, sweet potato casserole, hot rolls, and maybe Uncle Charlie if he’s indulged in a tad too much spiked eggnog.
Menus for the night before Christmas, however, can be more creative and thus more fun – even when there’s a snag in your dinner plans.
“We do a big splurge for Christmas Eve,” said Leslie Register of Mountain Brook. “We order stone crabs from Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami and sometimes their Key lime pie. My husband, Jon, will do his homemade onion rings. We might have creamed spinach, and sometimes we’ve done bacon-wrapped filets to have surf and turf.”
One year, the Registers had to go surf-less because their crabs were no-shows.
“We were looking out the window until 2 p.m. that Christmas Eve,” Register said. “It turned out that our order was in a FedEx bin in Memphis. We ran to Western and picked up steaks and baked some potatoes.”
While absentee meal components might throw some folks into a tizzy, Register has plenty of tricks up her sleeve when it comes to hosting festive occasions. She’s the author of “Leslie’s Party Diaries,” a book that not only includes recipes, but plenty of party tips.
While you can still get her book – she has about 200 copies left – she also shares her cooking and entertaining know-how through her new blog, Dear Party Diary. She said that while many writers launch a blog first and then write a book, she reversed the order.
“I needed a project after I’d finished the book,” she said. “A friend’s daughter who’s a student at Washington and Lee University sent me a ‘blogs for dummies’ checklist and helped me set it up.
“I’m doing all the photos for it.”
Register said blogging is less stressful than putting a book together.
“The blog is not as permanent; with the book, I worried about getting everything right because I couldn’t go back and change it,” she said. “And the blog is free.”
You can find the blog at dearpartydiary.com. Her book website is lesliespartydiaries.com.
“During the holidays, I’ll have recipes on the blog for ‘baby bites’ – small appetizers – and recipes and packaging ideas for food gifts. I’m planning to do something on centerpieces and a cocktail series.”
Register shared two recipes from her book that she often whips up for her Christmas Eve feast.
“Creamed spinach is nice because it can be made the morning of and baked when needed,” she said. “And for dessert, we either get Joe’s Key lime pie or make Mississippi Muds.”
Creamed Spinach (Serves 6 to 8)
Ingredients for the casserole:
1 10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
½ cup diced yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 6.5-ounce container of buttery garlic-and-herb spreadable cheese
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon lemon zest, minced
Salt, ground white pepper, ground red pepper and ground nutmeg to taste
Ingredients for the topping:
2 to 3 slices of sandwich bread, torn into pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cubed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
To make the casserole: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish or spray it with vegetable cooking spray. Set aside.
Drain spinach; press between paper towels to remove all moisture. Set aside.
Melt butter in a large skillet over low heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté over medium heat about 5 minutes or until onion is tender. Whisk in flour until blended. Cook 1 minute, whisking constantly. Gradually whisk in the milk and cream; cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture is thickened and bubbly. Whisk in the garlic-and-herb spreadable cheese until blended. Remove from heat.
Stir in the spinach, Parmesan cheese, lemon zest and seasonings. Spoon spinach mixture into baking dish. Spoon the breadcrumb topping over the spinach.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the crumbs are golden brown and the spinach mixture is bubbly.
To make the topping: Process all ingredients in a food processor. Set aside until ready to use.
Cook’s notes: Register said this dish can be made ahead, covered and stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake it. Remove it from the fridge 30 minutes before baking. She also said not to be fooled by the amount of spinach because the dish is very rich and will feed more folks than you think. She likes to use Boursin buttery garlic-and-herb spreadable cheese.
Mississippi Muds (Serves 6)
½ gallon vanilla ice cream
¼ cup milk
1 cup coffee-flavored liqueur
Process all 3 ingredients in a blender on high speed until smooth. Serve immediately.
Cook’s note: Register likes to use Kahlua coffee-flavored liqueur.
Rosalie Molay: An Italian Christmas Eve
Rosalie Molay, who lives in Brook Highland, draws on her family’s roots to cook up a Dec. 24 dinner. Both she and her husband, Joey, have an Italian heritage.
“On Christmas Eve, our family enjoys a Sicilian Christmas,” she said. “We serve lasagna, Graffeo Brothers Italian sausage cooked with potatoes accompanied with sautéed bell peppers, onions, Italian-style green beans and rolls.”
She said the Molays and the Lorinos, her family, “have been serving this meal for as long as I can remember.”
“Over the past few years, we have started adding fun appetizers to the menu, such as an antipasto platter, buffalo chicken dip, baked brie with red pepper jelly, and everyone’s favorite, French onion dip and chips, bringing a little American cuisine to the evening,” Molay said.
The Molays have two daughters, both graduates of John Carroll Catholic High School and the University of Alabama. Mary Catherine is a communications graduate assistant in the Mississippi State University Athletics Department. Marena, who’s engaged to Taylor Messina, is a certified public accountant in Birmingham.
“The Molay side of our family, Marena’s future in-laws, a few friends, and my daddy, Mike Lorino, come over for the Christmas Eve festivities,” Molay said. “Of course, we always begin Christmas Eve by attending Mass, because Jesus is definitely the reason for the season.”
She shared her recipe for a favorite family holiday dish using Graffeo Brothers Italian sausages.
“My sister-in-law Mary Ann Graffeo’s family has been making that sausage for years,” she said. “It’s now sold in local stores like Piggly Wiggly and Western.”
Christmas Eve Italian Sausage (Serves 20)
5 Graffeo Brothers Italian sausages, cut into 2-inch links
3 Idaho potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
2 to 3 large sweet onions, sliced
3 to 4 green bell peppers, cut into strips
Place all vegetables in a large baking dish and add a small amount of water to cover the bottom of the pan. Place sausages on top of vegetables and cover with foil.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 1 hour or until sausages are cooked through.
Cook’s note: Molay said she usually uncovers the dish when the sausage is done and allows it to brown in the oven for a few minutes.
Sandy Naramore: Chinese Dinner, By Design
In the beloved movie “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie and his family end up having a fun Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant after the neighbor’s dogs swipe their succulent turkey right off the table. Sandy Naramore and her family eat Chinese on Christmas Eve – but it’s always by design.
“We attend afternoon worship at Canterbury United Methodist Church and then have dinner at P.F. Chang,” she said. “My mother treats the entire family to dinner.”
Naramore, who lives in Mountain Brook, was the executive director of Mitchell’s Place for nine years. She now has the same position at Magic Moments, a Birmingham nonprofit organization that make wishes and dreams come true for seriously ill children.
She said her family has two other important holiday traditions.
“On Dec. 22, we attend the live nativity at Mountain Brook Baptist Church after having dinner at Davenport’s Pizza,” she said. “On Christmas Day, I make lasagna for the family.”
Andrea Bailey Powers: ‘Celebrating with Family’
Lasagna also is on the menu for Andrea Bailey Powers and her family.
“My favorite family Christmas tradition started 30 years ago when my cousin, Kim Corretti, began hosting our extended family from Hoover and Vestavia for a post-church Christmas Eve dinner of lasagna and baked ziti at her Vestavia Hills home,” said Powers, an attorney with the Birmingham firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. “While the food is delicious, the joy of celebrating with family is even better. The adults play a game of dirty Santa with lots of side deals and teasing.”
She said even bad weather can’t dampen the group’s Christmas spirit.
“One of our favorite memories is of a Christmas Eve several years ago when there was a thunderstorm and the electricity was out,” Powers said. “We celebrated by candlelight with lots of red wine. The candles were red, and the next morning the dripped wax and spilled wine looked like something out of a horror movie. It was a Wes Craven Christmas!”
Laura Promer: Traditional Tamales
Laura Promer of Vestavia Hills and her family share Christmas cheer – and Mexican food – with friends.
“We always make tamales to share at the Monteguts’ house after Mass,” Promer said. “We met when our children attended preschool at our church, Our Lady of Sorrows, and we’ve been celebrating with them on Christmas Eve ever since, even though our children are in college now.”
She said she started making the tamales in 2008 after reading a recipe for them in Cooking Light magazine.
“They were so popular that I’ve continued making them over the years,” Promer said. “They are the perfect make-ahead dish, and all the kids and adults love them.”
Andrea Griffith: Inspired by Her Heritage
It’s not surprising that Andrea Griffith’s Christmas Eve dinners are always special. She’s the award-winning executive chef at Pursell Farms, a resort near Sylacauga that’s home to the FarmLinks golf course and Orvis shooting grounds.
Griffith, who lives in Greystone, said her Christmas Eve dinners always have been a culinary homage to her family heritage. She is of Irish, Italian and Polish descent, so her family prepared classic dishes from each country or variations of dishes from one country.
For a classic ravioli party, she and her family would make different versions of homemade ravioli, and her grandmother would make cacciatore and Italian waffle cookies called pizzelles. To celebrate their Polish heritage, the group would make homemade golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls) or pierogi (dumplings) stuffed with cabbage.
“The house would smell amazing when we made Grzaniec Galicyjski, which is Galician mulled wine, with herbs, fruits and nuts – yummy,” Griffith said.
There’s also a spirited nod to the family’s Irish side.
“Christmas Eve would not be complete without Irish coffee with the favorite Jameson Irish Whiskey,” she said.