banana cream pie

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It’s Dave’s birthday (well, yesterday was), and therefore time for my annual banana cream pie post! Except last year I made banana cream cupcakes, and the year before I took a break from posting about banana cream pie – I must have assumed I’d made all the variations that were out there. But then I found a recipe that steeps bananas in the half-and-half that is then used to make the pastry cream, and I had to try it.

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I have to say that this might be my favorite banana cream pie recipe. There are things I really like about each of them, but this one is simply just what a banana cream pie should be – the crust stayed crisp even after two days in the fridge, the pastry cream didn’t slop all over the plate, and everything was in balance.

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Steeping the bananas in the dairy used for the pastry cream didn’t make an obvious difference, but I wonder if that was part of what made this pie so good, because all the components seemed to go together so well. Unless I find yet another trick to try in the realm of banana cream pies, I’ll be making this one for Dave’s birthday next year too.

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Banana Cream Pie
(very slightly tweaked from Cook’s Country)

I didn’t want to buy a second container of half-and-half only use a small portion of it, so I used 2 cups half-and-half, ¼ cup whole milk, and ¼ cup cream. Then I only used ¾ cup of cream for the topping, reducing the confectioners’ sugar to 1½ tablespoons. I also scraped the seeds of a vanilla bean into the steeping dairy and let the bean steep as well. And I forgot the orange juice.

5 ripe bananas
4 tablespoons butter
2½ cups half-and-half
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 large egg yolks
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
pie crust for single-crust pie (recipe below)
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1. Peel 2 of the bananas and slice them into ½-inch-thick pieces. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the sliced bananas and cook until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the half-and-half, bring to a boil, and boil for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, cover, and allow to sit for 40 minutes.

2. Whisk the granulated sugar, egg yolks, and salt together in a large bowl until smooth. Whisk in the cornstarch. Strain the cooled half-and-half mixture through a fine mesh strainer into the yolk mixture – do not press on the bananas – and whisk until incorporated; discard the cooked bananas.

3. Transfer the mixture to a clean medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it is thickened to the consistency of warm pudding (180 degrees), about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat; whisk in the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl, press greased parchment paper directly against the surface, and allow it to cool for about one hour.

4. Meanwhile, roll the pie dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured counter. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate, fold the edge of the dough under itself so the edge of the fold is flush with the outer rim of the plate, and flute the edges. Refrigerate for 40 minutes, then freeze for 20 minutes. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 375°.

5. Line the chilled pie shell with a 12-inch square of aluminum foil, folding the foil over the edges of the dough. Fill with pie weights, place the pie plate on a baking sheet, and bake for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and the weights, rotate the plate, and continue baking until the crust is golden brown, about 7 to 11 minutes. Transfer it to a cooling rack to cool to room temperature.

6. Peel and slice the remaining 3 bananas to about ¼-inch-thick and toss them with the orange juice. Whisk the pastry cream briefly, then spread half over the bottom of the pie shell. Arrange the sliced bananas on the pastry cream. Top with the remaining pastry cream.

7. Using a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whip the cream, confectioner’s sugar, and the remaining ½ teaspoon of vanilla on medium-low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to high and whip until stiff peaks form, about 1 to 3 minutes. Spread the whipped cream evenly over the top of the pie. Refrigerate the pie until it is set, at least 5 hours and up to 24 hours.

Pie Crust for Single-Crust Pie (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Deb has instructions for mixing by hand if that’s your preference.

1¼ cups (6 ounces) flour
1½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon table salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, very cold
⅓-½ cup ice water

Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until mixed. Add half of the butter; pulse once, add the remaining butter, and process with 1-second pulses until the largest pieces of butter are about ¼-inch across. Add ¼ cup of water; pulse once, then add 2 more tablespoons of water. Pulse a couple times to incorporate the water, then pinch a portion of the dough together; if it crumbles, pulse in another tablespoon of water. If it barely holds together, transfer the mixture to a large piece of plastic wrap. Form the dough into a ball, kneading it once or twice so it holds together. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least one hour before rolling.

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2013 favorites

I was wishy-washy on whether to do a favorites list this year, but seeing everyone else’s lists convinced me to look back over my posts, and I was reminded of some great recipes that deserved to be highlighted. I didn’t get as many posts up this year as I have in the past, even though I was cooking as much as ever. What that means is that only the recipes that really impressed me made it here. These ten are the best of the best:

Chipotle Shrimp
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This is a standout for its simplicity, which makes it a perfect weeknight meal. I also like that the shrimp gives it some variety from my usual rice and beans routine.

Mascarpone-Stuffed Strawberries
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These are halfway between a healthy snack and a decadent dessert, which I’m finding is a nice niche to be able to fill.

Beef Barbacoa
barbacoa 8This is the single best thing I made this year.

Kentucky Butter Cake
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It seems blasé, just a basic dough in a bundt pan, but it’s tender, light, buttery, sweet cake perfection.

Shrimp and Avocado Ceviche
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My new favorite way to eat chips. (It’s weird that two shrimp recipes have made this list, because as much as I love the flavor, sometimes the texture of shrimp squicks me out. I usually chop it for this salsa, which helps.)

Panko-Crusted Salmon
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To be honest, I have never cooked this. But it’s become one of Dave’s fallbacks when it’s his turn to cook and he doesn’t know what else to make. I’m not complaining one bit.

Goat Cheese Almond Strawberry Cheesecake
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The best dessert I baked this year (hurriedly photographed with my phone in a grassy area next to the office parking lot as I was running late to a meeting). The goat cheese really does add something special to the cheesecake, even though you wouldn’t know it was there unless someone told you.

Shiitake Mushroom and Lentil Asian Tacos
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Such an interesting combination of flavors. I love food that is this fun but is still perfectly healthy.

Pasta with Zucchini Cream Sauce
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I made this several times over the summer.  I love looking at vegetables in new ways, and letting the zucchini melt down into the sauce was perfect.

Salad with Pancetta, Peperoncini, and Parmesan
peperoncini pancetta salad 3No one will ever complain about this salad.  It’s such a great course to serve before a rich pasta dish.

Really my only goal for 2014 is to keep at it. Happy New Year!

kale salad with currants, pine nuts, and parmesan

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So, it turns out that I really like kale. It isn’t at all something I eat just because it’s dark green and probably really good for me. I like the flavor, earthy and vegetal together. I like the texture, how cooked kale is still chewy, unlike spinach which almost immediately turns to mush, and how raw kale doesn’t get soggy. And I like the convenience – it stays fresh for a while in the fridge and you can make salads with it days ahead of time, and they get better instead of worse.

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I made this for a pizza party I hosted. The party started right after work, plus I had to deal with the pizza dough, so making salad right beforehand wasn’t an option. I took a risk and served kale; I wasn’t sure how it would go over, but I assumed there were enough friendly flavors in this salad to please most palates.

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The salad might not have been as popular as the Nutella banana pizza or mascarpone-stuffed strawberries, but people seemed to like it.  There were leftovers, but that was okay, because even several days after I’d made the salad, it was still crisp and delicious. Plus it meant more kale for me – and I really like kale.

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Kale Salad with Pine Nuts, Currants, and Parmesan (adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons dried currants
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 bunches Tuscan (lacinato) kale (about 1 pound), center ribs and stems removed, leaves thinly sliced crosswise
2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted
Parmesan cheese shavings

1. Place the vinegar and currants in a small pot; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then remove from the heat. Let soak 15-30 minutes, while you prepare the other ingredients; drain, reserving vinegar.

2. Whisk vinegar leftover from soaking the currants, the rice vinegar, honey, oil, and salt in large bowl. Add the kale, currants, and pine nuts; toss to coat. Let marinate 20 minutes at room temperature, or cover and refrigerate overnight. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle cheese shavings over salad and serve.

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pizza with brussels sprouts, bacon, and goat cheese

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Does it seem like this holiday season has been a lot crazier than normal? It’s must be because Thanksgiving was late this year, which meant that all of the shopping, baking, and socializing had to be squished into about four weeks instead of five like last year. Even if you’re organized enough to start shopping and baking ahead of time, there’s still the parties – the office party, the other office party, the cookie decorating party, the cookie exchange, and on and on.

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In addition to all that, we ended up being part of yet another office party, this one at the Big Boss’s house, which is not an invitation you turn down. I wasn’t feeling like I had time for the party and definitely not for the baking I’d agreed to do for the party, so I had some relief when it got postponed and I got to stay home and make this pizza instead.

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It sounds weird, I know. But it’s my favorite vegetable and one of my favorite cheeses, plus bacon, plus bread, so I knew it couldn’t be bad. The bacon, it turns out, really makes it, adding an element of sweetness to go with the nutty vegetables and tangy cheese. This pizza and a quiet night at home was exactly what I needed this holiday season.

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Brussels Sprout, Bacon, and Goat Cheese Pizza (from Shutterbean via Pink Parsley)

1 pound pizza dough (⅓ of this recipe)
4 slices of bacon, diced
6 ounces (about 6) Brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
½ cup (2 ounces) shredded mozzarella
¼ cup (2 ounces) goat cheese, crumbled
¼ cup (½ ounce) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Place a pizza stone on a rack about 3 inches below the broiler and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Shape the dough into a ball; cover and set aside for 10 to 30 minutes to allow the gluten to relax.

2. In a medium skillet, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until it’s just barely crisp, about 8 minutes; use a slotted spoon to transfer it to a paper towel-lined plate. Remove all but about a thin coating of fat in the pan. Add the Brussels sprouts and shallots and cook, stirring constantly, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vinegar.  Set aside.

3. Flatten the dough, then pick it up and gently stretch it out, trying to keep it as circular as possible. Curl your fingers and let the dough hang on your knuckles, moving and rotating the dough so it stretches evenly. If it tears, piece it together. If the dough stretches too much, put it down and gently tug on the thick spots.

4. Line a pizza peel (or the back of a baking sheet) with parchment paper and transfer the round of dough to the peel, rearranging it to something reasonably circular. Top with the mozzarella, then the Brussels sprouts mixture, goat cheese, and parmesan. Transfer the pizza to the hot pizza stone.

5. Immediately turn the oven off and the broiler on (to high, if yours has settings). Bake the pizza for about 5 minutes, until the bottom is spotty browned and the cheese is bubbling. Transfer the pizza to a cooling rack; cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

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tomato soup with chicken meatballs and pasta

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I have been loyal to the first homemade tomato soup recipe I ever made. It was ten years ago, when I was just starting to up my cooking game. I’ve seen so many tomato soup recipes since then, but I’ve never felt any temptation to stray. My favorite recipe was comfortingly familiar, and I always knew that I’d be disappointed about any other recipe.

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Apparently, adding meatballs to tomato soup puts it in a different category, so I’m willing to try it, even though there are more similarities than differences between the two recipes. The flavor base of my old favorite is shallots, which are cooked in butter with tomato paste until the mixture is dark and caramelized. Canned tomatoes are roasted until they’re dry and lightly browned before being stirred into aromatics along with the canning juice and chicken broth.

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Replace the butter with olive oil and the shallots with a combination of onions, carrots, and celery, cook them a bit less, skip the tomato paste and add the tomatoes without roasting them, and you’ve got this new soup. The flavor is lighter, but I enjoyed it nearly as much and might actually prefer it once in a while.

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The meatballs, of course, are a fun addition, and together with the pasta, put this almost in the spaghettio’s category. I’d say it’s different enough not to compare to my standard recipe, but I just compared them. And that’s okay, because they’re both so great.

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Tomato Soup with Pasta and Meatballs (adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Light and Healthy 2011)

4 servings

My meatballs ended up looking more like chicken-flavored pesto than pesto-flavored chicken, which might be because my homemade pesto has less oil (and therefore more basil per volume) than store-bought versions. Still, I’ve increased the chicken slightly. The soup could use more meatballs anyway.

I’ve probably made this slightly less healthy by increasing the pasta, but the original amount (4 ounces) was just a tease.

I usually cook with canned whole tomatoes instead of diced, because they break down more. I just chop them by sticking a pair of kitchen shears in the can and snipping away.

Meatballs:
8 ounces ground dark chicken (or a mix of dark and light meat)
3 tablespoons pesto
3 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
⅛ teaspoon salt

Soup:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 large celery rib, diced
Salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2½ cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes or whole tomatoes, chopped
6 ounces uncooked small pasta, such as ditalini or alphabet noodles

1. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the chicken, pesto, bread crumbs, and salt. Mix thoroughly, then form into approximately forty ½-inch balls. Chill until needed.

2. In a 3- or 4-quart saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, then uncover and cook until the mixture is dry, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the chicken broth and tomatoes; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes to blend the flavors. Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary.

3. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup, or transfer it in batches to a stand-up blender to puree, then return the soup to the pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and add the meatballs and pasta. Cook, stirring frequently, until the noodles are tender and the meatballs are cooked through, about 10 minutes. Serve.

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pumpkin chocolate chip bars

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I try to bring something for my coworkers to snack on once a week. Sometimes I feel guilty for ruining people’s diets, but mostly people seem to appreciate it, and, honestly, I don’t do it for them. I do it so I get to do some baking without doing lots of eating.

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Although squeezing baking into a weeknight isn’t always so easy. By the time we get home, work out, make and eat dinner, and maybe fold some laundry, there isn’t a lot of leftover time. I usually end up staying up later those nights, not to mention making us late for work the next morning while I garnish or cut into squares or whatever each particular dessert requires.

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Recipes like this one make it easy.  It’s mixed like a basic cookie dough, butter then sugar then eggs, half a can of pumpkin, stir in a bag of chocolate chips. There are no individual cookies to scoop, no fillings or toppings, just spread the batter in a pan and bake. And, most importantly, the bars that come out of the oven are soft and tender, pumpkiny and chocolately, and perfectly sized for someone to grab a quick square with their morning coffee.

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Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bars (adapted from Martha Stewart via Sparks from the Kitchen)

2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ teaspoon salt
1¼ cups (8.75 ounces) sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1 package (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, spices, and baking soda.

2. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl if you’re using a hand-held mixer). Beat the butter on medium-low speed until it’s smooth, then add the salt and sugar. Continue beating on medium-low until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. With the mixer running, add the egg, then the vanilla. Beat in the pumpkin until blended. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until evenly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan comes out dry, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before serving.

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antipasti salad

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It took me a few tries to get the office potluck right. In the meantime, I learned that goat cheese is a bad idea; the old cowboys think it sounds gross and won’t try it. Dips and spreads don’t work well because you have to dish both the spread and the item to be spread onto and guess at the ratio. Grabbable snacks are fine, but not necessary, because people aren’t hovering and grazing; they just fill a plate and find a seat at the crowded table in the conference room.

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Food in crockpots is always popular, but anything that requires a bowl is too much work for people; you need one hand for your plate and the other to scoop more food onto that plate, so a bowl overloads you. That still leaves a lot of good food though – meatballs, beans, pastas. I considered bringing macaroni and cheese in the crockpot, but after a look at the potluck’s sign-up sheet, decided that more carbs was probably unnecessary.

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So then I started thinking that something more on the healthier side would be nice. A green salad doesn’t work though; I’m okay with my foods touching, but not grape jelly-chile meatball sauce and lettuce. Instead, I combined all of my favorite antipasti ingredients into one bowl, mixed it up, and let it sit overnight. In that time, the brine from the olives, seasoning in the salami, and herbs in the artichoke marinade seeped into the chickpeas and milky mozzarella.

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I couldn’t stop eating it when I made it. At the potluck, it didn’t get overshadowed by tasty choices like chile relleno casserole, green chile corn pudding, and green chile stew (green chile is how we do potlucks in New Mexico).  I don’t know if the picky old cowboys tried it, but several other people gave me compliments. My favorite was the leftovers though – I didn’t have to share and there were no distractions from the salad itself.

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Antipasti Salad

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 clove garlic, unpeeled
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 (6.27 ounce) jars marinated quartered artichoke hearts, preferably grilled, drained but not rinsed
1 cup kalamata olives, halved
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cubed
4 ounces sliced salami or mini pepperoni
½ small red onion, sliced thin
2 ounces parmesan, diced small
¼ cup minced parsley
¼ cup pepperoncini, sliced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the tomatoes cut side up on a baking sheet; place the garlic on the baking sheet. Bake until the tomatoes are slightly shriveled and the garlic is soft, about 30 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

2. In a large serving bowl, mix the tomatoes and all of the remaining ingredients. Squeeze the garlic into the mixture; stir. Marinate at least 1 hour or cover and refrigerate for up to three days. Serve at room temperature.

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lemon lamb meatballs

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It’s only been the last year or so that meatballs as appetizers have been on my radar, but I’m glad they are. It seems like there’s always at least one meatball option at the many appetizer-themed potlucks around the holidays, and it doesn’t matter how easy the recipe is, they’re one of the most popular options on the table. Mix up a few ingredients in the crockpot, find some toothpicks, and you’ve got yourself a great appetizer that stays warm for hours – and one that doesn’t involve cheese or carbs, which is a miracle!

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I didn’t need the flexibility of a crockpot since I was entertaining at home, so I went with a baked option. Simple and sauceless is best for lamb anyway, so the flavor of the meat itself comes through.  The garlic, thyme, and lemon are just enhancements to what I really want to taste, which is the lamb.

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I served the meatballs, along with stuffed mushrooms, before a meal of salad and lasagna finished off with a tart. Again, the carbless starter was a great choice, not just because of the pasta, but because we started out the evening with three loaves of rustic breads; that’s right, a comparison post is forthcoming. In the meantime, here’s a great addition to my new favorite category of appetizers.

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Lemon Lamb Meatballs (slightly adapted from Primal Palate)

Makes 36 meatballs

1 pound ground lamb
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 lemon, unpeeled, thinly sliced

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Using your hands, mix the lamb, garlic, thyme, salt, pepper, and lemon zest until thoroughly combined. Form the mixture into 36 1-inch balls. Transfer to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, arranging the lemon slices around and in between the meatballs.

3. Bake until lightly browned and no pink is evident after cutting into a meatball, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

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swiss chard mushroom sausage lasagna

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I have this weird thing with lasagna, in that I love it, and I love making it, but I have a hard time bringing myself to repeat recipes. I’m always searching for the next new lasagna recipe, but the truth is, my favorite lasagnas involve tomatoes and cheese and probably bechamel and something that tastes meaty (which could be mushrooms and not meat). And there’s only so many ways to combine those ingredients and still call it in a new recipe.

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This one, however, I did make twice, because the first time wasn’t quite right. I was thinking that because I enjoy both bechamel and ricotta in lasagna, that I would enjoy having them both there. It turns out, though, that it was overkill, so I nixed the ricotta. Also, the original recipe didn’t include tomatoes or sausage, but they both mix in so well with béchamel and cheese and greens that I couldn’t resist adding them.

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I can’t call this my favorite lasagna. With my compulsion to keep trying new recipes, I can’t claim any favorite. But this is certainly worth adding to the list of great recipes. It’s almost like a classic lasagna with some extra vegetables, and those vegetables fit in perfectly with the cheese and tomatoes and meat. It’s so good I might even make it again someday. But in the meantime, tell me: what’s your favorite lasagna recipe?

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Swiss Chard Mushroom Sausage Lasagna (adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

For instructions on boiling and rinsing the noodles, see step 4 of this recipe.  You’ll only need half of a recipe of fresh pasta.

Béchamel sauce:
3 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
¼ large onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 bay leaf
pinch nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (½ ounce) grated parmesan cheese

Swiss chard and mushroom layer:
8 ounces Italian sausage, removed from casing
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ large onion, diced
1 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
salt
4 large garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice
1 pound Swiss chard, center rib and stem cut from each leaf
pepper

Lasagna:
1 pound fresh lasagna noodles or 12 7-by-3-inch lasagna noodles, boiled and rinsed
4 ounces (1 cup) provolone, shredded
4 ounces (1 cup) mozzarella, shredded
2 ounces (1 cup) finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons minced parsley

1. For the béchamel sauce: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. When the foaming subsides, add the onion and the garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Whisking constantly, slowly add the milk. Add the bay leaf, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. When the mixture simmers, reduce the heat to medium-low, add the nutmeg and salt, and simmer 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and stir in the parmesan. Cover and set aside.

2. For the swiss chard and mushroom layer: Heat the oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion; sauté until the onion is tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the mushrooms and ½ teaspoon salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their liquid and then brown, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes; simmer until slightly reduced, about 10 minutes. Mix in the chard; cook, stirring frequently, until wilted, about 5 minutes. Stir the sausage back into the sauce; season to taste with salt and ground black pepper.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread a thin layer of the béchamel sauce on the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish. Cover the sauce with a slightly overlapping layer of boiled noodles, cutting them as needed to fill any gaps. Evenly spread ¾ cup of the sauce over the noodles. Top with one-third of the sausage-mushroom mixture and one-fourth of the cheeses.  Repeat the layers twice more. Layer a final layer of noodles, then cover with the remaining béchamel and cheeses.  Cover the pan with aluminum foil.

4. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until the lasagna is bubbling around the edges and golden on top, 20 to 30 minutes longer. Let stand at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle evenly with parsley and serve.

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mango cream puffs

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For the first Friday happy hour get-together we threw, I had about 24 hours notice, which works out to just a few hours in which I was both awake and at home. I got home from work fifteen minutes before our friends showed up. And yet, it went off without a hitch. I reminded Dave approximately five hundred times that night that I can clearly keep things simple when I need to.

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The second happy hour was a different story. I had that Friday off of work, and I took advantage of it by spending just about all day cooking – and cleaning and emptying the dishwasher.

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Dave has gotten into making rum cocktails lately, so I went with a Caribbean theme for the food – empanadas, bacon-wrapped stuffed dates, fried yucca root, shrimp ceviche, and cream puffs filled with mango curd. We also had an assortment of Mexican beers available for anyone who fancied themselves too manly for a cocktail.

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It was another success, although not quite as smooth as the first. A good portion of the people we invited didn’t show, even a few who had RSVPed, and there was a ton of food leftover. Plus, apparently when you supply your guests with cocktails that taste like juice (I’ll share the recipe later; trust me that Dave has perfected it), they’ll stick around longer than the two hours we’d all joked was the limit.

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Still, it was a great time, and I can’t wait to throw another one of these little parties. And I was not unhappy about leftovers. The empadanas were great for lunch, and the cream puffs were a perfect pre-breakfast snack the next day – after I finally got all the dishes done. There are some advantages to simpler entertaining, but to be honest, I love both.

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Mango Cream Puffs (from Cook’s Illustrated’s Baking Illustrated via Annie’s Eats)

Makes 24-30 small cream puffs

My food processor was dirty when I made this, so I used the mixer fitted with the whisk to mix the dough. It worked well.

Dough:
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg white
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces
2 tablespoons whole milk
6 tablespoons water
1½ teaspoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (2½ ounces) all-purpose flour
Mango curd (recipe follows)

1. Whisk the eggs and egg white in a liquid measuring cup. You should have ½ cup (discard the excess). Set aside. Combine the butter, milk, water, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan. Heat over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring once or twice. When it reaches a full boil and the butter is fully melted, remove from the heat and stir in the flour until incorporated and the mixture clears the sides of the pan. Return the saucepan to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, using a smearing motion, until the mixture is slightly shiny, looks like wet sand and tiny beads of fat appear on the bottom of the pan (the mixture should register 175-180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer).

2. Immediately transfer the mixture to a food processor and process with the feed tube open to cool slightly, 10 seconds. With the machine running, gradually add the reserved eggs in a steady stream. When they have been added, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then process 30 seconds more until a smooth, thick, sticky paste forms.

3. Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip with the dough. Pipe the paste into 1½-inch mounds on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 to 1¼ inches apart (you should be able to fit 24 mounds on the baking sheet). Use the back of a teaspoon dipped in water to even out the shape and smooth the surface of the piped mounds.

4. Bake for 15 minutes (do not open the oven door during baking). Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake until golden brown and fairly firm, 8-10 minutes longer. Remove the baking sheet from the oven. Use a paring knife, cut a ¾-inch slit into the side of each puff to release steam; return the puffs to the oven, turn the oven off, and prop open the oven door with the handle of a wooden spoon. Dry the puffs in the turned-off oven until the centers are just moist (not wet) and the puffs are crisp, about 45 minutes. Transfer the puffs to a wire rack to cool completely.

5. To fill the puffs, use the tip of a paring knife to make a small cut perpendicular to the first, creating an X in the side of each puff. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a ¼-inch plain tip with the pastry cream. Pipe some of the pastry cream through the X into the side of each puff until it starts to ooze back out. Repeat to fill all the puffs. Dust with powdered sugar and serve within several hours.

Mango Curd (from Bon Appetit via Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 1 to 1½ cups

1 15-ounce ripe mango, peeled, pitted, cut into ½-inch pieces
⅓ cup (2.33 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1. Puree the mango, sugar, lime juice, and salt in a food processor or blender, scraping down the sides of the work bowl as necessary. Add the yolks; puree 15 seconds longer. Strain through a sieve set over a large metal bowl, pressing on the solids with the back of a spatula to release as much puree as possible. Discard the solids in the sieve.

2. Set the metal bowl over a saucepan that contains 1 inch of simmering water (do not allow bottom of the bowl to touch the water); whisk the puree until it is thickened and a thermometer registers 170 degrees, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Whisk in butter one piece at a time. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

mango cream puffs 7