Desserts – Zester Daily Zester Daily Fri, 05 Jan 2018 10:00:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bitters: Spice + Time = Cocktail And Cookie Frosting Magic /cooking/bitters-spice-time-cocktail-magic/ /cooking/bitters-spice-time-cocktail-magic/#comments Sat, 02 Dec 2017 10:00:03 +0000 /?p=40879 Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol, and above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.

But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.

It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.

The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.

I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th  century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.

“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.

“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.

Making bitters at home

I immediately went to and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.

Gentian Root,  the star ingredient,  actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.

The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.

The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.

According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Copyright 2017 Susan Lutz

Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.

Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.

But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about.  Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!

So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies


1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar


1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.

5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.

6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.

7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.

8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.

Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Copyright 2017 Susan Lutz

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Nuttier, More Decadent Brownies With Acorn Flour /cooking/nuttier-more-decadent-brownies-with-acorn-flour/ /cooking/nuttier-more-decadent-brownies-with-acorn-flour/#respond Wed, 01 Nov 2017 09:00:42 +0000 /?p=75986 Coffee and 100% acorn brownies. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

As a wild foods enthusiast, it gives me particular pleasure to make a recipe with 100% acorn and to have it come out with excellent flavor and texture. For me, pulling off these chewy brownies made entirely of acorn flour feels like grasping the highest rung.

Working with acorn flour can be challenging because of its unique properties. Of course, one wouldn’t expect it to behave anything like wheat flour. Almond or chestnut flours are more similar to acorn than that. Even so, acorn flour doesn’t quite behave like either of those. Most of the time while working with acorn flour, one substitutes it for a portion of the regular flour, say a quarter or one-third, in a recipe.

So, why bother with a challenge as difficult as making a recipe that uses exclusively acorn flour, or any other bizarre and ill-behaving foraged ingredient? Certainly eating acorns isn’t a novel concept. Historically, they were a staple food. For a lover of food, the joy in creating recipes with wild foods lies in combining them with all of the modern ingredients and equipment that we now have at hand. Whereas historically acorns may have been eaten as gruel or pancakes, with all the tools I have access to, I can create anything from acorn falafel to delicate acorn lace cookies.

As a forager who began pursuing wild foods because they offer exciting new flavors, I aspire to eat as many wild foods as I can manage every day. To do that well and in the company of my family and friends, I need to make certain the meals I cook with wild ingredients are as appealing and tasty as I can manage.

Here in the central Rockies, there are definite on and off seasons for foraging. I go to great lengths in the summer to preserve and put up the foods I collect so that I can continue to eat them throughout the snowy months. In the winter, my fingers miss the sensation of harvesting and also the thrill, as there is a deeply buried artery of treasure hunting within every pursuit of wild foods. I’ve found the best way to get my foraging fix during the down season is to play with the ingredients I’ve squirreled away.

Often  these take on a theme based upon what is most abundant. The year after the big porcini boom, I created almost exclusively mushroom recipes. The following year, my brain chewed upon the subject of prickly pears. I can see quite clearly that this will be the year of the acorn.

Foraging for a treat

Foraging acorns. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Foraging acorns. Credit: Copyright 2017 Wendy Petty

Now, if you live in a place where it seems there are as many acorns falling as pebbles in the stream, you would probably think that every year is the year of the acorn. Unfortunately, I live in a place where there is only one native species of oak, Quercus gambelii, a scrubby bush that produces tiny, though tasty, nuts beloved by deer, birds and squirrels. There is no shortage of oaks planted in landscaping, of course. Not being native, however, they are a little fickle when it comes to our often snowy Mays and dry hot summers. It can be hit or miss when it comes to whether the ornamental oak trees produce acorns, causing the few acorn-loving humans around to guard their spots with a similar intensity to how others might protect their best mushroom spots.

Pursuing acorns has led me to some other bizarre behaviors that are surely outside the norm. I’ve made public pleas for my friends to message me if they see a loaded oak tree. I’ve scrambled to collect acorns from the sidewalk of a popular walking mall. I’ve gathered from trees at the edge of a shopping center that includes a Walmart. Later, when I tell my students that I’m using “Walmart acorns,” they give me quizzical looks, wondering if perhaps I purchased them.

Last year, I’d planned to teach a large workshop dedicated exclusively to processing and cooking with acorns. Of course, that was the year that not even my best scout could find any acorns locally. Instead, my mama shipped me box after box of acorns from four states away, each box arriving with chubby white acorn grubs squeezing out the corners. I can only imagine what the mail carrier thought of me.

Adventures with acorn flour

Acorn tile and 100% acorn brownie. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Acorn tile and 100% acorn brownie. Credit: Copyright 2017 Wendy Petty

In the end, these adventures enable me create in the kitchen the way a toddler would with finger paints. I have a lot of failures, to be certain. But every once in a while, I take something like a steaming irresistible batch of brownies out of the oven and get to delight everyone who gathers by telling them they’re made exclusively with acorn flour.

This recipe uses acorn flour made in the method described previously in my recipe for acorn lace cookies. I’m usually the kind of person who thinks nuts are essential in brownies. I’ve left them out here for fear of them obscuring the acorn flavor. I do, however, think acorn brownies are nice with a swirl of either raspberry jam or goat cheese.

100% Acorn Brownies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 16 brownies

For the brownies:

10 tablespoons butter, melted

1 1/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2 eggs

1/2 cup acorn flour

For the swirl:

3 ounces goat chevre, room temperature

2 tablespoons sour cream

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon flour

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla


1. Preheat your oven to 325 F and make a parchment paper sling for an 8×8 inch pan, so that the bottom and two sides are covered. This makes it easier to remove the acorn brownies once they’ve finished baking.

2. In a large bowl, stir together the still-hot melted butter, sugar, cocoa  and salt.

3. Beat in the vanilla and eggs until the batter looks shiny. Then stir in the acorn flour.

4. Pour the acorn brownie batter into the prepared pan.

5. To make the swirl, in a bowl, beat the goat cheese, sour cream and sugar with an electric mixer until they are smooth. Add flour, egg and vanilla and continue to beat until they are fully incorporated.

6. Drop a spoonful of the cheese mixture at nine points atop the brownie batter. Drag a butter knife through the brownies in swirl patterns to partially mix the cheese and brownie batter, making a pleasing marbled design.

7. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Traditional brownies would bake for less time. Acorn brownies need a bit longer so that they don’t come out of the oven with the appearance of raw batter. When cooked, a toothpick inserted 2/3 of the way to the center will come out clean.

8. Once cooled, you can lift the brownies out of the pan using their parchment sling, then cut them into 16 pieces.

Main photo: Coffee and 100% acorn brownies. Credit: Copyright 2017 Wendy Petty

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5 Quick, Tasty And Kosher Ways To Use Leftover Matzo /cooking/5-quick-tasty-and-kosher-ways-to-use-leftover-matzo/ /cooking/5-quick-tasty-and-kosher-ways-to-use-leftover-matzo/#respond Tue, 11 Apr 2017 09:00:48 +0000 /?p=64112 Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

If you celebrate Passover, you’re familiar with this scene: The closing prayers are sung, the last bite of seder brisket is a distant memory, and here you are facing the holiday’s inevitable final ritual: piles of leftover matzo. This unleavened Passover staple never fails to divide the closest of kin — some claim it’s the best thing before sliced bread, while others dismiss it as gastronomically inferior to sawdust.

But whether you detest the stuff or eat it straight out of the box, by the time Passover ends, you’re probably less than thrilled at the idea of force-feeding yourself bland iterations of the same matzo sandwiches you’ve eaten for a week. Don’t let the “bread of affliction” bring you down! With a little creativity, matzo can be as refreshingly versatile in the kitchen as it is divisive at the dinner table. Here are five easy and delicious ways you can enjoy (or dispense with) your matzo leftovers.

Spiced matzo chips pair nicely with dips and spreads for an easy hors d'oeuvre. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Spiced matzo chips pair nicely with dips and spreads for an easy hors d’oeuvre. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

1. Matzo is technically already a “cracker,” but let’s be honest, it could get much more adventurous with the term. Coat small matzo pieces in olive oil and sprinkle with any spice combination you prefer: za’atar and cumin; coriander, turmeric and paprika; dried parsley and garlic powder; or rosemary and salt are all good options. Bake in the oven until browned, then serve the newly transformed (read: yummy) chips with your favorite spreads, dips and toppings for an easy snack or hors d’oeuvre.  Alternatively, skip the herbs and just add cheese for Passover-friendly “matchos” (I had to).

Crumbled matzo can serve as a bread crumbs substitute. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Crumbled matzo can serve as a bread crumbs substitute. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

2. Sneak leftover matzo into your dinner and get the added bonus of releasing stress by crushing the crackers with a food processor, mortar and pestle, or your bare hands. With that you have a ready-made bread crumbs substitute. Or take it one step further and combine the crumbs with flour and egg to provide a crispy matzo crust for proteins and veggies. That cardboard-esque matzo crunchiness really comes in handy here.

Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

3. You know what they say … when not in Rome but wishing you could be, make matzo pizza! Place matzo on a foil-lined baking sheet, using full crackers for a “pie” or small bite-sized portions for snacking. Spread a thin layer of sauce, sprinkle with your choice of cheese and toppings, and bake at 400 F until the cheese melts and the toppings are cooked. If you’re willing to go the extra mile to avoid “crust” sogginess — remember, matzo is more permeable to sauce than normal pizza dough — melt a thin layer of cheese onto the matzo before adding the other ingredients on top.

Sweet and salty chocolate toffee bark is an addictive dessert, with matzo as the perfect crunchy base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Sweet and salty chocolate toffee bark is an addictive dessert, with matzo as the perfect crunchy base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

4. Want to avoid being the empty-handed seder guest or need a quick treat to serve last-minute visitors? Chocolate toffee matzo bark is a quick and scrumptious solution. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and matzo, mix butter or margarine with brown sugar until boiling, spread the toffee over the matzo and bake at 350 F until the coating bubbles. Take it out, dump chocolate chips on top, spread the melting chocolate evenly and sprinkle with your favorite toppings (mine are sea salt and chopped pecans). Refrigerate, and voila! Your extra matzo is now the perfectly flaky, crunchy base for an addictive bite-sized dessert.

Matzo brie is a warm and comforting brunch option that's delicious with sweet sides like jam. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Matzo brie is a warm and comforting brunch option that’s delicious with sweet sides like jam. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

5. Brunch is a beloved meal all year round, so why neglect it at Passover just because you can’t eat the leavened stuff? Matzo brei is a simple, crowd-pleasing comfort food that’s perfect for any brunch table. Break the matzo into small pieces and run under hot water until it begins to soften (avoid mushiness). Beat some eggs in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir the matzo into the eggs. Heat oil or butter in a skillet, pour in the mixture and fry over high heat until golden. Serve with jam, cinnamon-sugar or whatever other sides you fancy and prepare yourself for that warm fuzzy feeling.

Main photo: Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

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Passover’s Diverse Flavors Shine In These Sweet Treats /cooking/passover-sweets-celebrate-diverse-flavors/ /cooking/passover-sweets-celebrate-diverse-flavors/#respond Fri, 07 Apr 2017 09:00:10 +0000 /?p=63529 P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

When it comes to the science of baking as opposed to the art of cooking, it doesn’t do to have clumsy, chubby fingers. Chemistry needs cool palms and a sweat-free brow.

A dear friend of mine, the late Zena Swerling, was a naturally gifted cook, but it was in the realm of baking that she truly shone. “Here’s another can’t-go-wrong recipe,” she’d offer breezily, and although they always worked, they were never quite the same as when served by Zena herself.

Zena started baking when she was “just tall enough to get my chin over my Russian mummy’s kitchen table.” She was a good, old-fashioned cook with a generous hand and heart, but it was not always easy to interpret and annotate her recipes unless you were by her side in the kitchen. Even then, it was difficult because she’d always insist you sit down instead for a light five-course snack with a good helping of juicy gossip.

With Passover here, I’m pleased to share her recipe for ingber, also known as ingberlach (also sometimes called pletzlach), an old-fashioned Ashkenazi carrot-and-ginger festive candy that too few have the patience to make anymore.

Zena, I hope you’re kvelling with pride.

Zena’s Ingber

Add more or less ginger as preferred, but this sweet confection of carrots and ginger should smolder in the mouth.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: About 18 pieces


5 large carrots, peeled

2 cups superfine sugar

1 cup chopped almonds

3 teaspoons ground ginger


1. Finely grate the carrots in the processor and put them in a large pan.

2. Add the sugar; stir over low heat until it dissolves. Cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick (test by dropping a little onto a plate to see if it sets, like jam). This will take 45 to 50 minutes. For chewy, syrupy candy cook until the soft-crack stage or 270 F on a thermometer; for a more brittle candy, cook until it reaches the hard-crack stage or 300 F.

3. Add the almonds and ginger and remove immediately from the heat. Pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with silicone paper.

4. As it cools, score the top into squares or diamonds, then cut into pieces when cold.

P is for Passover Cake

This is a good recipe either to make before Passover, when the cupboard is crammed with ingredients bought in a frenzy of last-minute panic buying, or when you’re on the homeward stretch and your stocks are running low. Bags of nuts, in particular, seem to get into the spirit of the thing and go forth and multiply under their own volition.

The cake can be made with almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. Ground hazelnuts are widely available in Jewish stores at this time of the year and are much appreciated by the home baker as they save the tedious business of toasting the nuts, and rubbing their skins off with a tea towel before you pulverize them in a grinder … who needs it? Isn’t this the festival of freedom?

Note to self: Next year must buy nut futures.

And, I’d just like to share with you my favorite Passover joke:

Q: What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction?

A: A matzochist.

OK, let’s get to the cake.

Passover Cake

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 65 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


1/2 cup ground nuts, plus a little extra for dusting

4 large eggs

1/4 cup superfine sugar

2/3 cup, plus 1 cup dark chocolate


2/3 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

3 tablespoons apricot jam

Whole nuts, for decoration (optional)


1. Preheat the oven to 355 F (180 C).

2. Grease two 6-inch sandwich tins and line the base of each with a disc of oiled paper. Dust with some ground nuts.

3. Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick.

4. Melt 2/3 cup chocolate with a teaspoon of water.

5. Beat a little into the egg mixture along with a pinch of salt. Fold in the rest of the melted chocolate along with the 1/2 cup of ground nuts.

6. Pour into the tins and bake for 40 minutes or until springy to the touch.

7. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then turn out of the tin.

8. To make the frosting, melt the cup of chocolate and stir in the sour cream. Add a little sugar, if you wish, and allow to cool a little.

9. For the filling, spread the apricot jam and about half of the chocolate mixture over the top of one of the cakes. Place the other cake on top, and smear the remainder of the chocolate sauce over the top. Decorate, if preferred, with whole nuts in shape of a “P.”

Main photo: P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Must-Make (Matzo-Free) Passover Desserts /cooking/holidays/must-make-matzo-free-passover-desserts/ /cooking/holidays/must-make-matzo-free-passover-desserts/#comments Tue, 04 Apr 2017 09:00:57 +0000 /?p=73385 Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from "The Perfect Scoop," by David Lebovitz. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom. The initial meal (the seder) and the way you eat for a week offer a small part of the ancient Israelites’ experience as they journeyed from slavery in Egypt to the complexity of freedom. Breads, cooked on the run during their flight, didn’t have sufficient time to rise. The result? Matzo.

Every year, for the first few days of Passover, matzo seems somehow so new. A fat shmear of Temp-Tee ultra-whipped cream cheese and a tart and fruity jelly on top. Or soaked and fried into a matzo brei (a French-toast-like dish) crunchy with sugar and cinnamon. These are the foods of memory to me.

But the problem is that Passover is a weeklong festival. And when it comes to cooking and eating, it is a very long week indeed. Matzo is eaten all the time. I mean ALL the time. It’s in every food, every dish, every treat and in every course. It’s ground into breading, pulverized into cake flour, crushed into farfel and layered into mini “lasagnas.”

Matzo fatigue and the dreaded matzo-pation set in. Desperation takes over by around day four. But frankly, what bothers me the most is when matzo invades desserts. Folks often cook more on Passover than all year long, often pulling out heritage recipes. Even I, a modernist, will cook up a heritage dish or two along with my flights of imagination and globally influenced dishes.

When it comes to desserts, though, many holiday cooks reach for box mixes. Virtually none taste good. These mixes are often packed with processed ingredients and artificial flavors. As a professional cook and culinary instructor — and honestly, a person with taste buds — I don’t make them and I don’t buy them.

If I want heritage desserts, I buy Passover chocolates. That does the trick.

But making desserts at home? What can you do that tastes great and is still Passover-worthy? Matzo in desserts always makes itself known in taste and texture — and I don’t mean that in a nice way whatsoever. No matter how you cut it (pun intended, sorry), matzo desserts are definitely not what I want in order to make a holiday more special.

My advice? If you can put the time and effort into cooking desserts, fear not. Here is a solution.

Delicious Passover desserts

This Sirio Maccioni's Cirque Crème Brûlée has been adapted from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook -- a perfect Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

This Sirio Maccioni’s Cirque Creme Brulee has been adapted from Molly O’Neill’s “New York Cookbook” — it’s a delicious Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

Offer up some treats that are deliciously Passover-ready AND matzo-free and grain-free. Try a Pavlova, a macaroon, a flourless chocolate cake, ice cream, chestnut-flour crepes, custards, crème brûlée or nut paste-based cookies.

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Photo credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

A world of matzo-free desserts awaits you.

These Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 24 cookies


14 ounces pistachio paste, King Arthur or another all-natural brand preferred

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

2 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean pod

1 cup dried tart cherries

1/2 cup pistachios, lightly crushed


1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the pistachio paste until it resembles big cookie crumbs, 20 to 30 seconds. Add the sugar and mix thoroughly. Add the egg whites, cardamom and vanilla. Mix until completely smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the tart cherries.

3. Drop 2 teaspoons of batter per cookie on the sheet, leaving 1 1/2 to 2 inches between the cookies. Sprinkle the pistachios over the top of the cookies.

4. Bake until light brown but still soft, 12 to 13 minutes. (The cookies will firm up considerably as they cool). Store at in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Main image: Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from “The Perfect Scoop,” by David Lebovitz. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

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Beets For Dessert? This Cake Will Wow A Crowd /cooking/beets-dessert-cake-will-wow-crowd/ /cooking/beets-dessert-cake-will-wow-crowd/#respond Mon, 20 Mar 2017 09:00:37 +0000 /?p=57359 Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

I never thought of myself as a beet fanatic. Sure, I like this versatile root vegetable well enough, but only recently realized that beets are pivotal to the menu at my restaurant, the Lostine Tavern — roasted, raw, pickled and puréed. Along with two types of pickled beets, we feature beetroot on a hugely popular open-faced sandwich, grated beet in our tossed salad and a riveting beet panzanella salad. But the best-selling item of all is the chocolate beet cake.

That’s right: This cake contains beets. A curious item for a tavern in the heart of Oregon’s cattle country, but that’s how good this is.

It’s become so popular, some customers ask for it before they order their meal while others request it for birthday cakes. So tasty and moist, it has caused more than one avowed beet hater to eat his words.

An irresistible tower of three-tiered chocolate layer cake with fluffy dark chocolate frosting, this cake is a scene-stealer and a crowd-pleaser that belongs on any holiday table. The fact that it’s a veggie cake is both a nutritional plus and a conversation piece.

Why beets?

True enough, beets are a root vegetable, but using them in desserts is not as crazy as it sounds.

Beets have the highest concentration of sucrose among all vegetables. They are, after all, the source for granulated sugar.

Just like using carrot cake or pumpkin quick bread, beets are moisture insurance in cake baking. Fully cooked in simmering water and then pureed, the beets stealthily mingle with the cocoa powder, sugar and oil in the batter. Dark red beets tinge the color of the batter a shade toward red velvet cake. For anyone to know there are beets in this cake, you’ll have to tell them. Then, delight in their surprise.

Good desserts

Some may be happy to know that beets are a unique source of phytonutrients with strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. I just love knowing I’m getting another dose of veggies into my kids’ dessert.

The earthy sweetness of the beets heightens the flavors of the chocolate, rendering a cake that is none too sweet. I use this recipe for everything from birthday cupcakes to everyday snack cakes. It mixes in a single bowl and makes either three 8-inch round layers, two 9-by-13-inch sheet cakes or a lot of cupcakes.

The cake layers form a great base for embellishment with layers of cherry preserves and whipped cream, a light snow of powdered sugar or a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

For the holidays, however, I take this cake to the hilt, slathering chocolate cream cheese frosting between three cake layers for a table centerpiece that is sure to capture everyone’s attention.

Beet Chocolate Cake

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings


2 1/2 cups puréed cooked beets
6 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup good-quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups vegetable oil
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt


1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Oil three 8-inch-round cake pans and line them with parchment paper.

3. In a small mixing bowl, beat the beets and eggs. Combine the cocoa powder, vanilla and oil in a large measuring cup.

4. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, baking soda and salt until combined. Add the cocoa powder mixture to the flour and stir with a rubber spatula until well combined. Add the beet mixture and stir just until combined.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the pan and a wooden skewer slid into the cake’s center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

6. Cool the cakes for 10 minutes and tip them out of the pans onto wire racks to cool completely.

Dark Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

Prep time: 10 minutes

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 sticks unsalted butter (12 ounces), room temperature
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

2. In a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to beat the butter and cream cheese until perfectly smooth. Add the vanilla and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

3. Add the confectioner’s sugar and blend on medium speed until it is fully incorporated. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and blend on medium-high speed until it is very smooth and light.

4. Spread one-third of the frosting on top of each of the cooled cake layers and stack them to create three tiers. Leave the sides unfrosted.

Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

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Pumpkin Finds A Tart To Love /baking-wrecipe/76924/ /baking-wrecipe/76924/#respond Wed, 08 Feb 2017 10:00:47 +0000 /?p=76924 A slice of pumpkin marmalade puff pastry and an espresso at Restaurant Cafeteria Sant Salvador, Artá, Mallorca. Credit: Copyright 2017 David A. Latt

Pumpkin pie takes center stage on the Thanksgiving dessert table, but the rest of the year, pumpkin doesn’t get much love. Which is a mistake. With a distinctive flavor that accepts spices or sweetness with ease, versatile pumpkin can be used roasted, sautéed as a side dish, added to soups, and in desserts. On a trip to Mallorca, pumpkin was used in a best-ever, delicious puff pastry tart topped with sliced almonds and powdered sugar.

The largest of the four Balearic Islands, Mallorca is a popular destination off the eastern coast of Spain. Less than an hour flight from Barcelona, the island has a rugged coast, ranches, olive and orange groves, and hillside towns within sight of the Mediterranean.

A delight of traveling is the opportunity to experience local cuisines in small cafés or roadside stands. But it isn’t likely that a tourist destination will have a quality café. Often the food served to busloads of eager visitors is packaged or mass produced. That was decidedly not the case at Restaurant Cafeteria Sant Salvador in Artá.

For a day trip, I visited Artá, a town on the northeast side of the island. Typical of the island, a church and fort on a hill overlook the town of 7,000. Streets lined with centuries-old stone houses crisscross the hill leading up to the fortress and sanctuary of Sant Salvador.

Next to the stone balustrades that circle the fortress, signs pointed to the Cafeteria, which served pizza, grilled seafood, pizza, pastas, and a variety of paellas with shellfish, fish and meats. Hungry from the long climb up the hill, I followed two men carrying a 4-foot wide paella pan up stone steps from the kitchen to the dining room.

On the marble counter, half a dozen Spanish dessert cakes and tarts were laid out for inspection. All the desserts looked delicious. There was a chocolate, hazelnut and coconut cake, a cake with whole fresh strawberries, a cheese cake, an apple tart, a Mallorcan almond cake and a puff pastry with pumpkin marmalade.

I wanted to taste them all. But since I was by myself and could only order one, I decided on the pumpkin marmalade tart.

Walking down the stone steps with my dessert and an espresso, I settled down in the shaded outdoor dining area. Spread thin on the light-as-air puff pastry, the pumpkin marmalade was full of flavor with only a touch of sweetness. The sliced almonds added a crunch. When I took a bite, the powdered sugar floated up, sweetening the air.

The dessert was so delicious, I decided to make it at home. I experimented and determined that the easiest way to duplicate the pastry-crispness at Sant Salvador was to use phyllo dough, readily available in supermarkets.

I liked the result so much, I’m going to serve the tart during the year and, when fall rolls around again, for Thanksgiving.

Pumpkin-Phyllo Tart With Slivered Almonds and Powdered Sugar

Smaller pumpkins have more flavor than larger ones. The best pumpkins to use are ones called “sugar” or “pie” pumpkins. If pumpkins are not available, kabocha and butternut squash are acceptable alternatives. Canned pumpkin should not be used.

Any size tart pan can be used, from individual sizes to ones 10 inches square.

The pumpkin marmalade can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated in an air-tight container.

The tart should be assembled and baked just before serving to ensure that the pastry is light and crispy.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 to 10 servings


2 1/2 pounds sugar pumpkin, washed

1 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons sweet butter (unsalted)

8 sheets phyllo dough

1 cup blanched sliced almonds

1/4 cup powdered sugar


1. Using a sharp chef’s knife, quarter the pumpkin. Scoop out seeds and fibrous pulp. If desired, reserve seeds cleaned of pulp and fiber to make oven roasted seeds flavored with cayenne, olive oil and maple syrup or soy sauce. Otherwise discard.

2. Place pumpkin quarters onto a steamer in a large pot with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil. Cook covered 20 minutes or until flesh is softened. Remove pumpkin and allow to cool.

3. Using a sharp paring knife or large spoon, remove flesh and discard skin. That will yield 1 1/2 pounds cooked flesh.

4. Roughly chop flesh.

5. Purée together the pumpkin flesh and brown sugar in a mixer or place in large saucepan over a low flame and use a wand mixer. Using a heat-proof spatula, stir frequently and scrape any purée that accumulates on the sides of the pot.

6. After 15 to 30 minutes, the marmalade should turn a toasty brown color. Taste and add more brown sugar if desired.

7. Remove from flame to cool. If not using immediately, place in airtight container and refrigerate.

8. Preheat oven to 350 F.

9. Melt sweet butter over a low flame.

10. Take eight phyllo sheets out of the package, lay flat and cover with a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying out.

11. Lay two phyllo sheets on a flat surface. Use a pastry brush to paint the top sheet with melted butter. Lay another two sheets on top of the previous two, paint and continue until all top sheets are painted and create a “stack.”

12. Cut phyllo sheet stack into a size 2 inches larger than the tart pan.

13. Carefully lay the stack over the tart pan and gently press against the bottom and sides.  The sheets should be higher than the top of the tart pan.

14. Using the back side of a large spoon or a spatula, scoop up some pumpkin marmalade and spread onto the bottom of the phyllo sheets. Evenly spread the marmalade to quarter-inch thickness across the bottom.

15. Top with a layer of blanched sliced almonds.

16. Place tart pan on flat baking sheet and place in preheated oven.

17. Every 10 minutes, rotate tart pan for even cooking. Bake a total of 40 minutes or until the phyllo dough and almonds are light brown. Be careful not to burn.

Remove from oven. Allow to rest 5 minutes. Remove from tart pan and place on a plate. Serve warm, dusted with powdered sugar and with sides of freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

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A Fancy, Guilt-free Finale: Pears Poached In Red Wine /general/76603/ /general/76603/#respond Wed, 28 Dec 2016 10:00:17 +0000 /?p=76603 Poached pears are so elegant that they can be served as a holiday dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 P.K. Newb

The holidays wouldn’t feel complete without towering cookie platters and magnificent pastries, but crimson-hued poached pears boast all of the beauty and drama of the season without all those pesky calories.

I have a sweet tooth that goes into overdrive during the holidays, distracted by every decadent goodie tempting me at every turn. Like most, I sip, savor and indulge while heeding these 7 tips to help keep me healthy and avoid the dreaded New Year’s diet.

I’m always on the lookout to lighten things up here in my own kitchen, and red wine-poached pears are my holiday favorite. Imagine juicy pears bathing in a crimson sea of spices, filling your home with the comforting scent of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Blackberries add a tangy complement and can be poached alongside the pears or included raw if you prefer.

And poached pears are so versatile, too: serve as part of a cheese platter, with perhaps a dab of chèvre or Gorgonzola, or as an elegant dessert. They are lovely on their own, though standing a stately pear in a pool of dark chocolate or dolloping it with goat cheese cream takes it over the top. I’ll let you decide.

Red Wine Poached Pears and Blackberries

Blackberries add a tangy complement to poached pears. Credit: Copyright 2016 P.K. Newby

Blackberries add a tangy complement to poached pears. Credit: Copyright 2016 P.K. Newby

Pears may be made in one day in advance and kept in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings (individual small pears) or 12 (halved or quartered larger pears).


1 (750 mL) bottle red Zinfandel wine

2 cinnamon sticks

5 cloves

5 star anise

10 green cardamom pods

1 teaspoon pink peppercorns

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

2/3 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

6 pears, ripe but firm (I enjoy juicy Comice)

18 blackberries

Mint sprigs, for garnish


1. In a large pot, bring first 9 ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.

2. Peel the pears to allow liquid to penetrate the fruit. Leave whole if desired, or cut in half (or quarters) and remove seeds. Place the pears into the poaching mixture and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the size and ripeness of the pears. Insert a sharp knife into pears to check if done; the pears should give but hold their shape. Add whole or halved blackberries and continue simmering an additional 2 minutes. Remove fruit with a slotted spoon and cool to room temperature.

3. Bring poaching liquid to a boil until it reduces to about 1 cup slightly thickened; strain out spices. Serve fruit in individual bowls, drizzled with a few tablespoons of the sauce and garnished with a sprig of mint.

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Raspberries And Chocolate: A Rich Relationship /cooking/desserts-cooking/raspberries-chocolates-blending-rich-relationship/ /cooking/desserts-cooking/raspberries-chocolates-blending-rich-relationship/#respond Fri, 29 Jan 2016 10:00:34 +0000 /?p=71971 Chocolate and raspberries blend deliciously in these cookies. Credit: Copyright 2016 The Weiser Kitchen

Having been married for more than two decades, I realize many factors contribute to the longevity of my marriage. Perhaps the most important is how my husband and I blend.

People often ask how we’ve done it, as if there is a secret. But there really is no secret. Just like the pairing of raspberry and chocolate, my husband and I are together despite our differences. We know how to compromise and work together, which we actually do most of the time.

Love is not “never having to say you’re sorry.” Chocolate is temperamental, so if you add the wrong amount of moisture from, say, fresh raspberries, you will have something to apologize about. But you get another chance. As in longtime relationships, you learn and grow.

Better together than apart

I love offering up treats that focus the partnership of raspberries and dark chocolate because of the magical synergy that makes them better together than individually.

In the past, dark chocolate was relegated to the lowest shelves in grocery stores. Over the last two decades, though, it has become very au courant. I would like to say that the only reason I give myself permission to eat dark chocolate is because of possible health benefits. But in truth, I like the taste. I find its bitterness to be complex and appealing.

What makes dark chocolate dark?

Dark is only defined relative to all other chocolates. It’s darker in comparison with milk or sweet chocolate candy bars. It has a higher percentage of cocoa, less milk fat and less sugar. The higher the cocoa percentage, the deeper and more intense the chocolate flavor. My favorite for baking and cooking is around 72%.

When choosing your dark chocolate, like choosing a mate, there are two more issues to consider: Where it was born and where (and how) it was processed. Dark chocolate is often labeled with the place of origin, the cocoa percentages and where it was processed. Climate and soil give chocolate its inherent nature, and that’s part of its heritage. The style of preparation is also key. To many, Switzerland’s chocolate production is the gold standard. In my book, it’s equaled or even bettered by Belgian chocolate.

Equal partners

In these cookies, chocolate and raspberries are equal partners. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

In these cookies, chocolate and raspberries are equal partners. Credit: Copyright 2016 The Weiser Kitchen

Lest you think that chocolate is the alpha dog of this relationship, raspberries are an equal partner. They are more than just juicy and lovely to behold. They are rich in cancer-fighting compounds and vitamin C, and full of fiber. They taste sweet — with a uniquely tart undertone and a deep complexity. Just like chocolate. Raspberries aren’t mild-manned, singular sweetness, like the ever-affable strawberry or cherry. They are an assertive flavor in their own right.

Like any paramour partnership, each ingredient brings something unique and yet retains its distinctive character even as it blends with the other ingredients. Raspberries are juicy, but chocolate is silky. Both have a little sexy undertone that makes them interesting. Together they make a wondrous bite.

May they live happily ever after.

Chocolate and Raspberry Swirl Cookies

These charming swirl cookies, tucked, wrapped and snuggled like the spiral of a snail or a conch shell, are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The dough is oh-so-gently sweet, and the filling bursts with both the tartness of raspberry and a cacophony of rich chocolates. Like a good relationship, they contrast but support each other and together they create an enticing synergy. These cookies have one more touch of meaning: I developed them for my fantasy meal for Rashida Jones, an actress and writer I admire greatly. She is the co-author, co-producer and star of one of my favorite sad but sweetly tender and real films — “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” I wanted to make a cookie that hinted at the Jewish facet of her identity, so these cookies are a bit rugelach-ish. These are simply a joy to eat and fun to make.

Yield: About 28 to 30 cookies

Prep and baking time: 1 hour, 30 minutes


1/2 cup (116 grams/4 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature

1 1/2 sticks (¾ cup/170 grams/6 ounces/12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup (54 grams) dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon (1.5 grams) salt

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste (see Notes)

1 3/4 cups (228 grams) unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

2/3 cup seedless raspberry jam

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped

3 ounces milk chocolate, very finely chopped

1 large egg yolk

2 teaspoons water

1/4 cup brown turbinado sugar

1/2 teaspoon any large-crystal salt


1. Prepare the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or if you are using a hand-held mixer, in a large mixing bowl), combine the cream cheese and butter and mix until completely blended. Add the brown sugar and salt, and mix for 3 to 4 minutes, until light and fluffy.

2. Add the egg and mix well. Add the vanilla bean paste and mix well. Add the flour and mix just until fully combined. Prepare a large piece of plastic wrap and scrape the mixture onto it, wrap, shape into a rough square or rectangle and seal well. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until fully chilled.

3. Wet a work surface with a few drops of water or a swipe of a wet paper towel. Quickly place a large piece (11 x 14 inches or larger) of parchment paper on top. It should stick. Dust the parchment paper very lightly with flour. Roll a rolling pin in the flour to coat it lightly. Place half of the dough on the floured parchment and roll it into a 6-by-9-inch rectangle that is 1/8 to 1/16 inch thick.

4. Using a pastry brush, coat the rectangle with raspberry jam, leaving a 1/2-inch border bare around the edges. Sprinkle the chocolates over the raspberry jam, distributing the pieces evenly. Position the parchment and dough so that the short side of the parchment is in front of you. Using the parchment, lift the short side of the dough up and over the filling, covering it by about 1/2 inch. Continue rolling to make a cylinder, rolling as tightly as you can. Place the roll on a large piece of plastic wrap and wrap well. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until fully chilled.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats and set aside.

6. Remove the rolled dough from the plastic wrap and, with a very sharp, long knife, cut it crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Place the cookies onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between the cookies.

7. Prepare an egg wash by beating the egg yolk and water gently in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, liberally brush the egg wash over the cookies, making sure to cover both the dough and filling. Sprinkle with the sugar and salt and bake (both sheets at once) for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheets before removing them, as the raspberry jelly will be very hot. They will crisp as they cool off.


1. Vanilla bean paste is a form of vanilla flavoring that is made from vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder (sometimes it’s what’s left over from producing the extract and sometimes fresh vanilla bean seeds), mixed with a binder such as sugar syrup, corn syrup or, in commercial preparations, xanthan gum. It has the consistency of a paste and an intense, distinctly vanilla flavor. It’s available in well-stocked markets and online, but if you can’t find it, use pure vanilla extract.

2. Turbinado sugar is a minimally processed, minimally refined sweetener made from cane sugar. Brown in color, it is often confused with brown sugar. Turbinado sugar, however, has a higher moisture content, which will make a difference in baking, so it’s best to use the sugar that is called for in the recipe unless you are skilled enough to reduce another liquid in the ingredient list. With its large crystals, it’s great for sugar toppings on cookies and other baked goods. Like demerara sugar, it is made by drying the juice of the sugar cane and then spinning it in a centrifuge to purify it. Store in a cool, dry place.

Main photo: These Chocolate and Raspberry Swirl cookies are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

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Three Italian Ingredients, Dozens Of Easy Appetizers /cooking/three-italian-ingredients-dozens-of-easy-appetizers/ /cooking/three-italian-ingredients-dozens-of-easy-appetizers/#respond Mon, 07 Dec 2015 10:00:39 +0000 /?p=71149 Try serving a "panettone gastronomico," a sandwich tower, at your next party. Credit: Copyright Rovia Signorelli, Alessandria Italy

For simple holiday entertaining, take a cue from Italy and select a few quality ingredients that are wonderful alone, but that can dress up for any party. Three Italian classics — Grana Padano aged cheese, Prosciutto di San Daniele and Mortadella Bologna — can create dozens of delectable nibbles.

Following is a look at some of the possibilities.

Entertaining gluten-free

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for elegant Italian umami "sushi." Credit: Courtesy of Mortadella Bologna IGP

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for elegant Italian umami “sushi.” Credit: Courtesy of Mortadella Bologna IGP

Thinly slice prosciutto or Mortadella Bologna and serve on a pretty wooden board. Set out wedges of Grana Padano  with a cheese knife and clusters of grapes for simple, elegant party nibbles.

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for Italian umami “sushi.” Try zucchini, carrots, enoki mushrooms, cucumber and avocado, which all pair wonderfully with prosciutto. Mortadella Bologna also makes a great roll-up. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios for color and crunch.

Fruit pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Melon is a classic with prosciutto, so for a festive variation, dice cubes to create mini bites. Cantaloupe and honeydew melons make a pretty color mix.

Figs and fruits

Figs pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Credit: Courtesy of "Philosopher’s Kitchen," Random House

Figs pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Credit: Courtesy of “Philosopher’s Kitchen,” Random House

Figs too are a classic pairing, but fresh figs aren’t readily available during the holidays, so use dried instead. Simmer a dozen dried figs in a cup of white wine to make them soft and summer sweet.

Top with anything you like including prosciutto, chopped pistachios with honey and mascarpone cheese with a sprinkle of lemon zest.

Guests love a little skewer to nibble with a glass of bubbly Prosecco Superiore. Try Prosciutto di San Daniele and Grana Padano served with fried sage leaves and cubes of Mortadella Bologna accompanied by pistachio cream, made by blending finely ground pistachios with a little heavy cream and mascarpone or cream cheese. Fresh fruit like pears, apples and grapes pair perfectly with the naturally creamy sweetness of Grana Padano. It’s also wonderful with dried fruit. Spear chunks with olives and dried cranberries for a tangy-savory combo.

A toast to the party

Melt Grana Padano cheese with prosciutto or mortadella for bruschetta toppings. Credit: Courtesy of Grama Padano DOP

Melt Grana Padano cheese with prosciutto or mortadella for bruschetta toppings. Credit: Courtesy of Grama Padano DOP

Grana Padano lends itself to all sorts of bruschetta toppings. Melt onto bread to accompany Prosciutto di San Daniele or Mortadella Bologna, or for a vegetarian option top with chopped fresh or sun dried tomatoes or red bell peppers.

Mini sandwiches are always a party favorite. For an Italian riff — called “panettone gastronomico” — horizontally cut tall brioche bread into 7 equal slices to create 3 sandwich layers. Use your favorite filling, then stack and slice into triangles. The top section sits above as a decorative garnish.

Little baked pasta cups make a versatile appetizer. Just a quarter pound of pasta makes 24 bite-sized treats that can be eaten plain or topped. To make, combine cooked angel hair pasta with a beaten egg and some grated aged cheese. Twirl on a fork and bake into mini muffin tins until firm and golden at the edges. Then serve plain or topped with Prosciutto di San Daniele, Mortadella Bologna, shaved Grana Padano or pesto.

Everything Cheese Crisps

These cheese crisps are perfect to serve with cocktails, for garnishing soup or salad, or just as an afternoon snack. Credit: Copyright 2011 Quentin Bacon

These cheese crisps are perfect to serve with cocktails, for garnishing soup or salad, or just as an afternoon snack. Credit: Copyright 2011 Quentin Bacon

The usual bag of chips is OK for everyday, but dazzle party guests with these creative cheese crisps by cookbook author and PBS TV host Ellie Krieger who notes, “These easy, cheesy nibbles are a gigantic punch of Grana Padano flavor in a light lacy crisp. I brought in an extra touch of fun by flavoring them with all of the seasonings of my favorite “everything” bagel.”

Adapted from Comfort Food Fix, © 2011 by Ellie Krieger. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Prep time: 10  minutes

Bake time: 8 minutes

Total time: 18 minutes

Yield: 8 servings


2/3 cup finely grated Grana Padano cheese (2 ounces)

1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

1 teaspoon poppy seeds

1 teaspoon dried minced onion

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder


Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine the cheese, flour, seeds, onion, and garlic powder. Spoon heaping teaspoons of the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each mound. Using your fingers, pat the mounds down, spreading them so each is about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Bake until they are golden brown, about 8 minutes. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheet before lifting them off carefully. Make the crisps up to 2 days ahead and store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Main photo: Try serving a “panettone gastronomico,” a sandwich tower, at your next party. Credit: Copyright Rovia Signorelli, Alessandria Italy

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