From Hoary to Glory

How three top New Jersey chefs reinvented a hated holiday dish.

At this time of year, tables groan with heaping platters, steaming casseroles, and hungry guests. The dishes, like the guests, tend to be familiar. Some—we’re talking about the food now—have grown tired and worn out their welcome. We asked three of the Garden State’s best chefs to tell us about a usual suspect of holiday fare they have lost patience with and taken back to the drawing board, or the cutting board. Here are their makeovers. (You’ll find all three recipes at njmonthly.com/holidayrecipes.)

Chef Andrew Araneo
Drew’s Bayshore Bistro, Keyport

Tired: Fruitcake
Inspired: Fruitcake Bread Pudding

James Beard Award semifinalist Andrew “Drew” Araneo grew up in Keyport but is best known for his take on succulent Southern dishes like jambalaya and shrimp and grits. Like many home cooks, Araneo thinks typical holiday fruitcake is best used as a gag gift. “You find it at the end of February in the back of a cupboard because no one ate it,” he says. “It’s very sweet and dense. I can’t get past the fake green and red fruit. The majority of it is nasty.” So on a lark he decided to combine fruitcake’s most redeemable attributes—dried fruit, undoctored—with one of his favorite foodstuffs, bread pudding. “I’m infatuated with bread pudding,” he admits. “I’ve been making it this way for about six or seven years. I did it as a goof to make my sister laugh at Christmas. It’s lighter but still has that Christmas-y flavor.” Araneo says his version, moistened by custard, is best served warm and works just as well for breakfast as for dessert. “The key is to let the custard soak into the bread,” he says. “If you don’t soak it long enough, the bread will be dry. Anything good takes time.” The one drawback? “The version I make is not going to keep for months—maybe a few days in the fridge at the most.” That’s okay. There’s little chance any will be left over to regift next year.

Chef Zod Arifai
Blu, Montclair

Tired: Sweet Potato Casserole
Inspired: Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Chef Zod Arifai has made Blu a foodie destination with distinctive dishes like polenta gnocchi in truffle broth with crisp goat cheese, and oysters in lime sauce with apple and olives. But around the holidays, simpler can seem better. Arifai says sweet potatoes benefit from a less-is-more approach. “I roast them in a hot oven with nothing else—no marshmallows or sugar. They’re sweet enough as they are, unless you’re making a dessert,” says Arifai, adding that his dish and the fruit-drenched traditional version are “two different animals.” The extra step of blanching is essential. “By roasting the sweet potatoes raw, they get very shriveled,” Arifai says. “They don’t retain their shape, they lose a lot of moisture and they don’t get caramelized properly.” Arifai’s sweets have none of those problems.

Chef Dennis Foy
Dennis Foy Restaurant, Lawrenceville

Tired: Eggnog
Inspired: Eggnog Orange Float

“Traditional eggnog,” says Dennis Foy, who was recently honored at the Summit Wine and Food Festival as one of New Jersey’s most influential chefs, “is cloying and heavy on the palate. It leaves a lot of residual dairy in the mouth.” Foy was tinkering when he came up with this reinterpretation. “It’s basically a take on the classic dessert of crème brûlée and transforms it into an eggnog,” he says. “We were looking to make a Creamsicle, and we had half a batch of crème brûlée finished, so we thought we’d make orange floats out of it.” The result? “It’s fun. You get this orange citrus flavor, and the carbonation cuts that cloying sweetness.” You won’t have to worry about guests pouring this kid-friendly drink down the drain in the powder room. “Everyone loves a Creamsicle,” he says.

Eggnog Orange Float

(Serves 8)

16 ounces cream
1 pint vanilla ice cream
16 ounces milk
12 ounces orange soda
6 egg yolks
12 orange segments
4 ounces sugar
cinnamon
nutmeg
1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
1 mint leaf

INSTRUCTIONS:
• Combine milk, cream, vanilla bean in pot and scald (bring short of a boil).
• Scrape the innards of the vanilla bean into the mix, take pot off heat, steep five minutes.
• Whip egg yolks and sugar with a whisk.
• Temper (gradually add) hot cream into the yolks.
• Strain mixture through a tight strainer.
• Bring mixture to a boil, remove from flame, let cool before placing in refrigerator.
• Add cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Serve chilled in glass; add soda, a scoop of ice cream, and decorate with orange wedge and mint leaf.

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