Ringing in the New Year

For years I’ve been teasing you with promises to share stories and recipes from our annual New Year’s Eve party. This is the year, friends!

New Year’s Eve traditions are a big thing in my family. My parents have been ringing in new year after new year with the same friends for the last 30-plus years. There’s no longer a need for an invitation; my mom makes snacks, prepares hot dogs and kielbasa and sauerkraut in the crock pot, and her famous Slush drink (for adults only), and their friends come over. It’s a small, causal gathering, and it’s special because that’s the one time of the year they’re sure to see these friends.

When I was in college (and for years before), my aunt and uncle hosted New Year’s Eve, with my other aunt and uncle and a few of their close friends attending. Ryan and I joined them every year, sometimes with Ryan’s parents. Since my aunt also hosts a large Christmas Eve dinner and cooks a big Christmas dinner, after we purchased our home and had more space (and a child), Ryan suggested we host New Year’s Eve to give my aunt a break and also to be able to keep our son at home near his own bed on a night we’d be sure to be up late. After the first time, it became the new tradition, and one I look forward to all year long. Each year, I begin looking for menu ideas months in advance. This year, Ryan woke me up on Tuesday morning by delivering a cup of coffee to me in bed and and announcing, “It’s time, babe! This is the day you spend all year looking forward to!” He knows how much I love planning and hosting and entertaining in our home, and that cup of coffee was such a perfect way to start my day.

Preparing for this event is a science I’ve gotten down to a two-day process: day one is grocery shopping and preparing make-ahead recipes, and then setting the table. Day two is cleaning and last-minute food prep. I haven’t changed the dinner menu much in the past eight years: we have a traditional pork and sauerkraut dinner, with mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potato and apple casserole, mushroom casserole, and a couple of vegetables. I almost always serve green beans, and then the other veggie changes from year to year. This year, I realized a day later that I’d forgotten to cook the green beans. We’ve had brussels sprouts in various forms, roasted radishes…something a little different, usually whatever I can get my hands on that I can find a good recipe for. Where I play is with appetizers and desserts. I’ve served a pretty wide variety of different appetizers, and different desserts almost every year: stuffed potatoes, stuffed mushrooms, shrimp cocktail, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, raw veggie plate, meat and cheese plate…whatever I’m inspired by from Pinterest, cookbooks, magazines, and my mood. My aunt always brings her famous bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, which disappear really quickly.

This year’s menu utilized some tried-and-true favorites: Ina Garten’s Tomatoes Roasted With Pesto; Joanna Gaines’ recipe from her Magnolia Table cookbook for “Beck’s Crackers;” a selection of pepperoni and salami with Havarti, Gouda, and Colby cheeses; some olives and pickles; assorted crackers…and a new addition this year, Lobster Dip Crostini, from my David Venable cookbook, “In the Kitchen with David: Back around the Table.” (You may know David as the food guy on QVC. Those who grew up in the part of Pennsylvania I did may remember him from his days on the local TV network WTAJ

When I’m planning a menu, I try to find recipes that utilize similar ingredients so I’m not purchasing every single ingredient for every single separate recipe. First of all, it’s tedious; secondly, it can get expensive, if you can only purchase a large quantity of an ingredient you need a tablespoonful of for one recipe. A great example would be the tomatoes with pesto appetizer, even though pesto is not an expensive ingredient, it’s also not something we use regularly at our house. The little bit it takes to make the tomatoes leaves 3/4 of a jar to sit in my refrigerator and gets thrown out. So I found this recipe for pesto twists to use the remainder of the jar. It helps that the pesto twists also use fresh Parmesan, which I’d used on the tomatoes as well. I often add the twists to our appetizer menu, but this year I put them on the table as the bread to serve with our meal. A third reason to look for recipes using common ingredients is to cut down on the margin of error while grocery shopping for your event. Nobody likes getting home with bags of groceries and realized they forgot something; it’s so much worse when you’re under pressure and preparing for guests.

I like to prepare as much of our dinner the day before our party as I can. Much of what I serve can easily be done this way, and refrigerated overnight. The lobster dip was easily prepared ahead and kept well chilled until just before our guests arrived, and I toasted the crostini just before party time. The tomatoes are best made fresh, but they’re quick and easy and don’t require much cleanup.

Most of the dinner sides recipes I make ahead, including this apple and sweet potatoes dish; the apples compliment the pork nicely, and the sweetness of the dish is the perfect contrast to sauerkraut. The best part is that my boys fight over finishing the leftovers. This mushroom casserole has been a favorite in our family for years, takes only minutes to make ahead, and is perfect to reheat just before putting on the table as well. It’s rich, creamy, cheesy, with a bit of crunch from the toasted bread crumbs on top (don’t put those on until just before baking) and it’s super easy to make. Don’t be surprised if there’s none left; if you like mushrooms, this one is a star.

I mentioned I’ve used several different recipes for Brussels spouts. A lot of the time, my recipes take the direction of a certain ingredient I have on hand, or a flavor I know my family likes. One year, I roasted Brussels sprouts with some fingerling potatoes as a potato dish for two of my aunts who aren’t big fans of mashed potatoes. But the majority of the time, I find Brussels sprouts and bacon to be a wonderful pair. This year’s Brussels sprouts side was another Joanna Gaines recipe, this one using bacon (which most everyone loves), sugared pecans, and a balsamic glaze (one of our twins is a huge fan of balsamic). While my husband typically passes on Brussles sprouts, this year as the dish passed his plate, he commented, “I’m going to try some of these since my beautiful wife made them.” (When I asked if the same principle applied to testing the mushroom casserole, he politely declined. Can’t blame a girl for trying…)

The dinner table, New Year’s Eve 2019

In order to have enough room in the oven to finish heating all of the appetizers and side dishes, I always cook our boneless pork loin roast and couple of bags of sauerkraut in my electric roaster in the basement. Not only does this free up my oven, but it also keeps the sauerkraut smell from overpowering the other kitchen aromas. Ryan and the boys bought me a Ninja Foodi for Christmas, so some year I may cook the meat and sauerkraut in that, but until I’m confident in my use of a new appliance, I’d rather not ruin a meal when I’m hosting a group of our family and friends.

Finally, once we’ve gotten our fill of mixed drinks (I set up a mini bar on a kitchen counter, setting out glassware and providing several bottles of liquor and soda mixers, bottles of wine, and beer, plus ice and glasses, where guests can mix their own drinks and mingle with me as I put the finishing touches on appetizers and dinner) and appetizers, then dinner, we take a break to digest and then we start on dessert. I typically offer two different options: one is usually a cake or cake roll or cheesecake; the other is often something served in individual cups. I’ve served Bailey’s chocolate mousse, creme brulee, homemade ice cream… this year we enjoyed this Hershey’s Pot de Creme recipe. Traditional pot de creme has a custard base, but this is a fast, easy, four-ingredient alternative that provided the perfect sweet finish to our meal. The other dessert this year was Peppermint Bark Cookies and Cream Cheesecake, from the Philadelphia cream cheese recipe I’d seen in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. You really never can go wrong with cheesecake, and I dare you to argue with me about that.

And that, my friends, is our New Year’s Eve spread, in so many words and not so many photos, because…well, I’m nailing procedures but I still have some work to do at efficiency.

I hope your holidays were merry and bright, and surrounded by love, peace, and joy. Wishing you and yours all the best in this New Year…





Cheesecake. (You want a subtitle with that?)

Apparently, my husband talks about me at work.

I know this because he tells me.  And somehow, he manages to mostly tell them only good stuff, as far as I know, which is pretty awesome.  He has repeated conversations to me during the course of which he revealed his understanding of charger plates in dining table setting; another conversation, he told someone who asked about my career that I’m currently a “wonderful stay-at-home mom to our son.”  And most often, it seems, he talks about my recipes.  

In fact, he talks about my recipes so much that he came home with a request last week for my cheesecake recipes.  When I asked which ones he wanted, he replied, “oh, I don’t know…all of them?”  

Let me be clear: I adore cheesecake.  Ok, I adore all desserts, but cheesecake ranks in the top five of my favorite varieties.  And because of my love of cheesecake, I try to bake them myself as often as possible.  My traditional contribution to Thanksgiving with Ryan’s family is a cheesecake, and every year I present a new flavor.  I love to experiment.

The problem is that I’m terrible at them.  They always taste ok.  In fact, most often, they taste pretty darn good.  Just sayin’.  Unfortunately, though, they don’t always come out of the oven looking as amazing as they taste.  I have, in the last seven years, produced only one that didn’t have a crack down the middle.  Of course, that recipe required garnish that covered that amazing accomplishment, but I patted myself heavily on the back for the way it looked coming out of the oven. 

I’ve tried letting them come down to room temperature gradually by turning off the oven heat and letting them inside.  I’ve tried to not overbeat the eggs.  So far, nothing has worked.  However, I just found this website that has some amazing insider tricks, so it may be time to try again.  There’s an Oreo cookie cheesecake in one of my Taste of Home cookbooks that I’ve been dying to attempt.

My first stab at cheesecake actually started with Ryan.  He came home from work one day seven or eight years ago with a recipe printed on a piece of paper and asked if I could make it for him.  At the time, he was not much of a dessert eater, but he said this one sounded particularly appetizing.  We made.  We enjoyed.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Pumpkin swirl cheesecake is still on our list of favorites.

After I made that one, it sort of turned into a game to see what else I could pull off.  The next Thanksgiving, I brought a red velvet cheesecake to dinner.  This might be one of my personal favorites, because I’m a red velvet fanatic, and this is an incredibly rich and decadent cheesecake.

Having done a fair job with these, Ryan requested a New York-style cheesecake as a random mid-week dessert one summer.  I decided that Mr. Emeril Lagasse was probably a pretty good chef to consult, so we tried New York-style cheesecake with a fruit topping.  If I remember correctly, blackberries and raspberries were in season at the time so I used Emeril’s sauce recipes as a guide to cook the berries down with some liquor and sugar, then poured over the cheesecake slice-by-slice before serving (for those who aren’t huge fans of fruit).   

The following year, we tried caramel-peanut butter swirl cheesecake.  This one has become one of Ryan’s favorites with its combination of sweet and salty flavors.  I make it my own by substituting the store-bought caramel sauce with my homemade salted caramel sauce, then omit the salt called for in the cheesecake recipe.  

Two years ago, we sampled caramel apple brownie cheesecake.  The name is deceiving, because there’s no chocolate in it.  The crust is more “blondie” than “brownie,” but it’s one of those recipes that just sings “fall.”  

Last spring, when entertaining friends of ours, we tried Hershey’s Special Dark truffle brownie cheesecake.  This, my friends, is every bit as sinful as it sounds…and then some.  It may be one of the richest desserts I’ve ever made or tasted but it’s enough to make any bad day go away.  We made it again for New Year’s Eve this year, and it was a pretty big hit.

This past Thanksgiving, I found yet another sweet’n’salty combo to tickle Ryan’s palate: Cinderella cheesecake.  With a (chocolate) brownie crust, then more chocolate, and lots of peanut butter, this one became an instant winner as well.  

I’m excited for my list to grow to include many more of these recipes.  Right now, I’m craving something lighter to break out of comfort food mode.  Maybe a little fruity like berry or lemon…or something completely off-the-wall like lavender- which I’ve never eaten before, but because everything in my head is purple right now, it looks like it would taste like a fresh spring day.







A Little Like the Weather

There’s a saying in these parts that goes, “if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.  It’ll probably change.”  That’s the first thing I remember learning during my first week of college.  That’s the only thing I remember learning from that particular professor.  (This was a design “teacher” whose major contribution to my career was trying to pass off her hatred for Frank Lloyd Wright.  This obviously qualifies her as non-credible.)

Anyway, in the past few days, we’ve witnessed several of Mother Nature’s temper tantrums, which finally reached a crescendo this afternoon.  Last night, while trying to take in the season finale of American Idol, we saw one such display.  Of course, this interfered with the satellite signal, only after the ticker at the bottom of the screen informed us of severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings.  Of course.  While I pouted in front of the TV, begging it to restore Haley’s performance with Tony Bennett, Ryan (being the practical and level-headed one in this relationship) gathered flashlights and candles, and secured our access to the basement.  Just in case.  Meanwhile, Clohe cowered at our feet crying and whimpering and panting and generally freaking out.  Fortunately, after a good forty-five minutes of clapping thunder and a brilliant show of lightning flashes, the storm passed and satellite reception was restored for the announcement that Scotty McCreery is our new American Idol.  What a cutie.

I digress.

This afternoon, I decided I was hungry for chicken enchiladas.  I had found this recipe a couple of months ago and we really liked it, so I decided to make one minor modification and make it again.  One modification led to another, which led to the omission of the modification I made the last time.  This led to my poor husband very effectively needing a fire extinguisher for his poor oral cavity after the first bite.

Oops.  Guess my cooking’s a little like the weather.

Anyway, my modifications to the recipe ended up being: 1) Last time, I had bought a ready-cooked rotisserie chicken at the grocery store.  This time, I bought a raw whole chicken, and on Monday, I put it in the crockpot covered with olive oil and a little waster to shred for this week’s meals.  It worked pretty efficiently, and I plan to do this again (Hint: it’s less expensive to buy a whole chicken than it is to buy a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts- plus, you can freeze the broth for soup!  BONUS!)  Modification 2) Since chilis are hard to come by here, I substituted with a couple of jalapeños.  I sprayed my little cast-iron skilled with non-stick cooking spray, and moved those suckers outdoors to the grill on high heat for a few minutes so my smoke detectors would stay quiet during this experiment.  Modification 3) I forgot to remove the seeds from the peppers this time.  Last time, I scooped all the seeds out of the one pepper I used.  The end result was a bit mild, even for my wussy tastebuds, so I doubled the pepper-age this time to give it a bit more kick.  Mission accomplished.  We got more kick.  Finally, modification 4) was making my own flour tortillas.  This step, at least, was without incident.

Since Ryan had requested a cheesecake for dessert, so I chose an Emeril Lagassi recipe for New York Style cheesecake, and set to work, and it baked while I assembled the enchiladas.  It was a gorgeous afternoon, and I felt guilty spending my day in the kitchen when I should have been enjoying a good book on the front porch.  Just as I was finishing the enchiladas, I noticed that the sky had darkened and it looked as though a storm was on the way.  I grabbed my Kindle and headed for the living room to wait for Ryan while the Reggae channel played in the background.  I hadn’t read two pages before Ryan called, and urgently said, “Take Clohe and go to the basement.  Now.”  Without asking questions, I did what he said, taking only the dog and my cell phone with me.

A few minutes later, I started to worry when he wasn’t home yet.  If Clohe and I were going to play Dorothy and Toto and be launched into the Land of Oz and sing with the munchkins, I didn’t want to go without one last kiss.  Besides, I still have this irrational fear of the Wicked Witch; I wouldn’t want to face her without my husband by my side.  So I called to see where he was, and where the storm was.  Fortunately, he wasn’t in danger, and when he got home we came up to see what was going on; the tornado that had been sighted about 15 miles from our house didn’t get to us, thank goodness.  The clouds were still dark and heavy, but they were obviously moving around us.

As I surfaced to finish what I had started (AKA, dinner), I watched the most amusing of weather transitions.  The sky changed from dark, to slightly less dark.  Then, as I looked out the kitchen window above the sink, I watched rain approach my house, starting in the field across the street.  The drops started out light, then increased in size until I began to wonder if it was hail.  As it got closer (if you have never watched a storm come directly toward you, it’s something to behold!) I realized that it was just very large drops of rain.  Which lasted for a total of about two minutes.  Seriously, my oven had not even preheated from the time it started until the time it quit.  And by the time we sat down to our dinner, the sun was shining again.

It was beautiful when I finished cleaning up the dishes, so we decided to take  Clohe for a walk.  We got our loop in, observed some wildlife including ducks, several rabbits, and one very unruly little dog that nearly attacked my 65-pound ball of love’n’fuzz.  By the time we arrived home, we were under yet another severe weather warning, this time for a very destructive thunderstorm.  As I blog, the leaves on the trees are blowing in all different directions and the thunder is rumbling overhead.  Clohe, of course, is cowered at our feet crying and whimpering and panting and generally freaking out.

But fear not friends, because I assure you that by the time you read this, it will all have passed and we’ll be prepared for the next one.

At least we have some leftover enchiladas and a cheesecake, so we won’t starve!  And in the meantime, maybe I’ll be able to make my next meal a successful one…