Date and Walnut Cheese Spread

No need to choose between sweet and savory; this spread combines the best of both worlds.  I served it with crackers for events the last couple of weekends, and I think it bridged the gap well.  And even better–it’s easy to make and can be done ahead of time.

Here’s what it involves:

  • 3 packages of cream cheese (8 oz.)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar (or less)
  • 1/2 tsp. chili powder (to taste)
  • dash of salt
  • 1 cup walnuts (chopped)
  • 1 cup dates (chopped)
  • honey, maple syrup, or agave syrup

Let cream cheese soften on the counter for a bit before you begin.  Once it is manageable, put it in a bowl and use a spatula to mix in the brown sugar, chili powder, and salt.  At this point you’re faced with a decision: two cheese balls or one log?  This past weekend I went the log route to save table space.

For a log:

Spoon the cream cheese (roughly in a log shape) onto some plastic wrap.  Roll it up in the plastic wrap, and then whack it on the counter and spin it around by holding the ends of the the wrap until you get the most uniform shape possible….like you’re making a sausage.  Chill it in the refrigerator. When it’s ready, roll out of the plastic wrap onto your plate (or garnish first while it’s still on the wrap for a cleaner look)

For cheese balls:

Starting with spoons dipped in warm water and finishing with very clean hands, shape into two balls.  Put each one on a plate or on a bit of plastic wrap before garnishing.

To finish:

Evenly pack the chopped dates and walnuts on the sides and top of the cream cheese mixture, plate it, and lightly drizzle honey or a natural syrup on top.





Dates- تمر on Foodista

Dairy-Free Herb Dip

…A.K.A. my twist on green mayonnaise.  Especially with dairy allergies and intolerance so prevalent, this smooth, herb-rich dip is a great addition vegetable trays and sandwiches.  It also goes well with different kinds of white fish.  We just had a housewarming party, and I served this with a tray of carrots, mushrooms, pea pods, and cauliflower.

I started by making a basic mayonnaise. If you’ve never made mayonnaise before, it’s definitely worth a try.  As long as you don’t rush the oil-adding process it’s not difficult, and it’s richer than the kind you can buy.  And the good news is that the whole process can be done in less than ten minutes:

  • 2 egg yolks (the USDA recommends using pasteurized eggs to be safe)
  • 1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1 Tbsp mustard (you can use ground if you don’t have the normal kind)
  • 1 cup oil (canola, vegetable, olive)
  • dash of rice vinegar

In a medium bowl, whisk the yolks, salt, and mustard together.  Add a Tablespoon or so of oil and whisk that vigorously enough that you no longer see oil but just a thick, lemony substance.  Keep adding oil and whisking gradually.  At some point, add a little vinegar if you don’t mind the flavor.

This is an emulsion (a blend of two things that don’t naturally want to combine), so you need to be careful not to overwhelm the yolk with too much oil all at once.  If you do, it will cease to be mayonnaise and become pieces of egg yolk in oil.  But if you introduce the oil gradually and whisk consistently to maintain the pudding-like texture, and you’ll be fine.

After you’ve made the mayonnaise, you can add the herbs.  This isn’t a science and really could be done however you like with whatever herbs you have on hand…but as a point of reference here’s what I did:

  • big handful of parsley
  • A few stems of fresh tarragon (just the leaves)
  • A few stems of fresh thyme (just the leaves)
  • 1 whole garlic clove
  • salt
  • A spoonful of course ground mustard

For the maximum green effect, I first blanched the parsley, tarragon, and thyme.  Bring some water to boil (with just a dash of salt and a garlic clove), drop the herbs in the boiling water, remove them by pouring the contents of the pot through a strainer, and douse that in cold water.  Put the blanched herbs and softened garlic clove in the blender, add the mustard and some of the mayonnaise, and blend away.  Once the herb mixture reached a good consistency, incorporate it with the rest of the mayonnaise and let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours.  This is a more rustic version of green mayonnaise.  If you were having green mayonnaise in France, you would not be able to see any herbs in the final product. But blame it on my American makeup–I don’t mind a little texture.

When you serve this, you’ll need to keep the dip cool if it’s going to be out for a while.  If it’s in a bowl, you can just place it in another larger bowl with some icy water.


Whole Wheat Crackers

I promise I will not keep posting recipes for round crunchy things, but I had to write about these crackers…especially since they go so well with the the salmon spread and roasted red pepper hummus that have also made their way to the blog recently.  Without a ton of work they add a special touch to any appetizer spread or winter soup, and I even think they’d work as a hostess gift.  Not a bad change from the sweets that are so available this time of year!

Here it is:

  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (or a blend of white and wheat)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 4 tsp real maple syrup (can also use sugar, honey, or a little less agave syrup)
  • egg wash (1 beaten egg thinned with water)
  • toppings (sea salt, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, parmesan cheese, dried herbs, garlic salt, etc.)

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl.  In a separate bowl, combine the oil, milk, and syrup.  I usually err on the generous side with the oil if I’m using all whole wheat flour.  Pour the liquid into the flour and mix just until combined.  Take a third or fourth of the dough and lightly form into a ball using a little flour if it’s too sticky. Roll it out as thinly as possible on parchment paper–no more than 1/8 inch thick. Cut irregular shapes with a pizza cutter or cut out rounds with a mold.  If you use a mold, remove the excess dough leaving the rounds on the paper. Brush the top of the crackers with an egg wash and sprinkle on your toppings.

Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet and bake at 300 F until they start to get brown.  It usually takes me 20-30 minutes (depending on the oven, thickness, dryness of the dough, etc.).  Place them on a rack to let them cool and get crispy.

This time I did one batch with sea salt (thanks, Jo!), one with garlic salt, parmesan, and basil, and one with sesame seeds and a little fine salt. If you have other ideas for toppings or if you have a favorite cracker recipe, I’d love to hear!



Treat from the Swede: Pepper Kaka

I just got back from my grandma’s house in Dassel, MN.  Main event of the visit: making these thin, melt in your mouth Swedish spice cookies.  These have been a favorite of mine year after year, so I was pretty excited when she suggested that we make them together.  I’ll take all the cookie making wisdom I can get from her!

Here’s what we did:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 4 Tbl molasses
  • 1 cup sugar

On a medium heat on the stove, heat the molasses and butter and let them simmer for a few minutes to thicken and combine well.  Remove from heat and mix in the sugar until it dissolves.  Chill. (in Minnesota in January, that means “put it outside for a few minutes”). Meanwhile, mix these ingredients together:

  • 2  cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt (more if using unsalted butter)
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp baking soda

When the butter mixture is cooler than room temperature, incorporate

  • 1 egg

…and mix it all into the flour mixture until it reaches a consistent texture.  Chill well.* You can stick it in the freezer to make this go faster (even after 10 or 15 minutes it could be ready).

Once the dough is chilled, flour the counter and set the oven to 350 F (180 C).  Take a handful of dough and roll it out until it’s very thin–(1-2 mm).  It’s best to work in small amounts like this so you can keep the rest of the dough chilled until you’re ready to use it.  Working quickly, use cookie molds to cut out shapes and put them on a baking sheet.  You can sprinkle a little sugar on top at this point too.

Bake each pan of cookies for about 5- 6 minutes or until the edges just start to get brown.  Cool on a cooling rack for maximum crispiness.

I’ve tried other spice cookies, but these simply are the best.  And even though they can hold their own, they’re always better when an 87-year old lady as sweet as this one hands them to you with a cup of Swedish coffee.



*The secret to making these cookies as thin and therefore crisp as possible is to keep the dough chilled.  Because of all the butter in them, the dough gets softer and much harder to work with the more you handle it.

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

After my fill of pastries, red meats, and rich butter and cream sauces these past two months, I must say I’ve been craving some healthy snacks.  So for New Year’s Eve I made roasted red pepper hummus.  I served it with some day old bread from French Meadow Bakery that I toasted in the oven (450 F for about 8 minutes), but it also is great with crackers or pita bread.  Here’s what I do:

  • 1 can garbanzo beans
  • 3 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 lemon or lime (squeezed)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, diced
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1/3 cup roasted red pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. hot chili sauce
  • dash red pepper flakes

Puree these ingredients in a food processor or blender. If it’s not smooth enough after blending for a while, add more tahini or olive oil.  Season to taste.

This also is a great base on wraps.  I made the wrap below by spreading some hummus on a whole wheat tortilla and then putting some spinach, parsley, grilled chicken, and tomatoes on top.  Any other ideas for hummus?


Leftovers From France

After a week in Minnesota, I think reality is  sinking in.  No more markets brimming with produce on every major street, no more easy access to fresh ocean fish and every cut of meat you can imagine (and some kinds you’d rather not).  Or at least they’re much harder to find…and more expensive.  But I’m not giving up!  This snowy landlocked state does have plenty to offer.  The challenge now is just to translate what I’ve learned about French cuisine to Midwestern palettes using Midwestern resources.

But not everything is difficult to apply.  Here are a few of the products and practices that can be “normal” in any kitchen without too much trouble:

  • kitchen string (for tying up meat, poultry, bouquet garni, etc.)
  • parchment paper not just for lining baking pans but also for making skillets non-stick and forming breathable lids for pots. My favorite new use is for glazing vegetables.
  • leeks gentle, flavorful, versatile. An underused vegetable on this continent.
  • peppercorns and coarse salt it’s great to throw a pinch of these in the pot of soup or stock.
  • fresh thyme a sweet, subtle herb that can be used in almost anything.
  • local meats (here is one helpful guide for Minnesotans–“Eating Minnesota”)
  • unsalted butterfor cooking I used to stubbornly stand by salted butter because it’s an easy flavor enhancer.  But when I started reducing sauces like it was my job, I learned the benefit of adding salt at the end of the cooking process (otherwise it can become too concentrated).
  • turned potatoes and carrots more on this later. But this putzy way of shaping hard earth vegetables can be a fun addition to a meal without an extra cost. And I find the process itself almost therapeutic!
  • gruyère cheese just the right combination of texture and potency for savory dishes. In my opinion this should be the new cheddar.
    One of my first attempts at French-Midwestern fusion
    Christmas dinner: my attempt at French-Midwestern “fusion”

As these things work their way into my kitchen, no doubt you will see them in coming posts and recipes.  In the meantime, If you have any good tips on butchers in the Twin Cities, I’d love to hear!

À la prochaine…


Plate It Like You Mean It

veal escalopes with fresh pasta and garnish “a la viennoise”


Well friends, I’m officially done with Basic Cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu.  With my knives and cooking clothes packed up, the only reminders right now of the past month of school are a binder full of notes and hopefully (!) a head full of cooking principles.  After living and breathing French cuisine for the past month, it’ll be good to actually think about what I’ve learned as I fly home on Monday.  You can expect to hear more from me after that!

These past couple of weeks have been pretty intense.  Some days we were at school from 8:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night cooking tedious dishes in hot kitchens with tired people.  But even with the craziness, I enjoyed the camaraderie with classmates and learned a lot about cooking under pressure.  At the end of one of the more stressful cooking sessions, I was rushing to finish and present my sub-par dish to the chef for her critique.  Feeling at the time a mixture of disappointment, frustration, and apathy, I took a plate out of the oven to wipe it clean.  I just wanted to dump my ugly food on it and head to bed, but I stopped and thought, “nope, I’ve got to plate it like I mean it.”

That night I realized that you should shoot for excellence, but in the end if something isn’t quite perfect, you’ve just got to plate it with purpose.  No apologies, no explanations, no hiding.  Some people will be able to tell (like the chef in my case), but it’s really okay if they see you’re not perfect–maybe even good.  And if you take a few minutes to present it well instead of throwing it shamefully on a plate in defeat, chances are much greater that they might even enjoy it…which should be the main point anyway.

Below is some of my “schoolwork” from the past couple of weeks.  With almost every one of these there was something I could’ve done differently if time had allowed.  But then again, it’s probably best that it didn’t!

white fish and salmon terrine
tarragon chicken and Italian vegetables
steak, frites, and Bernaise sauce
pork medallions, charcutiere sauce, and pommes dauphines (not tater tots!)
sea bream with fennel and white wine sauce
Beef Stroganoff and rice pilaf