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Megan Garrelts, pastry chef and co-owner of Bluestem in Kansas City, Missouri, explains why she loves mulled cider, reveals her favorite gifts to give and offers a surprisingly easy but super-impressive dessert technique.
What are your favorite holiday gift ideas?
I love spice gift boxes, like the ones from Penzeys Spices. My parents got us some a couple of years ago for Christmas and for our wedding. They’re a great way to refill the spice cabinet.
Cooking classes make a great gift, too. We have the Kansas Culinary Center—most major cities have a place in town that offers classes and demos where you can sit and watch, or cook and eat.
And homemade stuff is always fun: brownies, cookies or things in jars, or even a cocktail set, two cocktail glasses and a bottle of liqueur or whatever is needed for the drink. Or cheeses, I love cheeses, we get so many at the restaurant. Green Dirt Farm near us in Weston, Missouri, makes an amazing fresh sheep’s milk cheese with the texture of ricotta, but you could put a little honey on it, that makes a great gift.
What are your favorite holiday drinks?
I love a mulled cider, something on the stove that makes the house smell good, maybe with some blood orange and clove. I always like Champagne, sometimes with a splash of some pomegranate liqueur, or St-Germain liqueur. Anything warm in a mug or sparkling in a flute is what you’ll see me drinking during the holidays.
What’s a great entertaining tip?
I love to remind people of your party the next day by giving people something to take away with them: a little of your favorite coffee or tea in a tin, or a sliver of pound cake or cranberry bread, a breakfast bread or muffin. Especially if you have out-of-town guests cooped up in a hotel or at grandma’s house, it’s a nice thing to have for the day after.
What are 5 top places not to miss on a holiday trip to Kansas City?
- The Plaza Lights in Kansas City: On Thanksgiving night at the Country Club Plaza, our big outdoor shopping area, they light the Christmas lights as well as the lights along the streets and buildings, that’s definitely a don’t-miss.
- They just also opened the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts a few years ago. “The Nutcracker” is there. It’s a beautiful new facility bringing a lot of people to Kansas City.
- Crown Center is our main holiday area—Santa’s there, it has an ice-skating rink, a great Christmas store, and The American Restaurant. It’s a great one-stop spot, great for kids, too.
- I also love Union Station. They have a big train set every year, and a museum, too, with revolving exhibits, sometimes with kid-friendly things.
- Bluestem does a holiday tea the Saturday before Christmas every December. We do one tea per quarter: a spring tea, a Mother’s Day tea, Valentine’s Day tea and Christmas tea. We serve a selection of teas and pastries and play holiday music. It’s something nice and different from what we usually do, and people seem to enjoy that.
- And this makes six, but a nice day trip: Weston, Missouri, where Green Dirt Farm is—about 40-mile drive from Kansas City. Weston has one shopping strip with a lot of local restaurants, a great Irish pub, a lot of little shops and boutiques. It also has nearby apple orchards and a couple of local wineries. It’s a great sleepy town with a lot going on.
What’s your most popular dish?
My salted pumpkin ice cream is asked for every year, that’s in our cookbook. My menu changes so much, so I don’t stick to anything very much. But I love the chocolate pudding cake in our cookbook, that’s my go-to recipe for something rich and chocolatey. That would be a good thing to serve with the salted pumpkin ice cream, especially in the winter.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
The Last Course, by Claudia Fleming. I think it’s out of print now, but you can probably find it on eBay. It’s simple but chef-driven. I use it at home all the time—her gingerbread stout cake is to die for—but as a chef I can also build a dish off one of her recipes to get inspired. It’s organized the way I build my menu: with sections on spices, chocolate, cream and dairy. And she has some composed dishes in the back. Typically, pastry books are single-subject; this covers the gamut. And it’s pretty, I like the photography.
What’s a technique everyone should know?
Meringue. I like it because it stands up; it looks hard, but it’s a simple thing to do and doesn’t take much more time than whipping cream. And mine is really easy: It’s just double sugar to egg whites (so if it’s one cup of egg whites, it’s 2 cups of sugar). Heat the sugar and whites over a double boiler in the mixing bowl until the sugar melts (which usually takes about 5 minutes) and then whip it. That way if you’re finishing a cake or pie or topping cookies or a cocktail like a hot chocolate, you can pipe or spoon a little dollop. If you have a torch at home you can torch it or pop it under the broiler, or leave it white and garnish it with some crushed peppermint candies, whatever you want. It’s just a matter of heating the whites first and making sure the sugar has dissolved. The biggest key is to make sure the sugar has dissolved. You can stick your finger in the whites to test: It shouldn’t feel that hot, and if you don’t feel any granules and it looks like a syrup, you can’t mess it up. I guess you could overwhip it until it gets completely dry, but that would take a lot of whipping. It should whip up to marshmallow texture. And if you have guests, you can whip it up before they come over, and it can sit out until you’re ready to serve dessert.