An Advent Dinner Party

This week and next, I'm on vacation, but I've got a handful of helpful and savvy kitchen elves pitching in to keep the blog engine running. Today's treat comes from Elizabeth Terry, a washingtonpost.com colleague who spends much of her free time in the kitchen.

One of my favorite traditions of the holiday season is the annual "Advent Lessons & Carols" service at my church, St. Columba's Episcopal in Washington.


Elizabeth's gingerbread. (Elizabeth Terry/washingtonpost.com)

Advent, a time of preparation for and anticipation of Christmas, begins four Sundays before the holiday. The Lessons and Carols service, which is as much a concert as a worship service, features a series of Old and New Testament readings that foreshadow Christmas -- that is, the fulfillment of the ancient promise of a Messiah. In between the readings, St. C's very fine adult and children's choirs sing not Christmas carols, but hymns and anthems that express the yearning and hope that come before Christmas Day. (The congregation gets to chime in on a few songs, too.) The church is dim and there are lots of candles on the altar, and there is one verse that brings tears to my eyes each year: Sacred infant, all divine, what a tender love was thine, thus to come from highest bliss, down to such a world as this.

At St. C's, the longtime slogan for this time of year is "Slow down. Be quiet. It's Advent." For most of us, this is the month of the year where we are LEAST likely to slow down and be quiet, but seeing those words every day on the poster-sized Advent calendar taped to my fridge is a good reminder to at least try.

For the past three years, I've invited friends to the service and for dinner at my house afterward. As I rushed around Saturday and Sunday -- grocery shopping, cooking and tidying -- I didn't feel very slow or quiet at all. On Sunday, I threw the vacuum in the closet, raced over to the church and found my seat behind the control panel for the A/V system (Yes, I am a church nerd). My friends soon joined me, and the prophetic readings and contemplative songs began to calm me down.

Ninety minutes later, we walked into my warm, snug apartment building. As I unlocked the door to my condo, my friend Autumn said, "Oh yay, the delicious smell is coming from your place!" Five of us drank wine, ate comfort food, laughed a lot and forgot about grad school assignments, work insecurity and upcoming holiday travel. It took some advance work, but I achieved an Advent state of mind this past Sunday.

The Menu
I needed to make something that could be popped in the oven two hours early and left alone. I chose a recipe for mahogany short ribs, a dish my Post Food Section friends have long raved about.

Since I wasn't keen on leaving an open flame while I was out, I simmered the ribs in a 350-degree oven instead of on top of the stove, and the oven-braised version turned out just fine. I assembled this cauliflower gratin ahead of time, refrigerated and popped it in the oven to heat up as soon as I returned home. Egg noodles boiled up quickly, and I also made a salad with pre-washed mixed greens, pomegranate seeds and an olive oil-cider vinegar dressing.

For dessert, something seasonally spicy was called for. I returned to a favorite recipe for gingerbread, served with whipped cream and chopped crystallized ginger. My friend Santiago had three helpings.

For more on Advent: St. Columba’s rector passes along Advent Conspiracy

Do you have a winter holiday food tradition in your family? Share your tales in the comments area.

Elizabeth Terry produces online chats and co-moderates Dirda’s Reading Room, a discussion group on washingtonpost.com.

Double-Ginger Gingerbread
from "Simple Soirees" by Peggy Knickerbocker

Ingredients

2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
1/2 cup very hot strong black coffee
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting (ET note: I did not use)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar


Method
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square pan (metal or glass)

In a mixing bowl, combine the ground ginger, allspice, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and flour and stir well.

In a second mixing bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the chopped crystallized ginger, the melted butter, molasses and brown sugar and whisk well. Whisk in the egg and lemon zest. Gradually whisk in the dry ingredients, then the hot coffee.

Pour batter into pan and bake for about 30 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake on a wire rack. Once cool, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar (optional).

In a bowl, combine cream and granulated sugar, and whip with an electric beater. Serve squares of cake with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkling of remaining chopped crystallized ginger on top.

Makes 6-8 servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 11, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Entertaining , Winter Holidays
Previous: Tales From a Cookie-Baking Extravaganza | Next: Geeking Out on Scallops

Comments

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While I have instant coffee in the cupboard, as a rule I don't drink coffee and don't even have a coffee maker. What can I substitute for the coffee called for in your gingerbread recipe?

Posted by: AlexandriaVA1 | December 11, 2008 9:49 AM

AlexVA, I would think some nice strong instant coffee would do. Or, you could buy a small black coffee from Starbucks or wherever and pour that in (nuke it to reheat if necessary). Hope that helps! - ET

Posted by: Elizabeth_Terry | December 11, 2008 12:10 PM

Also I don't think it needs to be caffeinated if that is your concern... or you might try some strong black tea instead if that is your preference. The coffee's not the main event in the cake but I think it just adds some depth you wouldn't get from adding hot water to the batter.

Posted by: Elizabeth_Terry | December 11, 2008 12:42 PM

Hi,

Thanks for posting Elizabeth's gingerbread. I get most of the good recipes from www.tabup.com. You can have recipes delivered to your TabUp page (via RSS), schedule your recipes for the week on a calendar and keep a running grocery list (all without leaving your TabUp page). Check it out!

Posted by: fedrikhof | December 12, 2008 1:54 AM

Postum makes a perfectly good substitute for coffee in dishes served to non-coffee drinkers. My husband dislikes coffee and won't eat anything with coffee in it. Plus, who wants to feed gingerbread with coffee in it to kids? Certainly there are adults who cannot handle caffeine and Postum nicely fills in for coffee.

Posted by: IslandLady | December 12, 2008 5:52 AM

I substituted chamomile tea for the coffee because I wanted a caffeine-free alternative. My family loved it even though it was a bit milder than if I had made it with coffee. I would certainly make this again.

Posted by: austingranny | December 13, 2008 10:23 PM

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