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Hybrid Pastry

I was a bit torn over whether or not to post this recipe. The results were good – very good, in fact, and I had trouble trying not to devour the leftovers. But they could stand some tweaking and perfecting. Moreover, I’ve gone a bit overboard on the baking posts as of late – a trend quite uncharacteristic of my typical warm-weather cooking patterns.

But, thanks to the recent earthquake + hurricane + busy schedule, my kitchen experimentation has been a bit … uninspired as of late. Picture lots of cereal, a few too many tomato sandwiches and more than a few corn tortillas topped with beans and avocado. All tasty treats, but none particularly blog-worthy. 

So, I’ve opted to share with you my experience with the doughnut muffin. I have a recently-pregnant friend to thank for the inspiration for this baked good. She typically lacks much of a sweet tooth, but as her due date approached (and the baby arrived, woo hoo!), it seems sweets are high on her taste bud radar. She mentioned a fondness for a doughnut muffin that a coworker had brought into the office. Clearly, the term “doughnut muffin” gave me pause. I like doughnuts. I like muffins. So a recipe with the ease of a muffin and the flavor of a cake doughnut held massive appeal for this amateur baker.

I tweaked a recipe I discovered over at How To: Simplify. The batter couldn’t have been easier, and the texture is quite nice. The idea is that you bake a simple yellow muffin, dunk it in butter and roll it in a cinnamon sugar mixture. I found that the cinnamon sugar absorbed too quickly into the buttery muffin, which tasted fine but was visually unpleasing and left the muffin with a tacky texture. I’d recommend experimenting with dipping a muffin in the cinnamon sugar mixture sans-butter, or increasing the proportion of sugar to cinnamon – the end result you’re looking for is a muffin thoroughly dusted in a lovely coating of cinnamon sweetness. I MIGHT even experiment with lining the muffin tins with cinnamon sugar, pouring the batter and then sprinkling the top of the batter with more cinnamon sugar.

Make sure you have friends over when you prepare this recipe – the doughnut muffins taste best on the day they’re baked, preferably served hot with a glass of cold milk.

Doughnut Muffins

  • 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1/4 melted butter
  • 1/3 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon, for coating

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray.

Then,

Combine dry ingredients – flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon – in a medium bowl using a spoon or fork to stir together.

Next,

Combine wet ingredients – oil, egg and milk – with sugar in a large bowl. Add dry ingredients and stir together until just combined. 

Now,

Bake 17-20 minutes, until a toothpick removed from the center of the muffin has just one or two crumbs clinging to it. Cool for 5-10 minutes on a baking sheet, in the tins.

Then,

Use a butter knife to unmold the muffin. Mix the cinnamon and sugar together. One by one, dip each muffin first in melted butter, then in the cinnamon sugar recipe (see my notes above if you want to experiment with a different method).

Finally,

Place muffins on a wire rack to cool slightly before serving.

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Bite-Sized Goodness

Miniature versions of just about anything are universally accepted as the ultimate in cuteness. Puppies? Yup. Babies? Them too. These miniature pie bites are no exception to the rule. 

But the real question at hand for Miss Menu is, how does size affect taste? Is the proportion of crust-to-filling acceptable? Can a mini-pie hold a candle to a traditional wedge sliced from a 9-inch pie plate?

The original version of these miniature pies over at Crepes of Wrath (love the name) called for a blueberry filling. While I’m a fool for blueberries in my everyday life, blueberry pie does not rate at the top of list of fruit favorites. I remembered achieving a certain degree of success a few years back when I served a free-form, rustic tart stuffed with nectarines and raspberries. Something about that particular combination is my idea of the perfect mixture of texture and flavors. So, I decided to tweak this recipe for a recent celebratory picnic – but feel free to tweak it right back.

Now, here’s a note on a few things I didn’t do that I’d advise that you do do.

  1. I didn’t serve with homemade vanilla ice cream. You really should. Or maybe homemade cinnamon ice cream, eh? And certainly nobody shall call the dessert police if you use Edy’s as a stand-in.
  2. I didn’t use arrowroot powder. I knew I should. Cornstarch works, but lends a slight chalkiness of texture and muddiness of flavor, to my taste buds, at least.
  3. I didn’t roll my crust thin enough. I also didn’t use a proper biscuit cutter. I let nostalgia get the best of me, perhaps, and used the vintage juice glass that my mom used to use to cut biscuits when I was a kid. But with such a tiny bite, you’d be wise to use a properly sized cutter – no bigger than 2 inches across – and roll it thinly to produce the appropriate ratio of filling to crust.

Now, even when you roll the crust to just the right width, this is still going to be a bit more crust-heavy than your traditional pie. Lucky for this girl, I’m a crust fanatic. The recipe I used was one that mixes butter and Crisco to be both buttery AND flaky – but feel free to use your own all-butter crust, if you’re a butter purist. I’d trust this Smitten Kitchen recipe.



Peach-Raspberry Pie Bites

Serves 24.

For the Pie Crust:
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces
2/3 cup shortening, cold
2/3 cup ice water, plus more as needed
4 teaspoons distilled white vinegar, chilled
2 tablespoons room temperature butter
1 egg yolk, for the egg wash
1 tablespoon water
1-2 tablespoons additional sugar 

For the Filling:

½ pint raspberries
2 ripe peaches, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
1/3 cup sugar

Food Processor Method: Combine flour, sugar and salt in bowl of food processor. Add cold butter and shortening, pulsing to combine until fat is pea-sized. Mix together cold water with vinegar and add to mixture, one tablespoon at a time, pulsing between each addition until a dough forms. You probably won’t use all of the liquid.

Or,

Pastry Cutter Method: Combine flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add cold butter and shortening, using a pastry cutter or two forks to blend fat into dry ingredients until pea-sized clumps form. Mix together cold water with vinegar and add to mixture, one tablespoon at a time, turning dough with forks and incorporating liquid into the mixture until a dough forms. You probably won’t use all of the liquid.

Then,

Turn dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and form into a ball. Wrap well and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour (but only if you have a really cool fridge – two to three hours is more likely). I made mine the night ahead.

Meanwhile,

Mix the fruit together in a large bowl and sprinkle with sugar and arrowroot powder. Stir well to combine and set aside.

When dough is chilled,

Remove dough from fridge and divide into two halves. Place one half back in fridge. Roll the remaining half nice and thin, about 1/8 inch thick, between two sheets of waxed paper. Cut 24 rounds from the dough. Keep in mind that you might not be able to get 24 rounds on the first roll-out – you might have to collect your scraps, stick them in the fridge for a few minutes and then re-roll to eke out all 24 rounds.

Then,

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray your mini cupcake tin with non-stick cooking spray. Tuck a round of dough into each of the 24 cups. Shmear each round with room temperature butter (I used a pastry brush, but a spoon would also suffice). This will help prevent the crust from becoming too soggy. Place the cupcake tin in the freezer while you roll out the remaining dough and, once again, cut out 24 rounds.

Next,

Remove tin from freezer and spoon a heaping tablespoon-full of fruit mixture into each cup. Top with another round of dough and pinch to seal the edges. Make three slits in top of crust. Whisk together egg yolk with 1 tablespoon water. Using a pastry brush, spread the wash lightly on top of each pie, then sprinkle with sugar.

And finally,

Bake for about 20 minutes, until crust starts to brown just a bit around the edges. Allow pies to cool in tins on a cooling rack before loosening around the edges with a butter knife and popping them out. Don’t forget to serve with ice cream!

Roundup time! Here are a few quick pics – some of which have been lingering on my memory card far longer than others – that are worth sharing.

As a well-chronicled fan of the muffaletta, I was happy to give the sandwich another spin.

Sandwich rounds were the vessel for this version, stuffed with the traditional olive spread, mortadella, salami and provolone. The mini-muffalettas received a quick turn on the grill pan before I packed them up for a picnic, where they were well received at room temperature.


I’m almost literally in constant search of what I call the “sophisticated” casserole: a dish fancy enough for entertaining that still comes together easily in a one-pot meal.

This Greek Shrimp Casserole from the Washington Post fits the bill. I prepared a pan for a pregnant friend and froze it for some easy eats after baby arrives.

Truth be told, I can’t remember exactly which recipe I used to produce these fudgy brownies. But given the inherent beauty of this favorite dessert, I thought the picture was too pretty to pass up!

I love a trifle for so many reasons. It comes together in a snap; it’s hard to mess up; store-bought ingredients are not only acceptable, but encouraged; it is, by its very nature, a forgiving dessert; it can be adapted easily to whatever ingredients you have on hand – angel cake and blackberries, pound cake and strawberries, sponge cake and blueberries; it’s best received when made in advance; and, inevitably, the results are tasty. And did I mention that, layered sky-high in a lovely trifle dish, this dessert is quite the looker? What’s not to love?

If you’re like me, you like pizza. Maybe you’d go so far as to describe yourself as being moderately obsessed with pizza. Perhaps, if you were forced to spend eternity on a desert island with only one food, you wouldn’t think twice to name pizza as the one dish you’d dine on for the rest of your life. And maybe, just maybe, you’ve spent countless hours devoted to finding the best way to make your own pizza at home.

Now, since we all don’t have the luxury of pulling a Gwyenth Paltrow and building a wood-burning pizza oven in our backyard, the rest of us have to get creative – and resourceful. My absolute fave method for preparing pizza at home is outdoors, as nature intended, on a hot grill. It’s fast, messy and festive, and produces a crispy, superior crust in a flash. Sadly, being an apartment dweller creates an added obstacle in my pizza-making-experimentation. I’m sadly grill-free chez Menu.

Moreover, my kitchen is quite free of any form of ventilation. Anytime I turn the oven on over 400 degrees results in a low level of smoke and a high level of noise from my too-sensitive-but-fully-operational smoke alarms. (Side note: do I really need four smoke alarms in a less-than-900-square-feet apartment?) When performing your own, personal pizza-making research, the first thing that professional pizza-makers will drill in your brain is that you must, must, must crank your oven up to the highest degree possible. And use a pizza stone. After borrowing Mother Menu’s pizza stone for a test run, my beloved smoke alarms had a fit. Apparently, the oils absorbed by the stone do not interact well with my particular brand of kitchen.

I thought I might be on to something when I came upon another category of pizza recipes that call for using the broiler. But my lovely apartment, always conspiring against my pizza consumption, got in the way again with its awkward drawer-style broiler that won’t fit a sizable pan in it.

So here’s the method I developed. I won’t say it’s the most perfect in the world – but it’s the most perfect method for my imperfect, but loveable, little apartment kitchen. It’s inspired by countless recipes I scoured from the Web – but since none fit my kitchen’s peculiarities, I tweaked and adapted and am pretty darn happy with the results.  And since I figure I just can’t be alone in my pizza-making-predicament, I thought I’d share the fruits of my laborious research.  Here’s what to do.

1. Make or buy your dough. I’ve convinced that the dough I purchased through local Richmond company Pizza Tonight is near perfect. I love it. You know how, when you order pizza from a takeout place, everyone fights over the piece of pie that has a huge, charred bubble of doughy goodness on the outer crust? Well, every pie I’ve made with Pizza Tonight dough has resulted in multiple bubbles. More on Pizza Tonight later. If you’re set on making your own dough, I’d recommend this recipe from the Washington Post.

2. Pick a day when you’re experiencing neither blizzard nor heat wave in your community. Open as many doors as possible and turn on all the fans in the house. (Fortunately, to accompany my four smoke alarms, my landlord thoughtfully provided four ceiling fans.) Voila, make-your-own ventilation!

3. Adjust an oven rack to the very lowest setting, closest to the base heating source. Crank up the oven to (gasp) 425 degrees, giving it a good 20-30 minutes to make sure it’s good and hot. (Of course, if you’re in a kitchen with proper ventilation, feel free to preheat to 500 degrees – you’ll likely get better, and slightly quicker, results.)

4. Heat a well seasoned cast iron skillet on the stove top over medium-high heat.

5. While the oven and pan preheat, prepare your dough. Dough should already be at room temperature. If you’re working with a damp dough, cover the ball lightly in flour before holding it in one hand and allowing gravity to do its work, letting the dough “hang”  down, using the other hand to stretch the dough into a rough circle that’s quite thin in the middle without reaching the fully-transparent stage, and no bigger in diameter than your cast iron skillet. Pizza Tonight offers an excellent tutorial on this very subject.

6. Prepare the toppings. My latest favorite combination is fully inspired by Pizza Tonight which, in addition to selling kits of dough and sauce, also sells fresh-from-the-oven baked pies on-site at local farmers markets. I sampled a slice of their Fig & Pig creation and was hooked: fresh figs, prosciutto and Gorgonzola cheese. Yum. For my version, I opted for a combination of pesto, dried figs, fresh mozzarella and prosciutto, layered in that order and using just the thinnest layer of pesto.

7. Nestle the dough carefully in the cast iron skillet and add toppings.

8. Bake for about 8 minutes.

On my first try, I over-baked in hopes that the top crust would magically char. But without an upper heat source (i.e., from a broiler), that’s just not going to happen, so don’t make my mistake. Taking the pizza out after 8 minutes yielded a pizza that was the perfect mixture of crispy and chewy – and thanks to the skillet I still enjoyed some of those tasty char marks on the bottom of the pizza.

So that’s my journey. My greatest discovery? Every pizza is as unique as the kitchen that produces it. So, unless I stay in this particular apartment for life, I’m looking forward to more pizza discoveries in newer and greater kitchens in the future!

I just had to show a few quick pics from a celebratory baby shower a couple pals and I recently hosted for a certain amazing friend who occasionally goes by the moniker of Cookbook Queen here in the blogosphere. With baby’s arrival looming on the horizon, we wanted to help our friend prepare for her own little Cookbook Prince or Princess (it’s a surprise!).

Us co-hostesses divvied up the menu, deciding on a traditional, southern-style spread of pimento cheese sandwiches, tarragon chicken salad on croissants, ham biscuits with provolone and poppy seed, fruit kabobs, a panzanella salad and coleslaw. And in case you’re wondering about the little elephant flags punctuating some of the dishes below, those were inspired by the invitation, which encouraged guests to help us celebrate our friend’s little peanut!

In lieu of a cake, we opted for a Milk & Cookies Bar. Our selections? Chocolate Toffee, Snickerdoodle and Oatmeal, Cranberry & Walnut.

A make-your-own candy bar let our guests depart on a sweet note, each taking home a mini-mason jar full of treats. One of the co-hostesses practically specializes in adorable ideas for party favors.

And to wash it all down, we offered fresh peach bellinis, with champagne and cider options for our guests. Frozen blueberries were a festive garnish.

Now we just have to wait for the little guy or gal to arrive!

I promised you a Hazelnut Tiramisu, and a Hazelnut Tiramisu I will deliver.

But first, a few words on a subject of great angst for Miss Menu: Coffee.coffee

As someone who loves to eat, enjoys lingering over a good meal and has a general obsession with all topics of gastronomic interest, acquaintances often jump to the understandable, but totally bogus, assumption that I have something of a sophisticated palate. Some even go so far as to guess that I’m an arbiter of good taste: one who lives for truffle season, only eats food within a five-mile radius of her dwelling and makes her own wine in her spare time. While I may be enthusiastic and willing to experiment when it comes to food, if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s sophisticated. I don’t turn up my nose at fast food, and I might venture to admit that I would, in fact, be caught dead at an Applebee’s (probably ordering the laughably-sized appetizer platter smorgasbord, in fact).

So it’s all the more vexing and, yes, a little bit embarrassing when I have to ‘fess up, add insult to injury and admit that I just don’t like coffee. I love the concept of coffee – the social aspect of meeting at the coffee house for good conversation, the post-dinner ritual of ending a meal in a coffee-induced haze. Heck, I even enjoy the smell of it. But a tall cup of jo – even with loads of cream and a scourge of sugar – is just not my cup of tea.

Enter tiramisu. This intensely-espresso-flavored dessert did not make its way onto my taste buds’ radar for years due to obvious reasons. But it’s such a ubiquitous dessert that, a couple of years ago, I decided to make a concerted effort to learn to like it. And, in doing so, I had my fingers crossed that this sweet treat might help ease me into a healthy relationship with coffee. In other words, I had high hopes that tiramisu would be the gateway drug to turning me into a highly caffeinated and fully functioning member of society. The kind of girl who can waltz into any Starbucks and order with brisk authority, instead of ashamedly mumbling my request for a blueberry scone and a fruit smoothie. You know, a grown up.

tiramisu filling

The results? A mixed bag. I am now successfully obsessed with tiramisu, while simultaneously moderately repelled by a cup of coffee. My sister even tried to train my taste buds by feeding me bites of tiramisu (Edo’s Squid tiramisu, no less) followed by straight sips of espresso. And I choked down a few sips before crying uncle. But the only semi-adult coffee drink that I can handle is the Frappucino. So, now what I’m left with is a palate that is most thoroughly obsessed with tiramisu. And a wallet left significantly weaker by $5 Frappucinos.

Whether or not this caffeinated journey has left me better off is hard to say. Actually, scratch that. It’s pretty easy to say that this journey has added a pound or two to my figure while subtracting more than a few dollars from my bank account. But I’ve had a lot of fun along the way. Most recently, I experimented with creating a tiramisu for a crowd of 50 to end my mother’s surprise birthday bash. As a veteran tiramisu taste tester but a virgin tiramisu maker, research and testing were the keys to sweet success for this particular event. I loved the idea of bring out a colossal tray of tiramisu to feed 50, practically staggering under the weight of the behemoth dessert.

tiramisu dipping

My first attempt that I tested on coworkers was a bit lackluster. The bite of liquor was too weak while the dusting of bittersweet chocolate on top was far too strong. But I put these lessons learned to good use in the final version which, I just have to say, was fairly mind-blowing, thanks to a joint effort with Sister Menu! The recipe is relatively simple, but with lots of steps that must be carefully timed. And when you’re quadrupling the recipe below for a crowd of 50, that doesn’t make things easier, so two sets of hands are highly recommended.

Now, a word on supplies: I found it hugely helpful to borrow a legitimate double boiler to prepare this recipe. For those not in-the-know, a double boiler is a set of two pans, one smaller than the other. The smaller pan fits into the larger pan without touching the bottom, the idea being that you simmer water in the larger pan and heat ingredients in the smaller pan over the simmering water.

Many recipes call for a raw-yolk component, but since I wasn’t familiar with the eating habits and preferences for this particular group of 50, I decided to play it safe by cooking the eggs fully in a sweet and smooth custard beforehand. To do this requires a gentle, slow and consistent heat that, in Miss Menu’s opinion, only a double boiler can properly provide. True, you can fashion your own device by propping a small bowl into a larger one, but the convenience of an official double boiler is huge. So, being short on storage space, I borrowed one for this recipe. I also had to borrow a huge (fantastic red enamel) serving dish to live out my vision of one staggeringly large dish of tiramisu – but for the recipe below, an 8×8 glass pan will work just fine.

This particular version is inspired by my far-off-mentor in all things kitchen-related, Nigella, in her most recent cookbook, Nigella Kitchen. As a certified hazelnut-fanatic, I could not resist this twist on the classic dessert.

hazelnut tiramisu

Hazelnut Tiramisu

For Filling

  • 5 large egg yolks (discard or save egg whites for another use)
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup Frangelico hazelnut-flavored liqueur
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 12-14 ounces mascarpone, at room temperature

For Assembly

  • 1 cup espresso, cooled (or 6 tablespoons espresso powder dissolved in a cup of boiling water)
  • 1 cup Frangelico hazelnut-flavored liqueur
  • 24-30 ladyfinger cookies
  • 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, VERY finely chopped
  • 2 ounces toasted hazelnuts, VERY finely chopped

In the larger bowl of the double boiler, bring an inch or two of water to a simmer. In the smaller of the two bowls of the double boiler, combine the egg yolks with sugar and mix with an electric mixer until well combined, thick and yellow, about 2 minutes. Add in Frangelico and set over the simmering water. Whisk fairly constantly for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 15 minutes. (Now would be a good time to cool the espresso, if you haven’t already done so!)

Meanwhile, beat the heavy cream and vanilla with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. It helps to place the bowl in the freezer before hand, and to remove the cream from the refrigerator at the very last minute, to help the cream along in the soft-peaks-process. Set aside.

Place the softened, room temperature mascarpone in a very large bowl. Fold in the whipped cream and the cooled egg mixture. Taste and sigh with rapture. This stuff is good, and could be consumed in vast quantities by itself.

Pour the cooled espresso and the remaining Frangelico in a low, shallow dish like a pie plate. One-by-one, quickly dip each ladyfinger in the espresso mixture, giving it a fast flip – speed is of the essence here. If you let the ladyfingers linger too long in the liquid, they’ll disintegrate in a flash, so you want to be sure that they absorb as much of the espresso/Frangelico flavor as possible without reaching that fall-apart-consistency.

Layer half of the semi-soaked ladyfingers tightly (overlapping if necessary) in an 8×8 dish. Cover with half of the filling mixture and spread. Top with another layer of tightly packed, semi-soaked ladyfingers and the second and final layer of the filling mixture. Using a very light hand, sprinkle with hazelnuts and bittersweet chocolate to barely cover. Refrigerate.

You’ll want to let this sit in the refrigerator a good 4 or 5 hours, at the very least, to let the flavors meld together. Remove from the fridge about 20 minutes before serving.

Surprise!

When the Menu Family realized that a very noteworthy birthday was fast-approaching for our matriarch, we got together to determine the best way to celebrate in style.

Now, my mom threw birthday parties too numerous to count for the three of us Menu kids when we were growing up. And more recently, she’s hosted just bunches of family dinner parties to celebrate our respective births. This is a woman only too deserving of a throw-down good time at her very own birthday bash.

The Logistics
Surprise was the way to go – she’d have put up too many objections, otherwise. We wanted an event that would be fun, casual and filled with good friends and good food. We’d need a space large enough to accommodate a big group of family friends, so we decided to rent a banquet room at our local neighborhood pool. This would be a huge group effort, made possible with the help of the whole family and several amazing friends who served as on-site helpers!

Theme & Decor
Sunflowers set the color scheme and, subsequently, the general feel and theme of the party. Since the space already had a casual vibe going, we decided to play it up by wrapping the nine 6-foot banquet tables in rolls of brown paper. Center pieces were mason jars wrapped in raffia and filled with miniature sunflowers. Flatware was wrapped in bright orange napkins and tied with a miniature flower pom pom fashioned from brightly colored tissue paper and secured with floral wire (à la Martha Stewart). We topped the dessert and appetizer tables with graphic yellow, brown and blue tablecloths, with more sunflower arrangements and a huge hurricane lamp filled with sunny lemons. More tissue paper pom poms, plus pictures of mom and the family, and loads of bright yellow balloons, finished off the space.

Handmade tissue paper pom poms stood in for napkin rings while raffia-wrapped mason jars served as vases on the paper-wrapped tables.

We decorated the mantle with oversized tissue paper pom poms - plus plenty of photos of the guest of honor, secured to strings of twine with clothespins.

Most Importantly, The Menu
For me, cheerful sunflowers and tables wrapped up in brown paper with raffia-wrapped mason jars screams one thing, and one thing only: rustic Italian. Which is oh-so-fortunate for a certain menu-maker who just happens to love preparing Italian for a crowd! In search of a menu that would be appealing to varied palates, unfussy and, well, just tasty, I settled (after much hemming and hawing) on the following mix. With a guest list of 50, I had to do a good amount of guesstimating on quantities. I must admit that I ran a bit short on a couple of side dishes – see the notes below for some thoughts on quantities for a crowd.

Appetizers

  • Manchego, Peppadew & Prosciutto Bites (was spot-on with 100 bites)
    I’m a fool for the tang of a peppadew, and absolutely crazy about bite-sized appetizers on sticks (witness the Monster Bite). This particular combination was a natural marriage of those two particular obsessions. And it turns out that the pairing of peppadew peppers with nutty manchego and irresistibly salty prosciutto – thinly sliced – is a huge crowd-pleaser. We skewered each bite on a bamboo toothpick, situating a small chunk of cheesy goodness inside the pepper and wrapping the whole shebang in a shred of prosciutto. Since the prosciutto is used so sparingly, you really don’t need to purchase much – 1/4 pound, thinly sliced, would have been plenty for the 100 bites I made (as opposed to the full pound that I foolishly purchased!), combined with about a pound of cubed manchego and several jars worth of peppers. Now, if you’re at home preparing these for a smaller crowd, I can’t help but think that they’d benefit from a quick turn on the grill to lend some crispiness to the prosciutto – but they do pretty well on their own at room temperature, too!
  • Basil Dip with Fresh Veggies (I doubled this recipe, but should have left it alone to adequately feed 50. Several bell peppers, one bunch of celery, about a pound of baby carrots and a few pints of cherry tomatoes are good for dipping.)
    My idea of the perfect summer app, I first conceived of this particular dip for a friend’s birthday shindig last August. It pulls together in a snap, has loads of flavor and is eminently adaptable to whatever herbs you might have on hand. Plus, leftovers make for a terrific sandwich spread.
  • Roasted Grape Tomato Bruschetta (I prepared 80 toasts, and that seemed to be a pretty good quantity.)
    With my main courses already a bit heavy on the meat-factor, I wanted to keep my appetizers fairly vegetarian-friendly. I love this particular dish because the preparation is so painless – just roast grape tomatoes, with plenty of oil, salt and pepper, at a super-high temperature until they absolutely burst. I like to add a bit of sugar to the mix for a touch of sweetness, too. The tomato mixture can be heaped on toasty slices of baguette and served at room temperature – another requirement for all three of my appetizer choices.

Peppadew-Prosciutto-Manchego Bites, Basil Dip & Roasted Grape Tomato Bruschetta.

The Mains

  • Miss Menu’s Lasagna Bolognese for a Crowd (Three 9×12 casseroles was plenty.)
    Someday,  I’m going to have to branch out beyond this traditional favorite. But today was not the day. I can’t tell you enough just how much I love this recipe for an utterly traditional lasagna. I must admit to being something of a recipe-hopper: why repeat the same dish time after time when you can experiment with something new? But the results of this particular combination and preparation of ingredients are just so darn pleasing that I couldn’t pass it up.
  • Eggplant Parmigiana (I only prepared two 9×12 casseroles, but three would have been more appropriate.)
    My eggplant obsession is already all too well chronicled, but this particular version was a new venture for me. As a confessed eggplant parmigiana addict, I wanted this dish to be spot-on. So I conducted a trial run, creating one version with eggplant that was breaded then baked and layered with fresh mozarella, and one version in which I breaded then fried the eggplant before layering it with regular shredded mozzarella. The results were mixed to say the least. I liked the flavor of the fried eggplant, and the crunch of the baked. I liked the heft of the fresh mozzarella, and the meltability-factor of the shredded. So, I decided to combine the best of both worlds. It’s admittedly a labor-intensive dish – but one that’s well worth the effort. See the full recipe below.
  • Orecchiette Pasta with Sausage, Broccoletti & Ricotta (I mixed four pounds of pasta with three pounds of sausage, but could have downgraded to 2-3 pounds of pasta and 2-3 pounds of sausage.)
    Sister Menu, I must admit, saved the day on this particular dish. Being a budget-minded girl, I had purchased a mixture of sweet and spicy sausage from the grocery store for this classic pasta mixture. But when my sister arrived to help with cooking, she insisted on replacing the sub-par sausage with some high-end product from Belmont Butchery. It’s a good thing, too. The sausage was the star of this particular dish, which combined toothsome orecchiette with roasted broccoletti, the aforementioned sweet-and-spicy sausage, a binder of ricotta and plenty of crushed red pepper for kick.
  • Caprese Salad (We used four pounds of mozzarella with seven or eight tomatoes, but five pounds of cheese and nine or 10 tomatoes would have been more appropriate.)
    I know, I know, caprese salad in June is not the best use of tomatoes ever envisioned. But I couldn’t resist offering a huge platter of fresh mozzarella, thick-sliced tomatoes and shredded basil for our guests. Tom Leonard’s, a local Richmond grocery store, makes some of the best frezh mozz I’ve ever tasted. It’s super salty and rich and worth the special 20-minute drive west for a special purchase. We arranged alternating slices on a pretty platter before sprinkling with roughly chopped basil, a drizzle of oil and a healthy pinch or two of salt.
  • Roasted Veggies (I’d recommend at least seven or eight quartered onions, four bunches of asparagus, four or five bell peppers chopped into large chunks and six or seven summer squash.)
    Instead of a traditional salad, we decided to roast up loads of veggies: onions, peppers, zucchini and asparagus all went into the mix. I definitely did not take into consideration ahead of a time how intensive a project it would be to roast enough vegetables to feed 50 people in my little oven.

Setting the stage for the buffet-style Italian feast. Mangia!

The Sweets

  • Hazelnut Tiramisu – Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh. This is getting its own special post. Suffice it to say, you’ll want to make a stop by your local American Boys’ Club (perhaps more familiarly known as the ABC store) for a bottle of Frangelico to have on hand so you can run to your kitchen and throw together this dreamy dessert as soon as you read this to-be-written post!
  • Strawberry Trifle – A coffee-and-liqueur-free alternative for the world’s cutest niece and nephew, and all those (crazy people) who are not inclined to try (my new favorite) tiramisu.

Here’s the sure-fire recipe for some delicioso eggplant parmigiana. Other recipes are either linked or described above!

One of the most beautiful sites these eyes have seen: eggplants frying in preparation for the Eggplant Parmigiana.

Eggplant Parmigiana
Makes 1 9×12 casserole, enough to serve 12-15.

2 small- to mid-sized eggplants
2 28-ounce cans San Marzano whole tomatoes in sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1-2 tablespoons sugar
1 large handful basil, about 1 cup chopped and loosely packed
1 cup flour
3 ounces shredded parmesan
4 eggs
4 ounces shredded mozzarella
4 ounces fresh mozzarella
8 slices white bread
Vegetable oil
Salt & pepper

  • Slice eggplants thinly and evenly, about ¼ inch thick, leaving the skin on. Place slices in a colander or on a baking rack placed over the sink, and salt liberally. Let sit for 30 minutes, then press between layers of paper towel.
  • Meanwhile, prepare sauce. Purée San Marzano tomatoes in food processor until slightly chunky. Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat. Dice onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is translucent. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and dried oregano. Mix in tomato mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in basil and sugar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  • Now for the eggplant layers: one baked, one fried. Mix flour with 1 teaspoon salt in a large, sealable plastic bag. Beat eggs in a pie plate or large shallow dish. Pulse bread in food processor to a fine crumb; mix with 1 ounce shredded parmesan and plenty of salt and pepper in another pie plate.
  • For the baked layer: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Toss half of the dried eggplant slices, 5-6 at a time, in the bag of flour. Shake to rid of excess flour. Dip them in egg, then dredge thoroughly in crumb mixture; set on cookie sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, flipping the slices after 15 minutes.
  • For the fried layer: Repeat the process above with the remaining half of the eggplant slices, tossing 5-6 slices at a time in the bag of flour, followed by a dip in the egg bath and the crumb mixture. Set aside on another platter or cookie sheet. Heat vegetable oil in a large frying pan, about ¼ inch deep – you’ll know it’s hot enough when you flick a drop of water on it and it pops and sizzles. Fry the eggplant in batches, being sure not to overcrowd the pan and refreshing the oil as needed between batches. It will take one or two minutes per side – you’re looking for a golden brown crust. Place fried eggplant on racks lined with paper towels.
  • Once all the eggplant is baked or fried and the sauce prepared, start assembling. Keep the oven heated at 400 degrees. Spray a 9×13 pan with non-stick cooking spray, and pour 1 heaping cup of sauce into the pan and spread to cover. Cover sauce with the layer of fried eggplant, fitting the slices tightly together and overlapping as needed. Sprinkle with the fresh mozzarella. Cover liberally with a heaping cup of tomato sauce. Layer slices of baked eggplant in the same manner as above. Dot with some sauce, about half a cup, and sprinkle with the shredded mozzarella and remaining Parmesan. You’ll have some leftover sauce for serving with the casserole.
  • Tent the casserole dish with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake for 5-8 minutes, until browned and crispy. Eat hot or allow to cool completely before wrapping in plastic wrap and foil and freezing for up to three months.