Foodbuzz 24x24: Nighttime Fantasy Brunch

"We take eighteen ounces of sizzling ground beef, and soak it in rich, creamery butter. Then, we top it off with bacon, ham, and a fried egg. We call it 'The Good Morning Burger.'"
--The Simpsons

I had this quote in mind when I began forming the idea for my "Nighttime Fantasy Brunch." I wanted foods that were over the top--fatty and sinfully rich. I wanted foods that your heart swells for when you go out for breakfast, but your conscience says to avoid. I wanted foods that appealed to the Id and the child in all of us.

My proposal for Foodbuzz's January 24x24 was to create the ultimate fantasy brunch, full of naughty foods you would dream to eat. To throw it over the top, I made it pajamas-optional for my guests, and showed discs of The Simpsons all night long. It was deliciously casual fun.

But what sets this apart from other dinner parties?

I recently got to thinking about my favorite charity, Camp Heartland. Have you heard of this? They are a summer camp for children with HIV/AIDS. Is there anything more heartwarming? In the spirit of Camp Heartland, which makes children with extraordinarily difficult lives feel like they're living in a normal kid's fantasy, I am made this breakfast-for-dinner themed meal. I decided to donate the majority of my $250 stipend from Foodbuzz to Camp Heartland after the meal, and also encouraged my guests to donate whatever they felt they "would pay for this meal in a restaurant."

Due to Foodbuzz granting me with this wonderful opportunity for a second time, and my extraordinarily generous guests, I will be sending a donation of $266 to Camp Heartland.

It should be noted that my coworker Kathy's 9-year-old daughter, Erin, sent along a $1 donation in this totally amazing homemade envelope. Are you tearing up yet?

So, what was on the docket for this fantasy brunch, you might wonder?

-Bloody Marys and Mimosas
-Baked Eggs with Kale, Tomatoes, and Goat Cheese
-Caramelized Bacon
-Cheddar-Garlic Biscuits
-Gingerbread Croissant French Toast with Homemade Lemon Curd
-Berry Parfaits with Orange Curacao Whipped Cream

I don't know about you, but my heart seized just reading that.

Bloody Mary (from Over the Hill and on a Roll--whose recipe I intended to make, but didn't get a chance to. Kathy brought over a jug of her amazing Bloody Mary mix. BUT, I believe that what Kathy made would be quite similar to this recipe.)
-1 quart tomato juice
-2 1/2 cups vodka
-1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon horseradish
-1/4 cup + tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
-1 teaspoon tabasco
-1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons lime juice
-1/4 teaspoon celery salt
-1 teaspoon grated fresh onion
**I know Kathy added some dijon mustard to hers, too, for a bit of extra kick!


1. Mix all ingredients together in a large pitcher and pour over ice in a cocktail glass. Add a stick of celery, olives, dilled green beans, and/or pickles to garnish.

-Makes 8-10 cocktails

Bloody Mary taste testers, Greg and Kathy.

Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits (modified slightly from Barefoot Contessa)
-2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
-1 tablespoon baking powder
-1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
-1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
-1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
-12 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, diced
-1/2 cup cold buttermilk, shaken
-1 cold extra-large egg
-1 cup extra-sharp cheddar, grated
-1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon milk or water
-Sea salt to garnish

1. Preheat oven to 425.

2. Place 2 cups flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, and garlic powder in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. With mixer on low, add the butter and mix until butter is the size of peas.

3. Combine buttermilk and egg in a small bowl, and beat lightly with a fork. With the mixer still on low, quickly add the buttermilk until just moistened. Mix cheddar and a small handful of flour together in a separate bowl, then add to the dough with mixer still on low. Mix until just combined.

4. Dump dough onto a well-floured cutting board and knead lightly, about 6 times. Roll the dough out to a 10x5" rectangle. With a sharp, floured knife, cut the dough lengthwise in half, then across in quarters, making 8-10 rectangles. Transfer to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silpat mat. Brush the tops with the egg wash and sprinkle with salt. Bake 20-25 minutes, or until browned on top. Serve hot or warm.

-Makes 8-10 generously sized biscuits

Verdict: Before last night, I'd never made biscuits before in my life. I *love* buttermilk biscuits, but I found them vaguely terrifying. What if they were too dry or not flaky enough? Well, let me lay all similar fears out there to rest. THIS is your biscuit recipe. They are tender, flaky, a little crunchy, and totally delectable. I honestly think this was the crowd favorite all night long. That really says something.

Baked Eggs (method from
-8 large eggs
-8 teaspoons heavy cream
-1 large tomato, seeded and diced
-1-2 tablespoons olive oil
-Approximately 1 head kale, leaves only, roughly chopped
-About 3 ounces soft goat cheese (or crumbles)
-Salt, Pepper, and Garlic Powder for sprinkling
-Unsalted butter to grease the dish

1. Preheat oven to 375.

2. Heat olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. When hot, add freshly washed kale to pan and wilt. Remove from heat.

3. Grease a ramekin or custard cups with butter. Divide kale evenly among the cups. Crumble a bit of goat cheese on top of the kale. Crack 1 egg into each dish. Add chopped tomatoes, drizzle a bit of cream on top, season lightly with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Top it off with a few more crumbles of goat cheese.

4. Bake in the oven tor 13-15 minutes, or until set. Serve hot.

-Serves 8
Verdict: Well, I overbaked mine a bit. One actually looked like a hard boiled egg's center! Whoops. So, as long as your eggs are still jiggly and not hard to the touch, you're good. :) This was a super tasty dish. It looks impressive and fancy to guests, but it's certainly not difficult. It's a keeper!

Caramelized Bacon (from Allrecipes)
-1 pound sliced bacon
-1/2 cup packed brown sugar
-2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. Cut each bacon strip in half widthwise. Combine brown sugar and cinnamon in a shallow plate or bowl. Dip bacon strips in the mixture and twist. Place on a broiler pan.

2. Bake at 375 for about 15-20 minutes, or until as crispy as you like your bacon. Serve hot or cool/freeze in an air-tight container for up to 1 month.

Verdict: This was the OTHER crowd pleaser. As I was snapping admittedly crappy photos of the bacon, there were many groans of utter joy coming from the living room. Caramelized bacon is something everyone should have in their life.

Gingerbread Croissant French Toast with Lemon Curd (partially from me, Pepperidge Farm, and Epicurious)
For the French Toast:
-1 1/2 cups milk
-3 eggs
-1/2 cup sugar
-1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
-1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
-1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
-1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
-8 slightly stale croissants

1. Beat the milk, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg together in a bowl with a fork.

2. Heat a griddle to 350 degrees. Once hot, dredge the croissants in the milk mixture and place on the griddle. Cook until browned on each side. You may want to press the croissants firmly with your spatula to get more even browning.

3. Serve hot with fresh lemon curd.

For the lemon curd:
-1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (NOT from the bottle!!)
-2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
-1/2 cup sugar
-3 large eggs
-3/4 stick unsalted butter, cut into bits

1. Whisk together juice, zest, sugar, and eggs in a double boiler over simmering water. Stir in butter and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of the whisk and first bubbles appear on surface (about 6 minutes).

2. Transfer lemon curd to a bowl and chill, covered with plastic wrap, until cold, at least 1 hour.

-Makes 1 1/3 cups.

Verdict: Amazing. Lemon curd is truly a thing of beauty. While the croissant french toast was good and all (kind of like a flaky sugar gingerbread donut), the lemon curd is what really made it shine. A tip for you: If you're like me (that is, totally incompetent at making custard) and end up with scrambled egg bits in your curd no matter what precautions you take, you can strain them out! Use a mesh sieve and pour a bit of the finished product in at a time. Use a spoon to tap the curd into the receiving bowl. It takes a while, but you won't have egg bits in your curd. :)

Berry Parfaits with Orange Curacao Whipped Cream (from me!)
-Approximately 3-4 cups mixed berries (it's really up to you to decide how many berries you want)
-1 pint heavy cream
-1/4 cup sugar
-2 tablespoons orange curacao

1. Put cream, sugar, and orange curacao in a frozen stand mixer bowl fitted with a balloon whisk attachment. On speed 4-5, whip until desired consistency, about 5 minutes.

2. Assemble parfaits as whipped cream, fruit, cream, and a garnishing fruit piece.

Verdict: Delicious, delicate, and the epitome of 'dessert for breakfast.' This was an excellent accompaniment to the french toast!

When all was said and done, we had a great and gastronomically delightful evening! Here are some of my guests, discussing the finer points of The Simpsons. :)

Thanks to Foodbuzz for allowing such a wonderful evening take place!

Vegetarian Carbonara


A much less boring name for this would be "The Packers Are Going to the Super Bowl Victory Pasta!" Woooooo!

Still jazzed up (and a little tipsy) from watching the nervewracking NFC Championship game, I made up this celebratory vegetarian version of pasta carbonara. I wish I could say that because this has no bacon, it's a light dish--but I can't say that. It has positively sinful amounts of cream, eggs, and parmesan. But that's what makes it good! I once tried making a Cooking Light version of pasta carbonara and it was awful. Incredibly flavorless, and absolutely sauceless. Pasta carbonara needs fat to make it good. It is what it is. And what it is, is delicious....just like the Packers beating the Bears! ;)

Vegetarian Carbonara
-12 oz. whole grain spaghetti
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
-1 red pepper, thinly sliced
-2 cups broccoli florets
-3 large cloves garlic, minced
-3 egg yolks + 1 whole egg, beaten
-3/4 cup shredded parmesan
-1/3 cup heavy cream
-2 teaspoons salt
-3/4 teaspoon black pepper (or according to taste...I like mine a bit peppery!)
-1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Ensure that pasta is not done ahead of everything else, as it should be hot when added to the other ignredients.

2. While water is boiling/pasta is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a dutch oven over medium heat. Add garlic and saute for about 30 seconds. Add the remaining vegetables, mixing thoroughly. Let cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring if necessary to prevent burning. Add 1/8 cup water to the dutch oven and cover. Let the vegetables cook until tender-crisp. Remove from heat if necessary.

3. Just before pasta is done, add cream to the vegetables, mixing thoroughly. Heat over medium-low heat until pasta can be added. Add the cooked pasta to the dutch oven and mix. Add the beaten eggs, parmesan, salt, and pepper. Be sure to mix very well! Let the mixture warm for a few minutes. Serve hot.

-At least 6 servings
-You don't want to know about the calories, and neither do I.

The Whole Enchilada Pizza

Yes, that was corny. Sometimes I am corny. Let's move on, mmkay?

I still had a lump of bock beer pizza dough in my freezer, begging me to use it every time I reached in for coffee or a Lean Cuisine.

"Heatherrrrrrrr," it would call.

I would look suspiciously at my cats.

" meeeee....."

"Oh, not now, Bocky," I would say, glancing at my watch. "It's only 7:30 in the morning!"

"Take me out and defrost meeee....load me with delicious toppings....maybe make me taste like something else you're craving? ....eeee...?"

You see what I was up against.

At the risk of needing to toss it out (or be committed to an institution), I decided to make up an Enchilada Pizza recipe. I loooves me some enchiladas. They are so very naughty...but I can't resist. It was much the same with this pizza when all was said and done. I can usually resist eating two portions. But not this time! This is a SERIOUSLY awesome pizza. It tastes like an enchilada. How can it be bad?

Enchilada Pizza (by moi)
-1 portion bock beer pizza dough
-Vegetable oil
-Salt, Pepper, Ground Cumin
-Approximately 1/4 can of Enchilada Sauce
-8 ounces shredded Chihuahua cheese
-2-3 ounces shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-Approximately 3.5 ounces canned black beans, drained and rinsed
-1/2 red pepper, thinly sliced
-1/2 small can black olives, sliced
-1-2 tablespoon(s) cilantro, roughly chopped

1. Preheat oven to 500 with a baking stone on the lower rack for 30 minutes prior to baking.

2. Gently stretch the dough to the size you want and place it on a piece of parchment paper on the back of a baking sheet. Brush the dough with about 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Sprinkle liberally with salt, pepper, and cumin. Bake for 2 minutes. Set aside and discard parchment paper.

3. Using a spoon (to help control the amount), apply some enchilada sauce to the dough. Use a pastry brush to spread the sauce evenly. Enchilada sauce is much thinner than pizza sauce, so you only want a thin layer (you should still be able to see the dough through the sauce).

4. Layer your ingredients: Chihuahua cheese (half the package), black beans (not too many or the pizza slices will be too heavy to lift!), garlic, cheddar, a couple splashes of enchilada sauce using the spoon, red peppers, olives, and the rest of the Chihuahua cheese.

5. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until crust is golden-brown and the center is nicely melted.

Is it too much to reiterate how amazing a pizza this is? It is? Too bad!!


The end.

Sweet Sassy Molassey Granola

There is an excellent co-op bakery in Madison, WI called Nature's Bakery. They make some of the best granola I've ever had. Greg and I are in the habit of buying a couple bags of their Molasses-Almond Granola every time we visit Madison. Since it's a long winter, and there tends to be a belt of bad weather perpetually lashed across the 4 hours between Madison and Champaign, the need to make our own granola was pressing. This was my attempt at making a Molasses-Almond Granola replica.

The result? Well, definitely not the same. For instance, it almost immediately discolored my milk (mmm, brown). That's not surprising, given how dark the granola itself is (yay, molasses!), but that's also different. I believe that the major difference is that Nature's Bakery must use a LOT less molasses in their recipe. This recipe is heavy on the molasses, which is a good thing if you like the flavor. If you're not as keen on molasses, I might suggest switching the measurements for the honey and molasses. As it stands, this may not be the prettiest dish, but it is a powerfully flavored, nutty, and intermittently sweet granola. And healthy, to boot!

Sweet Sassy Molassey Granola (by me!)
-3 cups rolled oats
-1 cup hulled sunflower seeds, unsalted
-1 1/2 cups raw whole almonds
-1/2 cup blackstrap molasses
-1/4 cup honey
-1/4 cup vegetable oil
-1 teaspoon cinnamon
-1 teaspoon bourbon vanilla
-1 tablespoon brown sugar (you can increase this if you like a sweeter granola)
-1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
-1/2 cup raisins
-1/2 cup pitted dates, chopped

1. Mix the oats, sunflower seeds, and almonds together in a large bowl.

2. In a heavy saucepan, add molasses, honey, vegetable oil, cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar, and salt. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring continuously with a whisk. When all the sugar is dissolved and the oil is thoroughly combined, take off the heat.

3. Add the molasses mixture to the dry ingredients in 4 parts. Add some, mix well, then add some more. You're done once everything is very thoroughly combined.

4. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. On a baking sheet lined with a silpat mat or parchment paper, pour the granola out and spread in one even layer. Bake for approximately 50-60 minutes, removing the sheet to stir the granola every 10 minutes. This is very important so that it doesn't burn! Even after 50-60 minutes, it will still feel sticky while you're stirring it. However, the test that it's done is when you allow the residual granola on the mixing spoon to sit for 30 seconds or so. If the granola is dry and hard on the spoon, then it's done.

5. Let granola cool for about an hour. Stir in the raisins and dates. Place in an airtight container and store.

-14 1/2-cup servings
-267 calories per serving, 11.8g fat, 38g carbs, 5.5g protein. Bonus: 16% of your dietary fiber and 11% iron! Plus, think of all that Vitamin E and monounsaturated fats from those almonds. :)

Easy Wheat Bagels

Last week, I sent out a plea to my Facebook friends. I begged guidance on what my next recipe for the 2011 Baking Challenge should be. Naturally, people want the showstoppers--cannoli, for instance, which require special tools. So, like a perfect jerk, I made crackers.

Then, my friend Jamie (who just began her own delightful blog over at The Kiefer Kitchen) told me that she could get a state fair first prize-winning bagel recipe from her dad. Did I want that? Heck YES, I want a bagel recipe that won a state fair competition! And true to her word, Jamie sent me the recipe straightaway.

Last week, I finally bought The Bread Baker's Apprentice (I'd successfully made a couple recipes from a borrowed copy before). Peter Reinhart has a truly amazing looking bagel recipe in the book. It's a bagel connoisseur's bagel. It also takes a significant amount of effort and requires 2 days of attention. The nice thing about Jamie's Dad's Bagel Recipe is that, if followed exactly as written, it only takes about 2 hours (doable for a weekend morning!).

So, as though I was some sort of confident baking genius, I took elements from Peter Reinhart's technique and combined them into this recipe. The result was a chewy, flavorful recipe with a crustier top....and it was super easy to achieve. I am now confident that I can handle Peter Reinhart's recipe--but that will come later this year.

Easy Wheat Bagels (modified somewhat from Jamie's Dad)
-2 3/4 - 3 cups all purpose flour
-2 packages (or 4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
-1 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees)
-3 tablespoons sugar
-1 tablespoon salt
-1/2 tablespoon barley malt syrup (**Note: This is optional, and added by me--but is a requirement of the Reinhart recipe. Barley malt syrup is easily found in natural/health food stores.**)
-1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
-Optional: Sesame seeds and kosher salt, or cinnamon & sugar for topping.

1. In a stand mixer, combine 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour and yeast.

2. In a separate bowl, combine water, sugar, salt, and barley malt syrup. Add to dry mixture.

3. Beat at low speed for 1/2 minute, scraping sides constantly. Beat for 3 minutes at high speed. Add the whole wheat flour and enough of the remaining all-purpose flour (about 1 1/4 cups) to make a moderately stiff dough. Beat on low speed until combined.

4. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, 8-10 minutes. Cover; let rest 15 minutes. (**Note: Even Peter Reinhart's recipe says to knead by hand, instead of in the mixer with a dough hook. Maybe because the dough is so stiff? I'm not sure, but I do know that it's quite the workout to knead this stuff by hand for 10 minutes!**)

5. Cut the dough into 12 portions. Shape each piece into a smooth ball. Punch a hole in the center of each with a floured finger. Gently enlarge by putting your thumb in the hole and using your other hand to gently stretch dough evenly all the way around.

6. Spray a baking sheet with cooking oil. Place bagels on the sheet, cover with plastic wrap or tinfoil, and refrigerate overnight. (**Note: The original recipe says to let rest for 20 minutes. Since I had the time, I let them sit overnight to ferment and develop a headier flavor. Do what you can!**)

7. In a stock pot, combine 1 gallon water and 1 tablespoon sugar, bringing to a boil. Reduce heat to simmering and add 4 bagels at a time for 7 minutes. Turn over once during the 7 minutes. Using tongs to remove (and to turn them over!), place them on paper towels to drain while you put the next batch in the pot. If you want to add toppings, like sesame seeds, do it while they're draining and still sticky.

Cinnamon-sugar sprinkled on top is a delightful alternative to sesame seeds & salt.

8. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, dusted with semolina flour or cornmeal, place the bagels evenly across. Bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the sheet 180 degrees halfway through baking. Remove from the sheet and cool on a wire rack.

-Makes 12 bagels

Triple-Cheddar Crackers...

"...Like Cheez-Its, But Better."

Someday, when I become a world famous Blogger lady and start hocking my wares across the world, that will be my tagline for these crackers. In fact, these crackers might be my (and your) ticket to stardom. They are truly, truly delicious. So cheesy and flaky and perfect in so many ways.

Did I mention that they are, like, ridiculously uncomplicated to make? In sum, you do the following:

1) Blitz your ingredients in a food processor.
2) Roll out the ingredients and use a cookie cutter to cut shapes.
3) You have the option of freezing the dough for 15 minutes before baking, but I don't see why it's necessary (unless it's hot in your kitchen, maybe?).
4) Bake the crackers.

That's it. If you can make cookies, you have this recipe down already.

Anyway, it's been decided that we're making crackers as many weekends as possible. We're a snacky couple and these are just better than store-bought crackers in every way. Make them. Make them now.

P.S. Enjoy them with or in a bowl of spicy chili, like we did tonight. My GOD is that good.

Triple-Cheddar Crackers (from The Cooking Photographer)
-1 1/3 cup unbleached all purpose flour
-1 teaspoon salt
-½ teaspoon paprika
-½ teaspoon onion powder
-6 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
-8 ounce package shredded triple cheddar cheese, or cheddar of choice
-2 egg yolks
-2 tablespoons water

1. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

2. In a food processor pulse together the flour, salt, paprika and onion powder. Add the butter and process until combined. Add the cheddar and pulse until finely chopped. Process in the egg yolk and water until the mixture forms a ball.

3. Remove the dough and knead in your hands for a few turns. Roll dough to 3/8 inch thick. Stamp dough with cookie stamps or cut with cookie cutters. Place the crackers on cookie sheets.

I'm only half as cheesy when you're not here...

4. Optionally, you may freeze the crackers on the cookie sheets for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Move the cookie sheets to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Cool crackers on cooling racks. Store in an airtight container.

-Yields approximately 80 crackers, though it will depend on how large your cookie cutter is.

Sophisticated Crackers

I like to say ridiculous things and then follow them up with, "I can do that, because I'm a grown up." Being an adult has all sorts of privileges. If you want to eat your dessert first, you can, because you're a grown up. Pancakes for dinner? Sure thing, you mature person, you!

Sometimes, though, we adults have certain expectations thrust upon us. For instance, when company's coming, they might hope for a small plate of snacks. If it's fancy company, they might expect a plate of sumptuous delights. I believe that these crackers strike the right balance--they can please the casual and the ostentatious. Because they are crackers for grown-ups. That is, they are crackers for those of us who come home from work, immediately hop into our PJs (we can do that, because we're adults), and want to grab a snack and a beer....and for those of us who put on fancy shindigs and need to please other sophisticated palates. They are perfect.

Sophisticated Crackers (aka "Biscuits Pour Des Sophisticates" or "Peppered Rosemary & Garlic Crackers") - recipe modified a titch from
-150g all-purpose flour
-80g cornmeal
-1 teaspoon baking powder
-1/2 teaspoon salt
-1/2 teaspoon black pepper
-1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
-1 1/4 teaspoons dried rosemary
-60g cold butter, grated
-3 tablespoons cold milk

Please note: I found it easiest to use a kitchen scale for precise measurements. I *also* think your work is made much easier with a pizza cutter and a pastry scoop.

1. Sift flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add spices and mix.

2. Grate the cold butter into a bowl. Stir it into the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon, until the mixture resembles crumbs.

3. Add one tablespoon of milk and mix until absorbed. Add the next one and mix again. If the dough still looks like mostly crumbs, add the last tablespoon of milk. At this point, the dough must be hard--don't worry if it's not completely held together.

4. Knead the dough briefly (**you may need to do this in the bowl to get all the crumbs**). Wrap it in tin foil and let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

5. Divide the dough into 4 balls. On a lightly floured surface, press the first ball into a rectangle, and roll to about 1/8" thick. Your rectangle will be very ragged around the edges. If you care about your crackers looking nice, just trim off the edges so you have a smoother rectangle. Cut the dough into squares of your desired size and prick every half inch with a fork. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the finished crackers on top. Repeat with all remaining dough.

6. Bake in the middle of a preheated oven at 430 degrees for 8 minutes. You may want to rotate halfway through to evenly bake. Thinner crackers may brown faster. Be sure your oven bakes on fan mode or bakes from above and below, or else crackers may twist during baking.

Enjoy thoroughly with sharp cheddar--it is an AMAZING combination.

-Makes approximately 40-50 crackers, depending on the size you cut them to.

Verdict: These uber-fancy-schmancy crackers mark the start of my 2011 Baking Challenge! I could not be more pleased with how well they turned out. They were MUCH more easy to make than I ever anticipated. Greg and I are currently enjoying the benefits of crackers that aren't laden with preservatives and scary sounding chemicals. Crunchy, salty, and packed with flavor. Could you want anything more from your crackers?

Spain: Tapas

At long last, I bring you the 50th of my 50 countries. Our much beloved friends Chris and Kelly came down from Madison for New Years Eve, and I knew that the best way to treat them right was with a big dinner. And what better party food is there than tapas? Additionally, you may remember Chris as the one who invented the 50 Country Challenge last January 1st. I didn't realize, but he hadn't gotten to partake of any of the 50 countries before December 31st! I am delighted that he was able to eat #49 and #50. It was a great cap to the challenge.

I definitely got wrapped up in choosing tapas recipes to make. When I walked away from my computer in a snack food haze, I clutched 7 recipes in my hot little hands. Trying to pare down that list to a much more manageable 5 dishes was quite difficult. Ultimately, I got rid of Albondigas Caseras (meatballs in tomato sauce) and Champinones al Ajillo (garlic mushrooms). But it was hard. I still really really want those. But for 4 people, 5 dishes (plus dessert, naturally--that's where the Pasteis de Nata came into play) was perfect.

The downside to Tapas, of course, is that you need to serve some of them fresh off the stove. That means you constantly need to ditch your guests in an effort to get more food on the table. The bonus is that almost all stovetop tapas are really fast to make if you have everything prepped before your guests show up. For example, I chopped and mixed everything for the Gambas al Ajillo before Chris and Kelly arrived. When I was ready, it took all of 4 minutes to cook the dish. Perfecto! Ultimately, these tapas proved far easier than all of my other "big" meals for this year.

Patatas Bravas (from Serious Eats)
-1 1/2 pounds waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, red-skin, or fingerling potatoes
-Kosher salt
-1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
-2 large Spanish onions, thinly sliced
-6 cloves garlic, chopped
-2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika (pimentón de la vera dulce)
-1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika (pimentón de la vera picante)
-1 teaspoon ground cumin
-1/4 teaspoon cayenne
-Freshly ground black pepper
-One 35-ounce can plum tomatoes
-1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
-1 cup olive oil (**I used 3/4 cup. I think that in 99% of circumstances, an entire cup of olive oil is completely unnecessary. And I was right. 3/4 cup is even a lot, but it helps to fry the potatoes to get the nice crispy crust.**)
-Sea salt, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 450.

2. Put the potatoes in a large pot and add enough cold water to cover by an inch. Add tablespoons of salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until just fork tender. Drain the potatoes and set aside to cool. When cool, cut the potatoes into wedges or, if using fingerling potatoes, cut them in half lengthwise.

3. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat the extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for about 10 minutes, or until they soften but have not colored. Add the garlic and cook gently for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the garlic is tender and aromatic. Stir in both paprikas, the cumin, and the cayenne. Season to taste with pepper.

4. Put the tomatoes and their juice in a bowl, and using your hands, crush the tomatoes slightly. Add the tomatoes, their juice, and the vinegar to the saucepan and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the sauce is heated through.

5. Let the tomato sauce cool a little and then, working in batches, puree it in a blender until smooth. As one batch is pureed, transfer it to a bowl or a container with a tight-fitting lid. Use the tomato sauce right away or refrigerate for up to 3 days.

6. In a large bowl, toss the cooled potatoes with the 1 cup of olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread the potatoes and the oil in a shallow baking pan and roast for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are nicely browned on one side. Rotate the pan and turn the potatoes over. Roast for 8 to 10 minutes longer, or until browned and crisp on the other side.

7. Spoon a liberal amount of cooled tomato sauce in the center of each of 4 serving plates. Mound the potatoes on top of the sauce and garnish with sea salt.

Verdict: I could be wrong, but I think these were the crowd pleasin' favorite. The potatoes were crisp and tender (not to mention soaked in salt & peppered olive oil...*drool*) and laid on top of a flavorful tomato-paprika sauce that, inexplicably, tasted like bacon. Seriously? I am in love with this dish. Patatas Bravas is one of the winners at every Tapas bar I've visited, but this recipe very nearly trumps all the ones I've tried out and about. Serious Eats? More like Serious WINS.

Chunky White Bean Dip (modified from Whole Living)
-One 15 1/2-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
-One 15-ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
-2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
-One 8-ounce container plain fat-free yogurt
-1 tomato, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
-1 teaspoon ground cumin
-1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
-1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (or to taste)
-Juice of 1/2 a very juicy lemon
-1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
-1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Place half the chickpeas and half the cannelloni beans in the bowl of a food processor along with garlic and yogurt. Puree until smooth. Add remaining beans, and pulse until coarsely chopped.

2. Set aside 2 tablespoons of tomato for garnish. Transfer mixture to a bowl; stir in remaining tomato, cumin, salt, pepper, lemon juice, thyme, and parsley. Set aside.

3. When you're ready to serve, garnish with the reserved tomato. Serve to friends--real or imagined, like Clark Gable and Michael Caine here.

Verdict: I'm sure this is not a "real" (read: authentic) tapas recipe. BUT, it sounded good and was healthy. By healthy, of course, I mean "not fried in olive oil" and "not wrapped in bacon" and not "filled with cheese." Anyway, this reminded us of hummus, minus the tahini. It's pretty good and we're looking forward to buying some baby carrots tonight and eating more of it.

Pinchos Jamon con Datil y Queso aka "Bacon-Wrapped Dates with Goat Cheese" (from Tapas Bonitas)
-16 dates, seeds removed
-16 pieces soft goat cheese (roughly the shape of the inside of a date)
-16 pieces streaky bacon (cut to the size of a date)

1. Cut a date open lengthwise, remove the seed if there, and stuff the date with a piece of the goat cheese.

2. Roll a strip of the streaky bacon around the stuffed date, and fix the whole thing tight with a toothpick.

3. Store the date and bacon pinchos on a cold plate and store them in the fridge until you use them.

4. Before you fry these bacon pinchos, take them out of the fridge and allow them to get to room temperature; In this way the cheese will melt more easily without having to fry the bacon too much.

5. Fry the bacon pinchos in a fair layer of olive oil over medium heat, turning them regularly, until the cheese starts to melt. Serve while still warm.

Verdict: Now THESE are the antithesis to that white bean dip. They're stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon, and fried in olive oil. All that means (aside from a gajillion calories) is that they are WAY tasty. WAY. TASTY. Also, they're extremely easy--both the prep and cook.

Cumin-Flavored Carrot Salad (from Chef Norm)
-1/2 pound carrots, scraped, ends trimmed

-Chicken broth and water


-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar 
(**I only had 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Since I doubled this recipe, that was a problem. I mixed it with an additional 2 tablespoons for apple cider vinegar, which worked like a charm.**)
-1 1/2 tablespoons water 

-1 large clove garlic, mashed to a paste or put through a garlic press

-1/4 teaspoon oregano

-1/4 teaspoon freshly ground cumin

-1/4 teaspoon paprika, preferably Spanish style

1. Prepare several hours in advance. Place the carrots in a saucepan with a mixture of water and chicken broth just barely to cover. Add a little salt. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for about 10 minutes (more or less depending on the thickness of the carrots), until just done but still slightly crisp. Cool and cut in 1/4-inch slices.

2. In a cup mix together the vinegar, water, garlic, oregano, cumin, paprika, and salt. Fold gently into the carrots. Marinate for several hours or overnight.

Verdict: Could you ask for an easier dish to make? This was an elegant recipe that reminded me somewhat of escabeche. The carrots were so flavorful! Kelly and I are both big on pickled/escabeche-y things, so we seriously loved this. By the way, I doubled this recipe so I could make an entire pound of carrots. That way, it nicely served 4-5 people.

Gambas al Ajillo (from Chef Norm)
-1/4 cup olive oil 

-4 large cloves garlic, finely minced 

-1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

-1 lb medium shrimp, peeled and deveined 

-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 

-2 tablespoons dry sherry

-1 teaspoon paprika

-Chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley for garnish

1. In a sauté pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté for 1 minute.

2. Raise the heat to high and add the shrimp, lemon juice, sherry and paprika. Stir well, then sauté, stirring briskly, until the shrimp turn pink and curl slightly, about 3 minutes.

3. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and sprinkle with parsley. Serve hot.

Verdict: This was the only thing that Greg asked that I make. Actually, it was more like I was leaning toward the meatballs and garlic mushrooms and he said, "GARLIC SHRIMP GARLIC SHRIMP MAKE THE GARLIC SHRIMP!" How can you say no? And boy, am I ever glad that I made these. They were the perfect cap to a meal of tapas. As I noted earlier, they're super easy to make and they are soooooo delicious.

Next up, Greg will announce his winners from the 50 Countries Challenge. Stay tuned...

Happy 2011 to all of you in Blogreaderland, from me and my sleepy cats!