Monday, December 9, 2019

Vanillekipferl (Austrian Vanilla Crescent Cookies)


I visited Prague in September, and included a Prague Food Tour as part of the itinerary. The very first stop on our food tour was a little gingerbread shop called Perníčkův sen (Gingerbread Man's Dream), where we sampled several sweets including an unforgettable melt-in-your-mouth Austrian cookie called Vanillekipferl.

These delicate, buttery, crescent-shaped shortbread cookies are tender and crumbly, filled with ground almonds, laced with vanilla, and finished with a generous dusting of vanilla-infused powdered sugar. Apparently they are one of Austria's most beloved cookies, and they are a staple at Christmastime. I decided then and there that I would be making a batch of my own this Christmas.

They require a relatively short list of ingredients, although one of them is Vanillezucker or vanilla sugar. You can certainly purchase vanilla sugar, but you can also make your own! Simply bury a whole or scraped vanilla bean in a couple cups of granulated sugar, and store in an airtight container for 1 to 2 weeks. Vanilla sugar. There you go!

This cookie dough is on the crumbly side, and if you're familiar with shortbread this shouldn't be a surprise. Just be patient, and don't be overzealous as you try to roll out and shape your crescents. Although they are simple in appearance, they are packed with vanilla flavor, and seriously have the most magnificent texture. It's like buttery, nutty, vanilla heaven in your mouth!

These cookies are quite small, but you can shape them larger (and bake them a tad longer) if you prefer. Regardless, I predict they will be a standout on your cookie tray this year!

I baked some other fantastic European Christmas cookies this past weekend, and I'll be sharing them in upcoming posts. Stay tuned.

Vanillekipferl (Austrian Vanilla Crescent Cookies)
Makes about 60 cookies
(Adapted from Classic German Baking)

1 2/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon (175 g) all-purpose flour
8 1/2 tablespoons (120 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup (50 g) powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar (Vanillezucker)*
1 cup (100 g) very finely ground blanched almonds or almond meal
1 egg yolk
Pinch kosher salt

3/4 cup (150 g) powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar (Vanillezucker)*

Put the flour, butter, powdered sugar, vanilla sugar, almond meal, egg yolk, and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat together, starting on low so the flour doesn't fly everywhere, until a smooth dough develops.

Divide the dough into 3 equal portions and roll each portion into a 1-inch-thick cylinder. Wrap the rolls individually in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Remove one roll from the refrigerator and cut it into 1/2-inch slices. Roll out each slice until it's about 2-inches longer and the ends are tapered but not pointy (this may take a bit more pressing and shaping rather than simply rolling because the dough can be crumbly). Form each into a crescent and place on one of the prepared baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough until the baking sheet is filled. The cookies should have about 1 inch of space between them on all sides.

Bake one pan at a time in the center of the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the cookies are just starting to lightly brown at the edges. Repeat with the remaining pan of cookies.

To make the topping, in a wide, shallow bowl combine the powdered sugar and the vanilla sugar. Remove the cookies from the oven, let cool for only a minute or two, and then very carefully dredge them completely in the sugar. Place on a rack to finish cooling. The cooled cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

*To make your own vanilla sugar, bury a whole or scraped vanilla bean in 2 cups granulated sugar. Store in an airtight container for 1 to 2 weeks before using as regular, granulated sugar.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Build-Your-Own Nacho Bar with Homemade Nacho Cheese Sauce & World's Best Guacamole


One of my favorite bar foods is loaded nachos. There's nothing quite as satisfying as crispy tortilla chips topping with gooey cheese, spicy taco meat, beans, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, etc etc etc etc... You get the picture. I've eaten a lot of nachos in bars, and I always like seeing how different places put their own unique spin on a popular favorite.

When I'm gathering friends in my home, I love to feed them! It's fun coming up with different menu ideas for game nights and such to keep things interesting. A relatively easy but super satisfying option for your next get-together is a build-your-own nacho bar. It's a bit more playful than a build-your-own taco bar (which is also awesome by the way), and it's perfect for football watching, or anything watching really.

Almost every component can be prepared in advance and either reheated or set out at room temperature. There are lots of options for meats that are great on nachos. I've listed a few below, but opted for a simple, straight-forward taco beef for my nacho bar.

Nearly all of the toppings can be store-bought, but I do encourage you to make a few of the fixings yourself, as homemade really does taste better. For example, my homemade pickled jalapenos are THE BEST. My refrigerator is always fully stocked with jars, and everyone who has tried them has flipped out over them. I actually will not eat a store-bought pickled jalapeno. I don't like them very much. Mine are exponentially better, and very easy to make.

I also suggest making guacamole from scratch. You can easily buy store-bought guac, but why would you when it's so simple to make yourself? You might laugh at my proclamation that my guacamole is the world's best since it seems like an outrageous joke, and only contains five ingredients (including the salt), but trust me. I will put my guacamole up against anyone's. Much like the jalapenos, I have had countless people swoon after tasting my guac. The key is the generous amount of garlic, and the ground coriander. Yes, I've made guacamole before with other ingredients, like fresh cilantro, fresh jalepeno, red onion, and chopped tomato, and although there's nothing wrong with those ingredients, I don't think you need them to create an out-of-this-world guacamole. Try my recipe and tell me what you think!

Last but certainly not least, let's discuss the nacho cheese sauce or queso. Call it whatever you want, but for a build-your-own nacho bar it's a key component! You also want to make sure you keep it hot otherwise it's just a block of soft cheese in a bowl :) Making a gooey and delicious cheese sauce is incredibly easy. You don't need to make a roux and a bechamel sauce like you normally would for macaroni and cheese. I've seen other nacho cheese sauce recipes that start that way, and I don't think it's necessary. Try the recipe below instead. It's as easy as grating cheese, tossing the cheese with cornstarch, then combining with canned evaporated milk and hot sauce. Heat and stir. Easy peasy.

I used a combination of sharp cheddar cheese and American cheese. You could replace the American with more cheddar, or try some Jack cheese, but I love the way American cheese melts and tastes (I'm talking about Land 'o Lakes, not Kraft!). This cheddar-forward sauce is definitely an improvement on a tub of melted Velveeta and Rotel, so adding a little processed cheese for texture is fine in my book.

Have you ever experienced a build-your-own nacho bar? What were your favorite toppings? Let me know in the comments!

Build-Your-Own Nacho Bar

Tortilla chips
Taco Meat (double the recipe if serving a larger crowd)
Guajillo-Braised Beef Short Ribs
Shot-and-a-Beer Braised Chicken
Achiote-Rubbed Grilled Chicken
Canned black beans or pinto beans, drained and rinsed OR canned refried beans
Canned black olives, drained and sliced
Pickled jalapenos (homemade is best!)
Salsa (homemade is best!)
Sour cream or Mexican crema
Nacho Cheese Sauce (recipe follows)
World's Best Guacamole (recipe follows)
Sliced scallions and/or fresh cilantro

All toppings (except guacamole) can be made ahead of time. Meats can even be frozen and later reheated.

Set all the nacho bar fixings into bowls. Make sure your cheese sauce is heated, and in a vessel that can keep it hot such as a small slow cooker or fondue pot (worst case scenario, leave it on low heat on your stove-top and stir it periodically). You can also keep the meat hot in the same way. Enjoy!

Nacho Cheese Sauce
Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups

8 ounces sharp cheddar, grated
4 ounces American cheese (preferably Land 'o Lakes), grated or chopped if pre-sliced (could substitute more cheddar or Monterey Jack if you prefer)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
2 teaspoons hot sauce, such as Frank's Red Hot

Toss the grated cheeses and cornstarch together in a medium saucepan, and add the evaporated milk and hot sauce. Heat over medium-low heat, stirring regularly until the cheese melts. Continue to stir until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken. Remove from the heat, transfer to a small slow cooker or fondue pot to keep warm. Serve immediately.

World's Best Guacamole
Makes about 2 to 2 1/2 cups

4 ripe Haas avocados
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced/crushed garlic
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or as needed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

Halve avocados and carefully remove the pits. Add the pits to a medium mixing bowl (the pits will keep the avocados from oxidizing). Using a sharp knife, slice the avocado flesh (still in the skin) diagonally into 1/4-inch slices, then slice again in the opposite direction to create cubes. Repeat for the remaining avocado halves. Use a spoon to scoop out the flesh and add flesh to the mixing bowl. Add the lime juice, crushed garlic, salt, and ground coriander, and mix well. You want some of the avocado to mash up as you mix, but retain some of the cubes for a hybrid smooth/chunky guacamole. Serve immediately.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Ooh La La (A Mojito-Inspired Craft Cocktail)


I recently participated in a mojito tasting aboard the Disney Fantasy cruise ship where we not only learned how to make traditional and flavored mojitos, but also sampled drinks including typical mojito ingredients. One of the cocktails we tried is featured on the cruise ship's Skyline Lounge drink menu. Cocktails here are devoted to a variety of world cities whose images make up the illuminated decor in the intimate lounge.

A cocktail by the name of Ooh La La is found on the Paris menu, and is a play on a traditional mojito. The inclusion of a French liqueur is likely the only reason this drink would be representing Paris as opposed to Havana, but regardless of its roots it's a delicious adult beverage I was anxious to recreate. Luckily the bartender at Skyline Lounge provided me with more details and suggestions on measurements for my DIY cocktail.

It took a couple tries, but I finally got the proportions right. Unlike a mojito which is served on the rocks, the Ooh La La is shaken and then strained into a cocktail glass. In addition to the standard lime, mint, rum, and seltzer water, the real French element here is the St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur. St. Germain is one of my favorite cocktail ingredients. I almost always order any craft cocktail that features it.

St. Germain is produced in an artisanal manner with elderflowers hand-picked in the hillsides of the French Alps during a four-to-six week period in late spring. The flowers are then bicycled (how French!) to where they are macerated and processed into liqueur using a secret method. The bottles are individually numbered reflecting the year in which the flowers were picked. The result is a beautifully floral (yet not medicinal or soapy) essence with hints of fruit. It's the magic ingredient in some of my favorite cocktails, and in my opinion worth the hefty price tag.

Sourcing the garnish for my Ooh La La was a bit more expensive and challenging than I anticipated. On the ship they use Filthy brand black cherries. They are rather pricey to purchase online for a small-ish jar, and although I finally tracked down a few bottles at a local liquor store (after visiting and calling half a dozen), I actually opted to try a different brand called Luxardo. Both brands have similar ingredients, but they use slightly different varieties of Italian cherries.

Filthy brand almost tastes like fruit roll ups or chewy fruit snacks, and uses Italian Amarena cherries. Luxardo tastes more like exceptionally good maraschino cherries, and uses Italian Marasca cherries. They are slightly different, but both great, and both use natural ingredients ie no high fructose corn syrup or artificial food dye (like another brand I considered). I found the Luxardo to be a better deal for the size of the jar, so I gave it a try with no regrets.

The recipe below yields an accurate version of the cocktail served on the Disney Fantasy. You can certainly add a little cherry syrup with the cherries (see photo below). It will add flavor and color although the cocktails served on the ship are a very pale blush, not particularly pink. I made it both ways during my experiments, adding a bit of the syrup in the second batch to compare. Although the color is different, the flavor is great, and they are technically pretty in pink :)

Pretty in pink! Above is the result with a touch of cherry syrup added.

Ooh La La
Makes 1 cocktail

2 to 3 black cherries in syrup (Filthy or Luxardo brands are both good)
3 lime wedges (from a lime cut into 8 wedges)
6 to 8 mint leaves
1 1/2 ounces Bacardi white rum
1/2 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Cold seltzer water, to top off

Place cherry garnish into cocktail glass. Muddle together the lime wedges and mint leaves in a cocktail shaker. Add Bacardi, St. Germain, ice, and shake well. Strain through a small fine mesh sieve into the cocktail glass to remove lime pulp and bits of mint leaves. If there is any cherry syrup settled in the bottom of the glass, give it a little stir to dissolve. Top off with seltzer water. Serve immediately.

*Note* My cocktail glasses have a 7 1/2 ounce capacity. If yours are much larger you may need to adjust the ingredient amounts to get the proper ratios.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Turkey Meatloaf with Onion Gravy


I did not grow up in a household that served meatloaf for dinner. My grandmother and my mom, the two main cooks in our house, made predominantly Armenian food, so a lot of my childhood culinary memories include dishes like manti and Armenian meatball soup. I honestly can't remember the first time I tasted meatloaf. Although I hadn't made or eaten meatloaf in many years, I couldn't resist the appetizing turkey meatloaf on the dinner menu at the Grand Floridian Cafe at Walt Disney World during my recent visit to Orlando.

Grand Floridian Cafe's Turkey Meatloaf

Their poultry-based meatloaf is topped with a rich, brown, caramelized onion gravy, and served with smashed red bliss potatoes and broccolini. From the first bite to the last, I was in heaven. I suddenly remembered that I love meatloaf, but it's just been absent from my life for many years.

I knew immediately that I would recreate the turkey meatloaf with onion gravy in my own kitchen. Disney was unable to provide me with their recipe, so I just came up with my own! It's not an exact replica, but it's extremely juicy and flavorful, the epitome of winter comfort food on a plate.

I included grated carrot in my meatloaf to provide additional color, vitamins, and moisture. The sauteed onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and ketchup add layers upon layers of flavor. Ketchup is a common topping for meatloaf before baking it, but I deliberately left out this step as it was not the way Disney made theirs, nor would it compliment the onion gravy, which is just as important to the equation as the meatloaf itself in this case.

My onion gravy is a simple pan gravy with a boost of umami flavor from the savory flavor bomb that is Worcestershire sauce. My version was not as brown as Disney's, but it's also likely that they use some kind of a brown gravy base for theirs. Mine is simple, straight-forward, and completely from scratch. It's thick enough to hold its own on both the meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

My turkey meatloaf with onion gravy definitely triggers the same delicious memories of dinner at the Grand Floridian Cafe, but it's cheaper than a flight to Florida, and much quicker too! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :-D

Turkey Meatloaf with Onion Gravy
Serves 8

Turkey Meatloaf:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/4 pounds ground turkey (97% lean)
1 large egg
1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk or chicken broth
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

Onion Gravy:
2 teaspoons olive oil or butter
1 medium onion, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

To make the meatloaf: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and spray with cooking spray. Set aside.

Add the olive oil to a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the onion, carrot, and garlic, and saute for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally until softened. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

In a large mixing bowl add the ground turkey, cooled onion-carrot mixture, egg, breadcrumbs, milk or broth, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, salt, pepper, and thyme. Mix together gently with your hands until ingredients are fully incorporated, but do not overmix. Shape the mixture into a free-from rectangular loaf shape on the prepared pan, measuring approximately 9-by-4-inches. Bake for about 60 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reads 165 degrees F. Rest for 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

Meanwhile, make the onion gravy. In a medium saucepan heat the oil or butter over medium heat. Add the onions and a big pinch of salt. Cover the onions and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions sweat and are softened. Uncover and continue to cook for another few minutes, then dust with the flour, stirring to coat. Add the chicken broth a little at a time, stirring thoroughly between additions to ensure a smooth gravy without lumps. Raise the heat to high. Add the Worcestershire sauce, thyme, and salt and pepper. When the gravy starts bubbling, lower the heat to medium, and continue to cook for about 5 to 10 minutes until thick and flavorful.

Serve the meatloaf with mashed potatoes, and gravy drizzled over the top of both the meatloaf and potatoes.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Day 9 of Disney Halloween on the High Seas Eastern Caribbean Cruise: Castaway Cay


Today is the last day of our magical Disney Cruise, and it's always bittersweet. It's my favorite and least favorite day all at once, because it's the day we visit everyone's favorite port of call Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas, but it also means all the fun is coming to an end. Until next time, I guess.

In honor of our last day, the sun decided to give us a beautiful show this morning as it awoke from the horizon.

We decided to eat our breakfast on the deck behind Cabanas to take in the extraordinary view.

And before we know it, we're already docking at Castaway Cay! I don't know about you, but I'm ready to get off the ship one last time to visit my favorite island.

We always head to the second tram stop, Pelican Point, where we have access to one of the family beaches, Pelican Plunge (the water slides), the snorkeling lagoon, and more.

Pelican Plunge is so much fun! You have to swim out to the platform, but it's not super deep, I think about 6 feet or so. There are two slides, but I usually prefer the open-top slide as it's longer with more twists and turns.

We hung out at the family beach for a while longer, and a bit later mom and I split off to head to Serenity Bay, the adults only beach, a short tram ride away. After the recent hurricane in the area there has been tremendous erosion at Serenity Bay, and it's not quite back to normal. We noted that the beach was super shallow about as far as the eye could see.

There was also a serious lack of available beach chairs by the time we arrived, but we managed to find a couple chairs and drag them near each other, near another grouping of chairs in the shade. After taking in the view for a bit, we headed to lunch where we noshed on the standard fare of hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.

When we returned to our beach chairs we were surprised and irritated that the group of people who had commandeered the chairs near ours had pushed our chairs away from their area (as if they owned the beach) with total disregard to our things. My flip flops were practically buried in the sand. I couldn't believe people could behave so entitled and rude. Mom and I felt really uncomfortable after that, and decided to head back to the family beach where the water was deeper and better for swimming, and there was an abundance of beach chairs. I've never had such a negative experience like that on Serenity Bay before. I know people usually stake out hammocks and beach chairs like nobody's business, but I've NEVER had people actually move my things away from their's like that. WOW. I'm still pretty livid.

I'm washing my hands of that whole experience and moving on. The weather was truly perfection, and the water was warm and serene. We enjoyed a bit more time on the island before heading back to the ship to shower and pack (BOO!).

We situated ourselves with the perfect view prior to the ship's departure from port. It was fascinating watching the crew load and unload food and supplies, and gather the thousands of used towels that were discarded in towel bins throughout the island. My mind was blown by the sheer number of towels carted back to the ship on trucks!

It's time to say goodbye to Castaway Cay, but we will be back again someday. It's impossible to stay away...

We've saved the best for last, dinner at Palo, the adults-only upscale Italian restaurant on board. The additional cost to dine at Palo is $40 per person at the time of this post (always seems to be going up!) but if you are a Platinum Castaway Club member or staying in the same stateroom as a Platinum cruiser, then you get a free meal at Palo, which is a sweet benefit for avid cruisers.

Our server tonight is Sasa (pronounced Sasha) from Croatia. He may have been our Palo server during a previous cruise, but I'm not 100% sure. Palo and Remy, the two adults-only restaurants on board not only boast exceptional food, but also the best dining room service you will find anywhere on the ship. The service is like night and day compared to our inexperienced serving team in the main dining rooms. Sasa was FANTASTIC! He was humorous, attentive, thoughtful, and basically perfection personified.

Palo's blown glass chandelier

For the first time at Palo, we started our meal with a bit of a surprise. Apparently the chefs at Palo and Remy are engaging a little friendly competition by preparing an amuse bouche for diners. We didn't sample the amuse bouche prepared for Remy, but we were offered a fried potato gnocchi with porcini mushroom sauce and Asiago cheese from the Palo chefs. It was sublime!

A meal at Palo typically starts with your server rolling the antipasti cart over to your table and preparing a plate of antipasti tableside. This is something we always look forward to and enjoy. The quality of ingredients is always exceptional. Sasa made two plates for the four of us, and drizzled all three infused oils (chile, thyme, and rosemary) along with a 12-year-aged Modena balsamic over our smorgasbord of antipasti. Yum!

Our next course consists of appetizers. I tried the heirloom tomato buffalo mozzarella caprese which was AMAZING. The quality of the mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, and 12-year aged balsamic was incredible. It was such a fresh and perfect starter, with lusciously soft mozzarella. This is the caprese that all other capreses should be measured by.

We also sampled the fried calamari and shrimp with lemon-garlic mayonnaise and marinara. Two thumbs up for fried seafood.

We simply cannot dine at Palo without trying some of their mouthwatering pasta dishes. We narrowed down four of the pasta selections and sampled them all, creating our own little pasta buffet!

All four were out-of-this-world delicious. The penne with San Marzano tomato-basil sauce, chiles, and garlic shrimp was the simplest preparation, but perfectly executed and packed with flavor.

Luscious ravioli is stuffed with braised veal, and served with cremini mushrooms and a Barolo wine sauce. It's intensely savory and decadent without being too rich. This is a great stuffed pasta!

We also upped our stuffed pasta game with a sweet preparation of butternut squash agnolotti with buffalo mozzarella, amaretti, sage-brown butter, and basil. This is a beautiful fall-inspired pasta that will tantalize your taste buds.

Last but certainly not least is the paccheri, which translates to "slap in the face" or mouth. They are large tubes cloaked with the most epic lamb ragu and finished with ricotta salata. For me this was the dark horse. I love meat sauce, but have never eaten a ragu made of lamb (as opposed to beef) before, and holy pasta Batman, this is the one I sampled seconds and thirds of. A bowl of this pasta in the dead of winter would surely melt away the winter blues.

After our amuse bouche, antipasti, and pasta sampling, we were already starting to get full but still had more courses coming! A lemon sorbet intermezzo is the palate cleanser before the main event.

In the past I had tried the seared scallops, and enjoyed them very much. The scallop preparation had recently been changed, so I was excited to try the new rendition of a dish I already loved. Now it's served with lemon, artichokes, fava beans, and a pinot grigio risotto. All elements were cooked perfectly. The scallops were tender and nicely caramelized while the risotto was creamy with a nice bite.

Once again, mom ordered the sole, which is filleted tableside. What a gorgeous plate of seafood!

We had initially considered trying the new cheese course prior to dessert, but couldn't manage another course. TOO. MUCH. FOOD. There is no way we weren't going to have dessert, however, as the chocolate soufflé is one of the things we look forward to most on a Disney Cruise. It's always the perfect punctuation to a dinner at Palo.

The real punctuation to our meal is a small shot glass of scroppino, an Italian cocktail made with lemon sorbet and vodka.

Thank you for joining me on this Halloween on the High Seas adventure on the Disney Fantasy! Over the past week we have cruised the Eastern Caribbean, visiting exotic ports of call, hanging out with our favorite Disney characters, and enjoying the most beautiful cruise ship around. We hope to "See Ya Real Soon," Mickey ;-)