Festively decorated cake pops, like these from Palmer’s Darien, would make for a delicious addition to the holiday dessert table, or as gifts for family, friends, teachers, etc. — Palmer’s Darien photo

The holidays are a time for festive gatherings and culinary traditions. While folks may love old seasonal favorites, some may be looking to add a new twist to this year’s menu. For helpful tips on how to kick up this year’s holiday classics, Ann Cheney, store manager for Walter Stewart’s Market and John Robinson, manager of Stewart’s Wine and Spirits in New Canaan, share their expertise.

Hosting this holiday season? Make it easy and pick up some prepared food items, like these from Aux Delices Foods, with locations in Westport, Darien, Greenwich, and Riverside. — Aux Delices Foods photo

Delicious food with “ease of preparation” is likely a priority during the busy holiday season. “On the lighter side you can do smashed cauliflower turnips and frizzled shallots. Additionally, produce an array of chopped, riced, shredded, cubed, and spiralized veggies,” Cheney says, adding that a “cheese board is fast, easy, and delicious.” To keep it simple, she suggests “Harbison cheese with its rustic, bloomy rind and Walter Stewart’s house-made crostini.” And for a more complex platter, “three to five cheeses, nuts, dried fruits and crackers from our new cheese case — we will help you make your selections.” These are just a few ideas for appetizers and side dishes.

When it comes to holiday cocktails, Robinson emphasizes “functional beverages — great to have on hand before and after holidays.” He suggests replacing soda with kombucha to make bright sparkling cocktails. Health-Ade Pink Lady Apple Kombucha and gin with rosemary sprig is an example of a delicious cocktail for the holidays. “Trickling Spring Eggnog with favorite boozy amendments — Local Litchfield Distillery Small Batch Bourbon” is an additional option.

Megan Palmer Rivera, culinary director for Palmer’s Darien in Darien, delves into entertaining at the holidays and offers ways to enhance dishes as well as décor. She says, “Thanksgiving is flavor-driven, whereas Christmas is more about beauty, theme and decorations.” One way to dress up your holiday table and elevate your dessert offerings is with cake pops. Made in a variety of fun shapes such as Santa Claus and presents, cake pops come in flavors including vanilla, chocolate and coconut. She suggests pairing assorted cake pops with name cards and using them as place settings.

Another way to indulge creatively this holiday season is when it comes to stuffing. Palmer Rivera says, “There are so many breads to choose from when making a stuffing — cornbread, sourdough, brioche, to name a few.” In addition to selecting the type of bread, home cooks can get innovative by adding a combination of various fruits, nuts, sausage, and other ingredients.  She adds that this holiday season, folks can place their orders online at palmersdarien.com. “You can even avoid lines and crowds the day-of by paying online and bringing your receipt when you pick up the order,” she notes.

Chef Marc Poidevin of Rowayton Market in Rowayton emphasizes the gluten-free and vegetarian options this holiday season. Roasted butternut squash, acorn squash, roasted cauliflower, and potato gratin are just a few of the side dishes available for those seeking healthier, gluten-free alternatives this season. Stuffing made with gluten-free bread, dried fruit, sausage, and quinoa offers a healthy twist on a holiday classic, Poidevin says.

In addition to creating a vegetable-centric and gluten-free menu, there are other healthy alternatives to holiday favorites. According to an article by Beth Orenstein published in Everyday Health, skipping full-fat dips and going for the yogurt-based dips instead is a good way to maintain a healthy balance during a season known for overindulgence. “Substitute low-fat or nonfat plain Greek yogurt or nonfat sour cream for regular sour cream in all of your recipes this season,” Orenstein suggests. Additionally, she recommends oven-roasted sweet potatoes brushed with olive oil instead of candied yams and cranberry relish in place of cranberry sauce to maximize nutritional value and cut down on sugars.

Here’s a twist on traditional cornbread — and serve it with warm maple syrup!

Double Corn Pudding
(Serves 12)

Ingredients:
2 14.75 ounce canned cream corn
2 boxes (8.5 oz.) corn muffin mix
4 large eggs, room temperature
10 tablespoons butter, melted

Maple syrup, warmed, on the side

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the first four ingredients together until combined. Spray a 4-quart dish (or a 13” x 9” casserole) with cooking spray and pour mixture into dish. Bake for 45 minutes or until light golden brown. Serve with warm maple syrup on the side.