Cocoa Mixes: Last Minute Gifts From the Kitchen

creativecocoaMaking hot cocoa from a mix is an easy way to warm up on a cool day or evening. Packaged in cellophane bags or small jars, they also may super last-minute holiday gifts from the kitchen. I like the flavor of fresh whole milk, so I generally stay away from the mixes that use powdered milk. Powdered milk, which is a manufactured dairy product, is a great cost-effective ingredient with a long shelf life and many smart applications for the home cook, but for cocoa I always want to start with fluid milk.

As for the mixes, open your spice rack and discover a world of flavor to match with good-quality, unsweetened cocoa powder. Cardamom, for example, has a distinctive aroma with notes of spice, citrus, herbs. Cayenne pepper adds subtle smoke and fire. Ground cloves are bold with a punch of earthy sweet heat.

For sweetness, I like raw cane turbinado sugar that I finely grind with a wee bit of cornstarch so that is blends evenly in the cocoa mix. But supermarket superfine sugar works just fine as well.

To balance the flavors, a smidge of finely-milled pink sea salt does the trick.

Generally, 2 tablespoons of cocoa mix are perfect for flavoring 1 cup of warmed whole milk. And if you want to be really be decadent: Add chocolate dipped marshmallows to your gift packs.

Here are several cocoa mixes for you to enjoy and share with others. Mocha Cocoa is one of my favorites: Coffee and chocolate is always a win-win.

Mocha Cocoa Mix
Yield: 1 cup

2 tablespoons super-fine sugar
1 heaping tablespoon premium unsweetened natural cocoa powder
Pinch finely-milled sea salt
1 to 2 tablespoons powdered instant coffee or espresso

  • Sift all ingredients together and spoon into a small glass jar or cellophane bag.
  • Create a gift tag with instructions: Gently heat 1 cup whole milk in a saucepan. Whisk in cocoa mix and a splash of pure vanilla extract or a coffee liqueur. Bring to just under a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Taste for seasonings, adjusting as desired.

Mint Cocoa
Yield: 1 serving

1 tablespoon super-fine sugar
1 heaping tablespoon premium unsweetened natural cocoa powder
Pinch finely-milled sea salt
1 to 2 tablespoons powdered hard peppermint candy (see note)

  • Sift all ingredients together and spoon into a small glass jar or cellophane bag.
  • Create a gift tag with instructions: Gently heat 1 cup whole milk in a saucepan. Whisk in cocoa mix. Bring to just under a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Taste for seasonings, adjusting as desired. Serve with whipped cream and a fresh mint leaf garnish.

To pulverize hard candy to a powder: Process candy in food processer or coffee bean grinder.

Cinnamon Cocoa
Yield: 1 serving

1 tablespoon super-fine sugar
1 heaping tablespoon premium unsweetened natural cocoa powder
Pinch finely-milled sea salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground Saigon cinnamon

  • Sift all ingredients together and spoon into a small glass jar or cellophane bag.
  • Create a gift tag with instructions: Gently heat 1 cup whole milk in a saucepan. Whisk in cocoa mix. Bring to just under a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Taste for seasonings, adjusting as desired. Cut marshmallows in half and dip sticky, cut ends into cinnamon sugar for garnish.

Spicy Cocoa
Yield: 12-14 servings

1/2 cup coconut palm sugar
1/2 cup raw cane sugar
3/4 cup premium unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 pinch finely-milled sea salt
1 pinch cayenne pepper, or more taste

  • Sift all ingredients together and spoon into a small glass jar or cellophane bag.
  • Create a gift tag: Gently heat 1 cup whole milk in a saucepan. When the milk is just under a boil, whisk in 2 tablespoons cocoa mix. Taste for seasonings, adjusting as desired.

Basic No-Fail Large Batch Cocoa Mix
Yield: 46 tablespoons for dividing into gift bags

3 1/2 cups super-fine sugar
2 1/4 cups premium unsweetened natural cocoa powder
2 teaspoons finely milled sea salt

  • Sift all ingredients together and spoon into a small glass jar or cellophane bag.
  • Create a gift tag: Gently heat 1 cup whole milk in a saucepan. When the milk is just under a boil, whisk in 2 tablespoons cocoa mix. Taste for seasonings, adjusting as desired.

Recipe note: Add spices to the dry ingredients as desired.

Spice Cake with Salted Caramel Icing

spicecakewithsaltedcaramelicing5Spice cakes, such as the one I am sharing today, make good use of the aromatic spices of the winter holidays. I like these cakes as peppery as a gingersnap, although this version has a rather tamed finish on the palate. You can increase the kick by adding more ground cloves and cinnamon if desired. You can also use a pumpkin pie spice blend. Spiced rum is used in place of the traditional pure vanilla extract in the batter recipe. The rum fits the flavor profile of the mixture better.

For the icing, I used Smucker’s Simple Delight Salted Caramel Topping. Store this cake, covered, in the refrigerator. A slice goes great with a glass of ice-cold milk or coffee with cream.

Spice Cake with Salted Caramel Icing
Yield: 10-12 servings

Non-stick spray (or butter) and flour for preparing pans
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon, preferably Saigon cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups firmly-packed brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon spiced rum
1 cup whole milk
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/3 cup salted caramel sauce, or more to taste (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons spiced rum
1/4 teaspoon finely milled pink sea salt, or taste
2 cups powdered sugar

  • Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour 2 (9-inch) round cake pans.
  • Whisk the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt and spices.
  • With an electric mixer, beat butter and brown sugar in large bowl on medium until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add rum. Gradually beat in flour mixture alternately with milk on low-speed until just blended. Do not overbeat. Pour batter into prepared pans.
  • Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Remove from pans; cool completely on wire rack.
  • For the icing, using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and softened butter on medium-high. Beat in 1/3 cup caramel sauce and the rum. On low-speed, beat in powdered sugar gradually until smooth and creamy. Frost cake as desired.

Recipe note: Look for caramel sauce in the ice cream topping section of the supermarket.

Peppermint Holiday Cake

peppermintcake11For special dinners, dessert can become the centerpiece of your sideboard or buffet. This Peppermint Holiday Cake is a great example. The recipe can be tweaked for personal taste – especially the frosting. Cut back on the powdered sugar, for example, to tame the sweetness. But do not omit the salt. A mixture of candy cane bits plus the powder-like dust creates a pale pink frosting with lots of great texture. The frosting is an old recipe from Land O Lakes that I have used often. Any buttercream or cooked frosting would work as well.

Peppermint Holiday Cake
Yield 10-12 servings

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 large egg whites
3/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 tablespoons half-and-half or whole milk, plus additional as needed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
12 to 16 (5 1/4-inch tall) candy canes crushed into a mix of tiny pieces and powdery “dust”
Crushed candy canes to circle the outer rim of the cake (optional)
2 candy canes for the top of the cake (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans. Line bottom of each with parchment or waxed paper. If using parchment, butter the top of the parchment paper.
  2. Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
  3. With a whisk combine flour, baking powder, and salt.
  4. Combine egg whites, milk, and vanilla and peppermint extracts. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to butter mixture then add half of the egg white mixture. Continue to alternate beginning and ending with flour mixture. Scrape bowl and beaters often as you work.
  5. Scrape batter into prepared pans and smooth top with a spatula. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. When done a pick inserted in the center should come out clean. Let cakes rest in pans on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Invert each onto wire racks, remove paper, and cool completely.
  6. For the frosting, beat butter until creamy. With mixer on low, add the powdered sugar and salt alternately with the milk, and extracts. Stop and scrape down sides of bowl often as you work. Fold in crushed candy canes and “dust.” Add additional half-and-half or milk if needed to achieve desired consistency. Makes about 3 cups frosting.
  7. Place one cake layer, flat side down, on a cake stand. If the layer is too rounded, flatten the surface just a bit by slicing a bit off the top. Generously ice the top to create the middle layer of frosting. Add second cake layer. Lightly ice top and sides to create a “crumb coat” to seal stray crumbs. Refrigerate cake for 30 minutes. Remove from refrigerator and frost the entire cake as desired.
  8. Garnish with crushed and whole candy canes as desired.

Creamy Toppings for Hanukkah Latkes

latkes2The crisp tendril edges of a perfectly cooked latke give way to a softer, savory center with the very first bite. These pan-fried potato cakes are the essence of comfort food on two levels for the Jewish community when Hanukkah begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 2.

Foods cooked in oil celebrate an ancient victory for freedom and remind those of the Jewish faith of a miracle with oil that took place more than 2,000 years ago. At that time, Judah Maccabee and his sons led a revolt against the conquering Syrians to reclaim the temple in Jerusalem. Once the Maccabees cleansed the temple, however, they discovered there was only enough oil to light the eternal lamp for one day. The oil lasted eight days, long enough to replenish their supply.

During this Festival of Lights, Jews burn candles for eight days and eat traditional foods such as fried latkes to remind them of this miracle. Today the toppings for these potato cakes run the gamut from traditional to modern. I have found there is a happy medium in between using flavorful dairy bases.

Here are three serving suggestions and a latke recipe.

Greek Yogurt & Wild Lox Salmon
Yield: 1 1/4 cups

Greek yogurt can sub for cream cheese and sour cream in many dishes. It’s soft but firm texture makes this spreadable bliss.

7 ounces plain Greek yogurt
3- to 4 ounces smoked wild lox salmon (see note), chopped
2 teaspoons capers, or to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  • With a spatula blend yogurt and lox by hand until the mixture is nice salmon color all the way through.
  • Fold in capers and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Gouda & Apple
Yield: 2 cups

Think of this as applesauce re-imagined. The shredded cheese melts effortlessly on to the warm latke and the shredded apples lend a nice tangy flavor note.

1 cup shredded smoked gouda cheese
1 cup shredded green, Fuji or Gala apple, or a combination
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  • Combine the grated cheese and apple.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Dollop onto hot cooked latkes.

Sour Cream, Chive & Radish
Yield: 1 1/2 cups.

The peppery radish is a nice crunchy surprise to this blend.

8 ounces sour cream
5 radishes (or taste), diced small (see note)
1 teaspoon freshly chopped chives, or to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  • Blend sour cream with radishes and chives.
  • Season with salt and pepper.

Recipe note: To finely dice radishes, cut them as you would a shallot: Crosswise slits to the top, then lengthwise slits across the bulb. With a few slices the radish will yield nice small dice.

Mixed Vegetable Latkes
Yield: 28 latkes

2 cups shredded Yukon gold potatoes
1 cup shredded carrots
1 cup broccoli slaw
1 1/4 cups chopped sweet onion
1/2 cup matzo meal
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 1/4 teaspoons dried Italian seasonings
4 eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil for frying

  • Combine the shredded and chopped vegetables, matzo meal, salt and pepper to taste, Italian seasoning and eggs.
  • In a nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Place about 2 tablespoons or 1/8 cup of the mixture into the pan and fry each latke until golden on each side. Remove from skillet and let drain on paper towels. Transfer to a baking sheet and keep the latkes warm in a 200F until all are cooked, adding more olive oil to skillet as needed.
  • Serve with toppings as desired.

Parmesan Turkey Chili

turkeyParmesanchiliI must confess a chili recipe is the hardest thing for me to write. I simply don’t have one. I always start with diced sweet onion, celery (including the leafy tops), and garlic in a large pot. Then I add ground beef and ground sage sausage, about 1 1/2 pounds total. From there, I build the chili to the taste and texture I desire.

After adding some broth and tomato juice and chili powder, I open the refrigerator and check out the cache of leftover vegetables. Peas, small diced sweet potatoes, small diced russet potatoes, diced bell peppers, and green beans all work well. One year I discovered that bloody Mary mix added just the right amount of liquid and seasonings to a chili that was a little too thick for my taste.

After Thanksgiving, this is the perfect refrigerator clean out dish. It also leaves you with easy lunches and suppers for the rest of the holiday season.

Parmesan Turkey Chili
Yield: 8-10 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup diced sweet onion
1/2 cup diced celery
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups chicken or turkey broth
1 (28-ounce) can fire roasted diced tomatoes, undrained
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese, plus additional for garnish
1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley, plus additional for garnish
1/2 cup sweet corn kernels
1/8 teaspoon poultry seasoning, or more to taste
2 teaspoons chili powder, or to taste
3 cups shredded cooked turkey
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup bloody Mary mix or tomato juice, or as needed to achieve desired consistency (optional)
1 cup water, or as needed to achieve desired consistency (optional)
Hot sauce to taste
Sour cream for garnish (optional)

1. In a large pot, heat olive oil on medium-high until it shimmers. Add the onion and celery and cook until the vegetables release their juices and soften, about 5-6 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and stir in the minced garlic. Let ingredients cook over low heat 2 minutes.

2. Increase heat to medium high. Add broth, canned tomatoes (including juices). Stir in beans, Parmesan cheese, parsley, corn, poultry seasoning, chili powder, salt, and pepper. Let cook 10 minutes, stirring until cheese completely melts. Add  bloody Mary mix and/or water to achieve desired liquid level and consistency. Cook and stir until mixture is thoroughly heated. Adjust seasonings as needed.

3. Stir in turkey. Season with hot sauce or pass at the table. Garnish as desired with sour cream, additional Parmesan cheese, and parsley.

Cheesy Turkey Bake

cheesyturkeybake3Leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner can be re-imagined into great starters, sides, main dishes, and desserts. Here are 5 suggestions:

1. Chop leftover vegetables and mix with shredded cheese and olive oil for bruschetta toppings.
2. Make patties from mashed potatoes laced with cheese and sour cream. Freeze for later use. Thaw, top with caramelized onions and freshly chopped herbs and reheat on a sheet pan in the oven.
3. Freeze leftover rice in 1/4 to 1/2 cup containers for future meals or to stretch soups and stews.
4. Mix cranberry sauce with a chopped and seeded jalpeno and freshly chopped mint for a sweet-and-spicy topping for cream cheese on appetizer platters.
5. Create casseroles with proteins such as turkey and ham.

This casserole recipe can be tweaked to personal tastes. And the increments can be adjusted to fit your leftovers.

Cheesy Turkey Bake
Yield: 6 servings

1 1/2 cups cooked long grain and wild rice
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1 cup shredded cheddar cheeses, divided
1 pound fresh broccoli florets
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8 ounces sliced crimini mushrooms
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 freshly chopped parsley
1 cup roughly shredded roast turkey, or more to taste

1. Heat oven to 350F. Butter the bottom of a 7-by-11-inch baking pan. Mix rice and nuts. Press into bottom of the pan. Spread 1/2 cup of the cheese on top. Set aside.
2. Place broccoli florets in a glass or ceramic pie plate and sprinkle generously with water. Cook in the microwave on high heat for 2 minutes. Remove and set aside.
3. In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium-high until it shimmers. Add onions, salt and pepper and cook until the onion pieces are translucent. Add mushrooms, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes.
4. Stir in butter. When completely incorporated, stir in broccoli, parsley, and turkey. When everything is well mixed and evenly coated with pan liquids — about 3 minutes –pour into the baking dish. Top with the remaining cheese and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Make-Ahead Cheesy Mashed Potatoes

makeaheadmash5The upcoming Thanksgiving meal tends to divide cooks and dinner guests into two potato camps: Smooth and creamy or textured and flavorful. Without a doubt, there’s a lot of hoopla and opinion about the seemingly simple dish of mashed potatoes.

I like my potatoes from scratch with a rumpled look: Skins on, just a hint of roasted garlic and subtle creaminess from cream cheese, goat cheese or shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar.

And I hate to do them on Thanksgiving Day. With a large roaster coming out of the oven with the turkey, the last thing I want is another large pan to clean. I make my mashed potatoes the day before Thanksgiving and sometimes a week before. Really! It’s easy.

Boil Yukon gold, red or russet potatoes until tender when jabbed with a fork, then drain and return to the same pot.

Next, I add work milk. This is a critical step. Adding warm milk keeps the potatoes from getting cold and gummy. (You can infuse the milk with flavor by steeping fresh herbs in the liquid.)

Now mash, whip, or smash the potatoes with an electric mixer. As soon as there is nothing that resembles a whole potato in the pan, add butter to taste. How much milk and butter you use depends on the starchiness of the potatoes. Pour and add slowly. You can always add more, but you can’t take away. When they are mashed to your liking, fold in roasted garlic and shredded cheese (something melty).

Next, spoon the potatoes into a buttered baking dish. Cover tightly and refrigerate. If I’m doing these a week ahead, I freeze the pan and let it thaw overnight.

Now, here’s the critical timing: When the turkey comes out of the oven, don’t turn the oven off. Remove the cover from the potatoes. Dot with butter and sprinkle with paprika. Slip the pan into the oven. While the turkey rests (30 minutes), the potatoes will come up to the right temperature.

Make-Ahead Cheesy Mashed Potatoes
Yield: 10-12 servings.

4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 cups whipping cream or half and half
5 pound bag Yukon Gold potatoes
1 tablespoon salt
3 ounces cream cheese, cut in pieces, at room temperature
3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces (or to taste)
1 1/4 cups shredded triple Cheddar cheese blend (Vermont white, sharp, and mild), divided
Salt and white pepper to taste
Additional whole milk or cream if needed
Additional thyme sprigs for garnish

  1. Place thyme sprigs and whipping cream in small saucepan. Let simmer on very low heat while the potatoes cook.
  2. Put potatoes in a large pot. Cover with cold water. Add 1 tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the potatoes are fork tender, about 35-40 minutes. Remove pan from the heat and drain.
  3. Return potatoes to the pot with heat on low. Remove thyme from cream and discard. Pour cream over potatoes. Stir in the cream cheese, butter, and 1 cup shredded Cheddar. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Using a masher or an electric mixer, mash potatoes to desired consistency. (Use additional milk or cream if needed for desired consistency.) If serving immediately, garnish with additional thyme.
  4. To refrigerate up to four days, or freeze up to two weeks, pour potatoes into a buttered 9-by-13-inch pan. Cover and store in the refrigerator.
  5. To reheat, remove from refrigerator and bring to room temperature, uncover. Dot top of potatoes with butter. Re-cover potatoes with foil and warm in a 350F oven 20-25 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle with an additional 1/4 cup of shredded Cheddar cheese and bake 5-10 minutes more. Stir with spoon to fluff before serving.

Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie

pumpkinicecreampie8My dear friend Kelly Dill first turned me on to this wonderfully easy fall dessert. Over the years I have added chopped pecans and enhanced the pumpkin flavor with peppery cloves and cinnamon.  A little nutmeg adds balance. You may see similar recipes that also add sugar, but I think the ice cream brings enough sweetness to the dish. A graham cracker crust works just fine but try this in a gingersnap crust as well.

Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie
Yield: 8 servings

1 (30-ounce) can pumpkin pie mix (not pure pumpkin puree)
1 teaspoon good-quality ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 quart vanilla bean ice cream, just softened enough to stir but not completely melted
1 cup chopped pecans, divided
1 (9-inch) prepared graham cracker pie crust
Rum whipped cream (optional, see note)

  1. Mix the canned pumpkin pie mix, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
  2. Fold in the ice cream until fully incorporated. Stir in 3/4 cup of the pecans.
  3. Pour into pie crust. Cover and freeze overnight.
  4. Remove from the freezer 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with remaining pecans. If desired, dollop with rum-flavored whipped cream (see note).

How to make rum-flavored whipped cream: Whip 1 cup heavy cream to soft peaks. Add 2 tablespoons dark spiced rum and 1 tablespoon extra-fine sugar. Whip until stiff peaks form and serve.

Storage tip: To freeze for up to 6 weeks, when pie is frozen, cover tightly with plastic wrap and then wrap in heavy-duty foil. Place wrapped pie in a freezer-quality sealable bag and return to the freezer.

Creamy Sweet Corn Grits Casserole

creamysweetcorngritscasserole4Cheesy casseroles are holiday and brunch mainstays. They can feed a crowd and the recipes are basically road maps that can be easily altered to personal tastes. For example, in this recipe for Creamy Sweet Corn Grits Casserole, cream cheese or sour cream can be added for a smoother texture and a tangy nuance. Substitute cheddar cheese for the Italian cheese blend for a sharper flavor.

You can also up the protein content with cooked, crumbled, and drained sage pork or turkey sausage. And crumbled cooked bacon makes a nice salty and smoky garnish or topping.

I used a yellow deep-dish pie plate to bake and serve because I liked the presentation. I baked the extra grits mixture in ramekins for quick week day breakfasts.

Creamy Sweet Corn Grits Casserole
Yield: 8 to 10 side dish servings.

3 cups whole milk, divided
1 (14.75-ounce) can cream style sweet corn
1 1/4 cups quick (not instant) yellow grits
2 large eggs at room temperature, beaten (see note)
1 cup fresh corn kernels (see note)
1 1/4 cups shredded Italian cheese blend (mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, asiago, fontina and romano cheeses), divided
2 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon freshly chopped chives
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  1. Heat oven to 375F. Lightly coat a shallow two-quart baking dish with butter or nonstick spray. (You can also use ramekins for individual servings.)
  2. Put 2 cups of milk in a large saucepan. Add the cream-style corn. Swirl the remaining 1 cup of milk in the can of cream-style corn and pour into saucepan. Stir and bring the mixture to a gentle boil.
  3. Whisk in the grits. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring, until thick, about 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Briskly whisk in eggs, being careful not to let them scramble (see recipe note). Stir in the corn kernels, 1 cup of the cheese, green onions, chives, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Spoon into baking dish.
  4. Bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and bake 15 minutes more. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Recipe notes:

  • Grill the corn kernels in a grill pan before adding, if desired.
  • Use 1 extra-large egg, if you like. I find that 2 large eggs give the casserole more body.
  • A little of the warm milk liquid can be used to temper the eggs before adding to the rest of the ingredients. It’s important to whisk the eggs in briskly so that they don’t scramble.
  • You can bake this casserole a day ahead and reheat gently in the oven.

Caprese Salad with Pesto Drizzle

capresesalad2Caprese salads are simple and elegant first course offerings. Food historians say the Italian inspiration means of or in the style of Capri. Like pizza Margherita, the dish highlights the colors of the Italian flag: Green, white, and red. The basic ingredients are fresh mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes, and basil leaves, seasoned with coarse sea salt and drizzled with fruity olive oil. Aged balsamic vinegar is another popular addition.

You can build the salads on a large platter as a sharable appetizer, on small plates for individual servings or re-imagine the concept on skewers for a party or tailgate platter. For the latter, use three-inch skewers to thread grape or cherry tomatoes with a large basil leaf and a small mozzarella ball. Bocconcini and ciliegine mozzarella work best. The pearl-size cheese is too small.

This recipe utilizes the basil in a walnut pesto drizzle or dressing. This option also lets me sneak in another taste dairy. Freshly shredded Parmesan is essential to great pesto.

Caprese Salad with Pesto Drizzle
Yield: 4 servings

1 pound fresh mozzarella (look for log-shaped cheese packed in water in the deli department or fine-cheese aisle), sliced into rounds
4 medium to large tomatoes (for best visual results you want the cheese slices and tomato slices to be similar in size), cored and sliced
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Walnut basil pesto (see note):
1/2 cup walnuts
4 garlic cloves (or more to taste)
5 cups fresh basil leaves, washed, patted dry, and packed into the measuring cup
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Make the pesto

  1. Place the walnuts and garlic in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Pulse or blend until the garlic is completely incorporated and the walnuts release their natural oil, about 30 seconds.
  2. Add the basil, a hefty pinch of salt, and a generous turn of the pepper grinder.
  3. With the machine running, slowly pour in the olive oil. When the basil leaves are a vibrant green and thoroughly pureed stop the machine. Add the Parmesan and puree for 30 seconds. Taste for seasonings, adding more salt and pepper to taste.

Assemble the salad

  1. Layer tomato and mozzarella slices on serving plates. Season to taste with Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
  2. Generously drizzle the walnut pesto mixture down the center and serve.

Recipe note: You will have more pesto than you need for four salad servings. But that’s just fine. Now you have stash of fresh flavor in the refrigerator to add to soups and sauces. To keep pesto from browning, pour enough olive oil into the storage container to completely cover the surface. For longer storage, freeze pesto in ice cube trays then transfer frozen cubes to a sealable bag.

Holiday suggestion: Homemade pesto is a great gift from the kitchen.