Thursday, April 27, 2017

Excellent Remake of an Older Appetizer

As I wrote a couple of days ago, when writing about the foods I made for an Open House, some of the foods were remakes of ones I have made many times previously. One of them was a recipe for Millard's Artichoke Quiches. Originally, the recipe was given to me, and all the neighborhood, by a neighbor named Millard. On first reading the recipe, my first thought was that the recipe should not be able to work as written. 

Still, I decided to give it a shot, and amazingly, it not only came out great - it was really fantastic. The first time I made them was with my sister-in-law, Sherri, and we made them as full-sized muffins. Nothing "mini" about them. We ate them with dinner, as a side dish, and wow, they were good. The flavors were so excellent that I tried making them in mini-muffin size for a get together, and again, they are really wonderful this way. My family and I were dripping Sriracha sauce over top of them when we ate them, certainly upping the heat. And then over the last few years I started experimenting with substitutions for the original ingredients. One was Mini Asparagus Quiches with Feta and Prosciutto, where I was pairing them with a Sauvignon Blanc wine. I made crusts for the quiches in this instance, as any bready-type food helps with absorption of alcohol. They can be made equally as well without the crusts if desired. If you read that blog, I explained my logic.
Smoky Squash & Prosciutto Mini Quiches
Smoky Squash & Prosciutto Mini Quiches (shown on a 4-inch square plate)

Another variation I made in past is Southwest Frittata Bites. Same basic recipe, different substitutions, and that was some time back - I cannot even recall why I opted for that mixture, but they were really good also. I guess where I am going is that this basic recipe allows for a lot of leeway in making new flavor sensations. Just try to keep the quantities of the substitutions similar. Keep the basic 4 eggs and 6 saltines. This gives the basic "quiche" base to work from. Then, play with flavor combinations: 
  • Sub out the 8 ounces of cheddar cheese for other varieties of cheese. 
  • Sub out the 12 ounces of artichoke hearts for about 12 ounces of other foods/flavors, like bacon, asparagus, chicken, prosciutto or other ham, OR
  • Sub out the 12 ounces of artichoke hearts for a combination of things, such as a mix of prosciutto and asparagus, or a mix of canned green chilies and bacon.
If you begin to add too much for the basic 4 eggs to handle, just add another egg to balance things out.  I kept the scallions in all the recipes, sometimes adding in even more than the original called for, depending on what mixture of flavors I was working with. 


If you should opt for something like fresh sausage, or other uncooked meat, make sure it is cooked well before it is added to this recipe. The baking time is far too short to completely cook through things like fresh pork sausage or chicken or other fresh meats or fish. Do not add anything you could not eat before adding it. The eggs in the recipe have plenty of time to set around the fillings, but the fillings need to be pre-cooked.
Smoky Squash and Prosciutto Mini Quiches
Smoky Squash and Prosciutto Mini Quiches

Back to the recipe I created last week, this time I wanted something really different. I baked a butternut squash and pureed it, using just ¾ cup of mashed squash. I had been using Smoked Fontina in other recipes recently and it is a really nice cheese for melting, so I thought I would shred the Smoked Fontina for a smoky flavor and use Prosciutto (actually I used Serrano Ham this time, but Prosciutto is more easily found - they are very similar in style). I also opted to add a bit of Pimenton de la Vera, or Spanish Smoked Paprika, just to help out the smoky flavor.

When I went to the store to get the Smoked Fontina - they were entirely out! So I used an 8-ounce block of Smoked Gouda, which worked wonderfully well. In fact, this particular variation may well by my all-time favorite - they were really addictive. I wanted these to look pretty in photos of the Open House, so this time I decided to slice some cherry tomatoes and set one little slice atop each scoop of the mixture before baking. The tomato does not really cook through, maintaining its red color nicely and making them very attractive.

Mini Muffin Tin vs Regular Muffin Tin

Thoughts on "mini" muffin tins

I have seen all sorts of things being called "mini". Many are nowhere what I would call mini. When I write of mini-muffin tins, I mean the ones with a base of approximately one-inch in diameter, slightly more or less. It gets more confusing when looking at "Mini-Cheesecake Pans," which fall somewhere between these two in size.

Smoky Squash Prosciutto Mini Quiches
Smoky Squash & Prosciutto Mini Quiches
Smoky Squash & Prosciutto Mini Quiches

Makes about 30 to 35 cocktail bites

4 large eggs
6 saltine crackers, crushed
¾ cup chopped scallions
¾ cup cooked butternut squash, mashed
8 ounces smoked Fontina or Gouda cheese
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 ounces Prosciutto or Serrano Ham, minced
1 teaspoon Pimenton de la Vera/Smoked Paprika (more or less as desired)
Dash hot sauce
cherry tomatoes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With cooking spray, spray the wells of mini muffin tins, set aside.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the first 9 ingredients until well combined. Use a small (about 2 teaspoon) "cookie scoop", or use about 2 teaspoons of the mixture into each mini-muffin well. Slice the cherry tomatoes, discarding the two ends. Place one perfect slice on top of the filling in each well. Bake the quiches for about 18 to 20 minutes, turning the pan halfway through the baking time. Out of the oven, let stand for 2 to 3 minutes, then use a sharp knife to loosen the edges, then lift each of the quiches. Set them onto a rack to cool.
Slice cherry tomatoes, place on unbaked quiches and bake
Slice cherry tomatoes, place on unbaked quiches and bake

They may be served immediately, while warm or at room temperature. They may be wrapped tightly and frozen, for up to 3 weeks. Set them onto a baking sheet to thaw slightly, then reheat at 350 degrees for 7 to 10 minutes.

My passion is teaching people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and passing along my love and joy of food, both simple or exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me also at A Harmony of Flavors on Facebook, and Pinterest and sign up for my Newsletter.

Monday, April 24, 2017

An Open House and new Appetizers

Yesterday afternoon Tetiana Althoff, a realtor with Re/Max Preferred Choice here in town, held an Open House on Pheasant Run Blvd. I was asked to volunteer some appetizers for this, as one of the "high-end" open houses featuring wine and food. It was a lovely afternoon, and quite a few people came to look through the house and partake of the treats.

Appetizers at the Open House
Appetizers, clockwise from top left: Squash Prosciutto & Smoked Gouda Quiches, Savory Brie & Rosemary Cheesecakes, Cream Cheese & Tart Cherry Filled Apricots, Blue Cheese Wafers

When approached about this Open House, I started looking through recipes to see what appealed to me. I have a stack of folders at least 5-inches thick with all sorts of recipes I have saved, from online or from magazines, and some are scribbled ideas I had at some point. Looking through these folders for ideas, I found a recipe I had printed from the internet for Camembert Cheesecakes and thought, hmmm, maybe it's finally time to try these. I also came across a recipe my sister used for one of our 50th birthday parties. It is similar to my own Pistachio and Almond Paste Filled Apricots, in that it uses dried apricots and has them stuffed with a filling, but this recipe from A Taste of Home) used far more ingredients. They are really good, but I believe I will stick to my original recipe from here on out. For one, it uses less ingredients, and secondly, my recipe is far easier to make. In a comparison, while both are tasty, I think my original recipe is tastier. That does not mean these "new ones" aren't good, because they are delicious (just a bit more fuss to make).
Savory Brie & Rosemary Mini-Cheesecakes
Savory Brie & Rosemary Mini-Cheesecakes

The other two recipes I made were variations on some I have made previously. The Blue Cheese Wafers are a variation on my Savory Blue Cheese Coins with Apricot Jam. In this new version, I used all smoked blue cheese, with no cheddar at all, and almond meal rather than walnuts. For the topping, rather than Apricot Jam, I used the Fig Apricot Preserve I made recently for the little tamales at the "Renaissance Festival." I really love how this Preserve worked on these little savory wafers. The jam in the original recipe tends to bubble up and flow all over the place when baking. This Preserve I had made, is less sweet altogether and it stayed in place, no bubbling and spilling. 

The other recipe variation is the mini quiches. Originally, I got the recipe from a neighbor in Florida, and those, called "Millard's Artichoke Quiches," uses marinated artichoke hearts and cheddar cheese. While they are absolutely fabulous in flavor, I wanted to try something new. In this new version, I eliminated the artichokes and cheddar, then cooked some butternut squash to add in, plus Prosciutto and smoked Gouda cheese. Those were just out of this world!
Savory Brie & Rosemary Cheesecakes
Savory Brie & Rosemary Cheesecakes, served at the Open House

I will put the recipes for these last three items in a future blog or two, but in this one I want to concentrate on the little Savory Brie Cheesecakes. I had found this recipe, called Camembert Cheesecakes, online, some time ago I used the recipe, but with some changes. The first and foremost was the use of Brie instead of Camembert. Our local grocery often carries Camembert, but did not have any this time. Brie it was, then. I doubled the recipe, as I wanted more than just 12, but then found I still had enough cheesecake batter for 6 more, so I made an extra half recipe of crust. This turned out 30 little cheesecakes. And, they were really excellent.

Norpro Mini Cheesecake Pan
Norpro Mini Cheesecake Pan
I had just recently created a recipe for Roasted Tomato Pickle, and with these relatively bland cheesecakes (though full of flavor, they are mainly cheese), I thought that maybe a little strip of this new tomato condiment would add some zip. Oh boy, did it ever! Honestly, that Roasted Tomato Pickle is one of my most inspired condiments in a long while! As it turned out, while the cheesecakes puffed up beautifully in the oven, they fell into a significant dip in the center, once they cooled. And, as it happened, that little dip was the perfect place to set the piece of tomato. A good thing all around. 

To make these cheesecakes, I used a Norpro brand mini-cheesecake pan (available on and many other places). It has 12 wells with removable bottoms, making for easy release. These turn out a little cheesecake that is smaller than if made in a regular muffin tin, and more straight-sided, but much larger than if made in the little mini-muffin tins. These are about 1¾-inch diameter at the base. I didn't measure, but I have a good eye for dimensions. If you do not have a mini-cheesecake pan, I truly do not know how to say what I would do in a different sized pan. These might work well in a regular muffin tin, with those new smooth-sided muffin papers, but I cannot say how many would come out, or baking times. If you do have a mini-cheesecake pan, then here is a really great, and beautiful recipe to use.

When making these, I wanted to line the wells of the cheesecake tin, to ensure ease of release from the sides. The original recipe says to run a knife around the edges to release, but too often I end up gouging the sides with the knife, making it very unsightly. These were for a special occasion, and looks were important. It may have been easy enough to press the crust into the pans, but I felt that forming the crust dough into a log and chilling it first would make things easier. I figured this way I would slice the log and set the wafer into the cheesecake well, lining the well with parchment paper strips before the crust was pressed to the edges, then press the crust into the edges to bake. This worked very easily and quickly. I used a 2-teaspoon "cookie scoop" and used two scoops of cheesy batter to fill the pans. They puffed up to the top during baking, then fell into a dip in the center. 

Slice crust into pan - line pan - press crust to edges - bake
I have only one of these mini cheesecake tins, so I made these in batches. With the parchment lining the sides, there was no mess clinging to sides. The crust releases very easily; I just wiped each base plate with a paper towel before re-inserting for the next batch.

Savory Brie & Rosemary Cheesecakes

Makes 30 
Savory Brie & Rosemary Cheesecakes
Savory Brie & Rosemary Cheesecakes

1¼ sticks butter (10 tablespoons / 141 grams)
½ cup + 2 tablespoons almond meal (2 ounces / 56 grams)
1¼ cups all-purpose flour (5.2 ounces / 176 grams)
½ teaspoon salt, plus a pinch (0.1 ounce / 2 grams)
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary leaves (0.05 ounce / 1 gram)
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 (8-ounce / 226 gram) packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 (8-ounce / 226 grams) package Brie, at room temperature
2 large eggs 
2 teaspoons (0.10 ounces / 2 grams) minced fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon (0.05 ounce / 1 gram) Aleppo pepper, optional
½ teaspoon (0.05 ounce / 1 gram) freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (8-ounces / 300 grams) sour cream 

Make the Crust: Place the almond meal flour, rosemary, salt, and pepper into a mixing bowl. Add in the softened butter and cut in with a pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture starts to come together. Using hands, gather the mixture into a ball, then shape into a log, slightly less in diameter than the diameter of the cheesecake wells. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes. 

Cut strips of parchment paper to just overlap inside the wells of the pan and to stand just a little taller than the well's height. The pieces should be just about 7 to 8 inches long by about 2-inches wide. You will need 30 altogether. Set these aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Once chilled, slice the chilled dough into approximately ¼-inch thick coins. Place the coins into the bottom of the cheesecake pan wells. They should not quite touch the edges of the pan, yet. Set the parchment pieces around the sides of the wells, making sure they reach the bottom of the wells. Now, reach in and press the dough into the edges. This holds the parchment in place. Bake the crusts until set, about 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven and allow the pan to cool slightly before filling with cheesecake batter.
Cheesecake batter - filling the wells - baked

Make the Cheesecake Batter: Make sure the cheeses are very much at room temperature. If you are not over fond of the Brie rind, trim some of it off. Place the cream cheese and the soft Brie into a large bowl and mix using a hand mixer until most, but not all, of the lumpiness of the Brie is gone. Beat in the eggs, rosemary, Aleppo pepper, black pepper until combined, then add in the sour cream and beat to mix. Scoop about 4 teaspoons of the mixture into each of the parchment lined wells, on top of the baked crusts. Bake the cheesecakes for about 12 minutes, or until set and just barely beginning to brown. 

Remove from oven and allow the pan to cool enough to handle, then press each cheesecake up from the bottom, remove the base plate and set the cheesecakes aside to cool. Repeat with making the cheesecakes until they are all done. Refrigerate the cheesecakes for at least 2 hours before serving. 

For a wonderful topping, make the Roasted Tomato Pickle. Slice pieces of the tomato and curl on top of each cheesecake. Serve chilled. Decorate with more rosemary, if desired.

My passion is teaching people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and passing along my love and joy of food, both simple or exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me also at A Harmony of Flavors on Facebook, and Pinterest and sign up for my Newsletter.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Roasted Tomato Condiment Packed with Flavor

First off, I have to tell a bit of a story. The morning after the Renaissance Festival fundraiser on April 8th, benefiting the Boys and Girls Club of Aberdeen, I was just worn out. My feet hurt, and I had a lot of cooking still to do, with guests at the house. I'd gotten plenty of sleep, but I was on my feet a lot, in heels (which I rarely wear), and a great night's sleep aside, my feet still hurt. So, as head cook and bottle washer in the house, I made an executive decision: "We are going out for breakfast!"

Heidi and Rich
Heidi and Rich
Our guests, Heidi and Rich were here over that Renaissance Festival weekend, and I do a lot of cooking for any guests. I think we may have gone out to eat only once in these years and many many visits we've made between us all. Being a small town, there aren't a huge amount of options for breakfast, so we went to Perkins®. My husband and I went to Perkins® for dinner one evening a few weeks back, and as we often do, we had breakfast. They had some specials going, and I had some sort of "Eggs Benedict," with bacon, avocado and some "slow-roasted" tomatoes, with the usual English Muffin, poached eggs and Hollandaise. Oh, wow, was that ever good. While everything on the plate was fantastic, what really made the dish stand out was those tomatoes. They had some real zip in their flavor, and were almost, but not quite, sweet. 

So, back to our breakfast with friends. I had been really busy these few weeks, so I had forgotten all about that wonderful version of Eggs Benedict, until perusing the specials menu again. When I spotted that dish, I had to have it. Heidi had something called the "Mediterranean". This was an omelette with spinach, "slow-roasted tomatoes" and Feta cheese, topped with Hollandaise. 
Roasted Tomato Pickle
Roasted Tomato Pickle

While eating, I mentioned how much I loved the tomatoes in my dish, only then noticing that Heidi also had them in her dish. I asked what she thought of them, for flavor, and also started looking at them in light of how could I duplicate these, flavor-wise. Rich mentioned that a friend of his makes some roasted tomatoes with red wine vinegar and garlic (for Rich, there is no other main condiment but garlic!). Heidi and I compared pieces of the tomatoes. I was trying to determine if they were sun-dried and then made into this condiment, or were they roasted. I had come to the conclusion they were roasted, because some parts of the tomato still looked like moist tomato, unlike any sun-dried variety I'd ever seen. I set these mental findings aside for the day, but after the guests had left for home, I started thinking again.
Roasted Tomato Pickle, just jarred
Roasted Tomato Pickle, just jarred

I started planning what I wanted to do: first, roast the tomatoes. But then what? Garlic...hmmm. When I steam vegetables, I usually pass a few fresh garlic cloves through my Zyliss garlic press and into a small saucepan. I add in olive oil and a little butter and set the pan on a warming burner, to steep for a minimum of 20 minutes, and up to a couple of hours, depending on the urgency, then pour this over the steamed veggies.. I opted to do this same thing, leaving the butter out. This way, the garlic flavor would be there, but not "in-your-face." Also, I didn't want butter in the mixture at all. 

I thought about the red wine vinegar that Rich had mentioned. But there was also that element of sweetness. I thought of Balsamic vinegar. The tomatoes in the dishes at Perkins® had no other clinging condiments - they were just the pretty red tomato halves. Still, I thought I might add some shallot. And last minute I opted for a few capers, also. My first attempt turned out really good. Tasting the mixture freshly made, it still seemed not quite as I remembered, and definitely lacking sweetness, so I added a teaspoon of honey. That was better. I put them in a jar and in the fridge.
Garlic in Oil - Roasted Tomatoes - Sauce
Garlic in Oil - Roasted Tomatoes - Sauce

When I pulled them out a few days later to try, they were SOOOOO good. They may not be a perfect match for those from the restaurant, but they are darned close, and absolutely heavenly. I used some on a grilled cheese sandwich and they took that sandwich to heights heretofore unknown!

Roasted Tomato Pickle
Roasted Tomato Pickle

Roasted Tomato Pickle

Makes about 1½ cups

1 pound Roma tomatoes
salt, for sprinkling
fresh ground pepper, for sprinkling
1 - 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
olive oil, for sprinkling 

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 - 3 cloves garlic, through garlic press or minced

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon nonpareil capers
1 teaspoon honey

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with foil, spray the foil with cooking spray and set aside.
Score tomatoes and remove seeds
Score tomatoes and remove seeds

Cut the tomatoes lengthwise in half, then each half lengthwise into halves, making four long pieces from each tomato. Over the sink or over a bowl, using fingers, remove all the seeds and wetter parts of the tomatoes and discard. Using a sharp, serrated knife, score the tomato skins twice on each segment of tomato. Place them skin side upwards on the foil lines baking sheet. Sprinkle each tomato segment with a little salt, a little pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and some of the thyme leaves. Set the pan in the oven and time it for 1 hour. 

Check the tomatoes about halfway through the baking period, and turn the pieces over with tongs. At near the hour, check the tomatoes and remove any that are getting too dark, or are apparently dried and a bit leathery. Continue baking, keeping watch. They may need more than an hour. Some of my tomatoes were very large and took a total of 1 hour 20 minutes.

While the tomatoes are roasting, set a small saucepan on a warming burner or over a small burner at lowest possible temperature. Add in the garlic and allow to steep. If the oil starts to simmer, remove the pan from the heat, or set the pan only partially on the burner. The mixture should steep in hot oil, but not boil or burn the garlic.

In a bowl, combine the ingredients for the sauce and stir to dissolve honey. 

Once the tomatoes are done, add them to the sauce and pour the garlic and oil over top. Stir, then pour into a glass jar with lid. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

My passion is teaching people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and passing along my love and joy of food, both simple or exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me also at A Harmony of Flavors on Facebook, and Pinterest and sign up for my Newsletter. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Festival Over and New Entree Created

This Year's Annual Renaissance Festival (aka Winefest Renaissance) is over. This past Saturday was the event, and after all the weeks of prep, everything was well received. So much so that I actually, for the very first time, ran out of two of the four appetizers I was serving. The fact that the wines also ran out at the same time tells me that there were more people, though I have not heard that this was so. The initial crush of people seemed endless for the first two hours. I was so exceedingly happy to have selected 4 really wonderful wines. We poured very small tastings, and though we had the same number of bottles as always, just ran out. At a wine tasting event, that was a sad thing. I guess we will all be better prepared next year. 
Appetizers from Renaissance Festival 2017
Appetizers from Renaissance Festival 2017, clockwise from top left: Brie in Phyllo Cups, Grilled Flank Steak Rolls with Asiago and Arugula, Mini Greek Lamb Sliders, Sweet Potato Bourbon Tamales with Country Ham & Cheese Filling.

I served: 
  1. Sweet Potato Bourbon Tamales filled with Country Ham and Cheeses, topped with Fig Apricot Compote. The tamales paired perfectly with Terra d'Oro Chenin Blanc Viognier.
  2. Marinated, Grilled Flank Steak, thinly sliced and rolled with Asiago Cheese and a bit of peppery Baby Arugula. The little rolls were served with Charles and Charles Red Blend, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
  3. Mini Greek Lamb Sliders with Greek Olive Tapenade. These were served with J. Lohr 'Tower Road' Petite Sirah.
  4. Brie in Phyllo Cups with Cherry Preserve and Pistachio. These were served with Stella Rosa 'Black,' a slightly sweet, slightly sparkling red wine, made mainly with Brachetto grapes. (No recipe involved here! Set a .5ounce bit of Brie in a premade phyllo cup, bake until the brie melts, about 8 minutes, top with a cherry from a jar of preserves and a couple of crushed pistachios.)
On another front, since we were having our dear friends Heidi and Rich visiting over the weekend, obviously I needed to have food for meals prepared for them also. While talking with my daughter in law, Julia, a couple of weeks back, she was talking about a Short Rib Lasagna that she had eaten various times at a restaurant in Chicago. The idea caught my fancy, and I questioned her repeatedly about what it was like, what it looked like, textures, smells, colors, etc. I made a plan, wrote down what I thought I might do, then started to put it into action. Since my husband bought me a pasta making machine for my (upcoming) birthday, I was also going to make the lasagna "noodles."
Short Rib Lasagna with Roasted Garlic and Smoked Fontina Bechamel
Short Rib Lasagna with Roasted Garlic and Smoked Fontina Bechamel

The first thing was making the short ribs. Since we buy a side of beef from my husband's nephew every couple of years, I had short ribs in the freezer. I popped those into the crock pot, adding in things to give good flavor, like some fried bacon pieces, tomato paste, fresh herbs, mushrooms and wine. I let the meat cook all day, then in the evening, I skimmed off fat (and skimmed off fat, and skimmed off fat, and . . .) then took all the meat off bones and discarded them along with even more fat. All that fat is my peeve with short ribs, though the flavor of the meat is certainly great. After I returned the meat to the remaining sauce in the pot, I stored the mixture in the fridge for a couple of days, until I was ready to make the lasagna (and where I was not able to remove even more fat, after being chilled). 

The other new thing with this lasagna was the use of a bechamel sauce (basically, a white "gravy" made with a roux of butter and flour, then milk is added and cooked to thicken). I do not make lasagna but very rarely, and all in all, haven't really gotten one to turn out very well, in my estimation. Such lasagnas have been the type with a tomato-meat sauce and then ricotta and mozzarella as the main cheeses. In this new version I was concocting, the use of bechamel, while not a new concept, was new for me. The use of non-traditional cheeses was also new for me. 
Short Rib Lasagna with Roasted Garlic and Smoked Fontina Bechamel
Short Rib Lasagna 

In the lasagna Julia described, she said the menu stated "Roasted Garlic and Taleggio Bechamel." In our small town, while there are more foods available than one might imagine, I do not have access to Taleggio, nor have I ever tasted it. With no knowledge of the flavor profile, I looked it up and I believe the closest in flavor was Fontina. Well. Guess what? No Fontina cheese here either. Although . . . the local grocery does carry a smoked Fontina! As I thought of the flavor of roasted garlic, I felt that the smokiness of the Fontina would play really nicely, so I got that cheese and also Sartori brand U.S cheese called Mont Amore. It is described as a sort of cross between Parmesan and Cheddar. This sounded really good, so I got some of that also. And some real Parmigiano-Reggiano, of course!

I had roasted a head of garlic, pressed out all the cloves, then pressed them through a sieve to have a smooth paste. It seemed barely more than a tablespoon of this roasted garlic paste, and thought maybe I should roast a second head of garlic, just in case. Once assembling the lasagna components, while making the bechamel sauce, I added in half the roasted garlic (one tablespoon), stirred well, tasted . . . and couldn't really detect any garlic flavor! So I added in the rest of the roasted garlic paste, whereupon I could actually taste it - but just a bit. I felt I would leave well enough alone on that front. The assembly went easily, the lasagna baked as I had planned, and it was so amazingly good when we all sat down to eat, that despite all the work and advance prep, it is really and truly one I would make again. Even with having to practically wade through fat to do so.

Short Rib Lasagna with Roasted Garlic and Smoked Fontina Bechamel

Makes one 9 x 13-inch casserole

4 - 6 pounds beef short ribs
1 ounce (28 grams) dried porcini mushrooms
3 strips thick-sliced bacon
1 large onion, chopped
4 - 6 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 (6 - 8-inch) stem fresh rosemary, leaves only, minced
½ cup fresh minced basil leaves
¼ cup fresh minced oregano leaves
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1½ teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¾ cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons "double concentrated" tomato paste (from a tube)
¼ cup freshly minced oregano leaves

2 whole heads of garlic
¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
a drizzle of olive oil

Set short ribs in a slow cooker on low. Place the dry porcini mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Cover and set aside to reconstitute.

Slice the bacon across into ¼-inch bits, then fry them to almost crisp in a skillet. Drain the bacon and add it to the short ribs. Add in the onion, garlic, bay leaf, rosemary, basil, oregano and the can of tomato paste. Add salt and pepper.

Remove the mushrooms from the soaking water, keeping the soaking water. Check through the mushrooms discard any very tough pieces. Chop the remainder coarsely and add to the pot. Carefully strain the mushroom liquid (it will often have grit in the bottom. Add ½ cup of the liquid to the pot, along with the wine. Cover the slow cooker and allow to cook slowly all day until the meat is falling from the bones.

Once cooked through, remove the meat and bones to a plate to cool. Skim off fat using paper towels: use one paper towel segment and lightly set it on top of the liquid. It will immediately soak up fat. Lift it out with tongs, to discard. Repeat as needed, until the fat is mostly gone. Once meat is cool enough to handle, remove all the meat and shred (not too finely). Discard fat and bones. Return the meat to the pot. Stir, then add in the extra tomato paste and oregano. Stir well, taste and check for seasoning. Pour into a container to finish cooling, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Up to 3 days ahead, roast the garlic: Set oven to 400 degrees. With a sharp knife, cut off about ¼-inch from across the top of one whole head. Cut a square of foil, set the garlic in the center and bring up all sides to enclose the garlic, creating a pouch. Before closing the pouch, add any little bits of garlic from the top bits, removed from husks and set back on top of the whole head. Sprinkle on the thyme and a drizzle of olive oil, seal the pouch and set in a little ramekin or on a baking sheet. Repeat this same process for the second head of garlic. Bake for about 40 to 45 minutes. Cool slightly, then press out all the garlic cloves from the husks and into a sieve. Set the sieve over a small bowl and using a spoon, press the garlic through the sieve, making a smooth paste. Scrape the paste into a small, sealed container and refrigerate until needed, or up to 3 days.
MontAmore & Smoked Fontina Cheeses
MontAmore & Smoked Fontina Cheeses

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 generous cup grated Smoked Fontina cheese
1 generous cup grated Mont Amore cheese
Roasted Garlic paste (made previously)

1 pound fresh lasagna sheets, or no-boil lasagna sheets
1½ cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

When ready to begin assembly, pour the short rib sauce into a saucepan and slowly bring to about room temperature, just to make baking go more smoothly.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add in the flour and stir until it is completely incorporated, then slowly whisk in the milk, stirring constantly until all the roux is combined with the milk. Continue whisking until the mixture comes to boil (10 minutes) and begins to thicken. Add in the salt, white pepper and nutmeg, stirring to combine. Add in the grated cheeses and the roasted garlic paste and stir until the cheeses are melted. Set the pan aside.

LAYERS: noodles, meat sauce, bechamel, Parmesan
Lasagna noodles, layer of the short rib sauce, layer of bechamel sauce, sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Lightly spray a 9 x 13-inch casserole with cooking spray. Ladle in a small amount of the bechamel to barely coat the bottom of the pan, then begin the layers:
Set lasagna noodles evenly in the pan.
Top with a portion of the re-warmed meat sauce.
Ladle on a portion of the bechamel and
top with a sprinkling of the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Repeat these four layers until there are no more ingredients, ending with the sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cover the pan with foil. Bake, covered for 1 hour. Uncover and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes to brown the top. Allow the lasagna to set for at least 15 minutes before serving.

The lasagna is amazing just baked, but it is even better the next day, reheated.

My passion is teaching people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and passing along my love and joy of food, both simple or exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me also at A Harmony of Flavors on Facebook, and Pinterest and sign up for my Newsletter.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Making Macarons with Less Sugar

Right off the bat I will say that my experience with making macarons (NOT Macaroons, the coconuty sticky cookies) nearly made me swear off of them forever. The one and only time I tried eating them was not favorable, despite their inimitable cuteness factor. They are tiny, darling little sandwich cookies, generally shown in all sorts of improbable colors of the rainbow and I bought a few from our local "patisserie." They were so cloyingly sweet that I had a very hard time even swallowing, and could not make myself take another bite. Do not misunderstand! I have a severe sweet tooth. But those little macarons were so sweet it made my teeth hurt and my throat close.
Less Sugar Chocolate Macarons
Less Sugar Chocolate Macarons

So the reason I decided to try making them was all about this upcoming "Renaissance Festival," (formerly Winefest Renaissance). One of the wines I chose was Stella Rosa 'Black.'  It is a slightly sweet, slightly sparkling red wine, quite similar to Banfi's Rosa Regale, and at about half the price. I didn't know what it would be like; sometimes how a thing is described is not exactly what it turns out to be. With the description, however, I felt it would be enough like the Rosa Regale, which we have been drinking for many, many years now, to at least make something and try it out. 

Banfi's Rosa Regale & Stella Rosa 'Black'
Banfi's Rosa Regale & Stella Rosa 'Black'
My usual dish that I make and serve the Rosa Regale is Brie in Phyllo with Raspberry Sauce. I had never set the recipe out in this blog, just because it is a bit complicated. While I have made it countless times, I have yet, ever, to have it bake and not leak cheese out of the pouches of phyllo. I finally did put the recipe out here, because let me say - it is fabulous, flavor-wise. And the Rosa Regale could not pair any better. 

The thing that the Rosa Regale and this new (for me) Stella Rosa 'Black' have in common is the "Brachetto" grape. Both wines have a strong leaning to raspberry flavors, though the descriptions include strawberry or even cherry. Brachetto is a red grape, sometimes described as a "black" grape. The flavors described in the wine world are things like:
"Strawberry, Raspberry, Rose Petal, Fruity, Tree Bark, Tar,
Clove, Flowers, Violet, Damp Forest."

Some of these might sound strange, when describing a semi-sweet red wine, but though I may not have thought of these adjectives on my own, I can most certainly identify with the descriptors. 

All this is by way of saying why I served the wine with Brie in Phyllo with Raspberry Sauce, and why it went so well. There are those elements that would seem to describe a non-sweet wine. But in fact, the very first time we tried the Rosa Regale (then it was called "Brachetto d'Acqui), was at a wine tasting, and the food pairing was a dessert of not-too-sweet chocolate gelato with fresh raspberries. Since I loved that pairing as well, I was thinking along the lines of something that would have chocolate, somehow. Hazelnuts were something also mentioned in things that pair with the Brachetto wines, and my thought was Hazelnut Macarons.

AHA! We Finally Get to the Crux of the Matter

Less Sweet Chocolate Macarons with Chocolate Ganache Filling
Less Sweet Chocolate Macarons with Chocolate Ganache Filling
All right then, back to the little macarons. I wanted something with chocolate and hazelnut. And I wanted something not so cloyingly sweet as those I had previously tasted. I looked up recipes for macarons, and specifically hazelnut macarons. That search led me to lots of places, and also to places with less sugar types. What I gleaned from all the searching and researching, is that to obtain the particular texture and such, that is equated with macarons, too much tinkering with the recipe will ruin the little cookies. A tiny bit of leeway is possible, but beyond that - watch out!

Add to that the sheer persnikety-ness of making them. If it's too humid, they won't come out. If you make the French meringue method, it is prone to work great one day and terribly the next. The preferred method is using Italian Meringue. Crap. I really hate making Italian Meringue. Some places say it is best to sift the almond meal (or hazelnut meal, in my case) at least three separate times, placing it into the food processor with confectioners' sugar to try and make the nut particles small enough to pass through the sifter. Then there is the thought floating around that is is best if you sieve the egg whites before using them.

Have any of you, ever, tried sieving egg whites? Great heavens, it takes FOREVER! 

Ultimately, my study led me to a couple of concepts for less-sweet macarons. 

  1. You can substitute ⅒th of the confectioners' sugar with rice flour. More, and you ruin the texture.
  2. Substituting 1 tablespoon of the nut meal with 1 tablespoon of cocoa will also reduce the sweetness, as cocoa is bitter on its own. 
Add to that a less-sweet filling, and I felt this would result in an overall less sweet macaron that could pair well with the Stella Rosa 'Black' wine. 

And Then, I Made Them . . . 

After 5½ hours, I was hot, tired and ready to throw in the towel. And all I had were 30 cookies. And if I was making these for the Renaissance Festival (Wine Event), I would need a minimum of 150. Double that, if they were really small. No way. No way AT ALL. I tried one recipe with the Italian Meringue. I still hate making Italian Meringue. And really, after all that work, they didn't really come out that well. The French meringue version (just beat the egg whites with sugar to glossy stiff peaks) worked far better, came out smoother.

I never even tried making the ganache, because I knew I was not going to make this recipe for the event. I had some leftover icing in a container, and just piped that into the cookies to make the little sandwiches, and my husband and I ate them for dessert over the next few days. Actually, until the last day there were any left, it was only my husband eating them. I was unable to make myself eat them. Plus, that icing in the middle was way too sweet. But when I found a bottle of the Stella Rosa 'Black' in our grocery, I bought it, chilled it and opened it to try with the cookies, sweetness notwithstanding. 

And it was Like a Miracle!

I swear, angels sang!

The little macarons, despite that too-sweet icing inside, were absolutely fabulous with the Stella Rosa 'Black.' I couldn't believe it! It just couldn't have been a better pairing. Despite all this, I still will not use these for the Renaissance Festival!

Ultimately, since I couldn't find any hazelnut meal locally, I used almond meal, which is what these little cookies are supposed to be made with anyway. Ultimately, I never got around to buying the Nutella to add to the chocolate ganache, either. So these turned out to be just Less-Sweet Chocolate Macarons with Chocolate Ganache Filling.

I had saved most of the French meringue batch in the freezer. Yesterday I filled them with chocolate ganache. I used about ¾ 65% bittersweet chocolate and ¼ 85% chocolate. The ganache was lovely, perfect, and really not very sweet at all. Perfect. I filled the little cookies and they are resting, since they are really best after about 3 days. I expect to taste these with the remainder of the bottle of Stella Rosa 'Black' and be thrilled. So here is the preferred recipe I ultimately created with the French meringue method.  It is absolutely best to weigh the ingredients, so this is how I set out the recipe.

Less Sweet Chocolate Macarons with Chocolate Ganache Filling

Makes about 32 sandwich cookies
Less Sweet Chocolate Macarons with Chocolate Ganache Filling
Less Sweet Chocolate Macarons with Chocolate Ganache Filling

7.2 ounces confectioners' sugar
0.8 ounce rice flour
4.4 ounces almond meal
0.2 ounce unsweetened cocoa powder (1 tablespoon)
3.75 ounces egg whites (3 - 4 egg whites), at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar

¼ cup whipping cream
2 ounces 65% bittersweet chocolate
1 ounce 85% dark chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature 

Cut sheets of parchment to fit at least 3 large baking sheets. On the reverse side of the parchment, trace around some item that is approximately 1¼-inch diameter (a bottle cap, or a large icing tip), making circles spaced 1-inch apart. Make even numbers of the circles, as they will all need to be paired when filled. Make circles on the reverse of a second sheet. Set the parchment with the drawn circles facing the baking sheet, so none of the lead or ink gets on the cookies. Set aside.

Combine the confectioners' sugar, rice flour, almond meal and cocoa powder in a bowl. Stir, then pass the mixture through a sifter or sieve with medium holes (not a colander with large holes). A very fine-holed sieve will not work. If any of the nut mixture will not pass through the sifter, place the remainder in a food processor to attempt making the nuts into much smaller bits. Pass these through the sifter. Repeat as needed, until all the mixture has been passed through the sifter. Then, re-sift the whole mixture again, and then again. And once more, if there is any nut mixture remaining in the sifter, process it over again until fine. Set the sifted mixture aside.

Place the room temperature egg whites into a squeaky-clean bowl with the cream of tartar and with a hand mixer with equally clean beaters, beat the whites at medium speed until they form soft peaks. Increase to high speed and slowly add in the granulated sugar, beating until the mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks (the peaks should stand strait up, without drooping at all).

Sift about a third of the almond mixture over the egg whites and with a rubber spatula, gently fold in the dry ingredients. Sift another third of the almond mixture over and fold it in gently, then repeat with the remaining third of the almond mixture. The egg whites will deflate quite a bit, due to the oils in the nuts, but this is expected. The mixture should be nicely glossy and slowly slide off a spoon, something like lava flowing.

A piping bag is the best and easiest to use to create the little circles on the parchment, but it is possible to just drop the mixture from a spoon if need be.

Make as many little cookies as possible, filling the circles drawn on the parchment (clearly visible through the paper). Once done with one sheet, lift the sheet and drop it onto the counter about three times (from a height of about 6 inches), to release any air bubbles. Set the sheet of cookies aside to rest and firm up for a minimum of 30 minutes, or up to an hour or so. The cookies should be able to be touched gently with no stickiness. Repeat with the next sheet and parchment as needed.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Once the macarons have rested, set them on a center rack in the oven. Immediately reduce the heat to 300 degrees. Bake them for 14 or 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. The cookies should barely color, and the characteristic ruffled "feet" should have appeared. Once done, remove the pan from the oven and slide the parchment with the cookies onto a rack to cool. 

Return the oven to 400 degrees before placing the next batch into the oven, then repeat the process: lower heat to 300 degrees, bake, turning halfway, then remove to rack to cool.

Once cooled, remove the cookies from the parchment very gently, using the parchment itself to push the cookies off, rather than try and lift the cookie. 

The cookies may be filled immediately, though they are best eaten after 2 or 3 days. Unfilled, they may be frozen for up to 3 weeks, wrapped very well. Then, simply thaw, fill and set aside for 2 - 3 days before eating.

GANACHE: Chop the chocolate(s) very fine and place in a bowl. Heat the cream to just under boiling and pour over the chocolate. Stir with a silicone spatula until all the chocolate has melted. Add in the butter and stir until all the butter has dissolved and dispersed. Set the ganache aside to cool to room temperature before using. 

Pipe a thin layer of ganache onto one half of a cookie, then place another on top to form the little sandwiches.  

My passion is teaching people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and passing along my love and joy of food, both simple or exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me also at A Harmony of Flavors on Facebook, and Pinterest and sign up for my Newsletter.