Oz-mopolitan – a “wicked” fun cocktail for Halloween!

What if everything we have always assumed about the Wicked Witch of the West turned out to be smear campaign, orchestrated by someone else, whose own reputation was at stake? What if the Wicked Witch was misunderstood, mischaracterized and scapegoated? What if she was driven to be wicked or what if she was never wicked at all?

These are all questions I have pondered, after my husband, Les, and I enjoyed seeing the touring performance of Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. Neither of us had seen or heard much about the story, which began as a book in 1995, and was adapted for the Broadway stage in 2003, ultimately skyrocketing into the $1 billion+ range in ticket sales. There has been talk for more than a decade about a live-action film based on the story, which remains to be finalized, but I have my fingers crossed!

No recordings or photos were allowed during the performance, but the beautiful backdrop was perfect for selfies before the show!

The performance we attended in Greensboro, N.C. was delightful, funny, magical and thought-provoking. The set decoration and costumes were breathtaking, and the music was simply spectacular! I had often heard the tale of Wicked described as a “prequel” to The Wizard of Oz, but we found it to be more departed from that classic, beloved story—perhaps more of a re-telling or an alternate perspective with more context. The tale revolves around the unexpected early connection between Glinda and Elphaba (see?—the wicked witch actually had a name), their rivalry in magic school and in a love triangle, and the final straw that became the wedge to drive them apart. Well, sort of.

There is a flashy scene near the middle of Wicked, when Glinda and Elphaba first discover the glitz and glamour of the Emerald City, and Glinda remarks that it’s “all very Oz-mopolitan!” When Les and I left the theatre, I removed my mask and said, “You know I’m gonna have to make a Wicked cocktail, right?”

I will not present any spoilers, in case you have not seen the play, but I will say that my cocktail is a very slight riff on a classic drink called “The Last Word,” and there’s a reason (other than the color) that I chose this drink. The story of Wicked is itself a riff on a classic, and in that magical tale, it is Elphaba, the perhaps-not-so-wicked witch, who has the last word, and that is what left me with all the questions I pondered at the beginning of this post.

Now, about this green drink. 😉

It’s a shimmery, green, dramatic version of a classic Prohibition-era cocktail. Perfect for Halloween or any other time you are feeling a little “witchy.”

The original drink, The Last Word, was a Prohibition-era classic—made with equal parts gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and freshly squeezed lime juice—and it is all at once herbal, sweet, citrus-y and complex. I have not altered the recipe of The Last Word; rather, I have pushed it into “wicked” territory by use of three simple but dramatic special effects.


And for those special effects, I have renamed my version “Oz-mopolitan.” Enjoy!


Equal parts of gin, Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime juice make up the classic cocktail called “The Last Word.”
You are also getting a sneak preview of my new kitchen in these images!

Ingredients (makes one cocktail)

3/4 oz. dry gin

3/4 oz. green Chartreuse liqueur* (see notes)

3/4 oz. maraschino liqueur*

3/4 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice

Special effects

Black sugar sprinkles*

Pearl green edible glitter*

Green food coloring


*Notes

Chartreuse is a French liqueur, and there are two varieties of it—yellow and green. The green version (used in this drink) is strong, bold and herbaceous, almost medicinal on its own. For the most part, it is enjoyed as part of a cocktail rather than as a cordial.

Maraschino liqueur is also generally used as a mixer with an anchor spirit, such as vodka or gin. It is not as “cherry flavored” as you might expect, but it does lend a tart cherry accent to a cocktail. Luxardo makes a terrific version of this liqueur.

The black sugar and edible shimmer dust I used for this were very easy to find on Amazon, but you might also check the cake decorating section of a well-stocked craft store, such as Michael’s. Be sure the products you choose are clearly marked as “food grade” or “edible.”


Instructions


Prepare a martini or coupe glass by swiping a slice of lime all the way around the rim. Sprinkle black sugar onto a clean paper towel and roll the outside rim of the glass over the sugar, repeating the roll as needed for full coverage. It’s best to do this several minutes ahead, giving the sugar time to “set up” on the rim of the glass.

Combine the cocktail ingredients in a shaker, add ice and a drop or two of green food coloring. Shake vigorously for about 20 seconds.

Sprinkle a small amount (I used just shy of 1/8 teaspoon) of edible shimmer dust into the bottom of the rimmed glass.

Strain the cocktail into the glass and watch the shimmer dust create a gorgeous, magical swirl!



Fuzzy Navel Sorbet

It was July, 1986. My wardrobe included stirrup pants, big blouses and my favorite pin-striped, high-waisted skinny jeans. The ones with the pleats. My hair was permed and teased out to here, and all the girls were lusting after Tom Cruise in Top Gun. I was restless in my not-so-exciting hometown, and I spent entirely too many weekend nights on the dance floor at a bar called the Rusty Nail, drinking the most sticky-sweet drink that was all the rage that year.

When we were not enjoying our Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, the “fuzzy navel,” made with orange juice and DeKuyper Peachtree schnapps, was the “cocktail” of choice for me and so many of my friends, whether we were out on the town (which meant we were in the next town over), hanging at home (because our town didn’t have much going on) or gathering for a bridal shower (because getting hitched is what several of my friends were doing that year). Man, we were so cool.

Why did we ever think it was cool to smoke??
But I wish I still had that striped top!

It was an odd time for me, as I turned 21 and I would finally be cleared to order a drink in public. Again. There was a great deal of confusion for my friends and me, as the state of New York had raised the legal drinking age not once, but twice, in a short period of time. First, they raised it from 18 to 19, after I had been legally imbibing for about eight months. Then, when I was 20 and enjoying my fuzzy navels, they upped it to the national standard age of 21. In the next town over, this did not present as much of a problem, because I had a fake ID. Yes, it was bad, but shame on the state for having a no-photo ID that was made of plain old paper. I had used a safety pin to scratch off the bottom part of the 7 and a #2 pencil to reshape it into a 2, giving myself a Feb. 25 birthday! Seriously, it was ridiculous that the powers in Albany did not find a way to “grandfather” in the people who were already considered “of age.”

In my hometown though, everyone knew I was a July baby, so I had to rely on the bottles of DeKuyper Peachtree schnapps I had already purchased (when I was younger, yet “old enough”), and that was what carried me through the final stretch of waiting. Let’s just say that I bought a lot of orange juice during those weird alcohol retrograde months.

A few weeks ago, for nostalgia’s sake, I brought home a bottle of Peachtree schnapps when I spotted it in our local ABC store (that’s what we call our state-run liquor stores in North Carolina), and Lord have mercy, I wish I could have seen my own face when I took a sip! It has a fake fruit flavor and a slight medicinal edge, definitely not what I remembered as being “totally awesome.”

Yes, my taste has changed a great deal (thankfully), but I could not resist finding a fun way to pay homage to the drink of my youth, and this easy sorbet is the result of my effort. I am presenting it during National Ice Cream Month, as an alternative frozen treat for anyone who can’t eat ice cream, and as a nod to my younger self on her 21st birthday. The sorbet is surprisingly refreshing on its own, and I found that it also makes a fun brunch cocktail when topped with prosecco!

Please help me think of a good name for this fuzzy navel brunch cocktail. Mimosa and Bellini are already taken. 🙂

There is a hefty amount of peach schnapps in this sorbet, but fear not—the stuff is only 40-proof, so it isn’t going to wreck you. I pureed a handful of fresh summer peaches to add some freshness and actual peach flavor. The orange juice was a frozen concentrate (which is not as commonly available as in 1986), and I finished the mixture with a light simple syrup of sugar and water.


Ingredients

4 medium peaches, peeled and pitted

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon

2 cups water, divided

1/2 cup cane sugar

2 Tbsp. light corn syrup* (see notes)

1/3 cup frozen orange juice concentrate

1/3 cup DeKuyper Peachtree schnapps

2 Tbsp. vodka, optional for extra kick


*Notes

Corn syrup is not crucial, but I used it to help keep the sugar from forming unpleasant crystals in the frozen sorbet.


Instructions

  1. Cut up the peaches into chunks and transfer them to a regular or bullet blender. Squeeze in the lemon juice and toss lightly to prevent discoloration of the peaches.
  2. Combine 1 cup of the water and all of the sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a low boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. Stir in corn syrup. Remove from heat and allow the syrup to cool.
  3. Add the orange juice concentrate to the bullet blender, along with the peaches and about 1/2 cup of the simple syrup. Pulse a few times, then blend continuously until the mixture is smooth and uniform.
  4. Strain the puree through a mesh strainer to remove any solids, including the stringy fibers that surround the peach pits.
  5. Combine the pureed mixture, the remaining simple syrup, remaining water and the Peachtree schnapps in a large bowl or pitcher. Stir to blend. Cover with plastic wrap and chill several hours or overnight.
  6. Freeze the fuzzy navel mixture in an ice cream machine for about 25 minutes, until it’s frozen and slushy. Transfer to an insulated container and freeze overnight.

This sorbet can be served as is, or spoon a couple of tablespoons into a flute glass and top with prosecco. It’s a fun little brunch drink, almost as if a mimosa and a Bellini had a baby.


And as for you, young lady—well, you have a lot to learn. But you are awesome just as you are, even with your eyes closed. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different. ❤



Ratatouille Lasagna Roll-ups

The summer season brings all the garden-fresh vegetables I love, including zucchini and eggplant, which I would definitely be growing in our little garden plot if it weren’t for the deer. Year after year, I have tried in vain to grow my own veggies, and the increase of deer activity on our property and that of our neighbors has been almost humorous. Almost.

Gardening, for me, started as a fun, nature-loving adventure but has rapidly declined into a frustrating drama, and now we have this elevated box in our yard, where we cannot grow anything but marigolds and basil, which have proven to be the only things our local deer detest. Last year’s garden was demolished, right down to the flowers and budding fruit of the eggplants and even the jalapeno pepper plants (which I had been told deer would never eat). We have tried all the folk remedies on the internet—human hair, shavings of bar soap, peppermint oil, so-called deer repellent, and even a weird concoction I made from rotten eggs, cayenne and dish soap. That last remedy had near-catastrophic results, but I won’t embarrass my husband again with that story (you can read it here, if you’d like). This year, we didn’t even bother planting a garden, and I’m contemplating turning the raised bed into some kind of wildflower bed. I get exasperated just thinking about it.

To make up for a lack of homegrown veggies, we are regularly visiting our weekly Cobblestone farmers’ market, which features a variety of vendors offering fresh produce as well as pastured meat, eggs, organic mushrooms, jams and preserves, and even handmade alpaca wool products. It’s a fun way to spend an hour on a Saturday morning, and this past weekend, we came home with everything I needed for a new batch of ratatouille. Ah, my favorite veggie-centered summer meal!

Classic ratatouille ingredients = zucchini, eggplant, pepper, onions (leeks this time), tomato and herbs de Provence!

Me being me, though, I cannot simply chop up these ingredients and make a “traditional” ratatouille, which would be a rustic casserole-meets-stew kind of thing. I have to twist it up! My culinary muse inspired me this time to combine the French classic dish with another favorite comfort food—lasagna. I figured that I could infuse my herbs de Provence seasoning into a ricotta mixture with lemon zest and some grated cheese and that it would be the “glue” to hold the other ingredients together inside a rolled-up lasagna noodle. The eggplant and zucchini would be sliced and roasted, and the red pepper would be worked into the sauce. This is how my mind sees a pile of ingredients, and the end result was exactly as I had imagined, both visually and in perfect summer flavor. Delicious!

Inside, you can see and taste all the flavors of a summer ratatouille!

This reimagined one-dish meal took mostly time to put together; it was not at all difficult. I cannot say definitively how much time is needed because I was cooking all day, in between work emails and other home tasks. I will say that it was mostly passive time; I was either waiting for things to lose moisture or to finish roasting or to boil or bake. The rest was just slicing, chopping and stirring, and there’s no particular order that must be followed. You could even make everything a day ahead and just assemble and bake it the next day.


The entire ratatouille-meets-lasagna project weaved itself nicely into my busy day, and because each ingredient received its own treatment, the simplest way I can describe it is to share the process of each component. I’ll share a PDF version of the recipe at the end if you want to try it, but I’ll let the pictures tell the story in today’s post. Here we go! 🙂


The Ricotta Filling


The Eggplant


The Zucchini


The Red Bell Pepper


The Onions


The Tomatoes

The only classic ratatouille ingredient remaining is tomato, and though my ingredients photo displays a big, lovely heirloom tomato from the farmers’ market, I thought better of it when I began cooking my ratatouille. The heirloom tomato would have been full of seeds and too juicy for this dish, so I cast it aside and used half a can of San Marzano tomatoes instead to produce a fusion sauce, together with the roasted red pepper and a healthy dose of garlic. This sauce was similar to the roasted red pepper sauce that my husband, Les, discovered last year, but it leans more toward tomato than pepper. It was exactly what this recipe needed.


Putting it all together

Assembling and finishing my ratatouille lasagna roll-ups was a cinch! I par-cooked the lasagna noodles until they were soft and flexible, spread the ricotta mixture onto them, layered the eggplant, zucchini and leeks and rolled them up!


First ratatouille of the summer! 🙂

Oh, and that plump, juicy heirloom tomato I mentioned found its way instead to a BLT, which we enjoyed as a separate meal on freshly baked sourdough bread with local greens and some pastured pork bacon (also from the farmers’ market).

Who needs a garden, anyway? 😉



South-of-the-Border Crab Cakes

We are on a bit of a Southwest/Mexican kick at our house recently, and there are two likely reasons. First, it’s grilling season, and we enjoy cooking outdoors where it is already hot rather than heating up the house with the oven or stovetop. Southwest flavors go hand-in-hand with the grill. The other reason for this spicy flavor trend is that when my husband, Les, and I make anything with jalapenos or cilantro or chipotle, we usually begin with fresh ingredients, which means we stay on the lookout for other ways to use the remainder of those fresh items. Last week, we hosted one of Les’s buddies for dinner in our home, and our entire meal followed this theme, from the pineapple-cilantro mules and a tropical shrimp-crab ceviche to the cilantro-marinated skirt steak with handmade tortillas, all the way through to a salty-citrusy Paloma pie, which I will be sharing with you very soon. Ooh, I do love a theme party.

There are many ways to enjoy the flavors that are beloved south of the border, and this time, I’m diving into the ocean to put a slightly spicy, southwestern twist on fresh crab cakes. These easy-to-make patties are Mexed out with minced jalapenos, red onions, fire-roasted corn and a chipotle-spiked mayonnaise binder. I coated them with panko crumbs and pan-fried them for a crispy edge that kept all the tender, delicate crab nicely contained.

These crab cakes have just the right amount of heat, and the panko breading makes them nice and crispy.

What I love about this recipe (besides the fact that it was simple to make in stages when I had free moments through the day) is that it can be imagined and served in various ways—we paired the crab cakes with sautéed zucchini and onions for a light, low-carb weeknight dinner, but you could just as easily turn it into a crab cake sandwich on a brioche bun, with a chipotle-infused tartar sauce. Or perhaps as a Mexican-style Sunday brunch benedict, atop a crispy fried corn tortilla with a poached egg and green chili aioli. You could even make them itty-bitty and serve them as an appetizer. If you wanted to go way outside the box (or shell, as it were), you could swap the crab for drained, chopped hearts of palm and make them vegetarian! I mean, it’s your party. I’m only here to offer inspiration and pictures.

This recipe follows the same general ratio of ingredients as the scallion-sriracha salmon cakes I shared a few months ago and the artichoke-crab cakes that I put on top of a salad. Hey, that gives me another idea—why couldn’t these south-of-the-border crab cakes adorn a Tex-Mex salad? Of course they could.


Serves 2

Ingredients

1/3 cup canola mayo

1 Tbsp. chipotle w/ adobo puree* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. minced jalapeno

2 Tbsp. minced red onion

2 Tbsp. fire-roasted corn, thawed and patted dry

1/2 beaten egg (save the rest for another use or discard it)

Salt, pepper and garlic powder

1/4 cup panko crumbs (plus 1/4 cup extra for shaping)

6 oz. lump crab meat, picked over to remove pieces of shell

Small handful of cilantro, optional for serving


*Notes

To make the chipotle with adobo puree, empty an entire can of chipotles in adobo sauce into a food processor or blender. Pulse, then run continuously until the mixture is relatively smooth. You will only use a small amount of the mixture for this recipe. We use up the rest of it in a number of ways—in deviled eggs, hummus, homemade bbq sauce, hot dog chili, or anything else you want to give a little smoky, spicy kick in the pants. For sure, try Les’s smoky guacamole, which includes a few tablespoons of this pureed chipotle with adobo.


Instructions

Combine mayonnaise and chipotle to desired spiciness. Reserve a few tablespoons of this mixture to serve alongside the finished crab cakes. I transferred it to a small zip top bag, so I could drizzle the cakes with it.

Add the onions, jalapeno and corn to the chipotle mayo and stir until blended. Stir in the half amount of beaten egg. Fold in the crab, taking care not to break up the lumps. Sprinkle some panko crumbs into your hand, and gently shape the mixture into four patties. The mixture will be quite messy, but it will firm up in the fridge.

Arrange the cakes on a parchment-lined sheet; cover with plastic wrap and chill at least one hour, though two hours is better.

Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Swirl in about 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil. When oil begins to shimmer, carefully arrange the crab cakes into the skillet and leave them, undisturbed, until the bottom edges appear to be crispy. This should be about 4 minutes. Gently turn the cakes over to cook the same amount of time on the second side.

Serve as desired, with reserved chipotle mayo for dressing or dipping.



Pineapple-Cilantro Mexican Mule

With summer officially underway (as of Sunday at 11:32 p.m. EDT), I intend to be sufficiently armed with a lineup of refreshing, easy summer cocktails. We are finally getting back into the swing of life—fully vaccinated, planning summer travel, and enjoying the long overdue, in-person company of friends and loved ones. This makes me very happy, because one of the great common denominators for me and my husband, Les, is our delight in entertaining. Last weekend, we were pleased to have one of his fellow Yankees over for dinner, though the reference to Yankee is strictly a geographic one, as both Les and his friend, Dave, are native New Yorkers who happen to love the Mets.

While the guys talked sports in the air-conditioned comfort of our living room, I whipped up a batch of these pineapple-cilantro mules. It is my fruity, south-of-the-border twist on a classic Moscow mule, which uses vodka, lime and ginger beer. I have swapped in silver tequila and muddled some fresh pineapple and cilantro in the bottom of the copper mug. These two ingredients play especially nice together, and Dave, who initially noted that he has not enjoyed tequila since that bad experience in his younger days (you know what I mean because we all have one) joined me for a second round.

Summer tastes cooler in a copper mug!

This summery, chill cocktail is refreshing and simple to make. We have been enjoying the 1800 Coconut tequila (the same ingredient highlighted in the tequila & lime pie), but any straight silver tequila would be delicious. If you are still cringing over any tequila mishaps from your own youth, swap in a light rum and call it a twist on a mojito—no worries. 😀

Any quality brand of ginger beer will work, but I recently discovered the Q brand of cocktail mixers, and the company’s ginger beer is extra spicy and delicious, thanks to a pinch of cayenne.

I am generally not keen to have bits of anything floating in my drink, but the crushed ice keeps the muddled fruit and cilantro well-contained in the bottom of the mug.

Use fresh pineapple for best results, and if you don’t have copper mugs, go with a short rocks glass. Cheers!

The pineapple and cilantro work very well together, but if cilantro is not a favorite, the drink will be refreshing and delicious without it.

Makes 2 drinks

Ingredients

A couple of chunks of fresh pineapple for each mug bottom

A couple of sprigs of fresh cilantro for each mug bottom

3 oz. 1800 Coconut (or other silver) tequila

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 oz. canned or fresh pineapple juice

1 can or bottle ginger beer

Plenty of crushed ice


Instructions

Muddle the pineapple and cilantro together in the bottom of the mugs, using a cocktail muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon. Fill the mugs about 2/3 full with crushed ice.

Combine tequila, pineapple juice and freshly squeezed lime in a cocktail shaker. Add about 1 cup of ice cubes and shake about 30 seconds, until the shaker is uncomfortably cold.

Strain the cocktail into the ice-filled mugs. Top with ginger beer. Garnish as desired. Repeat at your own risk.



Mac and Pimiento Cheese

Show up at any family reunion or church potluck in the South, and you can bet your sweet tea you’ll find at least three kinds of mac and cheese on the table, plus a couple of pimiento cheese appetizers (probably layered thinly in little white bread finger sandwiches). I love doing mashups of classic foods, and so it seemed obvious to me that pimiento cheese should be paired with mac and cheese. It’s a beautiful, diet-be-danged casserole collision, if I do say so myself.

If you have made any of my other mac and cheese recipes, you know that American cheese is usually the standard in my cheese sauce base. The special salts and enzymes in American cheese are what gives it that ultra-creamy, ooey-gooey meltability, and isn’t that the best thing about mac and cheese?


But pimiento cheese has its own character (namely, it’s mayonnaise-y) and I didn’t want it to feel overshadowed in this mashup. Last summer, I shared the recipe that my husband, Les, uses for pimiento cheese, and it is awesome but not a classic “Southern” style (mainly because it was not drenched in enough greasy mayonnaise). My own pimiento cheese recipe is also shy-of-classic, because I blend together mayonnaise and cream cheese for the base, and it’s probably no surprise that I usually add unexpected ingredients such as jalapeno or chopped pickles. I just can’t leave well enough alone.

For this “mac and pimiento cheese,” which just happens to be my 200th post here on Comfort du Jour, I leaned on cream cheese rather than American in the base for my cheese sauce. I really wanted the smooth, velvety texture of the mild cream cheese to anchor all the cheddar that’s happening throughout the rest of the dish. For the pimiento cheese accents, I used a whole jar of roasted red peppers, drained and chopped into small pieces. Some of them went into the cheese sauce, but the rest found their way into a quick mayo-based pimiento cheese that was layered in with the cooked noodles and cheese sauce before baking. All those dollops gave this mac and cheese that distinctive mayonnaise-y tang that is so signature to a good, classic Southern pimiento cheese.

Oh mercy me, look at that pimiento cheese dripping through that mac and cheese!

Disclaimer warning on this one—there’s a lot of richness in this recipe, and the chance is fair to middlin’ this mac and pimiento cheese will crush your calorie count, so you would do well to consider it dinner all on its own or with a fresh side salad. Here we go, y’all!


Ingredients

Cheese sauce

1/2 medium onion, diced small

4 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

6 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp* (this was most of a standard brick)

8 oz. brick sharp cheddar, shredded* (see notes)

About half of a 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped


Pimiento cheese dollops

2 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp (the rest of the brick)

1/4 cup mayonnaise

A few shakes sweet paprika

The other half of the 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped

4 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded (this was roughly a cup)


For assembling the casserole

Most of a 1 lb. package of macaroni or other pasta*

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

1/4 cup parm-romano blend (ours was seasoned with “chili onion crunch” from Trader Joe’s)


*Notes

I recommend regular, full-fat cream cheese for this recipe. I have found that the light version does not maintain the creamy texture in a heated sauce. For the complete recipe, I used an entire 8 oz. brick of cream cheese, but it was divided nearly evenly between the cheese sauce and the pimiento cheese mixture.

Two kinds of cheddar went into my mac and pimiento cheese, because we like spicy stuff at our house. I used an entire 8 oz. brick of sharp cheddar and half a brick of habanero cheddar. Mix and match to your liking, but reserve about a cup of shredded cheese for the pimiento cheese mixture.

Pimientos are a variety of pepper, and though it is easy to find jars of pimientos at the market, I used a large jar of roasted red peppers because that is what I had in the cabinet. You might even choose to roast fresh peppers yourself—that’s what I usually do when I make my own version of pimiento cheese. If you choose jarred peppers or pimientos, be sure to drain them well and use a paper towel to wick away excess moisture.

I held back about 1/4 of the box of pasta for this recipe, because I wanted it to be extra “saucy.” Classic elbow macaroni works great in a mac and cheese, and I always encourage choosing pasta that is labeled “bronze die cut,” because the surface of the pasta is rougher and holds a sauce extremely well. Cook your pasta just barely to the “al dente” stage, or a bit underdone than you would prefer. When you bake the mac and cheese, it will soften further from the heat and the cheese sauce.


Instructions

  1. Make the béchamel: melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Saute the onions until soft. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine. Cook until flour is absorbed and bubbly. Add milk and whisk until smooth.
  2. Add the first amount of cream cheese to the béchamel and whisk until smooth and creamy. Add the shredded cheddar, a handful at a time, and whisk until smooth. Use immersion blender (optional) to amplify the creamy texture of the cheese sauce.
  3. Pat dry the first amount of pimientos or roasted red peppers, and stir them into the cheese sauce.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350° F, with oven rack in center position.
  5. Cook the elbow macaroni or pasta according to package instructions until just al dente. Slightly undercooked is better than overcooked, as the pasta will absorb moisture form the cheese sauce during baking. Drain the pasta and cool slightly.
  6. Combine the remaining cream cheese and mayo, whisking as needed to create a smooth-textured spread. Add the remaining pimientos (pat them dry first), paprika and remaining shredded cheddar.
  7. Fold the cooked pasta into the cheese sauce and layer about half of it into a glass 8 x 8 inch casserole. Spoon dollops of pimiento cheese mixture randomly over the mac and cheese, then layer on the rest of the pasta mixture. Spoon remaining pimiento cheese over the surface of the mac and cheese, but do not spread it.
  8. Bake the mac and cheese, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the cheesy panko crumbs all over the top of the mac and cheese. Slide it back into the oven for 15 more minutes. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Life is good, y’all!


My Big Fat Greek Pizza

If this were a normal year, the Greek Orthodox church in our city would not have had a long line of cars snaking around it this past weekend, with drivers waiting to purchase prepared food in white Styrofoam take-out boxes. It would not have been nearly so quiet, and it would not have been the impersonal experience my husband, Les, had when he picked up our Saturday night meal. The string of taillights ahead of him and the line of vehicles in his rear-view mirror were a stark contrast to a “normal” mid-May visit to the church’s annual fundraiser.

The Greek Festival should have been a noisy, three-day celebration for all ages, packed with singing, music, dancing, eating, drinking and intermittent yells of, “Opa!!!!” There would be authentic heritage costumes and colorful art for sale and scheduled history lessons inside the Orthodox Church sanctuary. But this has not been a normal year, nor was it last year, when the Greek Festival was cancelled altogether for safety reasons. This year, at least, the church gave it a go by offering drive-through pickup of its most popular food items—some prepared and some frozen. Sadly, the take-out box did not do my hot meal any favors, but I have higher hopes for the spanakopita we tossed into the freezer.

The food is one of the things I usually love most about the Greek Festival, and you can bet I will be there next year when things (hopefully) look more normal. The flavors of the Greek culture are so bold and fresh, and I cannot resist applying them to foods that don’t necessarily speak Greek, including this inspired pizza.

This pie has all my favorite Greek flavors in one bite!

Les and I enjoyed this one a couple of months ago, and I am finally sharing it here on Comfort du Jour. We have a regular tradition of Friday night pizza at our house, and though we do enjoy a classic Italian sausage or pepperoni pie, you know I also love to twist them up with other flavors. Visit the Pizza Party page for a quick review if you are looking for some new topping ideas.

For this tantalizing “Big Fat Greek Pizza,” I started with my own N.Y.-style pizza dough and a simple tomato sauce base, the same as I would use on a traditional Italian pie. Next, I crisped-up bits of “Greek God” sausage, an offering of one of our local butcher counters. The sausage is full of bright herbal flavors—oregano, basil, garlic and rosemary—and I had been imagining it on a pizza for quite some time, though I’m quite sure this pizza would be just as good with no meat. I piled on spinach, red onions, Kalamatas, fresh cherry tomatoes and a whole bunch of feta, and that should have been “Greek” enough. But my favorite part was the dollops of cool cucumber-garlic tzatziki that went into place after the pizza emerged from the oven. The combination of all these ingredients was like a flavor explosion, giving me my very own Greek festival, all in one delicious bite.

Opa!!!


Ingredients

Tzatziki:

1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt, stirred

2 Tbsp. half and half

1/4 cup diced cucumber, seeded and patted dry

1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 Tbsp. fresh dill leaves, chopped (chop some extra for sprinkling over the finished pizza)

Combine ingredients and keep refrigerated until ready to serve pizza.

Pizza:

1 ball pizza dough (here’s a link for My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough*, if you’d like to try it)

About 1/4 cup pizza sauce or fresh tomato sauce

A few shakes of grated parm-romano blend

1/2 cup shredded firm mozzarella

1 link cooked and sliced Greek God sausage* or similar product (see notes)

1/2 medium red onion, sliced

1 fat handful baby spinach leaves

Handful of pitted Kalamata olives*, roughly chopped

6 or 7 cherry or grape tomatoes, washed and halved

3/4 cup fresh feta, crumbled*

Additional chopped fresh dill, for serving


*Notes

If you decide to try my version of N.Y. pizza dough, note that it takes a few days’ time in the fridge, so plan accordingly. This recipe is intended for a thin-crust pizza, and my heating and bake time instructions are specific to baking on a pizza steel or stone. If you prefer to bake on a pan or at lower temperature, adjust your baking time to your preferred method.

The “Greek God” sausage I used for this pizza is a specialty product from a specific local grocery. It is a fresh pork sausage, seasoned with basil, oregano, garlic and rosemary, and we cooked (actually, smoked) it prior to using it. Any mild pork, chicken or turkey sausage would make a fine substitute, or you could easily omit the sausage altogether. The other flavors on this pizza are more than enough to elevate your happy.

Kalamata olives are specifically grown in the Kalamata region of Greece, and they are not the same as inexpensive, canned “black” olives. They are more oblong than round, and they are usually packed in a briny liquid with wine or olive oil. It’s easy to find them in jars or on specialty olive bars, if your supermarket has one. They can be a little pricey, but as far as I’m concerned, they are worth their weight in gold. Be sure to select pitted olives for this recipe, unless you find it exciting to crack a tooth.

I prefer to use fresh blocks of feta, as it has better flavor and texture than most crumbled feta. If the feta block is packed in brine, be sure to pat it dry with paper towels before crumbling, to minimize excess moisture.


Instructions


  1. Preheat pizza steel for one hour at 550° F, or the recommended temperature for your pizza stone, with oven rack about 8 inches from the top heat element. If using a metal pan, place rack in lower third of oven.
  2. Prepare toppings: sauté red onion just until softened, then sauté spinach until wilted. Transfer both to a dish to cool.
  3. Shape pizza dough into a 14-inch round and transfer to a floured pizza peel that is dusted with cornmeal (or place on a greased pizza pan). Brush or spray dough with olive oil, and season with kosher salt and a few twists of black pepper.
  4. Spread tomato sauce evenly over the dough, all but 1 inch around edge.
  5. Distribute the shredded mozzarella, then the cut-up, cooked sausage pieces (if using), onions and spinach, Kalamatas, tomatoes and feta cheese.
  6. Transfer pizza to preheated steel or stone, and bake for about 7 minutes, until crust is golden brown and toppings are bubbling.
  7. Arrange small dollops of tzatziki sauce over pizza, sprinkle with remaining dill leaves.

Interested in more delicious, Greek-inspired recipes?


Queso Fundido Pizza

In our early months of getting to know each as slightly more than “just friends,” my husband, Les, and I took a road trip into southern Virginia for an afternoon of antiquing. He had been working on redecorating his living room and was on the search for an interesting accent table or other cool décor item. And mostly, we were both looking for new ways to hang out together.

Along the way, we found this funky table with an adjustable wooden top that screwed down into the base. It was not very practical, given that the three legs are not properly spaced out and it tipped over if you set something on it. But it was fun and different, and with a fresh coat of paint, it livened up his living space. We also stopped at a few roadside stands, browsing through fresh peaches, honey, jams and preserves, along with all varieties of handmade crafts.

The most fun thing about that day, though, was our visit to a Mexican restaurant called Chile Rojo, just inside the N.C. state line. The music and décor were lively, the food was delish and the company of this guy who once seemed so serious to me was just about the best thing going. Les and I met in a pool hall, where we both played in a 9-ball league, and our first impressions of each other (as is often the case with married couples) were not particularly positive. He thought I was flirty (for sure, I was) and a bit on the flighty side. I thought he was intense and without much sense of humor. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that second part, and it was interactions such as this road trip that really helped me see the relaxed, authentic side of this man who would, nearly two years later, become my husband.

It didn’t hurt that we both have a passion for great food and adventurous palates that make us open to trying each other’s favorite things. On this visit to Chile Rojo, his eyes scanned the menu, landing on their choriqueso dip, which he called “queso fundido.” It was a typical Mexican queso dip—creamy, melty and salty—but this one had spicy, crispy bits of chorizo sausage floating around in it, causing a flavor explosion in every bite. Truth be told, I had probably experienced this stuff at some point in my past, and maybe I had just never heard the name of it. But in the heat of that July evening, as Les and I sipped our Mexican lagers and enjoyed dragging our crispy warm tortilla chips through this queso fundido dip, everything seemed new and delicious.

Inspired by the best choriqueso dip ever, we created a pizza that displays all the fiesta-fresh flavors of queso fundido!

That first of many road trips for us as a couple is still on my mind whenever we order queso fundido, and in honor of Cinco de Mayo this week, Les and I decided to put those fabulous flavors onto a pizza. My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough went south of the border for the occasion, as I subbed in a portion of corn flour for the usual amount of whole wheat flour, a subtle nod to the tortilla chips we like so much. Shredded pepperjack cheese provided a base for the toppings. The chorizo sausage was browned up with chopped onions, and accompanied by fire-roasted corn, pickled jalapeno and fresh slices of fresno chiles. The hot oven transformed the dollops of melty queso dip into blistered patches of ooey-gooey deliciousness, and when we pulled the pizza from the hot steel, we topped it with cool cubes of avocado and fresh cilantro leaves. Like all of our adventures, this pizza was awesome.

Oh, and it turns out Les isn’t always so serious. Thank goodness, because neither am I. ❤

Me, being loco in love at Chile Rojo, 2015.

Ingredients

2 chorizo sausage links, casings removed

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1 cup cream, half and half or whole milk* (see notes)

3 oz. white American cheese, cubed*

2 oz. cheddar and pepperjack cheese combination

A few shakes Flatiron Pepper Co. hatch valley green chiles (optional, but wow)

1/2 cup fire-roasted corn (fresh or frozen)

Small handful pickled jalapenos, patted dry on paper towels

1 small Fresno chile pepper, thinly sliced

1 ball My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough (or your favorite dough)*

1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese (or Monterey Jack for less heat)

For serving:

1/2 avocado, cubed

Handful fresh cilantro, washed and chopped

Fresh squeeze of lime

*Notes

Depending on the type of dairy you use (cream, half and half or milk), you may need to adjust the ratio a bit. Cream, of course, has the highest fat content and whole milk has the lowest. I do not recommend 2% or skim milk for queso, as they don’t have the fat content to support the melted cheese. For readers abroad, “half and half” is a popular product in the U.S. that is essentially a 50/50 mix of cream and milk, and it amounts to about 12% milkfat.

I always use American cheese for its incredible meltability. I’m not sure if that is a word, but I think you understand my point! Regular cheddar has great flavor on its own, but without the special enzymes that exist in American cheese, a sauce made with only cheddar will break in the heat of the oven. I purchase American cheese in chunks at the deli counter of my supermarket, rather than the dairy aisle.

Our pizzas are baked on a steel, preheated at 550°F for an hour before baking. If you bake at a lower temperature, you will need to adjust baking time, and consider turning on the broiler for a brief minute at the end, to put a nice blister on the queso topping.

Note also that this pizza is par-baked before the queso dip is added, then returned to the oven for final browning. Do not add the queso at the start of the baking time, as it will burn and may prevent even cooking of the dough.

The queso is beautifully browned and creamy, and the chorizo crisped up a bit in the oven.

Instructions

First, the queso dip, which we love on its own, so we made more than we needed for this pizza. Without question, we will enjoy the rest on homemade nachos or just snacking with tortilla chips. If you make the queso ahead of time, note that it will become solid in the fridge. No worries, just warm on low heat to creamy consistency again, and cool to room temp for topping the pizza.

When you are ready to make the pizza, preheat the oven to 550°F if using a steel, or the recommended temperature for your pizza stone. Your oven rack should be about 8 inches from the top of the oven. If you are using a pizza pan, place the rack in the lower third of the oven to ensure thorough baking of the crust, and plan to adjust your baking time.

And now, the rest of the pizza!

Muy bueno!


Kentucky Hot Brown Pizza

“Riders up!” will be the exclamation this Saturday evening, when the jockeys rev up their adrenaline to compete in the Kentucky Derby, which has long been called “the greatest two minutes in sports.” I cannot claim to know much about the horses or the race, but I do enjoy the culinary traditions that accompany this annual event. The signature drink, of course, is the mint julep, which I have globalized this year by swapping in a mint relative to create a Thai Basil Julep. The signature dish of the Derby is an open-faced beauty of a sandwich known as the Kentucky Hot Brown, created in the 1920s by chefs in the Brown Hotel in Louisville, which is also home to the Derby. The Hot Brown is an all-American spin on a Welsh rarebit, served warm with slices of turkey breast and fresh tomato, draped in Mornay sauce and topped with criss-crossed slices of bacon—all of that lusciousness is piled high on a thick slice of buttery, toasted brioche points. It’s a tradition so beloved in Kentucky, the Brown Hotel’s website has a special page dedicated to the Hot Brown.

That’s the tradition, anyway. But in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not prone to follow tradition to the letter. I am all about twisting up the classics, and I’m doing it again, moving all the Kentucky Hot Brown ingredients off the thick brioche and onto a thin crust pizza. All the proper flavors are in attendance, but in a slightly different order and a more casual presentation. You’re welcome.

I have taken one major shortcut, using low-sodium, deli turkey breast slices. The turkey, in my opinion, is not the star of a Kentucky hot brown, so I don’t need to roast my own. The smoky bacon is par-cooked, but still soft, because I know that it will take on more crispiness under the intense heat of my oven. The tomatoes are simple—just thin slices of fresh Roma, a low-moisture variety that won’t make my pizza soggy, and it will provide some freshness to cut through the richness. That leaves only one component—the Mornay—and that is where I put most of my energy for this pizza interpretation of a Kentucky hot brown. Mornay is the special sauce that elevates all the other flavors, transforming a turkey and bacon sandwich into something rich and special. And it’s easy to make, beginning with a simple bechamel.

If the idea of bechamel seems intimidating, I suppose you can blame it on the French name. Thankfully, when my Gram taught me to make it so many years ago, she just called it “white sauce,” and she made it so often that it never occurred to me to be nervous about it. Take away the fancy name and bechamel is nothing more than small amounts of butter and flour, cooked until bubbly and whisked up with milk, then accented with freshly grated nutmeg. There’s nothing fancy about it, and it is terrifically versatile. A quick stir-in of gruyere cheese and a little white pepper makes it a Mornay and transforms this turkey and bacon pizza into a Kentucky hot brown pie.

Do yourself a favor and prep all the ingredients ahead of time. Once this pizza party begins, things move quickly. Kind of like the Kentucky Derby.

Ingredients

1 1/2 Tbsp. salted butter

2 Tbsp. finely diced onion

2 tsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

About 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

1 oz. white American cheese*

2 oz. cubed smoked Gruyere cheese*

2 Tbsp. shredded white cheddar*

A pinch of ground white pepper

4 slices thin-cut smoked bacon, stretched and cut into two-inch pieces

3 slices low-sodium turkey breast*

1 large Roma tomato, washed and thinly sliced

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 ball of My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough* (or your own favorite), rested at room temperature

*Notes

American cheese is usually some form of cheddar, processed with a special enzyme and salts that make it ultra-melty. This is a go-to ingredient for any creamy cheese sauce I make. If you are skittish about using “processed” cheese, you can use regular block cheese, but the sauce will not be as creamy and is likely to separate and become oily during baking of the pizza.

The Boar’s Head brand of smoked Gruyere that I used here is also a processed cheese, but a regular Gruyere will work fine in combination with the white American cheese. In the original Brown Hotel recipe, a good Parmesan would be in order. I selected this cheese for the smoke flavor, to play up the smoky bacon.

I recommend using a low-sodium version of turkey breast, or fresh, home-roasted if you wish. Typical deli turkey is very salty, and it may be too much, given that the bacon and cheese sauce already have a fair amount of sodium.

For this pie, I did something a little different with my N.Y. pizza dough. I subbed in a small portion of corn flour, as a subtle nod to the bourbon in our accompanying Derby drinks. It was terrific! Never stop experimenting, friends. If you choose to use my pizza dough recipe, please note that it should be made a couple of days ahead, so plan accordingly.

I bake my N.Y.-style pizzas on a pizza steel at 550° F. If you use a stone, follow manufacturer’s instructions. If you use a pan, do yourself a big favor and buy a stone or a steel. 😉
We use a steel made by Dough-Joe, and it has been an absolute game changer for our pizzas at home.

Instructions

  1. Prepare the bechamel by melting butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the diced onion. When butter begins to brown, add flour and whisk until smooth. Continue cooking, whisking occasionally, until flour begins to brown and is very bubbly.
  2. Add milk and whisk until blended and thickened. Continue to cook a few minutes to soften the flavor. Stir in the freshly grated nutmeg and the skinniest pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Add the cubes of American cheese and whisk until melted. Repeat with smoked Gruyere and then with cheddar. Stir in the white pepper. Remove from heat and cover the pan so that the sauce does not form a skin. If you work ahead and refrigerate this, warm it to smooth, spreadable consistency before making the pizza.
  4. In a cast-iron skillet, cook the bacon pieces over medium-low heat, long enough to render the fat and brown the meat, but not long enough to crisp it. Transfer bacon pieces to a paper towel to drain excess fat.
  5. Cut the deli turkey slices into thin strips, then chop cross-wise into bits.
  6. Spread the tomato slices onto a paper towel and season with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Rinse the thyme sprigs, then pat dry and strip the leaves from the tough stems.
  7. Shape the pizza dough into a 14-inch round and place it on a floured, cornmeal-dusted peel for easy transfer to the oven.
  8. Spoon small dollops of the cooled Mornay sauce onto the dough, and gently even it across the dough with the back of your spoon.
  9. Arrange the turkey all over the sauce, then the bacon and tomato slices.
  10. Add more small dollops of Mornay, between and around the other ingredients. It’s OK to overlap the other toppings, but try not to “bury” them, and keep the dollops away from the edges of the pie.
  11. Sprinkle all over with the fresh thyme leaves, and slide the pizza onto the hot steel. Bake for about 7 minutes, until crust is golden and crispy and Mornay is browned and bubbly.

Hungry for more Kentucky Derby watch party foods?


Thai Basil Julep

The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is mere days away, and after the big deal I made about it last year, I had to issue at least a couple of recipes to keep the momentum of this spring occasion. I’m starting this year with the most obvious offering, a cocktail.

I had hoped that the Derby might be an inaugural outing for my husband, Les, and me—an event that could finally find us in the personal company of friends, without masks or restrictions. Alas, I am only halfway vaccinated, with my second COVID jab scheduled for tomorrow (fingers crossed!), so there won’t be time before Saturday for antibodies to take hold just yet. Nevertheless, we will celebrate, probably with a batch of the Kentucky Hot Brown Dip I created last year, or perhaps the Hearts of Palm Citrus Ceviche, maybe finishing with my Southern Belle Lemon Bars, and most certainly, with a cocktail and a fancy hat.

If you missed the special drinks I whizzed up last year, either for the “preview party,” because the Derby was postponed by COVID, or the actual run for the roses, which happened in September, you’ll want to circle back to check out those fun libations.

Bourbon is a staple on Derby day, being born in Kentucky and all, and in my quest to make good use of all the fresh herbs I am constantly plucking from our countertop Aerogarden, I have come up with a global spin on the drink that is signature to Kentucky Derby—the mint julep. Though I do have some variety of mint (spearmint, maybe?) growing at a very slow pace, I am literally overwhelmed with another herb, Thai basil, and I thought, “why not?” Thai basil is part of the mint family, so it seemed like it might work. It’s decidedly not the same flavor as the Genovese basil that would be on your caprese salad or in your pesto. It is used widely in Thai and Vietnamese food, with subtle notes of basil, of course, but there is a distinct difference that took some time for my taste buds to identify. It’s anise, the same general flavor of fennel or licorice, which is not unlike Peychaud’s bitters, a classic item for any serious cocktail cart. I knew that the Thai basil flavor would work with the bourbon, and to play up the Asian spin, I added the slightest splash of lemongrass-mint white balsamic vinegar, which I picked up in a specialty shop. Strange, you say, to add vinegar? White balsamic is no more tart than a squeeze of citrus (it’s actually sweeter), and the lemongrass is a refreshing complement to the drink.

Turns out, this was a very good call! Paired with the sweetness of the bourbon, this anise-scented herb is a winner. Rather than muddle the Thai basil in the cocktail glass (oh, I can’t stand little bits of things floating in my drink), I have infused a simple syrup with a fat handful of Thai basil, so it is technically a “smash,” rather than a julep. Either way, a half-ounce of this fragrant, slightly exotic syrup flavors a shot of bourbon quite nicely. Mix it up in a cocktail shaker with a splash of the lemongrass-mint white balsamic, strain it over crushed ice, and you are ready for the race. Garnish it with a fresh lemon twist, if you’d like, plus a sprig of the Thai basil, and enjoy!

Ingredients

2 oz. bourbon (I used Elijah Craig Small Batch)

0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) Thai basil simple syrup (recipe below)

1 bar spoon (about 1/2 tsp.) lemongrass-mint white balsamic vinegar*

Lemon twist and fresh Thai basil leaves to garnish

Any smooth bourbon is good here, plus the simple syrup, lemongrass-mint white balsamic and garnishes.

*Notes

The lemongrass-mint white balsamic is a specialty ingredient I purchased at a boutique olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop. These stores have popped up everywhere in recent years, and I love being creative with their products. I cannot name a brand because the shops are franchised with various names. But if the shop owner confirms their supplier is “Veronica Foods,” then it is the right stuff! If you can’t find it, leave it out and go for the twist of lemon. Perhaps substitute with a couple drops of bitters. It’s Derby time, so bourbon is the star anyway. 🙂

Instructions

Combine bourbon, syrup and white balsamic in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add about a cup of ice and stir or shake until outside of the container is uncomfortably cold, about 20 seconds.

Strain over crushed ice into a cocktail or julep glass. Garnish with lemon twist or a fresh sprig of Thai basil.

With or without a fancy hat or a horse race, this is a refreshing spring cocktail!

Thai basil simple syrup

1/2 cup filtered water

1/2 cup organic cane sugar

1 handful Thai basil leaves, cleaned and trimmed of heavy stems

The leaves have a warm, aromatic quality that is different from Italian basil varieties. Allow them to steep in the simple syrup until it is cooled, then strain out the leaves and store in the refrigerator.

Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to slight boil. Remove from heat, stir in Thai basil leaves and steep until cool. Strain out the leaves. Transfer the syrup to an airtight jar, and store it in the refrigerator for up to one month.

This drink is so refreshing, and it is making good use of all my Thai basil. Cheers from my backyard!