"Christmas 101," Rick Rodgers

Pros: Some good recipes and ideas
Cons: Not since “Charlie Trotter’s Desserts” have I seen such poor kitchen-testing!
Rating: 2 out of 5

First published 3/19/2001

I was originally planning to review this cookbook a week ago. But we made this bread recipe from it last weekend (prosciutto and rosemary-stuffed bread!), and it came out so poorly that I had to know why before I reviewed the cookbook. It was obvious that the recipe didn’t have even close to the right amount of liquid in it. But I couldn’t tell if that was because the amounts were just way off, or because we had made the bread by hand rather than in a stand mixer (the recipe says to use a stand mixer, and says that alternately you can make it by hand).

So we tried the bread recipe on the next page (salami and cheese-stuffed bread!) this weekend (it had the same basic ratios of flour to liquid), and tried it in the stand mixer. After all, usually you end up with a wetter dough in a stand mixer, so it wasn’t unthinkable that the author might have had the right idea, but simply forgot to check that the alternate directions worked.

Week 1 vs. Week 2, and a Recipe

The first week we ended up with a prosciutto and rosemary brick. A way-too-salty brick, I might add, because we couldn’t mix in even one-third of the amount of flour the recipe called for. 1/4 cup water and 2 T olive oil are not enough liquid for a 3.5 cups of flour loaf of bread. We tried calling it a sliceable cracker (who wants to waste prosciutto?), but we eventually gave up and tossed it.

The second week we didn’t even get that far. We mixed in 2 cups of the flour, and had something that was too flaky even for a super-flaky pie crust. There was no way it would hold together as bread.

Luckily I had prepared for it this time. I had proofed a sourdough starter the night before. Here’s the recipe we ended up using, which came out exquisitely (it’s loosely based on the one in the book, but has some differences):

  • 2 to 3 cups sourdough starter
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup soy milk or milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh basil, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (preferably coarse sea salt or kosher salt – it does less harm to the yeast)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar (white or brown)
  • Lots of flour
  • 4 to 6 ounces thin-sliced hard salami
  • 4 ounces shredded mozarella; 4 ounces shredded provolone (Kraft makes a convenient 8-ounce pre-packaged mix)

Melt the butter. Add the milk or soy milk and warm through (don’t let it get hot). Add the milk mixture to the starter. Stir or mix in the red pepper flakes, basil, oregano, salt, sugar, and a good grinding of black pepper.

Either mix in the flour in a stand mixer on medium (we use setting 2 on our Kitchen Aid for 4-7 minutes), or with a wooden spoon and then kneading by hand, until you get a smooth, elastic dough. If you use the stand mixer, continuously add flour a small amount of time until the dough no longer sticks to the bowl while the mixer is running – it’s a very noticeable change.

Put the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Rise in a warm place 1 to 1.5 hours, until doubled in size. Spread out on a greased cookie sheet or jelly roll pan. Allow to rest for five minutes, then finish stretching it out. Layer with half of the cheese, slices of salami, and the rest of the cheese. Roll up like a jelly roll and place seam-side-down on the sheet. Bake at 375 F until done, about 30-45 minutes. It’s done when you thump it and it sounds hollow.

The Non-Recipe Stuff

There are some good hints for organizing a Christmas dinner, like the making of many lists and dealing with the logistics of a cocktail party. Other than that, however, there are only a few small tips and hints here and there, which is a real step down from the delightful thoroughness of this author’s other, good book, Thanksgiving 101.

There are also some menus in the back with suggested timetables, and a list of mail-order sources for odd foods. The layout is reasonably clear, and recipes only occasionally trail onto the back of a page. There are no pictures or photos of the food.

Other Recipes

Here’s a small sampling of recipes:

  • Brie & Wild Mushroom Fondue Dip
  • Amaretto Eggnog
  • Beet & Apple Salad
  • Two-Way Duck with Pecan-Orange Wild Rice
  • Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta
  • Chestnut & Prune Stuffing
  • Overnight Maple-Pecan Sticky Buns
  • S’Mores Rocky Road
  • Homemade Peppermint Taffy
  • Deep Dark Stout Gingerbread
  • Classic Raspberry and Sherry Trifle

They look good, but not as overwhelmingly delightful as those in Thanksgiving 101. The Original Ambrosia is the one recipe we made from here that came out truly well. This probably isn’t surprising, since it’s a very simple mix of coconut, oranges, pineapple, and Grand Marnier. It’s hard to screw that up.

The Savory Sausage and Cheese Bread Pudding was okay; I didn’t particularly like it, but someone else we had dinner with did. Normally I love sausage and cheese together, but this didn’t appeal – it had a very bland and too-rich taste to it. The top pieces of bread near-burned before the rest of the dish cooked through, and this made them tough. I’d suggest topping with foil for the first or last half-hour or so of cooking to avoid this.

The Maple-Glazed Butternut Squash was good; it’s another extremely simple recipe. The cooking time was rather low, though; either cut your chunks of squash much smaller, or be prepared to cook it for perhaps twice as long as the recipe says to. The breads, as I mentioned, were almost entirely inedible, although the basic concepts were good. The Macadamia Milk Chocolate Toffee is good (though I’ve had better), but there was way too much butter in it – we ended up with toffee sitting in a pool of excess butter. [Note added later – the toffee tastes better after it has chilled.]

In all good conscience I cannot recommend this cookbook. This isn’t just one or two small mistakes – almost every recipe we’ve made from this cookbook has been incorrect in some way or another. A cookbook that hasn’t been kitchen-tested is worse than useless. The real mystery is why on earth this cookbook came out so badly. The author’s other book that I have, “Thanksgiving 101,” was incredible, so he’s clearly capable of better work than this.

Reindeer Penguin T

Posted in Cooking, Reviews
2 comments on “"Christmas 101," Rick Rodgers
  1. Rick says:

    Heather, I am sorry to say that there is an unacceptable amount of errors in Christmas 101.

    Here’s the story (which is not to say that it is an excuse.) There were staffing changes at my publisher, and my corrections just fell through the cracks and didn’t make it into the book. Most concerned the bread…as you found out. My editor believed that water, which comes from the tap, should not be included in the Ingredients list. I argued that because it is measured, it does. With all of the backing and forthing, guess what? The water disappeared from the bread recipes altogether. Great!

    When I discovered that the changes did not get into the book, I posted them online at http://www.rickrodgers.com. Hundreds of people have used these corrections, but I don’t consider myself off the hook. Thankfully, my body of work speaks for itself, and I do try to write useful, good cookbooks.

    There are new editions of both Christmas 101 and Thanksgiving 101 coming out in Fall 2007 and all of the recipes have been reviewed and fixed where needed. (The toffee now says to stir constantly during cooking at medium heat to help with the butter separation issue.)

    I hope this solves the mystery. Again, this isn’t a excuse, but an explanation.

  2. Ouch; sounds like a lose-lose situation. Thank you so much for dropping by to leave the URL to the site with the corrections. I’ll have to print them out and enjoy the recipes as you originally intended them!

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