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Thanksgiving Menu Ideas

Hey, folks…

Reposting last year’s round-up of Thanksgiving ideas for a little menu-planning inspiration!

~Amy

APPETIZERS

Cranberry Chipotle Meatballs

Corn and Bacon Fritters with Smoked Salmon

Bacon-Wrapped Dates stuffed with Bleu Cheese

THE MAIN EVENT

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast with Pan Gravy (and tips for roasting a whole turkey)

Bacon and Cider Braised Turkey Drumsticks (and garlicky creamed spinach)

Spiced Sweet Potato Puree with Pecan Streusel

Sausage, Apple, and Leek Stuffing

Cranberry-Orange Sauce

Green Beans Almondine

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Walnuts

Hot Doughy Buns

DESSERTS

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Coconut Pie

A Few Variations on Apple Pie (in an all butter pie crust)

Caramel Apple Cake

Turkey-Shaped Sugar Cookies

Caramel Apple Tartlets

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Cannoli Cheesecake

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Triple Ginger Apple Muffins

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then my little James is going to have the doctors bolting in the other direction. The kid eats, oh, anywhere from 5 – 10 apples a day. No joke.

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At one point, I would dole out his daily allotment of apples, spending a ridiculous percentage of my days washing, peeling, and slicing his favorite food. After eating 3 in a day, I’d determine he’d reached his daily apple limit and try to persuade him to eat some nice, delicious cookies or perhaps some potato chips instead.

This never ended well. In fact, our worst fights pretty much all came down to a disagreement over how many apples a two-year-old should reasonably eat in a day.

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But, you know, as parents, you have to pick your battles, and eventually, I simply decided that if the kid wants to eat apples from dawn to dusk, then so be it.

We now buy multiple sacks of apples each week, which I wash and leave in a giant mountain on the counter, for my little guy to snack on at will. My only remaining problem is finding half-eaten apples hidden within my slippers. True story.

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Naturally, being peak apple season up here in Central New York, we recently spent an afternoon at our favorite apple orchard, Beak and Skiff, where we rode a flatbed tractor up to the rows of ripe Cortland apples and picked until the bags were too heavy to carry.

James filled his bag, then refused to let anyone touch his precious, precious fruit. He walked row by row, dragging that bulging bag of apples behind his little apple-nourished body, shrieking if I even attempted to lighten his load.

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After riding the tractor back to the front of the orchard, we placed our loot on the scales and handed over $26 for our sweet bounty. (Note to self: It costs 16 cents more per pound to pick the apples yourself than to buy the same apples, from the same orchard at the local grocery store.)

I went through the bags of apples once we’d arrived home. To my utter lack of surprise, James’ bag contained at least 10 bucks worth of half-eaten apples.

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Some of what I found in James’ bag of apples…

Thankfully, most of Liam and Lucas’ apples were not already eaten, leaving plenty of freshly-picked apples for snacking and for making these outrageous muffins. Based on a basic not-too-sweet molasses muffin, accented with a triple dose of ground, fresh, and crystallized ginger, these spicy muffins barely made it to the next morning.

I recommend making a double batch.

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Triple Ginger Apple Muffins

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 6-ounce container vanilla or apple-cinnamon greek yogurt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup molasses
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups apple, peeled and diced

Directions

Preheat oven to 325ºF. Prepare muffin tins with liners or by spraying with a nonstick baking spray.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, ground ginger, and cinnamon in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the yogurt, eggs, oil, and molasses. Stir in the fresh ginger.

Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients until well blended. Stir in the crystallized ginger and the apple. The batter will be pretty thick.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins, so that each tin is about 2/3 – 3/4 full.

Bake for 20-25 minutes.

Makes 12-15 muffins

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Thanksgiving Takes Two, Three, and Four

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!

I’ve got a bird to throw in the oven and a parade to watch. Just wanted to pop in to share these previously posted ideas for your Thanksgiving leftovers.

I’ll be starting my holiday cookie baking soon with a few new recipes to share (including a chewy chocolate orange cookie, laced with grand marnier and bits of candied orange peel), but I’ll also be posting a few of my old favorite cookie recipes over on The Gourmand Mom facebook page during the next few weeks. If you don’t already follow The Gourmand Mom on facebook, click on over using the link on the right side of the page. See you there!

Bursting with thankfulness,

~Amy

Thanksgiving Leftover Variation #1 – Turkey Soup

Don’t let that turkey carcass go to waste! There’s so much flavor waiting to be extracted from those bones. Get the broth started right after dinner. Simply throw the whole turkey carcass into a large pot, cover with water, and simmer (partly covered) for 3-4 hours. Don’t worry if there’s still some meat or turkey skin hanging on the turkey! Just throw the whole thing in the pot and let it start working while you sit down to enjoy some pumpkin pie. Once it’s simmered, strain the broth and refrigerate overnight. The next day, you can finish making the soup. Click here for my step-by-step guide to making a basic chicken soup. You can follow the same process for turkey soup.

Thanksgiving Leftover Variation #2 – Open-faced Thanksgiving Sandwich

In my opinion, this is the best way to use leftovers on the day after Thanksgiving, when you’ve still got a bit of everything in the fridge. Simply reheat some leftover turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Spread some cranberry sauce on a lightly toasted slice of thick, doughy bread. Then, top the cranberry sauce with the hot turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Drizzle hot gravy over the entire thing and enjoy. This is a knife and fork kind of sandwich; simple, hearty, and satisfying.

Click here for more details on making an open-faced turkey sandwich any time of year.

Thanksgiving Leftover Variation #3 – Roast Turkey, Brie, and Homemade Apple Butter Melts

This is my new personal favorite. Such a perfect combination of flavors. I happen to love apple butter; always have and probably always will. You can find it in most grocery stores, usually near the  jams and jellies. Look for one which doesn’t contain a lot of unnecessary added sugar or corn syrup. Apple butter really doesn’t need anything other than apples and a bit of apple cider or apple juice. Apple butter is a cinch to make at home. So, if you can’t find any at your store, follow my simple recipe to make your own. And, if apple butter just isn’t your thing, substitute some leftover cranberry sauce on these sandwiches. It will pair beautifully with the brie.

For the sandwiches, thinly slice brie and spread it onto a sturdy piece of bread. I prefer to use ciabatta or pain de campagne, but any doughy, crusty bread should work. Spread apple butter (or cranberry sauce) onto another piece of bread. Place a few slices of roasted turkey breast between the bread slices. Loosely wrap the sandwich in foil and bake for about 20-25 minutes in a 350 degrees oven, until the cheese has melted, the bread feels slightly toasted, and the turkey is warm.

Homemade Apple Butter

Ingredients

  • 5-6 apples, peeled, cores removed, and coarse chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups apple cider
  • Cinnamon stick (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Simmer the apple pieces in the apple cider for about 20 minutes. If desired, add a cinnamon stick to simmer with the mixture. Then, puree the apples until smooth. Pour the puree into an oven-safe covered pan and place in the oven for about 5 hours. The apple butter will darken to a rich brown as it cooks.

Thanksgiving Leftover Variation #4 – Turkey Salad Sandwiches

Turkey salad is a simple and delicious way to breathe new life into the remainder of your turkey leftovers. I love it on a lightly toasted bagel with a slice of swiss cheese. To make a basic turkey salad, simply chop or tear your leftover turkey into small pieces. Add some finely diced onion and celery. Combine with just enough mayonnaise and mustard to bind the salad. Season with salt and pepper, as desired. Stir in some dried cranberries for an extra tasty touch!

Cranberry Mango Sauce

My five year old has discovered my kryptonite…

You see, when bedtime arrives, Liam will begin spewing an endless stream of stories and questions in an attempt to delay the inevitable lights out. It’s his routine. He speaks so fast you may imagine he’s in training for a career in auctioneering. Math facts, dinosaur facts, sight words, stories about school, menu planning, favorite mythical creatures… The only escape is fast and brutal, even as he’s mid-sentence talking about the cunning swiftness of the velociraptor.

Good night. I love you. Lights out. 

Reindeer Liam

But the clever bugger has picked up on something… I can’t leave if he’s talking about God. I’m physically incapable of it. What am I, some sort of monster?!? Stop talking about God. Mommy needs to go downstairs and drink my wine! No, I can’t turn the lights out and walk away when the kid starts talking about God or heaven or angels or prayer. And the little stinker has figured it out.

So, when he senses that I’m about to put a quick kibosh on the nighttime story telling, he doesn’t miss a beat. Without even pausing for a breath, he slides right into the God talk. Questions and stories and ideas. It’s endearing. And also manipulative. Amongst a million other things, I’m so thankful for that clever kid and the opportunity to talk about important things with him, like dinosaurs, three-headed dogs, and God.

The countdown to Thanksgiving is on. If you’re hosting, it’s likely you’ve already started the preparations. I beat the Thanksgiving mayhem at my grocery store, by completing most of my shopping early yesterday morning. Just a few fresh items to pick up tomorrow and we’ll be set for a grand feast.

And this morning I started the cooking with this cranberry mango sauce; a unique twist on the ubiquitous cranberry condiment which graces most dining tables come Thanksgiving. For years, I’ve been making a cranberry orange sauce, which we’ve always enjoyed. But this year, I had mangos on my mind. I’d imagined that the mellow sweetness of a mango would be the perfect match for the cranberries’ tart bitterness. I was correct. The smooth mango puree wraps itself around the sharp flavor of the cranberries and gives the dish a satisfying flavor which will pair perfectly with that golden turkey.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Thanksgiving Turkey Safety

Send your guests home on Thanksgiving with a full, satisfied belly. Don’t send them home with food poisoning. Here are a few tips for safely preparing, serving, and storing the star of the show.

  • The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. This technique can take 1-3 days for a small turkey or 5-6 days for a large turkey, so plan ahead. Turkeys that are defrosted in the fridge can be held in the refrigerator for a couple days before roasting.
  • A faster way to safely defrost a turkey is in a large pot of cold water. Wrap the turkey securely, then submerge completely in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes or so, so that it remains cold throughout the defrosting process. Cook the turkey soon after it is defrosted. This process can take a few hours for a small turkey or up to 10-12 hours for a large turkey.
  • The microwave is another option for safely defrosting a turkey, assuming you can fit your turkey in your microwave. To prevent bacteria from multiplying, turkey which has been defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately following. Do not refrigerate or freeze it once it has been defrosted.
  • Never, ever, never defrost a turkey sitting on a counter at room temperature. The outside will defrost much faster than the interior, creating a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Yuck!
  • Cook your turkey at a minimum temperature of 325 degrees. Any lower could result in the center of the turkey sitting at an unsafe temperature for too long during the cooking process.
  • Consider not stuffing your turkey. To be safe, every part of the turkey, including the stuffing, needs to reach 165 degrees. It can take a very long time for the stuffing to reach this safe temperature, since airflow is restricted within the turkey cavity. This usually means that you will need to continue cooking the turkey beyond the point that the turkey has reached a safe temperature, meaning an overcooked turkey.
  • If you do decide to stuff your turkey, stuff it loosely and use a food thermometer to check that it has reached at least 165 degrees before serving.
  • Use a food thermometer, inserted into the meatiest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh and wing, to check for doneness. Turkey is safely cooked at 165 degrees.
  • Do not allow your cooked turkey to sit at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Get those leftovers in the refrigerator promptly, so you can safely enjoy all of those turkey salad and open-faced turkey sandwiches smothered with gravy!
  • Enjoy your leftover turkey, hot or cold, within 3-4 days.

*Check out the USDA website for more information about turkey safety, including time estimates for safely defrosting and cooking that big bird!

Cranberry Mango Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 ripe mango, pureed*
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ginger

*See my photo guide on how to chop a mango HERE.

Directions

Rinse cranberries and remove any stems or overly mushy berries. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Lower heat and continue simmering for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all cranberries have popped and the mixture has thickened. Remove from the heat and cool completely before serving.

Thanksgiving Inspiration

I learned something interesting about myself this week – I do not like corn bread stuffing. I love corn, corn muffins, corn bread, and corn fritters. I eat a ridiculous amount of corn when it’s in season. I even once made a sweet corn ice cream. But I do not like corn bread stuffing.

I guess it comes down to what you’re raised with – sort of how some families are the Crest kind of people and some families are the Colgate kind. Some families are loyal to Miracle Whip, while others will only use mayonnaise. Some families have corn bread stuffing at Thanksgiving and some families have white bread stuffing. Our family was always a Crest, mayonnaise, and white bread stuffing sort of family.

The four things I am most thankful for.

I didn’t realize how ingrained this inclination towards white bread stuffing was until I set about preparing a corn bread stuffing earlier this week. It should’ve been delicious, with crispy bits of bacon, tender dates, shallots, and celery. It was supposed to be a new recipe to feature in this post about Thanksgiving ideas. But I didn’t like it. I can’t even tell you if it was good or not, as far as corn bread stuffings go. I am just a white bread stuffing girl through and through and I couldn’t wrap my taste buds or my heart around that corn bread stuffing. I’m not sharing the recipe.

But I am going to share this round-up of wonderful, tried and true Thanksgiving ideas, in plenty of time to add them to your Thanksgiving menu…

Give thanks for good food, friends.

APPETIZERS

Cranberry Chipotle Meatballs

Corn and Bacon Fritters with Smoked Salmon

Bacon-Wrapped Dates stuffed with Bleu Cheese

THE MAIN EVENT

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast with Pan Gravy (and tips for roasting a whole turkey)

Bacon and Cider Braised Turkey Drumsticks (and garlicky creamed spinach)

Spiced Sweet Potato Puree with Pecan Streusel

Sausage, Apple, and Leek Stuffing

Cranberry-Orange Sauce

Green Beans Almondine

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Walnuts

Hot Doughy Buns

DESSERTS

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Coconut Pie

A Few Variations on Apple Pie (in an all butter pie crust)

Caramel Apple Cake

Turkey-Shaped Sugar Cookies

Caramel Apple Tartlets

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Cannoli Cheesecake

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

When I think of mangos, my first thoughts are of tropical flavors. I’m pretty sure the mango belongs somewhere in that song with the lime and the coconut. I think of seafood and summery flavors, like fish tacos and spicy mango salsa (with mango margaritas on the side). I think of mango creamsicle smoothies, chilled mango cucumber soups, or even barbecue bacon mango pizzas. It’s certainly never occurred to me to combine mango with the aromatic spices of the holiday season, like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, or cloves.

So, when the National Mango Board offered to send me a sampling of mangos along with some ideas for pairing mangos with festive holiday flavors, my interest was piqued. I accepted their offer, eager for the opportunity to experiment with one of my favorite fruits in a novel way.

The shipment of perfectly ripe mangos arrived last week. Along with the selection of vibrant mangos, the National Mango Board provided a sampling of seasonal spices and a few recipe cards for inspiration. One of those recipe cards grabbed my attention in a way I couldn’t resist; Mango Upside Down Cake.

This festive spiced mango upside down cake is a definite keeper. The cake is moist and flavorful with a satisfying texture, the result of folding beaten egg whites into the batter; an extra step worth taking. And I’m fairly certain I could be happy eating nothing but the tender mango and caramelized top of this cake for the rest of my life. Seriously, the gooey top layer of this cake is something that epic poems should be written about.

This cake would work well any time of year, though I think it would be make a perfect addition to any Thanksgiving or Christmas dessert spread. The glazed top and artful mango star make it truly show-stopping and worthy of the festive season!

Today’s Focus on Technique – Folding in Egg Whites

Beaten egg whites can be folded into a variety of dishes, such as cake, mousse, souffle, and waffles for a lighter, fluffier result. The goal of folding in the egg whites, as compared to just stirring them in, is to maintain as much of the air, which has been beaten into the egg whites, as possible.

To begin, start by carefully separating the yolks from the whites, taking care not to allow any yolk to mix with the whites. (This can prevent the egg whites from getting properly light and fluffy.) Beat the egg whites using an electric mixer at medium/medium-high speed until soft peaks form. To incorporate the egg whites into your batter, start by adding about 1/3 of the beaten egg whites. Holding your spatula in an almost horizontal position, gently turn the mixture over the egg whites until the egg whites are incorporated. (This first 1/3 helps to lighten the batter, making it easier to incorporate the remaining 2/3). Add another 1/3 of the mixture, gently lifting and turning the batter over the egg whites. Add the remaining 1/3 of the egg whites, using the same gentle lifting and turning maneuver, just until the egg whites are blended and no longer. Over-mixing the egg whites into the batter will diminish the lightening effect of the beaten egg whites.

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened (divided)
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 large mango, peeled, pitted and sliced ¼-inch thick
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange zest
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup mango nectar or mango puree
  • 1/3 cup milk

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan, set aside.

In small saucepan, melt ½ stick of butter and stir in brown sugar, simmer for about 2 minutes. Pour mixture into prepared cake pan and top with sliced mango, creating a circular fan pattern.

In medium bowl, stir  together flour, baking powder, salt, cloves, and cinnamon. Set aside.

In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat remaining 1 stick softened butter, granulated sugar and orange zest on high until pale yellow and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add whole egg yolks, one at a time until well blended. Add vanilla. Decrease speed to low and add half of flour mixture. Mix in mango nectar (or mango puree) and milk and then remaining flour mixture.

In another bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold one third of the egg whites into the batter. Repeat with another third of the egg whites. Finally, fold the remaining third of egg whites into the batter, taking care not to over-mix.

Carefully pour cake batter over mangos, spreading evenly. Bake for about an hour, or until toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes then invert cake onto plate. Cool completely.

Garnish with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream and candied orange peel, if desired.

*Recipe slightly modified from the one provided by the National Mango Board

The National Mango Board provided me with a box of mangos and sampling of spices, which I used to prepare this recipe.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Cream Cheese Icing

Bread pudding is sort of a strange love of mine. It’s not something I grew up eating. In fact, I don’t think I’d even heard of it until sometime in adulthood when I ran across it on the dessert table at one of my favorite restaurant’s brunch buffets. I was more than apprehensive at first. Soggy bread?? Yuck. And it certainly didn’t look like any ‘pudding’ I’ve ever seen before. No, thank you.

Then, one day (after a few breakfast mimosas) I felt brave. I took a small scoop of that bread pudding. And forevermore wondered why I hadn’t tasted it earlier.

I’ve made a few variations of bread pudding over the past few years, each time trying to determine what it is that makes me love it so darn much. And I finally figured it out… It tastes like french toast; a big scoop of warm, comforting french toast. But the thing which makes it even better than french toast, especially for serving a crowd, is that the whole mix gets thrown in a dish and baked with little mess or fuss.

Bread pudding also lends itself quite well towards getting creative – and I love a dish that likes to be played with. Make it with French bread or muffins or challah. I’ve even made it out of donuts! Add vanilla or dried fruits or chocolate chips.

Or seize the pumpkin spice mania and make this pumpkin bread pudding with cream cheese icing. This comforting bread pudding tastes like a cross between a spiced pumpkin pie and a slice of french toast. It’s best served warm, but after more than a few stolen spoonfuls from the leftovers in the fridge, I can tell you with confidence that it tastes pretty fantastic cold too!

For more variations on bread pudding, check out my Cinnamon Raisin Donut Bread Pudding, Fluffernutter Bread Pudding, and Spiced Fruit Bread Pudding

Today’s Focus on Technique – Easy Disposable Pastry Bag

It’s easy to make a pastry bag in a pinch by simply using a plastic baggy. This technique works best for fairly soft dressings, fillings, or icings. (Plastic baggies may not hold up well with very firm fillings.) Simply fill the plastic baggy with your dressing, filling, or icing. Squeeze it into one corner of the baggy. Twist the top of the baggy to hold the filling in place. Then, clip the corner with scissors, large or small, depending on your purpose. Now you’re all set to easily squeeze fillings into cupcakes or attractively drizzle dressings, sauces, or icings. The best part about plastic baggy pastry bags is that they’re disposable…no messy clean-up!!

Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Cream Cheese Icing

Ingredients

  • Approximately 10 cups day-old French bread, cut into chunks
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground cloves

For the icing

  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 3 tablespoons powdered sugar

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Arrange the chunks of bread in a large baking dish. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, pumpkin puree, sugars, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, salt, nutmeg, and cloves until well-blended. Pour the mixture over the bread chunks. Press down on the mixture so the most of the bread is submerged. (I like to leave a thin layer of unsoaked bread at the top for a nice crust layer.) Allow the mixture to soak for at least 15 minutes. (You can leave it to soak overnight, in the fridge, if desired.)

Bake for 45-50 minutes.

For the icing, combine the cream cheese and powdered sugar until well blended. Spoon the mixture into a plastic baggy. Squeeze the baggy in your hands for a few seconds to soften the icing. Squeeze the mixture into one corner of the baggy, then twist the top of the baggy to hold the icing in place. Using scissors, clip a small bit of the corner, then drizzle the icing over the warm bread pudding. Serve warm.

Chicken Cordon Bleu Panini

boy, n.
1. noise with dirt on it
 

Daylight savings time has done a number on my noisy boys’ sleep schedules. They’ve always been early risers, but now we’re talking about 4:30 in the morning early. And they don’t wake slowly. They wake with the force of a jack-in-the-box that someone has been cranking all night long. It’s startling…even when you know it’s coming.

And they’re loud; so incredibly loud. I can’t even begin to put words to the kinds of noises which come from their little bodies. As they come barging into our room making all manners of inexplicable noises, I bury my head under my pillow and wonder why little boys don’t come with volume controls.

But even as I’m hoarsely grumbling ‘go away’, I’m reminded to be thankful for all of that predawn noise; that noise which means we have three healthy, active little boys to be making it. In a month of thanks giving, I am thankful for that.

Thursday nights are crazy nights for our noisy little family. For the few hours preceding the boys’ bedtime, it’s a revolving door of activity. The boys have ninja training (karate class) right about the time we’d normally be eating dinner, so we eat early. My husband gets home from work shortly after we return, then runs off to rock and roll training (band practice) just after the boys get to bed. At that point, I curl up onto the couch for my extremely informal sommelier training (glass of red).

So, everyone eats dinner in a rush and at a different time on Thursdays, making it essential that Thursday night dinners are simple and easy to reheat. This satisfying chicken cordon bleu panini fits the bill perfectly! Breaded chicken breasts are sliced and combined with salty prosciutto and a creamy gruyere sauce, then pressed together, wrapped in foil, and heated until it’s hot and melty. Every part of this sandwich can be made ahead of time (even the night before). Best yet, it can be wrapped in individual portions, which are ready to pop in the oven whenever your future ninja, rockstar, or sommelier gets hungry!

Today’s Focus on Technique – Bechamel Sauce

A bechamel sauce is one of the five French ‘mother sauces’, which means that it is a base sauce from which many variations can be made. Bechamel sauce is a simple white sauce made with a combination of roux (butter and flour) and milk. It’s typically seasoned with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Bechamel sauces can be made thinner or thicker by varying the amount of roux used in the sauce. A basic bechamel can be seasoned in a multitude of ways and used in lasagna, as the base of a cheese (mornay) sauce for macaroni and cheese, or as the start of a creamy soup.

The process of making a bechamel is simple. Combine equal parts butter and flour in a pan over medium heat, whisking constantly for a minute or two to remove some of that raw flour taste. Gradually add milk to the roux, whisking constantly. (Ideally, the milk should be warm or hot when it’s added to the roux, though I’ll admit that I rarely warm the milk and have never had a problem.) Whisk until well combined. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for a few minutes, whisking constantly, until the milk is thickened. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

*1 tablespoon each of butter and flour to 1 cup of milk will produce a thin bechamel which makes a good base for a cheese sauce. Use 2-3 tablespoons each of butter and flour to 1 cup of milk for a thicker sauce.

Chicken Cordon Bleu Panini

Ingredients

  • 1 loaf of wide, flat crusty bread (such as ciabatta)
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • 3-4 ounces prosciutto (or ham)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup gruyere (or other swiss-style cheese), shredded
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pinch of nutmeg

Directions

For the chicken: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Dip the chicken breasts in the beaten eggs, then press into the bread crumbs, until well coated. Heat a thin layer of oil in a fry pan over medium/medium-high heat. Cook the chicken for 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet. Place in the oven, until cooked through. (Chicken is fully cooked at 165 degrees. Cooking time will vary based on thickness of the chicken breasts and how well they’re cooked during the browning step. Mine took about 13 minutes in the oven.) *The chicken can be made ahead and refrigerated.

For the sauce: Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Add the garlic. Cook for a few seconds, being careful not to burn. Add the flour. Whisk to combine. Cook for a minute. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to combine. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for a minute or two, until thickened. Reduce the heat. Add the cheese and whisk until melted. Season with a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper, to taste. *The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated. It will thicken as it cools.

To assemble the sandwiches: Slice the loaf of bread in half. Spread a layer of sauce onto each half. Arrange the prosciutto in a thin layer on the bottom half. Slice the breaded chicken breasts into thin pieces. Arrange them on top of the prosciutto. Cover with the top half. Tightly wrap the sandwich in foil, pressing down to flatten the sandwich. If desired, you can pre-cut the sandwich and wrap in individual servings. Bake in a 375 degrees oven for about 20 minutes until hot and melty. *The entire sandwich can be made ahead of time. If cooking from cold, allow for extra cooking time.

Buffalo Chicken Pasta Bake (and Giveaway Winner!!)

Well, we did it! We made it through Halloween. I enjoy Halloween, especially now that I have kids to celebrate it with – but to be honest, for me it’s mostly just the gateway holiday to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those are the holidays which really have my heart. I’ll admit, a small tear of joy may have run down my cheek when I walked into Target the other day to find the first of their holiday decorations hung from the ceiling. I have no problem with celebrating Christmas even as we prepare for Thanksgiving. The two go hand in hand for me.

But Halloween was fun this year. Really fun. The boys dressed up for the pre-Halloween party at their school. There was a dj, a disco ball, and hundreds of costumed children, half-blinded by masks, crashing into each other on the school gym dance floor. All varieties of goblins, ghouls, princesses and superheroes roamed the school cafeteria with slices of pizza and pumpkin cookies hanging from their mouths.

On Halloween, the boys put on their costumes for their school parade. Liam was Harry Potter, a costume I’m certain he selected for the pretend glasses it came with. Lucas was a terrifying werewolf, a costume I believe he selected for the shredded jeans it would give him a reason to wear. The kid’s got a weird love for jeans, as long as they have a real, functional button and zipper…none of those faux buttoned, elastic-waisted toddler jeans for him!

After school, we attended a pre-trick-or-treating party at our friends’ house. I dressed as a princess with baby James as my frog prince. We brought along a bucket of spooky eyeball cake pops, which everyone enjoyed after the delicious dinner served by our friend. There was pasta and meatballs, a vibrant pasta salad, Italian bread and butter, jumbo shrimp, fresh veggies with dip, cheese and crackers, baked ziti and chicken wings.

And that’s when the seedling of an idea began to take root, right there surrounded by ninjas and vampires – baked ziti and chicken wings…

Y’all know I’ve got a little thing for inserting buffalo chicken wing flavor into all varieties of other foods…chicken wing dip, buffalo chicken lasagna, buffalo chicken monkey bread, buffalo chicken pizzabuffalo chicken meatballs, buffalo chicken potato skins… so, why not buffalo chicken baked ziti? As my sister put it, “Why have we not eaten that before???” It’s a practically ludicrous idea to consider. Fortunately, we no longer need to commiserate over the absence of buffalo chicken baked ziti in our lives. I made it last night and my hybrid baked ziti-buffalo chicken world is now beautifully complete.

Focus on Technique – Poaching Chicken

It’s common to find recipes calling for poached chicken. Poaching is simply the process of very gently simmering a food until it’s cooked. Eggs, poultry, and fish all responded well to poaching. Foods can be poached in a variety of liquids, including water, milk, wine, and broth/stock. Various herbs and seasonings can be added to the poaching liquid to impart delicious flavor into the chicken. When poaching, it’s important to control the heat in order to keep the liquid at a gentle simmer.

Properly poached chicken breasts remain moist and tender. Poached chicken works well on its own, in chicken salad, on pizza, in soup, or mixed in with pasta.

To poach chicken breasts, place the chicken in a pot large enough for the chicken to fit comfortably. Cover the chicken with cool water (or chicken broth). Over medium heat, bring the liquid to a gentle boil. Adjust the heat so that the liquid maintains a gently bubbling simmer. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. An instant read meat thermometer is the most effective way to determine doneness. Chicken is done once it’s reached 165 degrees.

Buffalo Chicken Pasta Bake

Ingredients

  • 1 pound pasta
  • 1 pound of chicken, poached and chopped into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped
  • 1 cup Frank’s Red Hot hot sauce (or your other favorite hot sauce)
  • 1 cup blue cheese dressing (I always recommend Marie’s)
  • 3/4 cup ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled (optional)
  • Salt and pepper (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cook the pasta for about a minute less than the package directions call for. Strain and rinse with cool water to prevent overcooking. Return the cooled, strained pasta to the pot. Add the chicken and chopped celery.

In a bowl, combine the hot sauce and blue cheese dressing. Pour the mixture over the pasta. Add the ricotta cheese and 1 cup of the mozzarella. Stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, or additional hot sauce, as desired.

Transfer the pasta mixture into a large 13×9 baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of mozzarella cheese and the crumbled blue cheese (optional) over the top. Bake for about 30 minutes.

*You can prepare the entire dish, up to the baking step, ahead of time. If preparing ahead of time and refrigerating, allow for approximately 10-15 minutes of extra cooking time. 

Werewolf and the frog prince

GIVEAWAY WINNER!! We have a winner! Using http://www.random.org to select a number at random, out of the 28 entries received for the dairy-themed gift bag giveaway, the winner is #12 , Jessica M. Congratulations, Jessica!! I’m going to send you an email at the address provided with your comment to get the information necessary to send you out your prize!!

Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Bleu Cheese

A few weeks ago, my five year old comes out of the dining room holding a little recipe book of cocktails, which he found while rummaging through a drawer in the hutch…the hutch that he’s not supposed to be in, but that’s another story entirely. Liam was holding this little black book of beverages with a page open to a generic looking bit of cocktail clip art. The recipe on the page was for kir royales. Something about the name rang a bell, but I couldn’t have told you what sort of drink a kir royale was. My best guess would have involved whiskey, which isn’t really my thing.

I began uttering my normal line of questioning. Where’d you get that? Why are in the hutch? What other sorts of mischief are you doing in there? But, Liam interrupted me, “I think you should invite some of your friends over for your birthday and make them these drinks”. I smiled briefly, because he’s sweet to think up plans for my birthday. Then I took another glance at that kir royale recipe. Turns out that kir royales are a champagne cocktail, champagne mixed with a bit of creme de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur).

Visions of champagne cocktails, wine, and cheese began dancing in my head. I mean, is there any more heavenly combination than wine and cheese? Wine, cheese, and chocolate, perhaps??

Did you know that 1/3 of all milk produced in the U.S. is used to make cheese?? We certainly love our cheese in this country! During my recent farm-to-table dairy-themed getaway, hosted by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, we had the opportunity to enjoy some of that delicious cheese in combination with some of New York’s tastiest wines.

After we returned from our morning at a local dairy farm, we were given a chance to clean off the eau de cow and change out of our farm attire. The group reunited at the New York Wine and Culinary Center, conveniently located next door to our accommodations at The Inn on the Lake in Canandaigua, NY. The New York Wine and Culinary Center is a really neat place. In addition to a bistro which showcases local ingredients, they have a wine tasting room where you can sample wines from all five of New York’s wine regions, a hands-on kitchen where they offer cooking classes, and an educational amphitheater for demonstration dinners.

New York Wine and Culinary Center

We began our experience in a private tasting room, where a personable wine instructor introduced us to the basics of wine tasting as we sampled a fantastic flight of New York wines. Then they brought out the cheese plate, a perfect way to make the farm to table connection during our dairy-themed adventure. We tasted each cheese on its own, then experimented with pairing each cheese with the variety of wines. Play with my food? Yes, please.

Following the wine and cheese tasting, we moved into the amphitheater, where a chef prepared a three-course meal before our eyes. We enjoyed ricotta and pancetta ravioli in a delicious cream sauce, bleu cheese port wine crusted beef tenderloin over root vegetables in a red wine reduction, and chocolate amaretto crème brûleé. Each course was perfectly paired with another New York wine. Wine, cheese, steak, and chocolate… I’d died and done to gastronomical heaven.

When I returned from my little dairy getaway, feeling fully inspired by cheese and wine, I began planning my kir royale birthday celebration. Pumped up with New York agricultural pride, I selected a few bottles of New York champagne. Then I set about planning the cheese selection…a little pepperjack and NY cheddar with crackers, some baked brie with marmalade on crostini, and a few simple bacon-wrapped, bleu cheese-stuffed dates. Liam was feeling pretty impressed with himself as he watched his brilliant idea become reality. I just barely caught him trying to sneak the cocktail recipe book into his backpack for kindergarten show and tell.

Focus on Technique – Entertaining with Cheese

Entertaining with a cheese-themed spread is effortlessly elegant and delicious.

A few tips for entertaining with cheese:

  • Keep it simple. Cheese has a way of speaking for itself.
  • Choose a variety of mild and pungent cheeses to please everyone’s palate. Try to serve a mix of aged (aged cheddar, gouda…), fresh (fresh mozzarella, chevre…), firm (provolone, monterey jack, gruyere, emmentaler…) and soft cheese (camembert, brie…). A creamy bleu cheese (stilton, gorgonzola, roquefort, maytag…) or spreadable port wine are other popular favorites.
  • Garnish your cheese plates with a variety of fresh and dried fruits, honey, nuts, and/or cured meats. Fresh mozzarella pleases the eyes and the taste buds when arranged on a platter with sliced tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette or basil pesto.
  • Serve the cheese with an attractive variety of crackers, baguette slices, and crostini.
  • Consider serving a few warm cheese dishes, such as a cheese dip, baked brie wrapped in puff pastry, or the bacon-wrapped stuffed dates featured in this post. All of these items can be prepared ahead of time and simply thrown in the oven when your guests arrive.
  • Serve with a selection of wine and have fun experimenting with the way each wine and cheese complements each other.

*** Don’t forget to enter the dairy themed giveaway! You have until noon on Saturday, November 3. To enter, simply leave a comment on the Delicious Dairy Round-Up post. I’ll assign each comment a number, then use a random number generator to pick a winner. Lots of cute stuff in that gift bag. Check it out HERE

Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Bleu Cheese

Ingredients

  • 24 pitted dates
  • 2-3 ounces bleu cheese
  • 8-12 slices bacon

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Stuffed a bit of bleu cheese into the center of each date. Cut the bacon slices in half or thirds, depending on the length. Wrap a piece of bacon around each date, so it overlaps just slightly. Secure the bacon with a toothpick, then place on a baking sheet. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, until the bacon is cooked and crisp. Drain on a paper towel. Serve warm.

Birthday Kir Royales

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