Zov’s Pastry Chef Shares Secrets to Gorgeous Flow Icing Topped Cut-Out Easter Cookies

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Whimsy teams with artistry atop Michelle Bracken’s decorated cutout cookies.

Themed to holidays, these impressive treats have become a kind of edible calendar for patrons at Zov’s Bistro and Bakery in Tustin, where Bracken is the longtime executive pastry chef. Valentine’s Day through Christmas, these glamorous goodies represent symbols of the season.

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For me, my favorites are her Easter cookies: chicks, bunnies and eggs, even stunning carrots.

A bed of flow icing forms a canvas atop each cookie, the super-smooth surface adorned with colorful details – eyes, ears, flowers, swirls and pinstripes, plus the occasional dusting of sparkly sanding sugar.

Watch the video and pay close attention to the icing’s consistency.

Royal Icing
Yield: about 2 cups
4 eggs whites or 4 ounces, see cook’s notes
4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Additional powdered sugar and egg whites to adjust consistency
For decorating: dyes, plastic or parchment paper pastry bags and tips, lots of small bowls or containers, sanding sugar
Cook’s notes: If you prefer to use pasteurized egg whites, Bracken suggests using Organic Valley Brand (Whole Foods and Sprouts). If piping polka dots on cookies, do so while flow icing is still wet.
1. Place egg whites, powdered sugar and juice in large bowl of electric stand mixer. Disconnect whisk attachment and use to mix ingredients by hand. When thoroughly combined, place on machine and mix on medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape down sides and bottom; increase speed to medium-high; beat 1 to 2 more minutes. Remove whisk attachment and lift it up. A trail of 3 to 4 inches of icing should stay in place when you lift the whisk attachment above the bowl. At this firmer consistency, the icing is used to outline the top edge of each cookie (this is a little wall to corral the flow icing). If making bunnies and chicks, for example, put a small amount of white in a pastry bag fitted with a small plain tip and put another small amount in a bowl and stir in yellow dye (a little dye goes a long way, so just use a smidgen) – stir to combine a place in a second pastry bag fitted with a small plain tip. Thinly outline the cookies; dry. Don’t leave icing uncovered; cover with damp cloth or plastic wrap.
2. Create flow icing. A more liquid consistency is required for the flow icing. In small bowls of royal icing, dyed to desired colors (in this example, one left white, one yellow), add 1 teaspoon of egg white at a time, stirring between additions just enough to combine (don’t overmix), until mixture is a little thicker than thick whipping cream. Place in piping bag(s) fitted with medium-small plain tip (or simply cut off end) and pipe onto cookies starting next to outline, using a tight 1/2-inch long zigzag motion until all of cookie surface is filled inside the outline. Prick any bubbles that appear on the surface with the tip of the pastry bag, using an up and down motion. Or use the tip of a paring knife or a clean finger. Set aside to dry (see cook’s notes). It is best to do up to this point 24 hours in advance to thoroughly dry icing.
3. Place some icing (original, not flow consistency) in several bowls. Dye each a different color, such as black for eyes, green for leaves, orange for beaks and flowers, blue for flowers. If icing needs to be thicker, stir in a little powdered sugar. For flowers use a small fluted tip. When the flow icing is dry, decorate as desired. If you want to add sanding sugar, sprinkle it on when decorated elements are wet and shake off excess. Set aside to thoroughly dry. Cookies can be stored airtight for 3 days.
Source: Michelle Bracken, executive pastry chef, Zov’s Bistro and Bakery, Tustin

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Chef Ross Pangilinan Spreads His Wings – Departs Leatherby’s For His Own Mix Mix

Orange Coast Magazine’s restaurant critic Gretchen Kurz just named Mix Mix Kitchen Bar as “Restaurant of the Year.”

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Vision, talent and guts. That’s what it takes for a chef to leave a much respected restaurant to plunge into the hazardous waters of restaurant ownership.  Count award-winning Chef Ross Pangilinan as one of those brave owners.

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In December he opened Mix Mix Kitchen Bar, a globally inspired restaurant and bar in Downtown Santa Ana (in the location previously occupied by Little Sparrow). The restaurant’s name, Mix Mix, pays tribute to halo-halo, the ice cold Filipino dessert that is “mixed;” the two “M’s” honor his children, Madeleine and Maddex.

He smiled when I asked why he wanted to own his own restaurant, his mahogany-hued eyes narrowing a bit, his hands peacefully at rest on the table.

“I wanted a new challenge,” he explained. “I knew it was time for me to either do my own thing, or stay (at Leatherby’s) for the next twenty years.

“I knew it would mean less time for my family, but I’m making the best of my time off. Sunday we are only open for brunch, and Mondays we are closed.”

Read more of my story about Chef Pangilinan and his Mix Mix Kitchen Bar: http://www.orangecoast.com/cathy-thomas-friends/chef-ross-pangilinan-leaves-leatherbys-open-mix-mix/

Spot-On Dishes

Eat in the dining room, or dine in the bar. There are snacks, small plates, entrees and desserts.  Order a la carte or choose one of the three options for prix fixe menus. The cuisine is so scrumptious – it is tempting to repeat the same dishes on subsequent visits. But try them all.

Here is a sample:

Organic Trumpet Mushrooms: Small trumpet mushrooms tossed with oil are cooked to perfection in a perforated pan sat atop a hot grill. The holes in the pan help to sear the little darlings without making them greasy. Topped with herbaceous gremolata made with chives, garlic, parsley, lemon juice and chili flakes yields a lovely brightness.

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(These mushrooms are so delicious! And easy enough to make at home. Scroll down for recipe.)

Filipino Ceviche: It’s the cane vinegar and coconut lime dressing that give this dish Filipino roots. It’s gorgeous on the plate and the palate. Yellow fin tuna pairs with avocado, pork cracklings and Thai chili.

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Soft Egg Raviolo: The inspiration for this delectable dish harkens back to his time in the Patina kitchen. This large disk of stuffed black pepper pasta showcases herbed ricotta, guanciale (luscious cured hog cheek or jowl), Parmesan and brown butter. And of course, a soft-cooked egg.

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Tropical Verrine: A twist on the Filipino halo- halo, the coconut panna cotta base is topped with an irresistible crown of passion fruit gelée, candied kumquat slices, lychees, mango, pineapple, and macadamias. Divine.

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Mix Mix Kitchen Bar is at 300 North Main Street in Santa Ana. 714-836-5158

Trumpet Mushrooms with Gremolata
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
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2 (8-ounce) packs of Baby Trumpet Mushrooms (available in Asian markets – see photo)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse salt and pepper

Gremolata:

2 bunches Italian parsley
1 tablespoons minced garlic
2 lemons –  juice and finely minced zest
2 limes –  juice and finely minced zest
Finely minced zest of 2 oranges
1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
1. Toss mushrooms with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Saute 4 to 5 minutes, or caramelized and tender. Chef’s tip: He cooks the mushrooms in a perforated hotel pan over grill.
2. Prepare gremolata. Remove leaves from parsley and finely chop leaves. Combine chopped parsley leaves with garlic, zests and chili flakes. Stir in olive oil. Salt to taste.
3. Toss hot mushrooms with enough gremolata to generously coat; serve.

Source: Ross Pangilinan, executive chef-owner Mix Mix Kitchen Bar

 

 

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My La La Land Escapades

When I was attending college in Los Angeles, downtown L.A. was a ghost town after dark or on weekends. Needless to say, that was a long time ago.

A recent weekend spent downtown, gave me a new perspective. It was a tease – a little three-day taste of delicious fun and thought-provoking sites. The city bustles with activity fed by condos filled with city dwellers. Restaurants, bars and stores (including a gorgeous Whole Foods) are mushrooming.

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Along will pals Marcia Kay and Ron, we checked into the beautiful Omni Los Angeles Hotel. Located on Bunker Hill (Olive Street), this sleek hotel is steps away from The Broad and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

We started with lunch at Otium, the restaurant right next to the Broad where French Laundry vet, Chef Timothy Hollingsworth, is in charge. We had tickets for The Broad later in the afternoon, so we had plenty of time to relish each scrumptious bite.

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Otium favorites: Crispy Potatoes with Lemon Salt, Aleppo Pepper and Creme Fraiche (to die for spuds) + Rigatoni with Guanciale, Smoked Pecorino, Snap Peas and Tellicherry Pepper + Roast Chicken with Potatoes (yes more potatoes), Onion, Shishito Chilies and Aji Verde.

We loved our time at The Broad. Over the last forty years, the Broads have built one of the most prominent collections of postwar and contemporary art worldwide. Spending time ogling modern art is of special interest to my husband Phil, who was commissioned in the 70’s and 80’s to precision machine sculptures from artists Roy Lichtenstein,  Joseph and Anni Albers, and  Alexander Calder. Through his work, he got to know the artists and treasures those memories.

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An architectural walking tour offered by the Lost Angeles Conservancy proved to be a delight. Who knew there were so many gorgeous old downtown buildings?

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We learned about Beaux-Arts architecture (first quarter of 20th century), as well as Art Deco (popular in the 1920’s). Of course we explored the Los Angeles Central Library and the Bradbury Building, and Angels Flight. My favorite was the PacMutual Center on 6th Street.  (www.info@laconservancy.org)

The PacMutual Building is a fine example of Beaux-Arts ideals. It has imposing exterior columns and an oh-so-grand marble lobby (Los Angeles’ Water Grill Restaurant is here.)

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Lunch at Clifton’s Cafeteria was a hoot. The Clinton family’s five generations as California restaurateurs began when David Harrison Clinton came to Los Angeles from Missouri in 1888 and purchased the Southern Hotel and its dining room in downtown Los Angeles.

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The setting is truly unique, with waterfalls, bridges, a chapel, foliage and taxidermy. We had cocktails, followed by turkey pot pies.

Here’s a Clifton’s Cafeteria postcard from the 1040’s …

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Dinner at Church & State was a treat. It’s an inviting French bistro located on the ground floor of the original NABISCO bakery and offices built in 1925.  This busy eatery is in the Arts District and offers irresistible French bistro fare (delicious bone marrow, steak frites, and pork belly – salads, soups and ooh-la-la desserts).   

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I had the steak frites. Delicious. But first, an irresistible endive and green apple salad.

 

 

Sunday Brunch at Bottega Louie. This not-to-be-missed experience makes you feel like you are in at the best patisserie in Paris.

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We arrived as they opened in the morning and were filling the cases with just-baked breads, tarts, cakes, viennoiserie, macarons and cookies. I couldn’t resist – even though I ate the Eggs Benedict served with smoked salmon instead of Canadian bacon … I bought some almond croissants to go!LaBottegaLouieCaseYes

We also explored Olvera Street and Union Station, visits that brought back childhood memories. We’re looking forward to a future adventure in La La Land.  There is much left to explore.

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Chef Yvon Goetz’ Not-Your-Mama’s Braised Short Rib Hash

I bet this isn’t your mama’s hash. Certainly not my mom’s hodgepodge of leftovers and pragmatic whatnots, an impromptu mix of last night’s meat scraps and vegetables from the bin.

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French-born Executive Chef Yvon Goetz creates a hash of an entirely different sort. Served as a brunch entrée at The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar on the waterfront in Newport Beach, Goetz’ well-planned hash boasts flavors that are perfectly balanced, as well as a mingling of textures that make for welcome contrasts.

WATCH THE VIDEO: His Zinfandel braised beef short ribs are cooked classically – long, slow, moist heat yields them alluringly tender. They team with fingerling potatoes, wild mushrooms, grilled asparagus and fresh herbs. Napping each element is the reduced and strained braising juice. The finale is the addition of a sunny-side up egg. Superb.

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Sunday Brunch is served from 11AM to 2 PM at The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar in Newport Beach, 3131 West Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach. Reservations recommended. 949-999-6622. Also try the Crème Brulee French Toast.

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Chef’s loves the shape of a tourne knife. The blade is curved like a bird’s beak. In French kitchens it is used for “tourneeing” root vegetables (skillfully making them into little football shapes). The knife is great for peeling vegetables and fruit.

Want to know more about Chef Yvon? Or see other stories that I have written about OC restaurants? Go to the Orange Coast Magazine’s Website  http://www.orangecoast.com/cathy-thomas-friends/

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Zinfandel Braised Short Ribs, Wild Mushroom & Fingerling Potato Hash
Yield: 8 servings
4 (14-ounce) beef short ribs (bone-in or a smaller amount of boneless meat)
Coarse salt and ground pepper to taste
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon oil (canola combined with olive oil)
1 cup large onion, peeled and diced
1/4 cup (white and light green portion) leeks, diced
1 cup peeled and diced carrots or cut into 3/4-inch chunks
2 stalks celery, diced or cut into 3/4-inch chunks
5 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bottle Zinfandel or other full-bodied red wine
1 quart veal stock (sodium-reduced beef broth can be substituted)
1 teaspoon black peppercorn, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
Hash Assembly:
16 ounces cooked short ribs
1 cup stained and reduced braising liquid, plus more if needed
1 bunch green asparagus, grilled or roasted, cut into 1-inch pieces, plus more left whole for garnish
2 cups chopped mixed wild mushrooms ( or sliced button mushrooms), sautéed in butter, garlic, salt and pepper
2 cups fingerling potatoes, oven roasted with little oil, salt and pepper, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
About 3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
Canola oil
8 large eggs, fried sunny-side up
1. Braising Meat: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Season meat with salt, pepper; dust with flour, shaking off the excess. Heat oil in large skillet on medium high heat and sear the short ribs, turning as needed to deeply brown each side. Remove meat. Reduce heat to medium; add onion, leeks, carrots, celery and garlic in the remaining oil and cook about 4 minutes, tossing as needed. Add the tomato paste and toss to coat; cook about 1 minute and add wine. Turn heat to high and reduce in volume by 1/2 to 2/3. Add veal stock (or broth) and bring to boil; add black peppercorns, bay leaf, bay leaf and thyme. Place meat in ovenproof casserole. Pour the red wine mixture over meat. Cover and cook in preheated oven for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until meat is very tender. When cooked, remove the meat from the stock, strain the stock in a fine mesh strainer and reduce on medium-high heat until syrupy.
2. Cut meat into bite-sized cubes and heat up in the braising liquid in a saucepan. In a large deep skillet, heat asparagus (put garnish aside), mushrooms and potatoes in butter. Season with salt and pepper. Add meat mixture and chopped chives. Make sure the mixture is not too dry. Transfer servings to shallow bowls or small individual cast iron skillets. Top each with one or two fried eggs and if desired, two asparagus spears. The dish can be served with a side salad if desired.

 

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Start the Party: Glamorous, Luscious, Easy Appetizer

Five minutes and you have starters that are as delicious as they are glamorous. These beauties are lavash (bought at Trader Joe’s) spread with cream cheese and rolled around watercress (or arugula) and pickled ginger. EASY.

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Got 5 minutes?

(Thanks to videographer Curt Norris for taping and editing this quickie video!)

Ginger Roll-Ups
Yield: 16 servings
One (8-ounce) plus one (3-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature
2 (9-by-12-inch) sheets of lavash, see cook’s notes
2 1/2 cups baby arugula or 1 large bunch watercress (large stems removed, washed, patted dry)
One (8-ounce) jar pink pickled ginger, liquid squeezed out, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: Lavash is soft, thin flatbread; it’s sold at some supermarkets, Trader Joe’s and Middle Eastern markets. It should be pliable enough to roll, but if it isn’t you can moisten it with a damp paper towel. Pink pickled ginger is sold in many supermarkets in jars, either in the refrigerated deli close to the wonton skins, or in the sushi section.
1. Place cream cheese in food processor; whirl until soft. Spread cream cheese on one side of each lavash. Place leaves in a single layer on top; cover with pickled ginger. Starting from long side, roll each into a long roll (if it cracks don’t worry, just keep rolling). Trim each end.
Do-Ahead: Wrap each roll in a dampened paper towel (slightly moist, not wet). Refrigerate up to 3 hours in plastic bag or airtight container. Cut crosswise into 1 1/4-inch pieces. Place cut-side down to display spiral design created by ingredients.

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Best Appetizer: Bombay Spread!

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Six-Layer Bombay Cheese
Yield: about 30 servings
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
Garnishes:
1/2 cup mango chutney
2 tablespoons unsweetened flaked coconut
1/4 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped, see cook’s notes
1 tablespoon finely chopped green onions (include dark green stalks)
1 1/2 tablespoons dried cranberries
For serving: water crackers and apple wedges, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: To toast nuts, place in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Place in 350-degree oven until nicely browned, about 4 to 5 minutes. Watch nuts carefully because they burn easily. Cool.
To prevent apples from discoloring, place apple wedges in a bowl of cold water augmented with a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. Allow apples to soak for a minute, then drain on clean kitchen towel.
1. Combine cream cheese, grated cheddar and curry powder in food processor fitted with metal blade. Whirl until smooth. Shape into ball or disc; wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm. Can be prepared to this point two days in advance of serving.
2. Unwrap cheese and place on serving tray. Dump garnishes on top of cheese ball, starting with the chutney and ending with the cranberries. (I garnished the top with a chive flower from my garden.) I like to assemble the spread in a shallow bowl, and then set the bowl on a larger platter to hold the crackers and apple slices.
Source: Jane Packer

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Brunch at The Loft: Upscale Irresistability

On a recent Sunday, I dropped in for brunch at The Loft at Montage Laguna Beach. Although I was initially focused on the splendor of the Pacific coastline, it wasn’t long before it was the dishes that had my attention.

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With plenty to choose from, the menu offered a pleasing balance of updated traditional dishes and lively surprises. Their Blood Orange Mimosa, a mix of Piper Sonoma Sparkling Wine, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur and blood orange, got me off to an inspiring start, its lovely garnish a see-through slice of candied orange.

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Brunch began with an amuse bouche of sugar-dusted banana bread.

Lush and moist – full of ripe banana flavor – this small square of banana bread fired my engines. Not bread-like, it’s texture is more of a cross between a quick bread and a cake. Dark brown sugar gives it a perfect edge of molasses (yes, the difference between light and dark brown sugar is the amount of molasses).  Delicious.

The Loft’s Banana Bread recipe follows, but to see more of the luscious brunch dishes and hear Chef Campbell describe the details, read my story on Orange Coast Magazine’s Website.

Michael Campbell Makes Brunch Soar at The Loft at Montage

Or, to see Yvon Goetz (executive chef-partner at The Winery) prepares his delicious short rib hash for brunch at The Winery Newport, click here

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The Loft’s Banana Bread
A small square is served, dusted with powdered sugar, as a Brunch amuse bouche.
Yield: One 13-by-18-inch “cake.” Amount of servings depends on how big or small you want to cut the pieces.

When testing this recipe, I first made it in a Pyrex 9-by-13-inch baking pan. It made pieces that were almost three times thicker than the one I had at The Loft. I baked the bejeebers out if it, 45 minutes – but when cut, the center-of-the-pan pieces weren’t the right consistency. I remembered that the cake (bread) wasn’t thick, so I tried another batch baked in a half sheet pan (18-by-13-by-1-inches). Bingo! I was concerned during the first 10 minutes of baking that it was going to overflow, but it didn’t thank goodness. But a word of advice here; sometimes half sheet pans are fractionally smaller than this. If yours is slightly smaller (to avoid overflow), consider taking out 1/4 cup of batter – use it to make yourself a tasty pancake.

1 stick (1/4 pound) butter
4 over-ripe bananas
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups buttermilk
Optional garnish: powdered sugar
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a half sheet pan (18-by-13-by-1-inches) with butter.
2. Melt butter; set aside. Puree bananas until smooth in a food processor; set aside.
3. In a large bowl, add flour, brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Thoroughly mix until evenly incorporated. Set aside.
4. In a separate large bowl, combine melted butter, bananas, eggs, vanilla and buttermilk. Whisk until well combined. Add egg mixture to dry ingredients and stir to combine; do NOT over-mix – batter may be slightly lumpy. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 29 minutes; a toothpick inserted in center should come out clean. Cool in pan on rack. Cut into serving pieces. If desired, dust with powdered sugar. Or if serving as a dessert, accompany with whipped cream and sliced bananas.
Source: adapted from The Loft, Montage Laguna Beach
Brunch is served every Saturday and Sunday.

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Roasted Pears – Easy Pizzazz on the Plate

Good Tidings of Comfort and Joy, my friends.

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Savory OR Sweet! With meat or as dessert …

I’m always looking for easy ways to create palate joy on the plate.

But … without creating much work. Roasted Pears are so easy to prepare and armed with spices to make them perky. Cinnamon and cloves + lemon juice and sugar. Ripe pears are buttery, melt-in-your-mouth perfection.

Use them as a side-dish with roast or grilled pork, chicken dishes or game.

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Serve them atop green salad or grain salad.

Use them as dessert accompanied with crisp cookies or a good dollop of whipped cream and crushed English Toffee (such as Almond Roca).

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OR …

 

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Or top with some hot fudge sauce and toasted nuts or shaved roasted coconut.

 

RIPEN PEARS: They are usually sold rock hard; so you have to plan ahead and allow them time to ripen at home. The easiest way is the brown bag method. Enclose them loosely in a brown bag; check them every day. When ripe they will give to gentle pressure next to the stem. Once ripe, they can be refrigerated 3 to 6 days.

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Roasted Pears
Yield: 4 halves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided use
2 ripe pears, such as Bosc, Bartlett, D’Anjou or Comice, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, cored with melon baller (see video, or if you prefer, leave them uncored, they are good that way, too)
Procedure:
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, stir together juice, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. Set aside.
2. Coat a medium-sized rimmed baking sheet (nonstick preferred) with half of the vegetable oil. Toss pear halves in juice-spice mixture and place cut-side down on prepare baking sheet. Drizzle remaining oil on top. Roast until caramelized on bottom and tender, about 35 to 45 minutes (roasting times will vary depending on ripeness and size of pears). Remove from oven and allow to cool. Serve at room temperature.

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You can also roast them un-cored … and let your guests eat around the seeds …

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Babette’s Twist on Cauliflower Soup: Vegan But Fabulous

Babette’s Truffled Cauliflower Almond Soup

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The ingredient list puzzled me. I’ve made hundreds of pureed soups, showcasing everything from asparagus to zucchini, most often including dairy products (cream, yogurt or milk) to achieve lush texture and taste.


Cooking with Zach Layton, executive chef-owner of Babette’s in Newport Coast, opened my eyes to a vegan approach.

His Truffled Cauliflower Almond Soup won me over. Quickly cooked without much fuss and then processed until smooth in a high-speed blender, the almonds complemented the vegetables lending both subtle nuttiness and an alluring silky mouthfeel.

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The garnish, a drizzle of truffle oil plus a generous pinch of toasted sliced almonds, offered just-right aromatic components to enhance the dish. Nix the dairy.

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Babette’s Truffled Cauliflower Almond Soup
Yield: 4 to 6 (generous) servings
1 to 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 large brown onion, coarsely chopped
2 1/2 cups sliced almonds, divided use
1 large cauliflower, trimmed, cut into florets
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Water
Salt to taste
Garnish: truffle oil to taste
1. Place oil in a soup pot or Dutch oven on medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally (do not brown).
2. Meanwhile toast almonds until lightly browned in a small dry skillet on low heat, stirring occasionally; watch carefully because nuts burn easily. Coarsely chop cauliflower florets; add cauliflower to onions and toss to combine. Add toasted almonds (reserving about 1/4 cup to use as garnish) and thyme leaves; toss to combine. Add water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil on high heat; reduce heat to medium or medium-low and simmer until cauliflower is tender but not mushy, about 10 to 12 minutes.
3. Puree in batches in blender (high-speed blender works best) or food processor, adding salt to taste in the process. Pour into bowls. Garnish each serving with a small drizzle of truffle oil and reserved toasted almonds.
Source: Zach Layton, executive chef Babette’s, Newport Coast

Babette’s, Crystal Cove Shopping Center, 7962 East Coast Hwy, Newport Coast, 949-715-9915

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Make Limoncello Now: Perfect Gift From Your Kitchen

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Homemade goodies seem to capture the spirit of the holidays in a way no store-bought treasure can. Create homemade liqueurs and then sit back and enjoy the pleasure that those soul-warming libations bring as gifts.

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Homemade liqueurs don’t take a lot of prep time. However, they do require advance planning and patience during the aging period.

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All fruits carry bacteria that can potentially spoil the liqueur. This potential hazard only exists when you opt to leave the fruit in the liqueur rather than straining it out.

To prevent spoilage with “fruit-in” liqueurs, make sure the spirit you select is at least 40 percent alcohol — a concentration strong enough to kill the bacteria. After a month or so, the liqueurs can be strained and poured into bottles, decanters or snazzy jars.

My favorite is limoncello, an Italian-inspired liqueur made from fresh lemons, liquor and simple sugar syrup. It has become very popular over the past several years and can be used in baked goods and as a cocktail ingredient.

But it is most often served ice cold right from the freezer, poured into small glasses.

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Limoncello (3 1/2 pints)
14 lemons
4 cups grain alcohol or high-proof vodka (40 percent alcohol)
3 cups simple syrup, see cook’s notes

Cook’s notes: For simple syrup – combine 2 ½ cups water and 3 cups granulated sugar in medium saucepan. Stirring occasionally, bring mixture to boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat; simmer about 3 minutes. Cool.

  1. Wash, dry and peel lemons, using a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler to cut wide strips without much pith. Put peels in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid. (Juice leftover lemons to use in drinks or in cooking – you can freeze it.)
  2. Add grain alcohol or high-proof vodka and seal. Place in cool, dry spot away from sunlight. Let sit for 2 weeks.
  3. Add simple syrup; stir and reseal. Return to its spot. Let sit 2 more weeks.
  4. Strain liqueur through a double layer of cheesecloth into a pitcher or other easy-pouring vessel. Strain again through two new layers of cheesecloth into one large bottle or a number of small bottles or jars.cathythomascookslogoModified*************************
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