Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chocolate Dream Pie

One of my favorite desserts to make is pie. I almost always have frozen pie crusts in the freezer for “emergency purposes” (meaning to be able to make a quick dessert for last minute entertaining, or to be able to fill a sweet tooth craving for family members). Hardly a week goes by when I don’t make a pie or tart of some kind.

One of my favorite pies to make is chocolate dream pie. The recipe is below. I’ve been making this recipe for a long time. (If you could see the recipe card, it’s old and yellowed, and splattered with bits of chocolate. I think that means it’s a tried-and-true recipe!) What’s nice about this pie, is you can make it 1-2 days in advance, which makes it a great time saver.

Chocolate Dream Pie

1 baked single layer pie crust
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
1/8 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 (6-oz.) package (1 cup) semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 (3-oz.) pkg. cream cheese, cubed and softened
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. vanilla
¼ cup powdered sugar

For filling: In medium saucepan, combine sugar, cornstarch and salt; mix well. Gradually stir in milk. Add chocolate chips and egg yolks. Cook over medium heat until mixture is thickened, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Beat in cream cheese until smooth. Cover surface with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cool (about an hour).

In large bowl, beat whipping cream, vanilla and powdered sugar until stiff peaks form. Reserve half of the whipped cream for topping. Fold remaining whipped cream into cooled chocolate mixture. Spoon into pie shell. Spread whipped cream over filling. If desired, garnish with chocolate leaves, curls or sprinkles. Refrigerate at least 6 hours, or ideally, overnight.

This recipe can also be made into individual chocolate tartlets, as I’ve done in this photo below:

Happy pie and tartlet making!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Coconut Banana Cake

It’s Memorial Day Weekend and you probably have some picnics to go to. We do. These are the kind of events where everybody brings a different item. I’m on dessert duty. Here’s one of my favorite desserts to make for outdoor summer eating:

Coconut Banana Cake

1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 cup butter, softened
3 large, ripe bananas
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
4 T. buttermilk
2 tsp. vanilla
2 large eggs
2 cups chopped pecans
2 cups shredded coconut
4 cups powdered sugar

Directions – Cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour three 9-inch round cake pans. Cream sugar and ½ cup of the butter; add the eggs. Mash two of the bananas and mix in. Sift flour and baking soda; add to the creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk, blending well after each addition. Mix in 1 tsp. of vanilla. Fold in one cup of the pecans and 1 cup of the coconut. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 to 35 minutes. Cool completely before frosting.

Directions – Frosting:
Cream together ½ cup of the butter and the 4 cups of powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Mash the last mashed banana and stir it in. Finally, add the last cup of pecans, the last cup of coconut and the last teaspoon of vanilla. Blend well before frosting cake. If desired, toast about 1/4 cup additional coconut for garnish on top of cake after frosting.

Hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend!


Friday, May 27, 2011

Hospitality on the Road

For some people, circumstances do not allow them to open up their home to others. Maybe they live in an efficiency apartment where there really isn't enough space to have people over, or perhaps their kitchen is being remodeled and everything is in disarray. There was a period in my life when we had a sick relative living with us and we really couldn't have company over; it would have been too disruptive.

But even if we can't use our home, we can still be hospitable. Remember the broader definition of hospitality. It is a lot more than just entertaining, having a perfectly-kept “showcase” home and fixing gourmet meals. True hospitality is a matter of extending yourself to others, and making them feel welcome, comfortable and appreciated. You can do this, even when you're not at home.

Exactly how can this be achieved? There's no end to the ideas you might be able to come up with on your own. Here are a few of my suggestions, just to get you started:

1. Organize an informal potluck with some of your fellow employees at work. When I used to work in an office environment, I did this a lot. We had picnic tables outside our office building that we could eat at, as well as tables indoors in the "break room." We could use either. Often I organized taco salad potlucks. I made the taco-seasoned meat, and guests brought all the other fixins like shredded lettuce and tomatoes, guacamole, shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, sliced black olives, salsa, sour cream, black beans, tortilla chips, etc. If you didn't want to organize a whole meal, you could have your coworkers all bring their own sack lunches, and then you could provide a dessert of some kind to share with everyone.

2. Invite friends to a picnic or cookout in the park. We have some friends who are very good about reserving picnic tables and a grill a local community recreation areas and parks, and cooking steaks for everyone. Sometimes they have guests bring side dishes, but more often than not they provide that too. They really make us feel special!

3. Pack a picnic basket with lunch for two, include plastic eating utensils, plates and cups, and take it to the home of a shut-in or elderly friend. Set the meal up at that person's home, and eat together. Years ago, when I had a full-time office job, a friend and I used to set aside a couple lunch hours a month to do this. We'd decide what foods we were each bringing, call ahead to see who would like a visit, and then the day of the lunch, have our picnic basket ready to go during the noon hour. By the time we drove to wherever we were going, we often only had 30-40 minutes to have lunch with the shut-in, but usually it was just the right amount of time. Oftentimes, the elderly people we visited only felt well enough for short visits. But they were good visits. Besides putting together a nice meal (we tried to serve foods they wouldn't get on community "meals on wheels" programs), we tried to get some good conversations going with the people we visited--asking them how they were doing, to tell us about their lives, etc.

4. Do you know someone who's recently had a baby, surgery, a serious illness in the family? Do you have friends who have just moved to a new home, or new neighbors who have moved in? If so, bring them dinner one night! There are plenty easy and portable meals you can bring to others. Lasagna and other casseroles are always good choices, because you can make these entrees ahead of time, and bring them to the recipients who can bake them at their convenience. It's nice if you can accompany this with a tossed salad--something healthy, that's can be very time-consuming, and much appreciated when faced with time constraints.

5. Send a care package to a college student, or long-distance friend or relative who might need the encouragement. You could fill the care package with home-baked cookies (bar and drop cookies especially travel well). If you do, choose a 1- or 2-day expressing mailing service, so that the cookies arrive when they're still fresh. You could also send a theme care package. For instance, some microwave popcorn, movie theatre candies like Junior Mints, and a couple movie DVDs or movie rental gift cards as a portable "movie night" care package. This might be especially appreciated by college students. A female relative or friend might enjoy a portable "tea party" care package. This would include a couple scone mixes, some lemon curd, a box of fancy shortbread cookies from the store, and a couple boxes of tea (maybe English Breakfast and an herb tea).

6. Next time you have an appointment at your dentist, doctor, veterinarian or hairdresser, take along a tray of homemade cookies for the office staff, with an attached note thanking them for their service. A tray of baked goodies would also be appreciated by the teachers and administrator's at your child's school.

7. When you are invited to someone's home for dinner, bring a hostess gift with you, just to say "thanks" and show your appreciation for the hospitality you've been extended. It could be a bouquet of flowers, a houseplant from your local nursery (with a big bow tied around the pot), a gift bag with some body lotion and bubble bath in it (especially if you know the hostess's favorite scents), or perhaps a homemade craft that you make. I make homemade bath soaps, and will often bring a gift bag with a few varieties of those in it when we're invited to people's homes.

8. Get on the social committee for your church or Parent-Teacher Organization/Association. Volunteer to organize an activity or help with one. There's almost always something planned that these groups could use help with, such as potlucks. dinners, luncheons, pancake breakfasts, costume parties and other socials. This can be a great way to channel your event planning talents, without having to spend your own money (usually you're given a budget to work with) or get your house company-ready. In the past, I have organized bunco parties for my kids' schools (which were sponsored by the PTO) and church youth groups. This kind of help was always appreciated, and they were fun activities for me to organize.

9. Do you have kids in baseball or other community sports? If so, bring some snacks to share with the team and fellow parent-spectators. It could be anything from a tray of homemade cookies and some jugs of soda, to several bags of chips and popcorn or a cooler filled with ice cream sandwiches.

10. After a meal at someone's home, offer to help clean up. If you know the hostess well, start clearing the table on your own, rather than ask if she needs help. If you know your way around her kitchen, start loading up the dishwasher. If there's a lot of silverware, china and crystal that can't be put in the dishwasher, wash that by hand. This can be a very time-consuming chore, and your hosts will appreciate that you've done it for her. I know I am always grateful for this kind of help.

11. If there's a new couple attending your church, a couple moving away or expecting a baby, or are newly engaged or celebrating a silver or golden wedding anniversary, offer to host a party for them in their honor at your church's fellowship hall. Besides decorating the hall, this would probably involve ordering or baking a decorated cake, and arranging to have finger foods, punch or other beverages, plates, napkins and eating utensils for all the guests.

12. Bring a tray of home-baked goodies to your place of employment for your coworkers to enjoy. If you don't have time to bake, pick up a couple boxes of donuts on the way to work one morning and maybe a package of specialty coffee to brew for everyone. It's all hospitality, and all a fantastic way to give to others and make them feel special!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Spaghetti with Ground Beef and Mushrooms

A couple days ago I posted my recipe for chicken cacciatore, and noted how it was an easy meal to prepare for dinner guests. All you need to do is supply some French or sourdough bread for dipping in olive oil and vinegar (or alternatively, frozen garlic bread or bread sticks from a bakery), a tossed salad, and a bottle of wine, and you have a complete meal, perfect for company.

Another entree I like to serve with these same sides is good ol' spaghetti. It's not a "fancy" dish, but one most everyone enjoys....and, it's very easy to prepare. Chances are, you have a recipe for spaghetti sauce that you like to make. For today, I thought I'd post mine. I've been making this recipe for many years. If you like, you can even make this sauce ahead of time and reheat it in the microwave right before serving time. This sauce freezes very well. So here you go:

Spaghetti with Ground Beef and Mushrooms

2 pounds lean ground beef
3 large onions, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 28-ounce can and 1 14-ounce can tomatoes (crushed or broken whole tomatoes)
2 12-ounce cans tomato paste
3 cups water
2-3 large cans mushrooms (or 1 qt. fresh mushrooms, which have been sautéed in 2 T. butter)
2 T. dried parsley
1 T. dried oregano
1/4 cup minced fresh basil
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 T. garlic powder
1 tsp. black pepper

In Dutch oven, brown ground beef, green pepper and onions together. Drain off excess grease (I use a sieve). Add the rest of the ingredients. Simmer over low heat about 1 hour. Serve sauce over cooked spaghetti (or other type of pasta), and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Buona cena!


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Crock Pot Chicken Cacciatore

Oftentimes, it’s the busiest weeks when I’m frantically trying to meet work deadlines, that I most want to unwind with friends at a Friday or Saturday evening dinner. But who has time to prepare a meal if you’re under deadline pressure or are away from work 10 more or hours a day? That’s often when I get out the crockpot.

I know a lot of people don’t think “crock pot” and “company” go together. They just don’t believe most crock pot meals are “elegant” enough for dinner parties. Well, over the years I have found or developed a lot of recipes that are. One of them is chicken cacciatore. With this meal, you just put the chicken cacciatore ingredients in the crock pot in the morning, and it’s ready later on in the day when you want to eat dinner. You just need to cook up some pasta to go with the cacciatore right before you’re ready to eat. Add a tossed salad, a loaf of French or sourdough bread and some olive oil and vinegar for dipping, and a beverage of some kind or a bottle of wine, and you have a meal that’s nice enough for company!

You’ll find chicken cacciatore is a very easy meal to prepare in the crockpot…and it fills your home with a wonderful aroma while it’s cooking! Here’s the recipe:

Crock Pot Chicken Cacciatore

1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 large Spanish onion, sliced thinly
½ red or green bell pepper, sliced thinly
1 T. oregano
1 T. parsley
3 garlic cloves, minced, or 2 tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. lemon pepper
½ tsp. salt
½ cup rose wine
1 T. granulated sugar
1 (16 oz.) can tomato sauce
2 (8 oz.) cans mushrooms

Put all of the ingredients in a medium-sized crockpot, in the above order. Turn on low and cook 7 to 8 hours. Serve over pasta (fettuccini, spaghetti, etc.) and toss with Parmesan cheese.

Buona cena!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ladies' Garden Party Luncheon

Earlier today, a friend and I co-hosted a garden party luncheon for 28 women at my home. Gardening seemed like a cute theme for our meal, especially since so many of our guests love to garden. It was an outdoor party, which is always fun (especially before the weather gets too hot!).

We set up seven tables on our patio, each decorated with different kinds of placemats, napkins, tablecloths, etc.—all fitting in with the garden theme. We served all the food buffet-style. Our guests just picked a plate and went through the food line, and could sit at any of the seven decorated tables.

We served up Southwestern Chicken Salad and a tortellini pasta salad for the main courses, along with garlic toast on the side. For appetizers, we served crackers and cheese spreads. For dessert we had crème brulee with raspberry sauce, chocolate dipped strawberries, and cordial-sized chocolate and raspberry mousse cups. For beverages we served wine spritzers, sparkling water and iced tea.

It was a fun luncheon to decorate for. The chicken salad was served up in a miniature wooden wheel barrow (that was lined first with aluminum foil, before putting in the salad). My friend arranged a garden-related centerpiece to set at the dessert table. And then on the main buffet line, we put the side-fixins’ for the chicken salad in pails and other gardening-related containers. The other foods were in dishes with a gardening motif on them. The two main salads were served with clean and new hand garden shovels. We arranged other little decorations like ceramic lady bugs and caterpillars all along the food line.

I’ve already shared most of the recipes for the foods we served today. The only one I haven’t shared yet on this blog is the recipe for the Southwestern Chicken Salad. That is below, along with a photo of how the salad was served up today. Now keep in mind, we made a huge amount of food today, because we were having a fairly large group over. I’ve pared down the ingredients to make a salad for 8 people.

Southwestern Chicken Salad

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 T. vegetable oil
2 T. McCormick Montreal Chicken or fajita seasoning
1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
1 bunch leaf lettuce, shredded
4 tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced
8 green onions, sliced
1 can sweet corn
1 can black beans
½ cup diced fresh cilantro
1 cup grated cheddar cheese (serve on the side)
Italian, oil and vinegar, or cilantro salad dressing

Rub chicken breasts with oil and seasoning. Grill over medium heat until done. Set aside; wrap in foil to keep warm. In a large salad bowl, toss the lettuces, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, corn, black beans and cilantro together. Slice the chicken breasts ¼ inch thick, against the grain. Serve the chicken, cheese and dressings on the side for guests to put on their salads.

Here’s a photo of the tortellini salad which we served:

Here’s a photo of our dessert table, with the garden centerpiece that my co-host made:

Here are photos of some of the tables set up:

What gal doesn’t enjoy gal time—especially while sharing a luncheon together on the patio?!! Today was wonderful! And now, I look outside and it’s getting ready to rain BIG TIME. I’m so glad we made it a garden luncheon and not a garden dinner. If it was dinner, we sure wouldn’t be eating outside tonight!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cherry Pie Ala Mode--Yum!

I just pulled out a cherry pie for tonight’s dessert. Yum! It’s been a long-time favorite for our family. In fact, the recipe I use (which is posted below) is the same one I’ve been making my whole adult life. It was my mom’s recipe.

This recipe actually has a sentimental association for me. This is one of one of the first things I ever baked for my husband, Tom, when we were first dating. I had just moved into my first apartment and was having friends over for dessert on a Friday evening. Tom was one of the guests. I remember that evening well. I asked him if he’d like a piece of cherry pie. He kind of grimaced and told me that he didn’t like cherry pie. Then he said that he’d at least try a piece to make me happy. So I gave him a piece. He gulped it down. I looked at him and he told me that he decided maybe he liked cherry pie after all. I asked him if he wanted a second piece and he said “Yes.” He wolfed down that piece too. I asked him if he wanted third, fourth, fifth and sixth pieces of pie, until finally he ate what added up to a whole cherry pie, all pie himself. I learned that evening, that Tom was actually quite a fan of cherry pie.

Over the years, I’ve served up this same recipe to a lot of other guests too. You may enjoy making the same recipe at one of your own get-togethers.

Mom’s Cherry Pie

2 16-oz. cans pitted tart red cherries (more or less to taste)
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
6 T. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. almond extract
2 T. Butter
Pastry for 2-crust 9-inch pie

Prepare and roll out pastry. Line half the dough into a 9-inch pie plate. Roll the other half of the dough into a large circle, which will be used for the top crust. Refrigerate until ready to fill crust.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Drain the cherries and reserve 1 cup juice. Set cherries aside. In a saucepan, combine ¾ cup of the sugar and cornstarch. Stir in cherry juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring until thickened and bubbly. Remove from heat. Stir in remaining ¾ cup granulated sugar, almond extract, butter, and cherries. Gently stir together. Spoon filling into pastry lined pie plate. Cut the large circle of dough into ½ inch wide strips. Weave strips to make lattice crust. Bake in preheated oven for about an hour, or until crust is golden and filling is bubbly. If necessary, cover crust with a pie shield or aluminum foil during the last 15-20 minutes to prevent the crust from over-browning. Cool 1-2 hours before serving. If desired, serve with vanilla ice cream.

Happy pie making!


The Thank-You Card: A Lovely, Gracious Tradition

Yesterday I went out to the mailbox and there was a literally a handful of thank-you cards from friends who went to our wine and appetizer party this past weekend or came over for other recent get-togethers. I sure didn’t expect all those cards! But it sure was nice to receive them.

It got me thinking about the whole idea of sending out thank-you notes. Again, I never “expect” them after we host a party. If guests tell me during the dinner that they like the food, or say “thanks for a wonderful evening” when they’re leaving, to me, they’ve covered their bases in terms of showing appreciation…at least in my book. If they mail out a thank you card a couple days later, that’s like doing “extra credit” on a school assignment. It’s not required, but it makes me feel “extra appreciated.”

The etiquette books all say a thank-you card is not required when you go to dinner at someone’s home unless you are the guest of honor. But most of them seem to concur that it’s always a nice gesture. Mailing out a thank-you card (or emailing—for those of you who don’t use pen and paper anymore!) is a way to show gratitude for hospitality that’s been bestowed upon you. If the hosts are the least bit shy, nervous or inhibited about having people over, sending them a thank-you card is an ideal way to encourage them to do it again, and let them know they did a great job.

Certainly if you’ve received a wedding, shower, birthday, graduation or other gift, flowers while you were sick or after the birth of your baby, if someone did you a big favor, or if you’ve been an overnight guest in someone’s home, a thank you card is not only a “nice” thing to do, but most etiquette books say it’s a “definitely should do” kind of thing. I agree.

But what do you put in your thank-you card? What if you have “writer’s block” when it comes to composing thank-you cards? Here’s a basic outline of what you need to include:

1. Address the giver.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Miller," or "Dear Emily,”

Make sure you include a salutation. Your card may seem impersonal without addressing the person/people you’re writing to.

2. Say thanks and note exactly what you are thanking the person for.

“Thank you for monogrammed towels. They were such a lovely wedding gift!”
“Thank you so much for the espresso machine.”
“Thanks so much for bringing us that delicious lasagna dinner the day after I got home from the hospital.”
“It was so thoughtful of you to send us the anniversary flowers!”
“Thank you so much for helping us out on moving day!”

Be as specific. Don’t just say “Thanks for the gift” or “Thanks for the meal.” State specifically what you are thanking the person for. The exception is if you are thanking someone for money. Don’t state how much money the person gave you, nor mention “cash” directly; simply say “Thank- you for your generosity” or “Thank-you for the monetary gift.”

Make sure you’re accurate in what you’re thanking the person for. This is especially important if you’re sending out thank-you notes for a lot of gifts you received after a wedding, shower or graduation party. It might sound like a no-brainer, but make sure you are putting the right gift with the right giver. My husband and I have actually received thank-you cards before for someone else’s gift—and that person was probably thanked for the gift we gave! Another time I put about 10 small—but elegant and specially-selected—wedding gifts inside a very large box that an appliance once came in. About six months later, we got a thank-you card in the mail for the appliance. The couple hadn’t even opened the box—even though I had written on the outside of the box with a black Sharpie marker, “GIFT IS NOT THE APPLIANCE.” It doesn’t make the giver feel like you really valued the gift if you don’t even open the box to see what's inside.

Also, make sure you’re not overlooking something. If your aunt gave you both a set of goblets and a crystal platter for a wedding gift, don’t mention just one of them. Note both items she gave you.

One thank-you faux pax that my husband were once the recipient of is we received a thank you card for coming to a couple’s wedding, but there was no mention of the gift that we gave. The very brief note just said “Thanks for joining us on our special day.” Well, it was nice to know they were glad we came. However, there was no acknowledgement of the gift we gave them. We couldn’t help but wonder….did the couple not receive the gift? Was the gift misplaced? Did they open the gift and threw away the attached card with the wrapping paper—without first opening the card? We didn’t know the couple well enough to ever ask them if they got our gift, but we always wondered.

3. State how much the gift, kind gesture or dinner get-together means to you. If it’s a gift, note how you plan to use it, or how you have already been using it.

“We have been using that espresso machine every day since we’ve been home from our honeymoon.”
“Our new baby will look beautiful going to church in that beautiful pink dress!”
“We really enjoyed the barbecue at your house. We’ve been so busy at work; it was a much-needed respite for us!”
“Those flowers you had delivered to me brightened up my whole week!”
“If it wasn’t for you, we’d still be unloading boxes from the moving truck!”
“That apple pie you brought by was one of the best pies we’ve ever tasted!

This is typically the longest section of the thank-you note—usually around 2 to 5 sentences. The sample sentences above are how you would start out, and then you’d elaborate further with 2 to 4 additional sentences (or more—depending on how big of a gesture you are thanking someone for—and whether or not you are a pithy person!). For most people, this is the hardest section of the thank-you card to write. It doesn’t have to be. Simply state how the person’s gift or actions improved your life, made you feel good, helped you out, or eased your situation. People like to know that they’ve been a help and that what they have done has made you happy. Be sure to tell them!

It’s important to be sincere. Don’t use extreme statements (“That was the best meal I’ve ever tasted!”) just to flatter others, especially if you don’t really mean it. Don’t say something just because you think you’re expected to say it. If you really didn’t like the gift or the meal that your friends brought by when you were sick, don’t say that you loved it. If you’re not “in” to games and really didn’t like playing charades for three hours when you were invited over to the Jones’ home, you don’t have to—and shouldn’t—say that you really enjoyed playing charades. But even in these circumstances, there’s sure to be something you can genuinely thank the givers for—at the very least, that they were thoughtful enough to invite you over to their home, or that they were kind enough to cook a meal for you when you really needed it.

4. Additional thoughts to include—when appropriate

If you are close to the giver, you could respond by expressing your gratitude for having the person in your life:

“We’re so grateful you’re our friends.”
“We’ve really enjoyed getting to know you since we moved here.”
“We’re so thankful you were able to come to our wedding, and look forward to having you over to our home sometime soon.”

If you're thanking someone for a wedding or mail-delivered gift and you don’t know the giver that well—perhaps the giver was your husband’s great aunt who you haven’t seen in a decade, the business associate or friend of your parents, an old friend you haven’t seen in 20 years and haven’t stayed in close contact with—you should still make some kind of statement expressing appreciation for them as an individual person. You could say something like:

“It was nice seeing you at the wedding. Hopefully we’ll see you again sometime soon.”
“It was great catching up with you after all these years.”
“I think about you, and hope all is going well for you.”
“I’ve often wondered how you are doing, and am happy to know you are doing well.”

5. Restate your appreciation.

“Thank you again for having us over and making us feel so special.”
“Thanks again for such a thoughtful gift.”
“Thanks again for thinking of us.”

6. Closing

Best wishes,
So long for now,

Use whatever closing you are comfortable with. Obviously, this will depend a lot on whether you are writing to a relative, close friend, acquaintance, friend of your parents or business associate.

Some other tips:

There’s no set length for thank you cards. Short and sweet is fine as fine as long as your words are sincere and from the heart—and you are covering all the bases discussed above. I’ve received—and written—thank-you cards that did that in as few as 4 or 5 sentences.

Hand-written notes are preferred over typing them. (A typed thank-you letter usually seems too impersonal!) For most purposes, the standard thank-you note cards (which are blank on the inside) available at card shops and dollar stores work fine. The only exception is for a wedding gift, when you probably want to go with more formal stationery.

Don’t worry if your handwriting is a little on the sloppy side. Like most people these days, 99.99 percent of my communication is electronic. When I get out a paper and pen to write a grocery list or card, my fingers aren’t used to forming those cursive letters. I’m totally out of practice! Probably a lot of people are. None of us probably write as neatly anymore as how we were taught in elementary school. The recipient of your thank-you card doesn't care about that. He or she will just be touched you took the time to write out something by hand.

For some people, one reason they may not send out thank-you cards is that having to go down to the card shop to look an appropriate note card is one more errand to try to fit into their already-busy lives. What I do is keep a supply of thank-you and plain note cards on hand. I have a large plastic storage box that I keep them in (along with get well and sympathy cards), which I store in a closet. This way, I don’t have to make a special trip to the store to buy a thank-you card; I’ve already got a nice selection to choose from right at home. So next time you’re at the card shop, grocery store or discount store, you might want to pick up a couple packages of thank-you cards—just to have them on hand.

What about sending electronic thank-you notes? I know some people don’t like them. Personally, I think they’re okay for most situations—especially if the recipient is one who communicates almost exclusively online. (The only exception is for wedding gift thank-yous, which should be on formal note cards.) Again, if your words are expressing sincere gratitude and you’re writing from the heart, any media they are delivered in—snail mail or electronically—will be appreciated by the receiver. I have received email thank-you notes and ecard thank-yous from sites like Americangreetings.com that were just as special to me as the “hard copy” thank you notes I received in the mail.

Finally, what about timing? Emily Post and other etiquette experts say thank-you cards for wedding gifts should be sent within three months after the wedding. All other thank-you notes—for birthday, baby and shower gifts, after someone’s done you a favor, or after you’ve been to someone’s home for dinner or as an overnight houseguest, should be done within a week of receiving the gift or favor.

But the old adage holds true: “Better late than never.” Even if it’s been six months or a year since your wedding, you can still send out thank-you letters for the gift. You could start out by saying something like, “We’ve regretted not sending you a thank you sooner….”

That is a whole lot better than not sending a thank you at all. Unfortunately, fewer people today seem to be sending out thank-you notes, even after receiving wedding gifts, which is a “definitely should do” kind of thing. It’s not just something I’ve observed; others have noticed this trend too, and have brought up this topic in recent conversations.

One other situation when a thank you card (or even a thank you email or phone call) definitely should be sent is with long-distance gifting: a gift that was mailed, or a flower arrangement that was wired and delivered. I’ve sent these kinds of gifts and waited several days or a week after I know the recipient was supposed to have received what I sent and I never heard anything from them. In this case a thank-you card is nice not only to show gratitude, but also to let the sender of the gift know that you actually received the gift. I don’t always trust technology that the order for flowers I bought online actually was actually processed and delivered to the intended recipient. And unfortunately, a lot of mail seems to get lost in transit. It’s nice to have the confirmation that the gift I sent was actually received.

In summary, the thank-you note is a lovely, gracious tradition. True, it may be a lot harder nowadays to get around to sending them in our busy, fast-paced, electronically- and deadline-driven world. However, maybe it’s because we’re living in a busy, fast-paced, electronically- and deadline-driven world, that the thank-you note may be appreciated now more than ever. A thank-you card—or any personalized, hand-written note—sure brings a smile to my face. I know it does for others as well.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wine, Cheese & Appetizer Party

This past Saturday night we had about 100 people over for a Wine, cheese and appetizer party. Now that might seem a lot of people, and indeed it was. But it was a totally no-stress, relaxing evening for me.

We were fortunate to have “perfect” weather in the low 70s for the evening, so about half of our guests mingled with friends outside on the patio and pool area. After dark, my husband turned on the tiki torches and firepit, and lots of people huddled together in the sunken fire pit area. It was really a relaxing evening!

We served up lots of appetizers, including some sweet bite-sized dessert treats. We have a front office which we made our “red wine” room, so we put the red wines in there and set up about 50 wine glasses on the big wood desk in that office. We made our dining room the “white wine” room. We set up a folding table on the patio with all the non-alcoholic beverages on them (after all, we invited families with kids to the evening too, and we wanted to have special drinks for the non-adult guests). The table in the kitchen had all the desserts, plus a tray of cordial glasses and several kinds of liqueurs. Then the center island and countertops in the kitchen, and the coffee table in the family room had all the savory appetizers and snacks.

The way I do these parties is I ask guests to bring either a bottle of wine or an appetizer of some kind to share. I made plenty of food to start with: lots of cheese and cracker trays, spinach and mushroom appetizer quiches, appetizer puffs, appetizer roll-ups, buffalo hot wings, and several desserts. Even if our guests didn’t bring any food, we would have had lots to eat. But our guests brought plenty! (We have lots of friends who are great cooks and everyone seems to enjoy bringing a food to share. I knew I could count on them!) It was super fun sampling all the different foods, mingling and chatting with different groups of people.

These kinds of parties are great mixers because you’re not “parked” at one seat at a dinner table all evening. Most people spent the evening moving around and talking with different people. It was easy to get conversations started as you were moving from one food “station” to another and sampling what was there. I overheard lots of conversations being initiated with lines like, “Oh, who made this?!!” and “Yum, this is SO hot. Have you tried it?”

I actually like these kinds of parties better than just a straight wine and cheese party. If you’re a wine connoisseur, there was lots of different wines to sample last night, and quite a few different cheeses to try out. But for people who wanted more than just wine and cheese, there was lots of other kinds of hors doeuvres to try as well—enough to make it an evening meal. We certainly had all the food groups covered! And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I like to plan get-togethers where entire family units can get together with other families. Teens, for instance, already spend a lot of time with people in their age group at school. I think it’s nice for teens to also be in social settings where they’re around their friends’ parents and other adults (Obviously the wine room is off-limits to the teens, but we made a point to have some teen-friendly beverages just for them.). And it’s nice for parents of teens to get to know their kids’ friends parents.

I already posted recipes for the mini chocolate and berry mousse cups, spinach and mushroom appetizer quiches, appetizer chicken salad puffs, which I served. Here are the recipes for some of the other bite-sized foods which I served:

Tex Mex Roll-Ups

10 burrito size flour tortillas
1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
1 pkg. Fiesta Ranch dip mix or taco seasoning
1 can refried beans
1 cup finely shredded cheddar cheese
6 green onions, sliced thinly
½ cup pitted black olives, chopped

Blend cream cheese, sour cream and taco seasoning together; set aside. Over each tortilla, spread thin layers of refried beans, cream cheese mixture, cheddar cheese, onions and black olives. Tightly roll up each tortilla and refrigerate at least one hour or up to one day in advance. Once chilled, slice into ½ inch pinwheels. Serve with salsa.

***Baked Buffalo Hot Wings for a Crowd***

40 chicken wings
1 ½ cups unbleached white flour
1 ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. garlic powder
¾ tsp. salt
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup hot pepper sauce (such as Frank's, Tabasco or Tapatio)

Cut the tips off chicken wings using kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Discard wing tips. Cut the remaining wing in half at the joint. You will now have two pieces for each wing. Rinse and pat dry the chicken pieces and set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a baking sheet with cooking spray. Place the flour, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and salt into a ziplock plastic bag, and shake to combine the coating mix together. Put 5-6 wing pieces at a time into the bag and shake to coat. Put coated wings onto prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 30 minutes.

While wings are cooking, make wing sauce by stirring the ½ cup melted butter and hot pepper sauce together. After the wings have baked for about 30 minutes, remove them from the oven and brush generously with about half the wing sauce. Return to the oven and bake for about 15 minutes more. Then remove the wings from the oven, turn each wing over and brush with the rest of the wing sauce. Return to oven and bake for 5 more minutes. Remove from oven serve immediately. These wings are wonderful dipped in blue cheese or ranch dressing.

These hot wings can be baked a day in advance and refrigerated. Right before serving, they just need to be microwaved for about 15 minutes. Ths is what I did. They tasted just like they were just cooked. It was a great time saver--and was an easy way to cook/heat them since both ovens were already being used to heat other appetizers like the mini quiches. Once they were heated, I put them in a chafing dish on a low flame.

Here are a couple photos of my chocolate dipped-and-decorated strawberries which I served at the party for dessert:

We also served up dessert cheeseballs with cookies. These were made from mixes from Wind & Willow. This company makes a wide variety of savory and sweet cheeseball and dip mixes. You can buy them online and at specialty grocery stores. I have used them for years and highly recommend them. The only suggestion I have with them is sometimes you need to add a little extra cheeseball coating; there’s not always quite enough in the mix. For instance, with the tiramisu mix, I added extra chocolate sprinkles that I had. Otherwise, there just wasn’t quite enough coating in the mix for my taste. Here are a couple of pics of our dessert ball trays:

I could post many more pics, but this is probably enough for now. Maybe this will give you some ideas next time you’re trying to come up with a fun get-together with friends…

Friday, May 13, 2011

Chicken Salad Appetizer Puffs

Today’s a busy cooking day for me. Tomorrow night we’ve got close to 100 people coming over for a wine, cheese and appetizer party. There’s definitely a lot to do to get ready for that.

One of the items on my agenda for today is chicken salad appetizer puffs. When I get ready for parties, I try to do what I can ahead of time. And then I allow myself a few items to make relatively last-minute. This is one of them. This isn’t something that can be done days or weeks in advance, but it’s still pretty easy to make and people seem to like it.

It’s a two-part recipe. First you make the cream puff-style shells. Then you fill it with chicken salad.

1. “Cream puff” style shells:

½ cup butter
1 cup water
1 cup white flour
¼ tsp. salt
4 large eggs

Spray 2 large baking sheets with cooking oil spray and set aside. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a medium saucepan, heat butter and water to a rolling boil. Add flour and salt and stir until the mixture becomes smooth and leaves the side of the pan. Remove from heat. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Beat until mixture loses its gloss. Drop dough by rounded teasponfuls onto prepared cookie sheets, allowing 2-3 inches between each spoonful of dough. Bake about 15 minutes in preheated oven until puffed and lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool away from draft. Makes about 48 to 80 appetizer-sized puffs. No more than 2-3 hours before serving, split shells in half and fill with chicken salad. Refrigerate until serving time.

2. Chicken salad filling:

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and cubed
4 celery stalks, washed, dried and sliced thinly
5 eggs,hard-boiled and diced
½ cup mayonnaise
1 T. mustard
½ tsp. salt
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

Mix chicken, celery and eggs together in medium-sized bowl. In small bowl, blend mayonnaise, mustard, salt and parsley together; pour on top of chicken mixture and stir together.

That’s it. This is a very simple filling, but it always tastes yummy. We’ll enjoy these chicken salad puffs tomorrow night!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cookie Tray Hospitality

Some of the most hospitable people I have known in my life weren’t gourmet chefs or pastry artists, and didn’t have big homes in which to have people over. My mother was one such person. She died a few months after I graduated college. For the last five years of her life, her health was steadily deteriorating and she wasn't always feeling the greatest. The household budget was tight, so there wasn’t a lot of money available in the household budget to throw expensive parties. We lived in a small house, and for reasons I won’t get into here, my mom wasn’t able to have people over to our home for “lavish” dinners. But she was extremely hospitable.

My mom epitomized what I call “Cookie Tray Hospitality.” Every month or two, she would put together a cookie tray for someone. It may have been for the couple at church who just had a baby, for my teachers to show them appreciation, to welcome new neighbors who had just moved in, to cheer up someone who was going through a rough time, or to thank a friend for helping her out in some way. Often times, though, she was putting together trays of cookies for people for no reason. For instance, she’d take trays of cookies over to our veterinarian’s office (they were family friends) just to surprise them with a treat. That’s a wonderful way to give gifts to others—when they’re not expecting it.

Like my mom, I’ve always enjoyed doing “cookie tray hospitality.” When I do this, I try to arrange a variety of different types of cookies on the gift trays I put together—some bars, some drop cookies, some shaped cookies. I try to have a few cookies with chocolate, a few without, some with nuts, some without. That way you’re covering the taste-bud spectrum.

Next time you’re feeling like, “Oh, I wish I could have people over, but my home’s in no shape for company…” or “I wish we could have guests over but there’s never a free date on a calendar…” why not channel your hospitality desires into cookie trays? This is a way to be hospitable, without having to get your home “company ready,” or having a cook a whole meal. You probably have some favorite cookies you like to make, that everyone raves about. Those would be some good cookies to bake for others.

You could make one just one batch of cookies and put them on a paper plate with plastic wrap on top, or you could buy one of those larger plastic party trays and a clear lid from your local party store and put a variety of home-baked cookies in there. Or, you could fill an old fashioned fruitcake tin full of cookies. If you want to get creative, you could fill a gallon jar full of cookies, tie it with a big ribbon bow, and attach a label on the front of the jar with the recipient’s name on it.

I’ve also put together cookie “care packages” and mailed them off to out-of-state friends—sometimes for specific reasons like to feed a hungry college student friend and other times, for no reason other than to say “Have a nice day!”

What follows are the recipes for some of my favorite “cookie tray cookies”—just in case you’d like to try out some of these recipes. Most of these are cookies my mom used to make when I was growing up. All of these cookies travel and store well.

Turtle Brownies

1 18.5 oz. pkg. chocolate cake mix
1 cup chopped pecans
½ cup butter
½ cup evaporated milk, undiluted
1 large egg
10 ounces light-variety caramels
1/3 cup evaporated milk, undiluted
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
Optional: ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chunks and ½ cup toasted and chopped pecans for garnish

Pour cake mix into large bowl. Add butter and cut-in using a pastry cutter or your fingers. Add pecans. Stir in ½ cup evalportated milk and egg. Spread half of batter in a greased 13X9” baking pan. Bake in 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. While it is baking, combine caramels and 1/3 cup evaporated milk in small saucepan until caramels are melted and mixture is smooth and blended together. Remove pan of semi-cooked batter layer from oven. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Drizzle caramel syrup over chocolate chips. Drop remaining half of batter in heaping teaspoons over caramel drizzle. Carefully spread the batter layer on top and smooth out. Return to oven and bake 20-25 minutes longer. Top layer will still be soft. If desired, sprinkle chocolate chunks and pecans on top for garnish. Cool and cut into 24 bars.

Jam Thumbprints

½ cup butter
½ cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg (yolk separated from white)
½ tsp. vanilla
1 cup white flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup chopped walnuts
Strawberry, raspberry, blackberry or peach jam, or orange marmalade

Cream butter and sugar together. Add egg yolk and vanilla. Stir in flour and salt and blend well. Form dough into balls (with a heaping teaspoon of dough for each ball). Beat egg white until frothy. Dip each dough ball into egg white, and then roll into chopped nuts. Place about an inch apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375F for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and make indentations with the end of a wooden spoon. Place a dab of jam or marmalade in each indentation. Return to oven and bake about 8-10 minutes longer. Remove from cookie sheet and cool on rack. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

M&M Drop Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups white flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
1 12-ounce package M&Ms
½ cup white chocolate chips

Cream together butter and sugars. Add egg and vanilla. Stir in flour, soda and salt and blend well. Add in M&Ms and white chips. Drop by tablespoonsfuls about 2 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake about 12-14 minutes in 375 degree oven, until edges are lightly browned. Makes 3-4 dozen cookies.

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

1 ¼ cups butter, softened
¾ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
1 ½ cups white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3 cups “quick” oatmeal
12 oz. bag semi-sweet chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugars together. Beat in egg and vanilla until mixture is fluffy. Add flour and baking soda. Stir in oatmeal. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 9 to 11 minutes in 375 degree oven, until golden brown around edges. Remove from cookie sheet and let cool on a wire rack. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¾ cup white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
10 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup macadamia nuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Add egg; mix well. Sprinkle flour, baking soda and salt on top of creamed mixture, and then stir together. Blend in vanilla. Stir in white chocolate and macadamia nuts. Drop the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls about 3 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheets. Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until lightly browned on the edges. Let stand a few minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool. Makes 2-3 dozen cookies.

Peanut Butter Hershey Kiss Cookies

1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup creamy peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 T. milk
1 ¾ cup white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
48 Hershey kiss candies

Cream together the butter, shortening and sugars. Stir in peanut butter, vanilla, egg and milk, and beat until smooth. Mix in flour, soda and salt. Shape into balls 1 teaspoon each. Roll into granulated sugar. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet 10-12 minutes in 375 degree oven. When done, immediately top each cookie with a Hershey’s kiss. Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Strawberry Oat ‘n Coconut Bars

1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup “quick” oatmeal
½ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup butter, cold
½ tsp. baking soda

1 ¼ cups strawberry jam

2 T. butter, cold
¼ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
¼ cup white flour
½ cup chopped walnuts
¾ cup unsweetened, flaked coconut
½ tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. To make crust, combine all five crust ingredients until crumbly. Pat into a greased 13 by 9 inch baking pan. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. While the crust is baking, mix all the topping ingredients together until crumbly; set aside. When crust is done, remove pan from oven. Carefully spread strawberry jam on top of crust. Sprinkle with crumb topping. Continue baking about 20 minutes more—or until edges and topping are lightly browned. Cool and cut into bars. Makes 24 to 28 bars (depending on how large you cut them of course!).

Happy cookie baking!


Monday, May 9, 2011

Come for Coffee!

Who isn’t busy these days? I know I sure am. Between work, family, household, school and various volunteer commitments and responsibilities, there is always something that needs to be done. Many days, I am going nonstop from the time I get up in the morning until past midnight when I go to sleep. And still, there’s often a list of things I didn’t get done that day that I wanted to. I know I’m not alone. Most people I know—men and women alike—tell me it’s the same way for them. We’re just continually on the go.

When life gets that hectic, it can truly be a challenge to find time for entertaining on top of everything else you need to do. If that’s your life, you may not be able to have people over for full meals. You may not have time to do all the cooking, and you may not have a couple hours or more free to just sit and relax over dinner. That said, one thing even the busiest people can still do is have people over for coffee.

This is something I try to do at least once every couple months. It might be just one or two gal friends on a weekday afternoon, and maybe just for an hour. But this short amount of time together can be a real emotional boost—for the host and for the guests. Everyone needs breaks from the routine, to rest your brain a bit, and to be able to catch up with friends. There have been times when I’ve had a major writing project to finish and maybe I was feeling a bit “brain-dead” from staring at the computer screen for 12-hours a day for several days in a row. Allowing myself an hour or two coffee break with a friend is often just what I needed to re-energize myself and feel more motivated about working. Of course, coffee with a friend can also serve as a pick-me-up when the weather’s dreary and gloomy.

Having people over for coffee is a really easy way to entertain. You could just brew a pot of your regular coffee, and get out some mugs, a pitcher of cream and your sugar dish. You might want to serve up some kind of sweets to go with the coffee. This could be something simple, like a dozen donuts from your local donut store, or pick up a bundt cake or pastry at your supermarket’s bakery section. If you’ve got time to bake, you might make a batch of brownies or your favorite cookies, or maybe some coffee cake or cinnamon rolls. It all tastes good with coffee!

You could also get “fancy” with your coffee too. I have a collection of flavored coffees (many of which have the words “chocolate” and “decadent” in their names) that I like to get out for company. Of course, if you have an espresso machine, you could make some cappuccino, Irish coffee or lattes.

I’ve also got a collection of recipes for special coffees that I like to make for company. Here are a few of my favorites:

Care Mexicano

¾ cup ground dark roast coffee (regular or decaffeinated)
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
6 cups distilled or filtered water
1 cup milk (whole or 2 percent)
1/3 cup chocolate syrup
2 T. light brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
Garnish: Whipped cream and ground cinnamon

Place coffee and cinnamon in the filter basket of a drip coffeemaker. Add water to coffee maker and brew as directed. In a saucepan, blend milk, chocolate syrup and sugar together. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Combine milk mixture and brewed coffee; stir in vanilla. Garnish with freshly whipped or canned whipped cream and cinnamon. Makes 6 cups. Enjoy!

Orange Coffee

4 orange slices
16 oz. (2 cups) strong, hot coffee (regular or decaffeinated)
8 oz. prepared hot chocolate
Garnish: Whipped cream and cinnamon

Warm 4 coffee mugs. Place an orange slice into each mug. Pour coffee and hot chocolate over orange in each of the four mugs. Top with sweetened whipped cream and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Brazilian Coffee

1/3 cup cocoa
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 can sweetened condensed milk
5 cups water
1 1/3 cups strong coffee, freshly brewed

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine cocoa, salt and cinnamon. Add sweetened condensed milk and mix well. Then add water and coffee. Heat thoroughly over low heat (without letting it boil). Makes 8 cups.

Iced Coffee

1 10-cup pot of coffee (extra strong)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 can sweetened condensed milk

Mix ingredients together. Refrigerate until cold. Pour into beverage glasses that are 1/3 full with crushed ice. Makes about 7-10 glasses of iced coffee.

Café Au Vin

1 cups strong French roast coffee, regular or decaffeinated
4 T. granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
4 oz. tawny port wine
1 tsp. orange peel, grated

Combine ingredients in a blender and mix at high speed. Pour into chilled wine glasses. Makes 4 servings.

Keep in mind this doesn’t have to be a daytime activity just for home-based moms and wives. I know couples who have friends and neighbors over for coffee and dessert in the evenings after they’re home from work and done with dinner. Some people like to sit out on their front porch in the evenings with another friend or couple and drink their after-dinner coffee. It can be a nice way to unwind after an exhausting day…and still show some hospitality.

Often having people over for coffee is a spur-of-the-moment idea. With my family, sometimes we’ve called friends after dinner to tell them I’ve got an apple pie baking in the oven and vanilla ice cream in the freezer, to see if they’d like to have some coffee and dessert with us (usually I’m motivated by wanting to share the calories—so my family’s not consuming the entire apple pie I just made!). These are friends who live just a few minutes’ drive away, so it’s usually pretty doable to come over for just a bit (especially if we make it “worthwhile” for them!).

Remember, whether you are simply serving up a pot of your regular coffee and donuts or cappuccino and petit fours, it’s all hospitality…and an easy and enjoyable way to make time for friends.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mini Spinach Appetizer Quiches

A couple months ago I posted the recipe for mushroom appetizer quiches. Today I made a batch of mini spinach quiches. I am going to serve these at a wine, cheese and appetizer party which we’re going to be hosting in a little over a week’s time. To make them, I use my Nordic Ware tartlette pans—the same pans I used to make my peach streusel tartlets which I wrote about on Monday. What I really like about these spinach quiches—besides the taste—is that they can be baked in advance, frozen and then reheated right before serving. They taste like they were freshly baked! Any kind of party prep that can be done in advance, I say, is wonderful. Here’s the recipe:

Mini Spinach Appetizer Quiches


Pastry for a 2-crust 9-inch pie
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen, thawed and chopped spinach
1 large onion, chopped
2 T. butter
2 large eggs
1 cup heavy cream
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
1 ½ cups grated Swiss cheese (or a combination of Swiss and Provolone cheeses)

Divide pie crust among two 12-cavity tartlet pans. Set aside. Defrost the spinach. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Sauté the onion in butter. When the onions have become translucent, remove from heat. In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs and cream until smooth. Add to onions. Add the salt and black pepper. Mix well. Drain any excess water from the spinach. Then mix the spinach and one cup of the Swiss cheese into the egg and onion mixture. Then divide evently into 24 tartlet shells. Top mini quiches with remaining half cup of Swiss cheese. Bake for about 30 minutes or until center of quiches is set. Do-ahead tip: can freeze and reheat (10-12 minutes at 350 degrees) before serving.

These mini quiches also make perfect additions to brunches and breakfasts, and any time you’re serving appetizers at a dinner party. If you make them, I am sure you and your guests will like them!

Happy quiche-making!


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Mother's Day Tea

With Mother’s Day right around the corner, you might be trying to come up with some unique gift ideas for your wife or mom. Why not host a tea party in her honor?

If you have young children still at home, you could enlist their help and organize a tea just for your immediate family. Or, if you’re a teenager or grown “kid,” you could host a tea for your mother all on your own, or as a joint effort with your siblings. You might want to invite other members of your extended family to the tea as well, such as your dad, aunts and grandmothers.

A Mother’s Day tea party for Mom may sound like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. Your mother (or wife) will be thrilled that you put the effort to organizing this kind of event for her. If you have children, they can actually do a lot of the preparation work, and chances are they will be thrilled to help out.

What all is involved in throwing a party like this? At the very minimum you will need a teapot, tea, teacups and saucers, dessert or luncheon plates, eating utensils, and some food accompaniments such as finger sandwiches, tea breads, pastries or cookies on nice serving plates.

During the tea party, you will want to have several different types of teas on hand, so that everyone at the tea party can take their pick. “You might want to fill the teapot with a standard blend like Earl Grey or orange pekoe, and then have a tea kettle with hot water on hand to fill individual cups with alternate choices such as herb or green teas or flavored black teas,” suggests Marsha Yarbrough, owner of The Lavender House Tea Room in McKinney, Texas.

You can either buy the standard bagged teas, or loose leaf teas. If you do the latter, you’ll need a small tea infuser for each guest and a large brewing basket for the teapot. The afternoon of the party, you will need to start steeping the tea for the teapot right before Mom arrives. To do so properly, Yarbrough says you should fill the pot with very hot boiling water and steep your tea 5 to 7 minutes, depending on how strong you like it.

In terms of food accompaniments, there are a lot of easy options. You could just pick up a bakery cake or a deli quiche from the supermarket, cut it into small pieces to serve, and then arrange it on a plate. Buy a loaf of banana bread from the bakery and slice that up, or a dozen fancy cookies. You could also pick up some “to go” sandwiches, scones, muffins or pastries from a tea or coffee house.

If you have children who are good in the kitchen, you might want to let them prepare some simple foods. Sandwiches are easy. Spread hummus or garlic cream cheese onto cocktail-sized breads and top each with a thin cucumber slice. Or, blend a package of Good Seasons Zesty Italian salad seasoning mix with a tub of whipped cream cheese, and spread that on cocktail breads before topping them with cucumber slices. Cut peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into fun shapes using cookie cutters. Or, trim the crusts on bread slices, cut them in half into triangles, and then put tuna or chicken salad between each triangle-shaped half. Arrange the sandwiches on a pretty serving tray.

As far as sweets go, you could also buy some refrigerator cookie dough rolls for your kids to slice up and bake (under supervision by Dad), or a cake mix that could be baked into cupcakes and frosted with ready-made icing.

There are a number of scone mixes available that can be prepared by the kids as well. “The dough can either be rolled and cut out into triangles, or dropped by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet,” suggests Debbie Perroni, owner of The Vintage Garden Tea House in Montgomery, Texas. You can buy scone mixes from specialty stores like Cost Plus World Market or tea house gift shops. Be sure to pick up some lemon curd and Devonshire Cream to spread on the scones. Assorted jams, jelly and apple butter are also yummy on scones.

Obviously, if you are an adult “kid,” you may want to do some more involved baking. You may want to bake some shortbread, almond crescents or jam thumbprint cookies. You’ll find recipes for these cookies in most cookie cookbooks. They are all perfect for teas. The peach and fruit tarts, raspberry bars, banana bread, mushroom appetizer quiches and raspberry bars which I highlighted in my earlier blog posts are also good additions to a tea party menu.

What time should you plan on having your tea? Afternoon teas traditionally take place between 2 and 5 pm. Plan to have your tea in a peaceful area of your home, such as the formal living room, sunroom, patio or porch. Everyone will either sit around a coffee table or a folding card table that you set up. Cover the table with a nice tablecloth. If you really want to make Mom happy, splurge and buy some flowers for a table centerpiece. Set each place setting with a plate, teacup and saucer, napkin, dessert fork and spoon. Place the teapot somewhere near center of the table. You will also need a creamer for cream or milk, a sugar bowl with its own spoon, and spreading knives with each condiment.

Your children could “invite” Mom ahead of time to the tea, with a homemade “formal” invitation which they hand to her several days before the tea. Alternatively, they could surprise her right before the tea is ready to be served. (This would involve getting her out of the house for the morning and then bringing her back inside the house when the tea is ready to let her see a beautifully-decorated table).

If all this still seems like too much work, another option would be to take Mom out for afternoon tea at a local tea house. You can locate one near you by checking out the TeaGuide Worldwide Tea Room Online Directory (www.teaguide.net). Just type in your zipcode and you will be given a list of tea rooms that are close to you, along with a designation of whether or not the tea room is “child-friendly.” (Note: not all tea rooms allow patrons under 12 years of age, either because they have a lot of fragile objects lying around or they cater to patrons who want “adult time.”)

For Mother’s Day, it’s best to make reservations at least 2-3 days in advance since tea rooms get booked up fast for holidays and seating is limited. Expect to pay on average around $15 per adult and $10 per child.

Whatever option you go with—whether hosting a tea on your own or taking your mother out to a tea room—it’s all a wonderful way to show your appreciation, love, and in truth, hospitality, to a very special female in your life. Happy Mother’s Day everyone!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Peach Streusel Tartlets

Here’s the recipe for the peach streusel tartlets I made this past Friday. These are one of my sons’ favorite desserts. You may like it too.


Pastry for a 2-crust 9-inch pie

5 cups thawed frozen or fresh peaches, sliced thinly
1 cup granulated sugar
3 heaping T. flour
½ tsp. cinnamon

Line individual tart pans with pastry. I use the tartlette pictured at the bottom of this post. The amount of pastry for a top and bottom 9-inch pie should be just right to line 24 tartlet pans with pastry. You can use individual tartlet pans (as long as they are deep and not shallow tartlet pans) if you do not have the 12 cavity tartlette pans like I do.

Divide the peach filling evenly among the 24 tartlet cavities. (Alternatively, as a time-saver you can use 2 cans of peach pie filling instead of making your own peach filling. You may want to slice the canned peach pie filling pieces in half, as they’re typically very thick—-and too thick to arrange nicely in tartlet pans.) Top each cavity with about 1-2 tablespoons of streusel topping (recipe below).

Streusel topping:
¾ cup white flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
6 T. butter (cold—straight out of fridge)

Bake tartlets in a 375 degree oven, for 25-30 minutes—until crust is golden and filling is starting to bubble. When done, cool on cooling rack. These tartlets taste good warm, fresh out of the oven, or cool.

Here is a photo of some of my tartlets on the cooling rack:

Here’s a pic of one of my tartlette pans. I use it all the time--for mini quiches too. This pan is made by Nordic Ware, and can be purchased from Amazon.com.

Happy Baking!