Sunday, April 13, 2008

Easter Dinner

I've been meaning to post about our Easter dinner for weeks now but we left for Mexico a couple of days after and then life has been nonstop ever since we stepped in the door from our return flight! Anyway, better late than never, right?

Easter is the signature day of the beginning of Spring. The Spring produce is beginning to hit the market, daffodils have hit Trader Joes for $1.29 a bunch, and the weather is beginning to look happy again.

Usually we have a number of friends over for dinner, where we all take a dish or two, and really "fancy" it up. Here are some pics from our house last year, compliments of Rachel, who was part of it.

This year David's parents were in town and we did a more casual, smaller dinner- well, it was more of a "brunch for dinner". It was pretty good! I had to do Susie's raspberry soup which is just to die for. It has become an Easter tradition and one dish I anticipate for weeks!! It is best made the day before, or even a couple of days before, and is served cold. De-seeding the pureed raspberries takes a little time, but it is pretty methodical and can be done while watching a good movie on tv. You can replace the sherry with water, if you prefer, and it is best to let the soup sit out on the counter for a half hour or so before you serve it because it is quite thick when it is cold. Garnish it with fresh mint sprigs, a few raspberries and a dollop of creme fraiche. All the recipes are at the end of this post.

After the cold raspberry soup we had everything else (except dessert of course!). There were steamed fingerling potatoes, ham, sliced strawberries, monkey bread, and cheese "souffle". I'm a little embarrassed to share my monkey bread recipe because it is such a cheater recipe, but it is sooo good. Everyone who has ever had it can't stop eating it and thinks it is much more difficult to pull off than it is. In fact, it is the perfect dish to bring to anything in the morning because it rises in the fridge overnight and then just has to be put in the oven for about 45-55 minutes. This recipe came from my friend Michelle, who brought it to her very first appearance at our dinner club. We knew she was a keeper!

This cheese souffle is from our stay at the Whitegate Inn, a Bed and Breakfast in Mendocino, CA, back in February (yes, I know I haven't written about it yet. It's on my list...). It is what they served at our first breakfast there along with these incredible orange cranberry scones and a yogurt parfait. I begged for both the scone and souffle recipes, which they were happy to give. Beware, it is filling, as it not really a true souffle. It has croutons in the bottom of the dish which absorb the eggs and milk and make it a little heartier than a traditional cheese souffle. It works best in the 8 oz size ramekins, but I made it here in a big gratin dish (you could also use a 9x13 pan).

We were so full after our meal that I had to wait probably five hours before I could even think about making dessert. I made a Strawberry Meringue Cake, adapted fromSaveur magazine, which I found on one of Tori Ritchie's "Tuesday Recipe" posts which you can learn about here. It was incredibly easy to make and the perfect ending for a rich, filling meal. It is a little like an Australian pavlova, except with hazelnuts. The outside is crisp and then inside is light and chewy. Make sure you bake it long enough so the inside is fully cooked. I needed to bake maybe 10 minutes longer than she says to, but every person's oven is different, so be sure to begin checking on it according to the recipe.

A great meal and time was had by all! Isn't Easter dinner great?

The Recipes

Raspberry Soup

1 1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
1/3 cup cold water
3/4 cup hot water
30 ounces fresh or frozen raspberries- sweetened to taste
28 ounces sour cream
1 1/3 cup pineapple juice
1 1/3 cup half/half
1/2 cup sherry
1/3 cup grenadine
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Puree and strain raspberries of all the seeds and set aside. Mix the cold water with gelatin for 5 minutes, then add the hot water to dissolve. Combine all ingredients and chill overnight.

Monkey Bread

pecans or your favorite type of nut (optional)
1 package of Rhodes frozen dinner rolls (or your own recipe)
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 large package of cook and serve butterscotch pudding mix

Grease the bottom of a bundt pan. Pour desired amount of nuts into bottom of pan. Arrange frozen rolls on top of nuts. Melt the butter and mix the brown sugar into the butter- pour over the top of the rolls. Sprinkle butterscotch powder over the top. Let rise about 6 hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Bake at 350 degrees, with the rack set int the lowest position to account for the rise of the rolls, until golden brown on the bottom, about 45-60 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes, then invert onto a serving platter.

Cheese Souffle

1 package of your favorite seasoned croutons
1/2 pound shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 pound shredded jack cheese
1 bunch green onions, sliced
1 package cream cheese, cut into cubes
19 eggs
4 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
4 shakes of hot sauce

Cover bottom of 14 4-ounce ramekins (or 8 large ramekins or a 9x13 pan), generously with seasoned croutons. Top croutons with shredded cheese, generously. Sprinkle sliced green onions on top and then cream cheese cubes on top of that.

Mix together the eggs. Add milk, salt, pepper, dry mustard and hot sauce and mix well. Pour this mixture slowly over each filled ramekin until almost full. Cover and allow to soak overnight in the refrigerator.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

strawberry meringue cake

To make the prep go faster, toast and grind the hazelnuts a day or two before and store in an airtight container.
serves 6
prep time: 30 minutes
bake time: 1 hour

6 egg whites, at room temperature
pinch salt or cream of tartar
1-1/4 cups sugar
2/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted, peeled, and ground (see note)
1/2 pound strawberries
2/3 cups heavy cream

Preheat an oven to 325°. On the back of a piece of parchment paper, draw an 8-inch circle with a pencil. Turn paper over and use it to line a baking sheet. Set aside.With an electric mixer, beat egg whites with salt or cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Beat in 1 cup of the sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, until stiff peaks form. With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the ground hazelnuts and remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Pour meringue onto parchment sheet circle, then gently spread to the diameter of the circle. Bake meringue for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 275° and continue to bake until golden outside but slightly chewy inside, about 40 minutes more (it may crack). Remove from oven and cool completely on a rack.To serve, hull and slice strawberries. Whip the cream. Gently loosen meringue from parchment, then transfer to a serving platter (if it sticks to parchment, just transfer with parchment to platter and lift each portion off parchment with a spatula or cake server). Spread cream over meringue, then top with strawberries, leaving a border of meringue around the edges. Serve immediately, cut into wedges with a knife.

Note: to toast hazelnuts, place them in a pie plate and bake at 350° until skins start to crack and nuts smell toasty (18 to 20 minutes). Remove nuts and cover with a dish towel; let stand about 5 minutes to steam. Put nuts in towel and knead and scrunch towel around nuts to slough off as much skin as possible (don't worry about every bit). Pulse nuts in a food processor until ground, but do not let turn to paste.

Friday, April 11, 2008

another new favorite

Here is another song I recently discovered on the blog "Oh Happy Day", which you can find in my links. So great. Hope you like it!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

mexico- arriba! arriba!

We just returned from a vacation to Mexico.

We stayed in Puerto Aventuras which is a town about an hour or so south of Cancun. We considered staying in Playa del Carmen which is about 30 minutes south of Cancun but I'm really glad we didn't. It is fun to stay a little more out of the way of the thick streams of fellow tourists. Puerto Aventuras is a gated community mostly comprised of houses, condos, Americans and Europeans... so not quite the "authentic" experience we tend to value, BUT it was great because we stayed in a condo rather than at a resort. The complex was called Quinta Luna and most people who own the 20 condos either permanently live there (mostly retired-folk) or used it as a second home, occasionally renting out to people like us.

The great thing about this condo was the view out our back door.


The lagoon was literally steps aways and our beach was private. A few more steps away and you were in the Carribbean. ABout 20 yards away around the corner was an infinity pool. We swam 2 or 3 times a day and had no competition for space or lounge chairs. At Spring Break, that is a rare thing indeed.

We were able to cook which ended up being a really good thing with the kids. We made a stop at Walmart (yes- they have TWO Walmarts in the Mayan Riviera- what is this world coming too?!) and bought a few groceries to have for breakfast and snacks, plus a few easy dinner options like pasta and a frozen pizza. I was really hoping to enjoy lots of great food but..... the kids whined like crazy come 5:30 when we would begin to suggest that we walk 10 minutes to the Marina area or pop in the car to find some good tacos or the like.

So I had maybe three really good food moments:

1. We stopped in Tulum which is a major Mayan archaeological site on the far southern end of the riviera area. In the pueblo itself there was an ice cream shop where I had both cajeta and corn ice cream. Yum. We need some shops around here to try these flavors.

2. About 10 minutes south of Puerto Aventuras is Akumal, which is a favorite snorkeling and scuba diving destination. I really liked the feel of this town. Just before you get to the arch there is a store on your right and a loncheria. We had read on locogringo that this place was pretty good and we decided to try it. I had some mole enchiladas and good limeade which were pretty decent and one of the boys had the chicken tacos which were really good. Plus their beans were good. Everywhere served refried black beans and sometimes the consistency was just weird. The guac here was also excellent- very lime-y.

3. This is kind of silly maybe, but I had a coconut ice pop at Xcaret that was quite tasty. It looked like a superfat, short white otter pop. If I could buy those here, I would have a freezer stocked full of them.

One thing we did that I will never do again is go on one of those sales pitches. When we picked up our rental car there was a lady who wanted us to come do a meeting at her resort, in return we would get $160 cash to pay for part of our car rental and we would have breakfast and the kids could swim in their great pools. The talk would just be about 90 minutes. We knew perfectly well what it was and thought since we always say no, we may as well hear what they have to say just to listen and learn. It was actually for a private residence club, not a timeshare, which seems to be a better idea, right? Investing in a purchase versus a rental? Man, these guys wouldn't take no for an answer. They came back at us with so many options and literally acted like we were crazy for not wanting to do it. They didn't seem to understand that some people need to do some research and think about an expensive decision before making it. It was also very strange that when we said we had no idea what other resorts charged for comparable programs or what people currently doing the program have to say in favor it, they didn't offer any info to persuade us. How about an, "oh here! I pulled this off a message board last week! Everyone loves us!" or, "down the road at these three spots they charge x amount for almost eactly the same thing, but ours has better trading power!". I mean, come on. I think walking out of there was a very good decision indeed. The good breakfast, cash and swim were not worth it. Afterwards we were thinking about our preferred way of travel and while we enjoy a nice resort here and there, we would hate to be committed to something like that because we like to have a pretty authentic experience immersed in the culture when we travel internationally. You know... stay at family owned small hotels, taste the local cuisine, walk out our door into the country or city, rather than into a pool and spa infested vacation bubble. Okay, enough of that.

The kids had a blast on the trip. They told us on our last day that they didn't want to go home and could we please move to Mexico?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

desserts for the serious sweet tooth

I bought a new cookbook today because I couldn't put it down. I had heard the title before and it hadn't grabbed me the same way the actual design did when I picked it up and saw the pages inside! It is so Cute!!! Every page is styled with polka dots, stripes, scalloped edges and ribbons. Greens, pinks, blues and browns everywhere. It feels like walking into the yummiest bakeshop you can find. The style of the pages reminds me of the adorable Miette, a local patisserie and confiserie, though the desserts are different. You can buy the book here.

I love how Jill O'Connor begins the book when she speaks about Willy Wonka and says, "There, food isn't just sustenance. It is adventure. It is magic. It is adundance, luxury and excess, all tied up into one big, pink, innocent bow of childlike glee. That is the world I wanted to re-create with the recipes in this book. Just like the aromas wafting from Wonka's chocolate factory, sweets oozing with sticky chewy caramel and butterscotch, gooey with marshmallow and jam, dripping with cream and dribbled with chocolate entice us to indulge our inner Augustus Gloop- if only every now and then."

Plus the desserts aren't like your typical baking cookbook. There's "Dark Chocolate Soup with Cinnamon-Toasted Pound-Cake Croutons", "Chocolate Mascarpone Cheesecake Pots with Shortbread Spoons", "Sticky Pear and Walnut Upside-Down Gingerbread", and "Hawaiian Caramel Corn", to name a few. I can't wait to try some of these out!

There is just something about holding a book in your hands, feeling the paper, turning the pages, and appreciating all the visuals, that make you want to buy that book right then and there. I never would have bought this book by just searching online! Thank goodness for bookstores.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Don't you just love Trader Joe's? Every spring I love getting their daffodils- a bunch of 8 stems or so for $1.29. I always get 5 or 6 bunches and put them in one vase. They come still closed or just beginning to bloom so they have quite a long vase life!

cooking class

A few weeks ago I taught a cooking class at our church. I get to do this once in a while and it is pretty fun- not that I am an expert or anything. When I like something, I tend to do all kinds of research and reading about it and learn everything I can, so I guess I tend to know more about my favorite things than the average Joe. Plus, eons ago, when I was first working at HomeChef we had to go through training and attend all their basic technique classes so we could really share knowledge with our customers. This experience helped me so much with a solid base of technique so that I felt comfortable to go off on any tangent of cooking and baking that I felt compelled to try!

The class I taught was called "The Art of Sauteing" and I demonstrated the basic technique through a few different recipes. You can find my handout here. We didn't get through everything listed but we did do Chicken Marsala, the sautueed mushrooms, and Coconut Glazed Pineapple. It was all sooo good. I haven't made the chicken in quite a while and had to make it again the next night for my family. The pineapple is quite excellent, if I do say so myself. After sauteeing the fruit, you deglaze the pan with pineapple juice and coconut milk. Serve everything with Pollyanne's coconut ice cream and toasted coconut flakes and you are set!

I would say the key basics of sauteeing are:
1. preheat your pan, preheat your pan, preheat your pan.
2. after the pan is hot, put just enough fat to cover the bottom of the pan (it will liquify very quickly because your pan is hot. :)
3. don't overcrowd your pan or the food will steam instead of develop that great golden crust we all love.
4. all those brown crusties left on the bottom of the pan make a great pan sauce. Just pour in a liquid of some kind and it gets all those flavorful bits off and makes your pan easier to clean at the same time!

More tips are included in my handout.