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Countdown to Christmas

Martha Stewart Living, December 2011

It's almost a time-honored holiday tradition, right up there with untangling the tree lights and running out of gift wrap: You cook the holiday feast at a frenetic pace, only to realize there are five dishes requiring last-minute stove prep -- and four burners. Or you discover that the bread pudding needs to bake at 325 degrees -- while the roast is monopolizing the oven at 400. This is why Christmas dinner requires more than just a few good recipes; it needs a road map. This strategized menu coordinates all the details. There might even be time left over for a gift-wrap run.

The Menu

Leek-And-Parsnip Soup With Black-Pepper Cream And Caviar
Beet, Fennel, And Carrot Salad
Slow-Roasted Pork With Kumquats
Herb-And-Scallion Bread Pudding
Smoky Brussels Sprouts Gratin
Pastry Wreath with Orange-Rum Cream

Starter

The make-ahead soup is an uncomplicated vegetable puree. A dressed-up touch of American whitefish caviar, the salty counterpoint to sweet parsnips in the mix, makes the soup plenty festive.

Main Course

The roast's flavors and spices are right out of an old English Christmas: clove, ginger, brown sugar, and citrus. The meat turns tender in the oven, and the scored skin of the pork gets terrifically crisp and becomes crackling.

Sides

The Brussels sprouts get their haunting, dusky notes from smoked Gouda and a touch of smoked sea salt. Savory bread pudding is a novel substitute for a classic stuffing. The colorful vegetable salad is a bright counterpoint to the dinner's richer flavors.

Dessert

This pastry is based on a classic French baked good called Paris-Brest, formed in the shape of a wheel in honor of a bicycle race. Here, the round is reinvented as a holiday wreath and decorated with candied orange peel and mint. Rum-spiked pastry cream and fresh whipped cream make up the filling. Try an amber, nutty sherry, such as oloroso or amontillado, as the after-dinner drink.

Dinner For Eight

Six dishes, step by step, start to finish.

The Soup: Leek And Parsnip

Three basic vegetables -- leeks, parsnips, and potatoes -- are cooked in stock before being pureed in a blender and refrigerated (or frozen). All the soup needs the day of the dinner is a quick reheating (with some milk stirred in) and a garnish of caviar and creme fraiche.

The Salad: Beet, Fennel, And Carrot

Crisp, hardy vegetables won't turn into a soggy salad. Beets, fennel, and carrots can be cut the day before and stored in a glass dish with a damp cloth on top to keep them moist. The make-ahead vinaigrette can be whisked and tossed with the vegetables just before dinner.

The Side Dish: Bread Pudding

This side can be fully prepped one day ahead or completed from scratch while the pork is roasting (both dishes cook at 325 degrees). In either case, let the bread dry overnight before you assemble the pudding: Doing so will allow the bread to soak up the liquids evenly and yield the best texture.

The Main Course: Roast Pork Shoulder

This forgiving picnic-shoulder cut doesn't have to be cooked perfectly to taste good. Deeply scoring the skin allows the meat to soak up the spice rub overnight, and the slow roast in the oven is low maintenance. The cooked roast needs to rest for 45 minutes, creating a window to finish the soup and side dishes.

The Vegetable: Brussels Sprouts Gratin

This vegetable side dish can also be fully assembled the day before and chilled right in the baking dish. To further spread out the cooking tasks, the bechamel and the Brussels sprouts can be cooked in advance and refrigerated separately. The dish heats up in 25 minutes and can cook while the pork rests.

The Dessert: Pastry Wreath

Dots of batter at the corners of the cookie sheet keep the parchment in place. The traced circle will guide your hand as you pipe the dough. Another trick: precutting the top layer into eight equal portions. After the fillings are added, the top pieces can be set in place, and you won't need to squish the dessert to cut it into servings.

The Meal Plan

This menu spaces out preparation of the recipes, organizes cooking times and oven temperatures, and makes the most of refrigerator and freezer storage. (See the timeline to get a sense of how to divvy up the work.) The cooking can be started as early as a month in advance, with most of the action taking place in the week and days leading up to the holiday. There's a final round of cooking on the 25th, but the culinary heavy lifting will be behind you. Procrastinators (or the overly ambitious) can join in at any time: This schedule provides make-ahead options, but all the dishes can be entirely prepared the day of the feast.

Dec. 18

Make the soup, and refrigerate (this can also be made 3 months in advance and frozen).

Dec. 21

Bake the pastry wreath, and freeze (this can be done up to 1 month in advance).

Dec. 22

Make the black-pepper cream (for the soup).

Make the orange-rum pastry cream.

Dec. 23

Make the bechamel (for the Brussels sprouts).

Make the bread cubes (for the bread pudding).

Dec. 24

Blanch Brussels sprouts. Pour the bechamel on top, and sprinkle with cheese.

Score and rub the pork.

Prepare the bread pudding.

Slice and grate the vegetables for the salad.

Dec. 25

Morning

Bring the pork to room temperature.

5 Hours Ahead

Roast the pork at 325 degrees.

Make vinaigrette.

2 1/2 Hours Ahead

Bring the side dishes to room temperature. Thaw the pastry wreath.

1 Hour Ahead

Make the whipped cream. Bake the bread pudding as the pork roasts. Raise oven temperature to 425 degrees. Remove the bread pudding, and finish roasting the pork.

While the Pork Rests

Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Bake the Brussels sprouts gratin. Return the bread pudding to the oven for 10 minutes to crisp top.

20 Minutes Ahead

Reheat the soup, and garnish. Toss the salad with the vinaigrette.

15 Minutes Ahead

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Crisp the thawed pastry wreath. Let cool.

Just Before Dessert

Assemble the pastry wreath.

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