Feasting From Now to New Year's

Published November, 2008

Helen Puckett DeFrance shares how-tos from her book and her children’s cooking program that make the holidays yummy and bright

Sharing the passion for cooking that she learned in her grandmother's, Helen Todd’s, Southern kitchen with children throughout the nation is Helen DeFrance’s mission. The author of At Home Café, Great Food and Fun for Everyone (Rodale, 2008) and the newly released At Home Café, Gatherings for Family and Friends (Rodale, 2008), DeFrance runs a cooking program called THYME to Cook! in schools throughout the nation. Her classes, both in public schools, private cooking schools, and at Blackberry Farm resort, in Walland, Tenn., include children from ages 3 to 18.

Although DeFrance, of Jackson, Miss., is too young to be a grandmother, she understands that grandparents need tips now and then when it comes to having their kids help them with their holiday menu.

The best way to get and keep the little ones involved, she says, is to include grandchildren in every step of the preparations, from taking them to the supermarket to helping choose dishes to serve to kneading the dough for holiday rolls. The activities empower them by allowing them to make choices.

From now until New Year’s, we’ll be providing a weekly tip, courtesy of Helen DeFrance, to help you make the kitchen a place for holiday activities and festivities with your grandchildren.

Week 1, for Thanksgiving: Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Apples

Helen DeFrance's Brussels sprouts with apples have the flavor of autumn

"Pulling yellow or damaged leaves off Brussels sprouts is a task for little hands that can be a big help and time-saver," advises Helen DeFrance in her new book At Home Café, Gatherings for Family and Friends (Rodale, 2008). If your Brussels sprouts are large, cut them in half, a perfect activity for slightly older grandchildren.

"As the leaves change," says DeFrance "so do our taste buds. We long for heavier, heartier dishes with the flavors of autumn fruits and vegetables." Come autumn, farmers’ markets and supermarkets feature an abundance of Brussels sprouts, DeFrance’s favorite fall and winter vegetable.

If the children help prepare the Thanksgiving grocery list, they will be good shopping partners, suggests DeFrance. In the process, they will learn ingredients and their uses. Remember, too, all this time together can be considered playtime for both the grandparents and their grandkids.

1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons good-quality olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper
3 apples peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch cubes

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Cut off the ends of the Brussels sprouts and discard any yellow outer leaves.
3. Mix sprouts in a large bowl with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
4. Turn sprouts out onto a baking sheet. Roast, shaking the pan from time to time to brown the sprouts evenly, for 25 minutes, or until sprouts are crisp outside and tender inside.
5. Toss apples with remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
6. Add apples to Brussels sprouts. Roast for 10 minutes longer, or until apples are softened.

Yield: Makes 8 servings.

Week 2, November 30: Helen DeFrance's Savory Cheesecake

A zesty new take on a no-bake cheesecake appetizer

Helen DeFrance writes in her new book, At Home Café, Gatherings for Family and Friends (Rodale, 2008), “Cooking with pecans always brings back loving memories of fall days spent with my grandfather. A giant pecan tree in my grandparents’ backyard provided a sturdy limb for an old tire swing and an endless supply of tasty pecans. My grandfather carried a big basket for us to fill with pecans that had dropped to the ground. He and I would spend the afternoon on the back porch shelling the pecans that my grandmother made into a pie as our reward. She would carefully bag and freeze the leftover nuts to use in the months ahead. Like my grandmother, I always keep pecans in the freezer for recipes like this.”

Although this is a simple recipe, it is a somewhat sophisticated appetizer, says DeFrance. The preparation is extremely fun and easy, and if kids help prepare it, they will eat it. "After all, what kid doesn’t love bacon and cheese," says DeFrance. The savory cheesecake is a play on a sweet dessert and DeFrance believes that tweaking convention is a great learning experience for kids, since it allows them to experiment with new ideas. Although this is a "cheesecake," it is salty. Allowing kids to taste the sweetness of the raspberry jam and saltiness of the bacon and cheese in one bite will expand their palate.

DeFrance advises grandparents to buy pecans in their shells and let their grandkids shell the nuts, like she did when she was a child in her grandparents’ kitchen. Kids of all ages can crumble the bacon, although grandparents should make sure it has cooled enough for little hands to handle. You can also make an extra piece or two to snack on while you cook.

1 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 pound Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 bunch green onions, chopped
3/4 cup mayonnaise
11/4 cups finely chopped pecans
1 (10-ounce) jar seedless raspberry preserves
Unsalted wafers or crackers for serving
Cooking Spray

1. In a large bowl, combine bacon, cheese, green onions, mayonnaise, and 1 cup of the pecans.
2. Coat a 7-inch springform pan with cooking spray, then lightly wipe the pan with a paper towel. Spread mixture in the pan. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
3. Top the cheesecake with raspberry preserves followed by the remaining 1/4 cup pecans. Serve with wafers.

Yield: Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Week 3, December 7: Grandmother's Dinner Rolls

Helen DeFrance's rich rolls are the pillowy perfect accompaniment to a holiday meal or any meal

"No dinner party is complete in my home without the soft, buttery, fragrant dinner rolls made by my grandmother, Helen Todd," says Helen DeFrance in her book At Home Cafe, Gatherings for Family and Friends (Rodale, 2008). "As her namesake, I knew it was up to me to carry on her roll-making tradition. For years I was deluded into thinking that [baking] something this heavenly just had to be hard, but I was so wrong. Making these rolls is incredibly easy, and the rewards are more than worth the effort."

Grandparents can let their young grandchildren do simple, fun tasks, like sifting the flour and rolling out the dough. It is okay, and even advisable, to let your grandkids get messy, as long as they help clean up at the end! Allowing them to use their hands and make a mess will help [them] let their guard down (and yours!) and open the door to a special bonding experience.

The secret to these rolls is refrigerating the covered dough overnight, says DeFrance, a secret she learned from her grandmother. You can prebake the rolls for 4 to 6 minutes at 400 degrees F and freeze (do not let them brown). Thaw, then bake in a 400 degree F oven for 6 to 8 minutes, or until browned.

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
2 cups milk
1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105 degrees to 115 degrees)
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Honey or butter

1. In a small saucepan, melt sugar and shortening in milk over low heat. Let cool. In cup, dissolve yeast in warm water.
2. When milk mixture is cool, transfer to a large bowl and add yeast mixture and 2 cups of the flour. Beat with a stationary mixer, a hand mixer, or wooden spoon to remove lumps.
3. Cover with a clean dish towel and let rise in a warm place until double in size, about 45 minutes.
4. In a large bowl, sift together 11/2 cups of the remaining flour, the baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Stir flour mixture into dough. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease 2 large baking sheets. On floured board or countertop, work enough of the remaining 1/2 cup flour into sticky dough until it is the right consistency for rolling out.
6. With a floured rolling pin, roll out dough to a 1/2 inch thickness. Cut out rounds with a 2-inch biscuit cutter. Fold rounds in half and place on the prepared sheets. Cover and let rise for 20 minutes.
7. Bake rolls for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve warm with honey or butter.

Yield: Makes 3 to 4 dozen rolls.

Week 4, December 14:  Helen De France's Deviled Eggs

Stuffed eggs are a nontraditional tasty treat at a casual Chanukah celebration

When Helen DeFrance's assistants asked her what was on the menu in her kindergarten cooking class and she answered "deviled eggs," her colleagues all agreed the students would not like them. They watched skeptically as the children collected the eggs, ever so carefully peeled and sliced them, scooped out the yolks and mashed in all the ingredients, Worcestershire sauce, and all. When it was time to eat all they had prepared, the deviled eggs were gobbled first, and the next week the children asked for them again — proving that when kids are directly involved in the preparation, any food is fair game to become a favorite.

These eggs are perfect appetizers for holiday parties or lunches for a crowd. Although not a traditional Chanukah recipe by any stretch, they are a festive and unusual addition to the traditional latke spread.

2 dozen large eggs (preferably several days old)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (homemade is best)
2 or 3 dashes chili pepper sauce (DeFrance prefers Tabasco)
Dash Worcestershire sauce
6 to 8 drops fresh lemon juice
Salt and black pepper to taste
Paprika to taste

Basic Eggs:
1 1/2 teaspoons Durkee Famous Sauce or Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish, drained
Chopped fresh chives for garnish

Pesto Eggs:
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons prepared basil pesto
Chiffonade of fresh basil, for garnish

Sun-Dried Tomato Eggs:
2 teaspoons sun-dried tomato pesto
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, blotted dry and patted dry, finely chopped
Additional sun-dried tomatoes, blotted and cut into strips for garnish

1. Cover eggs with cold water in a large pot and bring to a rapid boil. Cover and cook for 15 minutes.
2. Run cold water over eggs to cool. Peel and cut each egg in half lengthwise. Place egg yolks in bowl and mash. Add Chile Pepper Sauce, Worcestershire, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to yolks and mash to desired consistency. Divide mixture among 3 bowls.
3. To make basic eggs: Mix Durkee sauce, or Dijon mustard, and sweet pickle relish into one bowl of yolk mixture. Fill 16 egg white halves with the mixture. Garnish with chopped chives.
4. To make pesto eggs: Mix all but 2 tablespoons pine nut and the pesto into second bowl of yolk mixture. Fill 16 egg white halves with mixture. Garnish with remaining 2 tablespoons pine nuts and basil.
5. To make sun-dried tomato eggs: Mix tomato pesto and chopped sun-dried tomatoes into remaining bowl of yolk mixture. Fill 16 halved eggs whites with the mixture. Garnish with strips of sun-dried tomatoes.

Yield: Makes 8 servings.

Week 5, December 31:  Helen DeFrance's Sugar Cookies

Helen DeFrance shares recipes for Very Merry Sugar Cookies With Our Favorite Buttercream Frosting, Ooey-Gooey Fudge, and Holiday Holly

Making Ooey-Gooey Fudge is an annual tradition for Helen DeFrance and her son, Martin. "A plate of this delicious fudge is a popular gift for friends, neighbors, and teachers," says DeFrance, a  cookbook author and kids-cooking guru. "Little hands are wonderful for greasing the baking dish, counting the marshmallows, and chopping pecans.

"Another favorite gift from our kitchen is the sugar cookie dough, wrapped in red or green cellophane and tied with holiday ribbon. Present it along with the icing recipe and a cookie cutter. I get a jump on the busy holiday season by starting to make my Christmas cookie dough right after Thanksgiving, as it freezes beautifully."

After making and rolling out the dough, DeFrance suggests leaving the cutting of the cookies to the kids. "While the kids have the cookie cutters out, let them make Ho Ho Sandwiches," she suggests in her new book At Home Cafe, Gatherings for Family and Friends (Rodale, 2008). “Have them cut out shapes from [the] sandwich bread of your choice with the holiday cookie cutters. Fill with fillings the kids and adults like and place the sandwiches on a platter for everyone to enjoy. They can save the crusts from the bread to feed the birds.

"When it was time to decorate the cookies when I was young, my mother would put the icing in a bowl and then put out small bowls of various sprinkles. She would leave the kitchen and let us use our imaginations and create the cookies of our dreams," DeFrance recalls.

DeFrance's Holiday Holly are vibrant green, and a favorite with the little ones. "Make sure to let an adult melt the marshmallows and the butter," she says. "If in a hurry, it can be done in the microwave. When stirring the cornflakes, which your grandkids can do, fold in gently."

Very Merry Sugar Cookie:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Colored or white sugar for sprinkling, optional

Buttercream Frosting:
1 (16-ounce) box confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Food coloring of your choice, optional

1. For the cookies: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Cream butter and sugar together in a large bowl. Stir in eggs and vanilla and beat until fluffy. Stir in flour and baking powder until well combined.
2. Place dough on a large piece of floured parchment paper and coat with flour. Enclose dough tightly in parchment and refrigerate until dough is quite firm, about 1 hour.
3. On a lightly floured board, roll out about one-fourth of the dough at a time to about 1/8-inch thick. Do not overwork dough or it will stick to the board. Keep board lightly floured to roll the remaining dough.
4. Cut out cookies with holiday cookie cutters. Transfer shapes to prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle with colored or white sugar, if you like.
5. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until cookies are lightly browned. Let cool slightly on the baking sheets, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough.
6. For the frosting: In a large bowl, beat together sugar, butter, milk, and vanilla until smooth.
7. If necessary, add more milk until frosting is of spreading consistency. If desired, add a few drops of food coloring and stir to blend. Use to frost cookies.

Yield: Makes about 6 1/2 dozen cookies and 2 cups frosting.

Ooey-Gooey Fudge:
41/2 cups sugar
1 13-ounce can evaporated milk
1 cup unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 12-ounce packages semisweet chocolate chips
1 7-ounce jar marshmallow creme
4 cups chopped pecans

1. Grease a 9-inch  by 13-inch glass baking dish. In a large saucepan, combine sugar, evaporated milk, butter, and salt. Mix well. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to medium. Continue to cook at a low boil for 9 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from the heat.
2. Immediately add chocolate chips and stir until melted. Add marshmallow creme and pecans. Mix well. Pour mixture into the prepared baking dish. Let stand until fudge is set, at least 1 hour.

Yield: Makes 4 dozen small pieces.

Holiday Holly:
DeFrance suggests not making Holiday Holly on a rainy day or they will become sticky; and do not put them in a tin box or in any closed container or they will become gummy.

30 large marshmallows
1/2 cup unsalted butter
11/2 teaspoons green food coloring
3 cups cornflakes
Red Hots candies

Melt marshmallows and butter in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Stir in food coloring. Remove from the heat. Add cornflakes and stir just to cover the cornflakes. Be careful not to crush flakes. Drop by teaspoons and tablespoons (to vary sizes) onto wax paper. Decorate with candies before the holly sets.

Yield: Makes 2 dozen treats.

Week 6, for New Year’s Eve:  Helen DeFrance's Sweet and Sour Meatballs

Helen DeFrance’s meatballs are simmered in a sweet and sour sauce that makes them pleasing to holiday celebrants of all ages. Simple to prepare, they are also a perfect quick fix for a hectic holiday meal.

Let your grandchildren assist with the preparation, says DeFrance. Allowing the young ones to roll the meatballs, which should be the size of golf balls, and cleaning up afterward will teach them the dos and don’ts of handling raw meat. "When handling raw meat, wash hands immediately," she says. "The kids that I teach sing 'Happy Birthday' to themselves and 'Happy Birthday' to a friend while washing their hands. By the time they are finished singing, they know their hands are clean."

DeFrance suggests baking the meatballs on a wire rack set on top of a pan, instead of directly on the pan, which will allow the grease to drip down, making less of a mess.

Allowing the children to spear the meatballs with toothpicks adds another element of fun to this tasty tidbit that serves as an easy cocktail appetizer for the grownups’ New Year’s Eve bash. Leftovers can be tossed with cooked rice for a delicious second-day meal that teaches children how to reuse and economize.

1 pound ground beef
1 2-ounce envelope Lipton onion soup mix
1 large egg
1/4 cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
1 14-ounce bottle Heinz hot ketchup
1 14-ounce bottle regular ketchup
1 10-ounce jar currant jelly

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine beef, soup mix, egg, and bread crumbs in a large bowl. Shape into 24 small meatballs. Place meatballs on a wire rack set on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until cooked through.
2. Combine hot ketchup, regular ketchup, and jelly in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until jelly is melted. Transfer meatballs and sauce to a chafing dish and serve immediately with toothpicks.

Yield: Makes 24 meatballs.