Thursday, December 29, 2016

"The Wiseguy Cookbook - My Favorite Recipes From My Life As a Goodfella to Cooking on the Run" by Henry Hill - Sunday Gravy with Aunt Milly's Meatballs and Aunt Nina's Caponatina (eggplant) appetizer - Christmas Eve 2016

Date I made this recipe:  December 24, 2016 – Christmas Eve

The Wiseguy Cookbook – My Favorite Recipes From My Life as A Goodfella to Cooking on the Run (Recipes You Can't Refuse – From America's Most Famous Wiseguy) by Henry Hill and Priscilla David; foreword by Nicholas Pileggi
Published by New American Library
ISBN: 0-451-20706-8; © 2002
Recipes:  Aunt Nina's Caponatina (a/k/a Caponata, an eggplant appetizer) – p. 32-33; Sunday Gravy [Meat Sauce] – p. 33-34; Milly's Meatballs [Brooklyn, 1950] – p. 38-39; Basic Tomato Sauce – p. 13-14

In case you didn't know, a "wiseguy" is a person who belongs to the Mafia or is a smartass.  Sometimes they are one in the same thing.

One of my father's frequent sayings was "What are you, a wiseguy?"  I'm pretty sure he meant the later definition seeing as how he often directed it at me or my brother or other younger family members when we were smarting off.  But given that he was 100% Sicilian American, he might have also been talking about a wiseguy as in a member of the Mob.

That's a stretch though – kind of.  Not that dad was in the Mob (perish the thought!) but he was born and raised on the east coast, your unofficial HQ for all things mafioso.  And his aunt, my great-aunt, Antoinette, used to joke all the time that she was the "Godfather's godmother."

So we're sticking with "wiseguy" as in "smartass."

"Henry Hill" though, was a wiseguy as in mobster, and possibly a wiseguy as in smartass, and this cookbook tells about his life on the run (from the law) where the real punishment was lack of access to his favorite Italian foodstuffs.

I have to tell you, that would get to me as well.  I mean, to not have pasta or sauce is a sacrilege.  To be without the other accoutrements such as meatballs or sausage or Italian cookies would render me useless.  And so I feel this man's pain! 

The Wiseguy cookbook is a good read as Henry tells us all about trying to cook while in prison and later, the Witness Protection Program.  His life of crime was chronicled in the book Wiseguy:  Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote the cookbook's foreword) and this book became the basis for the movie, Goodfellas.  Actor Ray Liotta played Henry's character.  And so now, of course, I want to watch the movie again just to pull it all together. And to check out the food of course, because there are some great food scenes.

And there are also some great recipes in this book and I say "great" without having tried them all because I can pretty much tell by the ingredients that many of these dishes could have graced my family's table with just a few tweaks here and there.  And of course, my family dishes are the best and if you say otherwise, I may have to take you out and I do not mean to a restaurant, capisce?

Henry divided this book into two sections:  Section One:  Brooklyn and the Mob, and Section Two:  On the Run (in Omaha, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Seattle and Washington State and California – man the guy got around!)  And stories, like the one I'm telling you, accompany the recipes and I swear to you, a lot of them sound like my family stories save for the part about being in the mob and all.

Now there were many, many things I could have made from this book but I was on a mission and that was to find a pasta recipe to serve up on Christmas Eve.  It was tradition in my immediate family to make spaghetti and meatballs before going to Christmas Eve mass and even though my parents are gone, I still carry on the pasta tradition in my house.  In the years where we weren't allowed to eat meat, we skipped the meatballs.  Some years (early on) we even had to fast which was ridiculous.  I mean mass goes long on any given Sunday and ridiculously long on Christmas Eve, and does the Lord really mean for us to pass out from hunger?  No.

This year, I decided to keep things simple and make the recipe for "Sunday Gravy," otherwise known as sauce, and to be clear that means "red sauce."  There is no other kind of sauce if you are southern Italian or Sicilian. "White" is not a sauce, it's a....something else.

Now plenty of east coast Italians refer to their red sauce as "Sunday Gravy" but I don't know why that is.  Maybe it's a translation thing?  And then there's your "macaroni" which is how most Italians referred to the vehicle for the sauce, that morphed overnight into the slightly more snotty "pasta, this the result of the homemade pasta craze of the 90's.  I have only ever made homemade "pasta" in cooking classes.  If boxed pasta was good enough for my family, it was good enough for me.  (Back in the day, we were always "Buitoni" brand people and failing that, Creamette® which was everywhere—still is!)

So "pasta" + "Sunday Gravy"/red sauce was the dish of the day.  Although I'm including the cookbook's recipe for a basic tomato sauce, I made my family's version to which I  added meatballs and Italian sausage.  I decided to give Henry Hill's meatball recipe a try and it was quite good, but I purchased the sausage rather than try my hand at grinding my own meat and adding my own seasoning.  Tis the season to draw the line on a few things in the interest of time.

On a side note, there is another Christmas Eve tradition mostly enjoyed by your east coast Italians called the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  Since we couldn't get our hands on a lot of fish or seafood where I grew up, we never "observed" this feast.  And I don't think my extended family on the east coast did, either.  As you might have surmised, seven separate fish dishes are made and eaten on Christmas Eve.  Given that we are only a two-person household, and I am not that fond of fish, I have never had the urge to make seven fish dishes because I'm picturing leftovers for days and that will simply not do. (And we all know the classic rule, right:  Thou shalt not reheat fish in the microwave, particularly at the office, or there will be consequences.)

And so Sunday Gravy and pasta in four parts:  make the sauce, make the meatballs, make the gravy, boil the pasta – piece of cake.  Well, except there are always little hiccups and this time, the hiccup was otherwise known as a "meatball."

The meatball recipe calls for you to fry the meatballs but I haven't fried a meatball in who knows how long, preferring instead to bake them (or sometimes put them in the sauce to "poach").  And so I decided to bake these and then I thought myself to be some kind of genius for using a mini-cupcake pan for the meatballs as the size was just perfect. Normally, I just put them on a baking sheet and have at it.

So I put the meatball mixture into the pans, turned on the oven, set the timer and almost over-baked them; the word "crunchy" comes to mind.  Well, crap, now what?

So channeling The Grinch, I decided "I must save these meatballs, but how?"

I'll tell you how:  you "reconstitute" the meatballs by giving them a broth bath. I used chicken broth as I had that on hand but you could use beef as well.  Lucky for me, I decided to make the meatballs the night before so I put the meatballs and broth in the refrigerator and the next day they were perfect.

So that's the whole Sunday Sauce/Meatball thing and now let's talk about a bonus recipe - Aunt Nina's Caponatina.  To clarify, this is not my Aunt Nina as I don't have an Aunt Nina, and "caponatina" is a diminutive of the word caponata which is an eggplant appetizer that I love.

This recipe promises to come close to the Progresso brand caponata my family grew up eating.  And it was good attempt to be sure, but believe it or not, the canned caponata won the day.

I think it comes down to this:  the eggplant was a bit too crunchy in the homemade version, and the Progresso brand was slightly sweeter and this is necessary to offset the tartness of the red wine vinegar.

In all likelihood, the sweetness is what caused us to inhale this stuff the minute my mom put it out on a tray table, along with other snacks, during Christmas week.  We inhaled this stuff such that mom finally figured out to stock up rather than deal with the proverbial "Is there any more?"  "No?"  "Waaaaaaaaaaa."

During the early years of my childhood, Progresso's caponata was included in a care package my grandma put together during our summertime visits, along with canned tomatoes, boxes of dry pasta and Stella Doro cookies and biscotti.  The trunk of our car always rode ridiculously low to the ground on the way back from New Jersey but it was worth it, save for the times the muffler fell off (almost annually and almost always in Pennsylvania on our way home) in which case, dad had to unpack all those heavy bags to get at a coat hanger to rig up the muffler until we got to a gas station.  I feel like Facebook with its "Like" and "Share" if this ever happened to your family (the muffler falling off, that is). (Every time this happened, my dad, of course, just about went ballistic, but every year thereafter on our road trip back east, he would laugh when my brother and I commented, upon seeing the "Pennsylvania Welcomes You" sign,"It's about time for the muffler to fall off, don't you think?")

So anyway, now that I have this homemade recipe under my belt, I'm going to recommend that you find some way to slow-cook the eggplant so that it's very soft, almost mushy.  This might be as easy as cooking it longer on the stovetop but you're going to have to play with the liquid ratio so it doesn't dry out. And I would probably not peel the eggplant because it seems to me that Progresso didn't although I could be wrong.  I also think you need to add more cooking time to the celery and onions so that they too, become very soft. Finally, instead of regular sugar, substitute brown sugar as I think it brings the flavor closer to that of the canned product.

So that's the word on Henry Hill and his recipes and this cookbook.  Had I the time, I could certainly eat my way through the rest of the book as his recipes are making me both hungry and nostalgic.   My dad always called us to the table with an "A mangia" (Basically, "let's eat") where we inhaled our "spaghets" (dad's term) and our caponata and life was good.

PS—It looks like Progresso no longer makes caponata and damn it all, why not?  And two years ago, Jane Parker, an A&P grocery store brand, discontinued it's fabulous fruitcake.  To quote my mother, "What is this world coming to!"

Sunday Gravy (Meat Sauce) – serves 8-10 generously
6 cups Basic Tomato Sauce (p. 13 or below)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 hot sausages or 2 hot and 2 mild (about ½ pound)
1 recipe Milly's Meatballs (p. 38 or below)
2 pounds cooked pasta of your choice

Begin preparing Basic Tomato Sauce. While it is simmering, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan.  Poke holes in the sausages with a fork and put in the pan.  Cook on low to medium heat, turning occasionally until lightly brown, about 8-10 minutes.  You don't have to cook them all the way through because they'll cook more in the sauce.  Drain on paper towels.  Cut in half and add to tomato sauce.  While sauce simmers, prepare meatballs.

When meatballs are browned, spoon them carefully into the sauce.  Continue simmering until meatballs are cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.  Adjust seasoning.  Serve family style over pasta in a large bowl.  Have plenty of bread to sop up the sauce.

Basic Tomato Sauce  – Makes 3 cups of sauce (enough sauce for 4-6 people) (Ann's Note:  I made my own family's recipe.  If you don't want to make it, a basic store-bought tomato basil sauce will do)
6-8 cloves garlic, minced or thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup chopped brown or white onions or shallots
2 28-ounce cans peeled plum tomatoes with basil, drained, reserving juice
12 large basil leaves, torn in large pieces, or 1 tablespoon dried
¼ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley, or 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon dried parsley
½ teaspoon each salt and pepper

In a large skillet or medium-large wide pot, cook garlic briefly in olive oil over medium-low heat.  Do not brown, or it will get bitter.  If using optional onions, cook them 3-5 minutes in olive oil, then add garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add the juice from the canned tomatoes to stop the garlic cooking.  Crush tomatoes with your hands or chop well no a cutting board and add to the pan.  Add basil, parsley, and ¼ teaspoon each of the salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, stir thoroughly once, then reduce heat to a low simmer.  As the acid from the tomatoes flows to the top, skim it off every 10-15 minutes.  Sauce is ready in half an hour, but cook up to 1 hour if you want it thicker. Check for seasoning and add the rest of the salt and pepper, if desired.

Milly's Meatballs [Brooklyn, 1950] – serves 6
1 ½ pounds ground beef + ½ pound ground pork – OR – 1 pound ground beef + ¾ pound ground veal + ¼ pound ground pork
2 eggs
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
¼ cup chopped white or brown onions or shallots
3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
¼ cup grated fresh Romano or Parmesan cheese
½ cup dried, seasoned bread crumbs (Ann's Note:  if you only have plain breadcrumbs, add a bit of the following to it to make "seasoned" crumbs – garlic salt, dried parsley, dried basil, dried oregano and/or a bit of Italian seasoning spice mix)
½ teaspoon each salt and pepper (to taste)
2 tablespoons chopped canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, or Basic Tomato Sauce (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil (or more if needed)

Combine ground meats in a large bowl and mix together well with your hands.  Add in eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition.  Add in all other ingredients except tomatoes or sauce and olive oil, and combine to form a mixture that is soft but still sticks together.  If meatballs are too hard or dry, add chopped tomatoes or sauce.

Heat olive oil in frying pan.  Place a small bowl of water and a plate near meatball mixture.  While oil is heating, roll approximately 3 tablespoons of meatball mixture at a time into walnut-size balls in palm of hand, adding a small amount of water if they don't roll well.  Place each completed ball on the plate.  Continue forming until all meatballs are done (you can place them on top of each other like a tower).  Test the oil temperature – a drop of water should sizzle when it hits the oil.  Fry meatballs in batches, turning until browned on all sides and cooked through.  Drain on paper towels.  Can be served plain, as main dish in any tomato sauce, on an Italian roll with Parmesan, provolone, or mozzarella as a sandwich, or sliced and put on pizza.

  1. Add ½ cup golden raisins.  This is from Tommy DiSimone's father.  This makes a sweet meatball.  Ann's Note: Sicilian meatballs often contain raisins although nobody in my family does that.
  2. Add ¼ cup chopped pine nuts. Toast them lightly if you want, but keep in mind they'll also get cooked when the meatballs do.

Ann's Note:  to fry or not to fry, that is the question.  I used to fry my meatballs and then quit doing that in favor of baking them as it's far less messy.  As I mentioned above, I baked them at either 400 or 425 (I can't recall), for either 20 or 25 minutes (I can't recall that either!).  But since I almost incinerated them, check for doneness after 15 minutes.

Aunt Nina's Caponatina – makes about 3 cups (Ann's Note:  even a half recipe made quite a bit of "caponata")
2 tablespoons salt
2 medium eggplants (about 1 pound each)
½ cup olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced (about 1 ½ cups)
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons sugar (Ann's Note:  I recommend brown sugar)
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¾ cup tomato puree
¼ cup chopped pitted black olives
½ cup capers

Fill a large bowl two-thirds full of water, add salt, and stir to dissolve.  Peel and slice eggplant into ½-inch slices.  Place slices in  the bowl and let soak for 1-2 hours (weight them with a pan or plate so they stay in the water).  Drain off the liquid and pat dry with paper towels.  Cut slices into ½-inch thick cubes.

Heat ¼ of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Fry eggplant 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, and drain on paper towels.  Cook, stirring occasionally over low to medium heat until soft, approximately 10 minutes.  Add wine and cook until wine has almost evaporated.  Return eggplant to pan.

Dissolve sugar in the red wine vinegar and pour over eggplant.  Add tomato puree, olives, and capers; stir and add salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer over low heat 5 minutes, until well-blended.  Cool to room temperature and serve.

Refrigerated, this will last up to two weeks.  If it's not gobbled up sooner.

Ann's Notes:  The jury is still out on whether or not pre-soaking the eggplant in a salt bath makes any difference in cooking but I was a good solider and followed the directive.  I can't say it made any difference though, as it still took a long time to soften and I did not achieve the nearly-mush texture I wanted (or was used to).  The vegetables (onions and celery) also need more time.  They need to be just on the shy side of "soft."  And as I already mentioned, were I to make this again, I think I would use brown sugar instead of regular as it more closely approximates the Progresso brand I know and love.

Friday, December 23, 2016

"Fruitcake - Memories of Truman Capote & Sook (his cousin)" by Marie Rudisill, Capote's aunt - 1886 Fruitcake - Holiday Party Food!

Date I made this recipe:  November 8, 2016 (Election Day) for serving in December

Fruitcake – Memories of Truman Capote & Sook by Marie Rudisill
Published by Hill Street Press
ISBN:  1-892514-81-8; © 2000
Recipe:  1866 Fruitcake – Originally known as the "Lee Fruitcake" – p. 12-14

I know what you're probably thinking:  "Fruitcake?  Ew!!!!!  I hate the stuff!"

You are not alone but folks, I've gotta tell you, I am not in your camp.

We were Jane Parker Fruitcake people in our house.  Jane Parker was an A&P (grocery store) brand that we all loved.  And although A&P disappeared eventually from my home town, my late father, ever the letter writer, managed to track down an address for the company – pre-internet, no less – and inquired as to where he could get one.  He was given a mail order address.  Problem solved.

Then a few years ago, we were thrilled to find that  Amazon carried it and so I ordered several to be shipped to my loved ones.  But as these things go, Amazon carried the product for only a few years and now once again, Jane Parker has disappeared from our lives. Please come back, Jane.  Please.

As you might imagine, we are bereft.

And so there was only one thing left to do and it was to make my own fruitcake.

I approached this with just a tad of trepidation, mostly because the candied fruit cost so much that if I screwed it up, there went all that money down the drain.

Besides, would it be as good as Jane's?  Oh, we could only hope.

Now then, even though fruitcake is decidedly unpopular at this time of year, (it saddens me, it really does), I have oodles and oodles of cookbooks containing fruitcake recipes, as well as fruitcake cookie recipes, but I passed on cooking from them because I had my eye on one book and one book only:  Fruitcake – Memories of Truman Capote and Sook.  I consider this to be the granddaddy of fruitcake cookbooks (possibly the only fruitcake-focused cookbooks) as it contains 23 recipes, surely the largest "gathering" of fruitcake recipes known to man?

Although the vast majority of recipes are variations of cake + candied fruit, there are a few variations, some of which gave me pause, such as "Chocolate Fruitcake" – p. 20-21 or a "Sugar-Frosted White Fruitcake" – p. 37-38.  I don't know about you, but I cannot get past the "ick" factor of chocolate and fruitcake.  I cannot.  And since I've never had a frosted fruitcake, I felt I had to pass on that one as well as I'd have no point of comparison to my unfrosted and beloved Jane Parker.

There are also a few recipes here for booze-soaked fruitcakes and even one for a "Fruitcake Flaming" but I have to tell you, and I cannot believe I am saying this, I cannot:  I moistened my fruitcake as directed with bourbon and I shall never do so again.

Never.  Why?  My fruitcake was over-bourboned (if that's even a word which Spell-check tells me it isn't!).  It's not like I doused it with the entire bottle (because what a waste of good bourbon!), but simply moistened periodically the cheesecake I wrapped it in as directed, from the time I baked it to the time I served it a monthly later.

Weeks later, when I finally had a tiny taste, I was about knocked out by the alcohol.  Whoa.  And this is coming from me who enjoys her stronger alcohols like gin, cognac and bourbon.

Is this why people like their homemade fruitcakes so much?

The alternative to soaking the fruitcake in booze was to use grape juice, but that proved to be tricky.  I had split my fruitcake in half and the half that I moistened with grape juice started to develop a bit of mold at the bottom of the cheesecloth and so I had to throw it out.

Obviously, I don't have my fruitcake techniques on lock and load yet.  But I tell you who does and that is most southerners, like author Truman Capote, and his cousin, Sook Faulk, and this book's author, Marie Rudisill who was Capote's aunt.

In fact, come to think of it, most of my southern cookbooks are where I can go to find fruitcake recipes.  And they all say the same thing which is to make it months in advance, wrap it in cheesecloth, then moisten with booze or fruit juice, but mostly booze. Hmmm.  At any rate, this fondness explains why there are 23 fruitcake recipes in this book. 

As to Truman Capote, I hope the majority of you recognize his name and his books (and movies) such as In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany's.  I think I read In Cold Blood while in high school, long before the movie of the same name came out.  I did not read Breakfast at Tiffany's but I understand that the storyline was tweaked (sanitized?) when the movie, starring Audrey Hepburn, was filmed.  Not that this matters as I loved Audrey in that role.  (Mickey Rooney though, is another story.  He played a very stereotypical Chinese man – what? –  in the film and caught flack for that ever after.  File that under:  What Were They Thinking?)

So apparently this book is a compilation of recipes that Truman enjoyed that his cousin, Sook, made for him, and that his aunt wrote about.

As to this fruitcake, it was originally known as the "Lee Fruitcake," as it was part of southern General Robert E. Lee's family recipe collection.  In my opinion, this fruitcake comes closest to approximating the Jane Parker recipe I loved so much.  And I tell you, it was delicious, at least until I "ruined" it by pouring bourbon on it.  I may never get over this folks, never.

One thing I found while attempting to stock up on the candied fruits early and often, is that at least in these parts, they don't start appearing on shelves until just before Thanksgiving.  How then, are these southerners able to make their fruitcakes so many months in advance?  Are they just better at stockpiling the candied fruit for one season to be used the next?  Inquiring minds want to know.

You should know though, that I had no difficulty sourcing the bourbon.  None.  Although the next time I make the fruitcake– and there will be a next time – I may use even less than I did this time and might also switch it to brandy or cognac.  The possibilities are endless.

For safety's sake though, I may refrain from intentionally setting the fruitcake on fire to achieve a "Fruitcake Flaming."  (That was the exact title which makes me wonder if they purposely avoided calling it a "Flaming Fruitcake?")

By the way, I purchased this book in as soon as it was released in 2000, but sometime between 2000 and 2016 this book went missing.  Now granted, I have a lot of cookbooks and every once in a while I misplace one, but it's usually temporary.  Not so with this book.  So this year, I finally found it and bought it online (again!) and it is now staying on a shelf where I can see it at all times.  Meanwhile, and I am not kidding, I made some party food from a Martha Stewart cookbook and am saddened to report that "Martha" is missing.  And I don't know where "she" could have gone but I have looked in all the usual places of where I put books I am blogging about and so far, nothing.  Huh.  Can this be a trend?

Anyway, here then is the Capote Family fruitcake via the Lee Family, in all it's glory.  This makes one very large, and very heavy, fruitcake, but one I hope you enjoy throughout the holiday season. 

1866 Fruitcake – fills one large tube pan
½ cup candied lemon peel
½ cup sliced candied orange peel
1 ½ cups finely cut citron (Ann's Note: it comes already finely diced)
1 ½ cups candied pineapple
1 cup candied cherries
1 ¼ cups dark seeded raisins
1 ¼ cup white raisins
1 cup chopped pecans
¼ cup sifted enriched flour
1 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
4 eggs
2 ½ cups enriched flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon all spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cloves
¾ cup grape juice

Combine the peels, fruits, nuts; sprinkle with ¼ cup of flour and mix well.

Thoroughly cream butter and sugar.  Add eggs and beat well.  Sift together 2 cups of flour, the baking powder, salt, and spices; add alternately with grape juice.  Pour the batter over the floured mixture of peels, fruits, and nuts.

Pour into a large tube pan until ¾ full.  Do not flatten batter.  Bake in a very slow oven at 250F for about 5 hours.  Remove from pan and pack in air tight tin with a double layer of cheesecloth soaked in bourbon.  Ann's Note:  Nuh uh.  Do this at your own peril!  If you use grape juice, keep and eye on the cheesecloth to avoid the slight mold problem I experienced.

Bake at least 3 months before Christmas.  Do not let the cake dry out and keep lacing it with bourbon.

And one final Ann's Note:  This "adult" fruitcake should probably be consumed at home during the evening hours as it may impair your driving or worse, give people the impression that you like to get an early start to your holiday celebrations.  Unlike my beloved Jane Parker fruitcake, this is not exactly fit for breakfast consumption and that is a major bummer.   

"Southern Living Incredible Cookies" - Caramel-Filled Chocolate Cookies - Holiday Party Food!

Date I made this recipe – December 4, 2016 – Holiday Party Food!

Southern Living® Incredible Cookies by Southern Living® magazine
Published by Oxmoor House, Inc.
ISBN: 0-8487-2389-9; © 2000; Fourth Printing 2003
Purchased at Arc's Value Village Thrift Store, St. Paul
Recipe:  Caramel-Filled Chocolate Cookies – p. 71

So I had my sweet treat lineup all ready to go and then as per usual, I got "cold feet" wondering if I had enough cookies and if so, were they the "right kind" of cookies?

And by "right kind," I mean something chocolate.  Even better?  Chocolate and caramel.  This recipe fit the bill nicely.

I mentioned in a previous blog that there's no rhyme or reason per se for how we select cookies, but we do seem to opt for those that are unique, or those that have interesting (but good) flavors, and sometimes overlook party favorites i.e. anything chocolate. 

Except that's not quite right, either.  We do have chocolate cookies but not necessarily all-chocolate cookies like these are.  So at the last minute, I decided to add this one to the mix.  We made a similar cookie the past couple of years but this one was much easier to make and more chocolate-centric than the other one.  Plus, can we talk about the addition of caramel in the middle?  Oh yes we can and it was a game-changer!

Now these almost didn't happen because while I like this cookbook, the first couple of pages were iced and decorated cookies, and as I also mentioned in a previous blog, I eliminate those right off the back because they are time consuming. 

Then we had some shortbread cookie options– nice, but dull – and some "fruit" cookies but we already had one on deck and so there went that.  And so just as I was thinking I was going to have to re-shelve this book for another day, I stumbled upon these.  And after a quick consult with our star baker, my husband, Andy, we were "'Go' Flight!"

Cookie categories in this book are divided into the following:  "Rolled & Cut Cookies;" "Drop Cookies;" "Shaped Cookies;" "Bar Cookies," and "Simple Cookies." I'm not sure what distinguishes a "simple" cookie from another cookie but the editors decided to make it so and so it is so.

And speaking of editors, this cookbook was compiled by the editors of Southern Living® magazine, and while I can't say that anything I saw here smacked of being indigenous to the south, the recipes looked good and the one we selected tasted great.  I have several other Southern Living® cookbooks that are filled with more standard southern fare than this one, and I also enjoy leafing through Southern Living magazine, particularly their recipe sections.  But if you are not a magazine or cookbook person (what?!) but like looking at and making southern recipes, their website – – has plenty in every category that your heart desires.

Caramel-Filled Chocolate Cookies – Yield:  4 dozen
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup cocoa
1 cup finely chopped pecans, divided
1 tablespoon sugar
1 (9-ounce) package chewy caramels in milk chocolate

Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until cream; gradually add sugars, beating well.  Add eggs and vanilla; beat well.

Combine flour, baking soda, and cocoa; gradually add to butter mixture, beating well.  Stir in ½ cup pecans.  Cover and chill dough at least 2 hours.  Combine remaining ½ cup pecans and 1 tablespoon sugar.

Divide each portion into 12 pieces.  Quickly press each piece of dough around a caramel; roll into a ball.  Dip 1 side of ball in pecan mixture.  Place balls, pecan side up, 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets.

Bake at 375 for 8 minutes.  (Cookies will look soft.)  Cool 1 minute on baking sheets; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

"Party Dips!" - Andy Husbands's Hot Crabmeat Dip - Holiday Party Food!

Date I made this recipe:  December 4, 2016 – Holiday Party Food!

Party Dips! – 50 zippy, zesty, spicy, savory, tasty, tempting dips by Sally Sampson
Published by The Harvard Common Press
ISBN: 978-1-55832-278-3; © 2004
Purchased at Bloomington Crime Prevention Association (BCPA) annual sale
Recipe:  Andy Husbands's Hot Crabmeat Dip – p. 72

My guy's name is Andy.  He is my husband.  This recipe momentarily confused me – Andy Husbands is a chef and restaurateur who contributed this recipe - but then I got over it and made this dish anyway.  My Husband Andy loved it so there you go.

Our guests also enjoyed this delicious dip and I also think that this was the first one to be cleaned out from all the party selections we made.  But that stands to reason, right, because people see "crab" and they fall on it like it was a long-lost relative who hasn't been seen in these parts for the past 20 years.  And when you think about where Minnesota is in relation to an ocean (and yes, Lake Superior is huge but it doesn't count), then this makes sense.

Now maybe I'm just getting older and more jaded when it comes to selecting party fare, but aside from this crabmeat dip, none of the other recipes in this cookbook did much for me.  And it wasn't that they didn't sound tasty, it's just that they felt too standard:  onion dip, hummus, ranch dressing – yawn.  And this is not to say the other dips aren't potentially great, it just wasn't their year: "Sorry, 'Creamy Sesame Dip,' but you didn't make the final cut.  While we admired your flavor...."

So this year it was crab and only crab and we were done and that was a good thing because too many recipes later and we get "crabby" (pun intended) and who wants crabby party hosts?

The table of contents for this book is broken out by dip categories as follows:  "Party Dip Basics;" "Smooth Dips;" "Chunky Dips," and "Cheesy Dips."  Each recipe also comes with a "Divine Dippers" tip on what to serve these dips with, such as vegetables, or potatoes, or crackers. I appreciate that even if I usually have my own ideas about serving.  And the recipe photos, like the one on the cover, are lovely plus they are a great guide for recreating the same platters at home.  I tend to like cookbooks that include photos.  There don't have to be a ton of them, just enough to give me an idea of the author's/chef's take on their creations.

Before we leave the world of dips, I have to admit that every year, I put out some sort of veggie and dip tray, and every year, more often than not, I am not completely satisfied with the dip.  And I don't know why that is but it sort of annoys me.  And our guests seem to follow suit in that they will eat the veggies but don't demolish the dips.  And I've tried all kinds of dip. 

This year, I made a  veggie dip from a different source and it fell flat on its face.  Perhaps then, I should have considered the Ranch Dip (p. 23) featured in this cookbook?  Perhaps.

As to this crabmeat dip, it can be served hot or cold but I opted for hot.  I think guests like hot dips as they are not usually something they make at home.  You can make the mixture up in advance and refrigerate, adding the crabmeat just prior to baking. That said, the difficulty of serving hot dips at a party is keeping them hot.  I believe I put this in the microwave a couple of times during our four-hour party to reheat and you can do the same but do watch your time carefully so that your dip won't dry out.

I purchased my can of crabmeat at Coastal Seafoods, a local fishmonger, just before Thanksgiving (it needs to be refrigerated anyway), and ran into a friend who was there buying mussels for her portion of a Thanksgiving dinner to be spent with friends.  "Party food," I said, as I held up my purchase for her inspection.  "Are you making the almond bon-bons?"  (Her favorite item at our party.)  "We are!"  "Can't wait!"

So she came and enjoyed the almond bon-bons and the crabmeat dip (at least I think she enjoyed it—others sure did) and all was well with my world and my Husband(s), Andy!

Andy Husbands's Hot Crabmeat Dip – makes 2 cups
 1 teaspoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup mayonnaise
1 celery stalk, finely diced
1 small shallot, finely diced
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, to your taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
2 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh horseradish
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup fresh crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Ann's Notes:  I had a hell of a time – who knew – finding a fresh horseradish root that wasn't as long as a baseball bat.  And I still have a chunk of it left over.  And be warned that grating it is like grating an onion, i.e. you'll start crying.  Also, make your life easier and just buy crabmeat that has already been picked over for shells and cartilage.  It costs a bit more but saves a lot of time and energy and possibly swearing.

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Place a small skillet over medium-high heat and, when it is hot, add the oil. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, about 2 minutes.  Place the garlic in a medium-size mixing bowl, add the mayonnaise, celery, shallot, lemon juice, parsley, horseradish, mustard, thyme, and red pepper flakes, and mix well.  Using a spatula, lightly fold in the crabmeat.  Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer to a small casserole and bake until light brown, 10 to 15 minutes.  Serve immediately.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"The Barnes and Noble Cookie Bake-Off" cookbook - Cherry Hideaway Cookies

Date I made these recipes December 4, 2016 – Holiday Party Food

The Barnes and Noble Cookie Bake-Off – Top 75 Recipes from Around the Country
Published by Sterling
ISBN: 978-1-4549-1745-8; © 2015
Purchased at Barnes and Noble!
Recipe:  Cherry Hideaway Cookies, submitted by contestant Catherine Davis, Marion, IL – p. 57. 

Please note, we also made two other cookies from this book – "Cranberry Lime Snow Cookies," submitted by contestant Zachary Whitworth, Roebuck, SC and "Michele's Rainbow Cookies" (a/k/a "Italian Rainbow Cookies"), submitted by contestant Michele Martise, Kirkwood, MO.  Both were great, and in fact, Michele's Rainbow Cookies were off the chart and are one of my (childhood and beyond) favorites. But alas folks, I decided to feature just the one in the interest of time and complexity.  The Rainbow Cookies are a bit time-consuming which is why it is not a featured recipe for this blog – at least not for today!

So let's begin! For those of you who read my latest blog about the party meatballs (posted 12/21/2016), you know that I went on a mini-rant about the lack of clear directions.  To me, the worst thing that can happen to a recipe is to leave one confused or stranded, mid-making by incomplete directions.

But that was then, this is now because brace yourself kids:  not one single recipe in this cookbook, not a single one of the 75 recipes listed here in this book, gives you the yield.

Can you imagine?  I mean what, are we supposed to just guess how much they make?  Apparently so.

I emailed the publisher since you can't exactly fire off an email to Barnes and Noble (or can you?) saying "What the hell," but really—What. The. Hell? How can you publish 75 recipes and not tell us how much they make?  It's insane! Sadly, I did not hear from them and that is a major "I'm going to have to ding them" moment.  A huge demerit.  A black eye for them, whoever "them" is.

Happily for you, these cookies were fantastic and the recipe gave a hint about how many they made (36) but no cook or baker should have to hold up the cookbook to a mirror to search for hidden or backwards messages.  No sir.

Now I shop at Barnes and Noble all the time, both online and in-store, and I have to tell you that I was rather surprised to see this cookbook because really, did anybody else know about this bake-off contest and forget to tell me?  Not that I have recipes to submit, but "mum" was definitely the word of the day.

So the cookbook starts with an introduction and then the judge's biographies follow (nine in all, and all of them heavy-hitters in the restaurant industry) and then bios and photos of the winner and the two runner ups, and then we hit the ground running with cookies by category (but with no yields).

The categories for your perusing pleasure are "Sugar & Spice;" "Sweet & Savory," and the all-encompassing "Chocolate."  Today's featured recipe, Cherry Hideaway Cookies are in the Sweet & Savory section (as are the "Cranberry Lime Snow Cookies") yet "Michelle's Rainbow Cookies" ended up in the Sugar & Spice category.  Huh.

Some of you may be wondering how my husband and I end up with the cookie selections we do year after year and I don't have a good answer but I can tell you what I avoid:  no peppermint, ever (I hate it); no sugar cookies, not because they don't taste good but they're kind of boring; absolutely nothing requiring intricate frosting endeavors (which are not in this book, but I'm just saying), and nothing requiring fancy equipment other than baking pans.  (That said, I searched high and low for Michele's Rainbow Cookies 9 x 9 baking sheets and could not find that exact size.  But I found a slightly larger baking sheets at Target that fit the bill (Threshold brand) and so bought three, one for each layer.  Still, my husband, who made them, had to make adjustments.  Sigh.)

What we do look for is something unique and that stands apart from the usual line-up.  This year's party guests were duly impressed by the Rainbow Cookies (as they should have been), but like I said, they were intricate and so I'm not going to reprint them here.

And the rest of the cookies we bake are just ones we think guests will like and that will compliment the ones we make every year such as "Betty Crocker's Almond Bon-Bon cookies."  (This recipe is on my blog but I can't recall what year I first published it.  Check out recipes posted for the month of December.)

Because my husband likes to bake and I enjoy the savory side of life, I tasked him with all these cookies plus a few homemade crackers to boot.  It didn't start out that way this year, but after I had to remake the bon-bon dough – twice – I just threw all the recipes at him and asked them to get them all done.  And as always, he is a master baker and deserved every accolade that came his way.

And so to our star recipe, Cherry Hideaway Cookies.  As you might suspect, a maraschino cherry is "hidden" in the dough.  Then the cookies are frosted on one side with a chocolate frosting and then topped with shredded coconut.  They looked awesome and our guests had fun eating them.   You should know that although regular, store-bought coconut will do, I purchased some desiccated coconut from Whole Foods to put on top and loved the look.  Desiccated coconut is dried to reduce the moisture count.  You can achieve the same effect by buying a coconut, splitting it open, shaving it and then letting it dry out.  But please—we were in party mode so as long as Whole Foods had it, there was no need for me to get all Martha Stewart here.  Sorry, Martha. (Martha probably owns her own coconut grove somewhere in the world.  Just sayin...)

Cherry Hideaway Cookies – yield not listed but the ingredients give us a hint:  you'll need 36 maraschino cherries!
2/3 cup vegetable shortening
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
36 large maraschino cherries
8 ounces milk chocolate, chopped
½ cup shredded coconut

Preheat the oven to 350F.

With an electric mixer or a stand mixer, cream the shortening, sugar, egg, milk, and vanilla.  Add the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.  Mix until combined.  Drain the cherries on a paper towel and pat dry.

Wrap about 1 tablespoon of dough around each cherry and place an inch apart on a baking sheet.  Bake for 10-13 minutes, until the edges just begin to brown.

Cool for 15 minutes.  Melt the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl.  Dip half of each cookie in melted chocolate and sprinkle with coconut.

"The Meatball Cookbook Bible" - Beef Meatballs with Mustard and Dried Apricots & Pork Meatballs in Apple Cream Sauce - Holiday Party Food!

Date I made these recipes:  December 4, 2016 – Holiday party food!

The Meatball Cookbook Bible – 500 Mouth-Watering Variations on One of the World's Best-Loved Foods by Ellen Brown
Published by Cider Mill Press
ISBN: 978-160433097-7; © 2009
Purchased at Half Price Books, St. Paul, MN
Recipes:  Beef Meatballs with Mustard and Dried Apricots – p. 130-131; Pork Meatballs in Apple Cream Sauce – p. 183-185

You probably know this, but cooking is dangerous.  You have hot burners, hot liquids, and sharp knives, and many a chef has injured themselves while attempting to bang out fantastic food.

In my case, my "industrial" accident happened when I was trying to move a metal bookend so as to take this cookbook off my shelf.  My pinkie finger connected with the bookend and ow, ow, ow!  Who knew that those suckers were so sharp?

And just like that, the roll I was on writing and publishing my holiday party food blogs came to a screeching halt.  My apologies.

Happily nothing dire happened in the kitchen while I was making these recipes except for a lot of swearing over the lack of explicit instructions.

I mean what the hell folks, are there not editors making more money than me out there who are supposed to catch this stuff?  Because I found an error in each recipe and it always involved "what am I supposed to do with the rest of these [insert food item here]?" I looked at each recipe several times and then had my husband read it and we remain perplexed.

Now nothing that was or wasn't in the recipes made a difference to the outcome which is always a good thing, and the end results were tasty but of course, there were a few issues of note which I will cover in a minute.

In general, the beef meatballs were good but seemed a little mushy in the middle, whether from the breadcrumbs, the apricots or a combination of both we don't know.  We do know that our guests enjoyed them so perhaps it was our palate?  Anyway, we doubled the recipes, baked them off and then froze them, sans sauce, a couple of weeks before the party.  We added the sauces just before serving.

As to the pork meatballs, be warned that you will end up with a ton of sauce.  A ton. In retrospect I realize that doubling the meatball mixture does not always mean to also double the sauce.  In fact, it usually ends up being just the opposite.  But what they hey, they are going to be your meatballs so if you want lots of sauce, go to it.
Be warned though, that the pork meatball sauce calls for applejack brandy and since I knew a couple of kids were coming, I decided to pass on that option as I really didn't want to get the stink-eye from their parents.  Not that the parents would have noticed but we would have.  Responsible hosts let their guests eat responsibly!

As you might imagine, a cookbook with the title The Meatball Cookbook Bible is loaded with meatball recipes and so finding some for our party table was not the problem; eliminating some was the problem!  It took us a while to cull the herd to the two recipes listed here and while they were good, we shall likely explore other options next year as we like to mix things up a bit.

This "bible" of a book also gives you a wide variety of options in these categories: meat (beef, pork, lamb); poultry; fish and seafood; vegetables, herbs and grains; cheese and even dessert meatballs (a/k/a " chocolate truffles"). There's a section for meatballs in broth and also a variety of "international" meatballs from which to choose.

Before I get to the recipes though, I have to dialogue with you about the incomplete instructions I mentioned above.  Faithful readers knows that nothing sends me over the edge more than missing or incomplete instructions.  And specific to this year's kitchen efforts is the definition of the word "divided" – as in (for example) "1 cup apple cider, divided."

Perhaps it is just me, but in my head, the word "divided" suggests an equal division of ingredients and so a directive of "I cup apple cider, divided" means two, one-half cups each, one to be used now, one to be used later.  At least this is what I (barely) understood in my grade school math class.

And believe it or not, most recipes I've made that called for a "divided" ingredient have been an even split.  If they haven't though, they usually indicate somewhere in the recipe's narrative what I am to do with the remaining amount.  And the remaining amount is usually mathematically correct, i.e., if one cup of an ingredient is to be divided into ¾ cup for the first round, it stands to reason that ¼ cup is what you have left, right?

Not always so.  So let's parse the instructions that drove me crazy:

#1 – The beef meatball recipe called for 1/3 of a cup of mustard, divided.  The recipe goes on to say to use ¼ (of 1/3 cup) for the meatballs and the remaining for the sauce.  Okay, fine, but I would have preferred it if she would have spelled out the "remaining" in measurement form which breaks down roughly into 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon.  Now, was that hard? (Answer:  yes, which is why I sent this "equation to my husband to figure out for me!)

And this is perhaps also a "me" thing, but when I look at an ingredient list, I want to see every ingredient I am to use and I want it spelled out.  Why?  Because the ingredient list also becomes my shopping list.  I photocopy the list, head to the grocery store, and we're done.  Here, the ingredient list for the sauce said "apricot preserves and red pepper hot sauce," but no mention was made of the remaining mustard except in the narrative.

And look, if I was making this up for just the two of us or a few guests, perhaps I would not have been so irked, but I was making mass quantities for our party and I want to know exactly how much to have on hand and where it all goes. 

#2 – The pork meatballs called for you to chop one onion and then add half of it to the meatballs mix.  But what to do with the rest of it?  We will never know because the recipe does not say.

Also annoying was the directive to "divide" (there's that word again) 1 cup of apple cider.  Three quarters (3/4) of the cider is used in the meatball sauce recipe, but the remaining ¼ is never accounted for.

Why then, dear reader, why then direct me to pour a whole cup when ¾ of a cup will do?  This drives me absolutely nuts.  Nuts!

So as I am fond of saying, I am going to have to ding this author for these two boo-boos. The flavors were fine and our guests ate them up (pun intended), but I hate incomplete directions and I really hate them when I am cranking out copious quantities of these meatballs for our party table and don't know what is going on with a recipe.  Sad to say, but I imagine I'll have to keep an eagle eye out for further errors if I make more recipes from this cookbook. 

By the way, we were a little nervous about how the beef meatballs would go over (apricots and mustard, what?) but then we remembered that many moons ago, we invited some friends over for dinner and made a chicken pot pie and a meatloaf with mustard and dried apricots.  That recipe was similar to the one below, and I believe we got it from either Bon Appetit or Gourmet.  At any rate, one of the men at the dinner is a straight-up meat and potatoes guy and yet he loved the meatloaf so much, he asked for the recipe.  And he quite enjoyed the beef meatballs at this year's party so the dish is a winner (as is the pork) even if the making of them was almost my undoing!

Beef Meatballs with Mustard and Dried Apricots – makes 4 to 6 servings
Ann's Note:  the author indicates that these are one of her favorite appetizers to serve because the combination of dried apricots with sharp mustard makes each bite flavorful.
For the meatballs
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large shallots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large egg
1/3 cup Dijon mustard, divided (Ann's Note: into ¼ cup for the meatballs and the rest of the sauce)
3 tablespoons whole milk
¾ cup panko breadcrumbs
1/3 cup finely chopped dried apricots
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dried
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 ½ pounds ground chuck
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce
½ cup apricot preserves
½ teaspoon hot red pepper sauce
 (Ann's Note:  add remaining Dijon mustard)

Preheat the oven to 450F.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil, and spray the foil with vegetable spray.

Heat oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat.  Add shallots and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, or until shallots are soft.  While vegetables cook, combine eggs, ¼ cup mustard, and milk in a mixing bowl, and whisk until smooth.  Add breadcrumbs, dried apricots, sage, and cilantro, and mix well.

Add shallot mixture and beef, season to taste with salt and pepper, and mix well again.  Make mixture into 1 ½-inch meatballs, and arrange meatballs on the prepared pan.  Spray tops of meatballs with vegetable oil spray.

Bake meatballs for 12 to 15 minutes, or until cooked through.  While meatballs bake, combine remaining mustard, apricot preserves, and hot red pepper sauce in a small mixing bowl, and whisk well.

Remove the pan from the oven and serve immediately accompanied by the bowl of apricot mustard sauce.

[Author's] Note:  The beef mixture can be prepared up to 1 day in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered.  Also, the meatballs can be baked up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered.  Reheat them in a 350F oven, covered for 10 to 12 minutes or until hot.

[Author's] Note:  Since Japanese panko breadcrumbs are fluffier than Western breadcrumbs, they produce a lighter and more tender meatball.  Substitute them for plain breadcrumbs in any recipe in this book.

Ann's Note:  I made this up three weeks ahead then froze them.  We added the sauce when we reheated.

Pork Meatballs in Cream Sauce – makes 4- 6 servings
For the meatballs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large egg
2 tablespoons whole milk
½ cup plain breadcrumbs
1 ¼ pounds ground pork
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Vegetable oil spray
For the sauce
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 cup apple cider, divided
1 cup chicken stock
¼ cup applejack brandy
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Preheat the oven boiler.  (Ann's Note:  I baked these—so much easier!).  Line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil, and spray the foil with vegetable oil spray.

Heat butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes, or until onion is translucent.  While vegetables cook, combine egg and milk in a mixing bowl, and whisk until smooth.  Add breadcrumbs to the mixing bowl, and mix well.

Add ½ of onion mixture* and pork, season to taste with salt and pepper, and mix well again.  Make into 2-inch meatballs, and arrange meatballs on the prepared pan.  Spray tops of meatballs with vegetable oil spray. (*Ann's Note:  Missing from these instructions is what to do with the remaining onion mixture and since I made the meatballs in advance but the sauce the day of, I believe I ended up throwing the rest out.  Pity.)

Broil meatballs 6 inches from the broiler element, turning them with tongs to brown on all sides.  Remove the pan from the oven, and set aside.  Ann's Note:  I baked these at 450F for about 20-25 minutes; check them after 15.

Add apples, ¾ cup cider*, chicken stock, brandy, and mustard to the skillet, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.  Simmer sauce, uncovered, for 10 minutes, or until volume is reduced by 1/3. *Ann's Note:  Despite the fact that the recipe called for you to use 1 cup apple cider, "divided," you only end up using ¾ of that cup. 

Add meatballs and cream to sauce, bring to a boil, and simmer meatballs, covered, over low heat, turning occasionally with a slotted spoon for 15 minutes.