Monday, February 28, 2011

Fresh Fruit Tart


I know much of the country is still experiencing wintry weather, but here in Dallas spring weather is here! One of my favorite desserts to make when the weather warms up is a fresh fruit tart. Not only is fruit in season during the spring and summer months (and much more affordable!), there’s just something about the warm weather that makes a light, fruity dessert taste especially good. Here’s my recipe for my favorite fruit tart:

Fresh Fruit Tart

Ingredients:
Pastry for one 9-inch pie shell
8 oz cream cheese
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup granulated Sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
4 oz heavy cream, whipped (with a little powdered sugar)
Apricot preserves
Fresh Fruit (such as kiwis, blueberries, raspberries--red and yellow, blackberries, strawberries)

Fit the pie crust into a 9-inch tart shell. Bake in 400 degree oven about 15 minutes, until slightly golden and flaky. Carefully remove the crust from the pan, and arrange on serving plate.

For the filling, beat cream cheese until fluffy and smooth. Add vanilla, granulated sugar and sour cream. Fold in whipped heavy cream. Spoon into baked tart shell, and refrigerate several hours (until firm).

Several hours before serving (no more than 8 hours in advance), wash and pat dry fruit for topping. Set aside. In a sauce pan, melt apricot preserves over low heat. Put melted preserves through a sieve. Discard larger pieces of apricot, and use the rest for a glaze for the fruit. Dip the washed fruit in apricot glaze, and arrange on tart.

This is one of my favorite desserts—very colorful and tasty!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cook-in-the-Oven Texas Beef Brisket


I’ve got one of those large chest freezers….you know, the really deep, horizontal kind where you never really know what’s at the bottom. So every couple months I’ll remove the top layers of frozen food from that freezer and take inventory…just to see what’s all there. I did that tonight, and lone behold, I found a beef brisket way at the bottom.

So guess what we’re serving up for company next time we have guests…BEEF BRISKET! It’s actually one of our favorite main dishes to serve up to large gatherings. When I do, I use the recipe below. This is for a 4-pound brisket. A lot of times I’ll double or triple this recipe, if I’ve got an extra large brisket to cook up.

The key is cooking this cut of meat very slowly at a low temperature—one hour for every pound of meat. It’s almost like using a slow cooker, and the meat comes up v-e-r-y tender and flavorful. I like to serve it up with Layne Wooten’s Rattlesnake Barbecue Sauce (which I talked about in my February 1 post).

If you use this recipe, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

COOK-IN-THE-OVEN TEXAS BEEF BRISKET

Rub, for 4 pounds of beef brisket:

2 T. chili powder
2 T. salt
1 T. garlic powder
1 T. onion powder
1 T. ground black pepper
1 T. Sugar
2 tsp. dry mustard
1 bay leaf, crushed

For 4 pounds of brisket, you will need 1 ½ cups beef stock

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Trim excess fat on brisket. Mix the dry rub ingredients together, and season the brisket on both sides with the rub. Place the brisket on rack in a roasting pan, fat side up. Add beef stock to yield about ½ inch of liquid in the roasting pan. Put roaster lid on. Bake 1 hour per pound of meat. When done cooking, leave out at room temperature 15-20 minutes before cutting. Then slice the meat thinly across the grain. Top with juice from the pan, or serve with warm barbecue sauce on the side.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Product Recommendation: TableTopics Question Cards


It might sound silly, but when I plan dinner parties, I don’t just think about what food I’m going to serve; I also think about what kind of conversation we’re going to have. Now that’s not always a big dilemma to have to contend with, especially if we’re having over good friends who we really connect with and know really well. The conversation just naturally flows.

But then there are times we invite guests who we don’t know so well. Or maybe some of them are not exactly natural conversationalists or they’re a bit shy. In these situations, I try to have conversation topics in mind, to try to stimulate talking. One way to do that is with a wonderful product I found called TableTopics Question Cards.

This product consists of a four-inch clear acrylic cube, which holds 135 cards. Each card has a conversation-stimulating question on it, such as: Which piece of land would you wish to have preserved forever? Is intelligence or common sense more important? If you could name the street you live on what would you call it? If you could be an ambassador, which country would you choose? Who’s your favorite celebrity right now and why? What’s your favorite quotation? What song evokes the strongest memories for you?

At dinner get-togethers, you can sit a card at each person’s place setting, or just pass the cube around and ask your guests to take turns drawing a card. Or during a party, set the TableTopics cube out on your coffee table for coasters. It never fails—as soon as one person answers a question, it gets other people asking him or her to elaborate, as well as share their own perspectives.

There are many editions of TableTopics cubes, besides the original, including dinner party, family, college student, teen, couples, gals’ night out, and “What would you do?” editions. Each has 135 question cards, and costs about $25 for each set of cards. You can buy this product at specialty stores, as well as Amazon.com. It’s an easy and fun way to get a conversation going!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Grand Finale to a Pasta Dinner: Authentic Italian Cannoli


It’s Friday night, and company is coming over tomorrow night. That gives me something to look forward to.

Now it’s certainly been a busy week work-wise. I didn’t have a lot of “free time” this week to cook for a dinner party. About the most I had was just a couple hours late this afternoon. However, I did what I recommended in an earlier post: last Sunday I made up a large pan of lasagna (actually two) and put it in the freezer. That’ll be the main course for tomorrow night. To go with that, I bought some frozen garlic bread and our guests are bringing a tossed green salad and an antipasto/vegetable tray. That’s the main meal.

So when today rolled around, there wasn’t a lot that needed to be done for the dinner party. I could go into the weekend feeling pretty relaxed. The only thing that I had to do today was make a dessert for tomorrow. I was able to focus the couple hours I had available today to cook to make something really creative and special to follow tomorrow night’s pasta dinner. I decided to make a classic Italian pastry: cannolis.

Today I made the shells and the filling. After I cooked the shells, I put them in a plastic storage container. The filling stays in the fridge. Then about an hour before company arrives tomorrow evening, I’ll fill and garnish the cannolis. They’re one of my all-time favorite desserts. You may like them too!

Cannoli

SHELLS:

3 cups white pastry flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 T. Crisco
1 large egg, separated (save the egg white for later)
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine
1 T.white vinegar
2-3 T. cold water
Canola oil for frying the shells

In large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar and cinnamon. Cut in the Crisco with your hands or pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Make a well in the center. In a small bowl, beat together the egg, egg yolk, Marsala, vinegar and 2 T. water. Pour this mixture into the center of the flour mixture. Mix the dough until it holds together and forms a large ball. (You may need to sprinkle an extra tablespoon of water over the dough, a few drops at a time, until the dough holds together and is not too dry.) Knead in the large bowl about 10-15 times. Cover and refrigerate 1-2 hours, to let the dough relax. Then take the dough out and separate it into quarters.

Roll each quarter out with a rolling pin to get it as thin as you can. The dough will be hard to roll, but do the best you can. Next, cut dough into 4-inch wide strips and run through a pastry maker. Start on the thickest setting and keep putting the dough strips through thinner and thinner settings until it has gone through the thinnest setting. By then the dough will be very thin. Place each of these thin sheets onto a floured work surface.


Use a 4-inch diameter bowl as a guide to cut out circles of dough. Take each circle of dough and wrap it around a metal cannoli form. Dust some flour on the top of each dough circle, before you wrap it around the cannoli form (this will make it easier to remove the cooked shells from the forms). Take the egg white you set aside earlier and beat until frothy. Use a few small dabs of egg white to seal the top of the dough circle onto the dough underneath it.






If there are holes in the dough, or if you need to take two smaller pieces of dough “scraps” to patch together a piece big enough to cut out a 4-inch wide circle, you can use the egg white to “glue” these pieces together. (You’ll never be able to tell you did this, once the cannolis are cooked and finished!)

Fry the shells, 2-3 at a time, in medium-hot oil, about 2-3 minutes each, in a deep fryer or heavy skillet, until the shells are golden brown and blistery-looking. Use tongs to turn the shells half-way through the frying process.


When finished, carefully remove the shells from the form. (I usually tap one end of the form to make the cannoli shell slide down to the other end, and then I carefully hold the cannoli with tongs and the tube with a hot pad holder.)


Let the shells drain on paper towels. Store in an airtight container. Fill and garnish the shells 1-2 hours before serving (You can’t do this too far in advance, or the shells will become soggy.).


FILLING:

2 lbs. ricotta cheese
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 ¼ cups powdered sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
¾ cup mini chocolate chips or chocolate sprinkles

Add about ¼ cup of powdered sugar to the whipping cream and beat until stiff peaks. Fold in the ricotta, the rest of the powdered sugar and the vanilla. Use a pastry bag to fill the cannoli shells with this filling. Dust with additional powdered sugar. Garnish each end of the cannoli with mini chocolate chips or chocolate sprinkles. Buon appetito!

Friday, February 18, 2011

How to be a GREAT Guest

My last post was about how to be a good host. But there’s another element in the hospitality equation: the guests. For a get-together to be a success, the guests have their part to play too. The host could do everything right but if her company makes a lot of social faux pas, the dinner could go so south pretty fast. On the other hand, if the host flubs up in some way—perhaps the main entrée is overcooked or she’s late getting the dinner on the table—depending on how the guests respond, the evening could still be a success.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about lately, not just when company comes over to our house, but even more so when we get invited to other people’s homes. A well-behaved guest can make things go much more smoothly for the host, and make it a much nicer evening for everyone present at the party. Not only that, if you’re a “good guest,” you’re much more likely to get a repeat invitation!

To me, the most important things a guest can do are:

--Accept invitations promptly. If you get an evite, don’t stay undecided for weeks on end. It may not bother you to wait until the last-minute to decide if you’re coming. But for the host, it’s always better to know way in advance of a party, how many are coming and how many to plan for.

--If you can’t make it to an event, give at least a brief explanation why. Always thank the hosts for inviting you, even if you can’t come.

--When you receive the invitation, ask if you can bring something to contribute to the meal—perhaps a bottle of wine, a tossed salad or other side dish, or a dessert. I know I always appreciate it if my guests can help out by bringing a salad, because then that’s one part of the meal I don’t have to worry about.

--Arrive at the event promptly. This is especially important if this is a formal dinner, where the timing of the meal is very precise. A host may be able to keep an entrée warm in the oven only so long before it dries out. Not only that, the host may find herself in an uncomfortable decision of either starting the meal without you, or waiting for you to arrive (while the other guests may be starving!). Of course, sometimes genuine emergencies happen and you can't be on time. A good rule of thumb is to call the host if you are going to be more than 15 minutes late.

--Don’t arrive early either—unless you’ve called the hosts first to make sure it’s okay. Often it’s the 15 to 30 minutes before guests are to arrive that are the most frantic for the host, because that’s when all the last-minute cooking needs to be done. Sometimes too that’s when the hosts are scrambling around trying to quickly tidy up their home before company arrives.

--Once dinner is served, take your cues from the hosts. It’s standard etiquette to wait until the hosts sit down and pick up their forks before the guests start eating. Now if I'm not ready to sit down yet but my guests are already at the table, usually I’ll suggest they go ahead and start eating without me. But don’t do so unless you’ve been given the “green light” from the host. During the meal, try to pace your eating to that of the hosts.

--If you like the meal, let the host know. If the main entrée tastes delicious, tell her! Many people are insecure about their own cooking, and appreciate hearing that someone else likes their food. (And even if a hostess isn’t insecure about her cooking, she’ll still appreciate a genuine compliment!) If the host is obsessing about the meal—worrying that it isn’t up to par—reassure her that you appreciate her doing all the work and find something you like about the meal that you can compliment her for.

--Don’t leave anyone out of the table conversation. Talk about topics that most everyone knows something about; avoid subjects that are of interest to only one or two people at the table. Don’t dominate the conversation, or interrupt when others are talking. Dinner parties are a great time to practice good listening skills.

--Steer clear of off-color humor and offensive or controversial table topics. This is particularly important if you don’t know some of the other dinner guests very well. If you start spouting off about your staunch political views, that could be the beginning of a disaster if your guests also have staunch but OPPOSITE political views. If you discover that the other guests have strong, opposing views, keep your perspectives on those topics to yourself—unless you know the other person and you are certain he/she is interested in hearing another opinion and you can discuss the topic respectfully.

--When the meal is over, offer to help clear the table, load the dishwasher and wash crystal, silverware and china. It’s amazing how quickly kitchen clean-up can go when several people pitch in together. And it can actually be kind of fun. I have some of the best conversations with other wives while we load the dishwasher together, while our husbands sit in the other room and have their “guy talk.”

--Know when it’s time to leave, and don’t overstay your welcome. Be able to read your hosts’ body cues and take the subtle hints (if they give them) that they’re ready for the party to end: the hosts yawn, they talk about their busy day ahead or how early they have to get up in the morning, they look at the clock and gasp, “Oh, it’s 11 o’clock already!” Those are all cues that it’s time to leave. (Of course, I’m a night owl, and usually what happens at my house is it’s 10:30 pm and my guests are yawning and saying they need to leave, and I’m just getting energized and saying “Do you really have to go this early?!!” But I know not every host is like me!)

--Extend your thanks warmly as you leave. A day or two later, it’s nice to follow-up with a thank-you card (by email is okay, but a hand-written drop-in-the-mail card is especially nice these days!).

Those are my thoughts on the subject. What about you—what kind of expectations do you have for your dinner guests or for yourself when you’re a guest in someone’s home?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

20 Ways to be a Good Host...Besides being a Gourmet Cook


So far in this blog, I’ve shared a lot of favorite family recipes. But truth be told, there’s a lot more to hospitality than just being a good cook. Truthfully, you could be a skilled chef and still not be hospitable in the truest sense of the word. And the opposite is also true—you could only be a so-so cook and still be an outstanding host.


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what are the essential aspects of being a good host. I’ve come up with 20 points, which I’ve listed below. Please let me know what you think. Do any of you have any thoughts you’d like to share on this topic? If so, please post your comments. I’d love to hear from you!


1. When coming up with your guest list, keep personalities and interests of your potential guests in mind. Invite people who will mix well, but don’t clash. Don’t invite all extroverts or all introverts. Try to come up with a nice mix of both. And remember: just because someone talks a lot doesn’t mean he/she is an extrovert. Someone could be totally absorbed in himself—name-dropping, boasting about his accomplishments, focused on his own conversation topics, talking only about what he wants to talk about—and not be outgoing. A true extrovert is someone who tries to engage others in conversation and draw them out—without being pushy or too forward. If you’ve got a lot of shy or quiet people on your guest list, try to invite some truly outgoing people as well.


2. Don’t invite more guests than you can comfortably accommodate. If you live in a 1,500 square foot home, a 50-person guest list is probably pushing it.


3. When you invite people over, ask them if they have any good allergies, dietary restrictions (lactose intolerant, diabetic, gluten-free, etc.) or strong preferences (no garlic, doesn’t like salmon, prefers foods that are not heavily processed, etc.), so that you can design a menu for the evening with them in mind. Now, if you’re having a large group, it may be unrealistic to make every food item on the menu in-line with everyone’s dietary wishes. However, you should try to make sure there are a least some entrees and side dishes everyone will be able to eat.


4. Be as specific as possible when telling guests how to dress (formal, informal, etc.). Don’t assume your guests know what “dressy casual” means; that may mean something totally different to your guests than it does to you.


5. Plan ahead, and have a “to list” for what needs to be done and when during the days and weeks before your event. Do as much work as you can ahead of time, so that you don’t have to be rushing around the kitchen when company arrives. You want to be able to enjoy your company and relax during your party. If you’re relaxed and happy, your guests will pick up on that and will be much more likely to have a good time themselves. Remember, your goal is to extend hospitality and friendship to your guests—not to impress them with your superior culinary skills.


6. Make sure your guests have the correct date and time. Usually I’ll send out email reminders to everyone on my guest list, 5 to 7 days before an event.


7. Figure out where your guests should sit at the dinner table, before they arrive. (The only exception would be a totally casual cookout or buffet where there are more than enough seating options.) Place card holders are ideal for formal or even large informal dinners.


8. Introduce your guests to each other as they arrive. When you do, tell them a little something about each other as an introduction. As the host, you are the central person all people know. It’s up to you to help your guests meet someone interesting and get a conversation started.


9. Don’t serve more than one entrée or side dish that requires split-second or last-minute timing. Use crock pots and chafing dishes to keep entrees warm while you are trying to get the rest of the meal ready.


10. Turn off the television when guests arrive (unless, of course, they’re coming over to watch a movie or sporting event).


11. Check the bathroom and make sure there is enough toilet paper and hand soap for your guests.


12. Have plenty of ice on hand; most gatherings generally go through a lot of it—especially during the summer months. Either make up some extra ice cubes ahead of time, or buy a bag of crushed ice to stick in your freezer.


13. If you don’t know how much food to make for your party, lean on the “more than enough” side rather than “not quite enough.” If you have leftovers, you can always eat them later or freeze what didn’t get eaten. On the other hand, if you didn’t prepare enough food, that can be an awkward situation for you and your guests.


14. Regulate the room temperature to a comfortable level. If you’ve got a large crowd coming over, you may want to turn the thermostat down a few degrees less than normal.


15. Monitor the lighting; all your lights on kills the ambiance, but you don’t want it so dim that guests can’t see either.


16. If you have background music playing, don’t make it so loud that people can’t hear each other talk. Select music that most everyone will like, and fits in with your theme for the evening, if you have one (e.g., Greek music for a Mediterranean feast).


17. As the host, try to chat with each individual guest at your party for at least a few minutes. Don’t only let a few people dominate your attention the whole night.


18. If families with young children are coming over, have some toys available to keep the kids occupied, so their parents can enjoy the adult company. I have a closet-full of children’s puzzles/games/Legos/stuffed animals that our young guests are always welcome to play with. These are toys that used to belong to my sons (who are now teenagers). If you don’t have any hand-me-down toys, you might invest in a few sturdy children’s games—just to have on hand.


19. Closely monitor your event as the evening progresses. Refresh appetizer trays, refill empty bowls of snacks, clear away empty plates and glasses, etc.


20. Finally….as the host it’s important that you keep the conversation among guests going in a positive direction. If you notice someone’s “hot buttons” being pushed, steer the conversation topic onto something more innocuous. If one of your guests is dominating the conversation, do your best to intervene and try to others talking. If any of your guests seem left-out or ignored, try to engage that person in conversation. Better yet, introduce that person to another guest--someone who’s really friendly. I have been at small dinner parties where the majority of guests worked in a particular field and “talked shop” the whole time, leaving the one or two other guests out of the conversation the whole evening. I have also sat at tables where two guests talked back and forth the entire dinner, each trying to smooze and impress the other, while ignoring the person at the table sitting between or adjacent to them. As the host, it’s your job to always be scanning your guests, looking for anyone who might be stuck in a difficult conversation and doing whatever you can to make sure it is a positive time for everyone present.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Flowerpot Dirt Cake


One way to create a little fun when you’ve got younger kids coming over is to make flowerpot dirt cake. You may have had or seen flowerpot dirt cake before—a creamy pudding cake inside a flower pot, topped with crushed chocolate cookies and decorated with gummy worms. Well, I made one of those dirt cakes for tonight’s dinner. We had three families over, with several small children. I thought it would be a dessert the kids would really like.

Besides the gummy worm-decorated cake, I also made two “more realistic” dirt cakes in flower pots. One of these had a silk fern in it, which looked very realistic for a fake plant. I kept that in the fridge. In another pot, I put an actual plant in it. I kept that cake “pot” in the fridge too, and right before company arrived, I stuck a small houseplant in the pot (I wrapped plastic wrap around the plant’s roots, before sticking it into the dirt cake, so no real soil mixed in with the cake). Then we sat the two “realistic” dirt cakes on the coffee table right before company arrived.

We were all sitting around the coffee table, eating appetizers while the main dinner finished cooking. The fun for the adults was watching the kids as my husband asked them, “Hey, do you dare me to eat this dirt?!!” There’s always giggles and gasps as the children watch my husband eat “dirt.” We have done this several times over the years, and it’s always fun to watch the reactions of the kids.

It’s also a very tasty cake too—and easy to prepare. Many of our guests tonight had seconds on dessert—and it wasn’t just the kiddos.

Next time you invite families with young children coming over, why not serve them some dirt too?!! It’s sure to add to the evening!


Flowerpot Dirt Cake

1 pkg. Oreos
1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese
4 T. butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
2 pkgs. (3.4 oz. each) instant vanilla pudding mix
3 ½ cup cold milk
1 8-oz. carton Cool Whip whipped topping, thawed



Take white filling out of inside of Oreos, and then crush the dark chocolate cookies until fine in a food processor. Set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, butter and sugar until smooth. In another bowl, mix pudding and milk with a whisk until well blended and thickened; fold this into cream cheese mixture. Fold in whipped topping. Line flower pot with plastic wrap. Alternate layers of crumbs and pudding, ending with crumbs. Chill until serving. Decorate with plastic or silk plants and gummy worms.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Homemade Pasta—YUM!


Unbelievably, we have another snow/ice day today in the Dallas area! With my sons home from school, we decided to make homemade pasta together. Everybody likes homemade pasta! It's a favorite food for my family. It’s also well-received at dinner parties.
I have a hand crank Italian-made Imperia pasta machine, which I bought from Amazon.com. (You can read more details about this pasta maker, in the ad on this page.) I’ll take you through the steps to make homemade pasta, just in case you’d like to make some pasta for yourself.
First, make the dough. Pasta dough only takes a few very simple ingredients. Today, we made a basic pasta dough with unbleached white flour. You can also make colored pastas using ingredients like beet juice, boiled spinach, butternut squash puree, and tomato puree. Or, you can make some wonderful whole wheat pastas using stone-ground wheat. I will feature some of these other pasta varieties in future blogs. In the meantime, here’s the recipe we made today:

BASIC PASTA DOUGH

2 ¼ cups unbleached white flour
2 jumbo eggs
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. salt
¼ cup lukewarm water, plus extra water if the dough is dry

Place flour on a large bowl and make a well in the center. In a smaller bowl, beat the eggs, olive oil, salt and ¼ cup water together. Pour egg mixture into flour well and stir mixture together until it becomes smooth and homogenous. If the dough is dry or crumbly, add extra water, sprinkling on a teaspoon at a time, until the mixture stays together in a ball. Dust your kitchen worktop with flour and knead dough about 10 times—until it is smooth and elastic. Cover dough ball in plastic wrap and let it rest for about a half hour, to relax it.

Once the dough is done resting, you are ready to put it through the pasta maker. First, roll the dough out into a large square. Then cut into rectangles about 4 inches wide. Turn the pasta maker to the widest setting (#1). Pass each dough rectangle through the rollers. When you are done, cut the rectangles in half and run them each through the rollers again, this time on a more narrow setting (#2 or #3). Then cut the rectangles one more time, and put them through an even more narrow setting (#5). I stopped at this point, because we were making fettuccine, and that pasta doesn’t need to be too thin. But if you were making a thinner pasta, such as angel hair pasta, you would keep passing your dough rectangles through. There are 10 settings on this machine, the narrowest of which is #10. The photo below shows the dough rectangles passing through the pasta maker.

Let the dough sheets rest for about 10 minutes, put on the cutting attachment, and then pass the dough rectangles through for cutting. Here in this photo, you can see the fettuccine being cut.




Next, place the cut pasta on a rack for drying. I have a wooden Pinzon pasta drying rack that works very well. Let the pasta dry for an hour before cooking. See the picture below:



Cook the pasta in boiling water (that’s been salted, for flavor). Since the pasta is fresh, it will cook in only about 5 minutes.

If you plan to cook the pasta at a later time, place the dried pasta in a plastic storage bag and put it in the refrigerator or freezer. Homemade pasta can stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to three days. Frozen pasta should be used within 2-3 months.
We cut the pasta on a fettuccine setting. You can also make spaghetti with this pasta maker. Or, if you prefer, you can take the sheets of pasta and cut out your own ravioli- or lasagna-shaped noodles. You could even get creative and make shapes like manicotti.
Once the pasta is made, your next decision is the sauce. With the fettuccine we made today, those will be covered in Alfredo sauce. Yum!
My favorite Alfredo sauce actually came from my 17-year-old son, Danny. He developed this recipe by himself:

FETTUCCINE ALFREDO

½ cup butter
3 T. cream cheese, softened
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup half and half
1 tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
2/3 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
Cooked fettuccine

In a medium saucepan, melt butter. Add cream cheese and stir until blended with butter. Stir in heavy cream and half and half. Season with garlic powder, salt and pepper. Simmer for about 15 minutes over low heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan cheese. Serve over fettuccine.


Well, that’s my cooking project for today. Who knows…with the weather the way it is, we may all be home for another family cooking project tomorrow!

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Super SUPER BOWL Party!



    Last night was SO much fun! We had close to 50 people over for our Super Bowl party. Everyone seemed to have a good time. Many of us had been dealing with “cabin fever” since Tuesday, so it was especially nice to be able to be with friends and talk and laugh and have a good time. We had A LOT of food, and it was a great football game! One of our friends present was wearing a cheese head and a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and had yellow pom pons, and we all enjoyed watching her cheer. That added to the fun!
    Even though I was the hostess, I think I probably relaxed just as much as everyone else at the party. If you can pull that off, I think it really helps make a party successful. If the host is happy and relaxed, everyone else will pick up on that. But if the host is frantic, tired and stressed about getting everything done last-minute, that just kills the atmosphere. Your guests can’t relax because you aren’t.
    One of the best party tips I can offer is to do as much as you can ahead of time. Plan out your menu, decorations, etc., and then come up with a timetable for what needs to be done and when. If a food item can be made up in advance and frozen, do it. Make “to do” lists for the days before your party. Buy your party supplies ahead of time before a big event like the Super Bowl, rather than wait last-minute and then have to go from store-to-store trying to find what you need because a lot of places are sold out on certain items.

    Here’s my timetable for last night’s Super Bowl Party:

4 weeks in advance:
--Sent out evites to guests
--Ordered Super Bowl table cloths, plates, napkins, cups, party decorations, games and prizes from an online party store
--Helped my son write Super Bowl trivia quiz

3 weeks in advance:
--Bought prizes for the contests and games at our party

1-2 weeks in advance:
--Assembled homemade egg rolls and froze them
--Made meatballs and froze them
--Made cookie dough “balls” and froze them
--Made brownies and froze them
--Made mini pizza crusts and froze them

1 week in advance:
--Shopped for all foods except for perishables (bought what I could at Costco to save money—chicken wings, beverages, etc.)

3 days in advance:
--Bought super bowl balloons and perishable food items
--Decorated family room with streamers, etc.

2 days in advance:
--Made football cake
--Took meatballs, egg rolls and cookie dough balls out of freezer and put them in refrigerator to thaw

Night before:
--Made Seven Layer Dip
--Prepared pizza toppings for mini pizzas
--Fried egg rolls, let them drain on paper towels, and refrigerated them
--Baked cookies
--Got brownies out of freezer to thaw
--Assembled brownie and cookie trays
--Put tub of frozen margarita mix in freezer

Mid-morning/early afternoon before:
--Got meatballs going in crockpot with BBQ sauce
--Made hot wings in oven; then put them in crockpot on warm
--Arranged center island and counter tops for buffet line
--Last minute tidying of house

One hour before:
--Topped mini pizza appetizers
--Baked egg rolls and other prepared snack foods (mozzarella sticks, mini bagel hot dogs, jalapeño poppers, etc.)
--Put bottled beverages in large buckets with ice for serving


    Here’s a photo of what was going on in my kitchen Saturday night when I was “multi-tasking” for my party. You can see I was frying egg rolls, baking cookie dough balls, and sautéing seasoned ground beef for the pizza, all at the same time.


    I like to cook the egg rolls the day before a party, so that I don’t have a big grease mess in the kitchen right before guests arrive. And then last minute (about 10 minutes before serving them) I just reheat them on a cookie sheet (that’s been lightly sprayed with cooking oil spray) at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. Pull them out, and they taste fresh, like you just pulled them out of the deep fryer.
    Here’s a pic of some of the egg rolls draining. Dipped in Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce, these are one of my favorite treats! But they are definitely not low calorie. They do have a lot of healthy ingredients inside them. That’s what I keep telling myself.


    Another important party tip that I have been stressing in my blog is to take advantage of short-cuts. I served a lot of homemade foods last night. But not everything was homemade. I think it’s fun to have a wide variety of foods to sample at parties, and to save time, I buy some of them. So I had bought TGI Fridays’ frozen Jalapeno Poppers, one of my guests brought over some frozen mozzarella sticks to bake, and I had ordered some mini bagel hot dogs that just arrived the day before from Chicago.
    These are Vienna Beef mini bagel hot dogs. They are a perfect addition to a Super Bowl party—or any party! I’ve only seen them in grocery stores in the Chicago area and southeastern Wisconsin, where we used to live. But you can buy them mail order, and they’ll get them to you in 1-2 days (they managed to do that this week, despite the deep-freeze that the Central part of the U.S. was experiencing!). I am not crazy about corn dogs, but these bagel hot dogs are a delicious treat. Here’s the website where you can buy them: www.viennabeef.com/store. I figured our friends here in Dallas (where we live now) might really like to try them. I always think it is fun to serve something that is unique, that you had to "import" from another area (and in this case, from Chicago!).



    One last important time-saving tip for parties is don’t be shy about letting your guests bring food items. If your guests ask if they can bring something, let them. Last night people brought beverages, cheese and cracker trays, chips and dips, veggies and dip trays, and some hot appetizers (one of my favorite was barbecued mini hot dogs, which I knew in advance was coming, and I was looking forward to them!). Obviously it can help cut down on expenses and save you on food prep time if your guests bring something. But I’ve also found that many guests actually enjoy being able to bring a dish, to be able to share a favorite food they like to make.
    Finally, one other thing I wanted to comment on is that if you can get your whole family involved in the party, that’s the ideal. That way it's not one person doing all of the work. My 15-year-old son, Brandon, was a big part of last night’s success. He was in charge of the contests and games, and he was a big help.
     Not only that, the Super Bowl party was a way to get Brandon involved with entertaining/hospitality. He is a football maniac if there ever was one! That’s fine, but I’d like to see him take an interest in some other things too. By having him take care of the party games, I was building on something he is already interested in (football).
    I had Brandon plan what games we were going to have, and pick out the prizes. We had a football pool where guests had to guess what the score would be at the end of the 1st quarter, halftime, 3rd quarter and final score. Brandon had guests write down their predictions when they arrived at the party. His football party pool sheet is in the picture below. (We used a football pool poster sheet from a party store, but certainly you could make your own.) The back was blank, but Brandon added more lines there, so that he could have about 40 people play. So there were 20 additional guests who wrote down their predictions on the back.
    Brandon also passed out the football trivia game to everyone who wanted to play (this was a 2-page quiz, and is also in the picture below). During the party, he gave out prizes to the winning guests. When the mom of one of his friends won the football trivia game, he got a real kick out of that, especially since a lot of the questions were REALLY hard. Actually three other moms there won the 1st quarter, halftime and 3rd quarter predictions as well. The guys didn’t do too well last night. Go figure!


    I really enjoyed watching Brandon passing out the prizes and running the games. It was nice to see him interact with some of the “old people” at the party, who he may not normally have talked with in a social setting. The way I look at it, if that happens at one of your parties, that’s an important aspect of true hospitality: getting people to interact with others who they don’t really know so well.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Chocolate Football Cake


       Our Super Bowl party is just two days away! Still confined home with the crazy Dallas winter we’ve been having, I have had lots of time to bake (although I am running out of baking supplies, and am not too keen on the idea of driving on the icy roads to get some more groceries!).
      Today’s project is a football cake. I used a football-shaped cake pan that I bought from Wilton many years ago (and they still make it), and filled it with my favorite chocolate cake recipe. This is a recipe I got from my brother-in-law, Jimmy, many years ago. It’s one that he came up with himself. It’s the moistest, most delicious chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted. Here’s the recipe, in case you’d like to try it:

Deep Dark Chocolate Cake

2 cups granulated sugar (I use Baker’s Sugar)
1 3/4 cups unbleached white flour
3/4 cup cocoa
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup strong coffee, cooled slightly

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans, one 13x9x2 inch baking pan, or a Wilton football pan.  In large bowl, stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla; beat on medium speed of electric mixer 2 min. Stir in Coffee. Batter will be thin. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes for round pans, 35 to 40 min. for rectangular pan or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 min.; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost with your favorite frosting.

      I’ll be getting the cake out of the oven in a couple minutes. I’ll let it cool and wrap it over night, and then I’ll decorate it tomorrow (Saturday) night. This cake is so moist that you can bake it 2-3 days before serving and it still tastes fresh—like you’d just baked it the day you served it. But with so many food items to make before the Super Bowl party, I’ve been baking whatever I can in advance, so that I don’t have too many last-minute items to deal with.
      I just looked outside and it’s snowing again. Heavy sigh. I love the snow. Winter is one of my favorite times of the year. But we’re beginning to wonder when Dallas’ crazy winter weather is going to end. I just hope the weather warms up and the roads clear up enough for our guests to travel to our Super Bowl party Sunday afternoon. I am sure I am not the only one in Dallas concerned about Sunday’s weather.