Category Archives: appetizer

Gooey Cheese Sauce with “Real” Cheese, Two Ways

The "pretzel bites" I made were kind of a disaster, which I may or may not get around to writing about before JulyNacho” typical cheese sauce

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats did all the work on this one. His mission: a homemade cheese sauce with real cheese that’s satiny smooth and stays that way.

Apparently, his wife’s a huge fan of the kind of cheese sauce you get with fries or nachos at burger shacks & sporting events—the gooey, tangy stuff that food snobs turn their noses up at because it’s so obviously processed (although I suspect a good number of them would be all over it if it was coming out of the kitchen at WD-50 or Alinea). Kenji agreed that there was something about the texture of the processed stuff better suited to fries & nachos than a traditional Mornay sauce, which is just a Béchamel with cheese—like the sauce in most homemade macaroni & cheese recipes. Using the ingredients on a box of Velveeta for inspiration, he tried a number of different methods and found that the two keys to preventing the cheese from breaking and clumping were 1) milk proteins and 2) starch.

The method he arrived at could not be simpler: you grate some cheese and toss it with a little cornstarch, and then  heat it along with some evaporated milk until it’s smooth, adding some hot sauce if desired. I made two batches for a Superbowl party yesterday with some of the modifications suggested by Kenji and people who commented on the recipe. For the first, “Nacho,” I used half sharp cheddar and half pepperjack cheese with about a teaspoon of hot sauce. For the second, “White Cheddar,” I used 3/4 sharp cheddar and 1/4 Monterey Jack, added 1 t. dry mustard  along with the cornstarch and used Worcestershire sauce in place of the hot sauce.

"Nacho," pre-heating

The hot sauce tinted it a pale orange, but if you want the day-glo orange color that "fake" cheese has, start with orange cheddar or add annatto

The reason I used some jack cheese in both instead of all cheddar was that a few people who commented on the Serious Eats recipe said they had problems with the sauce getting grainy, especially after cooling. In my experience, jack cheese is way less prone to breaking & clumping than cheddar in applications like white chili, so I thought it might be a way to guard against the texture issues. But that didn’t really work—the sauce was impressively smooth when it was hot, but as it cooled, it became grainy, and basically a lot like a Mornay. A good Mornay, but definitely not a substitute for processed cheese sauces. When I reheated it in a larger pan of simmering water, double-boiler style, it smoothed out again.

I suspect that the problem was that I used a super sharp, hard, and relatively dry aged cheddar—the kind that has tiny calcium crystals in it, like parmesan—and as it returned to room temperature, the cheese started to re-solidify. Next time, I’ll use a younger, softer, creamier cheddar. But the technique definitely worked—while the sauce was hot, it was silky smooth and gooey, and tasted exactly like awesomely sharp aged cheddar cheese.

The "White Cheddar" dip. This was so sharp and cheddary, and when it was hot it was so smooth and creamy. I'm a little sad you'd have to sacrfice that sharpness to keep it smooth and creamy as it cools. I suspect Dufresne or Achatz could find a way, but it probably wouldn't be as easy to do at home. I have no annoying puns for “White Cheddar”

Recipe: Gooey Cheese Sauce (from Serious Eats)

Nacho”

  • 4 oz sharp cheddar
  • 4 oz. pepperjack
  • The 1 Tablespoon corn starch
  • 1 12-oz can evaporated milk
  • 2 t. hot sauce
  • minced jalapeno (optional—if you want it really spicy) 

“White Cheddar”

  • 6 oz sharp cheddar
  • 2 oz. Monterey Jack
  • 1 Tablespoon corn starch
  • 1 t. dry mustard
  • 1 12-oz can evaporated milk
  • 2 t. Worcestershire (optional—omit for vegetarian; but if you’re feeding omnivores, it does add a nice meaty/umami dimension)

1. Shred the cheeses and toss them with the cornstarch (and dry mustard if using).

2. Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, just until the cheese melts and the mixture begins to thicken. The cheese may seem to “break” at some point, with bubbles of grease floating to the surface, but once the starch begins to expand, the fat and moisture should form a smooth emulsion.

3. To reheat, put the sauce in the top part of a double-boiler or a small pot set in a wider pot or deep skillet filled with water that rises at least half-way up the sides of the small pot. Stir just until smooth and warm. Direct contact with the burners may cause the sauce to reheat evenly and “break.”

New Year’s Eve pictures and links

With the spiced nuts and chocolate-covered buttercreams already done in advance, almost everything else could be made the day before the party and assembled or baked the day of. Before

Hey, 2011

Welcome to the new blog austerity. Rather than write out special feature posts for all the recipes I used for our fourth annual New Year’s Eve party, I’m just going to post pictures and links with brief annotations about how I modified them (if I did) or how I’d do them differently if I make them again. They’re all finger foods, so they’re perfect for entertaining or taking to an open house party where people will be grazing rather than sitting down with plates & silverware.

Clockwise from the bottom right:

Marshmallows with Toasted Coconut
Smoked Trout Pâté
Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Almonds (represented by the empty dish)
Goat Cheese & Pine Nut Canapés
Spinach-Artichoke Pinwheels
Spiced Nuts
Bourbon Balls
Assorted Cheesecake Bites
Fig and Blue Cheese Crackers
Scallop Mousse in Phyllo Cups
Chocolate-covered Buttercreams
Candied Cranberries
Crudité Platter with Harissa Dip

After

More pictures and recipes after the jump.

Marshmallows with Toasted Coconut

These were kind of like little poufy macaroon bites.

I used Alton Brown’s Homemade Marshmallow Recipe with almond extract in place of the vanilla, and I coated the pan in toasted coconut, sprinkled more on top, and rolled the sticky edges of the cut marshmallows in yet more. That required about 3 cups of sweetened shredded coconut, which I toasted by spreading it on cookie sheets and baking it for about 15 minutes in a 300F oven, stirring it every 5 minutes or so until it was golden brown. If you want to know more about the history of the marshmallow, that’s here.

Smoked Trout Pâté on Baguette

Would also make a lovely molded dish for a buffet served with crackers or toasted pita.

Based on a Good Housekeeping recipe, which only has 2/5 stars even though the sole reviewer says “AAA+” which seems a little hyperbolic, but maybe that’s just the nature of ebayspeak. For the party, I served it on homemade, sourdough-risen baguette. I plan on making it again the next time I make bagels because it evokes the lox & cream cheese thing, but smokier and creamier. I used regular cream cheese and mayonnaise and added a tablespoon of capers and a pinch of cayenne. The only other thing I’ll change the next time I make it is to scale it down, probably to 1/3 of the original, because the original recipe makes a kind of epic amount of pâté. Quoth Brian, who was in charge of spreading it on the baguette slices: “This is so boring. I don’t remember when I wasn’t spreading pâté on bread.”

Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Almonds

It turns out if you decide to secure the bacon with toothpicks and then you broil the dates instead of baking them, the toothpicks may go up in flame just like matchsticks and be basically useless for serving. Live and learn: soak the toothpicks in water first.

You don’t really need a recipe for this, but here’s one from Martha Stewart. In the past, I’ve stuffed them with either chorizo or goat cheese, which usually required cutting the dates in half and was kind of a pain, which is why I went with almonds this year. I’ve also heard of people using pistachios, blue cheese, cream cheese, parmeggiano matchsticks, or ricotta. Last year, I served them in a sweet & sour pineapple/balsamic reduction sauce, which I kept warm in a chaffing dish. You could also make a spicy chorizo-laced dipping sauce. Or you can forego the stuffing and/or sauce entirely and they’ll still be pretty delicious.  

Herbed Goat Cheese with Toasted Pine Nuts on Baguette

This might also work as a vegetable and/or cracker dip, possibly thinned with a little cream.Not based on anything—really, the recipe is in the name. I combined a big log of goat cheese (10 oz) with the zest of a lemon, two cloves of garlic zapped for 15-20 seconds in the microwave just to tame the bite a little, and about tablespoon of fresh thyme and rosemary. Salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of cayenne. You could substitute a head of roasted garlic instead of raw, use 1-2 t. dried herbs instead of fresh, add a pinch of smoked paprika, some lemon juice, some olives or capers, or whatever you like. I toasted the pine nuts (about 1/3 cup) in a skillet over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes until they were fragrant and beginning to brown. You could also use toasted almond slices or chopped pecans or top it with something else, like roasted cherry tomatoes or pimentos. Like the trout pâté, this was served on slices of homemade sourdough-risen baguette.

Spinach-Artichoke Pinwheels

I got this from a Southern Living recipe posted on Myrecipes, and after making them three or four times I think I’ve decided they’re prettier than they are tasty. Perhaps they needed more cheese or something? The idea’s not bad, especially because you can make the filling and roll the puff pastry logs months in advance, and then it takes less than a half an hour to slice and bake them, and that’s including the time it takes to pre-heat the oven. I may try it again with pimento cheese instead of the spinach-artichoke spread. That wouldn’t provide as much of a visual contrast, but I think the spicy, tangy cheese filling would be a better foil for the buttery puff pastry. Or maybe I just need to add more/better parmesan and a hit of cayenne to the spinach-artichoke filling.

Spiced Nuts

new years 2011 063

That’s nearly 4 lbs of spiced nuts, approximately 50% of which are cashews. The imbalance was Brian’s doing, but I’m in favor because whenever I encounter a bowl of mixed nuts that includes cashews, I have to exert stupid amounts of willpower to be nut-blind and eat whatever happens to be on top, even if that’s a peanut. And sometimes, when I see other people near the bowl, I eye them suspiciously to see if they’re picking out the cashews the way I really want to. Which has resulted, more than once, in me catching someone else in the act of cashew-preferential nut consumption, and momentarily thinking uncharitable thoughts about them…before rushing over to join them before all the cashews are gone. My nut preferences are more or less moot once they’re all coated in a crunchy cinnamon and cayenne-spiked meringue—at which point, they’re all like crack—but it certainly doesn’t seem like you can go wrong by tipping the balance in favor of cashews.

Bourbon Balls

Much of the alcohol evaporates, so the booze provides more flavor than bite. Still, best to use something you like the taste of--apparently rum is a good alternative if you're not a fan of bourbon From Melissa Clark on Food52, these are basically balls of bourbon-soaked chocolate cookie crumbs studded with pecans. I let the “dough” sit, covered, for about 8 hours and thought it was a little dry when I began to shape the balls. In retrospect, I probably should have just added another glug of bourbon, but I thought maybe that was the texture it was supposed to have. I didn’t actually measure the cookie crumbs, because one package of Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers seemed like about 2.5 cups, but maybe the recipe is actually designed for a little less cookie? They were good, but definitely not super moist, so if I make them again, I’ll follow my instincts and add the extra bourbon.

Assorted Cheesecake Bites

new years 2011 047

This was the one thing I thought was pretty mediocre. I used an eHow recipe, halved. The original calls for only 1/2 cup sugar for 24 oz. cream cheese. I added a little more, but they still weren’t nearly as sweet as I usually expect cheesecake to be. I also wasn’t crazy about the vanilla wafer crust—if I make them again, I’ll do a more traditional graham cracker base. I also didn’t get especially creative with the toppings. Maybe in the future, if I make these again, I’ll flavor half of the cream cheese mixture with pumpkin & spices or melted dark chocolate and make little marbled cheesecake bites. As is, these are just kind of boring.

Fig and Blue Cheese Crackers

My friend Sara recommends eating them upside down so you taste the sweetness of the fig first, otherwise it can be overshadowed by the blue cheese.

This recipe from Food52 is similar to classic southern cheese straws—essentially a pastry crust recipe substituting cheese for some of the butter—but instead of cutting them into sticks, you cut them in  circles, make a tiny depression in the middle, and fill it with a dab of fig preserves. The result is like a little, buttery, bite-sized version of one of my favorite salads. I imagine you could use any kind of cheese/fruit pairing you like—goat cheese and raspberry, sharp cheddar with cherry or apricot, etc. Additionally, you can make them a day or two in advance, but make sure they’re fully cooled before you store them between layers of waxed paper or the fig preserves will stick.

Scallop MousseIf you have access to an Asian market or grocery store with a decent selection of Asian foods, you can probably get roe for about $2/oz rather than $20/oz. Another one from Food52, this one from ChefJune. Brian made this, and we both thought it was really amazing…until he added the vermouth-soaked gelatin. After that, it was polarizing. Brian thought it was so bad he didn’t want to serve it, but at least one person at the party said it was his favorite thing. I thought it was good, but not as good as it was before adding the vermouth. In the future, I would use white wine instead of the vermouth. The recipe shows it molded into one big shell, and also suggested using madeleine molds for individual serving-sizes. We just chilled it in a bowl and then scooped it into pre-baked phyllo cups with a melon baller.

Chocolate-covered Buttercreams

new years 2011 053

I’ve already posted about these, but a special message to the haters out there: don’t knock my flavor choices until you’ve tried them. I’m not “chasing the next thing.” Peppermint, cinnamon, orange, lavender, almond, and rose are all traditional candy flavorings. Lavender and rose aren’t very common in the U.S. today (although many gourmet chocolatiers and several national brands do sell lavender-flavored chocolate) but they have been popular at other times and places. In the words of a kindergartener: Don’t yuck my yum.

Candied Cranberries

If you don't overcook the syrup, they'll be prettierWhole, fresh cranberries coated in a hard candy shell and rolled in more sugar for sparkle—they pop when you bite into them, tart and sweet and totally delicious. I sort of followed Leah Bloom’s recipe on the Examiner, but I let the simple syrup cook to hard ball stage. That turned out to be a terrible idea, because it began to set into one big sauce-pan sized chunk of cranberry brittle almost before it was cool enough to try to separate the cranberries out and roll them in sugar. So next time, I’ll actually follow the recipe. These would make a lovely garnish for a holiday dessert, too—they’re like little edible jewels.

Harissa Dip with Crudité Platter

Rippley carrots and cucumbers courtesy of my new mandoline, which was a Christmas present.

I just kind of made this up as I went along: a jar of roasted red peppers, a half-pound block of feta cheese, 2 or 3 ounces of cream cheese, 3 or 4 teaspoons of harissa, a pinch of cayenne, a handful of fresh cilantro, the juice of about half a lemon, and salt to taste—all whizzed in a food processor until smooth. Creamy, briny, tangy, spicy. Thinned with a little more lemon juice and perhaps a little olive oil, this might make a nice salad dressing, too.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Curried Squash Fritters with Ranch Raita

I guess this is like South Indian-Southern American fusion?

This is basically a South Asian-inspired summer squash fritter redux. Instead of an egg and whole wheat flour batter seasoned with Old Bay, I used a chickpea (or gram) flour batter seasoned with homemade curry powder, similar to pakoras or bhaji. That incidentally makes this recipe vegan, gluten-free, and grain-free, for anyone who cares about things like that. You could prepare them just like the first version—shaped into patties and griddled until cooked through. However, this time, since I was making them for a party, it seemed like an appropriate occasion for deep-frying.

My primary goal when I’m deep-frying anything, batter-coated or not, is crispness. I want the outside to be crunchy, not soggy or greasy, and I want the inside to be cooked through without any chewy or mushy parts. The trick is getting the temperature of the cooking oil right for the size of the object being fried.

bonus: deep-frying really repairs the season on your wok if it's getting a little torn up

Small fritters (about 2 tablespoons of batter) cook through in about 4-5 minutes, so the goal is for the outside to be golden-brown on the outside by that point but not before. If the oil is too hot, they’ll get too dark too fast and to keep them from burning, you may have to pull them out before the inside is done. That means that even if they’re crispy when you pull them out of the oil, by the time they’re cool enough to eat they’ll be soggy and the insides will still be mushy. If the oil isn’t hot enough, they’ll either fall apart or absorb too much oil, becoming greasy and leaden by the time they’re brown.

Generally, you want the temperature of the oil to be between 345-375F, although that varies somewhat based on the type of fat, what you’re cooking, and your altitude. I usually don’t bother with a thermometer and just try to figure it out through trial and error. Typically, you want the oil to be bubbling but not smoking, and whatever you’re frying should sizzle when you put it in. If something is browning too fast for the inside to cook through, turn the heat down. If there’s no sizzle, or it takes too long to brown, turn the heat up. Just like with griddle cakes, the first one (or two) might not be perfect, but you should be able to figure it out within a few tries. I suppose with no garlic, ginger, or cilantro, and cream instead of yogurt, this really isn't a raita at all...except for the cucumber and onion

Since the batter had some heat to it already (although that ended up being less discernable after frying), I decided I should make some kind of cooling condiment, and ended up deciding on something similar to a classic raita that I hoped would evoke classic Ranch dressing. I started by thickening some cream by letting it sit in a jar overnight with about 1 T. buttermilk, which turned out the consistency of a thin yogurt, just like Alton Brown said it would. I combined that with some grated and drained cucumber and onion and seasoned it with dill, a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice, white pepper, and just a pinch of MSG. If I’d known how mild the fritters would be after deep frying, I probably would have added a diced jalapeno or chipotle in adobo as well, but it was pretty good even without any heat.

giant pattypan squash from my garden, which was so big I had to scoop out the seeds like a pumpkin, and an assortment of squash from Needle Lane Farms

Just like the first version of squash fritters I posted, this is a great way to use up summer squash. Salting and draining the squash not only prevents the batter from getting watery, it also really reduces the volume of vegetable matter. I managed to turn all the squash pictured above into about 5-6 cups of shredded squash, which I was able to use up in a single batch of fritters. Unless you’re feeding a crowd, you may want to halve the recipe, but it’s still a pretty good way to get rid of a lot of summer squash at once, and turn it into a main attraction.

Recipe: Curried Zucchini Squash Fritters (adapted from Pakora (Bhaji) Recipe: Spicy, Deep-fried Chickpea Flour Dumplings’>Indian Vegetarian Cooking)

Ingredients:

  • 6 medium-to-large summer squash (zucchini, crookneck, pattypan, yellow squash, etc.)
  • 3 t. kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 small to medium onion (or half of a large one)
  • 4-5 cloves garlic
  • 1 jalapeno (optional)
  • 2 T. chopped cilantro or parsley
  • 2 1/4 cups chickpea flour
  • 1/2 cup rice flour
  • curry powder: 1 dried hot chili pepper, 1 t. cumin seeds, 1 t. coriander seeds, 1 t. whole fenugreek, 6 cloves (bud only), 6 peppercorns, 1/2” cinnamon stick (or 1/8 t. ground), 1 t. ground turmeric
  • a pinch of baking powder
  • 1 1/2 c. water
  • 2-4 T. oil for griddling OR about a quart of canola, peanut, or vegetable oil for deep frying (or lard, clarified butter, or coconut oil if preferred)

1. Grate the squash—much faster in a food processor, but especially if you’re halving the recipe, I guess it wouldn’t take that long with a mandoline or box grater.

before draining, probably ~12 cups of squash

after draining, barely 6 cups

2. Put the shredded squash in a colander (or two), sprinkle the salt over it and toss to coat evenly. Let drain for at least 10-15 minutes and then press out as much moisture as possible. (You can do this a day or two in advance and store in the refrigerator until ready to make the fritters.)

3. Toast the cumin, coriander, and fenugreek in a small skillet until fragrant and beginning to brown. Grind along with the chili pepper, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and turmeric in a spice/coffee grinder or mortar and pestle until fine.

toasting the seeds blending with chili, cloves, cinnamon and turmeric; this is basically the same curry powder I make when I make dal

4. Mince the garlic, and jalapeno (if using) in a blender, food processor, or with a knife. Add the onion and puree (or grate).

in a classic pakora, onion is usually cut in larger pieces and serves the role the zucchini plays in this recipe, more like onion rings; however, in this recipe the onion becomes part of the batterall the batter ingredients

5. Add the chickpea flour, rice flour, curry powder, baking powder, and water and blend or stir until smooth. Add more water if necessary until the batter is the consistency of pancake batter, or a very thick cream.

5. Add the drained squash and chopped cilantro. Let sit for at least 30 minutes to let the chickpea flour absorb as much water as possible. (You can also refrigerate it for up to 24 hours before frying, but take it out of cold storage 30 minutes to an hour before cooking to let it return to room temperature.)

 will be grainy, especially before resting  squash shreds all incombined

6. If griddling, pre-heat the pan over medium-high heat and add about 1 T. oil and turn the pan to coat evenly. Shape the batter into small patties and fry for 4-5 minutes on each side or until golden brown and done throughout. Add more oil as necessary to keep the pan lubricated.

If deep frying, heat the oil in a large pot or wok until bubbling but not smoking. Test a small amount of batter—it should sizzle when it hits the oil, and may sink initially, but should rise to the surface of the oil and bubble vigorously. If it doesn’t sizzle or rise, the oil isn’t hot enough. If it gets too dark too fast, the oil is too hot. Adjust as necessary and then fry the fritters in batches, turning so they brown evenly. Don’t add too many to the pan at the same time or they’ll cause a rapid drop in the temperature of the oil.

7. Drain on paper towels. To keep warm before serving, place the fritters on oven racks set on baking sheets in a 200F oven.

Recipe: Ranch Raita (adapted from Alton Brown)

a jar full of slightly-cultured cream; there's a bit of a skin on the top but that mixed in easily. comparable to creme fraiche, but way cheaper.Ingredients:

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 T. buttermilk
  • 1 small cucumber (or a half of a large one)
  • 1 small onion (or half of a large one)
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. lemon juice
  • 1 t. dried dill or 1 T. fresh
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a pinch of MSG or nutritional yeast (optional)
  • jalapeno or cayenne (optional)

1. Heat the cream in a small saucepan or for about 30 seconds in a microwave on high until it’s just under 100F.

2. Stir in the buttermilk, pour into a glass jar and let sit in a dark, warm place for 24 hrs.

3. Grate the cucumber and onion, salt all over and let sit for 10-15 minutes. Press to remove as much moistures as possible. Combine with the cultured cream.

I grated both the cucumber and onion with a "ribbon" microplane salted and draining; I saved the juice, but then couldn't think of anything to do with it. might be good combined with tomato juice like homemade V8?

4. Add the lemon juice, dill, salt and pepper, and MSG or nutritional yeast if using. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. If you want it spicy, add a diced jalapeno and/or cayenne pepper.