The Cook in Me: Christmas Eve and Caramelized Brie with Almonds and Apples©
My family's big celebration of the Christmas holiday was with my Father's family on Christmas Eve. Dad was from a large family and there was always a lot of commotion when we cousins got together. Christmas Day was reserved for my mother's parents. Because she was an only child, Christmas Day was more low-key—I had no cousins on that side of my family. So for as far back as I can remember, we always went to my Grandma & Grandpa Warrington's home on Christmas Eve. There, together with Dad's seven brothers and sisters and their families, we all gathered to celebrate the holiday.
I do not have very clear recollections about those evenings at my Grandparents' house. In fact, much of what I remember about my Grandpa Warrington is from photographs, as he died when I was just a little girl. (By today's standards he was young, about 62, at the time of his death.) And I can't remember whether we actually had dinner there or not, since there were so many people. But I do remember receiving gifts from my Grandparents and my Aunt Heloise, the oldest of my Father's siblings. My Aunt Heloise never married. She lived with my Grandparents, and after Grandpa's death with just my Grandmother, until her death at the age of 93. Aunt Heloise passed away two months ago at the age of 101.
Aunt Heloise was an independent, remarkable woman, and I will devote articles just to her in the future. But for this story, what I remember is that for her Christmas gift, she gave each of her nieces and nephews the sum of Five Dollars. Now that might not seem like a lot of money today but, including my three sisters and myself, Aunt Heloise had 27 nieces and nephews. In 1955, One Hundred Thirty-Five Dollars was a lot of money. I looked forward to that Five Dollars every year. It was something that I knew I could count on. I could also rely on the fact that every Christmas Eve, Mom would make us take a nap in the afternoon so that we could stay up late for all the festivities. (For me, mind you, this was no hardship as I loved taking a nap, and still do!) Those festivities included Midnight Mass, Santa's visit, the visit at Grandma & Grandpa's house, and opening gifts. I also knew that every Christmas Eve while we opened our gifts after attending Midnight Mass, we would have my Father's homemade Eggnog and the Christmas Cookies we baked throughout the month of December. Another certainty was that Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Andy Williams would be singing Christmas Carols on the turntable in the background as we all gathered around the Christmas tree. I can still visualize it all today as if it only happened last week.
I never gave it a thought that Santa Claus came every year while we were at my Grandparents' home. I also never put two-and-two together when every year my mother had to go back into the house after we had all loaded in the car for the trip to my Grandparents' for the evening. Sometimes she forgot the food we were supposed to take with us. Sometimes she forgot her purse. Sometimes she just had to go to the bathroom. Sometimes it was an item my Father asked her to get for him to take with us to his parents. I remember sitting in the dark in the old '52 Chevy, waiting for my mother so that we could leave. And I remember it taking her for what seemed like forever. As you can imagine, four little girls all under six years old were not very patient. And after all, how long could it take to get your purse? We were all dressed up in our Christmas finery, with our permed hair in tight little locks, eager to get the evening started.
Most probably, the reason that I recall all these things is because I could count on them. Every year, they were part of my family's Christmas Eve tradition. Once I married, I had to begin sharing Christmas Eve with my husband's family. That was fine, as long as I could be at Midnight Mass with my family and back to my parents' house after Mass, where we would open gifts, drink Eggnog, eat Christmas Cookies, all while listening to the Christmas Carols of Andy Williams, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and Johnny Cash on those new fangled cassette players. When my first child was eighteen months old, my husband and I moved to another city about 40 miles away from our parents. Reluctantly, I had to call an end to the only Christmas Eve traditions I had ever known. It became too difficult and too late in the evening to drag Scott, my oldest son, to so many places on Christmas Eve, and still be able to really enjoy the festivities. The only way to solve the dilemma I then faced was to invite everyone to my home. I knew I was rocking the boat, but the consequences I faced if I didn't change something were a cranky baby, too little sleep, and bad memories of Christmas Eve.
I decided that my little family would create its own traditions. We did, and we kept those traditions until my husband and I parted ways in 1983. After that, my boys and I established our own customs. One of those was that the boys spent Christmas Eve with me and Christmas Day with their father. Another, although I did not realize it the first time I set the menu, was that our Christmas Eve dinner would stay almost exactly the same from year to year. The boys, as well as the friends and family we invited to spend that evening with us every year, counted on seeing the Roasted Beef Tenderloin, Glazed Carrots, Browned Potatoes, homemade Eggnog, and this Appetizer—Caramelized Brie with Almonds and Apples. Every once in a while I would try out something new to see how it went over. If it met the approval of my family and guests, I would include it in the following years' menus. That's how my Red and Green Christmas Salad with Sugared Walnuts,¹ and Peppermint Ice Cream with homemade Hot Fudge Sauce² joined the party.
Today's recipe is so wonderful that you won't believe how simple it is. It's also so rich that you'll want to serve it early in your day's or evening's festivities, so that guests have time before the main course to let it settle. (Really, ½ cup of butter on top of the Brie?) Or you could do like we do and run around the block six times after appetizers and before dinner. (And if you believe that . . . ) I do not recall whether I first tasted the Caramelized Brie at my in-laws' house, or if it was my own creation. I do know that I added sliced almonds and tart apples, and that I have always served it on top of thinly sliced miniature loaves of French bread. The small loaves are the perfect size for appetizers. You can either serve the bread fresh, or bake the slices first and serve it as Crostini. Either way, I hope that you enjoy this part of our Christmas Eve as much as my family does. And who knows, perhaps it will become one your family's holiday traditions!
¹Please see The Cook in Me: Red and Green Salad, in another blog posted on this website.
² Watch for Hot Fudge Sauce with Walnuts in this blog sometime in the next few weeks.
© 2012, 2013 The Cook in Me: Christmas Eve and Caramelized Brie with Almonds and Apples by Kathy Striggow
This article may not be reproduced or reprinted in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.
Caramelized Brie with Almonds and Apples
1-8 inch wheel Brie, whole (1.5 to 2.5 lbs.)
8 oz. Butter, softened (1 stick, NOT margarine)
½ c. Brown Sugar
½ c. Sliced Almonds
2 or 3 finely sliced Granny Smith or other tart apples, dipped in lemon water to prevent browning
Miniature loaves of French or other crusty bread, in thin slices (fresh or toasted as Crostini)
1. Heat oven to 325° F.
2. Unwrap Brie from its packaging and place it in a pie plate or decorative ceramic tart pan. Do not remove the rind from the Brie.
3. Spread softened Butter liberally on top and sides of the Brie.
4. Carefully press the Brown Sugar into the softened Butter on the top and on the sides of the Brie.
5. Sprinkle the Almonds on the top and press them into the Brown Sugar and Butter. Sprinkle more almonds on the bottom of the pan around the sides of the Brie.
6. Bake for approximately 25-30 minutes, or until the Brie is oozing from the top of the wheel and the butter and sugar mix has caramelized.
7. Remove from the oven and serve immediately on thin slices of French or other crusty bread topped with the apple slices and caramelized almonds.
Yield:12-16 Appetizer Servings
©2012 The Cook in Me: Christmas Eve by Kathy Striggow
©1990, 2012 Caramelized Brie with Almonds and Apples by Kathy Striggow