Countdown to Christmas, Part One

From formal sit down dinners to stand-up buffets, many of us will be either hosting or attending the many celebrations that will occur between now and New Year's Day. If you are having a gathering at your house, you know there's a lot to consider - like how much you have to spend, and what fabulous thing you can serve with the money you have. While standing rib roasts might grace the lace-covered tables of some folks in the mood to splurge, others will find thrifty chicken a worthy alternative as it counters the bravado of beef with the lusciousness of a velvety-sauced lattice-topped pie. Should you be in a position where your expected guests and even family, won't touch either chicken, or beef, and seafood just isn't in the budget, there is always pasta to consider. Macaroni and cheese could be a good choice, especially for the kids in the crowd who thought macaroni and cheese only came out of a box. The little ones will love you for making "Our Best Macaroni and Cheese," another keeper recipe from Pat Branning's "Shrimp, Collards & Grits," and so will a whole lot of the grownups. Once you decide on the entrees, the rest will fall into place. So, let's make this part one of the Christmas food countdown, to be followed by a next week's part two on beverages and after that part three on desserts. As for the starters - the dips, the spreads, the cheese balls and the like, ask your guests if they wouldn't mind bringing one along - and maybe a copy of the recipe for sharing, too.  

Sue Ade is a syndicated food writer with broad experience and interest in the culinary arts. She has worked and resided in the Lowcountry of South Carolina since 1985 and may be reached at   

Our Best Macaroni and Cheese

Recipe courtesy "Shrimp, Collards & Grits," by Pat Branning, "This is the full-throttle, quintessential special-occasion baked macaroni and cheese, loaded with flavor. I remember reading about this in North Carolina's "Our State" magazine. I decided to give it a try and now I wouldn't make it any other way." Pat Branning

7 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1 pound (16-ounces) elbow macaroni
6 tablespoons softened butter
3 large eggs
2 cups evaporated milk
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
2 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated

15 Ritz crackers
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon paprika

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Slowly add macaroni; return to a boil and cook for 10 minutes or until just al dente, stirring occasionally. Strain macaroni in a colander and rinse with cool water. Place the macaroni in a bowl, mix with the softened butter, and set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs by hand until frothy, then beat in the evaporated milk, 1 teaspoon of salt and dry mustard. Set aside. In a large oiled casserole dish, spread a layer of approximately half the macaroni and add a layer of about half the cheese. Spread remaining macaroni and top with  remaining cheese. Pour the egg and milk mixture slowly and evenly over the top, and tilt the casserole dish to each side until the liquid is evenly distributed. In a separate bowl, crush the Ritz crackers with your fingers, sifting through several times to obtain a fine consistency. Add 4 tablespoons melted butter, and mix with a fork until the crumbs are uniformly moistened. Spread evenly by hand or spatula over the top of the casserole. Sprinkle top with paprika, if desired. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top is bubbly and well browned. Remove from oven and set on wire rack to cool and set for 20 minutes or more before serving.

Perfect Medium-Rare Standing Rib Roast

1 standing rib roast, any size
Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper

Allow roast to sit out of the refrigerator for at least one hour prior to cooking. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the roast, fat side up, rib side down, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.  Sprinkle roast, top and sides, with salt and pepper. Place roast in oven and cook for one hour, then turn oven off. Do not open oven. Forty minutes before you wish to serve roast, turn oven on to 325 degrees and cook. Remove roast from oven and allow to rest for 15 to 20 minutes before cutting. 

Christmas Chicken Pie

Pastry for a double-crust 10-inch deep dish pie, homemade or store bought
1 16-ounce package frozen mixed vegetables cooked (I like peas, carrots, green beans and corn.)
3 1/2 cups cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized chunks*
1 small onion, chopped
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
6 tablespoons flour
1 (10.5-ounce) can cream of chicken soup
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1/4  teaspoon celery seed
Salt* and pepper
1 egg, mixed with a little water, beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix the cream of chicken soup with the chicken broth and set aside. Saute onion in a large skillet with the butter. When the onion is translucent, stir in flour. Gradually stir the soup mixture into the onion mixture in the skillet, and cook over low heat until the sauce bubbles and becomes thick.  Stir in poultry seasoning, celery seed, then season to taste with salt* and pepper. Gently stir in chicken and vegetables; set aside. Fit one of the pie crusts into the bottom of a deep dish 10-inch pie pan. Gently spoon filling into pan, filling a little more than three-quarters full.  Cut the remaining pie crust into 12 long strips, about 3/4-inches wide each. Fashion strips into a lattice crust over the filling. Pinch edges of lattice over the bottom crust to seal. Lightly brush the lattice crust with some of the egg mixture. Placing pie dish onto a baking sheet to catch any overflow, bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until mixture is bubbly and crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool on a wire rack for 15 to 20  minutes before cutting. Makes 8 servings. *Kitchen Ade Note: A store-bought rotisserie chicken, weighing around 2 pounds, will yield about 1 quart chicken chunks. For a stronger chicken flavor, chicken-flavored granules may be substituted for the salt.