Dinner Party Dessert: Espresso Panna Cotta

Espresso Panna Cotta

I want to tell you about the lasagna, the one I first made a year ago and forgot to blog about. This year it lived up to its memory, but it took much longer to get into the oven. That’s a whole other story. Let’s start with something easy, which means I want to begin at the end. Let’s talk dessert.

With an Italian menu taking shape for a holiday dinner party —  fresh mozzarella drizzled in olive oil and herbs, a radicchio and arugula salad, lasagna bolognese — I considered my dessert options. Espresso granita with whipped cream? Maybe. That watermelon granita went over well with friends a few months ago, but it’s kinda chilly out. Tiramisu… love you but not doing it for me right now. Chocolate pudding? Man, I love chocolate pudding, and for some reason it reminds me of December. But Italian? Not so much.

Then it hit me: panna cotta.

Panna cotta, which in Italian translates to ‘cooked cream,’ has been on my to-cook list, and as it turns out, everything I’ve heard about panna cotta is true. It’s delicious, super easy to make, and you can make enough for a crowd or just enough to serve two. You can flavor it as you like, and unmold it onto a plate or not. You can make it two days before you need to serve them. In so many ways, panna cotta is the perfect dessert.

An espresso panna cotta to follow pasta? Totally perfect. I don’t think I can get away with saying this is a light dessert since the main ingredient is heavy cream, but it doesn’t feel heavy after dinner. I like to think of it as a sort-of pudding version of the after-dinner espresso, especially when it comes to you in a 4-ounce jar.

That little glass jar is important, by the way, when you’re serving dessert for 14. It didn’t take much to make this espresso panna cotta and it doesn’t need to take much more to serve. Pull the tray with the panna cotta jars out of the fridge, sprinkle the panna cotta with cacao nibs and raspberries, and then head to the table and let everyone take one. I mean, it’s not coming at you wrapped with a big red bow on it, but it does feel like a little gift at the end of a meal.

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Baked Sweet Potatoes with Cannellini Beans and Baby Spinach + Sheet Pan Suppers Giveaway!

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Cannellini Beans and Baby Spinach

What’s for dinner?

I know. Loaded question! Despite such an interest in home cooking and food, I often find myself asking that question (um, every day) and feeling panicked about having nothing planned and nothing especially exciting to whip up when I get home from work or working out. And by then it’s already dark out… and I’m tired… and, wait, what do you think of wine and popcorn for dinner?

Not a bad call every now and then but there are only so many times I can or want to popcorn it for dinner.

Molly Gilbert, the woman behind the blog Dunk & Crumble, wrote Sheet Pan Suppers to help us out with this dinner thing. That book is out TODAY.

I was lucky enough to meet Molly back in May. We were both in Miami for BlogHer Food (and both recently engaged at the time!) and I’ve been looking forward to this cookbook since she told me about it.

To celebrate Molly’s cookbook, I’m sharing her recipe for Baked Sweet Potatoes with Cannellini Beans and Baby Spinach and giving away a copy of her book. Baked sweet potatoes have been making the dinner rounds at my house but none have been as tasty or pretty as the one Molly led me to now.

I never thought to mix in capers with the bean filling but they add so much flavor, and raisins (or dried blueberries because I had them around) add a great touch of sweetness. A pile of greens is fluffed atop the potatoes at the end for a brief and final stint in the oven. The edges crisp slightly and it’s a full meal in a sweet potato. It’s what’s for dinner, and it’s excellent.

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Here’s the thing about this cookbook — these recipes are truly satisfying and approachable. I was already a big fan of using my oven for more hands-off meals, especially on weeknights, and Sheet Pan Suppers is a collection of exactly those kind of recipes. On a post-Thanksgiving Monday with a dead car battery (ugh, right?) I was still able to put together a great dinner in a reasonable amount of time. That sheet pan supper you see peeking out behind a copy of Molly’s cookbook is her brilliant recipe for Roasted Sausage and Red Grapes with Polenta and Gorgonzola. (The flavors reminded us of another recipe we love.)

It’s a smart recipe that lets my sheet pan and the oven do the heavy lifting. I’ll also be taking Molly’s tip to occasionally swap in cherry tomatoes for the grapes or goat cheese for the Gorgonzola.

“This one’s a keeper,” Danny said. And he’s right. This recipe — this book! — is totally a keeper.
(So is Danny.)

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Apple Blondies

Apple blondies

Pie is often the first apple dessert that comes to mind this season, especially for Thanksgiving, but apples are also excellent in cakes, loaves, cookies and so much more. Of all the apple recipes I tested recently for a story, this one for Apple Blondies is probably my favorite. I’d never had an apple dessert quite like them and they are so full of fruit that they really live up to their name. It’s a pound of apple barely held together by flour, brown sugar, and warm spices. The cakey squares are taken up a notch with cardamom and bits of toasted walnut. This is a perfect afternoon treat for this season.

We spent a recent weekend cleaning, sanding, and painting the porch. The porch is looking real good and ready for porch parties. On these cooler mornings (summer has finally left Florida) we’ve been having breakfast on the porch and if that wasn’t good enough right there (it is) imagine adding an apple blondie into the mix. It’s a sure way to make a Tuesday feel like a Friday.

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Baked Apples

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Pink Lady. McIntosh. SweeTango. Ambrosia. Honeycrisp.

This is just part of the apple aisle at my local Publix, but I was impressed. There are an estimated 7,500 apple varieties around the world, so a dozen or so apples at my grocery store is a small fraction, of course, but I’d forgotten how many varieties I could easily get my hands on this season. I’ve been working on a story about baked apple desserts for the Tampa Bay Times (special Thanksgiving issue of Taste comes out this Sunday and I’ve got the cover story!) so I was really happy to find so many varieties to try.

I talked to Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook and lifestyle editor at Yankee Magazine, for the story, and she said a lot of the new apple varieties are good all-purpose apples. They work well for baking, cooking, or eating raw. The standard that breeders are trying to reach is really high, she told me, and these newer apple varieties feature a lot of sweetness, acidity, and firm, lush fruit. And then she said my favorite thing I’ve ever heard about apples…

“They’re like the California cabernets of the apple world,” she said. Big, explosive flavor. Juicy.

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October/November

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We’re getting into the best time of year here. How was your Halloween? For our friend’s annual block party, Danny was a gorilla and I was a mermaid, but on the 31st we hung out on the couch, drinking wine and waiting for trick-or-treaters to knock on our door. Silence of the Lambs was our scary movie for the night, and I made Aida Mollenkamp‘s meatballs for dinner. (Pro tip: Don’t serve meatballs on a night you’re watching Hannibal. TOO SCARY.)

At the start of the week, Danny made a spicy soup that reminded us you can always add yogurt if things get too spicy. We also learned what hominy is. The turkey posole recipe was from a Bon Appetit feature on repurposing leftover Thanksgiving turkey. This is an excellent idea because it totally transforms the turkey and comes together quickly — homemade chile paste included!

Since Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away, we used a shredded rotisserie chicken. I’d try chickpeas if we didn’t have hominy around (for a different but still delicious soup). I found myself looking forward to the soup for dinner each night, crushing tortilla chips into the hot bowl just before serving and swirling in a scoop of avocado. For dessert, baked apples. (I’m wrapping up a feature on baked apple desserts this week and would love to know your favorites, by the way.) Continue reading  continue reading