One Little Word

Ali Edwards has this concept wherein you dedicate your year to one little word as a way to focus, grow, and change throughout 12 short but also long months.  I mentioned it here the other day.

Given my life’s recent history, my word could have been something introspective, and brooding, like reflect, or ponder.

BORING.

This year, I picked celebrate.

champagne
(source)

I’m working on celebrating.  Doesn’t it sound like a challenge?

It’s like when I declared 2010 the summer of cake baking and worked to bake as many cakes as possible.  It’s good to have goals.  And I’m super excited to have a goal that’s fun.

Toward the end of 2012, I spent a lot of time thinking about gratitude, and I found at least one thing to be grateful for each day.  I mean, it worked for Oprah.  And celebrate takes gratitude to the next level.  It’s one thing to be grateful and it’s another to act on that gratitude.  How am I celebrating the people I’m grateful for?  How do I celebrate my marriage?  How do I celebrate the routines that I live every.  single.  day?

I want celebrate to be the way I embrace new situations.

I want celebrate to be the way I treat people I love.

I want celebrate to be the way I treat people I don’t even know..

apple crisp

But I think the part that’s going to be the most fun is to see how this word shows up in ways I’m not expecting.  Stay tuned, dear readers.  I want to stick with this one.

I’m kicking off my year of celebrate with a very un-January, but very celebratory food.  Apple crisp.  From none other than The Barefoot Contessa.  It’s a classic.  It’s a cinch to make.  And it feeds a crowd.

To make Apple Crisp, you will need:

For the filling:

  • 3 1/2 lb. red apples, like McIntosh, peeled, cored, and cut into large chunks
  • 1 1/5 lb. tart apples, like Granny Smith, peeled, cored, and cut into large chunks
  • grated zest of 1/2 orange
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 T freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 C sugar (If you find that to sweet, dial it down to 1/3 C, or even 1/4 C.  You know this is going to have a giant scoop of ice cream on top, anyway.)
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. grated nutmeg

For the topping:

  • 1 1/2 C flour
  • 3/4 C granulated sugar (1/2 is fine)
  • 3/4 C brown sugar (Never skimp on brown sugar.  It’s too amazing.)
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 C oats
  • 1/2 lb. cold, unsalted butter, diced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and if you’re feeling truly gluttonous, butter the inside of a 9 x 17 baking dish (If you don’t have one, use something slightly bigger than a 9 x 13.  If that won’t work, use a 9 x 13, and pack things in tight.).

Place all the ingredients for the filling in the baking dish, and toss till combined.

You have two options for the topping, one in a mixer and one with your hands.  I much prefer using my hands, but when I’m crazy busy, the mixer will have to do.  To prepare in the mixer, place all topping ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on low, till butter clumps are the size of small peas.  To prepare the old fashioned way, mix all ingredients in a small bowl, using your hands to get the butter all mixed in with everything else.  You’ll know you’re finished when the butter clumps are the size of small peas.

Spread topping all over apple mixture.

Place apple crisp on a foil lined baking sheet.  You want the dish to rest on this, especially if you’ve filled a 9 x 13 baking dish, because the crisp is likely to bubble up and over the sides of the pan.  This isn’t a bad thing, but it can make for a dirty oven.  Bake for 1 hour.  Serve warm, with giant scoops of vanilla ice cream on top.

Why Christmas was Awesome

I know that for a lot of you, Christmas ends on the 26th, and you’d like nothing better than my not mentioning it again until December, 2014.

Christmas Tree

Indulge me for a second.

This Christmas was awesome and I fear that if I don’t take the time right now, fresh out of it, to record what made it so, it will be lost for the ages.

home for Christmas

It wasn’t the kind of awesome where everything was perfectly decorated or someone unwrapped a puppy.  It was the kind of awesome that you get from a nice, low-key day, where the gifts are thoughtful, and the dinner isn’t just good, it’s easy.

peppermint stacks

Two Christmases ago, my husband and I were in Chile, and last year, we went to Rome.  I loved our trips, but after two years away, I vowed that this was a year for Christmas in America.

chocolate peppermint log

We did our usual routine of Christmas Eve with my in-laws, and an early morning shoot up 95 to my hometown.

icebox buche de noel

We arrived, open presents, hung out for a little, and then, per tradition, Sous Chef Lauren arrived to start cooking dinner with me.

Christmas Dinner

But there really wasn’t much to do in that department.

penne with five cheeses

With the exception of our annual Christmas latkes (oh hey, early days of this blog), everything was either prepped in advance, or simple to throw together.

Star of David cupcakes

Well, it helped that I wasn’t responsible for the main dish.

So here is what we had.  And though we ate these foods on Christmas dinner, nothing here is Christmas specific.  This would all work brilliantly for a dinner party, or other situation where you find yourself in need of recipes for an indulgent meal.

candlelight

Thus, I bring you a simple Christmas dinner, 2013 style:

Appetizers:

Smitten Kitchen’s Latkes – These are the best, and Sous Chef Lauren’s and my traditional Christmas fare.
Advance Prep: Not really possible with these guys.  But this is the only part of the menu that requires hands on time right before serving.

Smitten Kitchen’s Garlic Butter Roasted Mushrooms – I emailed Sous Chef Lauren with the parts of the menu I had cobbled together so far, and asked her to fill in the holes.  She knew that mushrooms were an integral part of this meal.  We never got as far as slicing bread to soak up the juices.  We dug right into these as-is.
Advance Prep: Get everything ready in the morning and just pop in the oven 20 minutes before you need them.

Dinner:

Grilled Marinated Flank Steak – Because I never need an excuse to ask for it for dinner.  The honey gives the meat this hint of sweetness that drives me over the edge.  This steak is the best.
Advance Prep:  Marinade this baby the night before, and hand it off to a loved one to grill for you about 20 minutes before dinner.

The Barefoot Contessa’s Penne with Five Cheeses – We had some vegetarians round our Christmas table this year, and they needed something of sustenance.  I remembered that I made this for Christmas Eve many moons ago (the power of making notes in the margins of my cookbooks) and it was darn good.  Of course, I forgot the penne back in DC and so I scrambled to make this work with the pasta we had in the pantry.  Testudo pasta for the win.
Advance Prep: Make the dish, the night before or the morning of, and bake it off when you need it.  If you’re taking it straight out of the fridge, put it in the oven while it preheats, so it warms up gradually.  If you take it out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature first, then you can just stick it in once the oven is preheated.  If you think of neither of those options in time, no worries, it just might need longer to bake.

Green Beans with Almonds – There’s no link for this one, dear readers.  Saute up some Trader Joe’s frozen green beans in some onions.  At the end of cooking, add a couple splashes of red wine vinegar and some toasted almonds.
Advance Prep: Get everything ready in the morning, cover, leave it on the stove.  When it’s time for dinner, uncover, and reheat over a medium to high flame.  If you do prepare the green beans in advance, hold off on adding the almonds until right before serving.

The Barefoot Contessa’s Brussels Sprouts with Bacon – Per Wooden Nickels’ request, because she heard they were the best around.
Advance Prep:  Get everything ready that morning and throw in the oven when you’re ready.

Dessert:

Skinnytaste’s Cranberry Bliss Bars – Cutting a 9 x 13 pan’s worth of bars in little triangles leaves you with more bars than you know what to do with.  So despite gifting these to my morning Starbucks team, I had plenty left for our Christmas table.
Advance Prep:  Make these a couple days in advance, wrap well with foil or plastic wrap, refrigerate, and place on the table when the time is right.

Star of David Cupcakes with the leftover chocolate frosting from this cake – Santa brought me these in my stocking last year, and Christmas seemed as good a time as any to break them out.  The box did come with frosting mix, but I had whipped up my father-in law’s birthday cake/Christmas Eve dessert that same night, and my husband suggested I use the remnants of the bowl for these as well.
Advance Prep:  Make these a couple days in advance, wrap well with foil or plastic wrap, refrigerate, and place on the table when the time is right.

Joy the Baker’s Chocolate Peppermint Icebox Yule Log Cake – And then I found out that Grandma Glass of Milk made an icebox cake right before my parents’ wedding.  And all was well.  It’s worth noting that the peppermint whipped cream that goes into the making of this cake is absolutely heavenly, and you will still have a bit left after stacking everything together, so I’d suggest having hot chocolate at the ready.
Advance Prep:  Joy’s cake needs some time in the freezer before it’s served.  This one is a must-make in advance, at least 24 hours before serving.  Then it needs 20 minutes out of the freezer before you’re ready to slice into it.  The perfect pause between dinner and dessert.

What’s that Green Thing?

Growing up, we had a book with that title.  I don’t remember it well, nor is Google giving me any help, but I do remember the page where the younger sister pokes at something green on her plate, while her (no doubt bossy) older sister blathers on about it being some healthy vegetable or another.

brussels sprouts

I actually wasn’t terrible about eating vegetables when I was a kid.  I loved broccoli, green beans, and cooked carrots.  But I have vivid memories of Wooden Nickels trying to get us to eat steamed brussels sprouts.  Blech!  I wouldn’t go near them.

And then, a couple years back, those little green things I wouldn’t touch so many years ago were everywhere.  They popped up on food blogs around Thanksgiving time, and haven’t gone away since.  Were they always a Thanksgiving food, and I just didn’t notice because we never ate them on that holiday?  Are they a more recent foodie trend?  Are they here to stay?

brussels sprouts

When I caught on that people love them roasted, and with bacon, I started rethinking my point of view.  These brussels sprouts were deep in color, and caramelized round the edges.  I love food that’s deep in color and caramelized round the edges.  I love anything roasted.  I love bacon so much it hurts.  Do I love brussels sprouts?

I think I do.

Especially, and this is where we all gasp in shock, Ina’s brussels sprouts.  The difference between her recipe and the one I had been using till now is 1 T of balsamic vinegar.  That’s all it took to take brussels sprouts from something I felt noble eating on my own, to something I felt like shouting from the mountaintop that is this little old blog.

To make roasted brussels sprouts, you will need:

  • Several handfuls of brussels sprouts, washed and cut in half.  Ina taught me to leave those single leaves that flake off.  They crisp up as they cook and add to the finished product.
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 4 oz. bacon, 1-inch diced (Ina actually calls for pancetta which would be so much better, but who keeps that on hand?)
  • 1 T syrupy balsamic vinegar (Really good balsamic vinegar is syrupy.  Balsamic vinegar that you boil to half it’s size is syrupy.  Balsamic vinegar that we peons buy is not syrupy but will work just fine.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the brussels sprouts on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer.  Drizzle with olive oil and top with salt and pepper.  Spread bacon pieces all over the baking sheet.  Give everything a good toss so it’s combined.  Roast for 35 minutes, stopping to toss things again halfway through.

When the brussels sprouts are fresh out of the oven, drizzle them with the balsamic vinegar, and serve immediately.

Food Fit for Serving

Is it just me, or is it a struggle to come up with foods that are easy to serve when you’re having company?  I love having people over, but aside from Triscuits and some extra sharp white cheddar, I don’t love putting snacks out.  I swoon over stuffed mushrooms, crostini, and mini-quiches, but it’s exactly the mini-ness of it all that drives me mad.  I don’t have time to devote to filling each and every button mushroom cap.  And patting pie crusts into my each of my mini-muffin tins?  Ugh!  No thank you.

garlic bread prep

Luckily, I did figure out a way to scale down Ina’s garlic bread in a fairly painless manner.  I use the mini ciabatta rolls from Trader Joes, and bake them off a day before I’m having company.  Then, the day of the event, I slice them in half, and prep and wrap each roll separately.  I bake them just as Ina suggests, and everyone gets their own.

garlic rolls

Perfect for sharing.

And as long as we’re sharing I saw this questionnaire on Notes to Self Blog the other day and immediately wanted in on the fun.  I love Q&A posts.  Here goes:

1.  Spring or fall?

Fall!  Spring is actually the one season I have no particular attachment too.  Sure, I love that the weather warms up, but the other three seasons are so steeped in various traditions, I’d take them over spring any day.  Besides, fall is all about cable knit sweaters and piling blankets on the bed.

2.  Your quirkiest habit?

Quirkiest?  I don’t know.  You tell me.

3.  Hour of the day you are most productive?

On a good day, it’s an hour and fifteen minutes.  Between 7:30 and 8:45.  In general I’m a morning person.

4.  What’s a reoccurring dream you have/have had?

I almost never remember my dreams!  The only recent snippet of a dream I remember is that I dreamt I woke up one morning with curly hair.  Not like I had used a curling iron, or gotten a wavy blowout, like I have always had stick-straight, do-nothing hair, and one morning it was ringlet central.

5.  Heels or flats?

I wish I could say heels.  Flats.  (Wedges?)

6.  Something your readers may not know about you?

I love Celine Dion so much it hurts.  Who wants to come to Vegas with me?

7.  One person you want to meet–living or dead?

Oprah.  Cliche.  True.

8.  The fashion trend you’d never be caught dead in?

Oh man, I think I wear a lot of items others would never be caught dead in.  I just bought these.  So I’m not in a great place to judge.

9.  One piece of advice you’d give your 13 year old self?

Work hard and be nice to people.  I’d give it to my current self, too.

So let me know, dear readers.  What’s my quirkiest habit.  And now that you mention it, what’s yours?

OK, I’m Ready

For the past three weeks, bloggers left and right have been saying, oh blah blah, I love summer, but I’m really ready for fall.

I wasn’t buying it.

August is about the beach, and corn and tomatoes, and not blow drying your hair.

Why would you want to turn that into fall?

This morning, I looked up at the sky and the trees, and there was something different.

fall in the air

Fall was in the air.

And on September 7, I could get behind it.

So bring on the cable-knit sweaters and quilted coats.

And get ready to crank up your ovens, dear readers, there is so much meat to be cooked.

lemon chicken breast

We’ll start simple, with Ina’s lemon chicken breast.

It’s the easiest dinner, in that all you need to do is buy chicken and dump it in a pan with some other stuff.  If you keep olive oil, garlic, lemon, white wine, and a couple of spices in your kitchen at all times, you’re ready to go.  And if you don’t, you must not be cooking very much because I can think of very few dishes I would want to eat without any of those ingredients.  Scale it up or down for crowd you’re feeding.  This is such a weeknight staple, especially on nights my husband and I aren’t the only ones at the table.

To make lemon chicken for 4, you will need:

  • 1/4 C olive oil
  • 3 T minced garlic (about 9 cloves)
  • 1/3 C dry white wine
  • 1 T grated lemon zest
  • 2 T lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. minced, fresh thyme leaves
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In small saucepan, heat olive oil.  Add garlic and stir constantly, till just brown.  Remove pan from heat and add wine, lemon zest and juice, oregano and thyme.  Set aside.

Pat chicken dry with paper towels.  Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper.  Place in a 9 x 13 baking dish.  Brush each piece with olive oil mixture, and pour the rest in the bottom of the pan.  Bake 35-40 minutes, until chicken is done (if you pierce the chicken with a knife, the juices should run clear).  Remove from oven, and cover tightly with foil.  Let chicken rest for 10 minutes.  Serve with pan juices, and lemon for garnish, if you’re fancy that way.

Snow Days are for Baking

If you are being pelted with snow today, and find more time on your hands than usual, and if you tend to keep flour, sugar, butter, and chocolate chips on your hands, you too, can make The Barefoot Contessa’s chocolate chunk blondies.

Image

They are embarrassingly easy to throw together and perfect for snacking while you catch up on whatever Netflix show in which you are currently engrossed.

To make a 9 x 13 pan, you will need:

  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 C light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 1/2 C granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 extra large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 C all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 C chopped walnuts (optional)
  • 1 1/4 pounds semisweet chocolate chunks (This is the stuff dreams are made of; more than one bag of chocolate chips in one recipe!)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour a 9 x 13 baking pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar on high for 3 minutes, till light and fluffy.  Add vanilla, and eggs, one at a time, with mixer on low.  Mix well, and scrape down bowl as necessary.  In small bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt.  Slowly add flour mixture, with mixer on slow.  Fold in walnuts and chocolate chunks with rubber spatula.

Spread batter into prepared pan, and smooth top.  Bake 30 minutes, or till a toothpick comes out (mostly) clean.  It will likely also be coated in melted chocolate, and that’s a great sign.  Let cool and cut into 12 ginormous bars.

Traditions

My ex once pointed out to me that it’s likely your life changes more between the ages of 20 and 30 than at any other point in your life.  So far, that’s been true for me.  There have been bumps in the road for sure, but I’ve learned a lot too.

Like you get to make your own traditions.

You can take whatever your family did when you were growing up, and put a twist on it that makes it your own.

oilTake birthdays for example.  We were not a go out to dinner family.  No, no, no.  On birthdays in my family, the birthday person got to pick what was for dinner.  Year in and year out, my choices were spaghetti pie, broccoli, and Grandma Glass of Milk’s lemon cake.

drumsticksWhen my big day rolls around this year, however, I’m going to have to make a choice.  Do I play it safe, and stick with tradition?  Or do I start a new birthday tradition now that I’m out on my own.  Fried chicken birthdays?  Could those be a thing?

insta birthdayMy husband’s birthday was earlier in December, and his dinner of choice was fried chicken.  A friend of ours is famous the world over for her fried chicken.  After hearing about it for years, we finally got to enjoy some for ourselves the evening before Thanksgiving.  This particular friend happens to be a Barefoot Contessa fan as well, and one bite into the chicken, I knew that’s whose recipe it had to be.  Because this is comfort food done right.

The skin is so crispy you can hear the crunch from across the room.  But the meat is just as juicy as if you roasted it in the oven.  Which, actually, you did.  Because we’re talking about Ina.  And it’s not an Ina recipe if it doesn’t get roasted in the oven.  If you think you don’t like fried chicken, you do, you just haven’t had homemade fried chicken yet.  This is not fast food.  In fact, it’s the opposite, as it takes a bit of time and effort to put on the table.  That’s how you’ll show the people you make it for that you love them.  Upon first bite, you will close your eyes.  They may even roll back into your head a bit.  You will sigh.  And you will proclaim this the best fried chicken you have ever sunk your teeth into.  Then you know you’re a convert.

You will lick your spicy fingers, swab at your napkin, and go back for bite number 2.  And numbers 3, 4, 5…

To make fried chicken for 6, you will need:

A candy thermometer.  Don’t fry without one.  You need to know when the oil has reached a certain temperature, and then keep it there throughout the process.

  • 2 chickens, cut into 8 pieces (Butchering skills leave a lot to be desired? Grab 4 or 5 pounds of bone-in, skin-on, chicken pieces at the store)
  • 1 qt. buttermilk
  • 2 C flour
  • 1 T kosher salt
  • 1 T black pepper
  • 2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • vegetable oil or shortening

The night before you want to make the chicken, place the pieces in a large bowl and pour buttermilk over top.  Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.

Combine flour, salt, pepper, and cayenne in bowl.  Remove chicken pieces from buttermilk, and dredge in flour mixture, till well coated.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pour oil in large, heavy-bottomed skillet, to a depth of one inch.  Use candy thermometer to monitor oil temperature.  Heat oil till it’s 360 degrees.  Then, carefully place chicken, one piece at a time, in the oil.  Don’t crowd the pan.  Cook chicken for three minutes on each side, then transfer to a cookie sheet with a baking rack set inside.  When all the chicken has been fried, and set on the rack, transfer to oven, and bake for 30 – 40 minutes.  Serve hot.

The Cupcakes that Started It All

One might argue that the real cupcakes that started it all were the ones my mom and I would make for my birthday when I was a kid.  We mixed up Betty Crocker’s finest yellow cake box mix, and then got to work dying a tub of frosting with different colors.

I’ve come so far.

coconut cupcakesWhile making cupcakes with Wooden Nickels was a great start, I grew up and grew out of the baking aisle.  At least, out of the part with the prefab boxes of cake mix.  In what will forevermore be known as The Day That Changed My Life, I buckled and purchased The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.  The world rejoiced.  The angels sang.  I had just added so much flavor to my life, and for only $35.00.  How easy was that?

See what I did there?

One of the first recipes I made was coconut cupcakes.  I know coconut is a polarizing addition to a baked good, but I love the stuff.  Ina’s cupcakes are filled with about as much as you can add without having to call these macaroons.  I’ve been making these at least once a year, for ten years.  For someone who doesn’t often repeat recipes, that means these have been on repeat more than almost anything else I bake.  And thus, a love of baking cupcakes was born.  Or reborn.

But I haven’t blogged about them yet.  Who am I?  Here’s the recipe, with a couple minor tweaks I’ve come to love.

To make 30 cupcakes, you will need:

  • 2 sticks butter at room temperature (do it!)
  • 2 C sugar
  • 5 extra large eggs at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 3 C flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 C buttermilk
  • 7 oz. shredded coconut (1/2 of a 14 oz. bag)
  • Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar till light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Stop to scrape down the bowl as necessary.  With the mixer running on low, add the eggs, one at a time.  Add the vanilla extract and mix till combined.

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together.  In three parts, alternately add dry ingredients and buttermilk to the batter, beginning and ending with the dry.  Mix till just cominbed.  Fold in coconut.

Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins.  These cupcakes don’t rise very much, so I fill them almost to the top.  Bake 25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.  Let cool completely before frosting.

For the frosting:

  • 1 lb. cream cheese (2, 8 oz. packages), at room temperature
  • 3 sticks unsalted butter (yes! more!) at room temperature
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 1/2 lbs. confectioners’ sugar, sifted (do it–no lumps allowed)

Mix all ingredients together in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment till completely smooth.  Frost cupcakes.  If you’re going for a swirly look, there’s probably enough icing to pipe on.  But I’ve always gone the coconut-dunked route.

For the topping:

  • 14 oz. shredded coconut

Immediately after frosting, dunk cupcake in bowl of coconut.  It will stick like glue.  If you’re feeling blingy, dunk half of the cupcakes in clear sanding sugar.

Once cupcakes

Wooden Nickels Was Here

As evidenced by this little vignette.

That’s coffee, which she drinks by the gallon, and those are homemade nonpareils.  I made them because Wooden Nickels loves them, and also because I wanted to make my own, instead of paying too much for the Trader Joe’s ones that SCL introduced me to.  Wooden Nickels was very serious about getting all possible sprinkles onto her spoon.  She was in town because I have some time off of work, and she likes me.  We visited Grandma Glass of Milk, got our nails done, ate food at a girly French bistro, and annoyed each other.

Wooden Nickels is a vegetarian, so I always have to think carefully about what we’re going to have for dinner when she comes over.  This time around, inspiration came from the Barefoot Contessa.  Shocker.  I honestly don’t even know what to say about Ina anymore.  Her recipes are the best.  The best.  She gets the classics exactly right, every time.  And even her mushroom lasagna, which takes a bit more effort to make, is nothing a home cook can’t master.

What an elegant meal to serve vegetarians and omnivores alike.  It’s perfectly filling without being heavy, which I think comes from the *gasp* noticeable lack of cheese.  As I was putting this together, I started second guessing Ina, thinking that surely I should be adding Fontina, the cheese that pairs so well with woody mushrooms and melts into the nooks and crannies of any good casserole once it’s baking.  Jennie, you fool.  You know Ina knows what she’s doing.  Despite the bechamel sauce this is not a macaroni and cheese.  It doesn’t need a punch from something pungent, just the hint of something extra you get from Parmesan (or Parmesan and Pecorino Romano, which is what I used).

One bite into our lasagna and Wooden Nickels shouted to the heavens, “It’s like 5 pounds of salt and some cheese!”  She later added she meant it as a compliment.  “That’s what makes it so good.”  She exclaimed.  I’m inclined to believe her, as she went up for seconds, and left with two more brick-sized leftover portions.

I tweaked Ina’s recipe by cutting back on some of the richer ingredients, though I doubt anyone would ever guess.  I also tweaked the process a bit so I wouldn’t have to wash as many dishes.

To make mushroom lasagna for 8, you will need:

  • 1 lb. lasagna noodles
  • Kosher salt
  • olive oil
  • 4 C 2% milk
  • 4 T (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 C all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 pounds mushrooms (I used 1 lb. cremini and 1/2 lb. portobellos), sliced
  • 1/2 C Pecorino Romano
  • 1/2 C Parmesan cheese

Boil lasagna noodles in a large pot of salted water.  Drain and run under cold water.  This will prevent the noodles from drying out while you work on the rest of the lasagna.  You can check on the noodles every now and again and run some more water over them if they look like they’re getting crunchy.

Once the pot is empty, throw it back on the burner, and melt the butter in the bottom.  Add flour, and stir constantly 2-3 minutes, to take off that raw-flour edge.  Pour in milk, and add nutmeg, pepper, and 1 tsp. Kosher salt.  Stir till thickened, about 10 minutes.  Don’t call it done till you can run your finger along the back of a spoon and see the trail it left.  I recently learned that this is called nappe (pronounced nappay).  It sounds so pretentious and French.  Try it out on your friends.  Take the bechamel you just made (oooh, another new French word) and set it aside.

In a large saute pan, heat some olive oil and throw in as many mushrooms as will fit (I did mine in 3 batches).  Saute, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are brown, about 5-7 minutes.

Now it’s all about assembly.  Layer some bechamel in the bottom of your favorite casserole dish (mine is pretty close to 9 x 12).  Then set a layer of noodles on top of that.  Spread more cheese on top, and sprinkle 1/3 mushrooms over.  Sprinkle with 1/4 C of one of the cheese.  Then repeat: noodles, sauce, mushrooms, 1/4 C of the other cheese.  Repeat again.  Then top with one more layer of noodles, sauce, and cheese.

At this point, you can let the casserole sit and cool off a bit, cover it with foil, and pop it in the fridge or freezer.  Alternatively, pop it in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes, until sauce bubbles and the stick-out noodle edges are crunchy.

Eat, Memory

*Title stolen from this great book.

What I like most about food is the way one bite can bring back a memory long-since forgotten. More often than not, dinner is more than dinner.  It’s a journal of every evening meal you’ve eaten from your single to your dating to your married (with children) years.  It’s the casseroles you bring to others to let them know you’re there.  It’s what you want when you need comforting, or when you’re surrounded by friends.

The other day, I played Ina and made fancy sandwiches for dinner.

Sunday dinner, to be exact, so they were already special.

Then I sat down to dinner on Monday.  It was a much more impromptu affair, in which my husband and I ended up eating sandwiches outside at one of our favorite local haunts.  Sandwiches for dinner, two nights in a row.  Hmmmmm.

Sandwiches for dinner two nights in a row sent my brain whirling.  Because all of a sudden, I remembered that Pops and Wooden Nickels loved eating baguettes outside on the deck for dinner when the weather started warming up.  This memory was not a particularly strong one because I never touched them.  Mom and Dad put bean sprouts and healthy things in those baguettes.  I probably ate a hot dog. That’s why it didn’t occur to me right away.

But sure enough, the weather is warmer now, and my husband and I are doing exactly what my parents did while I was growing up.

That’s why I love food.

We both loved Ina’s Truffled Filet of Beef Sandwiches, which for us were simply Filet of Beef Sandwiches.  Truffle butter isn’t something I keep on hand at this stage of my life.  These sandwiches are exactly the way one might want to usher in the warmer temperatures.  They’re filling, without being heavy at all.  And they’re that rare kind of dish for which a handful of top-notch ingredients equates to a stellar meal.  Make sure you enjoy them al fresco, with a beverage in hand.

To make sandwiches for 6, you will need:

  • a 1.5-2 lb. hunk of filet (I tied mine so it cooked evenly)
  • 4 T butter, at room temperature
  • salt
  • pepper
  • arugula
  • a hunk of Parmesan cheese
  • baguette

Preheat the oven to 500, yes, 500 degrees.  While that’s cranking, slather the beef with 1 T butter, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper.  Place the filet on a baking tray and cook 22 minutes for rare, 25 minutes for medium-rare.  Remove from oven, cover tightly with foil and let rest for 15 minutes before slicing.

Assemble baguette.  Slice lengthwise, but not all the way through, and spread remaining 3 T butter on one side.  Place layer of arugula along bottom of baguette, and top with Parmesan shavings.  When beef has rested, slice thinly and layer on baguette.  Slice baguette on a diagonal into individual sandwiches, and serve immediately.  Like you could wait anyway.