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Unexpected Favorites: Zucchini Lasagna

22 May

Creativity, in my opinion, is one of the most important assets any cook can have. It is always really interesting to me when I have a chance to exchange recipes with other RNY post-ops. Generally they’ve revamped favorite recipes into ones that fit into their new healthy lifestyle. People have come up with really interesting, delicious things like chocolate cakes sweetened and moistened with canned pumpkin, or protein-packed pancakes made from ricotta cheese and nut flour.

It was during one of these exchanges many years ago that someone first brought up the idea of using zucchini squash as a replacement for lasagna noodles. Although skeptical (I love pasta), I gave it a try and LOVED it. If, like me, you are currently being driven crazy by a project and just need something simple to heat up at lunchtime, this is the answer. You can use low-fat cheeses if you wish, but I prefer to use full-fat in this recipe. Even with full-fat cheese, it only works out to 8g of fat per serving.

Zucchini Lasagna

  •  1 lb. ground turkey breast
  • 2 zucchini, sliced thin on a mandoline
  • 2 cups tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups diced mushrooms
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 16 oz. whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 3 oz. whole-milk mozzarella cheese, grated
  • 1 oz. parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 egg
  • Thyme, salt, onion powder, and cayenne pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Brown the turkey in a large saucepan and season with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms and minced garlic and saute a minute longer. Add the tomato sauce, herbs, and seasoning and simmer while preparing the filling.

Combine the ricotta, 2 oz. of the mozzarella, and parmesan with thyme, salt and pepper. Taste and re-season as needed, then add the egg and mix well.

Put a thin layer of the tomato sauce mixture in the bottom of an 8×8 in. square baking dish. Top that with a layer of zucchini, and then finally with a layer of the ricotta mixture. Repeat this process until you’ve used up the filling. I usually get about 8 layers.

Top with any remaining small slices of zucchini and mozzarella cheese.

Bake for 40-45 minutes or until bubbly and cooked through. After removing from the oven, allow it to sit for 15 minutes before cutting into slices. Yield: 9 slices.

Want to get a bunch of meals out of this? Simply refrigerate the leftovers in the baking pan overnight so that they firm up. Then wrap individual servings in several layers of plastic wrap and then freeze. To reheat, either place in a baking dish and bake at 350 degrees F until warm, or in the microwave for 3-4 minutes.

That’s all for this healthy and happy recipe. But I’ll finish this post off with something even happier. Check out my face as I realize that I’ve just walked into a surprise bridal shower thrown by my wonderful family and friends this past weekend:

Then realized my sister-in-law flew in from New York to be there:

And ended up with a bouquet of bows from generous gifts for Joe and I:

Truly, I am the luckiest.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

Ciao for now,


Return of the Gouda

9 May

Fortunately I did, in fact, remember to save a piece of finished homemade gouda to show you. This is not the wheel that I made in that post. It’s one I made late in the autumn after I had trouble aging the first batch. It turned out that waxing the cheese made all the difference in getting it to age without forming an incredibly hard rind, especially given that the humidity I was able to achieve in my aging space was less than ideal. It stayed in there for three months and I then vacuum sealed pieces after opening. This is the last one:

Very creamy, rich, and soft. Such an amazing contrast to the hard, squeaky mass of curds that came out of the cheese press. It really turned out well. If I make another, I want to try and let it age for a full year!

Ciao for now,

Joe’s Confetti Cake with Vanilla Buttercream

21 Mar

Who here liked Funfetti cake as a kid? Okay, now who here still likes Funfetti cake as an adult? No shame in admitting it. There’s nothing quite like rainbow cake to bring some unanticipated cheer into our lives. And while that box of color speckled white cake is pretty tasty, the truth is that you can make it yourself with very little angst.

This is what Joe requested for his birthday, and here’s how I put it all together.

White Confetti Cake with Vanilla Buttercream

White Cake

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract½ tsp. almond extract
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 6 egg whites at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup of multi-colored sprinkles

Quick Buttercream Frosting

  •  6 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
  • 16 oz. butter, softened
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup milk

Grease and flour two 9 in. cake pans and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and  1 ¼ cups of sugar and beat until light and fluffy. This will take several minutes on medium speed. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts and then add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk until everything is combined. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Clean and dry the stand-mixer bowl thoroughly and then add the egg whites and a pinch of salt to it. Whip on high speed until the egg whites are frothy and then very slowly add the remaining 1 ¼ cups of sugar. Whip until the meringue is thick, glossy, and holds almost stiff peaks.

Fold one third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it, and then gently fold in the rest. Add the colored sprinkles and fold them into the batter.

Divide the batter evenly among the two pans and then gently tap the pans on the counter to release any air bubbles in the batter.

Bake the cakes for 30-40 minutes or until the tops are lightly golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 15 minutes and then turn them out onto a cooling rack. Let them cool completely before frosting. It is best to wrap the cooled cake layers in plastic wrap and refrigerate them overnight prior to frosting.

To make the buttercream, beat the butter on medium speed until very smooth and creamy. Add the powdered sugar and mix on low speed until the sugar and butter are combined, then add the vanilla extract, salt, and milk and beat on medium speed until thick. It will take about 3-4 minutes.

Frost and decorate the cake as desired! You will probably not use all of the icing, but it’s better to have extra for decorating. No one wants to run out in the middle of frosting a cake (which I did while testing variations of this recipe).

So freaking good. You can also use a Swiss Meringue Buttercream on this cake, which is a slightly more involved recipe. The upside is that it uses much less sugar and a little less butter without sacrificing consistency or taste.

  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 13 oz. butter, softened and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

Place a large bowl over a pot of simmering water and add the egg whites and sugar to it. Whisk them together until the sugar is completely dissolved, meaning it does not feel grainy in the slightest. Transfer this to a stand mixer and whip until the meringue is white and doubles in volume. Add the vanilla and pinch of salt.

With the mixer running, slowly add the butter, one or two pieces at a time, making sure the additions are thoroughly combined before adding more. Do not panic if the mixture starts to look like it is separating—trust me, it will come together. Once all of the butter has been added, whip the buttercream on medium-high speed until thick and creamy. It may take 5 minutes or maybe a little more, but it will come together. Scout’s honor.

Both the quick buttercream and meringue buttercream will hold up at room temperature for an extended period of time, although the latter is more susceptible to condensation. So if you have a particularly humid refrigerator I would recommend using the first recipe.

Happy birthday super-fiancé! I hope all of your wishes come true.

Ciao for now,


Oktoberfest Brew-Curds Cheddar

12 Oct

October has definitely arrived. Fortunately, that just means we’ve moved into football/beer season.

And comfort food season! Fall food is my kind of food. This weekend I decided it was finally time to combine cheese making and beer. Ever put beer in a mornay sauce? Do it and tell me if you ever make macaroni and cheese without it again.

Back in March, I made a wheel of Farmhouse Cheddar that came out pretty darn good. Good, but not great. For the last few months, I’ve been having some…issues…with cheese making. My wheel of gouda dried out because the humidity in my cheese fridge kept dropping too low. I pressed a second one over the weekend, but it will be waxed this time since my cheese making cohorts have advised me that the coating will protect it in a slightly less-than-ideal aging environment. Part of the reason it dried out so easily was due to equipment problem number 2: My pot. Because my largest pot (that fit a burner on my electric range) was still too small to fit two gallons of milk, I was halving recipes and making smaller wheels of cheese. I might have gotten away with the thicker rind on a larger wheel of cheese, but on the small ones it just meant the whole thing turned into a little brick.

Undeterred, I scoured the Internet until I found just the ticket: A 12 quart double-boiler. Now I could finally heat 2 gallons of milk evenly over a water bath with greater accuracy and better long-term temperature control. Armed with a new pot, new blocks of shiny red wax, and recently calibrated thermometer, I got back on the horse with a decidedly autumn cheese:

Brew-Curds Cheddar

 Just in time for Oktoberfest, it’s a cheddar wherein the curds are soaked in beer before pressing. Let’s do it.


  • 2 gallons whole milk
  • 1 packet mesophilic starter
  • ½ tsp. calcium chloride diluted in ¼ cup cool water
  • ½ tsp. rennet diluted in ¼ cup cool water
  • 1 bottle stout or ale of your choice , at room temperature. Pick something that you enjoy drinking!
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  • Cheesecloth



Slowly heat the milk in a pot set over a water bath to 88 degrees F over a period of about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Sprinkle the starter into the milk and allow it to rehydrate for five minutes before stirring it into the milk thoroughly with a whisk using an up and down motion. Maintaining the 88 degree temperature, cover the pot and allow the milk to ripen for 45 minutes.

Add the calcium chloride and mix for one minute, then add the rennet and mix for one minute. Once again, maintaining the 88 degree temperature, cover the pot and allow the mixture to set for 30-45 minutes or until the curd gives a clean break when cut with a knife.

Cut the curd into ½ in. cubes and let them sit for 5 minutes.

Over low heat, slowly bring the temperature of the curds to 102 degrees F over a period of about 40 minutes. Stir continuously throughout heating to prevent the curds from matting together. The curds will release a lot of whey and shrink to the size of peanuts. When 102 degrees F is reached, turn off the heat and rest for 30 minutes while maintaining the temperature. The curds will sink to the bottom of the pot.

Place a strainer lined with a double layer of cheesecloth over a pot or bucket large enough to catch the whey. Gently pour off the whey into the bucket and ladle the curds into the strainer. Let the curds drain for 10 minutes.

Return 1/3 of the reserved whey to the pot on the stove and reheat it to 102 degrees. Place the curds in a colander, set the colander over the pot of whey and cover. Maintaining the 102 degree temperature of the whey, wait 10 minutes and the curds in the colander will have melted into a slab. Flip the slab over and repeat this process every 15 minutes for one hour. After one hour, the slab of curds will look shiny and white.

Transfer the slab to a cutting board and cut into ½ in. by 2 in. strips. Place the strips in a bowl and cover completely with the brew of your choice. Soak for 45 minutes.

Drain and discard the brew. Sprinkle the salt over the strips and toss to combine.

Line an 8 in. mold with damp cheesecloth and pack the curds into it. (See: Building a cheese press and Using a cheese press). Fold over the cheesecloth and press the curds at 8 lbs. of pressure for one hour. Remove the cheese from the press, flip it over, redress in the cheesecloth and press at 10 lbs. of pressure for 12 hours.

Remove the cheese from the mold and unwrap the cheesecloth. Pat the cheese dry and set on a rack to air dry 1-2 days at room temperature or until the surface is dry to the touch.

Coat with wax (See this post for how to wax cheese), and then age at 50-55 degrees F and (ideally) 85% humidity for 4-6 weeks. Flip the wheel of cheese daily to encourage even ripening.

See you in six weeks (the cheese, not you my dear readers)!

This is a really great project for a rainy weekend when you just don’t feel like going outside and would rather huddle in the warmth of a cozy kitchen. Chart out the time you’ll need on paper and you’ll know exactly when certain steps will be ready. Breaking the process down that way really helps first-time cheese makers who might feel a little overwhelmed. As always, feel free to comment below with any questions you might have. I am more than happy to help others who want to take a stab at making their very own cheese.

Ciao for now,


Gouda Memories

3 Aug

I’ve written before about the way that certain foods bring back palpable memories. Fresh pasta makes me think of warm nights and long meals with my mom and dad when we visited Italy seven years ago. Wedding soup reminds me of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen, and stracciatella reminds me of my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. I can’t make stew without being transported to our old house in Forest Hills, feeling so warm and comforted by my dad’s version after swim team practice in mid-winter. Sirloin tips with thyme and mozzarella bring me back to Davenport (my college dormitory), and the first meal I ever cooked for Joe. And funnel cake, a food which most people associate with fairs, surrounds me with memories of my best friends from Northeastern, and one infamous powdered sugar fight.

Gouda has somehow woven its way into several nostalgic spots in my brain. When Joe and I went to the Netherlands five years ago, I had the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. Fresh, bias-sliced baguette bread paired with a young, sweet gouda. Crisp and toasty on the outside with a warm, creamy inside. I paid no more than two euro for the delight, and ate it while we watched boats float effortlessly down the narrow canals.

And then, Hamlet. When I lived in Cambridge, my friends and I went to see a performance of Hamlet in the garden of one of the colleges. It was the night of the Storm Bird sauvignon-riesling (an oddly cheap, but delicious wine), strawberries, a seriously good-looking Danish prince, and a rich gouda that tip-toed the line between sweet & soft and sharp & crumbly. It was just firm enough to cut slices without breaking apart.

Last, but definitely and wholeheartedly not least was the gouda we tried just recently at the Green Goddess in New Orleans, LA. It was the day Joe and I announced our engagement to my family, and the cheese was eaten it in the midst of what I can only describe as pure, giddy joy. Green Goddess’ menu illustrates the flavor and texture of it more aptly than I ever could:

“Known as the Beemster, this walks a fine balance between creamy & salty with those crunchy crystals that aged cheeses can acquire. Rich, mellow toffee notes make the Beemster perfect with many after dinner liqueurs.”

When my dad recently procured a gallon of farm-fresh raw milk for me on my most recent trip to Pittsburgh, it seemed only appropriate to try and make a cheese to remember: My very own gouda.

We begin…


  • Two gallons of raw, whole milk*
  • One package of direct-set mesophilic starter
  • ¼ tsp. liquid rennet dissolved in ¼ cup cold, filtered water
  • Cheesecloth

Brine solution

  • 1 gallon cold, filtered water
  • 2 lbs. salt

*Can’t get raw milk? You can use pasteurized, but add ¼ tsp. of calcium chloride to improve the curd’s firmness

Pour the milk into a large pot and set it in a water bath warm enough to heat it to 90 degrees F. Once you have achieved this temperature, add the mesophilic starter and mix thoroughly. Cover the pot and allow the milk to ripen for 10 minutes, adding warm water to the bath as needed to maintain a temperature of 90 degrees.

Add the rennet and stir in a slow up-and-down movement for 1 minute. If you have used raw milk, stir for an additional minute. Cover the pot and allow the curd to set, maintaining 90 degrees F., for one hour or until the curd breaks cleanly when cut.

Heat a small pot of water to 175 degrees F.

Cut the curd into a checkerboard pattern and then crosswise into cubes, and let them sit for 10 minutes.

Ladle or pour off 1/3rd of the whey and, stirring consistently, add just enough of the hot water to bring the temperature up to 92 degrees F. Cover the pot and maintain this temperature for 10 minutes while the curd sets.

Ladle or pour off enough of the whey to bring it down to the level of the curd, and then again add hot water as needed to bring the temperature up to 100 degrees. Keep the curd at this temperature and stir on and off for 15 minutes.

Pour off the remaining whey and gently pack the curd into a cheesecloth lined mold, breaking it as little as possible. You can see how I prepare my cheese press in the demo for Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese.

Press the cheese at 20 lbs. of pressure for 20 minutes.

Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth, flip it over, re-dress, and press at 40 lbs. of pressure for 20 minutes. (No, my press is not lopsided…I just took this picture at a terrible angle. Photography fail.)

Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth, flip it over, re-dress, and press at 50 lbs. of pressure for 12-18 hours.

After 18 hours, my cheese looked like this:

Prepare the brine solution by mixing together the cold water and salt in a nonreactive container. Put the wheel of cheese into the solution and brine for 6 hours.

Remove from the brine, gently dry the cheese with a towel and move to the refrigerator.

Air dry in the refrigerator for 3 weeks, turning every 2-3 days to ensure even drying. You may then wax it or allow it to develop a natural rind. If you notice any mold forming on the surface, simply wipe it off with a cloth dampened with white vinegar.

Age the cheese in a 56-64 degree environment with 80-85% humidity for 3-4 months. The cheese will get darker and firmer with age. Honestly, I’m not really sure how long I’ll let this one go. I guess we’ll see what it looks like a little further down the road. I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop.

Who knows? Maybe this one will be a Christmas memory.

Ciao for now,


Recipe Megapost: Joe’s Birthday Party

19 Mar

Yesterday was a perfectly beautiful spring day, the first we’ve had here in DC thus far. How appropriate that the warm weather decided to show up on Joe’s birthday! We had some friends over for a celebration and spent the evening enjoying wonderful company and (if I don’t say so myself) some pretty tasty food.

Since this bash fell on a Friday, I did a lot of prep in advance so that I wouldn’t have much to do when I got home from work (and so I could enjoy the party). On to the deliciousness…

Amuse-bouche: Caramelized Pearl Onions with Queso Blanco

  • 32 pearl onions, blanched and peeled
  • 1 dried cayenne pepper
  • ½ cup dry sherry
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • A few spoonfuls of liquid from canned beets
  • Sprig of fresh thyme

*Okay, here’s the thing. The recipes I referenced for this all called for red pearl onions. I can’t find them anywhere. I don’t know why. So, I cheated and dyed them red with some of the liquid from my home-canned beets. It added bonus flavor and made them an awesome color.

Put all of the ingredients into a pot and add water just to cover the onions. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, swirling the pan every so often to keep the onions from scorching.

Reduce until there is about ¼ cup of syrupy liquid left in the pan. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and reserve syrup.

Queso Blanco

  • 1 gallon whole milk
  • ¼ cup white vinegar

Heat the milk, stirring frequently to keep from scorching. When it reaches 185 degrees, add the vinegar in 3 separate additions, stirring between each one. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for five minutes, then stir for another five or until the curds have firmed up a little bit. Strain into a colander lined with cheesecloth and then hang the curds to drain for an hour.

You can salt to taste and use this as is, but I really wanted it to be firm so that I could cut it into cubes. So, if you have a cheese press, line a mold with cheesecloth and press the curds at 10 lbs. for 10 minutes, redress the cheese and then press at 25 lbs. for 3 hours.

Put it all together: Thread one onion and one cube of queso blanco onto a skewer and drizzle with the reserved syrup.

Appetizer: Crostini Duo

  • 2 baguettes, bias sliced and toasted

For Spinach, Artichoke and Caramelized Onion Crostini

  • 1/3 cup low-fat plain yogurt or Greek yogurt
  • 1/3 cup low-fat sour cream
  • 3 oz. Neufchatel cheese or cream cheese
  • 1 can of artichoke hearts, drained
  • 10 oz. fresh spinach
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp. dried cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a wide pan, sweat the diced onions in olive oil until soft, translucent and sweet. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the spinach and cook just until it has wilted. Set the pan aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the yogurt, cheese, sour cream, artichoke hearts, thyme, mustard, pepper, and a few pinches of salt. Pulse to combine. Add the spinach, onion and garlic to the food processor and pulse until it has a spreadable consistency.

Top each toasted baguette slice with the spread and serve at room temperature.

For Fromage Blanc, Basil and Roasted Red Pepper Crostini:

  • Roasted red peppers
  • Fromage blanc
  • Basil, chiffonade cut

To make the fromage blanc, heat 1 gallon of milk to 85 degrees and add a packet of fromage blanc starter. Stir vigorously for a minute or two and then cover the pot and allow the milk to ripen at room temperature for 12 hours. Scoop the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth, and then hang them to drain for 6 hours. It should have the consistency of cream cheese. Salt to taste.

Top each toasted baguette slice with a layer of fromage blanc, diced roasted red peppers, and chiffonade basil.

Appetizer: Mushroom Strudel (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

I am sorry that I didn’t get more pictures of this process, but my hands were covered with butter most of the time and photography got the shaft. These are so good and you can make them in advance, freeze, and then bake as needed. Handy.

  • 1 package phyllo dough (40 sheets)
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 pound cremini mushrooms
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°F and line baking sheet with parchment paper.

Cook the onion in the butter until translucent and then add the mushrooms and nutmeg. Saute for 5 to 7 minutes, until liquid has been released and has partially evaporated. Add the sherry and evaporate the alcohol by cooking over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the flour, herbs, and some salt and pepper, and let cool. The mixture will be moist.

Take one sheet of phyllo at a time from their package; cover the remaining sheets with plastic and then a damp towel to keep them from drying out. Brush one half of the sheet lengthwise with butter. Fold the unbuttered side over the buttered side, carefully, smoothing out as best you can. Again, brush one half of this lengthwise with butter, and fold the unbuttered side over it again. You’ll end up with one long column.

Place spoonful of the mushroom filling near the end and sprinkle a teaspoon of parmesan over it. Begin folding one bottom corner of the phyllo strip over the filling until it meets the opposite edge, forming a triangle, as if you were folding a flag. Place the triangle seam side down on the baking sheet, brush lightly with egg wash and sprinkle with parmesan.

Bake for 15 minutes and serve warm or at room temperature.

Main Course: Porchetta

Normally, this is seared and roasted, but oven-space was at a premium and so I went the crock pot route.

  • 2 tbsp. canola oil
  • 4 lb pork loin roast
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth

Herb rub:

  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp. fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tbsp. lemon pepper
  • 1 tbsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp. dried fennel seed
  • 1/2 tbsp. onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil

Combine all of the ingredients for the rub in a food processor and pulse until they form a paste.

Cut several inch-deep slits in the roast and stuff some of the rub inside of them. Slather the roast with the remaining rub.

At this point, I vacuum sealed mine to let it marinate for a few days.

In a large pan, sear the roast on all sides and then move it to the crock pot. Dioji was hypnotized by the smell of meaty goodness:

Add the broth to the pan to deglaze (scrape the bottom to get all of the bits of herby piggy goodness) and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes and then pour the liquid onto the roast in the crock pot.

Cook on high for 5-6 hours or on low for 7-8 hours. The roast ended up so tender that I shredded it and served it with the reduced cooking liquid.

Main Course: Cheese Manicotti with Zucchini Cayenne Marinara Sauce

I made the ricotta and mozzarella for these and you can find photo tutorials for them here.


  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 6 tbsp. olive oil
  • 5 tbsp. water


  • 1 lb. ricotta cheese
  • ½ lb. mozzarella cheese, grated
  • A handful of grated parmesan
  • 1 egg
  • Fresh thyme and parsley to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  • 2 zucchini, ¼ in. dice
  • 4 cans crushed tomatoes
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 4 dried cayenne peppers, diced
  • Dried thyme
  • Fresh parsley

To make the pasta dough, beat together the eggs, oil and water and then stir them into the flour. Get your hand in the bowl and begin to knead the dough together.Knead until it is smooth and then flatten into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and rest at room temperature for 30 min.

Roll the pasta into sheets, and then cut into 5 in. squares.

Boil the squares in salted water for 1-2 minutes. Drain and leave these to rest on damp towels.

Combine all of the ingredients for the filling and taste for seasoning.

Spoon a row of filling along one end of a pasta square and then carefully roll up into a tube shape. Place this, seam side down on a baking sheet while you prepare the others. If you are freezing them as I did, freeze them individually on a baking sheet before moving to a bag.

To make the sauce, sweat the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil until translucent. Add the zucchini and garlic and sauté until everything is soft and fragrant. Add the tomatoes, peppers and spices and simmer for a few hours or until the consistency is to your liking. Add seasonings as needed.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spoon a thin layer of sauce onto the bottom of a 9×13 in. baking dish. Arrange the manicotti in rows and then top with the remaining sauce (and some extra cheese if you like).

Bake for 40 minutes or until cooked through. Cover with foil and rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Bread: No-Knead Bread (from Splendid Table)

I like this because you can make the dough, throw it in a bucket in the fridge and forget about it for several days before baking.

  • 1-1/2 tbsp. granulated yeast
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  • 6-1/2 cups unbleached flour, plus extra for dusting dough
  • Cornmeal

In a large plastic resealable container, mix yeast and salt into 3 cups lukewarm water. Using a large spoon, stir in flour, mixing until mixture is uniformly moist with no dry patches. Do not knead. Dough will be wet and loose enough to conform to shape of plastic container. Cover, but not with an airtight lid.

Let dough rise at room temperature, until dough begins to flatten on top or collapse, at least 2 hours and up to 5 hours. (At this point, dough can be refrigerated up to 2 weeks; refrigerated dough is easier to work with than room-temperature dough, so the authors recommend that first-time bakers refrigerate dough overnight or at least 3 hours.)

Place a broiler pan on bottom rack of oven. Place baking pan on middle rack and preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Sprinkle a little flour on dough and on your hands. Pull dough up and, using a serrated knife, cut off a grapefruit-size piece (about 1 pound). Working for 30 to 60 seconds (and adding flour as needed to prevent dough from sticking to hands; most dusting flour will fall off, it’s not intended to be incorporated into dough), turn dough in hands, gently stretching surface of dough, rotating ball a quarter-turn as you go, creating a rounded top and a bunched bottom.

Place shaped dough on a piece of parchment and let rest, uncovered, for 40 minutes. Dust dough with flour.

Using a serrated knife, slash top of dough in three parallel, 1/4-inch deep cuts. Slide dough onto preheated baking sheet. Pour 1 cup hot tap water into broiler pan and quickly close oven door to trap steam. Bake until crust is well-browned and firm to the touch, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven to a wire rack and cool completely.

Dessert: Cookies and Cream Ice Cream Layer Cake

The guest of honor requested an ice cream cake with vanilla cake layers and Oreo ice cream.

  • Two layers of vanilla cake, cooled completely, wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen. I used this recipe.
  • Two layers of ice cream
  • Whipped cream

To make the ice cream layers, line two 9 in. pans with plastic wrap and scoop softened ice cream into each. Flatten out the ice cream by pressing another pan on top of it. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer to harden.

Stack the layers as such (from bottom to top): Cake, ice cream, cake, ice cream. Again, cover this in plastic wrap tightly and freeze. Before icing your cake, trim the sides as needed to make them even and neat. Frost the cake with whipped cream and return to the freezer. I decorated this one by piping tempered chocolate designs onto wax paper, letting them cool, and then applying them to the cake.

Dessert: Strawberry Jam Tart

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dry cornmeal / polenta
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temp.
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg, separated
  • ½ tsp. vanilla bean paste
  • 1 1/3 cup jam (I used strawberry, but anything will do)
  • 2 tbsp. coarse sugar

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt.

In a stand mixer, mix the butter and 1/2 cup sugar together until smooth. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla bean paste and beat until combined. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together.

Transfer about one-third of the dough to a lightly floured counter and shape it into a log about 2 in. diameter. Wrap it in plastic wrap freeze for an hour.

Transfer the remaining dough to a buttered 9-inch spring form pan. Press the dough evenly into the bottom, going about 3/4-inch (2-cm) up the sides of the pan. Freeze the dough-lined pan until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Spread the jam or marmalade evenly over the dough in the pan. Cut the chilled dough log into very thin discs with a sharp paring knife. Arrange them in overlapping concentric circles over the jam to form a top crust.

Whisk the remaining egg white with a teaspoon of water until frothy; brush evenly over the tart lid and then sprinkle with the coarse sugar. Bake until the top crust is golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely before unmolding.

This holds up well and can be made up to 3 days in advance. Keep wrapped in plastic at room temperature.

The Final Treat: Pecan-Walnut Caramels

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 12 tbsp. butter
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla bean paste, vanilla extract, or one vanilla bean, split and scraped
  • 12 oz. nuts (I used half pecans and half walnuts), toasted and chopped

Generously butter a 9×13 in. pan.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, corn syrup, butter, sweetened condensed milk, water, and vanilla bean paste. Stirring often, cook this mixture until it reaches 245 degrees F.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the salt and chopped nuts. Pour the caramel into the buttered pan and cool completely (about 2 hours).

Turn the slab of caramel out onto a cutting board and use a pizza wheel to cut into squares. I usually get 128 pieces of candy from this recipe. Wrap the candies in pieces of wax paper and store in a cool, dark place.

Hope you enjoyed checking out the menu. Thank you to everyone who joined us and made the party so much fun.

Ciao for now,