Christmas Eve dinner can go fancy or cozy – your choice

December 22, 2023

Before we relocated to the beach, when we were still living in the greater D.C. area, one of our holiday traditions was to go out to dinner on Christmas Eve. Instead of trying to find a restaurant that was open, we would select an upscale hotel somewhere downtown. Their lobbies were festively decorated, and their restaurants usually had special menus. We’d dress up in our holiday finery and enjoy a fancy meal.

Over the years, that tradition evolved into sharing a special dinner at home. We still wanted a splurge-worthy meal, but now it was more likely to feature a comfort-food favorite to accompany the main course. As you can see from the photo, this year it’s crab cake on a bed of baby arugula with creamy macaroni and cheese as a side. What you can’t see in the photo is our beverage of choice, a flute of either Champagne or Prosecco.

There are so many debates about the best way to make a crab cake, a dish for which you can find thousands of recipes – almost all of them delicious. My rule of thumb when selecting crabmeat for crab cakes is to avoid pure jumbo lump, because it can be a challenge to get the cake to hold together unless you stir in some sort of binding or filler, which most people prefer to avoid.

Jumbo lump comes from the two large muscles that control the swimming fins at the base of the crab. It’s the most expensive because there’s so little of it in each individual crab. These chunks of crabmeat have a bright white color and rich taste that are perfect for dishes that will showcase the impressive size of the pieces, as in a crab cocktail or as a statement garnish for soup. 

When we make crab cakes, I try to find basic lump crab, which will have some intact pieces like those found in jumbo lump, but the rest of the mixture will be less uniformly large. This combination of textures and sizes will actually work better when forming crab cakes, allowing you to avoid heavy fillers or bready bindings. My recipe includes a dusting of cracker crumbs, mayonnaise and seasonings held together with a whipped egg white.

When cooking crab cakes, it can be challenging to keep them intact when you flip them in the skillet. A period of time in the refrigerator to firm them up will help avoid crumbling. If you broil or bake them (not my favorite, because I love the crispy, buttery edges they get when fried) it’s essential to cook them completely so the internal temperature reaches at least 145 F and the cake steams as you break into it with your fork.

As if crab cakes weren’t controversial enough, recipes for macaroni and cheese could spark highly contentious debates. I have a few opinions about what makes a good batch of mac and cheese, starting with the pasta. While I like the elbow shape, I prefer the larger, thicker, ridged elbows because they collect more of the creamy sauce. I’m also a proponent of more than one type of cheese to create a balanced texture and flavor. 

For example, extra-sharp cheddar on its own can cause an almost gritty feel, but combining cheddar with gruyère adds flavor and wonderful creaminess. Be sure to take the time to grate your own cheese, as the preservatives and anti-caking agents in the packaged versions can interfere with melting. Some people will fight for the crunchy bits that form in the oven when mac and cheese is topped with buttery bread crumbs and baked. As you can see from the photo, I’ll eat mine straight from the pot. Merry Christmas Eve!

Crab Cakes

1 lb lump crabmeat
1 T cracker crumbs
1 egg, separated
2 t snipped chives
2 t mustard powder
1 t Old Bay
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1 T lemon juice
1/4 C mayonnaise

Place crabmeat in a colander and pick over to remove bits of shell and cartilage. Sprinkle in cracker crumbs and toss gently to distribute; set aside. Separate egg, placing yolk in a large bowl and white in a small mixing bowl. Beat egg white until soft peaks form; set aside. Add remaining ingredients to the egg yolk and whisk until smooth. Fold the crabmeat and beaten egg white into the mixture. Form into 4 patties and refrigerate for about 20 minutes. Fry in a skillet in melted butter, turning once. Yield: 4 crab cakes.

Macaroni & Cheese

1 lb large elbow pasta
1/2 t olive oil
10 oz sharp cheddar cheese
10 oz Gruyère cheese
4 T butter
1/4 C flour
4 C whole milk
1 t Dijon mustard
1/2 t salt
1/2 t white pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Prepare the macaroni according to the package instructions, cooking it al dente. Drain and toss with a drizzle of olive oil to prevent sticking. Grate the cheeses; set aside. In a large pot, melt  butter over medium until bubbly. Sift in flour and cook, whisking continuously, until the mixture is light golden-brown, about 4 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk. Stir in mustard, salt and pepper; bring to a simmer, whisking continuously. Add grated cheeses and whisk until melted. Cook, whisking often, over medium-low heat for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly. Add the cooked pasta and stir to coat. Serve while hot. Yield: 8 servings.


Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter