Gifts, Goodies and Greatest Hits

I have some new recipes, really I do! And some travels and adventures to share as well. And I have pictures, too. But as I am still in high gear work mode right now with some deadlines looming before the Christmas holiday, I think I’ll first take this opportunity to share these “greatest hits” of the season with you. May these favorites of mine inspire some holiday food and gift ideas for you to try until I can get back to the regularly scheduled programming.

I hope you all have enjoyed the holiday season so far, and may your days be merry and bright…and filled with good food, friends and family.

Cookies! For the cookie monster in us all.

Who doesn’t love cookies any time of year, but during the holidays they are a mandatory make and give. Starting from the top with these biscotti…this is the one thing I will try to get made before Christmas!

biscottiA-1Chocolate Hazelnut and Ginger Biscotti are perhaps the most addictive cookies ever known to man or woman. These truly decadent biscotti have the perfect dry texture combined with savory hazelnuts, spicy candied ginger and melty semi-sweet chocolate surprises in every bite. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…if I don’t make these for my husband every Christmas, I might as well find another place to live. I kid you not!

cookies smOld Fashioned Drop Sugar Cookies are a recipe that my mom used to make every year. They are the best I’ve ever had and fun to make by yourself, or with some little elves helping you to decorate! They have the added advantage of keeping well for a week or more in an airtight container.

crinkles2Chocolate Espresso Crinkle Cookies. I knew I had to try them the moment I saw Eva’s original recipe, and then Sawsan’s adaptation of Eva’s recipe that added some warm spices. They did not disappoint! Continue reading

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Spinach, Cheese and Almond Phyllo Tart

Another dish I could eat every day and be quite happy, thank you!

Another dish I could eat every day and be quite happy, thank you! It’s a night shot so please excuse the flash.

Here’s a little tart that’s free-formed, which in my case resulted in a rectangle. You could actually make it rounded, I suppose, if your phyllo happens to come in a different shape than that which we get here. But this rectangle format was a no-brainer using locally purchased phyllo from the freezer, and also seemed to give the tart a proper amount of phyllo-to-filling ratio in each slice. It makes for a pretty presentation and is not too difficult to make, once you get over what I like to call “Fear of Phyllo.”

Perhaps I should digress enough to say that I’ve suffered from “fear of phyllo” in the past, afraid that it would dry out before I could have my way with it, so to speak. But I find it well worth the minimal effort it takes to work with phyllo. Just keep the portion you plan working with unrolled on plastic cling film, wax or butcher paper and under a damp cloth, covering the remaining sheets each time with the damp cloth as you are working on the others, and you should be just fine. I’m sure there will be instructions to that effect on the package.

This recipe makes a fantastically full-flavored tart that is good for lunch all by itself, or for dinner served with a side or a salad such as the Mediterranean one in the last post. I would definitely make this for company and will also be modifying it soon, using smaller pieces of the phyllo pressed into mini muffin tins to make appetizer tarts.

And on another note, and I hope an interesting one for you, this week has been about some new beginnings for me…or rather a return to some creative endeavors from my past. Stay tuned for a little departure post, hopefully by the time of my next one, to share what’s going on. Meanwhile, enjoy this recipe, have a great weekend and here’s a little teaser photo to whet your interest!

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Spinach, Cheese and Almond Phyllo Tart
Serves 6

1 large red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and minced
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
several grinds of black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Two 10-oz. packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed and drained of as much liquid as possible
2 eggs, whisked to combine
1/2 cup slivered, blanched and toasted almonds, coarsely chopped
4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup cottage cheese
1 Tablespoon Panko breadcrumbs
Eight 9″ x 14″ unbaked phyllo sheets, thawed if frozen (mine was frozen)
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Brush some of the melted butter on a large baking sheet or flat pan and set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Heat the olive oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and the garlic, stirring until the onion is softened and transparent, about 3 minutes. Add the spinach, salt, pepper and nutmeg to the onion and garlic, and cook a minute or two longer, stirring, until any liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 4 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs, feta, cottage cheese, almonds, Panko bread crumbs and the spinach mixture stir until well mixed.

Working on the flat surface of your buttered baking sheet, lay down 1 sheet of the phyllo dough and, using a pastry brush, brush it lightly with some of the melted butter. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of the parmesan cheese over the butter, then top with another sheet of phyllo, repeating the butter, parmesan and phyllo sheets until all eight sheets are stacked on top of each other. Spoon the spinach filling down the center of your phyllo sheet, spreading it evenly and leaving about two inches of the phyllo uncovered all the way around it. Fold up the two long sides of the phyllo to just come up and over the top edge of the filling and brush the edges of the phyllo with some melted butter. Fold the two short ends of the phyllo just up and over the short edges of the filling and the ends of the long sides to make an evenly folded “package” and brush those ends with butter to seal it. Sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese over the top of the spinach filling, and bake the tart in the oven until the tart is lightly browned on the top and the phyllo is golden brown (see photo below.) Remove from the oven and allow the tart to sit for about 5 minutes. Slice crosswise into six even slices and serve warm or at room temperature.

Tart2

If there are leftovers, they keep well completely cooled, placed in the fridge and reheated gently in the microwave the next day. The phyllo stays amazingly crisp!

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Blackberry Lemon Almond “Snackin’ Cake”

Just lightly place the berries on top of the uncooked batter, and the cake will rise to the occasion!

When I was a kid, the United States had already been in the convenience phase of its existence for more than a decade, and it seemed like every day some new and different “space age” food or drink product was on the grocery store shelves. Just “mix and stir,” add the “flavor pouch,” “just add water,” or “just open the pouch and stick in a straw” was the name of the food game. The space-friendly powdered beverage “Tang” was wildly popular, as was any food item in a pouch that was similar to what the astronauts would eat or drink.

Have a blast…from the past!

And let’s not forget the T.V. Dinner. (Though some of us in Atlanta will remember a nightclub by the same name…or will we?) We all grew up with those ubiquitous aluminum sectioned trays that were popped into the oven, and when they came out a few minutes later, you peeled off the foil to reveal a wonderful, tasty (or not) meal of salsbury steak, apple cobbler, corn and string beans. Later on, they made more kid-oriented T.V. Dinners geared around favorite cartoons and T.V. shows, with fish sticks or chicken fingers and chocolate pudding. (I’ll confess, I did like those kid ones at the time.) But I digress…

One of these quick wonders was called a “Snackin’ Cake.” Honestly, I don’t remember exactly how easy it was to make a Snackin’ Cake or what they tasted like, but I think most of them were made by just adding water, an egg, and the mix into the supplied square pan, bake it, then top with the supplied package of frosting. Kind of like an adult-sized version of the “Easy Bake Oven” mixes. They had a cult following. But what I remember most is that they were square, and you were to cut them into square pieces, and have them as an after school snack or a dessert.

Fast forward to today, and we still rely a bit too heavily on convenience. But I hope we’re starting to realize that just because something is made “from scratch” doesn’t have to mean it’s hard to make. Au contraire. And, even though I don’t bake very often…mainly because I’ll eat it if I make it…I do like to bake quick and easy things now and then.

About a week ago, I saw a sale on blackberries in the market, and of course, I had to jump and buy some. First, I made the original peach and berry crumble that you can see here, which was easy and delicious. However, I still had some of these fine blackberries left. Sure. I could just EAT them, but where’s the fun in that? So I decided to try my hand at creating a cake by just putting things together and seeing if it would work. Yikes! Not the best way to approach the science of baking, I’ll admit.

But much to my surprise, it worked out really, really well, and it came out moist, flavorful and delicious. And better yet, I’ve made another one since then and it did, too! This cake combines the flavors of blackberry and lemon—which are just made for each other in my opinion—with the underlying tang (no pun intended) of yogurt and the mellow richness of almonds. It has a lovely texture from the almond meal…somewhat of a cross between a cake and a quick bread. It really needs no adornment, but you could certainly serve it with creme fraiche or ice cream. I baked it in a square pan, so once it came out of the oven, I started looking at it and you know what it reminded me of? A Snackin’ Cake! And hence the intro of this post. But this is not one of those somewhat prefab wonders of yesteryear. No sirree, this is a new, modern, bona fide, healthier and delicious, real homemade snackin’ cake…one for the 21st Century!

Now I think I may be on a roll with this snackin’ cake idea. I’m envisioning this very cake with strawberries, or cherries, or peaches…and that’s before adding any chocolate or booze! I’m starting to really like this baking thing again.

I think I’m in trouble now.

Blackberry, Lemon and Almond Snack Cake

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole, raw, skin-on almonds, ground to a fine meal in the processor
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons cane sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
1/2 cup milk (1 or 2% milk is fine)
1/2 cup low fat plain yogurt
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups fresh blackberries

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, and butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch square or circular cake pan.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the flour, ground almonds, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and lemon zest, stirring with a spoon to combine well. Cut in the cold butter in small pieces, then use your hands to combine it with the dry ingredients until only very small pea-sized pieces of butter remain, and it is well integrated with the dry mix. In a small bowl, combine the milk, yogurt and lemon juice with a whisk until well mixed. Add the egg to the wet ingredients and whisk just to incorporate. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until everything is moistened well, but don’t over stir. Add the vanilla extract and stir to incorporate. The batter will be thick.

Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared cake pan. Smooth the top of the batter, then set the berries on top of the batter (no need to press them) in a decorative pattern. Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 22-24 minutes, watching closely. The cake is done when it is golden brown on top, firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool on a rack in the pan for 10 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan and finish cooling on the rack. To serve, sprinkle with powdered sugar and cut into 9 equal pieces. This is great by itself, but you could also serve it with a dollop of creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.

Did I mention this is great for breakfast, too?

 

A Very Short Little Peach Cake

Peaches! We have them…the first of the season from south Georgia, and boy are they a welcome sight. It seems like forever since peaches were in season, and now at last they’ve arrived, even a bit early, like everything this year.

After the first week of eating them in a few juicy bites, or with some Greek yogurt and granola, I began to calm down once I realized that these were early peaches and we should have peaches for a while to come. And that’s when I started thinking about baking. Now, I don’t bake a lot…mainly because there are just two of us and, well, if I make it, we will eat it…rapidly and until no crumbs remain. But peaches do inspire me to start trying some new ideas.

My first thought was something cake-y. More so than a crisp or a cobbler, but maybe more versatile than a muffin. I love shortcakes…why not combine the idea of fruit and shortcake into one…besides the fact that I’ve never seen it done? And hence the result: a very short little peach cake! Continue reading

Strawberry Orange Almond Crisp and a Terrific Casserole

This photo almost ended up with the spoon in it…I couldn’t wait to taste!

I was out of town for several days at the end of last week to visit with family and friends, and took my new laptop with me so I could post and read while away. Woe was me when I found that I couldn’t “connect” from where I was due to spotty internet service and no wi-fi available yet. Ah, technology, it’s great when it works…

A fabulous bread pudding-like casserole that is great the next day, too!

I’m back home now and I’d like to share a couple of very tasty items I made before I left town. One was the lovely dessert above. The other was a dish from blogger friends Katherine and Greg over at Rufus’—a wonderful Kale, Spinach and Bread Casserole that we enjoyed oh-so-very-much and that I highly recommend. Katherine’s recipe, which you can find here, immediately got my attention because I’m such a fan of savory bread puddings and greens. She used gruyere and blue cheeses in hers, which sounds divine and I would have, too, except for the fact that I was leaving town and only had fontina and parmesan on hand. I’m happy to say that it was terrific with these two cheeses, so I know it must be outstanding with the other two…especially since gruyere and blue are two of my favorite cheeses. I’ll be making this one again, and thanks, Katherine, for the recipe!

And now for the dessert. I had lots of fresh Florida strawberries on hand, and I wanted to try something I’d never had or seen, a fruit crisp made with strawberries only. I’ve often wondered why you never seem to see a strawberry crisp even though you do see pies occasionally—I guess it’s because it takes a lot of strawberries to make one—but I have to say, it’s really a terrific thing! My recipe, which pairs the flavor of orange and some almonds with tart berries, is really a delicious way to enjoy this spring fruit treat. It’s not an overly sweet dessert and can be made more so when topped with vanilla ice cream, or more complex by enhancing the natural sweetness of the berries by topping it with crème fraiche. The first time we had it, ice cream was on hand, but I can tell you that the next day, using the crème fraiche just took it into the stratosphere! And of course, you could use whipped cream flavored with Grand Marnier…or whatever you like. Continue reading

Two More for Giving: Provencal Olives and Italian Glazed Almonds

Here are two more EVEN EASIER recipes than the ice box cookies, if you can believe that! Yep, these olives and almonds are super special and unbelievably easy to make. Both of these make great cocktail nibbles to have with any festive libation and are a wonderful hostess gift, too!

Stir all ingredients together, bake and you're done!

Recipe 1 Glazed Red Pepper and Fennel Almonds: I’ve made these almonds for many a year now…all year long, in fact, but they are always welcomed during the holidays and definitely have a festive quality about them. They are so simple and you can whip them up for the weekend for guests, take them to parties, or gift them in pretty jars or bags… and they keep in an airtight container for a week…bonus! They are spicy, I won’t lie to you…and they have a distinctive anise flavor from the fennel, but these are all good things in my book. The combination of ingredients makes a truly harmonious whole, and I’ve yet to encounter anyone who didn’t love these tidbits. Here’s the recipe as I make it. Continue reading