Tag Archives: Dinner Party

Easy-as-Pie Cranberry Cake

You know what bugs me the most at the grocery store? Buying things because they’re on sale (bad habit, I know), then ringing in up front and having it come up as the original non-sale price. At any other store, I’d say something–but when it’s 60 cents, I just feel silly! It happened last week with some impulse-buy cranberries I’d grabbed.

In the end it worked out well, though, since those cranberries found a delicious home in a simple, easy, and beautiful cranberry cake. Be forewarned that this is a time-consuming cake: it needs about 12 minutes of solid attention while mixing and then 60-75 minutes in the oven. But if you have company, you’ve eaten everything, and you’re on the 5th or 6th bottle of wine–as I found my group of friends on Friday night–this cake is perfect! Minimal ingredients and fancy-schmancy lookin’.

(I took a bite while taking pictures, yum!)

Oh–the kirsch and almond extract are optional, but I highly recommend them both. Kirsch is good to have around for fruity ice cream anyway (thanks, David Lebovitz!) and almond extract…well, it rules.

Easy-as-Pie Cranberry Cake with Candied Walnut Topping
Adapted from TheKitchn’s Recipe for Cranberry Cake.

Cake Ingredients
3 eggs
2 cups granulated white sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon kirsch
2 cups flour (I used a mix of mostly cake flour and some all-purpose)
12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries (I don’t think dried would work well here)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9×13″ pan or a 10-inch springform (which is what I used). Beat together eggs and sugar for 5-7 minutes. They will be pale yellow and will form ribbons when you lift the beaters. Add butter, vanilla, almond extract and kirsch, and beat for another 2 minutes until well-mixed. Stir in flour by hand. Batter will be very thick. Fold in cranberries until well-distributed.

Pour batter into pan; spread so it is even. Bake now or make topping below before placing in oven. Check at 45 minutes and every 5-10 minutes thereafter until a tester comes out mostly clean.

Topping Ingredients

1 cup walnuts (or pecans), toasted
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the brown sugar. Add walnuts and stir continuously for about 2 minutes, or until the mixture looks somewhat smooth. It’s okay if the butter and brown sugar don’t look totally combined. *Before* putting the cake in the oven, pour topping over cake batter as evenly as possible.


Cured “Salmon” (Steelhead Trout) on Cucumber Slices

If I could afford it, I would eat fish every day. I *love* fish. Especially with fluffy white rice and some nice soy or maggi sauce…yum yum yum. Unfortunately I live in the real world, so fresh fish is a treat.

Look at this beauty…it looked really amazing with the bright blue styrofoam, but unfortunately the camera didn’t really capture that pop!

For the party last weekend, I was planning to buy a bit of fresh salmon and cure it, then put slices on cucumbers. I did almost all of that, but instead of salmon, we found great looking steelhead trout for half the price. Steelhead is the same color as salmon and Mike attested to its very similar taste, so I went for it! And I felt like such a classy party hostess presenting these to my guests 🙂

Curing fish might seem a little, well, fishy, but it’s actually a great way to prepare fish without having to worry about it coming out perfectly fork-flaky and whatnot. It’s not “cooked,” but the fish isn’t exactly raw, either, since you’re basically salt-preserving it (killing any microbes). You make a brine, put it on the fish, wrap it in plastic wrap, and leave it in the fridge for a day. Wash, slice, serve, done.

You can really use any citrus for the zest, so if you just have lemons, zest from two of those is fine in place of the grapefruit. And “decoratively peeling” cucumbers is so simple: just run a veggie peeler in four columns so that peeled/unpeeled alternates, and they look beautiful sliced up.

Cured Trout/Salmon on Cucumber Slices
Makes 30 bite-size appetizers

1/2 cup salt
1/4 cup vodka (unflavored only!)
1 Tbsp sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 grapefruit
1 pound trout or salmon, as fresh as possible, boned with skin on
3 cucumbers, peeled decoratively (see above) and sliced 1/4″-1/8″ thick
1/2 cup plain greek yogurt
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp dill

Mix together all ingredients in a small bowl. The texture will be like wet sand. Lay down three layers of plastic wrap on a clean surface, then place fish on it, skin side down. Spread cure mixture on top of fish, then wrap tightly with the plastic. Place on a cookie sheet and leave in the refrigerator for about one day. (It’s not really ideal to do much less or much more time. 18-36 hours is probably the widest possible range.)

Once fish has cured, remove from plastic wrap, wash off the cure with water, and slice into paper-thin pieces by cutting at an angle with the grain of the meat (see above). Place one or two pieces of fish on each cucumber slice. Mix together greek yogurt and lemon juice, then drop a small dollop on each cucumber/fish piece. Sprinkle with dill and serve.

Lemon-Blackberry Tartlets

This birthday party dessert was one of several inspired by Martha Stewart’s Entertaining. Unfortunately, after the disaster that befell my attempt at Martha’s Croquembouche, largely a result of what appeared to be an untested (or at least not-for-the-new-cook-on-the-block) recipe, I decided to use the book as a source of ideas instead of an actual cookbook.

Martha’s Lemon Curd Tartlets looked like perfect desserts, especially since I’d be serving two chocolatey/cakey desserts alongside them. I like to have a variety of tastes and textures, and these tartlets gave me fruity, tangy, pastry, and light all at once.

I hopped on the good ol’ food blog network to find a replacement for the recipe and ended up relying on two of my favorite resources for desserts: Smitten Kitchen and David Lebovitz. Smitten provided the tart crust and David, the lemon curd.

Both were intended for a single full-sized tart, so I did have to adapt slightly. The recipes are largely unchanged, though, since they are both simple and worked perfectly for me.

A few notes: I doubled both recipes and my changes to the process are in the instructions. The dough is REALLY sandy, not at all like bread or pizza or pie or anything dough–worry not. It looks like this in the bowl:

…and then like this once you take your hands to it:

As for actually molding these tiny tarts…oy vey. I was planning to pick up some adorable mini-tart pans from the greatest kitchen store ever (in Cambrige/Somerville, at least), China Fair. But I procrastinated until the day of the party, and I found out the hard way that the owners must be Jewish, since the store was closed in observation of Rosh Hashana. No wonder they weren’t answering their phones! After a bike-sprint to the dollar store, Pier One, TAGS (hardware/everything store), and Shaw’s, I came home with a few of those temporary tinfoil muffin trays instead of nice tartlet pans. So be it! We’re flexible. Just make sure you have enough trays/tins to make all of your tart shells at once, or you’re going to have to go through the whole freezing and baking process twice (you’ll see).

Last but not least, I would recommend making the lemon curd the day before, if possible, so it has time to really come together in the fridge. The leftover curd the next day was *amazing.*

OH! And I only have a few pictures because I was so frantically getting ready for the party that my camera took a backseat to having food on the table! For now, check out this awesome mountain of grated butter…

Tart Crust
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’sThe Great Unshrinkable Sweet Tart Shell, which is adapted from Dorie Greenspan
Makes 30 muffin-tin-sized tartlets, or 2 9-inch tarts

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 sticks plus 2 Tbsp unsalted butter (18 Tbsp), frozen
2 egg yolks

1. Grate your butter. It’s the best way to make really easily incorporated pieces! But it needs to be frozen for this to work.

2. Add your flour, sugar, and salt to a food processor, then grated butter on top. Process in 3 or 4 short pulses (maybe 2 seconds each), until the butter is in oatmeal-sized pieces. Break your yolks in a separate bowl, then add to processor and pulse until the dough suddenly changes texture (you’ll see it and the processor will sound different).

3. Turn the dough onto a clean work surface. It will be VERY sandy (see picture above). Just combine it with your hands–your body heat will melt the butter enough to make it stick together–until the dry ingredients are incorporated. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours.

4. After dough has been chilled, you can try rolling it out into a nice piece if you want (I think Smitten had better luck when she used a whole egg instead of just a yolk). I just picked up pieces of the dough and gently pressed them into a tartlet shape in the bottom of my (BUTTERED) muffin tins, making sure to create a small “lip” so that the curd could sit in the tart. Don’t press so hard that they appear shiny, or they’ll burn. Freeze the muffin tins for 30 minutes.

5. Just before tins are ready to come out, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter the shiny side of enough aluminum foil to cover the tins. Remove the tins from the freezer and press the foil, butter-side-down, into the tins so that the dough is covered on both sides. Bake for about 10-12 minutes.

6. Remove the tinfoil and press down any puffed-up crust with a fork. If they aren’t golden brown yet, give them another couple of minutes. When finished, gently remove from tins (a fork is helpful here) and let cool completely before adding curd.

Lemon Curd
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s Tarte au citron
Makes enough for 30+ tartlets

1 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
Grated zest of 2 lemons, washed first
1 cup sugar
12 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces
4 eggs
4 egg yolks
Blackberries or raspberries (optional)

1. In a heavy, non-reactive saucepan, heat the lemon juice, zest, sugar, and butter.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and yolks.

3. When the butter has melted, dribble some of the warm mixture into the egg yolks, stirring constantly, until about 1/3 is incorporated. Pour everything back into the saucepan and return to low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens and just barely begins to boil around the edges.

4. Pour the curd through a mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Chill for a few hours, if possible. No more than an hour or two before serving, spoon the curd into the tart shells. Decorate with a single blackberry or raspberry if desired.

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Flatbreads

Birthdays in middle school were so much easier than they are now. I invited 10 or so girls to my house for pizza, cake, presents, a movie, a sleepover, and breakfast from my mom the next morning before everyone headed home. Now it seems so much more complicated! This year, I finally decided to have a party that would allow me to cook a bunch of delicious food I wouldn’t normally make and then…write about it!

I ordered Martha Stewart’s Entertaining last week. Opening it up made me feel like there were endless possibilities for cooking for my friends, and that suddenly I couldn’t have ENOUGH dinner parties. And so my ideas for the weekend’s food came in a flood.

I decided (after many iterations) on a relatively simple menu of 3 savory appetizers and 4 desserts, balanced to feed vegetarians and non-vegetarians, warm and cold, crunchy and soft, salty and sweet, traditional and non-traditional, picky and adventurous. I’ll be posting those recipes throughout the week.

The first is one of the simplest yet most delicious and impressive-looking. Courtesy of Mike, as always, come these Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Flatbreads. I was originally planning to make roasted tomato and goat cheese tarts on puff pastry, like O Pistachio’s Bite-Size Tomato Tarts, but flatbreads are a particular inside-joke with my friend Steph.

Steph’s from Portland, ME, and on a recent trip to the city for a frisbee tournament, she brought me and Mike to the Flatbread Company, a restaurant specializing in flatbreads. She told us it would be like nothing else we’d ever had before. It WAS delicious, but we teased her to no end for framing the flatbreads as the exotic cuisine of Portland. So now, at any opportunity, I like to make these “Portland specialties.” Somehow it never stops being hilarious!

We used pre-made pizza dough from the grocery store to save time, since we were making so many other dishes for the party. It’s so cheap, too–$2 for enough dough for 2 whole pizzas! My only complaint is that it’s difficult to find whole wheat pizza dough, and if I were to make my own I’d definitely make it with WW flour. We bought way too much dough, but extra flatbreads make great sandwiches the next day!

Caramelizing onions is a long process, usually about an hour or so, but it’s really easy if you’re patient, and so worth it. The pictures below show a couple of the steps to caramelization. They cook down to a soft, brown, super-savory treat that matches perfectly with the taste of goat cheese.

For this party, we made 4 flatbreads and cut each into eighths to serve 32 appetizers. You could also serve each flatbread as 1 dinner serving.

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Flatbreads
Serves 4-32, depending on how you cut them!

Olive oil
3 large red onions, cut into spears (see photo)
Salt and pepper
1/2 bag pre-made pizza dough (usually 1 pound)
8 oz goat cheese, cold
Dried (or fresh) parsley

Heat about 1 Tbsp olive oil in your pan, enough to coat the bottom. Add onions and a few pinches of salt. Let the onions caramelize, stirring only occasionally, for about an hour, or until they’re brown and very soft.

To make flatbreads, divide pizza dough into quarters (you’ll get eighths from the whole bag, but we used only half for this particular appetizer). Stretch dough until it is evenly thin and about the size of your grill pan. Lightly brush oil onto the dough and place in a grill pan. Let cook for about 5 minutes, then flip and cook for another 5 minutes. Don’t move the dough once it’s in the pan or you won’t get the grill marks.

Once all of your flatbreads are finished, spread caramelized onions on each. Crumble about 2 oz of goat cheese on each flatbread, then sprinkle parsley over the top. Cut into appropriate portions and serve.

Banana Scallops with Caramel Ice Cream and Grated Chocolate

This is the big finale of my dinner party from last week, and I am so excited to write about it and mentally savor it again!

My tastes have changed so much through college and since I started cooking with some food-knowledge. If you asked me 5 years ago if this is a dessert I’d want, I think I’d actually turn it down…and anyone who knows me is probably shocked to hear that I’d say no to ANY dessert.

It turns out, though, that bananas are actually *really* good when ripe, and homemade caramel simply OWNS the weird, store-bought, grainy stuff I ate as a kid. Together, the bananas, caramel, and chocolate are a fantastic, balanced, sweet-but-not-too-sweet, rich, simply amazing dessert. Can I say enough about it?

It’s best to start the ice cream the night before, but as long as you give it a good 6 hours to cool in the refrigerator, you should be okay.

As for the caramel, it’s a bit of a learning process. David Lebovitz’s How To Make the Perfect Caramel was hugely helpful, and I slightly modified his technique for making caramel praline (from a recipe for salted butter caramel ice cream). I had a similar snafu with my first batch of caramel as David–I stirred too much and it looked like this:

But after some long low-medium heat, it turned back into the nice liquid it should be. And there’s really no joke about immediately pouring it out (for the praline) or adding the cream (for the ice cream) after the 2-3 seconds of smoking. I let one batch smoke for about 10 seconds and it was too burnt…had to throw it out, boo.

But enough of that! Go forth and experiment, because these recipes were new to me last week and I’m excited to play around with them at dinner parties to come.

Caramel Ice Cream with Praline Chips
Modified from Epicurious.com.
Serves 4-6

6-8 egg yolks (I used 7 for super-rich ice cream)
2 cups sugar, divided
1/2 cup water, divided
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup whole milk

Whisk egg yolks in a large bowl and set aside. In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, combine 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup water. Do not stir. Every couple of minutes, use a heat-resistant (eg, wood) spatula to pull sugar on sides of pan toward the middle and swirl the pan. After several minutes, melted sugar will turn amber, then will begin to slightly “smoke.” After 2-3 seconds of “smoke,” turn off heat and quickly stir in the heavy whipping cream. **BE CAREFUL–this can bubble vigorously, so it might be a good idea to hold up a mesh splatter screen between you and the caramel at first.** Stir cream and caramel over low heat for about 5 minutes, or until all caramel bits have dissolved. Add milk and bring to a simmer.

Slowly dribble caramel mixture into egg yolks, stirring constantly to prevent curds from forming. Once combined, return to saucepan and stir over medium-low heat until custard thickens, leaving a “nap” on the back of the spoon (see here for picture), about 5 minutes. Do not boil. Strain custard into a clean large bowl and refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 24.

While custard is chilling, make praline by making a second batch of caramel, with 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water, exactly the same as the first. This time, have a large piece of parchment paper lining a cookie sheet near the stove. About 2-3 seconds after the caramel begins to smoke, immediately remove from the heat and pour onto the parchment paper. Quickly lift the pan and tilt it nearly vertical to spread the caramel into a thin layer. Let rest until cool, then crush into small pieces.

Once custard is chilled, churn in ice cream maker per manufacturer’s instructions. I like to use one bowl for the first 20 minutes, then transfer to my second bowl for the last 5 or so–it helps give it a little firmness that’s lacking otherwise. Once finished churning, stir in praline chips and set in freezer until ready to serve.

Banana Scallops
Serve 3-4

2-3 bananas, sliced into 1.5-inch thick pieces
Sugar for coating
1 Tbsp butter

Cover a small plate with granulated sugar. Tap the top and bottom of each banana slice (but NOT the sides) in the sugar and set aside. Heat 1 Tbsp butter in a saute pan until just barely browned, then carefully place each banana slice in the pan in an order you will remember (in rows, in a circle, etc). Each banana should have only about 1 1/2 minutes per side, so once you’ve finished placing them all, they will probably be ready to be flipped in the order they were added. Be very careful when flipping; they’re hot! Again, once you’ve finished flipping, the first ones are ready to come off. Serve while hot.

I also grated some dark chocolate over the whole set-up to give it an extra sharpness. Better quality chocolate is definitely worth investing in, especially since you use so little. My personal favorite is Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa Dark Chocolate.

Panko-Coated Fried Eggplant

For last week’s dinner party, I needed to find a vegetarian entree that would be filling and delicious. I hate to say it, but that has never been an easy task for me. Pasta is an option, but it’s never filling enough to have a true “portion,” and I always crash and feel starving again after an hour.

Mike, being the former vegetarian and uber-talented food-idea-man that he is, came up with fried eggplant as a hearty, tasty meat alternative for dinner with Becca and Kiki. It’s simple, but looks fancy, and it really is great!

Whenever you “bread” anything, be it chicken or eggplant, you’ should set up a “dredge/egg wash/bread” station. The first layer is flour–we used whole wheat, since it was all we had. Your egg wash will form a glue when added over the flour. The general rule of thumb is 1 tsp of water per egg yolk. As for the bread crumbs, I’m a huge fan of panko (Japanese bread crumbs), which you can sometimes find with other bread crumbs and sometimes in the Asian section.

(You’ll have to forgive me that all of these pictures were taken at night, so the light is a little off.)

You should use a fair amount of oil–maybe 1/2 inch deep in the pan? You want it to be pretty hot when you fry the eggplants so they don’t get soggy; I set my gas stove to one notch above medium. As always, be very careful around the hot oil!

Enough little tips. Time for some cooking!

Panko-Coated Fried Eggplant
Serves 6-8

2 eggplants, sliced into 1-inch wide medallions
1 cup flour, any kind
4 egg yolks
4 tsp water
2 cups panko
Olive oil (a lot)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Paper towels (or plain brown paper bag)

Prepare your breading station by pouring the flour and panko into separate dishes. Quickly whisk the egg yolks and water in another dish. One by one, dredge each medallion of eggplant in the flour, brushing off as much flour as you can. Quickly dip the eggplant in the egg wash, then into the bread crumbs. Thoroughly coat the eggplant in crumbs by pressing the crumbs on. Set aside until you’ve finished all of the medallions.

Lay out a few layers of paper towels next to the stove.

Fill a large saute pan with enough oil to be about 1/2-inch deep. Heat over medium-high until shimmering. VERY GENTLY place each medallion in the oil; you should be able to fit about 4. Don’t overcrowd the pan or they won’t fry correctly. The oil should be bubbling moderately vigorously, but not spattering out of the pan–adjust heat as necessary. Fry first side for about 4 minutes or until bottoms are golden-brown, then very gently flip and fry for another 3-4 minutes.

When you remove each medallion, immediately place it on the paper towels and quickly sprinkle salt and pepper on top. The hot oil will suck up the salt and make these really delicious. When somewhat cooled (after about 2 minutes), these are ready to serve!

*Note that with 2 eggplants, this turns into a good 4 batches in the pan, so you might want to serve and eat the first set, then finish cooking them after dinner.

Squash and Zucchini Marinara

When I planned my kitchen garden this year, I greatly underestimated the amount of sunlight my little corner of the yard would get over the course of the summer. As a result it’s flush with pole beans, mustard greens, beets, spinach and chard (although the last two never grew, argh!), instead of tomatoes, cukes, and summer squash.

Sometime in July I noticed some suspicious “weeds” in the soil, but since I’d been away for a week I actually noticed that their leaves looked a lot like those characteristic of squash (and zucchini, and pumpkins, and everything else in the Cucurbita family). HALLELUJAH!

They haven’t actually developed fruit yet, probably because of the incredibly rainy first half of the summer, but it put me in the mood for summer squash. This dish is one of my favorite ways to do several things: use summer squash, eat warm vegetables, and pretend to eat lots and lots of guilt-free pasta.

The trick is to slice the squash and zucchini with a vegetable peeler, then leave the inner seed-y cores for another meal. It takes a couple of minutes per squash to make the “pasta.”

Kiki loved this part of our meal last week and I should have posted this a while ago so she could make it at home. Props go to Mike for the recipe, of course, who came up with this last winter (or at least shared it with me then).

Squash and Zucchini Marinara
Serves 4-6

~2 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1/2 red onion, diced
1 shallot, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-oz can petite diced tomatoes, juice reserved
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 Tbsp dried basil (Italian seasoning mix would work, too)
Capful of vermouth or vodka
Salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 oz. shaved Parmesan

Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in the bottom of a 2-quart saucepan until shimmering, then saute onion and shallot with a few pinches of salt and pepper for 3-4 minutes, until soft. Add garlic and saute for about 30 seconds. Add diced tomatoes and saute for about 2 minutes, then add reserved juice, crushed tomatoes, dried basil, vermouth, and a few more pinches of salt and pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes.

While simmering sauce, create squash and zucchini pasta by slicing thin with a vegetable peeler. Reserve the seed-y cores for another meal.

When sauce is almost done, heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a saute pan. Add squash and zucchini and saute for 3-4 minutes. Add sauce to pan and toss to coat. Cook for about 2 minutes, then serve with shaved Parmesan.

Adding salt, pepper, and other seasonings is best when done in “layers.” In other words, add flavor every time you add a “set” of ingredients.