Food, family, friends and fun often end up at the same table together, whether it’s in sharing a homey pot of spaghetti and meatballs, a tray of knockout appetizers that promises an even more spectacular meal to come, or an intimate celebration of a special anniversary or other event. The key is that good food and drink, lovingly prepared and served, are the body and soul-satisfying threads that knit us together. Join me as we look at three very different books all covering the same subject: The celebration table.

Everyone Can Cook for Celebrations; Seasonal Recipes for Festive Occasions
By Eric Akis
Published by Whitecap Books 2009, softcover, $24.95; 261 pages

This is Akis’ fifth book and carries through on the appealing and easily accessible dishes that have made his previous books so popular. Akis, a trained chef and food writer for the Victoria Times Colonist and other CanWest newspapers, knows that the average cook wants to create dishes that are relatively easy to prepare with ingredients that are easy to find and yet ones delicious and impressive enough for even the most finicky table mates.

He goes the extra mile, too, in adding helpful hints on what can be prepared ahead or substituting ingredients that might be more popular with your crowd. The book is arranged seasonally, beginning with winter gatherings and ending with the year-end holidays in which we now find ourselves.

In between, he offers recipes and menus for romantic dinners, spring celebrations and those long and lazy summer weekends that we always hope will never end. But, alas, they do and in this season of short days, we turn inward to share a tipple, defy the darkness with blazing light displays and prepare tables laden with the rich harvest of just-past seasons. (more…)

The Christmas Table: Recipes and Crafts to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition
By Diane Morgan
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2008 softcover; $21.95; 240 pages

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. . . With the kids jingle belling, and everyone telling you, Be of good cheer. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”Steve Wariner

If you’re someone who loves to wallow in all things Christmas, this book is for you. From 12 very extensive planning tips for the holiday season, to a full list of special foods of the season, to the tools and equipment you’ll need to make your holiday meals, parties and impromptu get-togethers enjoyable for all — including cook and host — to a wealth of recipes that meet every holiday-menu need, Morgan has produced a highly useful book. All the recipes are family favourites, she says, and all sound so good, the book won’t sit on the shelf the other 11 months of the year. Smoked salmon frittata, roast tenderloin of beef with bordelais sauce, saffron-scented fish stew, spicy crab in wonton cups, pistachio and chive goat cheese on puff pastry wafers, fudgy chocolate walnut brownies, and a spectacular ginger bundt cake that’s loaded with fresh ginger are sure to be welcomed any time there’s a special occasion.

But the focus truly is Christmas and Morgan covers all the bases, from Christmas breakfast to cookie exchanges, from home-made gifts of food to leftover favourites. She also provides six suggested holiday menus as well as every entertainer’s godsend: a timetable  to help you avoid those last-minute nightmares that plague so many of us when we entertain.

The final chapter gives some easy but great looking suggestions for decor, including this one that will lift any table setting: Glue fresh salal, bay or other leathery green leaves to inexpensive votive candles in glass holders, then tie them with gold bullion wire. Or spray paint small hard apples, pomegranates, small acorn squashes, lemons and oranges with pebbly skin, and assorted nuts with various metallics and arrange along mantle or table greenery. Bright red apple tops sprayed with clear lacquer, then sprinkled with a bit of kosher salt, will look like they’re dusted with fresh snow.

Such easy but inexpensive touches add a festive note and lift the mood at any gathering, whether it’s a  tree decorating party, a Christmas Eve supper,  a grand Christmas day banquet, or even an interfaith gathering of friends and family that Morgan calls Chrismukkah, a hybrid holiday meal, for which she also provides a menu and timetable.

A word about the following recipe. Morgan has been giving these “sweet, crunchy buttery gems” away as gifts for 20 years and has steadfastly refused to give anyone the recipe. But her list of recipients has grown so long that her yearly output has ballooned from several pounds to 20 pounds of pecans, so it seems appropriate that she shares the recipe with her readers. These will keep for up to three weeks at room temperature and are delicious served alongside dessert, tossed into a mesclun salad together with dried cranberries and crumbled blue cheese, or served with glass of brandy or whiskey. And if you do decide to try these and give them away as gifts, remember to make enough to keep for yourself, too.

Diane’s Christmas Pecans

Morgan says she has tried to make these with liquid egg whites sold in refrigerated cartons, but the meringue did not become as lofty and the finished nuts weren’t as good as those she makes with fresh egg whites. If you are doubling the recipe, you’ll need two rimmed baking sheets. Put one on the centre rack and the other on the rack in the lower third of the oven, then switch the pans every time you stir the nuts, she says.

½ cup unsalted butter
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup packed golden brown sugar
1 lb. shelled large or jumbo pecan halves

Position rack in centre of oven. Preheat oven to 300F. Have ready a large rimmed baking sheet, preferably nonstick for easier cleanup.

Melt the butter on the baking sheet in the oven. Be careful not to let the butter brown. Set aside

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment, beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add salt and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Pour vanilla over the brown sugar. Add the sugar, 2 tbsps. at a time, to he egg whites, beating on high speed to form a strong, shiny meringue with stiff, glossy peaks. Using a rubber spatula gently fold in the nuts until they are well coated.

Carefully tip the rimmed baking sheet so the butter evenly coats the bottom of the pan. Using a rubber spatula, spread nuts over the  butter, without stirring, to form and even layer without deflating the meringue.

Bake the nuts for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and stir with the spatula, moving the nuts at the centre of the pan to the edges and the nuts at the edges closer to the centre. Return the pan to the oven, bake nuts for 15 minutes longer, and stir them again. Continue baking, stirring every 15 minutes until the nuts are separated, have absorbed the butter and glisten, and are beautifully browned but not dark brown, 45 minutes to an hour.

Immediately turn the nuts out on a counter lined with a long sheet of aluminum foil, spread them out, and let cool completely. Store in an airtight tin or covered glass container, or wrap in gift boxes lined with decorative waxed paper. Makes 1 pound.
From The Christmas Table