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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.

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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.

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This year we celebrated the mothers of our family with a casual dinner chez Menu. I was in the mood for a meal that was the opposite of stuffy. Simple. Light. Tasty. Unfussy, but special enough to pay tribute to the hardworking moms in our midst.

A health-conscious soup & salad combo – followed by a less-health-conscious dessert tart – came to the menu-making rescue. A mellow soup, a bold salad and a rich dessert made for a perfectly lovely Sunday evening with the fam.

I kept things consistent, for a change, and adapted all of my recipes from the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen. I’d add all three to the repeat file.

Flank Steak Salad with Miso Dressing
Serves 6.

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 1- to 1 1/4 pound flank steak
  • 2 tablespoons white or yellow miso
  • 1 two-inch chunk ginger, peeled
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6-8 ounces baby mixed greens
  • 1 seedless cucumber, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 large handful cilantro
  • 2-3 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, lightly toasted
  • 1 small sourdough baguette, cut into 1-inch cubes

Place 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, soy sauce and brown sugar in a sealable plastic bag with the flank steak. Marinate steak for at least two hours, or overnight.

Puree remaining vegetable and olive oil in food processor with miso, ginger and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat a large nonstick skillet or grill pan over medium high heat. Remove steak from marinade and grill on each side for about 4 minutes per side. Set aside and tent with foil. Let steak rest for 10-15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lay cubed bread on a foil-lined baking sheet and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sesame oil, salt and pepper. Toast until crispy and lightly browned, about 12 minutes.

Mix greens, cucumber, red pepper, spring onion, cilantro, sesame seeds and toasted croutons in a large bowl. Slice steak diagonally on the bias and add to salad mixture. Toss the whole lot with plenty of miso dressing.

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Fennel Zucchini Soup
Serves 6.

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 fennel bulbs
  • 2 zucchini
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes

Lightly toast fennel seeds and grind in a spice grinder or coffee grinder reserved for spices. Set aside.

Thinly slice fennel bulbs, reserving fronts. Fennel is tricky to slice, but don’t worry about slices being slightly mishapen – it will cook down and meet its fate in a blender later, anyhoo. Dice zucchini and onion.

Heat oil over in a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Add fennel, zucchini, onion and fennel seed powder. Saute until vegetables are softened and the fennel is translucent, about 5-6 minutes. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool, then puree mixture in a blender or food processor, in batches if necessary. Season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, heat 1/2 tablespoon oil in a saute pan. Cut grape tomatoes in half and saute in oil for 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and garnish with reserved fennel fronds. Serve a spoonful of tomatoes in each bowl of hot soup.

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Not one to worry too much about staying virtuous to any particular diet, I knew we had to round out the healthful offerings of the evening with something just a tad bit decadent. Mom and I are both huge fans of malted flavors, as witnessed when Mother Menu undertook the arduous task of creating the behemoth and glorious Chocolate Malt Cake for my birthday last year. I decided to return the favor with a tone-downed version that still featured the malt flavor, but in a cookie tart form. The resulting crust is the perfect mix of crispy and chewy, sweet and salty. And the method couldn’t be more simple.

Chocolate Malt Tart with Crispy Cookie Crust
Serves 8-10.

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup malted milk powder
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks butter, cut into pieces, at room temperature
  • 1/2 heaping cup bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup malted milk balls, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In food processor, plus flour, malted milk powder, sugar and salt to combine. Add butter and continue to pulse until small clumps form. Turn dough into a tart pan with removable bottom and press evenly along bottom and up edges – the crust will be pretty thick. Prick all over with a fork and tent lightly with foil. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil. Continue to bake for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown.

Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with chocolate chips, and tent with foil. Let sit for five minutes while the chocolate melts. Remove the foil and spread the chocolate over the top of the cookie crust tart. Sprinkle the still-wet chocolate with malted milk balls and let cool completely before removing from pan. Serve wedges with loads of cold milk.

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The theme of the Menu family Christmas meals this year was go big or go home: huge cuts of meat, bold flavors and massive quantities resulted in Christmas Eve and Christmas Day menus that were a study in tasty excess.

Christmas Eve
We like to try something new each Christmas Eve meal. Last year we opted for an Italian feast with a layered sausage and broccoli rabe torta. This year we stuck to the pork theme with porchetta: a butterflied, boneless pork shoulder layered with sweet and spicy Italian sausage and rolled tight, with a dry rub of sage, tarragon and fennel.

We tied the pork shoulder tight with twine to keep the sausage stuffing tucked neatly inside.

 

The end result is a spiral full of pork goodness.

A sweet potato puree, sautéed corn & peppers and a light version of creamed spinach rounded out the menu.

Sweet potatoe puree, corn with peppers and creamed spinach provided a colorful spread of sides.

  • Porchetta – I was thrilled to discover this new-to-me recipe that layers spicy sausage in a reasonably-priced pork shoulder to create a lovely roast that is perfect for entertaining. I found it crucial to have the butcher butterfly the cut for us. And instead of the homemade sausage mixture that the recipe suggests, we had great results with about 3/4 pound spicy Italian sausage and 3/4 pound sweet Italian sausage, and eliminated the egg binder. The dry rub of sage, thyme, fennel and garlic (we omitted the rosemary) was a great addition.
  • Creamed Spinach – The calorie count of this savory side scared me off in the past, but reducing the butter by about half and using a combo of whole milk and two-percent lightens the dish a bit while still leaving it decadent enough for a holiday feast.

Christmas Day
Beef is the name of the game for the Menu Family Christmas day spread, and this year we chose a truly decadent cut. The bone-in rib roast is fatty, tender and quite the stunner, aesthetically speaking.

 

Before. . .

 

And after.

Smashed potatoes, haricots verts and airy popovers were the perfect pairing.

The beauty of the perfect popover.

  • Rib Roast – We kept the preparation simple for this cut of meat: just a bit of oil, salt and pepper. We served up some delectable horseradish cream on the side. This site has a helpful chart to determine cooking time for your roast.
  • Perfect Popovers – Popovers are deceptively simple to make and delightfully impressive to serve. You must invest in a popover pan to make these sky-high rolls. The Joy of Cooking recipe proved successful for us, but this one is a close approximation.

The final chapter in the Menu Family holiday menu extravaganza: sweet endings. Lots and lots of sweet endings.

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Miss Menu and her mother had a big Sunday night dinner plan, thanks to plenty of advance prep work on mom’s part. The green beans were cooked and ready for the salad. Chicken breasts were marinating. And, perhaps most importantly, the batter for the stuffed and fried squash blossoms was prepared and waiting in the fridge.

And then the lights went out.

So what do you do on one of those hot summer nights when a storm approaches, the humid heat settles in and the electricity decides not to cooperate? You turn to a little outdoor fire power.

We had been planning on grilling the chicken anyhow. The carrots, too, would receive a turn on the grill and then in a dip in a fiery chipotle sauce topped with feta.

The green beans were already ready for their room temperature salad – mixed with olives and orange segments, the result would be an outstanding if unusual combo.

But the real conundrum proved to be the squash problems, the beautiful and edible flower of summer and winter squash. If you’re not planning on cooking the flowers, they make a beautiful garnish for salads, but we had been super-eager to try our hand at the classic preparation of frying the blossoms. But with an electric stove leaving us without the ability to heat the oil for frying, dare we experiment with grilling these delicate treats instead?

We dared.

First, we stuffed the blossoms with some alouette cheese.

Then, we made sure the grill was exceptionally well oiled before placing the blossoms on the grill and giving each side a quick blast of heat, using tongs to rotate them.

The result? Success! And a healthy one, at that. The delicate flavor of the blossoms shone through without the crispy batter. Plus, the finished result of a grilled squash blossom is a lot prettier to look at than the fried version.

That’s not to say I don’t want to give the fried blossoms another go, though!

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Almost two weeks after the Menu family Christmas day festivities, Miss Menu is still dreamy-eyed with thoughts of the day’s meals: a breakfast to remember with a perfect mixture of sweet and savory; a traditional beef-and-potatoes dinner with some tasty twists; and a highly indulgent dessert.  

We don’t like to budge much from our traditional Christmas morning breakfast, and for good reason. Our coffee cake recipe (see below) is super simple but insanely satisfying. It also freezes well. (The Menu Family likes to take a frozen cake on beach vacations, too). Add scrambled eggs, thick-cut bacon and plenty of mimosas and you have yourself a Christmas brunch to remember.  

The next Christmas day menu that brings joy to the taste buds is Christmas dinner. Last year’s crown roast of pork was hard to top in terms of a wow factor, but this year we decided to try something new with the New York strip roast. This tender cut is usually served up as individual steaks, but a whole roast is perfect for a crowd. We pre-ordered our meat from local-favorite Belmont Butchery, then followed the basic guidelines in this Epicurious.com recipe. Basically, you pan sear the whole roast in a skillet on the stove top, fat-side town, to create a nice brown crust before putting the whole skillet in a 375-degree oven and cooking to 130.  

The beef receives a quick stove-top sear before roasting.

 

A stove full of Christmas day goodness.

 

 Our side dishes included a sausage-and-oyster stuffing, smashed potatoes with plenty of alouette cheese and string beans with crispy onions.  

All that is well and good, but for this sweet tooth, a Christmas meal just isn’t complete without a decadent dessert course. We found ours by recreating a version of the famous lemon butter cake from Chez Foushee Restaurant in downtown Richmond. It’s something of a dessert institution in my hometown: a buttery crust meets a dense, intense, lemony filling. The result is slightly similar to a cheesecake, but somehow tastes even more sinful. After you test the experiment below, I highly recommend a trip to Chez Foushee to taste the original.   

Lemon butter cake.

 

Menu Family Coffee Cake 

 

Batter:  

  • 2 sticks butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 pint sour cream

Cinnamon Mixture  

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons chopped walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon

Using an electric mixer, beat butter until it becomes creamy. Gradually add sugar and vanilla.  Add salt and eggs and continue to beat.  Combine baking soda with flour and add alternately with sour cream.  Pour half the batter into greased and floured 13 x 9” baking pan.  Sprinkle half the sugar/cinnamon/walnut mixture over.  Top with remaining batter and sprinkle remaining cinnamon mixture over all.  Swirl with knife.  Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. If freezing, let cool completely before wrapping in plastic wrap and aluminum foil. 

Lemon Butter Cake
Adapted from a 2006 Richmond Magazine recipe and discovered thanks to a co-worker who enjoys lemon butter cake just as much as Miss Menu!  

Crust  

  • 1/2 stick butter, melted
  • 1/2 package boxed yellow cake mix (2 cups)
  • 1/2 a whisked egg (2 tablespoons)

Filling  

  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese (light is OK)
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • Zest from two large lemons
  • 1 stick butter, softened

For crust, stir together melted butter, cake mix and egg until mixture comes together. Grease the sides of a 9-inch springform pan, inverting the bottom of the pan so the cake can slide off easily once cooked. Press the dough into the bottom of the pan and  half-way up the sides.  

For filling, cream together the cream cheese and butter using an electric mixer. Mix in condensed milk until fully incorporated. Add powdered sugar and incorporate. Add eggs, one at a time, then add lemon juice and zest and mix. Pour mixture into the prepared crust and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Top will puff up and brown a bit. Chill overnight – top will fall a bit. Serve dusted with powdered sugar, with raspberries or lemon slices to garnish.

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Menu-wise, this Christmas season was one for the books. In between sessions of opening presents and playing with the niece and nephew, we simmered, stirred, broiled and baked. The Menu Family cooked up a series of feasts that, in Miss Menu’s humble opinion, was the biggest collective success in family holiday history. 

For Christmas Eve, we decided to take a break from the traditional ham and macaroni & cheese; instead, we opted for a festive Italian menu. A heaping antipasti platter–lovely salami, loads of veggies, trays of cheese and bowls of briny olives–started us off on the right note. Father Menu stirred up a batch of Bardstown Slings (bourbon, Triple Sec, cranberry juice and lime) to wash it all down. 

Antipasti on Christmas Eve

Pouring some Bardstown Slings

For our main course, we decided to go with a one-“pot” dish – something that could be prepared ahead and popped in the oven as soon as we’d returned from church on Christmas Eve. My jaw quite literally dropped when I read about this Sausage and Broccoli Rabe Torta in the highly craveable Gourmet Today cookbook. I’ve waxed poetic about Gourmet cookbooks before – and will likely continue to do so ad nauseum, for one good reason. Time and time again, their recipes surprise, delight and satisfy. For this torta, you take a pancake-like batter, sizzle up a batch of crepes and layer them with sweet and spicy Italian sausage, loads of garlic-sauteed broccoli rabe and a gooey and rich bechamel sauce (butter, flour, milk and cheese). The layers bake up in a springform pan so you’re left with a layered tower of Italian goodness.  

We doubled the recipe to serve our group of 7 (plus one hungry 20-month old) and were left with plenty of leftovers. Next time around, I might use a smidge more milk in the bechamel – this sauce was super rich – and reduce the quantity of cheese to lighten the load a bit. We used a mixture of broccoli rabe and broccolini for the filling – both are similar to broccoli but with smaller florets, more leafy greens and nuttier, more bitter flavors. You could get really creative with this recipe and substitute grilled eggplant or roasted peppers, instead. We rounded out our meal with a leafy green salad and a crusty baguette. 

Layering the torta

The finished product

Dessert was something special for the true chocolate lover. This recipe for Memphis Mud Pie from Down Home with the Neelys over on Foodnetwork.com is super fudgy. We created our own chocolate cookie crumb crust (like the one in this cheesecake recipe) in lieu of the store-bought version recommended, and were tremendously happy with the chocolatey results. 

Christmas Eve is the perfect time for indulgence, and this menu fit the bill. Next up from Miss Menu? Stay tuned for tales of a New York strip roast, oyster sausage stuffing and a decadent lemon butter cake on Christmas day, plus a recipe to make your Christmas morning breakfast exemplary.

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