Thursday, December 5, 2013

Fresh Herb Cheese Spread

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee
Christmas trees are going up like lightning everywhere!  With Thanksgiving so late this year, some folks jumped the gun.  No judging - just sayin' is all!  So those who wait until Thanksgiving is over, we're scrambling to get all the decorations up so we have plenty of time to enjoy them before taking them down again!  The Christmas tree is such an important symbol of the holidays to me.  It was always such a festive occasion when we would decorate ours.  Music was playing, we'd be singing along, and the kids were all vying to have their ornaments in the highest and most visible spot for adoration.  It was all a great party until the lights were turned off and the finished product would be gazed upon in the quiet darkness of the family room - the twinkle lights of the tree casting its magic all around.  It doesn't matter what kind of ornaments or garland you use.  All Christmas trees are beautiful!  And some are downright tasty!

So, years ago, my husband and I used to throw a Christmas 
get-together at our home for all the people who worked with him.
This sort of thing used to terrify me.
I was so lacking in culinary skills and, year after year, 
something crazy would happen -
like when I attempted to serve a whole meal
and made chicken breasts.
I opted to use these clear plastic yet pretty plates 
on which to serve the dinner.
All was going well until folks started trying to cut their chicken.

The plates ended up having a surface with properties like
Clark Griswold's non-nutritive cereal lacquer in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
Chicken breasts were flying off of people's plates!
(Which probably means they were overdone to boot.)
People were having a hard time getting a 
grip on their chicken and getting it to stay still
so they could make a cut!

I wanted to crawl under the table!
I'm such a social person!
And I love parties!
Why can't this hostessing thing come more easily to me!?!?!
Can I please have a year where everything goes well?!

I got to talking to one of my good friends, Wendy.
Wendy is one of those ladies who is born to entertain
and host great parties.
Everything looks great and tastes great!
I was envious.
And curious.

I started talking to her about my dilemmas.
I was still in my "I hate to cook" stage so she made a suggestion
that I REALLY loved!
"Why don't you let someone else do the cooking for you?
If you want, I'd be happy to help!"
That, right there, folks, is the best of best friends!

She also suggested not trying to seat everybody
and create such a formal atmosphere as we're not formal people.
(Hmmm.  That makes sense.)
Serve a buffet of delightful snacks presented
in beautiful and creative ways, she added.
Well, heck, if you will do it for me, 
why not?

So the next year I did just that.
We came up with an assortment of 
options which she assured me were so easy!
I decided I was up to contributing my
Steamed Old Bay Shrimp to the table
and she pretty much did the rest!
An hour before company was due, she came 
and set it all up.
I watched her closely and took mental notes
on how she did simple things that made
such big differences!
It was all stunning and delicious!
And I enjoyed myself for the first time in years!

This cheesy Christmas tree is one of the
simple things I learned from her.
So easy.
So delicious!
So very thankful for such talented and wonderful friends!

Fresh Herb Cheese Spread
Printable Recipe Card
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. butter, softened (1 stick, 114 g)
1/4 t. onion powder
1 green onion
fresh parsley
10 sprigs fresh thyme
2 - 3 stems fresh rosemary
red and yellow bell peppers

I really encourage you to use fresh herbs for this.  You can usually find them in your produce department - and sometimes they even sell a package that has a variety of herbs in one.  This time of year, especially, you should be able to find one that has the thyme and rosemary together.  You'll find the bundles of parsley by the greens usually.  Fresh herbs not only impart their freshness to your recipe, but they are also beautiful to behold!
Strips the tiny leaves from the sprigs of thyme and the needles from the rosemary and, using your sharpest knife, start chopping until they are quite fine.  Rosemary is a tough old broad and chewing on one of her needles isn't always pleasant.  However, once you mince them into tiny fragments, her flavor is unbeatable!  Use only about 2/3 of the bundle of parsley for now and use the top leafy part (reserve the stems for making stock!) and chop fine as well.  Do the same to the green onion.  Set aside.
In a mixing bowl beat the cream cheese and butter together until well blended.  Add the onion powder and mix well.  Add the chopped fresh herbs and green onion and mix again until well blended.  To shape into a tree, I use a disposable pastry bag and snip off a tiny portion of the tip - just enough to let some air escape as you fill it but not enough to allow the mixture to just run out the other end.  Using a spatula, scrape the herbed cheese mixture out of the bowl and into the pastry bag.  If you hold the pastry bag in one hand and fold down about 3 inches of the top over your hand, it makes for a cleaner process.  Continue adding scoops of the mixture, taking care that you aren't capturing air bubbles as you go.  Once all the mixture is scooped into the cone-shaped pastry bag, give a gentle squeeze to shape it into a conical tree shape.  Fold in the bottom opening of the bag and give it a press onto the counter to form a flat base for the tree to stand up on its own.  Place in the freezer for about 6 hours or overnight.  If you don't have a pastry bag, try forming a cone shape with parchment paper or wax paper, taping the seam to secure.  You can make any shape you like with this.  I'm partial to the tree for the holidays!

When you remove the cheesy "tree" from the freezer, carefully cut away the bag or paper.  Chop the rest of the fresh parsley now.  Also cut a star shape from the yellow bell pepper now - about 1" across.  Cut little diamond shapes from the red bell pepper to be used as "ornaments."  By this time, the frozen tree has softened enough to start decorating!

Carefully press the chopped fresh parsley onto the outside of the tree.  Decorate the tree with the red pepper ornaments and top it with your yellow pepper star!  Position the tree on your serving platter and surround with crackers and/or carrot and celery sticks!  The tree, of course, will eventually topple, but if you want to add a little more stability, try securing it onto one of those receipt pics, which can be found at a restaurant supply store.  Or, if you have a cake decorating kit, try using a rose nail, running the spike up into the center of the tree.

To serve, I simply made a pretty frilly "tree skirt" out of some green leaf lettuce tops and positioned the tree in the center.  Have fun!  And remember - make any shape you want!  Even lay it flat on the serving platter!  The deliciousness of this recipe will make it all disappear!  If you're not interested in a shape, then you can serve it straight from the mixer bowl, into a serving bowl!

Note: it will take 1 1/2 - 2 hours for the tree to soften from a frozen state.  You can decorate the tree earlier in the day when it's still frozen and then store in your refrigerator until you're ready to plate it.

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