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BRIGHT and Whimsical CHRISTMAS Table

Today's post is part of the #HolidayHQ Blog Hop. See the links below for more posts from the best party and entertaining experts!

If you saw my "Rough Luxe" Thanksgiving table, you might recognize one of the patterns on this bright and whimsical Christmas table....we're reusing Mikasa's "Italian Countryside". It's a totally different look (and I'll have one more for New Year's)! I'm sure some people have full sets of dishes that they swap out for each and every holiday, but urban living doesn't lend itself to that kind of storage space. Here, I've supplemented the base pattern with beautiful rentals from Tablescapes. I especially love the cute patterned plate.

The napkins are rolled in a style reminiscent of Christmas crackers. In fact, you could even place a small treasure in the middle of each roll, to be discovered when your guests unfurl their napkins. How fun! Remember to keep centerpieces low, so that guests can easily make conversation over them. Here I've used a small bowl full of retro-inspired ornaments and pom-pom garland.







Housewife Bliss |  Holiday Salt Dough Ornaments
The Gracious Girl |  Holiday Parties, Let Your Heels do the Walking
Second City Soiree  |  A Bright and Whimsical Christmas Table
Tatertots & Jello  |  Holiday Party Mantel
With Style & Grace  |  Holiday Sweet Treats & Homemade gifts, minus the gluten
Party Bluprints  |  Ring In The New Year Right with Brunch
Celebrations at Home  |  The Kids' Christmas Table
The TomKat Studio  |  Easy Oreo Truffles with Printable Tags & Recipe Card
The Daily Basics  |  Christmas Cupcakes, Cake Ball and and Cookie Baking Supplies

Join us on Twitter this Thursday, December 8th 8pm EST for another #HolidayHQ chat. Get ideas, recipes & tips from top crafting, foodie & entertaining experts!


Photo Tutorial: Savory Creamed Corn Panna Cotta

Looking for an elegant starter with humble roots? Savory Creamed Corn Panna Cotta is creamed corn casserole, in exalted form. The step-by-step is below, with my complete recipe in the Huffington Post feature "Unconventional Thanksgiving Recipes From Chicago Chefs And Foodies". Enjoy!


The base of this recipe rests on just four ingredients - whole milk, corn, goat cheese and powdered gelatine. The simplest panna cotta in the world requires only milk (or cream) and gelatine...ok, and a bit of water to "bloom" the gelatine. It's such a beautifully streamlined dessert.


Should you wish to garnish, you could use finely chopped pimento, fried pancetta, and paprika.

(That paprika, friends, was plucked from the shelves at Budapest's main market, with the assistance of our Hungarian chef/guide. Someday I'll have to tell you about that day...)


To make enough panna cotta for four 4-ounce servings, combine 2 cups whole milk and 3 cups corn kernels in a saucepan over medium heat.


Simmer and stir for 5 minutes, then whisk in 4 ounces of goat cheese. Everything's better with goat cheese!


Whisk it well...


Cover, turn off the heat, and let it sit for 30 minutes.


While that's steeping you can do three things:

#1 - Fry the pancetta for the garnish. If you have any canine kitchen helpers, they will no doubt appear during this step in the process.


#2 - "Bloom" the gelatine. Fill a small container with 4 TBS water. Sprinkle 3 tsp gelatine powder evenly over the surface of the water.


It will soon turn into a near solid. Resist the urge to play with it.


#3 - Lightly oil the insides of your ramekins. You could also use a muffin tin, but I'm using ramekins.


After 30 minutes, spoon out the gelatine blob...


And whisk it into the corn/milk mixture.


Strain the mixture into the oiled ramekins, and let it set in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.


Reserve a little bit of the cooked corn for garnish.


After two hours, gently run a sharp knife along the side of the ramekins to release the panna cotta. Invert a small plate over the ramekin, flip, and garnish. Serve immediately.

Get the complete recipe on Huffington Post.


Thanksgiving Table Inspiration: "Rough Luxe"

Need some last-minute Thanksgiving table inspiration? Here is a vintage-inspired table I'm calling "Rough Luxe". The white plates are Mikasa's "Italian Countryside" pattern. Everything else (the glasses, the crystal plates, the linens...everything) is available for rent from Tablescapes, a marvelous resource here in Chicago. In fact, it was Tablescapes owner Kathy who dubbed this look "Rough Luxe" and I think it's entirely appropriate.

Take a peep at this casual-meets-elegant look. It's not too late to get a bit of inspiration for your table!


DIY Winter Pine Cone Wreath

As a gardener, I enjoy inviting a bit of nature indoors for the holidays. A tousled mop of dried hydrangea or the wispy elegance of Japanese silver grass plumes add special warmth to the table.

One easy way to bring in the great outdoors is decorating with pine cones. They can be piled in a decorative bowl, scattered across a table, or tucked into arrangements. Here’s a fun and easy project for a winter day:

Do It Yourself Cone Wreath

This elegant wreath highlights the natural beauty of the cones. You can collect cones from the outdoors, or purchase at craft stores.

A few caveats on collecting:
1) Ask permission if it isn’t your property.
2) Do not collect from forest preserves, arboreta, or botanic gardens without express permission. These institutions may allow you to collect, but talk to them first. No one likes to get questioned by security.
3) Exhaust all resources. Check public parks, as well as asking family and friends.
4) Make it an outing with the kids! Collecting cones can turn into a great counting game.
5) Choose only the cones in the best shape, and include nuts if you like.

If you collect your own cones and nuts, make sure to pre-treat them before you start working. You want to make sure that they are dry and pest-free. This treatment allows the sap to melt a bit so the cones are much less sticky. Always make sure to treat nuts - especially acorns - as they often have larvae inside. Do not be surprised if the tops of the acorns pop off. That’s what the glue gun is for!

To pre-treat the cones:
1) Line a cookie sheet with foil and spread the cones and/or nuts evenly.
2) Bake at 200 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes with the oven door cracked open. This is flammable stuff, so make sure to keep an eye on it.
3) Allow cones to cool before using.

To assemble:
You will need...
Wire cutters
Floral wire
Zip ties
Glue gun
Newspaper or other dropcloth material
Acrylic spray
Needle nose pliers (optional)

I chose to use spruce cones, Austrian pine, dwarf white pine, Douglas fir, and hemlock. These can all be found in many neighborhoods. The spruce cones are the papery ones, and the pine cones have bigger, woodier scales.


To get started, I did a loose layout of the base layer.


Then, I wired up the cones. You want to tuck the floral wire way up under the scales of the cone, while leaving plenty of extra to maneuver with. You can always trim it later. You may want to use needle nose pliers to get a super tight twist on the wire.

For this wreath, I interspersed groupings of Austrian pine cones in with the spruce, with a dash of white pine for contrast...but after thinking about it, I decided I didn’t care for the white pine cones breaking up the rhythm. The nice part of wiring in the cones is that it’s very easy to change your mind and rearrange. I also found that after attaching a group or a row, that they could be anchored if you wrap all their wires together.

So now with a base layer complete, I added a bit of flourish on the top, with long white pine cones, a trio of Douglas fir, and topped it off with an open hemlock cone. Since the wire base was showing through in places, I went back and glued in several small spruce and hemlock cones. This gave it a subtle depth of texture without losing the monochromatic color scheme.


After determining the center of the wreath, I slipped a zip tie through the wire base and tugged it through just enough to close the loop.


As you can see from the back, I have several bundles of wire twisted together.


After hanging on the wall, I adjusted the zip tie to make sure it wouldn’t show and then trimmed the end to form a nice, tidy loop. To make it permanent, I took it outside and gave it a good spray of clear acrylic to seal. I prefer the natural colors of the cones, but you can also add glitter, ribbon, and other ornaments.

One final note on cleanup – expect to get a little dirty and sticky. Two tricks of the trade:
1) Use hand lotion and lots of it before you handle the materials. You can sometimes just rub the sap off your fingers.
2) Crabtree & Evelyn’s Gardeners Scrub Cleanser – by far the best microbead cleanser I’ve tried that not only works, but moisturizes and smells nice. Lava Soap works too, but it’s very very abrasive.


Gardening by Heather Prince

Part of the Second City Soiree Contributor Series. Heather is on Twitter @FearlessGarden. Read her full bio here.


Junior League Cookbook Giveaway (and Chicken with Gnocchi recipe)

I love looking at community cookbooks. Whether it's a slim pamphlet cranked out at the local print shop or an elegantly designed hardcover volume, nearly all offer a "slice of life" perspective while contributing to a fundraising goal. Win-win!

Among the most prized are Junior League Cookbooks. So when a fellow Junior League of Chicago member asked if I'd share our urban chic cookbook, Peeling the Wild Onion, of course I said YES! Peeling features recipes from top Chicago restaurants and chefs, and is organized by season. And...

I'm giving away three copies!

What a marvelous Christmas gift this would be! Perfect for a gourmand, a cookbook collector, or someone who loves our fair foodie city. 


How to enter:
1) Visit the JLC web site and take a look at our community projects. Leave a comment on this post (include your email address) telling me which one resonates with you.
2) You can also tweet the following: Calling all cooks: @SecndCitySoiree is giving away a beautiful @JuniorLeagueChi cookbook! http://su.pr/27Z7aZ
3) Contest ends Friday, Nov 18 2011, at 10pm Central. The winners will be randomly selected and announced by the following Monday.
4) Rules: one comment and one tweet per person. Must be US citizen 18+

This contest is closed. Congratulations to readers Dante, Eulalia and Heidi, who are now owners of this lovely cookbook. A very big thanks to all who entered and took the time to look over the JLC's many wonderful projects!

And now, an elegant recipe from the book. I made this last weekend, and it was delicious...

Whole Roasted Baby Chicken with Potato Gnocchi, Honey-Glazed Parsnips and Young Beets

From the Junior League of Chicago's Peeling the Wild Onion
This recipe was provided by the Executive Chef of Naha.

1 small organic chicken
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Several sprigs fresh thyme

1 pound beets
2 to 4 parsnips
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ready-to-cook gnocchi
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin
1 1/4 cups white wine

Season the chicken with salt and pepper, Stuff the thyme into the chicken. Truss the chicken with clean cotton string or kitchen twine. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy sauté pan. Add the chicken and cook until browned all over, turning occasionally. Remove to a roasting pan. Dot with l tablespoon of the butter. Roast in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 1 hour. Remove the chicken and let stand until cool. Pour the wine into the roasting pan and reserve the juices. Cut the chicken into smaller pieces, discarding the bones.

Cook the beets in cold water to cover in a large pot over medium-high heat until tender. Cool and peel the beets under running water, gently pulling off the skins by hand. (Wear plastic gloves to avoid stains.) Trim the bottom and top of the beets and cut them into halves or Wedges, depending on the size.

Peel the parsnips and cut them into desired shapes. Saute the parsnips in 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet. Remove to a roasting pan and roast in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until tender. Drizzle with the honey. Roast for 10 minutes or until glazed and caramelized.

Boil the gnocchi in water using the package directions. Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan and saute the gnocchi for 15 minutes.

To assemble, place the chicken on an ovenproof serving plate. Surround the chicken with the sauteed gnocchi. Top with the glazed parsnips and beets. Reheat in the oven, Drizzle vvith the extra-virgin olive oil or with the reserved pan juices.

Yield: 4 servings

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