Let’s get this out of the way; today’s post is less about the salad dressing (which was just OK, and I’ll offer my ideas for making it better) and far more about my excitement in finding the new appliance I used to make it. What can I say? —I don’t take my decisions lightly.
We are approaching the six-month mark since the completion of our beautifully remodeled kitchen, and I am still on the hunt for the right tools to help equip me for success. You know how it is—you improve one thing, and suddenly everything in and around it seems outdated. My husband, Les, and I gave every countertop gadget we own a once-over when we did our update, and though a few appliances were deemed worthy, I have decided to replace my tired, old food processor (more to come on that one) and to purchase a real, honest-to-goodness blender. It’s about time!
I’ve had a Nutri-Bullet personal blender for a few years, and it’s great for breakfast smoothies and small amounts of things that I want to puree into oblivion, but not so good for anything that requires finesse, because the Nutri-Bullet has only one setting. It is also inconvenient for making anything that requires adding or adjusting ingredients halfway through, because once you open the wide, jar-like lid, the blended mixture gets all over everything and makes a mess. I needed a blender that opened at the top and had multiple settings and functions to help me with more than just smoothies.
When I had lamented to Les a few years ago that it was difficult to find a quality blender “like they used to make,” you know, with a sturdy glass carafe, he disappeared to our garage and returned with a dusty relic that had been gifted to him many years ago (for his first wedding, as he recalls). It was tall and heavy, with real glass! Unfortunately, when we finally found replacement gaskets for the ones that had dry rotted, we discovered that the blender didn’t have much oomph. It was mostly good for, well, stirring things.
After months of intense research, and reading reviews on every website imaginable, I have finally found the best blender for us. It’s tall, attractive, powerful and versatile enough to handle whatever role I give it. In other words, it’s the George Clooney of countertop appliances. The first challenge I had with it was deciding what to make first, and so far, I’ve only used it to make coconut martini cocktails and this buttermilk feta salad dressing, which was included in the little recipe cards that came with the machine. Regardless of your blender brand, I’m confident that you can make this dressing, and it only requires five ingredients, plus salt and pepper.
Part of the appeal of this recipe was that I already had all the ingredients, and the dressing wasn’t bad but I would recommend a few tweaks to improve the texture and balance the tang. Just about any kind of fresh, tender herb would be good here; basil, cilantro or dill would add a zesty punch. In the texture department, I would recommend addition of a couple tablespoons of mayonnaise to produce a creamier dressing that will cling better to your salad greens. If you do stick to the recipe offered by Breville, I recommend using a buttermilk with a thicker consistency so it doesn’t turn out watery.
Here’s how things went for me.
But enough about the dressing. 😉
I am very pleased with our new Breville blender, which has a pre-programmed setting for smoothies, and eventually I will get around to making one. I especially appreciate the self-clean function, which makes cleanup a snap, even after making a creamy salad dressing like this one. It’s so easy, I literally put two drops of dish liquid into it with about one cup of water and touch the “auto-clean” button. The blender does the rest, switching between speeds and settings until the pitcher is clean. Quick rinse, and done. I should have bought it years ago. Did I mention that I paid full price for this appliance, and nobody is paying me for my opinion? Just thought I’d mention that, in case this sounds like an advertisement.
Besides the debut of our fab new blender, I am also excited to apply a new way of sharing the details of my recipes with you. When I first started my blog, my sister-in-law, Andrea, suggested adding a “print” feature to make it easier for a reader to save a recipe for later. It was a great idea, and up to this point, I have accomplished it by formatting the recipe into a PDF that I upload at the end of a post. Today, I’m doing something different.
After an hour-long chat session with WordPress support (which left me as confused as ever), and then a few friendly emails and helpful coaching by one of my blog buddies about something called “shortcode,” I have finally figured out how to apply my recipe ingredients and instructions to my posts, including a quick “print” option, without so much background work.
I first spotted this feature on a post by Maylee at BeyondGumbo.com, and when I reached out to ask about it, Maylee graciously walked me through how she uses the feature. As you’ve probably guessed, her blog is all about the regional cuisine of Louisiana (which is so much more than gumbo!), including a beautiful bibb salad with luscious Louisiana strawberries, which she just posted on Sunday. And if you think that sounds delicious, wait until she surprises us with something that she casually whips up from the satsuma trees growing in her backyard. 😊
One of my favorite condiments is tzatziki, the Greek yogurt-based topping that is perfect for anything you put on a pita, including gyro and souvlaki. The zesty zing of garlic and cooling notes of grated cucumber are an easy, refreshing way to pile on the flavor. But for a vegan dish, such as the falafel I made recently, tzatziki is off the table. We wanted a flavorful topping that still had a Middle Eastern vibe, and one that could play many roles, as a dipping sauce, topping or dressing.
That’s how this tahini-lemon sauce came to be, and as I whizzed up the ingredients in my food processor, it occurred to me that this sauce is basically hummus, minus the chickpeas. All the other components of hummus are in there—the tahini, which is a sticky paste made from ground toasted sesame seeds, fresh garlic, fresh lemon juice, salt, spices and good olive oil. Processing these ingredients results in a smooth, completely emulsified mixture that can be thick or thin, depending on how much water your blend into it. For my purposes this time, I kept it on the thicker side as a perfect dipping agent for my falafel, but I can easily see the benefit of thinning it to pour onto a salad or Buddha bowl.
My husband’s adult daughter has adopted the vegan lifestyle, and I am always on the lookout for easy foods to make when she visits. This tahini-lemon sauce fits the bill, and it’s so tasty that we non-vegans won’t feel like we are missing out on anything.
1/2 cup tahini paste
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Juice of 1 large lemon
A few shakes of crushed red pepper* (see notes)
2 Tbsp. fresh dill leaves
1/4 cup water (or more, for thinner sauce)
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
The crushed red pepper flakes that you see in pizza restaurants would be fine here, but if you can get your hands on Aleppo pepper, that is even more in keeping with the Mediterranean flavor profile. We used a three-pepper blend (Aleppo, Maras and Urfa) from Flatiron Pepper Company, and their rep informed me that it will be back in stock in a few months. I’ll update this post at that time to include a link, in case you’d like to check it out.
My first taste of Greek food came when I was in my early 20s, shortly after I arrived in Winston-Salem, N.C. Unlike the places I’d lived before—upstate N.Y. and a few places in Colorado—this southern city is home to a large community of Greek-Americans. One of my first jobs here was waiting tables at a Greek-owned casual seafood restaurant, where our most popular (though not inherently “Greek”) menu items included breaded and deep-fried flounder and crunchy little seafood nuggets known as “popcorn shrimp.”
It didn’t take long though before I discovered some of the other Greek-owned eateries in town that offered an authentic, mouthwatering specialty called souvlaki, a lemon and herb-seasoned marinated meat, grilled on skewers and served with any number of authentic sides. Depending on the time of day, you might be served souvlaki with seasoned rice or lemon-herb potatoes, or with Greek feta salad and pita. But always on the side with souvlaki is tzatziki, a Greek yogurt-based condiment with shredded cucumber, garlic and dill.
Some of the new words associated with these delectable foods were hard for me to say at first, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the incredible flavors of Greek food. This fall, perhaps when our new kitchen is completed, I look forward to making a classic pastitsio or moussaka, both of which are baked comfort to the nth degree, rich with warm spices and creamy béchamel.
But today, I’m focused on the food to work best with summer grilling, and that is souvlaki. Traditionally, souvlaki would be made with chunks of lean pork, but there are just as many restaurants around here that put the same flavors and treatment on pieces of chicken breast, and it is positively delicious. Feel free to cut boneless chicken breasts into chunks for your souvlaki—that would be the more traditional way, after all—or you can take the easy way, as I have, and marinate whole chicken tenders, skip the skewers and toss the tenders right onto the grill.
Souvlaki is delicious with warm, soft pita breads and zesty tzatziki sauce, which is easy to make while you wait for the marinade magic to happen. You might also serve your souvlaki up with a batch of the cool tzatziki potato salad I shared a few days ago. Before long, you’ll join me in shouting the traditional Greek celebration exclamation—OPA!
1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders
1 whole organic lemon, juiced (plus the zest)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
About 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Pat the chicken tenders dry, but do not rinse them. Lightly sprinkle with kosher salt and toss to coat.
In a large glass (or other non-reactive) bowl, combine lemon juice, zest, vinegar, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Take note of the volume this mixture has in the bowl. Whisk the marinade mixture while streaming in enough olive oil to roughly double the volume of the marinade.
Add the chicken tenders to the marinade and use tongs to thoroughly toss and coat them. As much as possible, press the tenders to be fully submerged in the marinade. Cover the bowl and refrigerate at least six hours.
When you are ready to cook the tenders, simply remove them from the marinade and place them directly onto the pre-heated grill. There is no need to rinse them or even to scrape the marinade from the tenders.
1 Persian cucumber (or 1/2 medium slicing cucumber), peeled, seeded and finely chopped or grated
A couple pinches of kosher salt
1 cup plain Greek yogurt (or substitute sour cream if you must)
Line a small custard cup with a paper towel. Add the chopped or grated cucumber and stir with salt. Wrap the paper towel over the cucumbers and allow this to sit in the fridge 30 minutes to release and absorb excess moisture.
Combine cucumbers with yogurt, garlic and dill. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
March was National Flour Month, and I’m finally catching up on paying respect to the many ways flour feeds us, beyond the obvious (bread). My first attempts at making handmade pasta 10 years ago were outright disastrous, mostly because I had assumed the method of stirring eggs by fork into a mountain-like peak of all-purpose flour was going to be easy. In my defense, the shows I had watched on Food Network made it seem easy, but in real life, it was a humongous freaking mess that left me cussing up a storm and vowing that I’d “never make that again.” Truth is, it is those really frustrating failures that inspire me the most to give it another go, and I’m so glad I did!
In my later efforts, I enjoyed more success, letting my KitchenAid do the mixing, but there was always something about the handmade pasta that didn’t sit right with me, even after I had invested in a “Made in Italy” hand-crank pasta roller. The dough always seemed heavy or thick, even on the thin roller setting. It fell apart or crumbled, or stuck to the roller or cutting blades. But a few years ago, I found the perfect, James Beard Foundation-approved recipe that fixed all the problems I had encountered. My issue was not only how I was making the dough or rolling the pasta, but also the ratio of ingredients I was using. To that point, I had been using only all-purpose flour and whole eggs (yolks and whites). I had no idea what temperature was best for my ingredients, nor did I fully understand how long to knead the dough or whether it needed to be rested.
The better recipe, and the one I use to this day, takes advantage of a special variety of wheat called durum, which is used to make semolina flour, the gold standard in authentic Italian pasta recipes. Semolina lends a warm, slightly nutty flavor, a light yellowish color and a firmer, more toothsome texture. It has been a game changer in my journey to making handmade pasta.
The other big difference was a shift in liquid ingredients in my formula. Rather than using whole eggs, the recipe that has become my standard requires separation of the eggs, using only the yolks, plus an amount of water. Once I found this easy formula, the flavor possibilities became near-endless. And that’s where the real fun of making handmade pasta begins! Being creative with the colors, flavors and shapes of handmade pasta is one of the things that gives me—a home cook—a very satisfying sense of accomplishment.
I won’t claim that handmade pasta is “easy,” because I still feel the ego bruises from my early attempts, but I will say that if you are already making handmade pasta, go on and experiment with the flavors until you find something amazing. New flavors make their way into the mix either in the liquid, perhaps by using finely pureed vegetables as part of the water measurement, or by way of dry add-ins, as I am sharing in today’s post. And if you’re still on the fence about trying handmade pasta, I hope my adventure inspires you!
This recipe has helped me use some of the abundance of fresh herbs I’ve had since my husband, Les, gifted me the countertop hydroponic herb garden that keeps throwing parsley at me. The lemon, parsley and basil combination is terrific and perfect for spring, but you could just as easily flavor your pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, roasted red peppers or—well, you can imagine your own (and I do hope you’ll share those fabulous ideas).
8 oz. semolina flour (plus extra for rolling pasta dough)
4 oz. unbleached, all-purpose flour* (see notes)
2 oz. white whole wheat flour*
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup filtered water, room temperature*
2 egg yolks, room temperature*
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (mine is whole lemon-fused for bright lemon flavor)
Zest of one organic lemon* (only the bright yellow peel)
2 Tbsp. very finely minced fresh herbs (I used a combination of Italian parsley and Genovese basil)
All-purpose flour is easy to find, but “00” flour is better if you can get your hands on it. The double-zero flour is milled to a very fine texture, and its use results in tender, silky pasta. I have seen it in well-stocked larger supermarkets, gourmet shops and online. I also use some portion of whole grain flour in my pasta dough, but if you prefer, skip the white whole wheat and make up the difference with equal amount of additional all-purpose or 00 flour.
As with bread dough, I have found that hydration of flour for pasta dough is much improved with room temperature or slightly warm water. Cold water makes for very stiff dough that is tougher to knead.
Eggs are more easily separated when cold, but once this is done, cover the bowl of yolks and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before you begin mixing the pasta dough.
Most of the time, conventionally-grown citrus is fine. But when you intend to eat any part of the peel, it’s best to choose organic to avoid chemical pesticides.
Instructions – making the dough
Zest the lemon and mince the herbs first, and spread them out on a cutting board so that the add-in ingredients dry out a bit.
Combine flours, salt, lemon zest and lightly dried herbs in the bowl of a stand mixer.
Combine egg yolks and water in a separate bowl and whisk them together until the mixture is light and frothy.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour the wet ingredients into the center and use the dough hook to do the blending. Though it might seem logical to mix with the beater blade, using the dough hook completes the blending from the center-out, in the same way as the chefs using only a fork to gradually mix the eggs into the flour. Allow the mixer to do this work for you, until the dough mixture is combined but crumbly, and no dry flour remains in the bowl. Add more water, one tablespoon at a time, if needed to achieve this stage.
Empty the dough onto your work surface, and knead by hand for at least 10 minutes, probably more like 15 minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic, with no creases or cracks or lumps. If the dough shows any sign of cracking or breaking, wet your hands and continue to knead, repeating as many times as necessary until the smooth texture is achieved.
Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough ball at least one hour, or up to overnight. Do not refrigerate more than a day.
Time to make the pasta!
Remove the pasta dough from the fridge (still wrapped) about 30 minutes before you plan to roll it, to remove some of the chill. Set up your pasta rolling machine, and keep fresh semolina out to aid in rolling and to prevent the dough from sticking. Have a parchment-lined cookie sheet within reach, and set up your drying rack if you’re using one.
Instructions – rolling the pasta
Unwrap the pasta dough and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to slice off sections of dough about one inch thick. Keep remaining dough tightly wrapped until ready to roll, so it doesn’t dry out.
Flatten a piece of dough into an oval-shaped disk, then roll it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting. For the first few passes, fold the pressed dough in half and run it through again on the same setting. Fold it in thirds, as you would fold up a letter, and turn the dough 90° so that it runs through the machine at a different angle. This helps to reduce curling or bending when the pasta dries later. When the dough feels supple after running through the press several times, begin reducing to thinner setting with each pass.
When the dough reaches the desired thickness (either the thinnest or next-to-thinnest setting, allow the sheet to dry slightly before cutting into strips or using as ravioli. In my experience with pasta, the cutting and shaping stage seems to work better when the pasta is not super-soft. If you rush directly to cutting it, at least with a machine, the dough tends to stick in the rollers, and it will definitely stick to a ravioli mold.
After pasta sheets are complete, allow them to rest for a couple of minutes before cutting, either with the pasta machine or by hand with a fluted pasta trimmer, pizza slicer or sharp knife. If cutting by hand, the simplest way is to fold the pasta sheet crosswise multiple times, and slice through the layers with a pizza wheel or sharp knife. Dust the pasta really well with extra semolina flour before cutting to minimize sticking.
This time, I’ve opted to use the cutter attachment for my pasta roller to fashion my lemon-herb pasta into fettucine strips, but this lemony pasta would also be terrific for making sweet crab-stuffed ravioli, or ricotta-filled tortellini. I will save those for another day. 🙂
We used the lemon-herb pasta in a couple of ways—first, with littleneck clams in white wine broth, and again as a base for an amazing dish of chicken thighs in vodka sauce that Les made for us.
Special occasions call for special foods. Whether you are preparing to celebrate an anniversary, a loved one’s birthday or some other kind of milestone, it makes sense that you would want to enjoy a meal that is a bit more extravagant than the usual. When I turned 10, my father and stepmother took me to a “fancy” restaurant for my first taste of lobster, and I still remember how lusciously sweet and rich it tasted, especially when dipped in the warm drawn butter. During pandemic times, of course, enjoying a special meal has more likely meant digging deeper into your own recipe vault and perhaps brushing the dust off some of your lesser-used cooking skills. You may have even been nudged into fresh culinary territory, taking the plunge on new equipment for your kitchen or learning new techniques or cuisines to make your favorite special foods. All of the above have been true for me over the past year, in addition to starting this blog, which has been a lifesaver for my mental health.
When Valentine’s Day came around this year, I had already decided that lobster tails would be the highlight of our romantic dinner-for-two. I made them last summer when my husband, Les, celebrated his birthday and we both commented how much we enjoyed the lobster and should make it more often. Lobster feels decadent, and though I’ve never been brave enough to prepare a whole, live lobster (mainly out of fear that I’d have to become vegan afterward), I find lobster tails to be one of the simplest seafood preparations out there. Splitting the tail and broiling with nothing more than clarified butter, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of fresh herbs is the way to go. For me, it’s the sides that require a little more thought—you want something elegant enough to pair nicely with such a luxurious main, but nothing too rich or fancy that would compete for attention or overwhelm the palate. Les requested easy roasted asparagus and a Caesar salad, which I glammed up with homemade green goddess dressing. And I wanted a starchy side, but not potatoes and definitely not pasta.
Enter risotto, stage left.
As I mentioned in my January post for the scallops with spinach on bacon risotto, there is no advanced skill required for making this Italian-born side, only patience and attention. I consider risotto a “blank canvas” food, in that you can easily switch directions with it to suit the rest of your menu. For our understated Valentine’s meal, I wanted light, lemony freshness, something that would match the simplicity of the lobster tails. I found a bottled lobster juice in one of our specialty markets, and it has all the luscious sweet aroma of lobster, with exactly the right amount of salt for flavor. Lemon zest gave echo to the fresh lemon we’d be squeezing over the lobster, and did I mention how much parsley we have these days thanks to our indoor hydro garden? I finished it off with a gentle splash of light cream, and the meal was perfectly lovely.
The other thing that is nice about risotto is that you don’t have to make a huge batch of it. For this meal, I wanted only enough to cradle our lobster tails, so I scaled down a basic recipe and used only 1/3 cup of Arborio rice. We had no leftovers, which was perfect.
Ingredients (two dinner side servings)
1 Tbsp. minced shallot
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/3 cup Arborio rice
8 oz. bottle Maine lobster juice* (see notes)
2 oz. dry vermouth (or dry white wine)
Filtered water, amount needed to finish risotto
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp. light cream (or half and half), warmed
A couple pinches of fresh chopped parsley
I found this lobster juice in a specialty supermarket, same aisle as tinned fish. The label suggests a serving is a tablespoon, so I’m not sure what most people use it for. When I tasted it, I knew it would be perfect as a broth for my risotto, and I used the entire bottle. If you cannot find this product, consider a seafood stock from the soup aisle.
Combine lobster juice and dry vermouth in a saucepan over low heat. Bring this up to a very low simmer, and keep it warm for the duration of recipe. If you have a tea kettle, warm some water as well. You may need it to finish cooking the risotto and it will help to have it on standby.
Place a small, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter; add minced shallot and sauté until softened and slightly translucent.
Add Arborio rice to the pan, and toss it around with a wooden spoon until all grains are coated and the rice begins to look lightly toasted in color. Reduce heat to medium low.
Add a small ladle of the warm lobster broth and stir rice around to evenly distribute it. Cook, stirring or shaking pan frequently, until the broth seems mostly absorbed. Repeat with only a small ladle of broth each time. As the recipe proceeds, you will notice that the risotto takes on a cloudy appearance. This is good! The starches are breaking down into different form, and this is what creates the rich, creamy texture. Keep going, but take it slow.
When you have nearly exhausted the broth, do a taste test. Perfect risotto should be tender, but not mushy. If it feels like it will stick to your teeth, it needs more time. Add warm water to the remaining broth and continue cooking. You should expect this process to take about 40 minutes from start to finish.
When the risotto texture seems right, add the lemon zest and fresh parsley. Stir in the light cream or half and half, and serve immediately.
To make clarified butter:
Place a small saucepan over very low heat. Add a whole stick (1/4 cup) of unsalted butter and leave it alone. You want the butter to warm slowly so that it melts but does not brown or burn. Avoid temptation to stir or swirl the pan, as this will reincorporate the milk solids. When the butter is completely melted (which may take as long as 30 minutes), turn off the heat and let it rest for a minute or two. Carefully tip the saucepan, pouring off the clarified butterfat, but leaving the milk solids behind in the bottom of the pan. Do this a day or two ahead, if you wish. Keep the clarified butter covered and refrigerated until ready to use. Reheat over medium-low heat, or in the microwave, but only 15 seconds at a time.
Prepping and cooking the lobster tails:
If you have purchased the lobster tails frozen, it’s best to thaw them slowly in the refrigerator, as it makes separation of the flesh from the shell a bit easier. In a hurry? Place them in a heavy, ziptop freezer bag, squeezing out excess air (the shells have sharp edges, so sandwich-type bags won’t do). Put the bags in a large bowl or pot filled with cold water. Place something heavy over them to keep them submerged during the thaw process.
Use strong kitchen scissors to cut the top side of the shell lengthwise, clipping as far as you can to the tail fins. Next, carefully slide a sharp, slim paring knife between the meat and the shell, and shimmy it all the way around to loosen the flesh. Using one hand to gently pry open the cut shell top, carefully lift the tail flesh up through the shell opening to rest it on top. This affords the prettiest presentation. Blot away excess moisture with paper towels. Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to broil the tails.
Set your oven to high broil setting for about five minutes, with oven rack in the center position. Arrange the lobster tails, at least 4 inches apart from each other, on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment, or use a broiler pan. If the tails don’t sit upright without tipping, you can make a nest of aluminum foil to hold them in position.
Drizzle a spoonful of clarified butter evenly over each tail. Broil on high for about 7 minutes, until flesh is plump and white, and shells are bright orange-red in color. Remove immediately, drizzle on more butter and sprinkle with fresh parsley. Serve on top of lemony risotto with wedges of fresh lemon.
Like a cross between a Moscow mule and a mojito, but made with real Kentucky bourbon.
1.5 oz. Kentucky bourbon 0.5 oz mint simple syrup (recipe below) Juice of half a lime Reed’s extra spicy ginger beer
Combine bourbon, syrup and lime in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake like crazy for 20 seconds. Strain into a “mule” mug half filled with crushed ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with fresh lime.
A Southern spin on NYC’s “witty comeback”—and doesn’t it sound like a champion?
1.5 oz. Bulleit rye (bourbon works, too) 0.5 oz. Aperol (see notes) 0.75 oz. lemon ginger simple syrup (recipe below) Seltzer or sparkling water (optional)
Combine rye, Aperol and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled “Nick and Nora” glass (or small champagne glass). Enjoy as is, or top with seltzer. Garnish with a twist of thinly stripped lemon peel.
Sparkly Britches Lemonade
Because not everyone loves bourbon (yet).
1.5 oz. Hendrick’s gin 1 oz. cucumber simple syrup (recipe below) Juice of half a lemon Seltzer or sparkling water (optional)
Combine gin, syrup and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain into a chilled champagne flute. Enjoy as is, or make it really sparkle with a splash of seltzer.
What is Aperol?
It’s an Italian-made liqueur, considered to be an aperitif (fancy speak for “pre-dinner drink”), and it has a citrusy, herbal, slightly bitter flavor and a shockingly bright orange color. If you’ve ever tasted Campari (another Italian liqueur), it’s kind of similar, but less bitter and less potent. On the nose, Aperol is kind of a cross between grapefruit, rhubarb and orange lifesavers. In a cocktail, it brings a world of complexity, and is especially refreshing in the warm weather months.
What is a Nick and Nora glass?
It’s a smallish cocktail glass, sort of a cross between a champagne flute and a coupe martini glass. I found these little 4 ounce beauties online, and created the Sassy Comeback specifically for the glass! As I mentioned the glasses to various friends, it seemed nobody knew what they were, so I did a little research to find out why the glass is so named. I like this explanation best:
“It’s named for the boozy, quick-talking couple in Dashiel Hamett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man. They’re the couple we all want to be, always dressed for a night out, always with a quip at the ready, and always—always—with a drink in hand. Their namesake glass appropriately honors their art deco–era swag.”
The novel eventually became a series of films, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, which remained popular well into the 1940s. In this clip, you’ll see the same dainty glasses used for their martinis. At the end of the scene, “Nora” embodies the sassy comeback. She’s my kinda gal!
The Simple Syrups
Simple syrups are very easy to make. A regular simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water, simmered until sugar is dissolved, then cooled and chilled. Each of the syrups below has a flavor infusion, and they offer a unique “somethin’ special” to the above mentioned cocktails. Have fun!
Simmer 1 cup sugar and 1 cup filtered water, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm enough to steam. Remove from heat and add a 1 oz. package of fresh organic mint leaves (wash them first and trim the heavy stems), and allow the mint to steep in the syrup until completely cool. Strain out the mint (discard it) and pour the syrup into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
Simmer 1 cup sugar and 1 cup filtered water, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm enough to steam. Peel 4 Persian cucumbers, and cut them into slices. Remove syrup from the heat, add the cucumber pieces and steep until the mixture is cooled. Discard the cucumber pieces and strain syrup through a mesh strainer to remove any bits or seeds. Pour syrup into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
Bring 1 cup water to a light boil, then turn off heat. Steep 4 lemon ginger* herbal tea bags in the hot water for about 2 minutes, then remove and squeeze the tea bags (discard them). Add 1 cup sugar to the hot tea blend, and stir until dissolved (return to heat a few minutes, if necessary). Cool completely, then pour into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge a couple of weeks.
*For this syrup, I used Bigelow brand Lemon Ginger herbal tea. The label lists these ingredients; lemongrass, lemon peel, cinnamon, lemon verbena, rose hips, ginger and licorice root. This is a fantastic way to get a lot of complex flavor into a syrup, and these flavors play very nicely with the rye and Aperol in my Sassy Comeback!
It was an innocent enough text, sent to me by my BFF: “Do you make lemon bars?”
And that began our annual tradition of me making lemon bars as Ruthanne’s special homemade birthday treat. The first batch was a simple Martha Stewart recipe I found online, but as I’ve already noted in another post, I cannot leave well enough alone. No disrespect to Martha, but Ruthanne is usually doing one or another version of low-carb eating, so for her, I’ve scaled back some of the flour in favor of almond flour. And I’ve cut back on the sugar as well, which really allows the fresh-squeezed lemon to take (nearly) full credit for the deliciousness these squares bring to spring.
But it isn’t the almond in the crust or the skimping on sugar that really makes these different. My secret weapon is a little known ingredient called Fiori di Sicilia.
You may think you’ve never heard of it, but I’ll bet you’d recognize the flavor. It’s an Italian specialty extract, and tastes like Meyer lemon, oranges and vanilla. Kind of like a creamsicle, one of my favorite ice cream treats of childhood. Fiori di Sicilia is the special flavor that makes panettone tastes like panettone. And today, it will bring a unique twist to these lemon bars for our Kentucky Derby Preview.
So there you have it. My secret lemon bar ingredient is out. I considered naming this dessert “Ruthanne’s Favorite Lemon Bars,” but this secret is pretty delicious. And if this post were to go viral—well, I’m not sure she’s ready for that kind of attention.
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar, plus more for dusting
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (measure by fluffing, sprinkling and leveling)
1/2 cup very fine almond flour
4 large egg yolks
1 can sweetened condensed milk
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 good size lemons)
Zest of one lemon (organic is best)
A few drops Fiori di Sicilia* (a little goes a long way)
Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Line bottom with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on two sides, and butter the paper for easy release when the bars are done.
Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, and salt until light and fluffy. Add flour and almond flour, and mix on low just until combined. Scrape down bowl a couple of times to ensure even mixing. Press dough into the bottom and 1/2 inch up sides of prepared pan. This might be tricky because the almond flour isn’t as stiff as all-purpose flour—if your fingers stick, either sprinkle a bit of flour over the mixture to act as a buffer, or put the whole pan in the fridge 20 minutes and try again. Prick all over the surface with a fork. Bake until lightly golden, 20 to 25 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk together yolks, condensed milk and lemon juice until smooth. Whisk in Fiori di Sicilia. Allow crust to cool about 5 minutes, then gently pour lemon filling over crust in pan, return to oven and bake until filling is set, about 25 to 30 minutes. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool completely.
Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until filling is firm, at least 2 hours. Using paper overhang, lift cake onto a work surface; cut into 9 or 16 squares, and dust with powdered sugar just before serving.
Cutting the lemon bars neatly can be a fussy task. Do what the pros do—use a very sharp knife, run it under warm water before you begin, and wipe blade clean with a damp kitchen towel before you begin and between cuts. The filling won’t accumulate on the blade, so it won’t transfer back onto the lemon bars.
Unless you have the special sugar that baking professionals use, it’s likely that your dusting of powdered sugar will melt into the lemon bars. For prettiest presentation, dust them just before serving.