One of my very favorite things to do in New York each holiday season is actually something that takes place in my neighborhood. It is the little-known tradition of the Park Avenue Tree Lighting Ceremony where the trees are lit in the medians up and down Park Avenue (really, I ask people about it every year and almost no one has heard of it). Imagine this. A few thousand Upper East Siders, their kids, dogs, neighbors, and friends, all pile into Park Avenue, which is closed for about ten blocks to accommodate the festivities, around 90th to 92nd Street near the Brick Presbyterian Church, the host, to sing Christmas carols and belt out hearty “Fa, la, la, la”s into the cool night air. This year, I decided to invite some friends over for the caroling and illumination ceremony and then to my place for some drinks and appetizers afterwards.
It really is a bit of ordered chaos
It’s always a bit chaotic at the start. Songsheets are handed out with the words to multiple verses for familiar holiday tunes, and the carols are never sung in the order in which they are numbered on the piece of paper. Children are perched on a parent’s shoulders or hanging out in the other trees in the median so that they can get a view of the lights or chasing each other in and around the crowds. Once the pastor signals that it is time to start, however, and the first note is sung, the combined voices fill the air with the joyful spirit of the season and young and old alike join in. Midway through the singing, the trees are lit, starting at the highest point on the street, and domino-like cascading down Park Avenue towards the Metropolitan Life building, always accompanied by an “aahhh” from the audience. “Taps” is then played in memory of the men and women who have given their lives in service to our country, as this ceremony is also about commemorating them.
It doesn’t matter if one can’t carry a tune, the warmth of the group delivers the sound up and down the city streets. Even in the darkest times, or years when I haven’t been feeling particularly Christmas-y, this event has always helped me to get a bit more in the spirit of the season. I remember that after the terrorist attacks in 2001, there was a bit of debate as to whether the ceremony would take place, as there had been a ban put on holding large gatherings in the city. I have no idea what strings were pulled to get the permit for that year, but, like clockwork, the caroling started and the trees were lit in the presence of a very special guest and neighborhood resident, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. I think it was then that I realized we would eventually get back to some kind of normal in our lives.
Walking back home after the trees have been lit
This really is a very special holiday tradition on the Upper East Side, so I wanted to introduce my friends to it. Fortunately, they were all game to trek up to my neighborhood on a Sunday evening, especially when I said I’d be feeding them afterwards. My idea was for the menu to be a little dressed up, with easy-to-prepare bites. Although I could prep all the components of these appetizers in advance, I only pulled two of them together before I went to meet everyone for the caroling. The Beet and Goats Cheese with Horseradish on Lavash Crackers with Microgreens had to be finished after we got back so that the crackers didn’t get soggy. While everyone was filling their glasses, I put these together. I allowed for about 2-3 of each appetizer, both sweet and savory, per person, which turned out to be about the right amount. Hopefully, these recipes will help you to plan your holiday gathering and maybe even to start a caroling tradition of your own.
Smoked Salmon on Ruis Bread with Mustard Crème Fraîche and Dill
Prep Time: 15-20 minutes
Serving Size: 24 pieces
4 Tbsp. Crème Fraîche
4 tsp. grainy Mustard (I used Tin Mustard)
1 pinch ground White Pepper
2 small rounds Ruis Bread from Nordic Breads (or use any thinly-sliced, non-caraway seed dark rye bread)
3-4 oz. thinly-sliced Smoked Salmon
1 Tbsp. fresh Dill sprigs
Mix together crème fraîche, mustard, and pepper. Taste to test the balance of mustard to dairy. There should be a slight tang from the latter with the spiciness of the former and a pop from the mustard seeds.
Cut each of the Ruis Bread rounds in half and then cut each half into six pieces so that you have a total of 24 small triangles like in the photo above. If using another type of rye bread, cut into small squares or triangles to make 24 pieces. Place on serving tray.
Spread a layer of the crème fraîche mixture on each of the bread pieces. Tear the smoked salmon into 2-3 inch long pieces and drape each triangle with a piece of the fish.
Break the dill sprigs into smaller pieces. Garnish each salmon-topped triangle with a mini-sprig of dill. These can be made in advance, wrapped in plastic or covered with a towel for a couple of hours, and refrigerated before serving.
Beef Filet and Creamed Spinach on Toast Rounds
Prep time: 40 minutes
Serving size: 30 rounds, give or take
1 Baguette, cut into about 1/4 to 1/3-inch thick rounds
2 cloves Garlic, cut in half
1/2 tsp. Olive Oil
1 tsp. unsalted butter
1 large clove Garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh Spinach, about 4-5 cups
2 tsp. heavy Cream
1 pinch Nutmeg
1 pinch Black Pepper
1/4 tsp. Salt
extra Salt and Ground Black Pepper
1 tsp. Canola Oil
1 to 1 1/4 lb. Beef Filet (tenderloin), cut into 2-inch rounds
1 Tbsp. Crème Fraîche (optional, I had it left from the other recipe)
Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Put cut baguette rounds on a baking sheet and toast for 5-7 minutes, not letting them get too dark. Flip them over, and toast again on the other side for 5-7 minutes more.
Remove from the oven and then place them on a serving tray. Rub each toast round with a side of the cut garlic clove while the toasts are still warm and can absorb the flavor from the garlic.
While the bread is toasting, rinse the spinach to make sure there is no dirt or grit. In a saucepan, heat up the olive oil with the butter. When the butter has melted, toss in the minced garlic and let it cook for about 30 seconds until the liquid is perfumed by the garlic. Add the spinach, cover the pan and let the greens cook for 1-2 minutes until they are all wilted and soft.
Remove the lid from the pan, add the heavy cream, the nutmeg, pepper, and salt and stir to combine. Let this cook over medium heat for 3-5 minutes until the cream has reduced. You’ll need to watch it periodically to make sure the spinach isn’t burning and that there is still some liquid in the pan.
When the cream is reduced, remove the pan from the heat, drain the spinach of any remaining liquid, and place the spinach on a cutting board to cool. When cooled, cut the cooked spinach mixture into small chunks.
Salt and pepper each beef filet round on both sides. Heat canola oil in sauté pan placed over medium heat until it is fairly hot, but not smoking. Place the beef pieces side by side but not touching each other in the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes per side, more if you would like the meat well-done. The meat should come off of the pan easily when each side is cooked (i.e., the proteins have cooked and the meat will release without effort from the bottom of the pan). This should give you a brown crust on the outside and a bright pink-red center on the inside.
Remove the meat from the pan when you have achieved desired doneness. Set aside on a carving board to let the juices go back into the meat.
Putting it all together:
Spread a thin layer of crème fraîche on each of the garlic-rubbed toast rounds (optional – omit if not using). Place a small amount of creamed spinach on top of each round. Cut the meat into 1-2 inch pieces crossways and place on top of the spinach. These should not be made too far in advance as the juices from the meat and the spinach will seep into the bread and make it soggy. I made them about two hours before they were eaten, which allowed for the toast to be a crunchy platform for the toppings. Serve at room temperature.
Beet and Goats Cheese with Horseradish on Lavash Crackers with Microgreens
Prep time: 20 minutes
Serving Size: 30 or so pieces
Poppy seed flatbread crackers or Hot Bread Kitchen Lavash Crackers
8 oz. Goats Cheese with salt
1 Tbsp. heavy Cream
2 tsp. prepared Horseradish
1/4 tsp. ground White Pepper
2/3 to 1/2 c. finely chopped pickled beets (I used Rick’s Picks Phat Beets.)
1/2 c. fresh Microgreens
Break crackers up into 1-inch pieces and put on serving tray. Mix together goats cheese, cream, horseradish, and pepper. Place a dollop of the cheese mixture on each of the crackers.
On top of the cheese, sprinkle several of the beet pieces. Garnish each with a dusting of the microgreens. While the cracker pieces, cheese, and beets may be prepared in advance, they should not be put together until just before serving. Serve immediately so that the crackers do not get soggy.
While all the recipes for the savory appetizers were new ones that I created just for this party, the sweet ones I pulled from my tried-and-true favorites files. These are all made in advance of the nibbles in the recipes above and, in the case of the cookies and the toffee, can even made the day before the event. I made two batches of the Almond Toffee so that I could create individual goodie bags for my guests to take away with them after the party while still having some left for them (and me) to snack on during the evening.
White Chocolate Cranberry Macademia Nut Cookies
The White Chocolate-Cranberry-Macadamia Nut Cookies were the remainder of the batch that I brought with me to the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer swap earlier in the day. The batch made about three dozen cookies, so I could keep some back for the party, too.
Mixed-berry Jam Tarts with Lemon Curd
You know the rule about never making things for the first time for a dinner party? Well, I usually ignore that one and get off o.k. This recipe experiment was one of those that worked like a charm, if my guests are to be believed. My goal during this party was to serve edibles that didn’t involve utensils or big slabs of anything. I had had some leftover Mixed-Berry Spreadable Fruit from Sarabeth’s from the crostata that I made for Pie Party Live (see that post for a Kitchen Witch Tip on working with spreadable fruit) So, I took the dough, used a tart pan to make mini-crusts, added the jam to the uncooked dough like I would for a crostata, and just baked them as I would according to the original recipe.
The only alteration I made, aside from not using a large tart pan, was to cut the cooking time to about 30 minutes, as the smaller shape will make these little gems bake faster. Once cooled, I added a dollop of lemon curd to balance the sweet-tart berries with a citrus-tang of the lemon. The crisp, buttery tart shell brings it all together in one delightful bite. I will definitely be trying more off-the-top-of-my-head ideas like this one in the future, as this worked so well.