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A crunchy crust, a gooey caramel layer and a ganache topping--the perfect toffee bar at last.

By Laurie A. Perry
I’ve been making toffee bars since I was nine years old–but not the same toffee bar. I’ve tried a dozen recipes by that name, and I started numbering the ones I liked enough to make twice. Toffee bar number one had coconut and brown sugar. Toffee bar number two had a brown sugar and butter crust and a topping of melted Hershey’s milk chocolate (milk chocolate–no wonder that one fell by the wayside). Number three, from an ancient Better Homes and Gardens cookie cookbook, calls for a sweetened condensed milk filling and a fudge frosting. I liked it–and Mel really liked it–but it never quite worked.

So I’ve been tinkering with the recipe, and I think the current version is pretty darn good. Try it; see what you think. I’m taking a batch to a New Year’s Day gathering. Because, you know, there just aren’t enough sweets this time of year.

GANACHE-TOPPED TOFFEE BARS

Crust
2 cups flour
1 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Filling
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons vanilla

Ganache topping
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 cup cream

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9×11-inch baking pan with foil.*
Make the crust: stir together the dry ingredients. Melt the butter; add the vanilla to the butter, and mix both into the dry ingredients. Pat the mixture into the prepared pan; it will be soft and easy to spread out. Bake for about 20 minutes, until lightly browned.
While the crust is baking, make the filling. Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a medium saucepan, add the butter and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about five minutes, stirring to keep it from burning. The mixture will thicken. Add the vanilla.

Pour the filling over the baked crust, making sure to cover all of the crust. Bake for another 20 minutes. It will bubble and turn a lovely golden brown (toffee-colored, in fact).
Remove from the oven and let cool for about half an hour. Make the ganache: break up the bittersweet chocolate and place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan; pour in the cream, and put the pan over low heat. Melt the chocolate, stirring. When the mixture is nice and smooth and glossy, it’s ready to pour gently over the first two layers. Once again, go for coverage–you want the ganache to cover the entire surface.

Chill. Remove the confection from the pan, using the overhanging foil as a handle. Cut into bars. These are rich, so don’t make the pieces too large.

*Maida Heatter’s fool-proof method for lining a pan with aluminum foil: Turn the pan upside down. Tear off a large piece of foil and press it over the pan, so you have the basic shape. Then press the foil into the pan, using a dish towel to keep the foil from tearing.

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Today we have a guest post from our nephew Ryan Moore, who came up with this yummy quinoa dish. It’s a nice change from all of the rich foods of the winter holidays, and it’s very pretty too.

By Ryan Moore
Quinoa is a wonderful, soft, light, fluffy, grainlike seed that can easily be tossed into salads or serve as a replacement for other grains. It’s so easy to prepare too. My mother, in her explorations of healthy gluten-free alternatives to wheat, introduced me to quinoa, and it quickly became a favorite.

The ingredients for a simple, delicious and healthy salad.


I started out thinking I would create something like tabouleh with it, but the homogeneous nature of traditional tabouleh doesn’t suit fluffy quinoa, so I broke it into two parts: the warm nutty quinoa and a delicious seasonal mixture of pomegranate and cucumber. I liked that combination a lot, but I thought it needed something just a little richer and sweeter than the traditional olive oil and lemon juice as a dressing, so I came up with a yogurt-honey dressing.

Quinoa Cucumber-Pomegranate Salad

Quinoa:
•1 cup dry quinoa
•1tbs butter or ghee
•1/2tsp ground cumin (whole Cumin can also be used)
•2 pods black cardamom, ground
•1 clove garlic, pressed
•2 cups water
•Salt to taste

Pomegranate-Cucumber salad:
•1 pomegranate
•½ English cucumber, or 2-3 Persian cucumbers, diced
•½ red onion, quartered and finely sliced
•flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
•1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
•juice from 1 lemon, plus some of the lemon zest
•1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste

Yogurt-Honey dressing:
•Greek yogurt
•Mint, chiffonade or finely chop
•Honey to taste

Preparation: Heat butter/ghee (I like to use ghee because it tolerates high) in a pot over medium to medium-high heat. Add the cardamom, cumin and salt. Stir or swirl that together; it should become fragrant almost immediately–just make sure it doesn’t burn. Add the pressed garlic and when you can smell the garlic, pour in the dry quinoa. Stir that around for 30-60 seconds. Add water, cover, bring to a boil and then simmer until done.
While the quinoa is cooking, mix together the yogurt, mint and honey; set aside. You’ll notice there are no amounts given–that’s because your taste buds must be the guideline. Start with a cup of yogurt and a dollop of honey, plus a tablespoon of mint chiffonade. Add more of any single ingredient until you have a flavor you love.
Separate out the pomegranate kernels. If you’ve never done this before, it’s easiest to completely submerge the pomegranate in water, split or cut it in half, and then liberate the kernels (yes, I do mean liberate; they are delicate). The pith will float to the surface and the kernels will fall to the bottom. Combine the pomegranate kernels and the remaining ingredients in a bowl and toss them together gently.
As far as presentation goes, the only important guideline is the separation of the three components. For single servings, simply place a serving spoon’s worth of quinoa into a bowl or onto a plate, top with a generous dollop of mint yogurt and top with the pomegranate-cucumber mixture.
These great colors and flavors make a fabulous presentation
Hazel served it at her holiday party in a large shallow bowl, mounding the quinoa in the bowl and then creating a well in the center for the yogurt sauce, with a festive wreath of the pomegranate-cucumber salad circling it.

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Apps Not on My iPhone

I never thought this day would come, but somehow it has. Many of my sisters have grandkids. There’s a reason I bring this up. In the past, my house was Thanksgiving central. My sisters who lived in town would come; my aunt would come and my mom would be there.

Before I knew it, I’d have 35 for dinner.

Colorful vegetables dress up any party platter


Everyone contributed. We got my aunt Mary’s wonderful broccoli casserole, my sis-in-law Vicki’s sweet potatoes – well, you get my drift – a feast! When the dining room table was fully loaded, we would announce dinner and the line would form. Laurie and I usually collapsed and let it; we were rarely hungry after the hours of cooking. Everyone would find a place to sit with their plates perched in their laps, a glass of wine resting precariously wherever they could find room, we’d eat, chat, help with the dishes and depart. Usually leaving me with a table still laden with food. I’ve gotten smarter over the years. I encourage everyone to take leftovers. That way I’m not stuck with the duty of “not throwing away perfectly good food.”

But this year, it’s happened; my sisters are preparing their own Thanksgiving dinners with their own new traditions for their grandchildren to remember. Their own recipes to pass down and teach. Their own tables to design and fancy plates to wash. Thus we find ourselves with a very rare occurrence – a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner at my house. Dinner for eight. Wahoo!

Let in-season locally grown fruit be part of your appetizer platter

Normally, we expect our guests to arrive anywhere from noon to six, so we make sure there are appetizers out all day. This year, Laurie and I are whittling down our enormous repertoire of hors d’oeuvres to accommodate our six guests. We usually worry about how to keep starvation at bay while other guests are still driving from fifty miles away. (Something of a challenge, let me tell you: We would tell everyone that dinner was at six, my brother and his wife and brood would arrive at 6:30 with their side dish that needed an hour in the oven, and my brother would tap his foot, asking sarcastically when dinner would be ready. “You said six!”) This year – nope! We’re wondering which few appetizers will appeal the most and which will be expected and missed if we don’t trot them out. How fun is this!

So to kick off the holiday season, we’re giving you our appetizers. You can get the main Thanksgiving dinner from every cooking show on TV, you don’t need us to give you hints. Although, let’s face it: it’s me and Laurie – it’s what we do!

There’s one appetizer that we absolutely insist on. It was published years ago in Bon Appetit. Here’s the link to Black Pepper Almonds. Sometimes these never make it out of the kitchen–cooks get first crack at them.

Hazel

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Perfect for Halloween. Or Thanksgiving. Nut-topped pumpkin bars are luscious and so easy to make.


Are you surprised? Once again, we bring you a dessert that will never be recommended by the American Heart Association. But these pumpkin bars are perfect for Halloween parties, and I’m making dozens of them for my sister Allis’s housewarming Halloween bash. (I also made bunches of them for a recent Molly’s Mutts & Meows fundraiser.)

The original version of this bar cookie used a spice cake mix as the base. Just between you and me, I thought it was disgusting. So I replaced it with the world’s easiest bar cookie base, created by Alice Medrich and published in her wonderful book Pure Dessert, as the base for the best lemon bars ever. The topping does have one healthy item in it: pumpkin. The rest of it–cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, eggs… Well, I suggest when people ask what’s in them, you just mention the pumpkin.

Here’s the recipe.

Cream Cheese Pumpkin Bars

This makes a 9×13-inch panful, and it is made in two stages: first you bake the base, then the filling with the base. Total baking time is about an hour.

The base:
2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

The filling:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
16 oz. can pumpkin
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (or 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon cloves, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon ginger)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup chopped walnut or pecans

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir together the sugar, salt and flour. Melt the butter and pour it into the flour mixture; add the vanilla. Stir it together and dump it into the pan and pat it out to the edges. (Notice the elegant simplicity of this approach: no hauling out the food processor and cutting up cold butter and whirring it together with the dry ingredients and then pressing the crumbs into the pan. This is easy.) Bake it for about 25 minutes, until it’s well browned at the edges and golden in the middle.

In the meantime, make the filling. Beat the cream cheese until it’s fluffy, then pour in the milk and beat again. Add the eggs, pumpkin, spices and salt. Mix well. Pour over the baked crust and sprinkle nuts over the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until set. Cool and then refrigerate.

However, I think these bars are delicious warm, and I dig right in as soon I think they’ve cooled off enough that I won’t burn my mouth too badly.

For parties, I cut the bars about an inch square and put each one in a cupcake paper. There are lots of cute and seasonal cupcake papers around; I’m using black-and-white polka-dot ones for this holiday.

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making ice cream with a Cuisinart ice cream maker

Buttermilk gives this ice cream tang and reduces the fat content--a little. After all, ice cream is supposed to be delicious, not health food.

I’ve been promising myself all summer that I’d make ice cream. I even remembered to put the Cuisinart canister in the freezer…months ago. But somehow, one thing or another prevented me from spending a happy day creating a decadent, or even semi-decadent, treat. Finally, on the first day of autumn, I got around to it. Now, I know some people have fall weather by the end of September, but it hit 95 in the San Fernando Valley, so ice cream was definitely appropriate.

Some years ago I made an ice cream with sour cream that had a lovely tanginess, and I wanted to re-create that flavor with, ideally, a little less butterfat. Low-fat buttermilk sounded like a good substitute. No one could call this a low-fat dessert, but I guess you could describe it as a reduced-fat ice cream. After all, it’s only got two cups of heavy cream, not three. The brown sugar adds to the rich flavor, I think. And I think it would be pretty damned good on a late-season-peach cobbler for my next dinner party.

Buttermilk Brown Sugar Ice Cream

2 cups of heavy cream
2/3 cup brown sugar
4 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
pinch of salt
1 cup buttermilk

Bring the cream to a low simmer in a saucepan. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and brown sugar with the pinch of salt. Pour a little of the hot cream into the egg mixture to temper it, then slowly pour the remaining cream in, whisking until smooth.

Mel gave me this for my birthday a few years ago. It was not entirely a self-serving gift--but nobody loves ice cream more than Mel does.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and reheat gently, stirring continuously. Do not let it come to a boil. When the custard base has thickened somewhat, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and the buttermilk. Chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, then process according to your ice cream maker’s directions.

Laurie

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As we’ve mentioned, we spend the summer doing picnics, cooking outdoors (because we really don’t want to heat up the kitchen if we can avoid it) and throwing our summer parties. This is a simple, simple recipe inspired from a Giada DeLaurentis baked chicken recipe. I still make hers in the winter, but here’s one of my summer Bowl picnic recipes that I love. Instead of chicken pieces, I use Cornish game hens. They grill and transport well, so they’re perfect for a picnic.

Grilled Game Hens with Vinaigrette

Ingredients
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Hop Kiln Orange Zinfandel mustard
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Cornish game hens
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs of your choice. (I had fresh rosemary and thyme, so that’s what I added.)
Montreal seasoning to taste

Directions
In a large baggie combine the vinegar, mustard, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper and squeeze to blend. Add two game hens whole, seal the bag and turn and lightly squeeze to coat. Press as much air out of the bag as possible and refrigerate, turning the game hens occasionally, for at least two hours and up to one day. Hint: Game hens have sharp parts and can often puncture a baggie. I always place the baggie in a bowl so I don’t have a refrigerator mess to clean up the next morning.
Heat the grill to 250 (if yours has a thermometer). Remove game hens from the baggie and arrange on the grill or a spit. Sprinkle with Montreal seasoning and grill the game hens until cooked through, about one hour (you want your meat thermometer to register 155 degrees at the thigh without touching bone). Split the game hens in half longways with a large knife. You may have to rock it sIightly to get through the back bone but they’re really easy to cut. Wrap them in foil and place them in a fresh baggie.

They will continue to cook a bit longer while wrapped, so I usually undercook a tiny bit. Keep them warm by transporting in an insulated bag.

Hazel

I picked up this cute insulated bag at Home Goods a couple of weeks ago. They had a huge selection with great prints and very reasonable prices (less than 10 bucks–yay!).

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Summer's best! Grilled artichokes, heirloom tomatoes and caponata

I must admit, I’m not a fan of summer heat — but I am a fan of all the fun we have in summer with our parties, plays and concerts. And there’s nothing quite like a Hollywood Bowl picnic.

Laurie and I love to come up with ingenious ways to outdo ourselves for our decadent sunset meals in the lovely hills. We scoff at the other attendees’ Gelson’s boxed picnics and scheme week after week to achieve the perfect combinations in our homemade extravaganzas. My timing gets pretty tight because I have an 8-5 job almost 100 miles east of the Hollywood Bowl, so I rush home to pack whatever I prepared the night before. This week, we turned the task of making the appetizer over to our nephew Ryan, who loves classical music and German techno rock equally, and who is a damned good cook too. (We’re so lucky in our nephews: they’re smart, they’re fun and they cook!) A couple of years ago Ryan ran across an artichoke recipe that caught his eye, but he quickly made it his own.

This is a pretty simple recipe, in keeping with our motto: entertain without killing yourself or your budget. (Parties come in all sizes, after all–and this is a party for four.)

Grilled Garlic Artichokes

2 large artichokes
1 lemon, zested and then quartered (use two lemons if they’re small)
¾ cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, stripped from the stems
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Fill a large bowl with cold water. Zest the lemon or lemons and then cut them into quarters. Place the zest in a medium bowl; you’ll be using it in the grilling sauce. Squeeze the juice from one lemon wedge into the water. Trim the the artichokes, then cut them in quarters lengthwise. Remove the chokes and place the quarters in the bowl of lemon water to keep them from turning brown.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat your outdoor grill to medium high.

Add the artichokes to the boiling water and cook for 10 minutes; they should be bright green when you take them off the fire. Drain the artichokes. Juice the remaining lemon quarters and pour the juice into the bowl with the lemon zest. Stir in the olive oil and garlic, season with salt and pepper and the herbs. These herbs are merely guidelines; if you prefer tarragon or basil, go ahead and use them. Sometimes Ryan adds a little mustard if he’s in the mood.

Brush the artichokes with the garlic marinade and place them on the hot grill. Grill the artichokes for five to ten minutes, basting with marinade and turning frequently, until the tips are a little charred. Pour any remaining marinade over the charred artichokes (though there usually isn’t any, so you may want to increase the quantities slightly if you want extra) and pack into a picnic container. We generally use zip-lock plastic bags, which are lightweight and disposable if you’re so minded. Ryan usually keeps them warm for a couple hours by popping them into his un-iced chest. They are always still warm by the time our picnic supper starts at 6:45 at the Bowl.

Serves four as an appetizer–though I have served them by themselves for dinner, along with some yummy grilled bread and extra marinade.

Simple, huh? They don’t taste simple; they’re delicious.

Hazel

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