Archive for the ‘Cookbooks’ Category

“Easy as pie,” or so goes the saying. The thing about pie CRUST however, is that it is anything but easy. I learned to make pie from several remarkable women, including the baker at a café I worked at almost 20 years ago who said, “A baker’s best friend is her hands. Except for you…your hands are too hot.”

Heat is one enemy to the pie crust making process. So is over mixing. Another is time. You need time to make a good pie crust. And for many people, myself included, it can take a lot of time to learn how to make a good pie crust. In an effort to demystify pie making, I thought I’d once and for all write up my pie crust tips. And below is my favorite recipe for pie crust from Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and a recipe for berry pie.

You can brush the top of the crust with an egg wash and sprinkle with sanding sugar.

Make the pie crust ahead. When possible, I make pie crust in double batches and store them in the fridge for up to three days or in the freezer for up to two months. Making a pie takes long enough as it is, and having the crust step out of the way is a big time saver. Just flatten the dough into a disk, about 8-10 inches in diameter, before you refrigerate or freeze it.

Make the entire pie ahead. I like to make pies an entire day ahead of serving them. This helps the juices set. It’s not always possible, but if you have time, make the pie ahead.

Keep your ingredients cold. Start with cold butter (and shortening or lard if you are using it), measure out what you will need, but cut it into smaller chunks and then freeze it for a few minutes while you measure out the flour, salt and sugar. Some people store their flour and mixing bowl in the fridge or freezer…but that seems like overkill. Unless of course you live in the desert.

Vodka. Step one: Take a shot of vodka. Step two: Put a shot of vodka in the dough. In all seriousness, the use of vodka in the recipe below, from Cook’s Illustrated magazine below, is genius. Using too much water in pie dough can result in a tough crust. By using vodka, Cook’s Illustrated figured out that the alcohol would evaporate, so you could add more liquid to the dough – making it easier to handle and roll out – but not so much that you’d end up with a tough crust. Genius.

After you've cut the fat into the four, it should resemble cottage cheese.

Food processor vs by hand. I make my pie crust in the food processor. I KNOW! Yes, food processors generate heat. Yes, you can quickly overmix the dough. Having said those things though, I still think it’s worth the time savings to use a food processor. If you don’t have one, it’s easy to make pie crust with a pastry cutter. You won’t have to worry about overmixing if mixing by hand. You’ll probably get worn out before that happens. Oh, and this thing about cutting the fat (butter, shortening and/or lard) into the flour using two knives?! Really? I’ve tried it and think it’s complete bullshit. It’s like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon. You’d have to be really hungry.

Roll the dough between layers of plastic wrap. This can prove challenging for some people. The reason I like it though, is that I don’t have to keep adding more and more flour to the board. It also makes it easier to transfer the rolled out crust into a pie plate.

Use a French-style rolling pin. I love my heavy marble rolling pin, but find it a little too heavy and unwieldy when rolling out pie crust. A French-style one with tapered ends is lightweight and easier to maneuver.

Rolling the dough. If the dough has been in the freezer, thaw it overnight in the fridge. Once out of the fridge, set it out on the counter 20-30 minutes before you are ready to roll. To roll it out, start in the center and roll out towards the edges. Some people like to roll from the center to 12 o’clock and then rotate the disk with each roll. Both ways are fine – practice and see what you like. Just take care to not overroll. Like over mixing, this will result in a tough crust.

Crimp the edges. When you are putting the top crust on a double-crusted pie, first wet the edges of the bottom crust. When you place the top crust over the filling, tuck the edges that hang over under the edge of the bottom crust to create a tight seal. To crimp, take the forefinger and thumb of one hand and place on the inside edge of the pie. Then, take the forefinger of your other hand and press the dough between the fingers on the inside hand. Or, say ‘fuck it’ and crimp the edges with a fork.

Wrap it in foil. Fruit pies often overflow the pan as the fruit cooks and their juices begin to bubble. Avoid a sticky mess by wrapping foil under the bottom of the pan, up the sides and just over the edge of the crust. This will also protect the crust from overbrowning. I have tried those little metal edge protectors you can buy. They’re crap. Same goes for the little metal pan to put the pie plate on while you bake. Just use a rimmed cookie sheet.

Air vents. Cut 3-4 slits in the top of the pan to let air escape. They only need to be an inch or two long – they will stretch a little as the pie cooks.

Cutting into a fresh pie. There is a little trick to getting that first slice of pie out of the pan. Cut the first slice, then a slice on either side. This will make it easier to serve the first piece.


Foolproof Pie Dough
From Cook’s Illustrated magazine
Makes one double crust pie

2 ½ cups (12 ½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼ inch slices
½ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
¼ cup cold vodka
¼cup cold water

1. Process just 1 ½ cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

3. Remove 1 disk of dough from the refrigerator and roll on generously floured (up to ¼ cup) work surface to 12-inch circle, about 1/8 inch think.  Roll dough loosely and rolling pin and unroll into pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang on each side.  Working around circumference, ease dough into plate by gently lifting edge of dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand.  Leave dough that overhangs plate in place; refrigerate while preparing filling until dough is firm, about 30 minutes.

Berry Pie Filling
From The Kingston Hotel Cafe Cookbook
Makes 1 double crusted pit

6 cups fresh or frozen blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or a combo of the three
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cake flour
¾ cup brown sugar
6 tablespoons white sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Prepare the pie crust and line a 9-inch pie pan with half the dough.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the filling ingredients except the butter. Pour into pastry-lined pie plate.  Dot the top of the fruit with the butter.

Roll out the top crust. Wet the rim of the bottom crust with ice water and place the top crust over the berries. Turn the edges under and crimp. Make little slits in the top of the crust to allow steam to escape while baking.

Plce the pit in the center of a piece of tin foil and fold over te top crust to prevent the edge from browning too fast. Place the pie on a cookie sheet to catch the juices that bubble over.

Bake at 425 degrees F for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees F and bake for about 45 minutes. Uncover the foil from the edges of the pie, then bake another 30 minutes.  The top crust will be golden and the juices will be tick and bubbling to the top.

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First off, some exciting news: I have a new column in the Seattle Weekly! Check out  Cooking the Books online every Wednesday and Thursday for my cookbook reviews. I’ll post most of them here as well along with some future news about other places I will be freelancing.

In the introduction of The  Essential New York Times Cookbook, Amanda Hesser suggests ways to use the book such as, “As a weight for pressing terrines – its size and heft are just right.” She’s not joking. This beast tips the scales at nearly 5 pounds. Inside it’s cherry-red binding are 900-plus pages of over 1,400 of the most popular recipes printed in the New York Times in the last 150 years.

The project of bringing together all the recipes began over six years ago. Hesser, then the food editor at the Times, began the project by asking readers to let her know their favorite recipes from the paper. In addition to the 400 recipes readers wrote in about, Hesser vetted recipes printed in the Times since the 1850s. What emerged at the end of the this project was a culinary history of our country. A time capsule of how our palates have evolved and how American cooking has changed over the last century and a  half.

Thumbing through this book however, readers will also note that while some tastes have changed a great deal, others have not. Recipes for Larded Potatoes (1879) – potatoes cored and stuffed with bacon – and the Bacon Explosion (2009) – a loaf of Italian sausage wrapped in 2 pounds of bacon – remind us that we have always been obsessed with bacon.

The book is divided  into chapters for appetizers, salads, soups, desserts, etc. Within each chapter however, the recipes are printed chronologically, with the oldest recipes first. So the chapter on soups begins with American standards like Tomato Soup and Clam Chowder, but ends with Gazpacho. Throughout each chapter readers can watch how travel, immigration, recessions, and affluence have shaped how we cook and what we eat.  

Hesser points out that few of the recipes originated in the Times – the paper is a way station for recipes, which pass through on their way from chefs to home cooks to readers. She made it her task to translate the recipes and not change their integrity. Some recipes needed ingredients quantified while other’s needed oven temperatures or pan sizes specified. Hesser’s intention was to preserve the arc of history that The Essential New York Times Cookbook provides readers.

The Essential New York Times Cookbook is an tremendous compilation of recipes that will serve as a great resource for home cooks alongside other indispensable cookbooks such as How to Cook Everything and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. What it lacks in photographs in makes up for in the sheer volume of recipes. The book also includes several menus that suggest recipes for a variety of occasion: Bake Sale, Food That Travels Well, Superbowl, Afternoon Tea, and my favorite – Dinner on a Moment’s Notice.    

Many of the 1,400-plus recipes in The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser are American classics, yet many recipes reflect how our palates have changed over the last 150 years. Red Velvet Cake, Boston Baked Beans, Mint Juleps, and Pickled Watermelon Rind are all tucked between the covers along with Boeuf Bourguignon, Gingersnaps, Hummus, and Churros.

With the exception of apple pie there is perhaps no dessert as American as the chocolate chip cookie. In 2008, David Leite researched chocolate chip cookies around New York City to find the requisite parts of the perfect chocolate chip cookie. To say he succeeded is an understatement.

Don’t let the 2-3 day process deceive you, these cookies are deliciously simple. For working folks, it is almost easier to make the dough one day and then bake the cookies 2-3 days later. You just have to resist the temptation of eating all the dough first.

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies   
Makes about 18 cookies
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (See Cooking Note)
Sea salt

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop six 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Cooking Note: Valrhona feves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are sold at Whole Foods or online at Leite’s Eats. If you can’t find the disks, just chop up 1 1/4 pounds of chocolate , use the chunks, shards and all, and your cookies will turn out fine.

From The Essential New York Times Cookbook, Copyright © 2010 by The New York times Company and Amanda Hesser. $40, published by W.W. Norton and Company. Available at Amazon.com.

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This year I’m trying to be more mindful of how much waste I produce in my kitchen. We cook a lot but also love to dine out. Sometimes it’s hard to balance the short shelf life of items in our fridge with the time we have to cook them. I throw stuff into our small freezer constantly. The half can of tomato paste we didn’t use up goes in a Ziploc and into the freezer. Lemons and limes past their prime are squeezed and the juice is frozen into little cubes for future use. Leafy greens, despite my best intentions, are often blanched and frozen as well. Leftover egg whites freeze great and while they may not be ideal for meringues after thawing out, they are great for cocktails.

I recently found myself with a couple leftover nubs of blue cheese that would inevitably go to waste when I remembered an old recipe for compound butter. Compound butters freeze great and can also be made using leftover herbs. A small slice of one of these flavorful butters takes steamed vegetables from simple to sublime in the time it takes for the butter to melt. A hunk of blue cheese butter on a grilled steak makes a home cooked meal feel downright indulgent.

Blue Cheese Compound Butter
Adapted from Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here for the Food”
Alton’s recipe is about 3x the size of the recipe below which is great for a crowd…but for just two people with a little blue cheese to use up, the modified recipe below is just right.

1/2 tsp olive oil
1 Tbsp minced shallot
Pinch of chile flake
3 tsp dry white wine or dry vermouth
1 Tbsp minced parsley (optional)
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
¼ pound blue cheese at room temperature
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add the oil; add the shallots and sweat for 1-2 minutes then add the chile flakes to toast. Add half the parsley (optional) and toss to coat with the oil then add the wine. Remove from heat. Beat the butter with a hand blender or in a stand mixer for one minute. Add the shallot mixture and blue cheese and beat to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Fold in the remaining parsley, if using, and transfer the butter to waxed paper. Roll into a log and freeze until hard. Remove from the wax paper and transfer into plastic wrap and then roll in foil. Store in the freezer for up to 4 months.

When ready to use, unwrap the log and slice off as many discs as you need for steak and/or veggies and allow to come up to room temperature for about an hour.

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Dorie Greenspan visited Seattle last week as part of her book tour to promote Around My French Table. I’ve been a big fan of Dorie ever since I stole my mom’s copy of “Baking with Julia,” the baking book that Dorie wrote to accompany Julia Child’s PBS series. This latest cookbook (Dorie’s tenth) is peppered with stories about French life and bursts with over 300 recipes that are as accessible to the intermediate home cook as they are delicious.

There is a lot to love about this book. The recipes are generally for everyday food and Dorie sprinkles them with stories about where she first tasted the dish and what inspired her in creating her recipe. These vignettes are sweet, without being overly precious. There are helpful sidebars that include advice for serving and storing, as well as tips Dorie labels Bonne Idée. This means something like “good idea” if my rudimentary French isn’t failing me. These are often variations that can take the dish from simple to elegant by making a few simple changes.

Dorie has inspired many cooks – amateur and professional – over the years and has a huge following of fans. Yet she is as elegant and gracious a person as I could ever hope to meet. Since her book tour stopped in Seattle last week, I’ve been curling up with “Around my French Table” nearly every night. As the days become shorter and cool autumn nights cause my furnace to click on, I’ve been craving hearty braises and warm soups. Dorie’s Creamy Cauliflower Soup sounded about right.

I wanted to make this recipe tonight – Friday – because there is an entire site dedicated to cooking through the book by making one of the recipes each Friday. French Fridays with Dorie chooses a recipe each week and fans sign on to cook along. Well, cauliflower soup was what I was craving this week but alas, they chose a different recipe. I don’t care, I made it anyways.

I love cauliflower already but this thick and creamy soup is a great showcase for this humble vegetable. I happened to have all these ingredients on hand with the exception of white pepper. Black pepper is close enough, even if it does fleck the soup with little black dots. I used my immersion blender to puree the soup. Whether you use a food processor, blender or immersion blender, I suggest pureeing it to within an inch of its life. I had a spoon on hand to taste for texture as well as salt and pepper.

I didn’t have any of the suggested garnishes, but if anyone wants to send me truffles or caviar, my address is 123 Champagne Taste St, Beerbudgetville, WA. Merci!

Creamy Cauliflower Soup
By Dorie Greenspan, from “Around my French Table”

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Vidalia, Spanish, or large yellow onions (about ¾ pound) coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, split, germ removed and thinly sliced
3 celery stalks, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 thyme sprigs, leaves only
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 head cauliflower, leaves removed, broken into florets (discard the tough core)
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

Optional toppings
Extra-virgin olive oil or walnut oil
Grated cheese
Crushed toasted walnuts
Crème fraîche or sour cream
Shaved truffles

Put the olive oil and butter in a large Dutch oven or soup pot and warm over low heat. When the butter is melted, add the onions, garlic, celery, thyme, ½ teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of white pepper. Stir until all the ingredients glisten with oil and butter, then cover the pot and cook slowly, stirring often, for 20 minutes.

Toss the cauliflower into the pot and pour in the broth. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so that the broth simmers gently, and cook, uncovered, for another 20 minutes, or until the cauliflower is very soft.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor; or use an immersion blender. This soup is best when it is very smooth, so if you think it needs it, push it through a strainer. (If you used a standard blender, this shouldn’t be necessary.) Taste for salt and pepper; I like to pepper the soup generously.

Serve plain or garnished with the topping of your choice.

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I am a big fan of road trips. I love prepping the car, packing snacks and diversions and mapping out the route. The mister and I are on vacation for the next week, on a trip from Seattle down to Northern California. We are going to hit some wineries, visit family and enjoy some of the sunshine that never seemed to make its to the Northwest this summer. We generally like to get from point A to point B, so instead of stopping for a meal en route we pack along lunch and find a good rest stop for a picnic along the way.

When we were in our 20s (and driving a 1976 VW camper van), road food was cheap and easy: hoagie rolls, pepperjack and cheddar cheeses and a bottle of Dijonaise. The Dijonaise was really the key ingredient. It elevated a simple cheese sandwich to something really special.

A few years ago, we got into wraps. Turkey, bacon, cheddar wraps with ranch dressing was the flavor of choice and they were, and still are great road food. More recently, we’ve been making calzones. The night or two before leaving on a road trip, we’d make homemade pizzas and then use up the leftover dough and all the remaining toppings to make a couple of calzones. These are an easy and filling road food that taste great cold and have the bonus of using up food in your fridge.

For this trip, I again wanted to use up food in our fridge. We didn’t have too many perishables left but there were eggs, cream, half an onion, and cheese. We also had some spinach and bacon in the freezer plus a small disc of tart dough.

Last week I bought a copy of “Around my French Table,” the latest cookbook from Dorie Greenspan. It is enormous and packed with typical French food without all the fuss and French names of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I’ve had my nose buried in Dorie’s book all week so after assessing available ingredients, I knew I’d be making her spinach and bacon quiche.

Quiche is great any time of day, cold or at room temperature, which makes it great road food. I decided on making mini quiches since the mister doesn’t eat vegetables, so I could make two minis with the spinach and two minis without. Plus, making the quiches small would mean a greater crust-to-filling ratio and that my friends, is always a good thing.

Mini Quiches
(Adapted from Around my French Table, by Dorie Greenspan)

1 disc tart dough (see below)
1/2 cup frozen spinach, thawed (optional)
3 strips bacon
1/4 cup finely diced onion
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 large eggs
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp pepper

Tart dough (courtesy of Fine Cooking)
This is technically a galette dough, but it works well for the quiche and I am sure it would work fine for a pie as well.
11 1/4 ounces (2 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces and chilled
5 ounces (about 2/3 cup) ice water
1-2 Tbsp unsalted butter

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar and salt. With a pastry cutter, cut in the chilled butter until the butter is evenly distributed but visible in small, pea-sized pieces. Add the chilled water all at once to the mixture. Mix the dough until it begins to come together. Gather the dough with your hands into two disks. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least one hour. You can freeze the other disk for about a month well-wrapped in plastic and foil. If you are making a full-sized quiche, you likely need all the dough.

Prepare the filling:

Wrap the spinach in paper towels or a dish cloth and wring out as much excess moisture as possible. Chop finely and set aside. Dice the bacon and sauté in a non-stick skillet on medium-high until crisp, 5-8 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Pour off most of the bacon grease from the pan and wipe out any brown bits. Turn the heat to medium and add 1 Tbsp of butter and melt until the foam subsides. Add the diced onion and sauté until soft and lightly browned, 5-8 minutes.

Like Dorie, I like roll out my dough between two sheets of lightly floured wax paper or plastic wrap. Working from the center out, roll away from you and rotate the dough clockwise every 2-3 rolls. Roll out to about 1/8 thick and 12-14 inches in diameter. If you are making mini quiches, cut the dough in fourths.

Melt 1-2 Tbsp butter and brush it liberally on the insides of a 9-inch spring form pan, 8-inch pie plate or 4, 4-inch mini spring form pans. Even if your pans are nonstick, they need to be buttered. Transfer the dough to the pan(s) and gently press it into the edges and up the sides, taking care not to stretch it. Dorie says to trim the top edges evenly, but I like to leave them rustic-looking. Poke the bottom of the dough with a fork a few times. Place the pan or pans in the freezer for one hour, no less. Reserve any remaining melted butter for the foil.

When the pans have been in the freezer for about 40 minutes, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When one hour is up, it’s time to bake the crust. Use the remaining butter to butter one side of a sheet of foil (or 4 small sheets). Line the dough with buttered foil and press it into the edges. For mini pans, I find it easier to preform the foil around a cup or mug first. Fill with pie weights (dried beans or rice work fine, thought make them unusable in other way after that). Bake for 15-20 minutes (less for mini pans). Remove the foil and bake another 3-5 minutes until the crust is golden. You don’t want them completely cooked, since you’ll be baking them again when they are filled. Let the pan(s) and crusts cool completely.

Whisk together the eggs, cream, salt and pepper until well-blended.

Assemble the quiches:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Evenly distribute the bacon, onions, cheeses, and spinach in the pan or amongst the pans. If someone doesn’t like spinach (like someone I know), give them more bacon and cheese. Pour the egg mixture into the pan(s) slowly, allowing time for the liquid to seep into the crevices around the filling.

If using spring form pan(s), place them on a cookie sheet in case they leak.

Bake for 20-30 minutes (less for smaller pans), until the filling has risen slightly in the middle, doesn’t jiggle and is lightly golden.

Remove from the oven and let cool before either removing from the spring form pans or slicing and serving. My preference is to pack up the mini quiches or leftover slices of quiche and hit the road!

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Potlucks. I love to hate them. About the only time I find them tolerable is when it’s a dessert or appetizer potluck. A little haphazardness never hurt an appetizer or dessert buffet. So, when I was invited to a gathering recently and asked to contribute an appetizer, I cringed only slightly.

As much as I like to cook and can pull out a recipe for almost any occasion, this time I was short on both ideas and time. Surveying the contents of my fridge yielded little inspiration. There was cheese, more cheese, some sauces and other condiments, Vermouth, eggs, peanut butter. Tick, tick, tick. I needed to come up with something quick. Ding ding ding ding ding! CHEESE BALL.

OK, so a cheese ball is a decidedly lowbrow option. But, in this age of DIY, recycling and retro comfort food (are corn dogs really the new pork belly?) I knew I could pull it off. It helped that I had a recipe on hand from the talented and sassy Amy Sedaris.

You may have seen Amy Sedaris on Martha Stewart or Dave Letterman. Or perhaps you have even seen her book I Like You. Hospitality Under the Influence. I first fell in love with Amy when she played Jerry Blank on Strangers with Candy, but many people know her because she has a more famous brother.

Her book is a riot. The photos are styled to look like they are from the 1970’s and there are chapters like “The Rich Uncle Comes to Visit,” “Lumberjack Lunch” and “Cooking Under the Influence,” which includes a list of “Munchies.”

I haven’t cooked much from this book but have read it cover to cover. So when I needed an easy, last minute appetizer I was able to recall Amy’s cheese balls. My favorite part of this recipe is that she specifically calls for Ritz crackers. Because really, does any other cracker say “cheese ball” better than Ritz?

Captain’s Mouthwatering Bite-Size Blue Cheese Balls, by Amy Sedaris

1 cup grated cheddar
4 oz cream cheese
2 oz crumbled blue cheese
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp chopped green onions (optional)
½ tsp Worstershire sauce
1 Tbsp white wine or milk
¼ cup chopped walnuts
Ritz crackers

Bring all the cheeses to room temperature. Beat with mixer. Add butter, onions (optional), Worstershire sauce, and milk or wine, and continue beating. Chill overnight. Shape mixture into a ball (or as Amy suggests “tumor-sized balls”). Roll in chopped nuts. Let stand 15 minutes. Spread on Ritz.

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Simple Tomato Sauce

Marcella Hazan’a Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is a “must have” for anyone who loves eating and cooking Italian food. It is full or opinions (regarding olive oil, “cook with the best you can afford”) and somewhat unreal expectations (if you have a good, conscientious cheese dealer, ask to be notified when a fresh wheel of gorgonzola arrives from Italy), yet has loads of great recipes.

One of my go-to recipes is simply called “Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion.” It is simple, quick and great on any shape or size of pasta you have on hand. It is a bit high in fat (given the stick of butter!), but since it is meat-free, who cares? The sauce starts off kind of weird, since you don’t dice the onion – just cut it in half and put it in the pot. It cooks down though and adds a great, oniony sweetness to the sauce.

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
2-15 oz cans diced tomatoes (I prefer Muir Glen). Avoid “stewed” tomatoes
1 stick of butter, but into cubes
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
1 lb of pasta
Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Don’t fuck around with the imitation or pre-grated crap.
Salt & pepper to taste

Place canned tomatoes in a saucepan with onion and butter. Simmer for 40-45 minutes, stirring occasionally and mashing the tomato chunks with the back of a wooden spoon. Discard onion and salt & pepper to taste. Serve over pasta with grated parm.

Full Disclosure
My friend Debi read this post and reminded me that, ahem, I didn’t believe a sauce this simple could taste this good. She first told me about this recipe 6 or 7 years ago and I guffawed, “what, no garlic? no herbs? impossible.” I stand corrected.

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