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Embrace holiday celebrations again with simple, smaller entertaining this season

Maple creme caramel (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Maple creme caramel (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Many people are rethinking how they will celebrate the holidays this year.

After putting out a highly unscientific poll on Facebook asking “how will you celebrate?,” I found a few themes emerging: Keep it simple and keep it small. Many talked about only getting together with small groups of vaccinated family and friends. Others said they will all get at-home COVID-19 tests before gathering to keep it even “safer.”

After two years of winter holidays complicated by the pandemic, many wrote to say they seek tradition more than ever. The importance of serving the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding they grew up eating or the Christmas cake that always graces their table feels more significant than ever. But others talked about the need to mix things up this holiday season, create new traditions since so many things don’t feel “normal” right now.

With that in mind, I created three new recipes. The first, an Italian-style seafood dish, is a main course (or even a first course). Shrimp and winter scallops are sauteed and served on top of linguine or spaghetti with a simple sauce made from garlic, wine, fish stock, parsley and red chili flakes. It’s a beautiful, celebratory dish that doesn’t take long to put together.

Then a side dish: a hearty winter gratin. Thin slices of sweet potatoes are layered with maple syrup, fresh herbs, grated Parmesan cheese, doused with cream and milk and baked into a tender, sweet, savory dish.

And finally a maple syrup-infused crème caramel. If you’ve always been afraid to make caramel because you’re sure you’d mess it up, think again. This is a straightforward, nearly fool-proof dessert that is made a day ahead of serving, leaving you more time to be with friends and family.

On a deeper level, I also heard from quite a few people who talked about not buying lots of gifts this year and instead, focusing on appreciating family and friends and truly looking at the gifts around us. And, as always, enjoy a really good meal. Happy holidays!

Holiday garlic shrimp and scallop linguine

Maybe you have roast beef and Yorkshire pudding every year. Maybe it’s a big glistening pork roast. But perhaps you’d like to mix things up a bit. This festive pasta dish can be made just before eating and feels celebratory enough for any holiday gathering.

Look for medium to large shrimp in the shell and scallops (preferably diver scallops from Maine which are in season right now; for mail order, try Harbor Fish in Portland, Maine). If you can’t find scallops, you can simply double the amount of shrimp or add clams or mussels.

The shrimp shells are used to make a quick shrimp stock. If you want to save time you can omit this step and buy 1 ½ cups of fish stock or clam juice from your local fish store. The stock can be made at least a day or two ahead of time.

This recipe serves 4 as a main course and 6 to 8 as a first course but can easily be doubled or cut in half.


The shrimp and stock:

  • 1 pound medium or large shrimp, shells on (or 2 pounds if you’re not using scallops), 36/40 count
  • 4 peppercorns
  • Generous pinch salt
  • A few sprigs of parsley
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • Sprinkling chili flakes

The scallops, sauce and pasta:

  • ⅓ cup flour
  • 1 pound sea scallops
  • 2 cloves garlic, 1 thinly sliced and 1 finely chopped
  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Pinch red chili flakes
  • 3 tablespoons dry white wine
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 pound linguine or spaghetti
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Make the shrimp stock: Peel the shells off the shrimp but keep the tail intact. Wrap the shrimp up and refrigerate for a maximum of 2 days.
  2. In a medium saucepan, combine the shrimp shells, peppercorns, salt, parsley, wine, a sprinkle of chile flakes and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium, and let simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. Taste the stock; it should have a subtle, but definitive, shrimp flavor. If it tastes weak, raise the heat and cook for another few minutes. Strain the stock, pressing down on the shells to extract all the flavor. You should have around 1 ¼ cups. The stock can be placed in a glass jar and refrigerated for several days.
  3. To make the sauce and the pasta: Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.
  4. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
  5. Place the flour, salt and pepper on a plate and dust the scallops on all sides. In a large skillet, heat the oil and 1/2 tablespoon of the butter over high heat. When the butter is sizzling, add the scallops and cook for 2 minutes on each side. The scallops should have a nice golden brown color. Remove to a plate and place in the oven to keep warm.
  6. Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the same skillet and place over moderately high heat. Add the shrimp, salt and pepper, the sliced garlic, and a sprinkle of red chili flakes and cook 2 minutes per side (if you have very large shrimp they may need closer to 3 minutes per side); they should also have a nice golden color. Remove to the plate with the scallops in the oven.
  7. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to directions. Make sure the pasta is al dente, with just a touch of bite and not too soft. Drain.
  8. In the same skillet set over medium-low heat add the chopped garlic and saute for 1 minute. Raise the heat to high and add the 1 ¼ cups stock, the wine and half the parsley. Add salt and pepper and a sprinkle of red chili flakes (just a touch) and bring to a boil. Let simmer for about 5 minutes, or until it’s reduced and flavorful. Add more salt and pepper if needed. Reduce the temperature to low, add the reserved shrimp and scallops and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Cook for another 2 minutes until the butter is melted and the fish is hot.
  9. Place the pasta on a large serving plate or bowl and top with the sauce and the scallops and shrimp. Sprinkle the remaining parsley on top.

Sweet potato gratin with sage and maple syrup

Thinly sliced sweet potatoes are layered with fresh sage and thyme, drizzled lightly with maple syrup and topped with grated Parmesan. The whole dish is baked with milk and cream to form this luscious gratin. It’s rich, sweet and cheesy — a real holiday feast!

You can assemble the gratin a day ahead of time. Don’t add the dairy until just before you are ready to bake it.

Serves 6 to 8.


  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 ½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced*
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 ½ tablespoons fresh sage, chopped or 1 tablespoon dried and crumbled
  • 1 ½ tablespoons fresh thyme, or 1 tablespoon dried and crumbled
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter, cut into small cubes
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup
  • ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • About ¾ cup heavy cream
  • About ½ cup milk

*The sweet potatoes need to be cut very thinly and uniformly. Cut them on a mandolin or with a food processor if you have one. Otherwise use a large, very sharp knife and be patient. Put on some music and slice away.


  1. Assemble the gratin: Spread the oil in the bottom of a large gratin dish, baking tray with sides, or Pyrex dish (about 13 ½ by 9 ½ inches). Layer one-third of the potatoes on top of the oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, ½ tablespoon of the sage and thyme, (or ⅓ of the dried herbs), 1 tablespoon of the flour and 1 tablespoon of the butter. Spoon on 1 tablespoon of the maple syrup and then sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the cheese. Repeat creating three layers. Take your time with the top layer, creating a smooth, even pattern with the potatoes. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours until ready to bake.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  3. Pour the cream and milk on top of the gratin. Place the gratin on a baking sheet to catch any overflowing juices and bake on the middle shelf of the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Reduce the oven to 350 degrees and loosely cover the gratin with foil. Bake another 50 minutes to an hour, or until the potatoes are tender and the cream/milk is thickened and bubbling. If the gratin appears dry during the last 15 minutes of baking add another 1/4 cup of cream or milk. If the dairy has not been absorbed and still looks liquidy, bake another 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the foil and place under the broiler for the last 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbling and there’s a golden brown “crust” on top. Serve hot.

Maple crème caramel

I love the silky smooth texture of this custard. I love the syrupy caramel. And I love the sweet, haunting flavor of the maple. Best of all this dessert needs to sit in the refrigerator overnight, leaving you to relax on the day you serve it.

If you’ve always been fearful of making caramel you can relax. This is a straightforward method that never fails. You can make one large crème caramel in an 8-inch cake pan or make individual portions using 8 six-ounce ramekins.

This recipe is my adaptation of one that appeared in “Fine Cooking” by Tish Boyle.

Serves 8.


The maple caramel:

  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon juice
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup maple syrup

The crème caramel:

  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • Pinch salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Make the caramel: In a medium saucepan, mix the sugar, lemon juice, water and maple syrup and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Have a pastry brush ready to wash down the sides of the pan if sugar adheres; this prevents crystallization. Cook for about 8 minutes, swirling the pan once or twice to keep the color even. Cook until the caramel is an even dark (not burnt) amber color. Keep your eye on it; it can burn quickly. Remove from the heat and pour the caramel into the bottom of an 8-inch cake pan or distribute between the bottom of eight 6-ounce ramekins swirling the caramel to evenly coat the bottom of the cake pan or ramekins. Set aside.
  2. Prepare the crème caramel: Bring a pot of water to boil. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the cake pan or ramekins into a shallow baking sheet with sides or shallow baking tray.
  3. In a medium saucepan, mix the milk, cream, maple syrup and salt and place over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Once it starts to simmer, remove the pan from the heat.
  4. In a large bowl whisk the eggs, egg yolks and vanilla. Slowly whisk the warm milk mixture into the eggs, adding it bit by bit and whisking continuously. Place a fine strainer over another bowl and strain the mixture. Pour the strained mixture into the cake pan or divide evenly into the ramekins directly on top of the caramel (which should have hardened at this point).
  5. Pour the boiling water around the cake pan or ramekins, being very careful not to splash any into the custard, adding enough to come up the sides of the pan or ramekins a few inches (not even halfway). Carefully transfer the baking sheet to the preheated oven and bake for about 45 to 50 minutes if it’s in a cake pan and about 30 to 35 minutes in the ramekins. The custard is ready when it appears set and firm along the edges, but when you gently shake the pan or ramekin it’s still a bit jiggly in the center.
  6. Carefully remove the baking pan from the oven, remove the cake pan or ramekins from the baking pan with the water, and let cool completely on a rack. Once cool, cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
  7. To serve: Use a flat kitchen knife to work your way around the cake pan or ramekins. Have a serving plate or individual plates (if baked in ramekins) ready and invert the custard onto the plate. Let all the caramel drip out from the bottom. Serve cold.

Other holiday favorites:

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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