Archive for the 'How To' Category

Dinner Party Menus: Perfect Macaroni and Cheese

I spend a ridiculous amount of time on food.  Between searching recipes, reading food magazines, planning menus, shopping, cooking, and cleaning it all up, food is certainly a central element in my life.  (My husband and I keep joking about all the things I could accomplish if I gave up cooking for just one week…  Stay tuned to see if that ever actually happens!)

It occurred to me today that I might be able to save time for some of you by posting the menus I’ve put together for dinner parties at my house.  I try to plan things that go together nicely and that will allow me to do as much work as possible before my guests arrive.  (We usually have cocktails and apps around my kitchen island, so the last thing I want my guests to see is me frantically trying to put a meal on the table.)  Saving time and lessening stress is always a good thing, right?

Last night, Dr. O and I hosted a typical fall dinner party with one exception: we had a vegetarian guest.  Now, vegetarians certainly aren’t unusual and I’ve worked with more challenging diets, but I came to realize that I didn’t have many recipes in my entertaining arsenal that didn’t include meat.  I first experimented with Hearty Root Vegetable and Mushroom Stew from my copy of The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2010.  While it certainly wasn’t bad, it wasn’t dinner party food; my friend Christopher suggested that I was expecting a miracle out of a vegetable stew.  After some discussion, we came up with the menu below for six guests.

Spinach dip and lemon artichoke dip from Whole Foods (I’ll take help where I can get it!)
Cucumber slices (as a dipping alternative)
Mixed olives
Roasted, salted almonds (from Whole Foods bulk section – fantastic!)

Perfect Macaroni and Cheese
Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots
Simple Roasted Tomatoes (Just toss any quantity of cherry tomatoes in a roasting pan with olive oil, salt, and pepper; roast for 15 to 20 minutes towards the end of the macaroni and cheese baking time.)

Pear and Berry Crisp

Here’s the preparation schedule I followed for a 7 p.m. dinner party.  (Yes, I am one of those people.  Having a schedule totally reduces stress and the likelihood that I’ll forget something, though.)

Anytime Friday:
Chill wine
Wash and iron napkins
Make and store crisp topping

Saturday morning or afternoon (work takes approximately 1 hour):
Slice and store shallots for green beans (refrigerator)
Rinse, trim, and store green beans (refrigerator)
Wash and dry cherry tomatoes, place them in roasting pan, and store (counter)
Wash, slice, and store cucumbers (refrigerator)
Thaw berries for crisp
Wash and slice pears for crisp
Assemble fruit portion of crisp and store (refrigerator)
Set table

5:45 p.m.: Make macaroni and cheese (hold at room temperature until baking time)

6:30 p.m.:
Put out appetizers
Put pot of water for green beans on stove (no heat yet)
Put pot for cooking shallots on stove with shallot butter inside (no heat yet)
Preheat oven for macaroni and cheese

7:00 p.m.: Guests arrive!

7:15 p.m.:
Put macaroni and cheese in oven
Start boiling bean water

7:30 p.m.:
Put tomatoes in oven (beneath macaroni)
Start cooking shallots

7:45 p.m.:
Remove macaroni from oven
Add green beans to boiling water

7:50 p.m.:
Remove tomatoes from oven
Drain green beans and toss with butter, salt, and pepper
Combine green beans with caramelized shallots
Change oven temperature to 400°F for crisp
Serve dinner

8:30 p.m.: Put crisp in oven

9:15 p.m.: Remove crisp from oven

9:35 p.m.: Serve warm crisp with vanilla ice cream

It seems like a lot of steps, but since I did things like put the bean water and shallot butter on the stove ahead of time, I’d say the actual amount of hands-on work that needs to be done while guests are standing around takes fewer than 10 minutes. Consequently, I can actually interact with and enjoy my guests (the point) instead of working myself into a frenzy (so not the point!).

The food turned out really well.  I’ve made Perfect Macaroni and Cheese (here’s a link to my post) and Pear and Berry Crisp (my post) before; both are absolutely to die for.  The tomatoes and the green beans were perfect complements to the macaroni.  I would normally serve a buttery chardonnay (like La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay) with this dinner, but my friend brought a red (2005 La Baronne Alaric) with the dish in mind; it paired beautifully.

So that’s my dinner party…  What do you think?  Do you consider this type of post helpful, or not so much?  I’d love to hear from you!

Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

You know those weeks where it seems like no one’s eating the bananas and you end up with a whole pile of ’em destined for (a) the trash or (b) the oven?  That was the situation at my house on Saturday when I realized I had six (!) totally overripe bananas.  I had some extra time, so I thought I’d look for a project in the high-altitude baking book I inherited from a friend.  I was originally thinking banana bread, but I came across a recipe for banana cake that sounded really fantastic.  I had all of the ingredients (except for buttermilk, which is super easy to make at home), so I got to work.

Here’s the recipe from Patricia Kendall’s High-Altitude Baking:

Banana Cake
Makes two 9-inch layer cakes or one 9×13-inch cake

2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/3 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon almond extract (I recommend cutting this to 1/2 teaspoon)
2/3 cup buttermilk, divided
3 large ripe bananas, mashed
2 large eggs, room temperature
2/3 cup walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans or one 9×13-inch baking pan.  Mix and sift cake flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl.  Add oil, almond extract, 1/3 cup buttermilk and mashed bananas.  Beat for 1 minute with a mixer at low speed.  Add eggs and the remaining 1/3 cup of buttermilk; beat for 2 minutes at medium speed.  Fold in chopped nuts, if desired.  Pour batter into pan(s).

Bake for 35 – 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove cake(s) from oven and cool in pans for 10 – 12 minutes.  Remove cake(s) from pan(s) and finish cooling on a wire rack.

Here’s the frosting I used (from

Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes enough for two 9-inch round cakes

8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer. With the mixer on low speed, add the powdered sugar one cup at a time until smooth and creamy.  Beat in the vanilla extract.

Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Here’s the deal.  I was initially a bit disappointed with this cake recipe.  I took the cakes out after 35 minutes and my toothpick came out clean; I was worried that I had overbaked them, though, because they had pulled away from the sides of the pans.  The cakes came out of their pans nicely after the initial cooling time, and I waited until they had cooled completely before assembling and frosting them.  (I really should have leveled them better, I know, but I didn’t want to waste any cake!)

Dr. O was anxious for a slice, so I cut one as soon as I finished with the frosting. The cake was moist and it definitely tasted like cake (not banana bread, which I was half expecting), but the texture was borderline sponge-y.  Also, the edges that had pulled away from the pan were too firm.

It was looking like the classic “boohoo, all that effort for nothing” situation UNTIL something magical happened.

As the cake sat overnight, the moisture from the cream cheese frosting seeped in and fixed everything.  On that second day, the cake was extra moist and not at all sponge-y; the edges were softened as well.  Final result: Knock-your-socks off banana cake with to-die-for cream cheese frosting.  I just wish it had tasted this way from the very beginning.  I’m going to shave three minutes off of the baking time next time to see if the cake improves; I’ll post updates as I get this one figured out.

TIPS:  I mentioned that it’s easy to make your own buttermilk at home.  All you have to do is put 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice in a 1-cup measuring cup and fill the rest of the cup with milk.  Let the mixture stand for at least 5 minutes and then use it in the recipe as you would packaged buttermilk.  (I usually use 1% with white vinegar, but I’ve heard you get the best results with whole milk.)

How to Make Pumpkin Puree (the Easy Way)

Sometimes I hate to admit it, but as many concluded in the much-discussed Martha Stewart vs. Rachael Ray dustup last week, nobody does it like Martha.

When I first made pumpkin puree a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had originally intended to use Martha Stewart’s method but decided to go with the instructions on the pumpkin sticker instead.  I got great results, but I really struggled to cut open my pumpkins.  (At this point, I’m not sure if the sweat was from pure exertion or the completely rational fear of losing a finger.)

Since I’m making the Chocolate-Pumpkin Tart again for Thanksgiving, I needed to whip up some more puree.  For comparison’s sake, I decided to use Martha’s method today and (of course) it totally trumped the pie sticker method.  Martha says to peel and seed the pumpkin (I used a really sharp Y peeler), cut it into 2-inch pieces, and then steam it (covered) on the stove for 15 minutes.  As I had hoped, cutting through the pumpkin was easy peasy once the skin had been removed.  I actually skipped the step of cutting off the top and bottom of the pumpkin (I didn’t want to struggle!) and then sliced the flesh off in quarters after I finished peeling the pumpkin.  All I had left was this little pumpkin “sandwich.”

Pumpkin Remnants

The results were identical to the other method once I pureed the steamed pumpkin in the food processor – smooth, creamy pumpkin puree with no difference in flavor.  For me (and for the sake of safety and energy conservation), Martha’s way is now the right way to make pumpkin puree.

Recipe link: Sugar-Pumpkin Puree

How to Make Pumpkin Puree

I told myself in early October that this would be the year I made the leap from canned pumpkin (pretty delicious and convenient) to homemade pumpkin puree (the great unknown).  The assumption is, of course, that homemade has to be better because it’s homemade.  We’ll see.  The woman at Sunflower Market who rang up my pie pumpkins said that her family will only eat pumpkin pie that is made from homemade puree, which I’m going to take as a positive sign.  (I told her they were lucky that she’d comply with their demands, hehehe.)

I purchased two adorable pie pumpkins for $1.50 each; I totally should have weighed them, but I’m estimating that each one was a little over a pound.

Pie Pumpkins

Pie Pumpkins

My original intention was to use Martha Stewart’s Sugar-Pumpkin Puree recipe, but I couldn’t resist the simple instructions on the bottom of the pumpkins.  In retrospect, Martha’s instructions might have been easier (despite appearing to require more work) because they included peeling the pumpkin.  I thought cutting through an acorn squash was hard, but I actually broke a sweat trying to cut through the skin of these little pumpkins.  Wow.  The second one was easier, though, because I worked out a bit of a technique.  I cut straight down through the stem first (with the knife parallel to the floor).  Then, I would work the tip of my freshly sharpened santoku knife into the top of the pumpkin, using the edge of the first stem cut as a guide.  Going on a tip a reader once gave me, I tapped the top of the knife blade to help ease it through the skin.  (Ideally, you’d use a rubber mallet for this; since I don’t have one, I’ll admit I used the handle end of a citrus reamer as my “hammer.”)  Once the tip of the knife was completely through the skin, it was a lot easier to cut down through the sides of the pumpkin.  I ended up making cuts all the way down each side, and then I just pried the halves apart.

Open Pie Pumpkin

Once the pumpkins were halved and the stems were removed, I scooped out the seeds and strings.  I put the halves cut side down on a foil-lined baking sheet and covered them with another layer of foil.  (I’m sure the smell of burning pumpkin skin is less than pleasant.)  I  baked them at 350F for 90 minutes.  (Make sure the flesh is tender at this point; otherwise, throw ’em back in.)  I put the baking sheet on a wire rack and turned the halves cut side up to help them cool faster.

Once the flesh was cool, I scooped it out of the shells and into a bowl.  (I was amazed at how cleanly it separated.)  In two batches, I processed the flesh in my Cuisinart Mini-Prep food processor until it was completely smooth.  I transferred the puree to a mesh colander set over a bowl and let it sit for about 5 minutes; my puree wasn’t particularly watery, but it did render about a tablespoon of liquid.  I ended up with 2 cups of puree, so about 1 cup per small pie pumpkin.  As my Sunflower Market source suggested, homemade puree is much lighter in texture than the canned stuff.  Also, despite coming from pie pumpkins, the puree wasn’t sweet, but it’s important to remember this is pumpkin puree, not pumpkin pie filling.

Pumpkin Puree

Pumpkin Puree

I transferred the puree to an airtight container and refrigerated it; the pumpkin instructions said it will keep in the refrigerator for five days.  Mine won’t last that long since I intend to use most of it to make Martha Stewart’s Chocolate-Pumpkin Tart this afternoon.  Stay tuned!

Pumpkin Puree

Pie pumpkin(s)

Cut pumpkin(s) in half and remove the stem.  Scoop out the seeds and strings.  Place cut side down on foil-lined baking sheets.  Cover with foil.  Baked at 350F until tender, 1 1/2 hours.  Cool.  Scoop out flesh and mash with potato masher or food processor until smooth.  Drain if too watery.

Source: Van Groningen & Sons, Inc.

UPDATE: For better or for worse, Martha Stewart is (almost) always right.  Check out this post for a better, faster, easier way to make pumpkin puree.

How to Slice an Onion Without Crying

Onions and I are NOT friends.  I love to cook with them, but I am seriously one of those people who ends up with a mascara-streaked face within about 15 seconds of cutting one open.  And boy, do my eyes burn!  I’ve tried “onion goggles” and they help some, but I still tear up every time.

My mom caught me on the phone this evening *just* before I was about to slice an onion for dinner.  She told me to light a candle first.  I lit a tea light and placed it right next to my cutting board.  Amazingly enough, it worked!  I didn’t tear up at all.  I guess the flame is supposed to burn up the onion fumes or something…  Who knows.  What I *do* know is that I’ll never cut an onion without a candle nearby ever again!

How to Make Your Kitchen Sponges Last Longer

It’s been a busy Monday so I only have time for a short post, but hopefully, it’s one you’ll find valuable. I think I first read about microwaving kitchen sponges on MSNBC last year (this article, maybe?). We had been going through sponges like crazy… It seemed like we were picking up several packages every time we went to Target. I figured I’d give the microwave a try to see if I could extend the life of a sponge beyond a few days.

It worked like a charm! Just make sure the sponge is wet (not sopping, but dry ones will catch fire in the microwave) and microwave it on high for 2 minutes. Wait at least 10 minutes before removing it from the microwave and ringing it out; otherwise, the hot (hot!) water left in the sponge will burn your hands. If your sponge had started to give off any kind of odor, you should notice it’s gone when you take the sponge out of the microwave. I microwave my sponges every couple of days (or immediately if they’ve been in the vicinity of raw meat) and toss them when they’re worn out.

Oreo Ice Cream Cake is on the request line for tomorrow!

How to Cut a Cheesecake Perfectly

Time is short today, my friends, so I have a tip/teaser for tomorrow’s post.

What’s the secret for cutting a cheesecake perfectly? No knife or hot water is involved. No kitchen utensils are involved at all, actually.

Are you ready?

It’s dental floss.

You have to make sure you get the unflavored kind, unless you want a hint of mint on the edges of your slices. You just pull the floss taut over the middle of the cheesecake with about an extra inch on each side. Gently pull/push the floss down through the middle of the cheesecake. (The pulling is you holding the floss tight horizontally; the push is the floss coming down through the cheesecake vertically.) The floss is the only thing that actually touches the cheesecake; your hands will be about an inch outside on each side. When you’ve pulled the floss down to the base of the cheesecake, pull it extra tight to make sure you cut through the crust. Then, just pull the floss out one side of the cheesecake, wipe it clean with a paper towel, and make your next cut.

Pictures (and a fantastic fall cheesecake recipe) coming tomorrow!

How to Cut a Pineapple

I’m prepping you for my next post. 🙂

There are a million different ways to cut a pineapple, I’m sure. This is how I do it when I want pineapple chunks, not rings.


1. Cut the crown and the base away from the pineapple.


2. Stand the pineapple upright. Cut it in half down the middle, and then cut each half in half. You’ll have four quarters.


3. Make a cut down the inside tip of each quarter to remove the core. I usually cut a bit generously to make sure I remove it all. You can tell where it stops and where it starts because the pineapple flesh appears lighter and more solid at the core.


4. Cut the pineapple skin off of each quarter. Try to follow the curve of the fruit. I usually need at least two long cuts per quarter to get it all off.


5. Lay the pineapple core-side down on a cutting board. To cut chunks, I cut the pineapple quarter into thin slices horizontally, and then usually make four vertical cuts.


TIPS: Cutting a pineapple is a juicy process. Not nearly as juicy as cutting a watermelon, but pretty juicy. You might want to blot the cutting board with paper towels between each quarter to prevent juices from pooling (which leads to a sticky, messy counter).

Cut pineapple will keep in the refrigerator for three to five days.

The Daring Kitchen

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