Bobby Deen’s Ricotta Cheesecake — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, April 26th, 2013

Bobby Deen's Cheesecake

My birthday is less than a month away, so I’m in the process of conducting my annual cake audition. I got in the habit of making my own celebratory cake some years back as a way to try out intriguing recipes and to stretch my baking skills a little. In the weeks before my big day, I make a few new-to-me cakes, in the hopes of finding something fun and tasty to serve.

Three years ago, I made lavender-infused cupcakes to take to a party in a friend’s garden. Two years ago, I layered and frosted my way to a triple-decker chocolate cake. Last May, I mixed things up with a strawberry-rhubarb pie. It didn’t hold candles well, but it received raves from my friends.

Recently, I’ve had cheesecake on the brain, so I decided to tackle a few different versions in the hopes of finding a worthy candidate. I started with Bobby Deen’s recipe for Ricotta Cheesecake. I was attracted by the fact that it’s lighter than traditional cheesecake — and it’s easy to put together. It can be made in a single bowl and doesn’t require a water bath to keep it tender.

My tasters and I came to the conclusion that while it’s not indulgent enough for a birthday, it may be the perfect spur-of-the-moment cake for casual gatherings. That makes it just perfect for The Weekender!

Before you start baking, read these tips

Spring Chicken With Carrots and Peas — The Weekender

by in Family, Recipes, April 20th, 2013

Spring Chicken With Carrots and PeasLike so many American households, we eat a lot of chicken in my little family of two. And, of course, like so many of our fellow poultry eaters, we often fall into a rut and end up making the same four or five recipes over and over again.

Recently, after working our way through another round of the same old roast chicken, I started doing a little searching in the hopes of injecting some fresh inspiration into our routine. I bookmarked recipes for stews, pan-roasted birds and new-to-me marinades.

Because I know her dishes to be pretty darn reliable in the taste department, I started out by trying Rachael Ray’s recipe for Spring Chicken With Carrots and Peas. You begin by browning the chicken in a little olive oil and then turning down the heat so the chicken cooks through.

Once it’s done, you pull the chicken out of the pot and add chopped shallots. Once they’ve cooked and picked up all those gorgeous bits of golden chicken from the bottom of the pan, you add some white wine, carrots and peas. Finally, the chicken is nestled back into the pot. You can serve it immediately, or you can let the chicken stew a bit longer and pick up some of the flavors from the pot.

Before you start cooking, read these tips

Eggplant Parmesan Meatloaf — The Weekender

by in Recipes, April 12th, 2013

Eggplant Parmesan MeatloafThe first time I made meatloaf for the man who is now my husband, he took one look at the slice on his plate and asked, “You call this meatloaf?” And while it was certainly meatloaf to me, it was many moons away from the version he grew up eating.

Mine, which was closely related to the one my mom had always made, featured strands of grated carrots and potatoes running through the ground meat, and it was seasoned with plenty of minced garlic.

His meatloaf of memory was more closely related to the classic version, complete with moistened white bread kneaded in and a baked-on glaze of ketchup and brown sugar. I’m still trying to find an approach that marries our two ideal versions into one harmonious loaf. (I think there might just be deep lessons about life and marriage embedded in this search.)

I’ve actually found that we’re both most-happy when I don’t try to replicate either of our traditional meatloaves but, instead, opt for recipes that do entirely different things with ground meat, binders and seasonings. These days, we’re digging Eggplant Parmesan Meatloaf from Giada De Laurentiis.

Before you start cooking, read these tips

Flank Steak Lettuce Wraps — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, April 5th, 2013

Flank Steak Lettuce WrapsWhen you hear the phrase “lettuce wrap,” what do you think? If the first thought that springs to mind is a poor low-carb sandwich replacement, you’re not alone. I took an informal poll of my friends and that was the predominant attitude.

I think it’s time to liberate the lettuce wrap from its second-class status and bring it into the mainstream. To my taste buds, there’s something absolutely perfect and appealing about the savory crunch that’s possible with this much-maligned dish.

I like to start with some long-marinated chicken or beef (though crispy tofu works beautifully, too) that’s been grilled or broiled so it’s caramelized around the edges, but still tender. Once you have your starring protein, pick out toppings. Ribbons of carrot, shredded cabbage, slivers of green onion and leggy cilantro leaves are all great. And then there’s the lettuce. If you’re looking for crunch, iceberg is your best bet, though I prefer butter lettuce for its color and flexibility.

Once all of your players are in hand, build. Place a lettuce leaf on your plate and nestle a strip of protein down as the base. Stack on your toppings and then fold, much as you would a burrito. If you have a dipping sauce, a quick dip before the first bite does wonders for wrap unification.

Before you start cooking, read these tips

Spinach Quiche for an Easter or Passover Brunch — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, Holidays, March 29th, 2013

Spinach Quiche for Easter - The WeekenderI’m not sure when exactly it happened, but I can no longer bear to go out to brunch. I hate the long waits and the fact that once you do get a table, your meal proceeds at breakneck speed so the restaurant can turn your table. (I don’t dispute their right to do so. I just don’t enjoy rushing through a meal.)

And then there are the prices. As someone who does a lot of grocery shopping and cooking, I know just how much things cost, and the markups on things like pancakes, scrambled eggs and toast make me a little twitchy.

So these days, I stay home and have people over for brunch instead of meeting at a restaurant. It keeps my blood pressure in check and means that I get to flex some underutilized cooking skills.

In pursuit of brunch excellence, I’ve worked my way through crepes, homemade bagels and English muffins. While I’ve got my sights set on conquering the aebleskiver in the somewhat near future, at the moment I’m focused on making a great quiche. The thing that’s so great about quiche is that it can be made ahead and reheated. Served with a green salad and a slice of crispy bacon, it makes for a fairly fuss-free entertaining experience.

Before you start baking your quiche, read these tips:

Cracked Earth Cake — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, Holidays, March 22nd, 2013

Cracked Chocolate Earth CakeMy cousin Amy starts planning for Passover in January. The save-the-date email comes first, with the time and location in bold (though they’re the same every year). A few weeks later, dinner assignments follow. Later there are email reminders and carpool arrangements.

It used to be that I willingly accepted whatever meal assignment was handed to me. In recent years, however, I’ve gotten more strategic. As soon as the first Seder planning email goes out, I reply with an offer of what I’d like to bring. This way, I can ensure there will be something on the table that my picky husband will eat, and I get to play to my strengths as a cook.

On Monday (and for the second year running), I’m bringing brisket and a flourless chocolate cake. I bring the brisket because I make a good one, and I do the cake, well, because nothing finishes a meal like a good chocolate cake.

Before you start baking, read these tips

8-Spice Squash and Chicken Thighs Stew — The Weekender

by in Recipes, March 15th, 2013

Eight-Spice Squash and Chicken Thighs StewOne time when I was in college, I brought a few friends home for the weekend. It was a 4-hour drive from Walla Walla, Wash. — where we went to school — to my hometown of Portland, Ore. Knowing we’d be hungry, my mom had dinner waiting for us when we arrived. She’d made a big pot of her chicken curry, with brown rice to sop up the juices and plenty of garnishes like yogurt, diced apple and fresh cilantro leaves.

I was thrilled to see what she’d prepared. It was just the sort of flavorful, interesting food I’d grown up eating and didn’t see much of in the dining hall at school. My friends, on the other hand, weren’t so excited. I didn’t know it until we sat down at the table, but they weren’t fans of chicken on the bone or saucy dishes that include cooked raisins.

I am grateful that my parents chose to be amused by my friends’ collective reluctance to eat the meal and willingly served them lots of rice with just a little sauce for flavor. I am also appreciative that my parents made sure to make interesting food throughout my childhood, as it has made me a more adventurous eater as an adult.

Recently, I had a craving for a dish like the hippie curry that my mom served to my friends and me that night. A phone call to her was dissatisfyingly vague, so I did a little digging in the hopes that I’d find something with a similar flavor profile. What I settled on was Rachael Ray’s Eight-Spice Squash and Chicken Thighs Stew With Lentil Rice.

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Old-Fashioned Cocoa Cake With Caramel Icing — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, Recipes, March 8th, 2013

Old-Fashioned Cocoa Cake With Caramel IcingI am the designated birthday dessert baker for my circle of close friends and dear family members. Every year, I make a dozen or more cakes, pies, tarts and meringue concoctions for parties, picnics and small family dinners.

It starts in January with my dad’s birthday. Tradition dictates that he gets a thing called Pinch Pie (though it’s neither pinched, nor is it a pie). It’s a meringue shell filled with ice cream, strawberries, whipped cream and toasted almonds. It’s a sugar bomb, but it’s beloved in my family.

In February, both my sister and my husband celebrate. When she was younger, Raina was into ice cream cakes, but these days she prefers something dense and chocolatey. Scott, on the other hand, hasn’t shifted his preferences since childhood. He likes to celebrate with a Funfetti cake made from a boxed mix. Though it violates my from-scratch sensibilities, that’s what he gets.

As we head into March, I start thinking about baking for my friend Shay’s big day. She doesn’t have a standard cake, instead preferring to try something new. Last time I did a carrot cake, and this year I’ve been planning something layered and featuring chocolate.

Before you start baking, read these tips

Crispy Zucchini and Potato Pancakes — The Weekender

by in Holidays, Recipes, March 1st, 2013

Crispy Zucchini and Potato Pancakes - The WeekenderWhen I was in high school, I went through a period where nothing I ate sat right with me. My parents took me to our family doctor, trying to figure out what was the matter. I was tested for celiac disease, IBS, Crohn’s and other illnesses that can sometimes cause digestive distress and they all came back negative. It wasn’t until a family friend who was also a naturopathic doctor suggested I take a break from eating wheat-based foods that things began to improve.

This was back in the mid-’90s, before everyone was eating wheat-free and gluten-free. The available rice pasta was terrible and the spelt bread sold at our local co-op was dry and crumbly. I ate a lot of my mom’s homemade granola and gave up a lot of the things I most liked to eat for a time.

Happily, I found that it was enough for me to take occasional breaks from wheat to keep my belly happy and so every couple months, I’d take a week or two off from bread, pasta, cookies and anything else with wheat in the ingredient list.

Over this past weekend, I realized that it was time for another such wheat-free period. I did a little meal planning and made a shopping list of things that would ease the shift (though it’s so much easier to do these days than it was nearly 20 years ago).

Before you start cooking, read these tips

Creamy Winter Vegetable Soup — The Weekender

by in Recipes, February 22nd, 2013

Creamy Winter Vegetable SoupWhenever I’m at a loss as to what I should make for dinner, I make a pot of soup. I appreciate the fact that you can make something warming and filling with just a few ingredients and I love the fact that a batch of soup nearly always yields enough for lunch the next day.

In fact, we eat so much soup around my house that in late January, my husband asked for a soup break. Looking back, I realized that we’d eaten a batch or two every week since November. Once I figured out just how much soup I’d been feeding him, I was fine with taking a little rest.

Nearly all my soups start out the same way: I saute onions, leeks or shallots in a bit of olive oil and then start adding whatever other vegetables are in my fridge that need to be used. Then there’s the liquid. I use stock if there’s some to be had, or water with a little bouillon concentrate or a splash of wine for flavor.

Finally, salt, pepper, herbs and a long, slow simmer. Unless I’m working with tough cuts of meat that need a lot of cooking, the last thing I add  is protein — like slivers of chicken breast, beans or little cubes of ham — to prevent it from overcooking or falling to bits.

Before you start cooking, read these tips

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