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Snack Upgrade: Cheese Straws Go to Finishing School

These cheese straws are pretty heroic: rich, crispy, and totally cheesy. Think turbocharged Cheez-Its. They’re the perfect thing to bring along to a dessert-centric after-dinner birthday party like the one Mr. T and I are off to this evening. I’ve found with years of throwing parties of all sorts of permutations that even the sweetest occasion needs some savor. These play well with drinks of any variety, are compulsively munchable, and will provide a welcome salty contrast to things like birthday cake.

The original recipe, from The New York Times‘ Kim Severson, calls for orange cheddar, and I’m sure they make for an excellent cheese straw.  However. I am both enough of a snob to look slightly askance at orange cheddar and enough in the thrall of Julia Child to know that Gruyère can make anything better. As for the Parmesan, well… because Parmesan! Honestly. Along with a more varied slate of cheeses, I also bumped up the supporting cast of spices, all of which add focus and depth to the different strands of cheese flavor.

The dough is simple and short and comes together quickly. The critical issue here is temperature. The original calls for either extruding the straws with a cookie press or rolling them by hand. The former is fine, IF you’ve got a cookie press, but the latter seems to me a recipe for melty frustration and sticky disaster. Thus, we borrow a temperature management technique from the perfect sugar cookie recipe and pop the rolled dough into the freezer for a few minutes.

This makes all the difference in the world and enables the production of long, slender wands of cheesy deliciousness that won’t put the baker completely round the bend trying to get them onto baking sheets.

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Instant Gratification: Baked Feta with Thyme

Despite my recent foray into Southeast Asian cocktail catering, I’ve found myself doing lots of Mediterranean cooking this summer as well.

The region offers a dizzying array of dishes that are fast and light but don’t skimp on the flavor; perfect for easy entertaining on days when it’s so hot and sticky that the mere thought of hoisting more than a wine glass is exhausting.

And, while it’s beastly hot here in D.C., I find it’s always nice to have at least one hot dish on the table all the same. This is a lovely appetizer/snack that hits that hot, cheesy spot with amazing ease. It takes about 5 minutes to prep and since it’s just broiled briefly, it doesn’t even heat up the kitchen–just the thing for a random weeknight cocktail guests.

It’s lovely on its own with quick pre-dinner drinks, but you could just as easily add a few more things for a quite respectable spread and forget dinner altogether: olives, baba ghanouj, various salumi-type things, stuffed grape leaves, and the like (most of which are easily purchase-able).

Oh, and don’t be weirded out by the rather agressive amount of jalapeno, the broiler tames their heat and all you’re left with a lilting spicy tingle. You’ll need to find yourself a nice, shallow, oven-safe dish that will snugly accomodate the cheese in a single layer. I generally use a 10″ square dish with a low rim and it’s perfect.

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Side Dish Surgery: Rescuing Scalloped Potatoes

During a recent Easter dinner debrief my mother mentioned that the scalloped potatoes she and WonderTwin A had prepared ended up being somewhat lackluster. A very sad day, particularly since scalloped potatoes–with their carbs and their cream and their cheese–don’t grace the table very often. If you’re going to cook and eat a dish like that, you want it to be awesome–and worth all the work it takes to make and then burn off on the elliptical.

As we zero’d in on the case of the poorly performing potatoes, Mom said that they’d prepared them in the usual way: layering thinly sliced rounds of potato with grated cheese, and pouring over a seasoned mixture of milk and cream before baking it all off. And though they turned out better than the mashed turnips Wondertwin A decided to add 3 tbs of RAW minced garlic to, the potatoes were still in need of some additional attention.

Having prepared them this way in the past myself, I’ve found the method just leaves too much to chance. There are too many variables–moisture content of the potatoes and cheese, ACTUAL temperature of oven, surface area and thickness of the assembled dish–to control properly to ensure that the result isn’t dry, soupy, or undercooked.

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Savory-Sweet Valentine’s Day Beets!

I’ve been working on a Spanish-influenced cocktail menu of tasty tapas to serve at a Valentine’s Day cocktail to-do Mr. T and I are hosting next week for Immigration Equality. In addition to the usual suspects (check out tienda.com for all your manchego, membrillo, and jamon needs), I’ll be making these beet and chevre toasts.

They’re deceptively simple: grilled country bread, a swipe of “whipped” goat cheese, thin slices of roasted beet, a little oil, salt, and pepper. But so, so good. We had this at Estadio, the new (impossible to get into) tapas place in town, and though all the food was very tasty, it’s this simple dish that stuck in my mind. Though I’m a sucker for anything on toast, it really was exceptional–sweet earthy beet, tangy bright goat cheese, crunchy smoky bread… mmm.

For our Valentine’s Day party, though, I felt the need to camp it up a little bit. So, instead of plain rounds of beet, little hearts. For my trial run, I used my tiny heart-shaped aspic cutter. (What? I cut aspic ALL THE TIME. Shut up.) I have, however, invested in a slightly larger heart-shaped cutter for the big party. Even I have limits, remote though they may be.
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Brunch Bonus: Earth-Shatteringly Good Eggs Mornay

Ok, people. This is it. The last egg dish you’ll ever need. These are the eggs that saved Christmas , the eggs that impressed the mother-in-law, the eggs that get everyone out of bed on Saturday morning, the eggs that could broker a Mid-East peace agreement. When extending brunch invitations, friends in-the-know invariably ask if I’m “making THE eggs?”

Apparently originating in the Saddle River, NJ, kitchen of Mrs. William T. Knight, III, at some point in the ’60s (?), this easy dish of hard-cooked eggs draped in a rich Sauce Mornay (culinary French for “cheese sauce”) is the de rigeur centerpiece of any major holiday breakfast a la Family J. Of which there weren’t many, which is a good thing. This is a dish of lethal proportions. But so, so good.

Don’t be tempted to add more cheese to the sauce. Having succumbed to such greedy impulses in the past I can say with authority that doing so will cause the sauce to break in the oven and you’ll end up with separated slicks of oil on top of your eggs. Ick. And, in any event, if you’re using a nice aged Gruyère (and, really given the caloric impact here, you should) you don’t need that much. The cheese’s nutty, pungent flavor is quite pronouncedly delicious when the sauce is made according to the proper proportions.

You can use the other half of that chunk of Gruyère to make gougères for a suitably swingin’ cocktail hour… which you should pretty much be ready for by the time you’ve finished brunch.

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Bad Kitty, that’s MY Gougère! The Original Cheesy Poof

Everyone’s favorite 5th grade misanthrope, Eric Cartman, is known for his foul mouth, his Machiavellian streak, and of course his devotion to Cheesy Poofs. Now, delightful as those fictional snacks are, I’m sure Cartman would be willing to restart the Civil War (again) for just one gougère. The original cheesy poofs, gougères are simply one of the most delicious cocktail nibbles ever.

gougeresOriginally from Burgundy, gougères are a simple pâte à choux mixed with cheese, formed into little rounds, and baked in a hot oven. They’re at once crisp, tender, light, and cheesy. The only fussy thing about gougères is that they must be served hot from the oven.

This challenge is easily surmountable, however, in light of their otherwise forgiving nature. The pâte à choux is the most flexible of all traditional pastry bases and comes together in almost no time at all. A strong arm is required, though, to mix in the eggs. And, once baked, gougères can be flash frozen or reheated without compromising their taste or texture, which makes them a perfect accompaniment for even weeknight cocktail guests.

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