How to host a holiday meal and not go crazy

2018 Thanksgiving dinner!

In November, as in many previous years, we hosted Thanksgiving. It might be too late, with Christmas being next week, but I feel like at this point I’ve accumulated a quite a bit of knowledge (mostly by making a lot of mistakes) that might be helpful to other people. I’m also going to share my stand-by recipes that I make just about every year.

Without further ado, here are my tips for hosting a holiday meal:

  • Make lots of lists. Make a guest list, a grocery list, a list of the serving dishes and place settings you’ll need, a list of who is bringing what, and a list for every day leading up to the holiday with amounts of time you’ll need for each component of each dish or facet of the meal. For example, set aside time to clean up or set the table. And set aside 15 minutes before the guests arrive to get ready yourself. Don’t forget to factor in time for keeping the kitchen under control, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher or a friend helping you with dishes.

    My to-do list. Things got crossed out and moved around, but mostly I stuck to it.

  • Ask everyone to bring something. If you’re not in the US, your group of friends might have holiday traditions that differ from your own, and ask them to bring whatever their favorite dish for the holiday is. Or, if someone can’t/doesn’t cook, ask them to bring alcohol.

    Our Thanksgiving cohost is an amazing baker, and she offered to make nearly all of the desserts. We wound up with the Thanksgiving dessert selection of my dreams!

  • Ask about dietary restrictions. You don’t want to find out that someone is lactose intolerant or a vegetarian after you’ve planned your menu.
  • Do as much as you can in advance. Go grocery shopping the weekend before, recognizing that you’ll undoubtedly forget a few things and will also need to go to the store the day before. We make cranberry sauce and gravy ahead of time, and I’ll also prep the components for various dishes (i.e. make pie crust, boil the sweet potatoes, or chop the onions and celery for dressing) up to several days in advance. Set the table the day before, decide upon and clear off your serving space, and make labels if needed. This sounds really fiddly, but I’ve found that making a cute little sign to put by the punch bowl eliminates a lot of questions, especially when you have alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. This past Thanksgiving, I surprised even myself and I had several hours to snuggle on the couch with M and watch Netflix’s She-Rah revival on Thanksgiving Day. It was marvelous.
  • Do not turn down help. If someone offers to bring something extra, come over and help set up, or stay and wash dishes, your response should always be, “That would be awesome!”
  • Always serve appetizers and pre-meal drinks. People usually arrive hungry and it’s good to keep everyone busy (and sated) until the meal is served. Usually appetizers are one of the first things that I ask someone else to bring. If you need suggestions, baked brie, antipasta platters, veggie platters and buffalo chicken dip are always popular. This past year we made ginger liquor and served cranberry-ginger punch. It was very popular and tasty.
  • Spatchcock and grill your turkey. This frees up the oven for other things, in addition to giving the turkey amazing flavor, and by spatchcocking your turkey, you drastically reduce the cooking time. If you don’t have access to a grill, at least spatchcock your bird. Remember that the turkey needs to rest for at least 30 minutes and you shouldn’t serve it immediately after it’s done cooking.
  • If you know something is going to stress you out, don’t do it! The goal is to share a meal with people you love (or at least like) and to have fun. There’s no reason to do anything you don’t want to do!
  • Not related to hosting, but still important: If you’re not living in the US and you see an ingredient you know you’ll need for a holiday meal, buy it. I spent $15 on a huge bag of frozen cranberries in August and I stock-piled plain canned pumpkin when I saw it in May. The canned pumpkin came in especially handy when it was nowhere to be found in November and I was giving away cans to friends.

    This dressing/stuffing will change your life. I’m not joking. The recipe is below!

Here are our favorite recipes, including some new favorites and others that I’ve been making for nearly a decade:

Appetizers and cocktails

Cranberry ginger punch (made with ginger liqueur): This is our new favorite holiday cocktail. Easy and a good crowd-pleaser
Sweet potato bites with feta: roast the sweet potatoes ahead of time and make the feta filling separately. Then assemble day-of
Baked brie: There are many schools of thought on baked brie, but I think this one is the best. A good friend who is the ultimate host introduced me to it and it’s awesome. Roll the puff pastry very thinly so it bakes evenly and quickly. Make sure the slits don’t go too far down the sides or your cheese will leak out
Bacon-wrapped dates: Lightly cook bacon in the pan, so it’s about half-cooked. Slice the dates, remove the pits, and stuff them with blue cheese. Wrap each date with half a slice of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Bake at 400 degrees F for 10-15 minutes, or until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is warm.
Buffalo chicken dip: An easy crowd-pleaser; serve with celery and sliced baguette

Dinner

Bacon-shallot gravy: I’m not a gravy person and I could literally drink this
The best stuffing ever: DO NOT skip the sausage
Brined turkey: I’ve tried a number of brine recipes and this is by far the best. You can actually taste the flavor of the brine in the turkey. If I’m spatchcocking the turkey, I leave it in the brine for 24 hours. If I break down the turkey, then I do 12-15 hours. I’ve never done the whole herbed butter thing
Goat cheese mashed potatoes: I don’t know who actually has time to use a food mill.  Not me. Regardless, this goes well with turkey and also beef and lamb

Dessert

Black-bottom oatmeal pie: Like pecan pie, but better, frankly
Pumpkin pie: This recipe is my favorite for pumpkin pie, hands-down

There are other tips/tricks and recipes that I’m probably forgetting, so please consider this to be a “living” blog post, and feel free to share your own suggestions!

Advertisements

Baking at home in Dhaka

I love to bake, so whenever I move to a new country, it’s always kind of an adventure figuring out what will and won’t be available on the local market. Sometimes I guess correctly, sometimes I don’t.

Before we came to Dhaka, I stocked up on baking powder because I’ve never been able to find baking powder outside of the US. Baking soda, on the other hand, is usually available everywhere, so I thought there was no need to bring that.

My first week in Dhaka, I was perusing the baking aisles and what did I see? Shit tons of baking powder and zero baking soda. Also lots of custard powder, whatever that is.

A sample of the baking goods at Dhali

A sample of the baking goods at Dhali

I did eventually find baking soda at Dhali, but only after I spent $4 to order a tiny box of it on Amazon.

There are lots of things you can find here on the local market that surprised me: Crisco, cake and brownie mix, pre-made frosting, vanilla extract, sprinkles and other decorations, brown sugar, powdered sugar, nuts (including walnuts and pecans), cream cheese, heavy cream, yogurt, peanut butter, and dried fruits, including cranberries. Some of it is expensive (nuts are ridiculously pricey), but mostly the prices are about what I’m used to in the DC area.

The peanut butter selection at Dhali.  It's not bad!

The peanut butter selection at Dhali. It’s not bad!

Since we are with the embassy, we are also able to shop at the commissary, which has some things (when it’s stocked, anyways) you can’t find on the local market, like puff pastry, Pillsbury croissants in a can, cinnamon rolls in a can, chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.

If you are moving to Dhaka and love to bake (or if you’re coming to visit and want to make me even happier), you should bring: unsweetened chocolate, baking chocolate (chocolate chips, dark chocolate, etc), corn syrup, yeast packets or jars of dry active yeast, and nuts.

One thing you will not find anywhere and cannot ship or bring in luggage is cooking spray. If you can’t live without it, I suggest investing in an oil mister thingy. I butter baking dishes with butter wrappers, which works really well, and so far hasn’t been too big of a problem. But I do miss the convenience of a big container of Pam, that’s for sure!

Ramadan and other random things

Ramadan started last week, and it lasts until July 17, which is the date of Eid al-Fitr (not to be confused with Eid al-Adha.  I had no idea there were two Eids before moving here.).  Eid al-Fitr is one of the main holidays in Islam, and Ramadan is the period of fasting that leads up to it.  In terms of religious holidays, just like Christmas is the big one for Christians, Eid al-Fitr is the big one for Muslims.  From what I understand anyways; I could be wrong.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, which here is about 6:30 am to 6:45 pm. One afternoon, we walked to our favorite bakery, Holey, which caters to expats and is open during Ramadan.  All the usual market and tea stalls along the way were still there, but they were covered in tarps.  You could see some people behind the tarps drinking tea, although there was definitely less hustle and bustle than normal.  This is the first time I’ve been in a predominantly Muslim country during Ramadan, and it is interesting.

I am not observing Ramadan, and now that we are settled into our apartment, I’ve started doing some baking.  I made a mango upside-down cake for our amazing social sponsors, which was so good I made a pineapple up-side down cake the next day for me and Nate.  I’m sad to say that I made the cake 4 days ago and it’s almost gone… and Nate’s not much of a dessert eater, so, yes, I’ve eaten nearly the whole thing.

Not the best photo I've made of a cake, but tasty none-the-less!

Not the best photo I’ve made of a cake, but tasty none-the-less!

This morning I made an apple coffee cake that is also really good.   Nate likes coffee cake more than I do, so I’m really hoping that he’ll eat this one.

Whenever I’m cooking in our kitchen here, I’m always struck by the amount of garbage that we produce.  This is primarily because, since moving to Dhaka, we don’t recycle anymore. Even worse, we don’t pick up after our dog.

A few nights ago, we were cooking dinner and Nate asked if we needed to save a glass jar.  I said, “No, just toss it in the recycling.”  His response was, “Um, don’t you mean garbage?” Right…. Currently in our garbage there is paper, a empty egg carton, a yogurt container, soda cans, and an empty milk box. I feel so guilty.

I’m able to rationalize not recycling here because there are people who go through the garbage and pull out the recyclables. Not that I think that picking through garbage should be something people have to do to survive, but, hey, at least someone is trying to make some money and also happens to be helping the environment.

And if we picked up after our dog, then we’d be walking around with a bag full of poop and no where to throw it away.  We do our part, to the extent possible, and encourage Athena to take care of her business on the trash piles. But still, it feels strange and wrong.

Well I’m not really sure how this when from Islamic holidays to everything we’re doing wrong for the environment, but there you go, that’s my train of thought these days.

At home, finally

We moved into our permanent residence, and we love it here.  In our temporary apartment I never really let myself get 100% comfortable because I knew we’d be leaving, but here we can arrange the furniture how we want, re-organize the kitchen, and actually spend some time making this place feel like ours.

Our apartment is really long. Like a “huh, that’s interesting” kind of long.  We are trying to decide how to rearrange it and partition out the space because you could literally have a banquet for 25 people, at least, in the dining room.  Luckily the flooring is these huge square tiles, so I could easily map out the dimensions of the rooms and furniture.  And this is what I’ve been playing around with:

Some people (Nate, most likely) would say I have too much time on my hands

Some people (Nate, most likely) would say I have too much time on my hands

We are going to request some additional furniture, and hopefully things will be set up the way we would like in no time!

My favorite things about this apartment are the living area, which gets loads of natural light, especially in the morning, and the roof-top garden. We are lucky to have houses next to us rather than apartment buildings, so they don’t block out all the sunlight.

We might not have a yard, but this is almost as good!

We might not have a yard, but this is almost as good!

The roof has a nice, high wall (at least five feet tall) and tons of grass.  In our last apartment, the people that lived above us actually lost one of their dogs because he jumped over the roof wall chasing a bird.  So, we were always very careful whenever we took Athena on the roof there, because she could definitely put her paws up on the ledge.  Thankfully, here there is no risk of that happening, and there are these glass areas where she can look out, so she has no desire to see over the wall anyways.

Athena explores new spaces and new species of shrubbery

Athena explores new spaces and new species of shrubbery

We also have loads of storage in the kitchen, which is something I’m very excited about.  This is the first time in my adult life that I’ve had a kitchen to call my own that I don’t feel totally cramped in.  I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I seriously can’t wait for our HHE to get here.  All our bakeware, kitchen appliances, and weird gadgets/dishes won’t need to be stashed in random places around the house and will finally have a place to go!