Archived entries for entertaining

Kick it off right: Crustless mini-quiches.

I came incredibly close to kicking off 2011 with a very large mistake: I very nearly canceled my New Year’s Eve party. Thanks to Snowmageddon 2010, Bench (the world’s best party-prep-partner-in-crime) was stuck in Chicagoland until New Year’s Day, and half my guest list was stranded in similarly snowbound points west. It just didn’t seem worth going all out for only three people, particularly since I didn’t have all that much of an axe to grind with 2010. And so, the unthinkable well and truly almost occurred.

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Fortunately for us all, Biscuit was on hand to remind me that half the fun of a party is getting ready for it. Also that I was being stupid: a party is a party is a party, whether it’s for six or sixteen! And of course, he was right.

Thus fortified we threw ourselves into the business of party, whipping up myriad delights for the masses! On the menu were some old favorites (amaretti cookies, gougeres, thyme and gruyere icebox crackers) and some new experiments. Foremost among these experiments was an amuse bouche that is going to become a permanent part of my party repertoire: the crustless mini quiche.

What makes this wee timorous beastie such a superstar is not that it is perfectly savory and bite-sized (which it is), or that it’s so versatile (which it also is), or even that it’s pretty darn easy to make (ditto) but the fact that it can be made up to a month in advance and then whacked into your freezer until you’re ready to entertain. Reconsitute with 10 minutes in a 400 degree oven, and you’re laughing.

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As any dedicated party-thrower knows, any time you can front-load while prepping for the event is time you can instead spend fixing your hair or bedazzling the walls on the day of. Or, in my case, time you can spend convincing yourself that the party is, in fact, going to be a good idea and you should probably go through with it. Which, in retrospect, it really, really was; a truly glittering and wonderful way to kick off what I hope will be an absolutely excellent year.

I like to think the thirty (!) people who miraculously appeared at the wingding would heartily agree.

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Party Trick: Homemade Cheese Crackers

I’ve been doing quite a lot of entertaining lately—folks come over to our place a few evenings a week to help out tasting this or that. (Tough life, I know.) But we have to feed them—not full dinners, necessarily, but we need to have enough food around to balance out the booze. And I’m getting tired of bread and cheese, crudites and prosciutto.

Enter homemade cheese crackers—they’re like the Cheez-its of your dreams, but full of real cheese flavor (not “cheese flavor”) and spiked with just a hint of smoked paprika. The original recipe was for cheese straws, Southern style, but I prefer them almost like cookies: puffy and chewy inside, tender instead of crumbly. I set out a plateful of an entire batch last night and it was decimated almost immediately. (The imperial stout was a slower slog.)

I’m working on some variations—I think they’d be good with a dab of mustard or hot sauce stirred into the dough, and maybe a sprinkle of fresh thyme and garlic. You could make them all-cheddar, or use a mix of whatever hard cheese-nubs you have around: aged gouda, parmesan, gruyere. I’m even game to try it with something blue—you might not need any milk to moisten the batter in that case.

You can make the dough ahead, wrap it carefully and refrigerate until you’re ready to pop them in the oven—all the better for the busy entertainer.

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The Endless Cappuccino-Fudge Cheesecake

I’m not going to claim this was a quick one. First, I had to track down chocolate wafer cookies (no, Oreos are not the same thing.) Then, I assembled our new food processor for the first time and gleefully swirled the cookies around in it. I chopped up some good chocolate and weighed it out with our new kitchen scale. Then, I called my mother to tell her how exciting it was to use the new food processor and new kitchen scale. An hour had gone by and I wasn’t even done with step one.

But once I got rolling, with the help of my friend (and cheesecake expert extraordinaire) Lindsay, I got more and more excited. The scent of dark chocolate ganache and freshly ground espresso beans wafted through the kitchen. The buttery chocolate-crumb crust rested in the freezer. The recipe was from Lindsay’s files—she used to bake cheesecakes for local restaurants in New Hampshire after college. She became a bit famous, but the constant cheesecakes were so much work, and the ingredients so costly, that it wasn’t quite worth it.

Five hours after I started with the crust, the coffee cheesecake layer was baked and topped with a slightly tart and rich sour cream layer (like the foam on a cappucino.) Five hours. And it still needed chilling and decorating. Dear readers, do not plan on making this the evening of of a dinner party. This is not a last-minute dessert.

But therein lies the beauty. Once assembled and topped with a lattice of dark chocolate ganache, this baby really improves in the fridge. I’m not exaggerating—the first day we ate this cake, we were underwhelmed. And then something magical happened, and with a second day’s rest, the flavors melded and the cheesecake layer grew creamier and more luscious. Lindsay and I made the cake on Wednesday, adding ganache on Thursday, and on Friday friends who came over to help us eat it couldn’t stop cooing over their hefty slices.

And that wasn’t the end—there was still so much cake left. But guests who joined us the following Wednesday (a full week after the five hour baking marathon) couldn’t get over how delicious it was. The intense coffee flavor! The fudgy crust! The perfect balance of the creamy-and-tart topping! When they returned two nights later they were saddened that we’d finally, finally finished the last slice. “Just think of all the unfortunate people who didn’t get to taste that cheesecake,” one lamented (after a few beers.)

But you (and your friends—it’s a big cake) don’t have to be unfortunate in that way. Just make sure you’ve got a little time on your hands.

Recipe after the jump.

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Looking for an easier cheesecake? This crustless lemony goat cheese cheesecake was easy as pie…or easier.

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A guaranteed crowd-pleaser: Pesto lasagna with spinach, mushrooms, and artichokes

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Given that I am a total misanthrope, it comes as a surprise to some how much I love entertaining. Ever since I figured out how to boil water without setting the house on fire (somewhere in my early twenties), I’ve taken ridiculous pleasure in having my nearest and dearest over for a home-cooked meal. The current flaw in this pleasure: in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen, it’s hard to manufacture a meal for more than, say, four people at a time. As such, I am sure you can imagine my initial panic when Bench and I decided to have a dinner party for eight; fortunately for everyone, I had this recipe tucked in my back pocket.

A riff on traditional white-slash-green lasagna, this particular recipe gets a little extra heft from sauteed mushrooms and a whole lot of personality from minced artichoke bottoms (I tried to make this happen with artichoke hearts, but…just…no. Texturally, they just didn’t do what I wanted them to; they were too flighty and fibrous where I wanted solid and defined) and about thirty pounds of garlic. Though you can do everything The Hard Way (make your own pesto, wash and chop adult spinach, grate your own parmesan–none of which, seriously, I would have done if I’d known the party was going to be switched at the last minute from Saturday to Friday; totally unnecessary when you’re pressed for time), you really don’t have to: premade pesto is an excellent way to shave off some prep time, and bagged, prewashed baby spinach makes it almost TOO easy. You can probably even use those lasagna noodles that don’t require pre-boiling (which I, being a cowardly sort, have never tried) and you can definitely use pre-grated cheese.

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I love serving this at parties for several reasons: it’s delicious (obviously), it’s impressive, it’s easy to assemble, vegetarians will eat it, it multiplies well, and you can do it at a leisurely pace in advance or you can make it in a hurry on a Friday night. Basically, it’s my go-to, no fail, always appropriate, guaranteed-to-elicit-queries-for-the-recipe party superstar. My repertoire holds no equal. I hope it’s the same for you.

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Pesto lasagna with spinach, mushrooms and artichokes

a little oil for the pan
about 16 lasagna noodles
6 oz baby spinach, roughly chopped
8 oz mushrooms, finely minced
15-oz (usually 1 can) artichoke bottoms, minced
2 lbs. (4 cups) ricotta cheese
1 cup pesto
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (or minced walnuts)
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 head garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
fresh black pepper to taste
3/4 cup grated parmesan
1 1/2 lbs. mozzarella cheese, grated

  1. Preheat your oven to 350; slice the top off the head of garlic, drizzle it with olive oil and wrap it loosely in foil. Bake until soft and fragrant (about one hour) (Note: if you are preparing the lasagna in advance, this would be a good time to turn off your oven. If you are NOT preparing this in advance, roast the garlic while you’re prepping the rest of the filling and keep the oven hot). Once it’s cool enough to touch, squeeze the garlic out of its skin and mash it into a paste. Set aside.
  2. Set a large pot of salted water to boiling; cook the lasagna noodles for 4-5 minutes (until tender but still al dente). Drain them and lay them out flat on foil or parchment while you get the filling ready.
  3. Heat some olive oil in a large pan; over medium-low heat, saute the mushrooms with a bit of salt until they have released all their liquid, and then re-absorbed it (about 3-4 minutes). Add the artichoke bottoms and saute for 2-3 minutes more; add the minced garlic and saute for two more minutes. Remove from heat.
  4. Mix together: ricotta, artichoke-mushroom mixture, pine nuts, roasted garlic paste, pesto, pine nuts and spinach. Set aside.
  5. Lightly oil a 9×13 pan. Line the bottom with one layer of noodles, then spread 1/3 of the filling over the noodles, followed by 1/3 of the mozzarella and 1/3 of the parmesan. Add another layer of noodles, filling and cheese. And once more.
  6. Bake for about 50 minutes at 350 degrees; if the top starts to scorch, cover it lightly with foil.

Weeknight Entertaining: Port-Braised Lamb Shanks with Coriander, Fennel, and Star Anise


Let’s say you want to have a special evening. There’s a fancy bottle of wine you’ve been saving, and you’ve invited a few friends over for a home-cooked meal. You have something to celebrate.

But you don’t know exactly what time they’re arriving—they could be stuck at work, or their train could take forever to come. If you plan a dish with too many last-minute preparations, you’ll be bustling around while your friends relax and catch up. And you clearly don’t have time for lots of shopping and complicated prep between the time you leave work and the time they come over. It’s a challenge, the weeknight dinner party.

But take a deep breath. There is no reason you can’t entertain on a weeknight, even have a truly decadent, enjoyable meal, without any stress. That’s what braising is for. Everything is prepared in advance. You can gently reheat these port-braised lamb shanks for 45 minutes or an hour or longer while your guests arrive, while you drink toasts and eat lovely cheese, and the meal will be none the worse for wear. In fact, it will just get better.


It always amazes me how recipes for braised dishes fail to emphasize the value in cooking ahead. Cook for three (or more) hours the evening before your party, and let the pot cool off outside before you stash it in the fridge overnight. The flavors will mingle, and, most importantly, the fat will separate from the cooking liquid. On game day, you skim the now-solidified fat from the surface before reheating. And this dish has plenty. It’s quite satisfying to remove it, knowing you’re saving your guests from a greasy meal.

So the lamb reheated happily on the stove, and we sipped the wine and ate lovely cheese from Fromaggio in Essex Market. And Matt asked Peter to be his best man in our wedding, and they were both blushing and adorable, and the lamb fell off the bone as I tried to serve it, and it was as tender as can be.

Port-Braised Braised Lamb Shanks with Coriander, Fennel, and Star Anise
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2006
Serves 4

2 1/2 tsp ground coriander
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 large lamb shanks (about 5 pounds)
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large white onion, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
10 garlic cloves, peeled
3 celery stalks, cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 carrots, peeled, cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 small leek
3 cups ruby Port
2 1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth
2 1/2 cups beef broth
6 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

The day before the party, prepare and braise the lamb shanks. Measure coriander, fennel, and pepper in a heavy skillet. Toast on medium-high heat until aromatic and slightly darker, about 2 minutes. Transfer to spice grinder or mortar and pestle; grind finely. Rub each shank with spice blend, reserving a tablespoon or so. Sprinkle each shank with salt.

In large pot, heat port to a simmer. Simmer until reduced to about 1 cup, about 20 minutes. Add broth, boil until liquid is reduced to about 4 cups, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, eat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add shanks to pot. Cook until brown on all sides, about 20 minutes. Remove to bowl. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to same pot. Add onion and next 4 ingredients; sauté over medium heat until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add remaining spice blend and stir 1 minute. Add hot liquid when reduced, scraping the pan and using the liquid to deglaze.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Return shanks to pot. Add cloves, star anise, bay leaves, and crushed red pepper. Cover pot and place in oven. Braise lamb until tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
When cooked, uncover and cool slightly. Remove shanks from sauce, holding on a plate or bowl, and strain sauce. Return shanks and sauce to pot. Cover and keep refrigerated up to two days.

The day of the party, skim fat from top of the dish. Rewarm, covered, in a 350°F for 45 minutes to one and a half hours (until warm) before serving.

Place 1 lamb shank on each of 4 plates (can be served on top of polenta). Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce and over lamb and serve.



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