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party food

Stephen Colbert Americone Dream Cake

melted ice cream cake from The Cake Mix Doctor

CakeDecorated2

This post will just make it look like all I do is bake sweets, which isn’t true. I sometimes cook them on the stovetop, like peanut brittle. More seriously, I have been cooking some savory food, but it’s the holiday season and that means parties and festivity, and that means that like as not my contribution will be dessert.

IngredientsForCake

Oh, by the way, holiday party? That’s not an accidental phrasing. I support the secularized holiday season because it lets all of us revel in light as the dark nights draw in, not just a select few. I believe in the open, inclusive approach to this time of the year, when several holidays are taking place (one starting this very night). I think the fact that a wide variety of cultural traditions converge on the idea of a festive season of light and giving says a lot about our common humanity. I don’t give much credit to the idea of a war on Christmas, though the commercialization of it is a real if not especially new problem.

BatterInPan

As it happens, I was invited to a holiday party largely made up of humanists and skeptics, and we had a marvelous time full of good will and good cheer. I wanted to contribute something that would be fun and memorable but also easy to prepare, so I turned to The Cake Mix Doctor and flipped quickly to the recipe for Melted Ice Cream Cake. It’s very simple indeed: in a mixing bowl combine a box of white cake mix, three eggs, and a melted pint of superpremium ice cream of your choice. I considered New York Super Fudge Chunk but thought the chunks might be a problem for the mixer; I considered chocolate but wasn’t sure it would be distinctive. Then I spotted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream, and thought, hey! I am cake and so can you!

CakeCooling4

I mixed the ingredients together and poured them into a greased, floured Bundt pan, which went into the oven for about 50 minutes. I let it cool for 20 minutes, as instructed, then turned the cake out, which was tricky and didn’t go perfectly; I ended up with a small bit sticking to the pan, leaving a little divot on the top. Well, that’s what frosting is for.

MixedFrosting

The frosting recipe is from this cookbook as well: chocolate cream cheese frosting. It’s also easy: powdered sugar, vanilla, butter, cream cheese, cocoa. I spread it on the cake, using my offset spatula to try to shape and sculpt it a bit, then sprinkled on some gold dragees for a festive look.

SlicingTheCake

People liked it. It was most and tasty. My only complaint was that I ate way too much at the party, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own.

Thanksgiving, Tradition, and Inertia

SeitanLoavesCloseup

Thanksgiving must be the most tradition-bound American holiday. The focus of the celebration is narrow: a harvest feast, and usually a very circumscribed menu. The template is rigid: gather with your family, cook a turkey and some starchy sides, and watch some football before the Christmas season drops upon us like an anvil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Our vegetarian gathering is an act of rebellion in this context, almost a dangerous outlier. There’s no meat on the table, and quite a number of dishes with no egg or dairy either. Those who gather are friends, not family, and we don’t travel from any further than an adjacent borough. (Though visitors from out of town would be welcome if they were to come.) We watch no football, cut out no paper Pilgrim hats, and top no sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and not just because marshmallows aren’t actually vegetarian. If turkey and stuffing are classic Americana, we are subversive.

VegsToRoast
But in other ways we have a very tradition-bound celebration. We’ve been holding it since 2005 with only one interruption, so it’s been a tradition since 2006. We have our favorite dishes: seitan pot roast, macaroni and cheese (for those who wonder, it’s apparently a Southern thing), cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes. We always watch episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or its descendants Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax. Even the root beer and the chocolate pudding cake are traditional mainstays now.

We love our traditional dishes, but it’s different for the food writers: starting in early November the anguished cries start breaking out in newspapers and magazines. Thanksgiving, the food writers say, is hard; there are no new things to say about roasting the oversized bird (for the love of God, don’t bake it with stuffing inside), preparing the usual array of sides, using up the leftovers. Kate Julian on Slate points out that the menu is full of annual classics for a reason: “Any lineup that is full of things we only eat only once year seems suspect. If we really liked turkey and candied yams so much, would we not pull them out again on some other day?” She pleads for us to consider new and non-traditional dishes, in a tone that sounds resigned to falling on deaf ears.

I’m more optimistic that there’s hope for heterodoxy here. Maybe it’s just because I’ve co-hosted a bird-free feast for some years now without being visited by the Department of Homeland Security. Or maybe it’s because, since I’m not participating in a family feast that’s fraught with inherited emotional baggage, I feel freer to make the holiday all about the things that make me and my guests happy, and sometimes to let myself put it in that order. In some cases that means the cherished standbys; in some cases that means new variations like olive rolls, an adaptation of the Martha Stewart recipe I made for Christmas a few years ago, which hadn’t had a chance before now to join the November table. In years past it’s been roasted brussels sprouts, kale with cranberries, pumpkin-ice-cream pie. There’s room for the new and the old on my table. (Despite what the photo below suggests.)

ThanksgivingTable
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the 107 Cookbooks project means to me as I figure out how to get back on a cooking and publishing schedule. The reason I have more than 100 cookbooks — more than 107, if I’m going to be honest about it — is that I am constantly open to new ideas and ready to get excited about different tastes and ingredients. The reason that up until a few years ago I hadn’t done anything at all with the lion’s share of those books is that on a day-to-day basis, it’s very easy for me to opt for the familiar, the traditional, the easy. The safety of tradition can provide comfort, a stable place to brace yourself and take a breath before striding confidently back into the world. Carried too far, it can become laziness and ossification, until you find yourself trying to remember the last time you had something for dinner that didn’t come with french fries.

I learned a lot from the first couple of years of this blog: how to make paneer, how to make Thai curry paste, why I don’t usually make Jell-O. I want to get back into the habit of trying new things even as I accept that the good stuff will make its way into a growing traditional repertoire. I’m not throwing up my hands in defeat. So you’re going to see me here more often.
OliveRolls

The Cake Mix Doctor: Baking Outside the Box

birthday cake cones

CupcakeCones2If you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably noticed that I’m kind of a snob about scratch cooking. I don’t think that every kind of processed food out there is an abomination, but I think a lot of them are, and their chief failing is that they provide a lower-quality, less tasty result, often in cases when it just isn’t that hard to make the dish for yourself.

CakeIngreds3Ann Byrn, author of The Cake Mix Doctor, thinks that cake mixes can produce subpar cakes, but they also offer two great advantages: They save a significant amount of prep time, and they are engineered to be nearly impossible to ruin. Even the most maladept baker can successfully produce a cake from a boxed mix. And rather than turn up her nose, Byrn embraces the mixes and MixingCake2offers recipes that improve on their lackluster flavors with the addition of spices, extra eggs or oil, or other secret ingredients. I’ve long been a fan of her melted ice-cream cake, which enhances a white cake mix with a pint of your choice of premium ice cream (New York Super Fudge Chunk is fun).

For the party I decided to make birthday cake cones. I started CupcakeConesInPan3with a package of store-brand devil’s food cake mix, and beat in water, oil (a bit more than called for on the box), eggs, and half a teaspoon of cinnamon. So far, so basic. Now came the fun part: I spooned batter into wafer-style ice cream cones, the ones with the flat bottoms, whose bases I’d wrapped with aluminum foil to prevent leaking. The recipe says to fill the cones only halfway, but FillingConesI think I could have added a wee bit more. (I had some leftover batter, which I poured into standard cupcake liners.) Once I’d filled all the cones, I carefully maneuvered the pan into a 350-degree oven and let the cupcakes bake for 25 minutes. (I was expecting all the cones to fall over as I moved the pan, but they were stable. Whew!)

BakedCones6Now it was time to make the frosting. Byrn has an extensive chapter of frosting recipes; as she says, cake mixes are one thing, but frosting mixes and canned frosting are pretty bad across the board, and homemade frosting can be extremely easy to make. I sifted 3 cups of powdered sugar. This is probably the most finicky part of making frosting, if you use a sifter, as I did, but you could FrostingIngreds2also get satisfactory results by pouring powdered sugar into a bowl and giving it a whirl with the mixer blades, then measuring it out; the important thing is to break up any clumps so you have a fine, consistent powder and you’re not overpacking the measuring cup. I set the sugar aside and put one stick of butter (softened) into a mixing bowl with 2/3 cup of cocoa, and stirred ButterAndCocoa2them together on the lowest mixer setting until they were evenly blended. Then I added the sugar, 1/3 cup of milk, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, and a pinch of salt, and mixed them on the lowest speed until they were just blended, then turned the mixer up to high and beat the frosting another 2 minutes or so, until it was fluffy and light. Total prep time, including sifting the powdered sugar: about 7 minutes.

FrostingMixed2We frosted the cupcakes and decorated them with candy sprinkles, which is always loads of fun; I find I can usually make this my last piece of party prep and enlist the help of the earliest-arriving guest, or even make decorating a main party activity. People do love to slather on the frosting and get creative with the colored sugars and decorating pieces.

CupcakeCones4The cupcakes were really delicious, too. The added cinnamon wasn’t really easy to pick out as cinnamon, but it gave the chocolate a richer undertone. The frosting was rich and chocolatey as well, though I had a moment of puzzlement when I first tasted it — then I realized that I’ve gotten into such a rut of making cream-cheese-based frosting that I was assuming any homemade frosting should have that subtle tang. It was just dandy without it, though.

Verdict: Success. I’ll want to make these again, playing with flavors and frostings.

A Man, a Can, a Plan: A Laugh

chunky kernel spread

MixingDip4I picked up A Man, a Can, a Plan from the discount tables at the Strand Bookstore a couple of years ago. It has so much to make fun of: thick cardboard pages of the kind usually found in babies’ picture books; “recipes” that involve mixing together the contents of cans and passing the results off as cuisine; and a deeply silly self-justifying introduction that would be DipIngreds2offensively sexist if it could possibly have been meant as anything other than a joke:

“Men don’t cook.” People tell me this all the time. That’s a load of bull. … we have better things to do. Why slave over a hot stove when we could be cooking up plans for a golf outing ? Or warming up at the gym? Or making things CreamCheeseNRanchsizzle in the bedroom? … When your girl insists that you cook something for a change, you’ve got it in the can.

The book is published by Men’s Health, which clearly has very little faith in its readers’ ability to find their way around a kitchen without pictorial guidance. Or in their palates, for that matter; we DicingRedPepper2find canned ham and pop-tube crescent rolls, tuna and jarred spaghetti sauce, Spaghetti-Os and — well, anything, really — and a truly disheartening array of canned soups. It looks like sponsorship must be involved too, because some brand-name products are featured in vivid color photos, while no-name ingredients get a textual “also” but no pictures.

MixingDipIt didn’t take long to flip through the 50 recipes, but to actually settle on something I would make and ask other humans to eat took a while. I ruled out Spaghetti-Os, canned meat, and anything that would need to cook for more than 30 minutes on a 90-degree day. I also ruled out pineapple, canned fish, and beer as an ingredient. (I guessed that anything I was willing to drink would have too MixingDip3strong a flavor for the dish.) I was left with a few options, and settled on chunky kernel spread, which I keep wanting to call chunky kernel dip, because really it is a dip.

This is one of the easier recipes of an elementary lot. I allowed two packets of reduced-fat cream cheese to soften (the recipe called for fat-free, but you can’t really DipWithFritos2find fat-free anything in our local stores), then mixed in a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix. The recipe directed me to then add an 11-ounce can of corn (drained), a 5-ounce can of sliced black olives (drained), a 4-ounce jar of chopped mild green chiles (also drained), and a small red bell pepper (diced). I could only find 12-ounce cans of corn, and chose not to worry about the PartySpreaddifference. I could also only find cans of whole black olives, so bought a can and sliced up enough to equal the canned amount. And I found only cans of chiles, not jars. I thought I had pulled a can of chopped chiles but discovered when I opened it that I had once again fallen prey to grocery shelf dyslexia and purchased whole chiles, so I chopped those up as well. I stirred everything together, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and stuck it in the fridge for a little over an hour.

Closer to party time, I pulled out the dip and put it into a bowl, which I set in a serving dish and surrounded with Fritos (as per the recipe). I found the dip underwhelming when I sampled some off the spoon, but it turns out that Fritos were required for a reason: the high level of salt and the strong corn flavor tie together the flavors in the dip, and make it a pretty satisfying snack.

Verdict: Success. I can’t see myself making this again any time soon; it seems like it would go best with a sports-watching party, and I don’t really watch sports. Puppy Bowl, maybe? If I do make it again I’ll use hotter chiles and kalamata olives, and buy more Fritos.

The Twinkies Cookbook: Twinkiehenge

Twinkiehenge

TwinkieHengeTwinkies are the epitome of processed food: spongy, resilient, wrapped in plastic, with only slightly more flavor than the wrapping, they are globally recognizable and endlessly the same. They couldn’t not be Recipes of the Damned. So when I saw The Twinkies Cookbook in the discount section at Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago, I had to buy it. What could one possibly cook with Twinkies?

PuddingIngreds2So many things, though “cook” is not always the operative word. An astounding 49 recipes, ranging from Twinkie Kebabs to Twinkie Ice Cream to Twinkie Tunnel Bundt Cake (yes, cake with a tunnel of Twinkies) to Pigs in a Twinkie. (In the upsettingly named chapter “Twinkies and Meat,” which only contains three recipes, thank heavens.) You can blend Twinkies into a milkshake. You can deep-fry them and serve them with chocolate sauce. (We tried that at Chipshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn; meh, unable to hold a candle to the deep-fried Cadbury Creme Egg.)

Oreos2But of course for the party I had to try Twinkiehenge.

It’s very simple. You start by mixing up some instant chocolate pudding, according to the package instructions. The recipe called for a 5.9-ounce package, but all I could find was two 3.9-ounce packages. This didn’t bother me; have you ever noticed that you never hear the phrase “too much pudding”? I mixed up the pudding and put it into a serving bowl, and topped it with crushed Oreos, about 16 cookies’ worth.

CrushingOreosNow it was time to add the Twinkies. The recipe says to cut Twinkies in half crosswise and stand them up on end, with the rounded edges up and the cut ends pushed into the pudding. But this seemed to me to be only halfway there. Stonehenge isn’t just standing vertical stones; it’s the crossbars that make it truly distinctive. Without them I’d have Twinkie Rapa Nui. So I halved a few Twinkies lengthwise as well and laid them atop the posts, and voila: Twinkiehenge.

CrushedOreosSome of you may have found the combination of chocolate pudding and crushed Oreos familiar. When I was in my teens, back in the last century, our Y-Teens gatherings often featured a dessert known by a number of names: Better than Sex, Better than Robert Redford, God in a Pan. (Yes, we were in our mid-teens and Robert Redford was in his late 40s at that point. What can I say? The man can still bring it.) BTS was made of chocolate pudding, crushed Oreos (often still a bit chunky), and whipped cream or Cool Whip. We did not bother with Twinkies, or henges.

PuddingAndOreosOf course on Saturday it took us a while to get around to eating Twinkiehenge. It’s one of those dishes that looks too pretty, or at least too goofy, to eat. But we cast aside our fears of little Twinkie Druids casting little Twinkie curses on us, and dug in. Unsurprisingly, the combination of pudding and Oreos was tasty. The Twinkies didn’t really add anything to that. They didn’t detract; they were just kind of there.

TwinkieHenge3Verdict: Success, albeit silly. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Twinkie part again, but we’re working on transforming too much pudding into no more pudding.

The New Joys of Jell-O: Joy Is Not the Word I Would Use

ring around the fruit mold

RingAroundJellO2I have never been a fan of Jell-O. I find the texture off-putting, the taste chemical-y and harsh, and the very principle simply wrong. This is probably one reason that I own three Jell-O cookbooks; in fact, it was a Jell-O cookbook that started me down the path to Recipes of the Damned, and eventually to this blog.

JelloFruitCocktailThe New Joys of Jell-O is not that cookbook. The New Joys of Jell-O is a slim hardcover published in 1973 and resplendent with early 1970s glory; lurid color photos display outmoded hairstyles, clothing and Jell-O dishes. The publisher is clearly trying to pull Jell-O out of a 1960s cultural tar pit by showing that hip, groovy people who are in touch with today’s modern world will show up on your doorstep carrying fruit encased in translucent goo.

JellOPowderThe last time I made a Jell-O recipe I played it safe, adding melon balls to lime Jell-O and leaving it at that. This time I decided that I really had to go big. Big and bad, as it happened. So I scanned the recipes for something that would encapsulate all the worst aspects of Jell-O cookery — no small selection of choices — and settled on ring around the fruit mold.

JellOInBundtPan2I began by making the Jell-O itself. Following the recipe’s instructions, I drained the liquid from a 30-ounce can of fruit cocktail, and added water to it to make 1 1/2 cups. I set this aside, possibly not as far as I should have. I dissolved a 6-ounce packet of strawberry Jell-O in 2 cups of boiling water, stirred in the fruit cocktail solution, and poured the liquid into a Bundt pan. This represented my first real sign that things weren’t going to go quite as hoped. (Well, first real sign after the realization that I was making Jell-O in the first place.) I don’t own any actual Jell-O molds, and I didn’t have anything at all ring-shaped other than my standard Bundt pan, and it’s about twice the size I needed. I worried a little about whether the Jell-O would unmold cleanly, then decided there wasn’t anything I could do about it at this point, and put the pan in the fridge to chill overnight.

DicingMarshmallowsThe next step was to assemble the fruit component. The recipe called for 1 cup of prepared Dream Whip, 1/3 cup of chopped nuts, 1/2 cup miniature marshmallows, and the fruit from that can of fruit cocktail. You can see already this isn’t going anywhere good. I’ll reassure you on one point, though: Dream Whip is (or perhaps was) the mix-it-yourself equivalent of Cool Whip. (It is not salad dressing; that’s Miracle Whip. Breathe a sigh of relief.) I don’t know if Dream Whip is available for sale today, but it certainly can’t be found in my neighborhood grocery store, so I substituted Cool Whip.

JellOFillingIngredsThe marshmallows were also a problem, because they didn’t have miniatures at FoodTown. I couldn’t be sure from the shelves if they were sold out or if they just weren’t available. I considered trying the other grocery stores in the area, but I decided against that. It’s been insanely hot here, and I didn’t feel like trooping from store to store. I also wasn’t confident that I’d find them anywhere else; after all, who runs out of or doesn’t stock miniature marshmallows? It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d gone store to store only to discover that nobody carries something that I had just assumed everybody would have in stock. And I had a party to prepare for; I didn’t really want to spend the time, especially if it wasn’t going to come to anything.

JellOFillingSo I bought full-size marshmallows and decided to chop them into bits. This was tricky, because marshmallows are gummy and sticky inside and really want to stick to your knife. I dusted my knife blade with powered sugar and dipped the exposed surfaces in powdered sugar as I went along, and while this didn’t completely solve the stickiness problem, it reduced it enough that I could accumulate half a cup of marshmallow bits without completely losing it.

JellOJelledMy sourcing problems addressed, I mixed together the Cool Whip, fruit cocktail bits, marshmallows and chopped walnuts. The mixture was pale and lumpy and distinctly unencouraging. I set it aside and prepared to unmold my Jell-O. I turned it onto a plate and it came out in once piece–a misshapen piece that was liquidy at the edges. I think I may have held the mold in warm water a little too long; I was afraid I’d mixed in too much liquid (package directions say no) or used boiling water when I should not have (package directions say boiling water, no problem there) or failed to let it chill long enough. But it didn’t continue to bleed liquid, so I think I just warmed the pan too much. Certainly once I’d turned it out into a cockeyed triangle, it didn’t remain malleable enough for me to shape it back into a ring.

JellOUnmolded2I began to spoon the fruit cocktail mixture into the center. There was a lot of it. Frankly, I think there was too much of it. For the amount of fruit cocktail mixture I had I think I needed twice the Jell-O. (It had occurred to me the night before, when I saw that the Bundt pan was only half full, that I might go get more Jell-O and make a double quantity. But then it occurred to me that I would have that much more Jell-O left over, because I had no illusions that the party guests were going to flock to the Jell-O mold and clamor to take some home with them. So I didn’t.) I spooned in as much as I felt I could reasonably keep on the plate without in fact hiding the Jell-O, and carried the dish out to the party buffet.

RingAroundJellO3Quite a bit later, after we’d enjoyed salad and dips and pickles and cake and whiskey (more on that in another post), Scott decided it was time to find out how the Jell-O was. He served himself a plate with even shares of Jell-O and fruit cocktail mixture, took a bite, and furrowed his brows. “You have to eat some of this,” he said, in a tone that implied “It’s your fault we even have this here.” He served some out for me before I could protest, though I agreed that it was my fault and it was only fair that I tried it for myself.

JellODishedThe Jell-O was the best part of it. This is not a compliment. The combination of Cool Whip and fruit cocktail and marshmallows was unpleasant, even more than I had expected. (The nuts did nothing to improve or degrade it, really.) The flavors and textures were completely discordant. There was the slipperiness and chemical tang of Jell-O, the sticky softness of marshmallow, and the mushy so-very-not-fresh-fruit sensation of the fruit cocktail pieces. I finished the serving because I kept thinking one of these spoonfuls was bound to improve, but they never did.

The apartment was really warm, but the Jell-O held up surprisingly well, and didn’t start to melt off the plate for some hours. Once it did, I took it out to the kitchen and disposed of it.

Verdict: Disgusting. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Totally Garlic Cookbook: Savory Taste of the Stinking Rose

garlic goat cheese spread

GoatCheeseAtPicnicWhen I signed up to bring appetizers to the office picnic, I promised one vegetable-based dish and one “more indulgent” dish. The eggplant dip met the “vegetable-based” goal. For “more indulgent,” I decided that meant it had to have cheese. I also knew it had to be something that could be served at room temperature. I turned to the shelf where I’ve gathered all the GarlicCookbookremaining cookbooks for the project and found the Totally Garlic Cookbook, which is a slim little paperback shaped like a clove of garlic. (Get it? Because it’s garlic! Hi-larious, right?)

I have no idea where we got this, whether it was a gift or a discount bin purchase or a throw-in-with-an-online-order acquisition, but here it is. It’s loaded with GarlicHeadappealing appetizers, entrees, even desserts. I quickly found garlic goat cheese spread and was ready to go.

I began with the garlic: one head, top trimmed off, drizzled with a little bit of olive oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes. I wrapped the head in foil and put it into a 350-degree oven for an hour, then pulled it out, unwrapped the GarlicRoasted3foil, and let it sit until it was cool enough to handle.

While the garlic baked, I minced four of those sun-dried tomatoes and chopped about three tablespoons of fresh basil. When the garlic was cool, I squeezed the garlic into the bowl with the tomatoes and basil. The garlic was soft and almost gooey, and was easy to squeeze out of the SunDriedTomatoeslittle papery hulls. It smelled glorious: rich, mellowed, but still pungent and distinctly garlicky. (Note to self: Next time I’m using the oven, wrap up three or four heads to roast and set aside.) (Additional note to self: When using the oven for potatoes or chicken or something, not cookies.)

At this point I stirred in about 11 GarlicBasilTomatoesounces of goat cheese. I used the Chevre brand spread, the last two little containers that were on the shelf at the grocery store, but I think just about any basic goat cheese would serve. Once I’d thoroughly mixed it all together, I laid four whole basil leaves on a sheet of plastic wrap, spread the goat cheese mixture over them, laid on four more basil leaves, and rolled the plastic around to GoatCheeseMixture2shape the cheese into a little log. It went into the fridge, and the idea was that after an overnight chilling it would be stiff enough to slice into rounds. It was not. It was still soft and spreadable in the morning, and I knew that once I got it to Central Park there would be no chance of chilling and slicing. So I removed the plastic and laid the cheese in a container with some kalamata GoatCheeseMixture3olives.

At the picnic I offered it up with slices of baguette, and it was very well received. The picnickers went through a good proportion of it, though what was left at the end of the day was decidedly the worse for wear.

Verdict: Success. I’ll do it again, when it cools down enough to turn on the oven.

Eat More, Weigh Less: The Joy of Eggplant

pita chips with roasted eggplant dip

EggplantAtPicnic2Lately it seems to be taking an act of God to get me to cook much. I’m cooking dinner most evenings, but I’ve been doing easy lazy things. Pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and chickpeas. Stir-fry. Hot dogs. Things that don’t require measuring or even really counting. I feel like I haven’t quite caught up with my domestic life yet, what with travel and Eggplantsome fairly mentally demanding projects at work.

But this past Friday was the office picnic, in Central Park no less, and I knew I had to get my act together. By the time I signed the contribution sheet the dessert and entree categories were pretty full, so I turned my attention to appetizers, and chose two: a spicy roasted eggplant dip, and a EggplantRoastedgoat cheese spread with roasted garlic (next post).

I’ve made roasted eggplant dip before, about a year ago. This one is a little bit different, with the inclusion of a minced jalapeno pepper and a slightly different blend of spices. Spices are a key element in Eat More, Weigh Less, the first of two healthy lifestyle cookbooks by Dr. Dean Ornish (I ShallotChileSpicescooked from the second, Everyday Cooking With Dr. Dean Ornish, in November). Dr. Ornish’s recipes are drastically low in fat, so strong flavor elements are featured to help counteract the popular notion that low-fat food isn’t flavorful.

This dip was definitely flavorful. I began by halving two eggplants lengthwise and putting them in a EggplantRoasted3350-degree oven to roast. While they cooked, I minced a jalapeno pepper and a shallot, juiced a lemon and a lime to get a teaspoon of juice from each, and mixed that in a bowl with some cumin, cinnamon and salt. Once the eggplants were out of the oven and cool enough to handle, I put them into a food processor with the shallot-pepper mixture and processed it all until it was EggplantInProcessorsmooth.

I did push the eggplant halves into the processor bowl without cutting them up (come on, you try neatly slicing a roasted eggplant! It kind of falls apart on you), and this meant that there were some oversized pieces of the skin that I had to pluck out for aesthetic reasons. I think if I did this again I’d scoop the EggplantDip3eggplant flesh out of the skins, even though I favor eating the skins of vegetables on principle.

I also cut up some pitas into single-layer slices and toasted them. Dr. Ornish’s recipe said to brush them with an egg white wash, which I didn’t bother to do. That might have made them stiffer and better able to scoop up dip, but I wasn’t convinced the MorePicnicSpread2extra effort would have been worth it. I cut up some additional pitas and left them uncooked, and they seemed robust enough.

The next day I hauled my dips, pitas and bread to the park, where our crew found a picnic spot that was very close to, but not exactly, the spot we had chosen ahead of time. We laid out blankets and massive quantities MorePicnicSpreadof food, and began to dish up a welcome late lunch. People seemed to enjoy the eggplant dip. There was a fair amount of it left at the end of the day, but that was because we had managed to bring enough to feed at least twice our number. And it was a little too warm out to overstuff ourselves.

Verdict: Success. Easy, tasty, and low in fat. I’ll want to make this one again.

The Meatless Gourmet: Last party recipe

samosas, cucumber-tomato raita

PartyTable2The Meatless Gourmet is a collection of vegetarian recipes from different world cuisines. Mexico, Italy, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and more are represented in appetizers, entrees, side dishes and beverages. I probably bought the book when it was new in 1995, because I know we’ve cooked from it for years.

For the party I decided to try the Indian section: samosas filled with a curried potato-and-pea mixture, and a cucumber-tomato raita. The recipes are clear and easy to follow. I made the samosa filling the day before the party. You start by cutting a potato into chunks and boiling it until it’s tender but not mushy; let it cool briefly and then remove the peel, and dice smaller. Dice some onion as well, and Samoas-TaterNOnionsautee it with some minced fresh ginger root and Indian spices: fennel, coriander, curry powder, cumin, turmeric and cayenne, plus salt and pepper. Add the potatoes and some fresh or frozen peas, and cook until the mixture is heated through and the peas are tender, about 15 minutes.

I assembled and baked the samosas the day of the party. The recipe calls for refrigerated biscuit dough. I had misgivings, but decided that I had enough to do without making my own biscuits. As it turns out, though, the time-consuming part of the process is the rolling and assembly; the time I saved by not mixing my own biscuits was spent in reading the ingredient labels at the supermarket to make sure the biscuit dough I chose did not include beef tallow. Because Samosas-Spicesthat would kind of defeat the purpose of a vegetarian recipe, and since there were actual vegetarians coming to the party I though it would be stupid to sabotage them in that way. If I make these again I’ll make biscuits from scratch.

But pressing forward with the pressure-packed dough: You roll out an individual biscuit and then cut it in half, top the lower end of each half with filling, and then close up the turnovers and bake them for about 8 minutes. The refrigerated dough may not have saved me any real time, but it tasted just fine in conjunction with the spicy potato and pea filling.

SamosasAssemblingThe raita is a sauce or dip that contrasts a cool, fresh flavor with the usual hot and spicy dishes that Indian food is known for. It was pretty easy to make: peel, seed and shred a cucumber, and combine it with plain nonfat yogurt, fresh mint, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper, diced tomato and onion. I only tasted a little of it; I was looking forward to using the leftovers, but at the end of the night I stood in the over-warm room and looked at the mixture that had been sitting out for several hours and had visions of subsequent food poisoning. So down the drain it went, I’m sad to say. Maybe next time I’ll rest the bowl on a bed of ice.

SamosasToBakeVerdict: Success. The samosas and raita tasted good, and were easy to make. I’ll probably try them both again, with modifications to the samosas.SamosasBaked

McCall’s Cookie Collection: The next-to-last party book

crisscross peanut cookies

PBCookieDoughI knew that when it came to sweets, the Black and White Cupcakes would be the big hits of the party. Different, dramatic and delicious ‚Äî and did I mention they were chocolate? I am a rabid fan of chocolate. (I hesitate to use the term ‚Äúchocoholic‚Äù because there‚Äôs no alcohol in the stuff, and also I don‚Äôt have a problem and can quit any time I want.) I am such a rabid fan of chocolate, in fact, that I reflexively feel guilty when it comes to dessert. Any time I am planning dessert my immediate, powerful impulse is to choose something with chocolate. And then I have a momentary surge of doubt: Am I being too narrow when I choose chocolate? What about all those other delightful non-chocolate desserts, such as cr?®me brulee and blueberry pie and coffee ice cream? Am I missing something if I choose chocolate?

PBCookieDough2Most of the time I would say no, I’m not. (Though on mid-priced restaurant menus I am prone to choosing just about anything other than the inevitable Death by Chocolate Torte, especially if there’s a local or regional specialty to be had.) But I do try to be cognizant of the fact that not everyone is as wild about chocolate as I am, and to provide alternatives. In this case I didn’t want to do something very labor-intensive or fragile, nothing that would seem like it was competing with the cupcakes, so I opted for cookies.

I’ve had the McCall’s Cookie Collection book for decades — certainly since high school, possibly longer. I was the family’s designated cookie baker from about kindergarten, the year my mom PBCookiesRawdiscovered that I liked that particular task a lot more than she did, which also happened to be the year I discovered that people will ooh and aah over your cleverly decorated Christmas sugar cookies and then pass them over for the far tastier chocolate chip. Which is probably also a lesson for life: the pretty ones will get a lot of attention, but people quickly figure out who they need to rely on to get the job done right.

I have no idea where I got the book; a slim, battered paperback that might be better called a pamphlet than a cookbook, it looks like something that might have come free with a holiday bakeware purchase at a department store. There are a number of oddly lit photos of the finished cookies, all arrayed on trays or in large glass jars, PBCookiesplus some photos of a doll preparing and baking cookies. It must be a very large doll, because it appears to be in a full-scale kitchen, and in one of the shots there’s a real person in the background at the sink. All of which makes me wonder why they chose to use a doll instead of a person. Have some creepy with your Christmas cookies!

Not all of the recipes in the book are holiday cookies, but naturally quite a lot of them are. I’ve used this book a few times for my holiday baking, and I had to search for a while before finding a recipe I thought would be appropriate for summer. Peanut-butter cookies are a favorite of mine, so I settled on the recipe titled “Crisscross Peanut Cookies.” And it wasn’t until I was sliding the cooled cookies into zipper bags to hold until the next day that I had a sudden realization: Hadn’t I made these before? I might have. I’m not sure. I racked my brain but I could not be certain. PBCookies2So to err on the side of completeness, this book will have to go back into the 107 Cookbooks hopper; I’ll add it to the December cookie roundup, and will be sure to make something I know I’ve never made before, like Filbert-Chocolate Drops  or Walnut-Topped Cookies. (But not the sugar cookies; I’ve made them before and they’re boring.)

Verdict: Partial success. The cookies were delicious, but I didn’t ensure that I was using an untried recipe.