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COOK EARLY AVOID THE RUSH Plan: If your Christmas wish list includes a nearly work-free holiday, here's a way to make it happen no elves required.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was Christmas Day a couple of years ago, and I had been slaving in the kitchen for hours while the rest of the family sat in the living room by the fire. I had stuffed the turkey, prepared endless elaborate side dishes and was just starting the gravy.

My husband came in the kitchen, a glass of champagne in hand, to give me a little moral support. I looked at him balefully and said, "I have just four words for you: 'Next. Year. Palm. Beach.' "

So last year we did spend Christmas with cousins in Palm Beach, where the temperature dropped to the 20s and the electricity went out on Christmas Day. We ate turkey cooked -- and not very successfully -- on the gas grill. We had cranberry sauce and no other side dishes. (Their stove is electric.)

This year I'm staying home where I belong. But I'm having a make-ahead Christmas dinner. Because I want to include a green vegetable and salad, the meal won't be completely done in advance; but the hard parts will be.

I realize the most obvious make-ahead Christmas dessert would be plum pudding or fruitcake, but try telling my family that. I might as well give in gracefully and make it chocolate -- actually chocolate and coffee, an icebox cake that can be frozen and then thawed in the refrigerator.

I'll start my dinner the weekend before Christmas; but if you're really inspired, you could begin immediately.

My game plan goes this way:

Saturday, Dec. 21 and Sunday, Dec. 22, I'm going to prepare the bisque, the carrot souffle, the onions, the biscuits and the dessert and freeze them. (You could make the biscuits with a mix and add 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh chives, but don't admit it to anyone.)

Tuesday, Christmas Eve day, I'll stuff and bake the ham. I'll clean and trim the broccoli and toast the almonds lightly. I'll wash the lettuce, section the grapefruit and make the salad dressing.

That evening I'll pull out the bisque, carrot souffle, onions, biscuits and dessert to let them thaw in the refrigerator. I'll split and butter the biscuits.

This is what will be left for Christmas Day:

Reheat the bisque in a double boiler, adding the cream.

Bake the carrot souffle (it's actually more of a savory pudding and quite sturdy).

Cook the broccoli and brown the butter.

Reheat the onions and the biscuits.

Assemble the salad.

Decorate the icebox cake with whipped cream and pistachios just before dinner.

It won't be a totally work-free Christmas, but it's going to be a snap compared with past years. This is one holiday dinner I'm not going to be too tired to enjoy. And there's an added bonus: Much of the cleanup will have already been done.

Shrimp bisque

1 pound cleaned and shelled cooked shrimp

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon minced onion

2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

freshly grated nutmeg to taste

3 tablespoons dry sherry

1/2 cup heavy cream

thin lemon slices

Finely chop the shrimp in a blender or food processor.

Cook the onion in the butter in a double boiler over simmering water for a few minutes, then add the milk and heat. Add the ground shrimp, the seasonings and the sherry. Can be frozen at this point.

Just before serving, stir in the cream and heat almost to a simmer. Do not boil.

Serve 1/2 cup per person; float a lemon slice in each one.

Stuffed ham

half a cooked ham, deboned (ask the butcher to do it for you)

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup cider vinegar

STUFFING:

6 slices good-quality white bread (such as Pepperidge Farm)

1/2 cup celery, finely chopped

1/2 cup onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped

1/4 cup ham fat, finely chopped

1 tablespoon celery seed

2 teaspoons powdered mustard

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons water

Trim most of the fat off the ham.

Make coarse bread crumbs in the blender or food processor. Mix the other stuffing ingredients together.

Fill the hole in the ham with stuffing and pat more stuffing on the top and sides. Place in a pan with half a cup of water and half a cup of vinegar.

Bake at 300 degrees for one hour, basting once or twice very carefully. Stuffing on top should be light brown. Chill before slicing.

Carrot souffle

2 pounds carrots, cooked

6 tablespoons cornstarch

2 1/2 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup honey

6 extra-large eggs, beaten

1/4 cup butter, melted

Put the carrots through a sieve or whirl in blender or food processor. Dissolve the cornstarch in milk, stir into carrots. Add salt and honey, then the beaten eggs and melted butter. Pour into a buttered casserole and cover with foil or plastic wrap, fastening with a large rubber band. Freeze this way for a few days, up to a week.

Thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour to an hour and a half, depending on whether it was completely thawed. It should be brown around the edges and not quite firm at the center. (It will continue to cook after you remove it from the oven.) This doesn't fall the way a true souffle does, so it can sit for a while if it gets done early.

Broccoli with brown butter and almonds

2 to 2 1/2 pounds broccoli

1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted

6 tablespoons butter

Wash and trim the broccoli. Cook the butter in a small pan until brown and bubbly. Set aside. Just before serving, cook the broccoli until barely tender, drain and top with butter and almonds.

Braised onions

24 to 36 small white onions, depending on size

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup chicken broth

salt and pepper to taste

Peel and trim onions. In a large skillet saute them in butter until they take on a little color. Add the chicken broth and enough water to just cover. Simmer, covered, until almost tender, about half an hour. Season and place in an ovenproof dish with any of the liquid not absorbed. Can be frozen at this point.

Add a little more liquid if necessary. Reheat covered at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until piping hot.

Boston lettuce and grapefruit salad

1 large head Boston lettuce

2 white grapefruit

6 tablespoons good-quality olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves

salt to taste

Wash the lettuce leaves and tear into bite-sized pieces. Peel the grapefruit and remove the white membrane, section and de-seed. Mix the remaining ingredients. (Fresh mint leaves are generally available in specialty shops or the gourmet section of your supermarket.) Just before serving, drain the grapefruit sections and arrange on the lettuce. Drizzle with the dressing and toss.

Chive biscuits

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

5 tablespoons chilled butter

3/4 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Cut butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender or two knives. Add the buttermilk, stir just until blended. Turn onto a floured board. Knead gently about 10 times, roll out and cut. Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven 10 to 12 minutes.

Reheat frozen, buttered biscuits for 6 minutes in a 350-degree oven.

Mocha rum icebox cake

2 dozen ladyfingers

1/4 cup rum

4 ounces semisweet chocolate (four squares)

1/4 cup strong coffee (I make it with 2 teaspoons instant coffee)

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups (1 pint) heavy (whipping) cream

2 extra-large egg whites

OPTIONAL DECORATION:

1 cup unsweetened whipped cream

chopped pistachio nuts

Line a 2-quart souffle dish with foil. Split the ladyfingers and brush them with rum. Line the bottom and sides of the dish with some of them, flat sides out.

In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, melt the chocolate. Add the coffee and sugar, stirring until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is smooth. Add vanilla. Set aside to cool.

Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. When the chocolate mixture is cool, fold in the whites. Whip the heavy cream until peaks form. Fold into the chocolate and egg whites.

Pour half the filling over the ladyfingers, then top with more ladyfingers brushed with rum. Add the rest of the filling and cover with the rest of the ladyfingers.

Cover with foil and freeze or refrigerate overnight.

Just before serving, invert onto a serving plate and remove dish and foil lining. Decorate with more softly whipped cream and chopped pistachio nuts if desired.

Christmas dinner

Here's my menu for eight. A California chardonnay would go well with the shrimp bisque. Accompany the ham with a fine German riesling with a little sweetness or a pinot noir.

Shrimp bisque

Stuffed ham

Carrot souffle

Broccoli with brown butter and almonds

Braised onions

Boston lettuce and grapefruit salad

Chive biscuits with sweet butter

Mocha rum icebox cake

Pub Date: 12/18/96

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