For our first annual “…an endless banquet” Christmas party we decided to draw from our shared Czechoslovak roots (Michelle’s family is Czech through-and-through; my father’s family is Slovak) AND give a nod to our experiences earlier this fall at the Czech-Slovak Bazaar (see “The Czech-Slovak Bazaar”) with our main attraction: chlebicky. We both have all kinds of fond memories involving them. Most recently, though, when we were in Prague visiting Michelle’s family last December, we used to sneak out of the sustained feeding frenzy that was her aunt’s apartment to go Christmas shopping, only to duck into the nearest luncheonette for chlebicky (!). We couldn’t help ourselves—they were so beautiful, so fresh, so typically Czech, and so cheap. If we lived in Toronto we could make regular visits to the Prague Deli (638 Queen Street West) for their excellent and rather authentic chlebicky, but Montreal has nothing of the sort, so Prague’s luncheonettes were ever so exotic for us.
Traditional chlebicky are made with a thin layer of a pâté-like spread, but Michelle’s family started making them vegetarian with a thin layer of potato salad years ago and that’s the way we prefer them now. I made the potato salad with medium-small red potatoes, celery, shallots, garlic, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, canola oil, champagne vinegar, paprika, salt, and pepper. We only used a smear of potato salad on each of our open-faced sandwiches, so we served what remained of the potato salad alongside the ham. It wasn’t as heavy on the mayonnaise as most traditional Czech potato salads; Kazi (our Czech authenticity invigilator) reported that it had a bit more finesse to it. We also didn’t make nearly as much of it as a typical Czech household would. Last year, when we stayed with Michelle’s aunt in Prague, we got served potato salad for days on end for both lunch and dinner from the same never-ending supply (which was kept in the cold pantry). On the first day it was a treat; by day 4 we’d had our fill.
For the glazed ham we used a recipe from Saveur Cooks Authentic American (“Monte’s Ham”). The sidebar to that recipe tells the story of the author’s relocation to New York. Soon after he arrived a friend pulled him aside and gave him two pieces of advice: “if you wear an expensive watch, you can wear anything else you want,” and “when you have a lot of people over, buy a cheap ham.” The secret: “glaze the hell out of it.” We tested out this recipe on our local ham connoisseur, Colin, a few weeks ago. (Actually, the fact that he’s got a cat named Monte probably had something to do with why we chose him, too.) The very next day he went out and bought his own ham so he could try the same recipe at home. We took this to be a good sign. This time around we bought two halves of smoked ham, instead of just one, but otherwise we duplicated what we’d done before: we baked them for 2 hours, studded them with cloves, glazed them with a mixture of Dijon mustard, orange marmalade, and brown sugar, and then baked them for another 1 1/2 hours. Even a couple of people who said they'd never liked ham before found themselves digging in.
We keep the “Sarajevo-style” eggplant dip in quotation marks because our friend Aleksandra, who’s from Sarajevo, claims that no such thing exists over there. We call it “Sarajevo-style” because we based our recipe on a dip that Michelle found at a short-lived Montreal restaurant/caterer that was called “Sarajevo.” One day, when Michelle and I were still just getting to know each other, Michelle came and met me at the bookstore where I was working. We went outside for my lunch break and she surprised me with a selection of goodies from “Sarajevo,” the highlight of which was an eggplant dip that had walnuts in it. A few weeks later the restaurant had disappeared. A few months later, Michelle and I were an item. I’ve been making an eggplant dip inspired by the Sarajevo’s version ever since—it includes two baked eggplants, garlic, feta cheese, toasted walnuts, parsley, olive oil, and walnut vinegar (recipe to follow in the next couple of weeks). It’s always a hit at parties. Even Aleksandra likes it.
Neither of us have Anglo-Saxon roots, so neither of us grew up in Christmas pudding-making families. In fact, Michelle had never, ever tasted one until she made this one. For the one we served at our party, she followed a recipe for an Irish version that was featured in Saveur recently. She also made a couple of other recipes, including one from The Joy of Cooking, for later this week. The pudding we unveiled on Saturday night was such a huge hit (it vanished within minutes), I, for one, can’t wait to steam the other ones. By the way, we’re collecting family pudding recipes, so if you’d like to send one along, please do.
The hit among our drink offerings was definitely the egg nog. One guest was found licking the punchbowl clean after the last cup had been poured. We highly recommend making one heavy on the bourbon, like last Saturday's. It had a bomb-type base mixed with a meringue, all of which was then mixed with whipped cream. The result was downright paradoxical: so rich, but light as a cloud. Perfect with freshly grated nutmeg.