Food Processor Favorite – Olive Tapenade Recipe

Food Processor Favorite – Olive Tapenade Recipe

Are you a food processor aficionado? You should be! This versatile kitchen gadget, while large, makes short work of many tasks and will earn its keep every time you entertain. Sarah is here to share some of her favorite ways to use the food processor, along with a simple and versatile recipe for Olive Tapenade that is sure to please your palate. Alright, Sarah, get us all mixed up in this food processor world!

Greetings, entertainers. Let’s talk tech! I love kitchen gadgets, and when I was thinking around my kitchen for a favorite, one immediately sprang to mind. Not only is this gadget versatile, but it is easy to use, pretty noisy, and for me has some stress-relieving benefits.

I am, of course, speaking of none other than the food processor!

Why is a food processor so great? First, I never had one growing up, Food Processor so it went in the class of kitchen gadgets I thought of in my head as “super crazy technical and awesome” (along with the mandoline). I only ever saw them being used on cooking shows, and seeing professional chefs use them for everything made me want one pretty badly.

Fast forward a few years to when I finally put one in my own kitchen, and I’m a pretty happy camper. Do you want fresh salsa? Toss in a mango, some chiles in adobo sauce, and some fresh tomatoes. Run out of hummus halfway through the party? Never again. This thing is the king of dips, and as an added bonus, puts you in the front row to watch things being pulverized.

One of my favorite things to make with a food processor is tapenade. I usually have all the necessary ingredients in my kitchen, which mostly speaks to my love of olives (and anything salty). So let’s get down to it—how do we make this treat for your guests?

Ingredients

  • Olives. I like to use a combination of olives from the olive bar at my grocery store, but if you have a favorite, that works, too. Kalamata olives make great tapenade that turns out a pretty purple color. The key here is no pits.
  • Olive oil. Seems unnecessary, right? Wrong. Just a drizzle is absolutely necessary to getting your tapenade a smoother consistency.
  • Capers. Just a few!
  • Lemon juice. Salt loves acid. Enough said.

Food Processor

Directions

Assemble your food processor. For me, this means choosing the correct-size bowl, and determining which blade to use. I chose a smallish 4-cup bowl to keep my ingredients close together, and the standard chop blade that came with my machine. Some food processors offer doodads that julienne and add all kinds of awesome knifework to your ingredients. Olives are so small that it’s not necessary here.

Add olives! I chose a mix of dried black olives, red pepper Spanish queens, and kalamata. I used enough to almost cover the bottom of my food processor, but for a party, you’ll want closer to 2 cups.

Now capers. I used a heavy hand because I know I like the pungency. I wouldn’t use more than a teaspoon-full for guests.

I squeezed half a lemon using another favorite gadget—a citrus juicer. Pro tip—put your citrus in flat side down so that the squeeze turns the lemon inside-out.

Turn your food processor on low to blend your ingredients. I let it go about twenty seconds, or until the food stops moving around the bowl.

Once your olives are all stuck to the sides of your bowl, turn the processor off, remove the lid, and scrape the sides. Now, the magic. Add a little bit of olive oil, and turn it back on low. I’d recommend about a tablespoon, or enough to keep the pulverized bits moving around the bowl as the machine goes.

Do the check, scrape, add olive oil thing until your tapenade is the consistency you like, and then serve with pita chips or pita bread (I’m a sucker for pita bread with tapenade!). If you want to make it extra fancy, toast your pita in a pan on the stove first with a little butter.

So what are your favorite kitchen gadgets? Any that were a childhood dream realized as an adult (I know I’m a huge nerd)? Happy entertaining, hosts!

 

How to Stress Less this Thanksgiving

How to Stress Less this Thanksgiving

Stress less this Thanksgiving with some great tips from Claire. My mom and brothers do pretty much everything for Thanksgiving in my family, so I couldn’t really stress less even if I tried. For those of you who take a more active role, keep these tips in mind to help yourself get through the day. Tell us what to do, Claire!

The world hasn’t ended quite yet, which means that Thanksgiving is still going to be just next week, if you can believe it. If you’re like me, you have been so worried about an uncertain future that you have all but forgotten about the upcoming holiday. In my case, that says a lot, because the holidays where I get to cook for people are kind of my favorite. In such a time, I think we can all use a little bit of help pulling together a successful Thanksgiving party.

After a week of hand-wringing, this is what I’ve come up with to help us all stress less.

  1. Put away the Halloween decorations that are still sitting around on your front porch. I know you’ve been distracted this week, but the skeleton is sending the wrong message to your guests, who are expecting your home to be a safe space. The corn stalks and decorative pumpkins can stay because they are generically autumnal and more harvest-oriented than the rubber rats and giant spider.
  1. Speaking of decorative pumpkins, now is the time to pick up some additional seasonal gourds. The few remaining pumpkin patches might even have some on sale. They make great centerpieces and look lovely and festive artfully arranged in a bowl on the front hall table. If you are making centerpieces for your table, though, keep them on the smaller side. You want to leave lots of space on the table for dishes, and you also don’t want to block anyone’s view across the table.

stress less

  1. Pick up the tablecloth from the dry-cleaners. Remember when you dropped it off there like 3 months ago? The cleaners don’t charge storage fees, but maybe they should.
  1. Invite friends and people you love. We can’t all be with our families at the holidays, and maybe we don’t all want to be. If you are hosting Thanksgiving, why not cast a net for friends who don’t have a nearby or welcoming family? This year especially, many people will be looking for something for which to be thankful, and a warm and welcoming table is a good start.
  1. Make mulled cider. If you start it in the morning, your house will smell like heaven all day. Aside from that, if you are preparing a Thanksgiving feast, you have a long day on your feet ahead of you. You definitely want to stay sober until you sit down at the table. Sipping on cider will help you stress less; it is satisfying and warming, but not alcoholic enough to incapacitate you before dinner starts.
  1. Pick out all of your serving dishes ahead of time. Make sure you haven’t accidentally double-booked your purple ceramic casserole dish like last year and then you don’t know what you’re going to serve the stuffing in. Hypothetically speaking, obviously.

Stress less

  1. You are going to be hecka busy with that bird and that gravy and that stuffing and those beans and potatoes. Allow yourself to stress less by finding a couple of people who are willing to wash dishes as you go , tend bar, and make an emergency last-minute run to the grocery store (don’t act like you’re not going to need one).
  1. You’re not kidding anyone with that green salad. No one will have room left on their plates for vegetables that haven’t been cooked in bacon fat or cream of mushroom soup, and you’re probably going to need the roughage the next day, so you might as well save yourself the time on Thursday.
  1. Empty out your fridge this weekend so you don’t have to sort through it after work on Tuesday to make room. Order a fresh bird today so you aren’t stuck next Thursday morning with a frozen bird that will never thaw in time. Figure out what you can make ahead of time, and get it done early.
  1. If you’re attending as a guest, ask your host what you can bring or do to help. If they don’t give you any direction, just bring a bottle of wine and start doing dishes. If you are bringing a side dish, also bring something attractive to serve it in.

I think a small amount of stress is pretty normal for hosting any kind of social gathering, but hosting this event should be fun. My way to stress less is to micro-manage and juggle the entire meal by myself, but maybe yours is to have a pot-luck! The worst reason to do a thing is because that’s the way your parents did it, so make your own traditions! And hold your loved ones close. Despite global warming, this is going to be a cold winter. Happy Thanksgiving.

Oktoberfest Food – Beer Cheese Recipe

Oktoberfest Food – Beer Cheese Recipe

I am always ready for some delicious Oktoberfest food and beer! It’s too bad Oktoberfest doesn’t last all year. But if you’ve got a simple and delicious recipe, you can have Oktoberfest at home any time you want! Claire is here to share just such a recipe, and I can’t wait to try it. Cheese us, Claire!

Oktoberfest is just around the corner, and though I’ll be far away from the Bavarian tents, I am still on the edge of my American seat to partake of this year’s batch of Oktoberfest food and beer offerings. The official Oktoberfest in Munich is the largest beer festival in the world, and is in its 186th year! And what better way to get into the spirit of the fest than a party? I’ve been invited to just such a party this year by a very close friend, and unlike Labor Day BBQs with strangers, a German beer festival with friends is something I can fully get behind. This one is going to be potluck style, and this friend actually lived in Germany for a couple of years, so I worry that any Oktoberfest food I bring to the table will be judged pretty carefully. With this in mind, I spent a good couple of days combing over the German foods I could think up off the top of my head trying to decide what to make.

My first thought was fresh pretzels, but honestly, even if I cheated with a bread machine for the kneading process, who really has the time to deal with the dough rise and the baking soda bath and everything else? But thinking of pretzels led me right to beer cheese. Pretzels and cheese is one of my favorite snacks, and if the cheese is good enough, I think we can excuse some store-bought pretzels. After a quick Google, I found a few recipes for Obatzda and headed to Trader Joe’s with a short list. I was also lucky enough while I was there to find some tiny Bavarian-style bratwurst, along with some apparently very traditional pumpernickel pretzels, if the cartoon German on the front of the bag is anything to go by.

This recipe is as simple as it is delicious. To make it, you will need:

  • 1 pound of Camembert, rind mostly removed
  • 3 ounces of cream cheese
  • 2 ounces of butter
  • 1teaspoon of paprika
  • Half of a small onion, minced or grated
  • Pinch of salt and pepper
  • Up to 3 oz German Weizenbock or Hefeweizen
  • Chives for garnish

Let the cheese and butter come to room temperature. With a potato masher or a hand mixer, work the brie until it forms a pretty consistent blob. Add in the cream cheese, butter, onions, and paprika. Gradually add the beer until the mixture is your desired flavor and consistency. If you like a drier cheese spread, you can leave the beer out entirely, though you’ll certainly want to chill that beer and drink it heartily while you eat delicious cheese spread on pretzels or potatoes or maybe even slathered all over a traditional Bavarian bratwurst. I scooped my Obatzda into a little wooden bowl, garnished it with some chives from my front yard, and surrounded it with pretzels and celery (for color, mostly… no one is going to actually choose celery over pretzels, obviously). I am fully ready to drop this platter on a long table with some sausages, sauerkraut, and other Oktoberfest food, and raise a glass of liquid gold to friends and ‘fest!

Oktoberfest food

La Croix – A Refreshing Drink Alternative

La Croix – A Refreshing Drink Alternative

Like seemingly everyone else in the U.S., I have become fairly obsessed with La Croix, a delightful sparkling water that comes in a variety of flavors. I’ve had to cut myself off recently, as the shame of burning through two flats of it in one week was a bit more than I could handle. So of course Claire is writing about La Croix this week. It’s fine; I can handle a little temptation (no I can’t). I can’t talk about this anymore. I’ll be stocking up at the grocery store if you need me. Claire, refresh us with your sparkling wit (and water)!

When Labor Day was first conceived, the idea of labor unions was still a relatively fresh one, and somewhat controversial. Celebrating the American worker, taking time to remember that the nation runs on the backs of hard working men and women was a revelation. Like most holidays, I think a lot of the original sentiment has disappeared in our remembrance today. What’s left of the holiday is a day off from work, the reason for which that most people aren’t completely sure they understand, but the weather is nice, so what the heck, it’s a three-day weekend. I have to work on Saturday and get my week’s errands done on Sunday, so for me, Labor Day mostly means that I will be sitting through another backyard BBQ with some of my husband’s work friends that I may have met once or twice a few years back. You might assume that I would prefer to drink my way through an event like that, but in fact just the opposite is true. I’m planning to remain fully sober so I can hop into my car and skedaddle as soon as it doesn’t seem impolite.

If I’m not drinking beer or cocktails, I will need to substitute in an alternative beverage. In the face of a hot afternoon among strangers, I am not interested in drinking something sugary and dehydrating like juice or soda. If I stick to water, I’m afraid my boredom will be too obvious to my hosts and someone will try to pour me a drink. I need something fun and refreshing and light in calories to make up for the three hot dogs I plan on inhaling. I need to feel like I’m back in Michigan, floating around the lake on that giant unicorn with a cold drink in my hand.

I need La Croix.

La Croix

As a Midwestern girl, I have been delighted to see several of my favorite regional beverages hit the national market, including Vernors Ginger Soda, which I love for nostalgic reasons and because I am not a traitor to my home state, but secretly, Vernors will never be my favorite ginger soda. Faygo brand sodas were a staple of my terrible diet in high school, but their reputation has since been tainted by the fanatical devotion of the Insane Clown Posse, so who even cares about Faygo anymore. La Croix’s emergence into America’s consciousness over the last decade has been the most delightful to witness by far. These lightly flavored sparkling waters have fizzed their way into the hearts and homes of consumers across the country, and there is nothing in my California grocery store that thrills me more. Though most stores don’t stock all of the brand’s twenty flavors, the three most important flavors have become fairly available in most grocery stores, and those flavors are of course lime, pamplemousse (grapefruit), and most wondrous of all, coconut, and I’ll fight anyone who says different.

These sparkling waters are perfect La Croix on their own, but they also make fabulous mixers. I have been extending the life of a delicious but too-sweet pineapple Jarritos by adding just a small pour to a tall glass of coconut La Croix. The lime flavored is so gentle and versatile, it’s great for basically all cocktails, but I also like to add just some fresh or frozen fruit to make a pleasant warm-day beverage. The grapefruit flavor is a little more tart than the lime, and it is actually perfect with just a little bit of mint and a splash of gin, but of course, I’m leaving the gin at home this weekend. Honestly, my favorite way to drink La Croix is any flavor poured over ice, and then I like to chew on the little ice bits at the end. I haven’t decided which flavor I’ll bring with me to the BBQ, but no matter which I choose, it will be sublime, because each can I open sends me right back to the lake, where I know I truly belong.

Campfire Pies for Outdoor Fun

Campfire Pies for Outdoor Fun

I’m predicting this summer’s food trend is going to be campfire pies. I really want this to be true, at least… Campfire pies are so beautifully simple and remind me of childhood. I had completely forgotten the magic of campfire pies when Sarah mentioned them a while back, but now she has me on a mission. This is going to be the best summer. You should get on the campfire pie train, too. I promise they will make all your outdoor fun even better, and with Memorial Day coming up, you’ve only got a little time left to get your supplies. Sarah is here with all the details to get us started. Let’s make some pies!

Oh, Memorial Day weekend. That extra day off of work that feels desperately needed as you gear up for summer, the chance to get away for a weekend, the cookouts. The cookouts. My favorite thing about the holiday weekend is naturally food-inspired.

For the past ten years, my husband and his friends have been going to a cabin in a nearby state park to celebrate Memorial Day weekend. Due to us being a number of people spread out over the state, we have a Google Drive spreadsheet that goes back several years, listing who brings what. This, guys, is an excellent idea.  The cabin trip is the best kind of tradition – over the years we’ve rented boats, hiked, gone swimming, played games, played putt-putt, and gotten ice cream. Every year we add new things to do, but a few mainstays never change. One of these is the cooking out.

The firepit outside our cabin gets heavy use year after year. The first night of our trip is always dedicated to campfire pies. Consider the grilled cheese sandwich. Buttered bread, hot skillet, melty cheese. Yes? Now add the satisfaction of cooking those suckers outside on the coals of your bonfire and a fun gadget (I love fun gadgets). To make campfire pies, you will need a pie iron. I recommend having two for maximum production efficiency. You have a few options based on how you like your sandwiches. If you don’t like crust, go for one of the round pie irons, but be warned! These result in smaller pies, and you can’t stuff them as full. For bigger pies that include crust, go with this guy. Your campfire will need to have some decent coals – I recommend waiting at least half an hour after starting your fire to begin cooking.

Campfire pies are endlessly customizable and the perfect addition to your outdoor fun!

You can basically make any kind of sandwich or sweet pie with these babies. I’ve gone grilled cheese, hot ham and cheese, any kind of dessert pie you can think of, and even ooey gooey brownies (oh yes!). Sandwiches are pretty easy – some element of sauce and/or cheese is necessary to hold your pie together and give it a lot of flavor. Dessert is pretty much anything your heart desires that fits between two pieces of bread. Pie filling of any kind, pudding if you’re feeling a chocolate pie. The best dessert I’ve had is the aforementioned ooey gooey brownie, which is brownie batter poured straight into the pie iron, no bread required. Cooked correctly, you’ll open your pie iron to a molten chocolate mess that is absolutely delicious (add marshmallows for a s’mores-ey kick). Today, we’ll be making pizza pies with cherry pies for dessert.

Ingredients:

  • Stick of butter
  • Bread (go white bread, here)
  • Pizza sauce
  • Mozzerella cheese
  • Pepperoni
  • Cherry pie filling

-Preheat your pie irons. Once your bonfire has some coals, position your (closed) pie iron against them to get the metal hot. It doesn’t need to be screamin’ hot, but a little preheat will help your buttering game.

-Butter! This is what gives your campfire pies that delicious sear. There are two opinions on buttering- butter your bread, or butter the pie irons. I find you use less butter (and can therefore make more pies!) when you butter the pie irons. So unwrap the end of a stick of butter and rub it on each pan of your open pie iron. Enjoy the sizzle.

-Position your bread, being careful not to burn yourself. Add pizza sauce, a good handful of mozzarella cheese, and some pepperonis. You can load up both sides of your bead if you like, but while that results in mega-flavor, it can also make your pies burst open like a hot pizza roll when you bite into it. One side of toppings is sufficient.

Campfire pies

-Close your pie iron. Many come with latches, but they can be difficult to open when your pie is done if you’re not keen on burning yourself or your food. Make sure your pie iron closes completely, or you’ll be picking ash out of your food.

-Position your pie iron on your coals. This cooktime is tricky, because it depends on how hot your coals are. After 5-8 minutes, pull your iron out of the flame, find a decent light source, and, while holding your pie iron parallel to the ground, open one side to check the doneness. You want to lift the side of the iron that has been sitting on the coals, since that is the part that has been cooking. If you have a nice grilled cheese sandwich-style sear, close your iron, and put it back on the coals on the other side.

-Once your pie is done, things get slightly tricky. Have a plate ready on a flat surface. Hold your pie iron over the plate, and open both sides slowly to pop out your sandwich.

Campfire Pies

-When it’s dessert time, butter your pie iron.

-Position your bread, then add a few spoonfuls of pie filling.

-The cooktime is about the same, maybe a little less. Be sure to check it often and flip halfway through.

-Enjoy your dessert!

Campfire Pies

One safety note: Be very, very, very careful where you place your pie irons while they are still hot but not in use! Campfires generally take place in the dark, and pie irons unfortunately do not glow in the dark or light up. My group of friends has resorted to a designated pie iron area, where all pie irons live if they are not on the fire being used. Trust me, you do not want to add a hospital visit to your fun holiday weekend because someone burned themselves badly. And it should go without saying that children should be very carefully supervised while using pie irons. To be safe, the wooden handles are the only portion of the pie iron that should be considered safe to touch.

Do you have any Memorial Day weekend traditions? What kind of campfire pie are you most excited to try first?

Mother’s Day Brunch – Croque-Madame in Honor of Mom

Mother’s Day Brunch – Croque-Madame in Honor of Mom

My lovely brothers are hosting a Mother’s Day brunch this Sunday for all of the moms in our close-knit family.  As one of the moms being honored at this Mother’s Day Brunch, I will be requesting that my brothers  follow Claire’s advice here by making something cheesy and savory and definitely topped with an egg. Claire not only provides us with another delicious breakfast/brunch recipe, she is also determined to make us all a little weepy with a beautiful dedication to her mom. I haven’t met Lynn, but if Claire is any indication, her mother has done a darn good job. Claire, I’ll hand this off to you now. Make us cry, but then please make us feel better with fantastic food!

For fairly obvious reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about moms and motherhood these past couple of weeks. Not everyone has a mom, and not everyone who has a mom has a good mom. Reflecting on that fact makes me feel, above all, grateful that my mother, while human and flawed like anyone else, has been good and caring and supportive of me for my whole life. She put up with me and believed in me, even during my most chaotic years, which admittedly lasted far longer than they should have. She cried for me. She cheered for me. She went gray for me. Through everything, I have always known that if I needed her, she would not hesitate to be at my side, whatever the cost. She is a good mom.

Mother's Day Brunch

If anyone deserves to retire in style, my mom does, and damn it, she is doing it. This summer, she and my dad are selling the home I grew up in, and they are moving onto the boat they have spent the last 10 years restoring. They will spend the foreseeable future sailing around this gorgeous planet of ours, seeing all the things they didn’t get to see while they were busy being attentive and fiscally responsible parents. This morning, it occurred to me that once they set sail, it will be the first time in my life that my mom is going to be ACTUALLY unavailable to me, despite the fact that I moved over two thousand miles away from her eight years ago. It’s a new feeling, and one I’m having a hard time processing. It’s making me miss my mommy.

Mother's Day Brunch

So, in honor of my mom and my feelings, I am throwing a Mother’s Day brunch in her honor. Even though she’s too far away to join me at my table today, I know she’s well represented here. She taught me to appreciate a well-appointed place setting, and so I am setting the table with the linens I remember eating off of in her house, and serving the meal on her mother’s gold plates. She taught me to never scrimp where it mattered, so I am using the best ingredients I can find. And she taught me how to make Hollandaise, and it is finicky and temperamental, so I’m skipping it this year. Besides, eggs Benedict is played out.

I want something as unexpected and decadent as my mom for this Mother’s Day brunch, so I am going with croque-madame, which I am predicting will be the next big brunch staple.

Croque-Madame

  • 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 ½ cups grated Gruyère cheese, divided
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 slices of the best quality deli ham
  • 8 slices of good bread
  • 4 fresh eggs
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Start by making your béchamel. In a 1 ½ quart heavy saucepan, melt 5 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk, cooking the roux until it is golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk and bring it just to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Add the salt, nutmeg, and half of the shredded cheese and stir until the cheese is completely melted. Remove the pan from heat and cover it while you assemble the sandwiches.

Preheat the broiler with a rack in the top third of the oven. Prep a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Lay the slices of bread out, spreading a spoonful of béchamel on four of them and topping with the remaining shredded cheese. On the other four slices, spread the mustard and top each with two slices of the ham. Flip the ham side onto the cheese side and heat about a tablespoon of the remaining butter on a skillet or griddle.

Mother's Day Brunch

When the griddle is hot, carefully grill each sandwich on both sides until they are golden brown and the cheese is melted. Move the sandwiches onto the prepared baking sheet and top each one with about 1/3 cup of the béchamel. Broil the sandwiches until the sauce is bubbling, then turn off the broiler and move the pan to the lower third of the oven to keep warm.

Mother's Day Brunch

Add the remaining butter to the skillet and fry the eggs sunny-side-up, until whites are just set and yolks are still runny. Top each sandwich with an egg and serve. I put the remaining sauce in a little pitcher so we could add more as we saw fit, and I went a little crazy with the pepper grinder. Making that first cut, and seeing the yolk and steam release from inside the sandwich, I knew my mom would be proud. She taught me to revere a good sauce and a runny egg, so I know she would have loved this Mother’s Day brunch meal as much as I did. I also knew that she would be the first one to like the picture I would post to Facebook later.

Mother's Day Brunch

Mama, I know you’re reading, because you are my biggest fan and you never miss one of my posts. As you literally embark upon your next adventure, I know that you will continue to live as richly as you have so far. Even though you’ll be out of my reach, I will be thinking of you often. I hope it makes you feel as good as it makes me feel to know that you have imbued me with all of your vim and vigor and your incredible power to set an inviting table and top it with a damn good meal. I love you.

Mother's Day Brunch Table Printer-friendly recipe: Croque-Madame

Hostess Gifting Etiquette

Hostess Gifting Etiquette

Do you often find yourself wondering what to take along for hostess gifts? Well, Sarah has all the answers and then some regarding hostess gifting etiquette, plus lots of ideas for different occasions. Someone invite me to a party so I can use all this new-found knowledge. Sarah, teach us all how to be the best guests!

By this point, we’ve basically mastered the art of throwing a good party. But how do we become the best, most thoughtful guests? Host/hostess gifts are a great way to make a good impression on new acquaintances or show a friend your appreciation for throwing and inviting you to a great party. Parties can be expensive, from elaborately decorated Halloween parties to rare wine tasting get-togethers — between offering food, beverages, and entertainment, the costs can add up! Even if everything is already on-hand, the effort of cleaning and preparing to have people over carries a cost as well, an investment of time and effort into providing a great experience for friends and family.

Today, let’s talk about hostess gifts, and when it’s ok to bring something home with you after the party is over.

I grew up in a tight-knit family that often holds parties, and I noticed that my mom and dad usually had something extra packed in the car to bring to the host as a way to say thanks. An extra bottle of wine, a bar sign for the basement, a stack of printed photos, really anything that could be extended with the words, “I thought you might like this.” I internalized the gesture to the point where I almost always have an extra “something” on-hand when I hit the door of a party.

What to Bring

Hostess gifts can fall into two categories. One is something you bring with the intention to share it with everyone at the party (separate from a dish if you’re attending a potluck). The other type of hostess gift is something you select with your host in mind, something they’ll enjoy but that might not be used at that party. It’s important to know your host while selecting a gift — if he’s not a whiskey aficionado, whiskey stones may not be a perfect choice. I belong to a few subscription box clubs, and when I receive something that’s not to my taste – blush, Dr. Who jewelry – I save it without opening it to be used as a gift in the future. Some of these become hostess gifts.

A great many of my friends enjoy wine, so when I see decorated wine glasses in colors or patterns that make me think of them, I pick those up to be used as hostess gifts. My brother and his fiancé recently brought me a functional Underwood typewriter they had picked up at an antique shop because they know I collect old typewriters. I was delighted at something so thoughtful to show they’d been thinking of me. A guest at a party I recently threw brought a box of Keurig coffee, which I thought was particularly thoughtful. He a) knew I owned a Keurig and b) knew people would be drinking coffee the morning after. Even if we didn’t open his box of coffee, it would help replenish what we provided.

  • If you want to be extra thoughtful, bringing a bottle of Irish whiskey to a St. Patrick’s Day party, or another themed gift is a great idea.
  • Gift ideas for the barflies can be wine glasses, whiskey stones, a new flavor of bitters to experiment with, a bottle of something you think they’d enjoy, fancy cherries, a drinking game with any necessary equipment.
  • Cheese boards makes great hostess gifts for your friends who loves to entertain.
  • Gift ideas for bookworms are new journals, pretty pens, fandom-themed accessories or decorations, a book by an author you know they enjoy.
  • Gift ideas for almost anyone include a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers, fancy candy, a framed photo or new picture frame, scented candles, Girl Scout cookies.

When to Take It Home/What About Consumables?

So you brought your host/hostess a nice, consumable gift and the party is over. What now? There are a few ways to go from here when it comes to the territory of do you take the rest home? I tend to fall on the side of leaving everything I brought besides my own belongings and whatever cookware was used to transport my dish. I know these things belong to me; I selected and brought them with the intention of taking them home again.

Unless pressed by the host, anything that has been opened stays at the party house. Several things are going to be inconvenient to transport back home anyway (ice cream, half a bottle of wine), and the point of a gift is that it’s given for keeps. Anything unopened depends on how well you know your host, and sometimes, the size of the party. If I bring Girl Scout cookies to a dinner with friends and there is half a box left, I’ll insist on leaving them unless my hostess tells me to take them home. If I bring a nice bottle of port to my best friend’s house and we don’t end up opening it, I’m probably going to take it home. If I bring bags of chips to a big house party that don’t end up opened, I’ll leave them there. I’ll also leave leftover beer in the fridge, and the rest of the bottle of wine. I’ll take home the bottle of gin I brought to make myself (and my friends) cocktails.

As you can see, this leaves a somewhat grey area. Generally, if you don’t know the host very well, bring absolutely nothing that you have designs on taking home. If you know the host very well, don’t just take your unopened whatever and leave — mention that you’ll bring it back next time, or offer to leave it if you don’t mind parting with it. Having a brief discussion can remove any residual guilt of, should I have taken that home?

Presentation also has a lot to do with what’s ok to take home with you. If you wrap a hostess gift in a bag, or hand it to your hostess upon arrival, it’s officially a gift you’re not taking home. If you bring out a bottle of something in the middle of the party for everyone to share, it leans more toward the area of something you take home at the end of the night. These are social cues, and every circle of friends and family is different. Learn to read the parties you attend, as well as the people you’re partying with, to best navigate these situations in the future. Remember that a thoughtful, fun guest is one who gets invited back!

What are your go-to hostess gifts? What are the most thoughtful hostess gifts you’ve received? Who wouldn’t like whiskey stones, right?

March Madness Snack – Bacon Wrapped Dates

March Madness Snack – Bacon Wrapped Dates

March Madness is taking over the world, and while I don’t really care about the sports part, I am HERE for the snacks! I will pretend to watch college basketball all day if you keep a steady flow of appetizers coming my way. Thankfully I have friends who love to feed people. Friends like Sarah, always ready with a tray of delicious treats. Today’s treats are wrapped in bacon, so you don’t need to worry about anyone not liking them. They’ll surely be a slam dunk! Okay, Sarah, the ball’s in your court!

Greetings, foodies! I understand there’s some sort of holiday going on, but I CAN’T HEAR YOU – it’s March Madness time!

I am really a one-sport woman, and NFL football has my heart, but I am also very competitive and enjoy beating my friends in basically anything that can be made into a game. My brother, the super-athlete that he is, first introduced me to the joy of winning, and as I grew up, I made friends who would invent new card games with me and run races and play backyard sports. As a bona fide adult, I am really, really drawn to fantasy football, but do you know what the worst part is? Changing your lineup every week! Figuring out when you’re allowed to drop and pick up players off the waivers! I took second place in a league this year without making any roster moves, which had the added bonus of annoying my friends to no end, but was mainly because I couldn’t figure out the waivers.

Do you know what the best part is about NCAA March Madness? You fill out your bracket(s) once, just ONCE, and you’re set for the rest of the tournament! It’s the ultimate set it and forget it, and then watch your wins roll in. I appreciate the risk that your entire bracket can be busted in a few short nights when upsets take place… which inevitably happens to me every year. But if I can take a few other players in my pool down with me, then it’s worth it. (I am not a NICE competitor.)

So when do you host your March Madness bash? How do you theme it up? Tiny basketballs everywhere are a plus, but if you want to delight in seeing others bust their brackets while you conquer all, and have some tasty snacks while you’re at it, I’m advising a Mouth Madness party either during the final Sweet Sixteen games, or during the Elite Eight round. Have your friends bring a dish and face off in your own brackets for favorite bite of the evening.

And if you want to… you know, win? Try these. Traditionally known as Devils on Horseback, these delicious things are easy to make (requiring just three main ingredients) and, if it’s possible, are even easier to eat. Also, the fanciest tools you need here are a baking dish and toothpicks.

These Bacon Wrapped Dates are the perfect treat for your March Madness party!

Bacon Wrapped Dates

  • Bacon (I prefer thick-sliced, however, there are very few instances where I don’t)
  • Dates
  • Cheese (optional)
  • Balsamic Vinegar (optional)
  • Maple Syrup (optional)

March Madness

Preheat your oven to 375°.

Cut your dates in half length-wise. Dates have pits in the middle that need to be removed anyway, and half a date is a much more manageable bite. Remove and discard your pits.

Optional – Stuff a small block of cheese in each half-date. [Editor’s note: Cheese is never optional. Use the cheese!]

Roll half a slice of bacon around your half-date and cheese. Spear it with a toothpick to keep the bacon secure.

March Madness

Line these up in a baking dish (no need to spray it with cooking spray – bacon is GREASY!).

Optional – Once you’re out of bacon or dates, or your dish is full, drizzle with balsamic vinegar and maple syrup (a little more vinegar than syrup), and pop in the oven at 375° for 40-45 minutes.

Check these often in the oven! Depending on your bacon thickness, these could cook more quickly, and once you’ve burned bacon, it’s burned.

March Madness

Toothpicks are extra handy to move these things to a plate and serve while hot.

Who’s in your Final Four? What’s your favorite March Madness match-up this year? Would you make these with turkey bacon, or nah?

New Year’s Party Dishes To Keep You Upright ‘Til Midnight

New Year’s Party Dishes To Keep You Upright ‘Til Midnight

New Year’s Eve is the day on which a lot of us let loose a collective sigh of relief. The holidays are coming to a close and it’s time to party away all the stress that has built up. Do yourself a favor and follow in Claire’s footsteps on this one: make easy, prep-ahead, spectacular party food that will satisfy the crowd without causing you even the smallest amount of stress. We all know and trust Claire’s ability to feed people, but this menu is above and beyond the call of duty! She makes it all sound so easy, and assures me that it is. Claire, help us ring in the New Year!

I love holiday cocktail parties! I love dressing up, I love champagne, and I love finger foods. Christmas and Thanksgiving are great for dinner parties, but a New Year’s Eve party is like the cherry on top of the holiday party sundae. Everyone has been through the holiday wringer by then, and they’re all ready to just throw down.

If you find yourself hosting on New Year’s Eve, the best thing to do is stock up on the booze and put out lots of irresistible food to keep everyone grounded.

My parents and my sister and her family are all going to be here for Christmas, and they are staying on through New Year’s. I get along really well with my family, and we are all really close. Even still, I think it’s safe to expect one or two flare-ups over the course of their stay, and I predict that by the end of it, we’ll all be ready for a little break, so I’m throwing a party to lighten our spirits. I’ve decided that I am going to go easy-route on everything for this thing. I’ve skipped party invitations in favor of a Facebook event invite, and I have a menu planned out that I can do almost entirely ahead of time, so I won’t have to miss out on any actual partying. The name of the game here is to keep everyone… not sober, necessarily, but sober enough that they will still be upright by the time that ball drops. That is why our menu will consist of rich and flavorful meats, cheeses, and breads. The more carbs and lipids your friends and family ingest, the more cushion there is to absorb all that Champagne. So let’s get into it!

This year, I am serving toasted open-face prosciutto sandwiches, spiced lamb in puff pastry, and, of course, a cheese board. With the sandwiches, I think it’s better to keep it simple. You want people to feel comfortable walking around with these, so keep the ingredient list down, and the quality high. Just a thin smear of whole grain mustard, some Gruyère, and a slice of prosciutto on some very good bread is all it takes to have your guests coming back for more.

New Year

The lamb puffs are a recipe of my own invention, and hot damn, am I ever proud of this one.

Lamb Puffs

  • One pound ground lamb
  • One sheet puff pastry, thawed
  • Three tablespoons panko
  • Three tablespoons milk
  • One shallot, diced small
  • One egg, beaten
  • Fresh ginger
  • Cinnamon
  • Turmeric
  • White pepper
  • Ground coriander seed
  • One teaspoon kosher salt

In a small bowl, combine your panko breadcrumbs and milk. In a medium bowl, combine lamb with the shallot, a couple of shakes each of your dried spices, salt, and the milk mixture. As with many of my own recipes, I didn’t pay very close attention to how much of each spice went into the bowl, but I’d say approximately 1/8 tsp each. Then grate about an inch of peeled ginger into the bowl, and mix it all together until just combined. You can use a fork, but I think you get a better mix if you just go in with your hands.

Roll the puff pastry out on a lightly floured surface until it is about 10 inches across and 14 inches long, and then cut it length-wise into three evenly-sized strips. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lay the pastry out on the sheet. Portion your meat mixture into thirds, and spread each one out in about an inch-wide stripe down the middle of each piece of pastry. Fold the sides over the meat and use the beaten egg to help seal it. With the pastries seam-side down on the baking sheet, cut small diagonal slits at one inch intervals along the top of each one and brush the tops and sides with the egg. If you are going to serve them right away, set the pan in the freezer to chill for thirty minutes before baking. If you are making them ahead of time, tightly wrap the entire sheet in plastic wrap before freezing. They will keep for up to two weeks in the freezer, and there is no need to thaw them before baking.

New Years When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 425°. Bake the chilled or frozen pastries until they start to puff up, about 15 minutes, and then reduce the heat to 350°. Continue baking until the meat is cooked through and the pastry is golden and completely puffed up, about another 25-35 minutes. Transfer them to a cutting board and let them cool slightly, and then use your cuts as a guide to slice the pastries into one-inch pieces. Eat the ends yourself, because you want to keep a uniform look on your serving platter, and anyway, let’s face it, you just deserve it.

New Years For dessert, I am going super simple with a classic icebox cake and Champagne Jell-O shots. The Jello-O shots are so easy to make, and the wow-effect to work ratio is definitely in your favor. I used this recipe but there are actually dozens of recipes out there, and I’m sure they all work just fine.

New Years I will say one thing about these, though; don’t scrimp on the Champagne. Since it’s basically just Champagne and gelatin, you absolutely need to use a Champagne (or prosecco or any sparkling wine) that you would enjoy drinking on its own.

New Years The real dessert star here is the icebox cake. If you’ve never made one, get ready for your new favorite cake to make. The ingredients are as follows: Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers and homemade whipped cream. That’s it. I like to kick mine up a notch, and I fold some booze into the cream. It really elevates this simple dessert to a new level, and it’s so easy.

Icebox Cake

  • One or two boxes of Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers
  • Two pints heavy whipping cream
  • Two tablespoons powdered sugar
  • One to two tablespoons vanilla or liqueur of your choice

In a large bowl, combine cream, sugar, and vanilla or liquor. I used Boulard Calvados, which is a really lovely apple brandy, but limoncello, Irish cream, Drambuie, or really any liqueur you prefer will work here. Whip the cream to stiff peaks. Carefully stack the wafers using layers of cream to bind them. I made mine in a ring shape for a round platter, but you can shape it any way you like, even including that ultimate holiday dessert classic, a yule log. When you’re done stacking and shaping, use the whipped cream to cover the outside of the cookie log.

New Year

There should be a little bit of leftover cream, which you should cover and reserve. Loosely cover your cake in plastic wrap and set in the fridge to chill for at least four hours, and up to 24. The wafer cookies absorb moisture from the cream and puff up, so when you are ready to serve, use the reserved cream to cover up any cracks in the cream or places where the chocolate has bled through. To get the layered effect, cut the cake at a deep angle so that the knife goes through several cookies. I like to serve my icebox cake with some kind of topping, like some Luxardo cherries or this incredible homemade cranberry ginger jelly.

New Year

Happy New Year, from my kitchen to yours! This holiday season, let’s remember that the real reason we get together is not to get lit and embarrass ourselves in front of everyone we know. Enjoy your drinks responsibly, and when your family is about to push you over the edge, try to focus on the love. If that fails, just remember that you can always shut them up with a big mouthful of cheese!

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Seasonal Rosemary Cocktails

Seasonal Rosemary Cocktails

I don’t know about you, but a nice stiff drink always helps me get through the holidays! Sarah W. (already known for her holiday-appropriate drink pairings) is kind enough to share with us a fabulous recipe for a simple ingredient that will jazz up your seasonal cocktail game. I sure am glad it’s almost 5 o’clock, because these gorgeous cocktails are calling my name. Pour us all a drink, Sarah!

Oh man, guys. It’s officially holiday season. I love gift-giving, I love decorating, I love putting up my Christmas tree well after Thanksgiving… and I love seasonal flavors. I am a sucker for anything cranberry-flavored or festively-named when I go out in the winter. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that when it comes to craft cocktails, this year everyone’s talking rosemary. Which is such a good idea; it pairs with almost any fruit flavor you can think of for winter – apples, cranberry, citrus – and is also a great seasoning for poultry, so your drink goes with your turkey dinner.

But let’s go further than simply garnishing a drink with a cute little Christmas tree-like sprig, and get that amazing (and strong) flavor into our seasonal cocktails. I’m talking simple syrup.

Simple syrup, like bitters, is one of those things that seems like a fancy bar ingredient that would be impossible to make or use properly at home. But, because I’m nothing if not an over-reacher, I wanted to try my hand at crafting some seasonal cocktails with it. I’ve seen bottles of simple syrup go for eight bucks at the grocery or liquor store. Not my style. I did the tiniest bit of research, and wouldn’t you know it, simple syrup is made by boiling equal parts sugar and water. Eight bucks for sugar water! Armed with that knowledge, I decided to steep mine with rosemary for a unique flavor that would hopefully elevate my homemade attempt at seasonal craft cocktails.

Simple syrup only keeps for a few weeks, which can be a concern if you don’t drink very often. So in one of my brightest moments of clarity to date, I’ve devised three seasonalcocktails – whiskey, gin, and vodka – that will almost guarantee you use a whole batch of simple syrup at one party. Rosemary has strong flavor. Each cocktail uses ¼ ounce, and a batch of simple syrup yields about a cup. Eight ounces in a cup, do the math – this syrup should make you 32 drinks, so plan your holiday shindig guest list accordingly! So let’s get to the crafting of these actually pretty easy holiday cocktails.

Rosemary Simple Syrup

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 sprigs rosemary

Every recipe using rosemary I saw online told me to smack the sprigs of rosemary against my palm to release the flavor. I felt a little silly, but I did this.

Throw your ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.

Let boil 5-8 minutes, then remove from heat.

Fish out your rosemary sprigs. If they’ve fallen apart at all, you can run the syrup through a sieve, but I didn’t have any problems just removing the rosemary and pouring my syrup into a mason jar. You can use a clever little glass bottle, or any number of syrup storage devices. Anything that seals and fits in your fridge. Let cool. Simple syrup can be made ahead of time and stored so it’s not piping hot from the pan while you’re trying to mix cocktails.

Seasonal Cocktails

Thorny Winter Sun

  • 1 ½ oz. Vodka
  • Juice of 2 clementines (about 2 oz.)
  • ½ oz. Lemon juice
  • ¼ oz. Rosemary simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Pour into a new glass, add 2 large ice cubes, and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Seasonal Cocktails

Cranberry Patch

  • 2 oz. Whiskey  (use good whiskey/bourbon – you can really taste it in this drink)
  • ½ oz. Sweet vermouth (the red bottle)
  • ½ oz. Cranberry juice
  • ¼ oz. Rosemary simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a lowball glass. Stir for about twenty seconds. Add ice if you like it. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Seasonal Cocktails

Rosemary Twinkle

  • 1 ½ oz. Gin
  • ½ oz. Sweetened lime juice
  • ¼ oz. Rosemary simple syrup
  • Club soda to top
  • Brûléed apple slice to garnish*

Combine gin, simple syrup, and lime juice in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Pour into a highball glass and add ice. Top with club soda and give a gentle stir. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary and a slice of brûléed apple.

*Brûlée your apple! I used a honeycrisp apple, Seasonal Cocktails the very best of autumn harvest (in my opinion). Slice your apple and remove seeds and core. I cut a tiny notch into mine to help it grip the lip of the glass. Press cut edges into sugar, then fire with a brûlée torch (or broil for about five minutes). Let cool a few moments so the sugar sets and doesn’t drip, then stick on the edge of your glass. This looks really impressive, tastes really good, and isn’t difficult. If your sugar gets a little bit burned, the sweet and tartness of the apple does a really good job covering it up. This is a garnish you can serve with confidence!

Seasonal Cocktails

I hope these cocktails make your next holiday gathering as legendary as the party I’m throwing in my mind right now. Happy holidays to all, and if you devise any rosemary cocktails of your own, let me know about them!

Printer friendly recipes: Seasonal Rosemary Cocktails