Can we talk about Advent? I have no idea what your faith is like, what your religion is, how you feel about the general universe, etc. So all I can do is offer up my feelings about some of these topics from time to time, and today I feel like I need to talk about Advent, the time we wait for Christmas to come, and remember what it was (and is) like to wait for Jesus, for God to redeem the world.
Growing up we lit our Advent candles every Sunday night. We all had a part: My mom would read a couple of paragraphs about waiting for Christmas, my dad would read the Bible, I would play the piano for us to sing a song together, my brother would ask the question “Why do we light the first/second/third/fourth candle?” And then we would blow out the candles, which became a production when my brother was in elementary school and could not attempt to blow out his candle without breaking into laughter. And I have to say (and I think my mom would be happy to know this) that out of all the things going on during Christmas-time, the tradition of those Advent nights stick out to me.
This weekend Gerrit’s parents gave us an early Christmas present, a beautiful Advent wreath (which also doubles as a Lent wreath, which the Presbyterian-sometimes-liturgical-calendar-obsessed in me thinks is awesome). But I’ve kind of left it in the box the past couple of days, unsure how to use it. We have an Advent wreath we have used for the past couple of years, lighting our candles on Sundays and reading prayers. But so much feels forced to me. Readings, especially when read just between Gerrit and me, never feel as authentic as I wish they would be. I fully believe that traditions like these will be easier when we have children, because there will be the teaching and the fascination and the knowing that the traditions are not just for us but for them. But now? With just us? Nothing seems to fit right.
I searched online the other day for Advent resources: readings and prayers and rituals. And while there were plenty of beautiful things, when I imagined them being read aloud between us, they lose their mysticism. Kind of like how sometimes you have to absorb art and you can never attempt to explain to someone else why it is the truest thing to you.
So this is what we have decided to do: just to light our candles. To put our new wreath in the center of the table and light the candles each night as we eat dinner and let that be that. I am so much more comfortable with this. We can make our own meaning. And if we feel the need to say something or read something or share something, we can. But other than that we are just watching the candles and remembering that it is Advent.
So that’s what we did last night. And I think it’s going to work.
We need this for other reasons, too of course. We need it so that our eating becomes more mindful, so that we have a reason to make sure the television isn’t on for at least the 20 or 30 minutes we are at the table. We need it so that we enjoy our food more.
I made this cauliflower gratin for Thanksgiving and it was such a success that I never actually managed to get a good picture of it because by the time I went back to the pan it was almost completely gone. Completely. There is such richness to this dish; it is purely for special occasions, I think. Although really, anything can be a special occasion. Holidays and birthdays yes, but also regular weekday evenings lighting Advent candles.
Cauliflower Gratin with Roasted Chestnuts
adapted from Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook
As this was simmering on the stove (and especially as I was tasting the delicious bread crumbs that go on top) I knew this was going to be good. But it was even about five times better than I expected. I really can’t say that enough. Make this. I halved the original recipe for bread crumbs for you, and even then you might not need all of them. (I bet the rest would be delicious in this.) Also, the original recipe tells you to make this in individual ramekins, and if you want to do that they only need to bake for 5 minutes or so. I know the recipe looks long, but most of it is me telling you how to roast chestnuts and make breadcrumbs. And I promise, every step of this recipe is worth it.
Prep Time: 35 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Bake Time: 1 hour
For the breadcrumbs:
1/2 of a fresh French baguette (about 4 oz.), cut into 1 to 2 inch cubes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
3/4 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
For the gratin:
12 fresh chestnuts
1 3/4 lb. cauliflower florets (about 2 good sized cauliflower heads cut into small florets)
4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons black truffle oil (optional)
1. Begin by roasting your chestnuts. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Using the tip of a sharp knife, score the chestnuts on each side (just make a cross). The mark should cut into the shell of the chestnut, and in some places you should be able to see the lighter colored flesh of the nut in the crevice. Place the chestnuts on a baking sheet and roast for 30 to 35 minutes (the shells will begin to curl up). When they are done, turn the oven off but leave the chestnuts in the oven, taking only a few out at a time to peel. Use a kitchen towel (because they are hot) to peel the shell away from the inside flesh of the nut. (It should come off in two layers…a dark layer, and then a lighter inside part of the shell. You’ll know when you have the chestnut completely peeled–it will look wrinkly). When all of the chestnuts are peeled and cooled, dice them and set aside. (This entire step can be done ahead of time).
2. While the chestnuts are roasting, make the breadcrumbs. Place the bread cubes in a food processor and pulse until they are small and uniform (it might take a bit longer than you expect). Pour the breadcrumbs into a large mixing bowl, and add the thyme, parsley, chives, lemon zest, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Drizzle the melted butter over the breadcrumbs and stir until the breadcrumbs are evenly coated. Set aside. (You can make the breadcrumbs ahead of time and keep them for several days (up a week) in the fridge.)
3. Now for the gratin. In a large stock pot or dutch oven over medium high heat, combine the cauliflower, chestnuts, and heavy cream. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium to medium-low to let simmer for 10-12 minutes (covering the pot can help the process along a bit), until the cauliflower is tender.
4. Use a slotted spoon to remove the cauliflower and chestnuts. Set aside.
5. Add the Parmesan and thyme to the cream and increase the heat to bring the cream to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the cream is reduced by about half, about 20 minutes.
6. Put the cauliflower and chestnuts back into the pot, season with salt and pepper, and stir in the truffle oil if you’re using it.
7. Pour the mixture into an 8 x 11 or similar sized baking dish. Top the gratin with the fresh breadcrumbs. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Serve warm.