Manda Cooks: Homemade Caesar Salad

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I’m usually not a huge fan of Caesar salad – to me, they’re usually sort of bland and generic and something I never glance twice at on a menu. But when they’re good, they’re REALLY good, like the Caesar at Sant Ambroeus. And usually it’s all about great dressing, because it’s hard to play too much with lettuce, hard boiled egg, and croutons. So I decided to make real, homemade Caesar dressing (using Bon Appetit’s recipe), complete with anchovies and raw egg — ick! But also, YUM, because it ended up being delicious. I made croutons using an olive breadstick from Bread’s Bakery, and added tomatoes and chicken for a little extra oomph and.. ta-da! Perfect Caesar salad!

DRESSING

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Manda Cooks: Chocolate Chips Two Ways

Sharing two recent favorite cookies today, in case you are on the hunt for something sweet for your sweetheart (or just for yourself!) Each of these is a big step above your standard chocolate chip, but serves a different purpose.

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The Brown Butter Chocolate Chip cookies are like a more sophisticated and richer version of standard chocolate chips. They’re still classic, but much more interesting. And, don’t worry, you can still eat about four in a sitting – they’re not too rich for that. I highly recommend dark chocolate chips, walnuts or pecans and a sprinkle of sea salt. When I made these last, we had them with black-cherry soda/whiskey drinks – really good pairing (because you can’t go wrong with either). These are also sort of impressive cookies – they have a much deeper flavor than standard chocolate chips, so they make you seem like a super fancy shmancy baker.

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The Copy Cat Levains are a whole ‘nother animal. I wouldn’t describe these as sophisticated or interesting, but they’re hella good. Do you even know what Levain is? It’s a bakery on the Upper West Side that has THE BEST giant cookies. These babies came pretty close to the real things – dense but fluffy and chewy on the inside without being too cakey. I brought them into work and people basically flipped out – they’re probably the new crowd-favorite.

I feel like if the Cookies were people, you’d go wine tasting with the Brown Butters and watch Teen Mom with the Levains. Does that make sense? Good. Now go make them. Brown Butter Recipe & Levain Copy Cat Recipe.

 

Manda Cooks: Birthday Cake

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Confession: Baking cakes sort of terrifies me because I don’t get to taste-test the finished product before EVERYONE taste-tests (or I guess just tastes) the finished product. Eep! I also don’t have any go-to cake recipes (other than Ina’s Coconut Cake), so every time I bake a cake I go through a cycle of panic, anxiety, and let’s-just-cancel-the-party. It’s really lovely.

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Brett and I planned to have friends over for drinks and cake to celebrate his birthday. I’ve somehow gotten out of making Brett a birthday cake the past two years — I substituted homemade chipwiches once, and a donut cake at last year’s brunch party, but the time had come — Brett needed a birthday cake! During part of my panic cycle, I asked if I could make a cheesecake instead (for some reason that seemed less daunting, even though I’ve never made one), but he said he preferred cake… and whatever the birthday boy wants, the birthday boy gets, so cake it was.

(And those same New Year’s sugar cookies too, because a) I had some Brett-themed cookie cutters that I’d been waiting to use, b) in case the cake was a disaster, I’d at least have cookies, and c) cookies are delicious! Some pictures below, because they turned out to be pretty stinking adorable.)

I decided to try Smitten Kitchen’s “Best Birthday Cake” – figured with a name like that, it had to be good. And it was! I think I overcooked it by just a few minutes, and might double the vanilla extract next time but! there will definitely be a next time, which is a good sign for the future of me and cakes.

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I didn’t alter the recipe at all, so you can find it here. A quick note, though: I had a bit of trouble with the frosting the first time around — I didn’t wait for the sour cream to warm up OR for the chocolate to cool down, so my “frosting” was just chunks of chocolate in sour cream, and I threw it out. Don’t worry, one meltdown and one trip to the grocery store later, I tried again. The second time, I poured myself a drink while I waited for the sour cream to come to room temperature (and even put it close to the fireplace at one point – ha!), and I also let the chocolate cool down before I added it. The whole “pour slowly, stir quickly” confused me, so the second time I had Brett pour the chocolate in slowly, while I stirred quickly… not sure how else you accomplish this one : )

So, Happy Birthday Brett! I love you so much and I am so happy every day that you are my bean.

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Manda Cooks: Butternut Squash and Sage Skillet Lasagna

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Back in October or November, I pinned a recipe for Butternut Squash and Sage Lasagna and then proceeded to think about it pretty much daily. With this recipe in mind, I added a cast-iron skillet to my Christmas wishlist and, thank s to my mom, my wish was granted!

I love to cook on Sunday nights; for me it’s my way of wrapping up the weekend before the start of another crazy week. This past Sunday dinner was particularly monumental because it wrapped up a full TWO WEEKS off of work for me (::sigh::), so I thought it was the perfect time to pull this recipe out and break in my new skillet. Plus it is (finally) full-on winter in New York, which means it’s freezing, which means you basically only ever want to eat warm, cheesy food. (Except for yesterday when I had Liquiteria for lunch but hush.)

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Something about the lasagna tasted so much like Thanksgiving – it was comfort food at its finest! But somehow it wasn’t too heavy. A miracle, I know. The butternut squash is super creamy, and the sausage adds some oomph to the dish, so you don’t actually end up needing too much cheese, or too many noodles…. relatively speaking : )

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I combined two recipes when I made it (this one, and this one) – my best memory of what I did is below! As far as I can tell, the only thing that could go wrong here is it being a little too dry. I was afraid of this, since I’m used to saucey baked pastas, so I drizzled a bit of chicken broth on the finished product before putting it in the oven. I think you could probably do this mid-way through cooking if needed, if you check on it and it seems like it’s a little thirsty. Otherwise, the recipe is pretty fool-proof, despite being a bit time consuming. Even though it’s technically a one-pot mean, it’s a 25-dish meal. So, if you lack a dishwasher like I do, add about 20 minutes of dish washing into your timeline!

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Here’s what you need:
3 cups cubed butternut squash (small cubes!)
6-8 no-boil lasagna noodles
1 cup chicken stock
1 onion, diced
8 sages leaves, chopped, plus more for garnish
small handful parsley, chopped
1 pound ground sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 cups 2% milk
2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup ricotta
1/2 cup parmesan
10-12 little mozzarella balls, cut in half
salt, pepper, nutmeg, olive oil

Here’s what you do:
Prep the squash: Heat oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and squash, plus salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Stir to coat, then add 1/3 cup chicken broth. Cover and cook until squash has softened, about 15 minutes. Spoon squash into separate bowl and mash with fork or potato masher. Add another 1/3 cup of chicken broth to the mixture and stir to combine – it shouldn’t be too runny, or too thick.
Prep the sausage: Using the same skillet, cook onion until just translucent, about 3 minutes. Add sausage and use spatula to break into small pieces. Cook over medium heat until sausage has cooked through – this will cook again in the oven so you don’t have to be too diligent, just watch what you taste test as you go! Spoon sausage into separate bowl.
Prep the sauce: Using the same skillet, melt butter. Once butter is melted and bubbly, whisk in flour and cook for 1-2 minutes until nutty. Slowly add milk, stirring almost constantly, allowing mixture to bubble and thicken. Once all milk is added and sauce has thickened, add ricotta, parmesan, sage and parsley. Stir to combine then spoon sauce into separate bowl, leaving some in the pan to coat the bottom.
Assemble the lasagna: Alternate layering lasagna noodles (break apart to create a full layer as best as you can), smashed butternut squash, sausage, sauce, and mozzarella halves. Make sure you save enough sauce for the top! Once everything is assembled, pour a bit of chicken broth in the sides, sort of like you are watering a plant. Top with extra shredded parm, and whole sage leaves. Bake at 375F for 30-40 minutes, until slightly brown on top and bubbling on the sides. Let stand for about 15 minutes before serving.

Manda Cooks: Pumpkin Ricotta Gnudi

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I’m a big fan of homemade pasta, but generally too afraid to make it myself. I’ve made butternut squash ravioli before, but I used pre-made wonton wrappers so that’s definitely cheating, (and please don’t tell my grandma that I used wonton wrappers to make something Italian…) I usually depend on Eataly for a homemade pasta fix, except for when it comes to gnocchi – the one thing I’m semi-confident about making at home. Again, this is sort of a cop-out, since gnocchi are technically dumplings, not pasta. And, (spoiler alert: another cop-out), I actually make gnudi more than I make gnocchi (where you use ricotta instead of potatoes), because I find gnudi to be less work, more forgiving, and more delicious. Gnudi is sort of a gnocchi/ravioli hybrid, aka the best of both worlds.

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I saw a recipe for pumpkin ricotta gnudi on Pinterest a while back, and added it to my “Make When I’m Feeling Ambitious” list. I had Monday through Thursday off of work this week, so decided it was the perfect time to tackle these babies. The original recipe was gluten free, so I substituted in regular flour since I don’t have any fancy flours on hand. I also used pumpkin instead of squash, red cabbage instead of radicchio, and bacon instead of pancetta. So… my adaptation of the recipe is below : )

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I pulled these from my “Ambitious” list, but they really weren’t that much work. It’s a little bit time consuming, and you will have to scrub doughy-flour-crust off of your counter after (or you boyfriend will have to), but it’s totally worth it. The colors in the finished product are fantastic, as was the textures. It also turned out to be surprisingly light, unlike most gnocchi/gnudi.

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Pumpkin Ricotta Gnudi (adapted from this recipe)

Here’s what you need:
1/2 cup pureed pumpkin
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1 jumbo egg (or 2 small eggs)
1/4 cup grated parmesan + more for garnish
1 teaspoon salt
a pinch of nutmeg
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 slices bacon
1/4 small head of red cabbage, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped + more for garnish
1/4 toasted walnuts, chopped
juice from 1/2 lemon
black pepper

Here’s what you do:
To make the gnudi: Whisk together pumpkin, ricotta, egg(s), parmesan, salt and nutmeg. Stir in flour a bit at a time. The dough will be sticky, but shouldn’t be sticking to the sides of the bowl. Scrape dough out onto a floured surface, and invert the bowl over the dough. Let rest 15-30 minutes. Knead the dough a few times, then divide into six portions. Roll each portion out into a rope about 3/4″ thick. Use a knife to slice into 1″ pieces. Use a fork dusted with flour to make indentations in the gnudi, and place on a flour-dusted surface.
To cook the gnudi: Once you have everyone assembled, bring a pot of salted water to boil. Carefully drop about half of the gnudi in. You don’t want to over-fill the pot, but it’s okay if they touch! Once everyone has floated to the top, cook for an additional minute, the scoop out with a slated spoon and set aside. Cook the next batch.
To assemble the dish: Cook the bacon until crispy in a cast-iron skillet. Remove from heat, but don’t clean the skillet. Add gnudi to skillet and cook about 5 minutes on each side, until brown and a bit crispy. (You can do this in batches too, FYI.) Remove gnudi from pan. Add red cabbage and cook until just wilted, about 3 minutes. Add bacon, gnudi, walnuts and parsley, stirring to combine. Squeeze lemon juice on top, and drizzle with olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide between two dishes, and top with extra parmesan and parsley.
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Happy New Year! & Manda Cookies: Sugar Cookies

Happy 2015 friends!

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Brett and I kicked off the night with a bottle of champagne and three cheese pairings from Murray’s. For dinner we headed to Bugs and each had their omakase tasting menu – it was insanely delicious. We rang in the New Year at our friend Annie’s apartment with pink champagne and whiskey punch. A pretty calm New Year, but exactly what we wanted – apparently we’re boring grown ups now!

I’m excited to see what 2015 has in store for me — I already have lots of travel to look forward to (including Maui, Mexico, Nashville, Vail and Abu Dhabi!), plus 90th birthday celebrations for my grandma, Brett’s grandma, and my gram (!!!). I know lots of people dislike New Year’s Resolutions, but I actually love them! My three resolutions this year are to (1) shop at the farmer’s market more, (2) drink less Diet coke, and (3) blog more! I think I can handle those.

I made sugar cookies yesterday to bring to Annie’s last night, and to a brunch we are headed to shortly. I think I have finally found a go-to sugar cookie recipe! It requires no cooling time in the refrigerator, and has a touch of almond extract so the flavor is nutty and not too sweet. I also found a good recipe for royal frosting that doesn’t require eggs or meringue powder — it’s corn syrup instead, which I know isn’t great, but royal-frosting-beggars can’t be choosers.

Sugar Cookies (original recipe here)

Here’s what you need:
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 egg
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 cups flour

Here’s what you do:
Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Stir in extracts and egg until combined. Add baking powder then gradually add flour. Dust flour on your counter and roll out about 1/4 of the dough at a time. Place cookie cut outs on parchment paper, and bake at 350F for 5-7 minutes.

Royal Frosting (adapted from  this recipe)

Here’s what you need:
1 cup powdered sugar
3 teaspoons milk
3 teaspoons corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
food coloring

Here’s what you do:
Whisk powdered sugar to get rid of any large clumps. Add in milk, corn syrup and almond extract – whisk until combined and smooth. Scoop frosting into a ziplock bag and add a few drops of food coloring – smoosh bag together until color is uniform. Cut a small hole in the corner of the bag to pipe frosting onto cookies.

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Manda Cooks: Holiday Party Apps!

Brett and I hosted a Chrismakkuh Cocktails party a few weekends ago, and it was one of our best parties yet. Apparently a roaring fire, a twinkling Christmas tree, and good friends are a winning combination. (Duh.) Plus, obviously, good food and drink! Brett made two great cocktails – a champagne/rum/berry punch, and maple old fashioneds (my new favorite). We set up the party as a “come whenever” open house sort of thing, so we tried to plan the food accordingly. I made two chex mixes (one savory, one sweet) that people could munch on throughout the party, and two cookies (chocolate chip, and jam buttons) that also were out the whole time. For the “real food” part, we did two types of crostini and goat cheese stuffed dates toward the beginning of the party, followed by two types of stromboli that we cooked mid-way through and served hot. More to come on the stromboli, because it was delicious and I’ll be making it again… but, for now, recipes for the crostini and dates below!

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Fig and Cheddar Crostoni

Here’s what you need:
a baguette, thinly sliced
whipped cream cheese
super super super sharp cheddar
fig jam
fresh thyme

Here’s what you do:
Brush bread with olive oil and toast in oven for 5-7 minutes, until crispy. Spread on a bit of cream cheese, then top with a slice of cheddar, a dollop of fig jam, and a few sprigs of thyme.

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Goat Cheese and Pomegranate Crostini

Here’s what you need:
a baguette, thinly sliced
peppered goat cheese
a pomegranate
fresh rosemary

Here’s what you do:
To remove seeds from pomegranate (this is the best technique I’ve found!), slice pomegranate into quarters, and then each quarter in half width-wise. Submerge each half-quarter (aka eighth) in a bowl of water, and gently pull seeds out. The seeds will sink to the bottom, and any rind will rise to the top. When you’re finished, skim the rind off the top, then drain the seeds. Pat dry with a paper towel and you’re good to go! To assemble crostini: Brush bread with olive oil and toast in oven for 5-7 minutes, until crispy. Spread goat cheese on slice, then top with a few pomegranate seeds and fresh rosemary.

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Goat Cheese Stuffed Dates

Here’s what you need:
dates
peppered goat cheese
honey

Here’s what you do:
If dates aren’t already pitted, remove the pits by slicing the dates length-wise and gently pushing pit out. It the dates are pitted, just slice length-wise to create an opening. Spoon goat cheese into the cavity, then use your fingers to pat down. Arrange on a plate and drizzle with honey just before serving.

Manda Cooks: Matzo Ball Soup

I made Matzo Ball Soup on Tuesday, partially to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, but mostly because I had that pre-sick sick feeling all day. (Just being honest!)

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I’m still figuring out what my matzo ball soup will be like; for now I stick pretty close to the directions, but I quadruple the salt. I know that seems excessive, but it’s really not. I simmered the matzo balls in water this time, because I couldn’t remember if you could skip that part and just simmer them in chicken broth. I think I simmered them in broth last time, though, so I’ll probably do this from now on to eliminate a step. (I love shortcuts.) I also added a bunch of chopped carrots and celery, for extra color and some crunch. Obviously the matzo balls are the true stars of the show, but there’s nothing wrong with carrot and celery back up dancers, right? Plus some dill. Because I think that usually goes in there too.

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My pre-sick sick feeling turned into a bad cold that finally, maybe, just started clearing up. Partial credit for my recovery has to go to this soup, of course, because I ate it all week.

Here’s what you need:
1 package matzo ball mix
1 carton chicken broth
6 carrots
6 celery stalks
fresh dill

Here’s what you do:
Make matzo balls according to package — I used seltzer water and oil, FYI. (I think the other options are flat water and margarine?) I also used a tablespoon of salt instead of a teaspoon. Slice up the carrots and celery. Simmer the matzo balls in water or chicken broth. If chicken broth, add the carrots and celery in at the beginning if you want them to cook through, or toward the end if you want them crunchy. Sprinkle fresh dill into the soup before serving.

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Thanksgiving and Manda Cooks: Green Bean Casserole

I had quite the Thanksgiving this year, or should I say ThanksgivingS. Following Friendsgiving on Sunday, I had Robbinsgiving on Wednesday, Veraldigiving on Thursday, and Bordengiving on Saturday. It involved a lot of time on the road, and a lot of food in my belly, but it was fun. My macaroni & cheese made appearances at two out of the three (that recipe is a keeper!), and I also made mashed potatoes at the Robbins’, a lentil and squash salad at my dad’s, and corn pudding at my mom’s. Moriah and I made rice krispies turkeys that were the cutest things you’ve ever seen, I swear. See for yourself here.

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Anyway, Dana and I also made that Green Bean Casserole from Smitten Kitchen that I mentioned in my last post and it was a huge step up from the standard Green Bean Casserole that involves those weird pre-fried onion things and ::cringe:: soup from a can. I almost feel bad comparing the two but, oh well.

I have a little bit of an issue with the word “casserole”, do you? I feel like I need a chic update for it, along the same lines of me calling my Dutch Oven a French Oven instead… stay tuned, I’ll think of something.

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Dana managed the onion frying process and, omg, they were good. I’m tempted to make them just to snack on, but that might be excessive. They’d make a great salad topper though, or an anything topper for that matter. We made sure to cook the green beans jussssst enough, so that they’d maintain some crunch in the end. We potentially could have let the mushroom sauce thicken a bit more, but otherwise the dish was a great addition to the meal. A lot of Thanksgiving food is sort of on the softer side (trying to avoid calling it “mushy”), and our green beans added a nice crunch. So…success!

Also, sidenote: Did you know that I successfully taught myself how to like mushrooms? Because I did. Just FYI! #proudmoment

Since we didn’t adjust the recipe at all, you can use Smitten Kitchen’s one here.

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Oh, and since it’s Thanksgiving and all, a few things I’m thankful for this year:
my family, my friends, my boyfriend, Pico, all of my pups, my cat-niece and my dog-niece, my human almost-nieces and almost-nephew, nail polish, lipstick, italy, cheetah print, PJs, cozy socks, fireplaces, whiskey on the rocks with a splash of diet, baked brie, iced tea, spotify, wine, cashmere, chapstick, back scratches, dancing, soppressata, good spinning instructors, paris, the westside market that just opened by me, straws, lululemon pants, and new york city — the city that i love to hate, but secretly love to love

Friendsgiving & Manda Cooks: Jalapeno Macaroni & Cheese

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Thanksgiving Week was kicked off last night with a Friendsgiving Potluck. Thirteen of us each claimed a dish or drink, and piled into an apartment for the feast. Brett and I brought chicken marbella, apple pie, and jalapeno macaroni and cheese. The chicken and pie were repeats for us, but this was (surprisingly) my first time making baked mac & cheese. We also had traditional stuffing, quinoa stuffing, yams, homemade cranberry sauce, two salads and pumpkin pie. Plus a cocktail, and generous pours of wine all around.

Whenever I’m tackling a dish for the first time, I look to my three go-to sources for a recipe: Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, and Deb from SmittenKitchen.com. Deb’s baked mac & cheese recipe is adapted from Martha’s, so it was a done deal. The end result tasted like it was from a restaurant in a good way – do you know what I mean? It was creamy but not gooey, and the top and ends were crispy but not dry. Mm, mm, mm!!

If you are still looking for some Thanksgiving inspiration, a few links I’ve bookmarked with Thanksgiving in mind:
Smitten Kitchen’s Green Bean Casserole — I plan to make this Thursday
Victoria’s Leftover Pasta Salad — an alternative to turkey sandwiches
The Secret Ingredient to the Perfect Grilled Cheese — not exactly Thanksgiving related, and I’m a bit skeptical… but worth a shot?
Thanksgiving Etiquette — fun read
Cranberry Bourbon Fizz — look at those ice cubes!
Sarah’s Pomegranate Rosemary Spritzers — YUM

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Jalapeno Macaroni and Cheese, adapted from Smitten Kitchen, adapted from Martha Stewart (ha!)

Here’s what you need:
1 lb twisty macaroni
4 cups shredded cheddar
1 cup shredded gruyere
4 slices sandwich bread (stale is okay!)
2 big jalapenos, diced and seeds removed
4 cups whole milk
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Here’s what you do:
Cook noodles according to directions, minus two minutes of cooking time. Strain and set aside. Tear or slice the sandwich bread into small chunks or cubes and set aside. Pour milk into small pot over medium heat. In a separate, larger pot, melt butter over medium heat. Once butter starts to bubble, whisk in flour – it will get a bit clumpy, but everything is okay. Slowly add in the milk, whisking continuously. Whisk for another 8 or so minutes, while mixture bubbles and thickens. Remove from heat. Stir in most of the cheese (save some to sprinkle on top), spices, chopped jalapenos, and cooked macaroni. Stir until combined. (Before you add the macaroni, you might want to open a bag of tortilla chips and dunk a few into the cheesy mixture. Just to taste test, obviously.) Butter or spray the inside of your baking dish, then pour mixture in. Top with bread cubes, and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. Serve immediately if possible, or re-heat before serving.

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