Homemade Hanukkah Applesauce

Happy Hanukkah! My husband is Jewish and last night for dinner I made latkes (potato pancakes), along with some some other traditional Jewish food. Admittedly, my husband didn’t grow up with any strong religious traditions, but he really appreciates that I make sure Hanukkah doesn’t get lost amongs my (many) Christmas celebrations.

Confession: since I’m not too familiar with making or eating latkes, mazo ball soup, challah bread and blintzes, I either made these things from a box recipe or I bought them fresh from a bakery. However, I wanted something to be made from scratch, so the applesauce it was! I also was delighted to find out that I already  had all of the ingredients right here at home. This applesauce took a few guesses, but I was familiar with the basics. I thought it came out great and my husband actually asked me to make more just to have as a snack!

Note: you can adjust the amounts of sugar and cinnamon depending on the kind of apples you use and how sweet you want it to be. To make a creamer applesauce rather than a chunky one, which I  like, use a food processor or hand mixer instead of a potato masher.

Ingredients:

  • 4 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
  • ¾  cup water
  • ¼ cup granulated white sugar
  • ½ tsp.  ground cinnamon

Directions:

In a large pot add all ingredients. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes or until apples are very soft. Remove from heat and let cool. Drain water and mash with a potato masher. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Spinach, Pear and Shaved Parmesan Salad

I love planning dinner party menus. Putting together a fun and unique combination of appetizers is always enjoyable and there are so many from which to choose. The entree requires a bit more thought, but it’s definitely the “meat” of the menu (no pun intended) and you know when you’ve found “the one.” The sides follow easily after that. And deciding on just the right dessert is – let’s face it – the icing on the cake. But for some reason, I seem to get stuck on the salad course. It’s always always the very last thing I add to my menu. I always change my mind a few times. I’m not sure why this is. Is it because I’m so clever and intuitive as to how a salad course should compliment and build up to the entree and dessert that I wait until last to decide? Probably not. Is it because so many salad courses include cheese and nuts and I’m a sensitive hostess who takes all potential food aversions very seriously? I do, but really, that’s not why. Is it because the dinner salad, put simply, just isn’t the sexy part of the meal? Perhaps.

This is where I got stuck last Thanksgiving during my menu planning. I had chosen a bean and kale salad at first – and  just typing those words makes me thankful that I  gave it a second thought. I finally found this spinach, pear and shaved Parmesan salad on BHG.com and I had that menu-planning Eureka! moment. And it didn’t disappoint. It’s so easy to make and it looks so beautiful on the dinner table. The tart mustard dressing is a perfect pair with the sweet slices of pair.

If you’re still stuck on your salad course for this weekend’s big dinner, I hope that this can maybe be your Eureka! menu moment.

Ingredients:

  • 8 cups fresh baby spinach
  • 1 Bosch pear, quartered lengthwise, cored and thinly sliced
  • 2 oz. Parmesan or Parmesano Reggiano cheese, shaved (you can do this ahead of time with a vegetable peeler and room temp cheese)
  • 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. whole-grain mustard
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Combine spinach, pears and cheese. For dressing, whisk together vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and sugar. Whisk in oil. Drizzle on salad and pass remaining.

Makes eight servings.

Brie Topped with Pralines

I don’t know about you, but I can’t get through the holidays without ridiculous amounts and variations of cheese dishes. If it’s super easy to make – even better. If it’s sweet and topped with nuts – even better. If it’s perfect for spreading onto a slice of crusty bread or a crisp tart wedge of apple – even better. This is the ideal appetizer with which to start your holiday party or dinner. It’s quick, it’s decadent and it’s sure to get the conversation started since people tend to stand around the plate because one taste of this just is not enough!

Ingredients

  • 1  13-ounce  round Brie or Camembert cheese
  • 1/2  cup  orange marmalade
  • 2  tablespoons  packed brown sugar
  • 1/3  cup  coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
  • Apple slices and/or baguette slices, toasted

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place cheese in a shallow ovenproof serving dish or pie plate. In a small bowl, stir together orange marmalade and brown sugar. Spread on top of cheese. Sprinkle with pecans.

Bake for about 15 minutes or until cheese is slightly softened and topping is bubbly. Serve with the apple and/or baguette slices.

Beef Empanadas

I’m from the east coast and didn’t truly encounter any sort of empanada until I moved to Arizona in 2003. At first I kept a comfortable distance from all southwestern and Mexican food. I searched high and low for restaurants that served authentic versions of my beloved pasta, hoagies and pizza. I refused all avocado-laced hors d’oeuvres, dips and salads. I’m not quite sure when I realized exactly what I was missing out on, but one day after watching something on the Food Network featuring empanadas, I found myself wiping the drool off of my chin and thinking, “Yea, I think I’ll make empanadas.”

This is no simple commitment – everything is made from scratch, including the dough. But like most of the other cooking endeavors I’ve attempted over the past couple of years, making empanadas is by no means complex. If you have the time, this is a delicious alternative to your run-of-the-mill steak and potatoes dinner.

Empanada Dough

  • 4 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 2 sticks (1 cup or 8 oz.) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup ice water
  • 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

Sift flour with salt into a large bowl and blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal with some (roughly pea-size) butter lumps. Beat together egg, water, and vinegar in a small bowl with a fork. Add to flour mixture, stirring with fork until just incorporated. (Mixture will look shaggy.) Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured surface and gather together and then knead gently with heel of your hand once or twice, just enough to bring dough together. Form dough into two flat rectangles and chill them, each wrapped in plastic wrap, at least 1 hour. Dough can be chilled up to six hours total.

Empanada Filling:

  • 2 hard-boiled large eggs, chopped into bits
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 3/4 pound ground beef chuck
  • 2 tablespoons raisins (optional)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped pimiento-stuffed olives
  • 1 (14-ounce) can whole tomatoes in juice, drained, reserving 2 tablespoons juice, and chopped
  • 1 package frozen empanada pastry disks, thawed (or homemade, recipe follows)
  • About 4 cups vegetable oil and a deep-fat thermometer (if deep-frying)
  • 1 egg beaten with 2 teaspoons water (if baking)

Directions:

Cook onion in olive oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened. Add garlic, cumin, and oregano and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in beef and cook, breaking up lumps with a fork, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes.

Add raisins, olives, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and tomatoes with reserved juice, then cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced but mixture is still moist, about 5 minutes. Stir in hardboiled egg and spread on a plate to cool.

Lay a large sheet of plastic wrap on a dampened work surface (to help keep plastic in place), then roll out an empanada disk on plastic wrap to measure about 6 inches. Place 3 tablespoons meat mixture on disk. Moisten edges of disk with water and fold over to form a semicircle, then crimp with a fork. [You might see some different crimps in my pictures. The fork method really works best.] Make more empanadas in same manner.

If frying: Preheat oven to 200°F with rack in middle.

If baking: Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 400°F.

Deep-frying instructions: Heat 3/4 inch vegetable oil in a deep 12-inch skillet over medium heat until it registers 360°F on thermometer. Fry empanadas, 2 or 3 at a time, turning once, until crisp and golden, 4 to 6 minutes per batch.

Transfer to a shallow baking pan and keep warm in oven. Return oil to 360°F between batches.

Baking instructions: Lightly brush empanadas with some of egg wash and bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until golden, about 25 minutes. Transfer empanadas to a rack to cool at least five minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing

Last fall when my husband asked me oh-so-sweetly if I would bake something for his office, I spent hours looking for the perfect (in other words simple and inexpensive) pumpkin recipe. Martha Stewart came through for me again with her pumpkin cupcake recipe. I made my own cream cheese icing to top them off and added a few sugary sprinkles for some texture. Rumor has it that these cupcakes were a huge hit and I was commissioned (ok, asked again by my husband in that same oh-so-sweet voice) to make them again.

Two weeks ago my husband got a promotion at work and he thought it would be nice to bring something in to welcome his new team. He quickly suggested the pumpkin cupcakes. This time they seemed even easier to make and I swear, they tasted at least five times better than last year! In fact, I might make them again for an afternoon get together this weekend. Not that I ‘m obsessed with them or anything…but really, they’re that good.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice; set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together, brown sugar, granulated sugar, butter, and eggs. Add dry ingredients, and whisk until smooth. Whisk in pumpkin puree.
  3. Divide batter evenly among liners, filling each about halfway. Bake until tops spring back when touched, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating pans once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.

Cream Cheese Icing

Ingredients

  • ½ cup butter
  • 8 oz. package of cream cheese
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 lb. confectioner’s sugar

Directions

  1. Combine butter, cream cheese, add vanilla. Beat until smooth.
  2. Gradually add the sugar, while beating well.
  3. If mixture is too thick to spread, thin to a spreadable consistency by adding a small amount of milk.
  4. Leftover icing can be frozen for up to three months.

Tomato-bread Soup with Basil Oil

I went to Rome, Florence and Venice this summer and I expected to come back armed with dozens of recipes and gobs of inspiration. As much as I loved my experience there and feel very lucky to even have been able to go, I was a little deflated and uninspired when I returned. For one thing – it was hot and humid and very crowded. It also was very touristy and the food, though delicious, was very much the stereotype pizza, pasta and tempura fried seafood. I am happy to have added three new books to my regional cookbook collection, but honestly – I haven’t cracked open one of those books.

Over Labor Day weekend I went to Sausalito and San Francisco. I fell in love with the people, the food, the city, the bay – everything. I couldn’t get enough of downtown Sausalito, the San Francisco skyline, the bay breeze, North Beach, Nob Hill, Chinatown, Union Square – everything! I could write an entire blog post about my new crush named San Francisco, but I’ll just say that I highly recommend Cavallo Point Resort in Sausalito and the Westin St. Francis at Union Square in the city. I also very highly recommend the three-story Williams-Sonoma in the Union Square area (as well as the Tiffany, but that’s like six more blog posts). I think I may have started singing a song from “The Sound of Music” and spinning in circles with my arms held out as I entered the store, completely and happily overstimulated by the three stories of utter home-making pleasure. In the end, I walked away with the 303-paged, “Soup of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year.” Probably not the most lightweight souvenir, but my husband bought it for me saying, “This is to help you remember our ‘souper’ trip.” How could I refuse?!

The first recipe that I decided to make was this tomato-bread soup with basil oil. Commonly known as pappa al pomodoro, this is a Tuscan classic. Go figure that it took a trip to San Francisco to inspire me to cook something that represents my trip to Italy. You can find this recipe on page 204.

This soup turned out delicious. It’s surprisingly hearty, mostly due to the homemade bread croutons and minced vegetables. It’s pretty easy to make, but there’s a fair amount of prep work involved with the veggies, basil oil and fried basil. I cut the veggies a little bigger than the “minced” size it was calling for, hoping that my husband would find it filling enough. It was worth every teary-eyed onion chop, though, and has motivated me to open those Italian cookbooks!

For the basil oil:                                                                                                                       1 cup (1 oz./30 g) packed basil leaves                                                                                 3/4 cup (6 fl. oz./180 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1 loaf country-style bread, crusts removed, cut into 1 1/2-inch (4-cm) cubes            Salt and freshly ground pepper                                                                                            6 Tbsp. (3 fl. oz./90 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling                        3 celery ribs, minced                                                                                                               3 white onions, minced                                                                                                          2 carrots, peeled and minced                                                                                                2 cloves garlic, minced                                                                                                           2 Tbsp. tomato paste                                                                                                              2 lb (1 kg) plum tomatoes, peeled (see my pasta caprese post), seeded and coarsely chopped                                                                                                                     1 tsp sugar

TO MAKE THE BASIL OIL, bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water ready. Set aside eight to 12 of the basil leaves. Blanch the remaining leaves in the boiling water for about 10 seconds. Drain and plunge into the ice water. Drain again, and squeeze the leaves to remove as much of the water as possible. Transfer to a blender (I used my Kitchen Aid hand blender attachment), add the oil and pulse until the mixture is a uniform green. Strain the basil through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth.

TO MAKE THE BREAD CROUTONS, preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit. Arrange the bread cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Bake until lightly toasted, about 10 minutes.

MEANWHILE, in a large heavy pot, warm 4 Tbsp. of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the celery, onions, carrots and garlic and sauté until the vegetables are softened, but not browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for five minutes. Add the tomatoes and sugar and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are softened, about 10 minutes.

Add the toasted bread cubes and six cups of water to the pot. Stir to combine with the vegetables, bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, and cook, uncovered and stirring often, until the bread has softened, about 15 minutes. Whisk the soup vigorously to break up the bread cubes (you can use a large whisk or even a potato masher). Keep warm.

IN A SMALL FRYING PAN, warm the remaining 2 Tbs. olive oil over medium heat. Add the reserved basil leaves and fry, turning once, until crisp and slightly translucent, 30 seconds. Transfer to paper towels to drain and cool.

SERVE THE SOUP, garnished with the fried basil and drizzled with basil oil. Don’t skip this step – the fried basil adds a great crispy texture as an accent to the soup.

Lemon Rosemary Cookies

Happy August! It’s the beginning of the end…of the summer, that is. The sky-high temperatures may make the days seem longer than ever, but the countdown to the end of my beloved favorite season is on. For those of us who plan to enjoy as many ice cold glasses of lemonades and frosty glasses of iced tea as we can before they’re replaced by oversized mugs of steamy chocolate and cider drinks, this recipe is for you. These cookies’ petite size make them perfect for an afternoon snack or a light breakfast and they pair with a tall glass of lemonade or iced tea the way that peanut butter goes with…well, you know where I’m headed with this one. Don’t be fooled by these quarter-sized confections – a full-sized cookie’s worth of buttery lemon and rosemary flavors await you. Trust me – these cookies will make the rest of your summer a little bit more satisfying.

Ingredients

4 oz. (1 stick) butter, softened

1/4 cup sugar

1 tsp. finely chopped rosemary

1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

2 egg yolks

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup flour

1/3 cup corn flour

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup turbinado or sanding sugar for decorating

 Directions

1. Beat butter, sugar, rosemary, and lemon zest with electric mixer 3 minutes, or until creamy. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla.

2. Whisk together flours, baking powder, and salt in bowl. Add to butter mixture, and beat until just combined. Shape into 2 1-inch-wide logs. Wrap in wax paper, and chill 2 hours.

3. Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray 2 baking sheets with cooking spray. Slice cookies into 1/3-inch-thick rounds. Place turbinado sugar in bowl and press one cut side of cookies into sugar. Place sugar-side up on baking sheets. Bake 15 minutes, or until golden brown on bottoms. Transfer to wire racks to cool.