Inspired Entertaining: Marinated Cream Cheese

Cheese plate at my Weeknight Cooking Class
Whenever I teach a cooking class or host a cooking event, I make sure to set out some kind of snack or appetizer for my guests (what I prefer to call my students) to nibble on during the first couple hours of the class before the food is ready. I usually offer some kind of fresh fruit or vegetables, bread or crackers, and some cheese. For my most recent class, I prepared this marinated cream cheese appetizer and it was such a hit that I thought I'd share the idea with you here.

This is a twist on the marinated goat cheese that I served at birthday party earlier this month. To save money, I decided to try replacing the goat cheese, which costs about $9 a log at my local store, with a $2 package of neufchâtel--a very common cream cheese-cousin available in most supermarkets right next to the Philadelphia.  I cut an 8oz package in half, and served it topped with some very good extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon zest, freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of sea salt, and a generous sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Letting it sit for about 30 minutes or so will help the cheese soften and absorb some of the bright flavors.

Served with warmed, crusty baguette slices, rice crackers and a bunch of sweet green grapes, it was a lovely and elegant--but very inexpensive--appetizer to serve my guests.

No need for a recipe here--just drizzle the cheese with oil and whatever herbs or spices you'd like. And if you can't find neufchâtel, you can, of course substitute regular ol' Philadelphia cream cheese. (Ricotta would be lovely as well!)

My Next NYC Cooking Class: Easy Weeknight Dinners

I'm very excited about my next NYC group cooking class! It's called "Busy Weeknight Dinners" and I'm going to be teaching you an array of incredible and easy weeknight dinners--all totally from scratch using delicious, fresh, seasonal, good-for-you ingredients.

You won't just be learning recipes, but also techniques and ideas to help make your evenings easier--on even the busiest of days! You'll learn ways to get good and wholesome dinners on the table without much fuss and without having to rely on processed or overpriced "convenience" foods.

The cooking class will be focused on 7 basic recipes, along with several easy variations for each so you'll actually be going home with a few weeks worth of ideas.

Like all of my dinner party cooking classes, it's taught in a relaxed and easy manner so you'll get to sip some wine (or maybe a cocktail), listen to music, and mingle with your fellow classmates. Once the food is ready, we'll all sit down to enjoy the meal together.

The menu includes dishes like Baja fish tacos, some out-of-this-world variations for chicken breasts, herbed quinoa, kale & cranberry salad, DIY salad dressings, and even molten chocolate lava cakes!! 

The class is held in Manhattan at our gorgeous professional kitchen space, and is open to ALL cooking levels--from total beginners who do little more than scramble eggs, to accomplished cooks. This is a great cooking class for couples who want to learn to make easy recipes together, or even for those of you who want to bring along an older teen. Whether you're looking to learn or just want to have a fun night out and meet some cool people, I guarantee you'll have a fabulous time!

Class size is limited to 12 people and 6 seats have already been snagged since the class was announced so if you're interested, don't delay! Have a group of 3 or more that want to join in the fun? Message me directly and I'll whip up a special multi-seat discount for you!

Hot Potatoes (Spicy Roasted Potatoes Recipe)

It's Valentine's Day and so everywhere you go it's all "chocolate!" "sexy!" "pink things!"

And while typically I'm all for sexy chocolate pink things, I decided to go with something a little different today.

Potatoes.

I know...you're probably like "Potatoes? Alejandra, potatoes are NOT sexy food."

But I say they can be. Especially diced up into cute little cubes and tossed with lots of good oil and a shower of salt and herbs and three kinds of pepper then roasted until hot and golden and just a little bit crisp around the edges.

I say those potatoes are seriously sexy. Serve with two forks, a bottle of wine, and something good on the TV.

Want more? Add an egg, oozy on top. Or a steak, sizzling just beside. But really, I'm telling you, the potatoes will be enough.

Spicy, salty, hot, crunchy potatoes and a cozy night in.. (And did I mention you don't even have to peel them?)

That's my kind of treat.

Happy Valentine's Day!


Spicy Roasted Potatoes
Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

Ingredients
3lbs Idaho (Russet) potatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
1 tablespoon smoked spanish paprika
2 teaspoons ground aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 cup Parmesan, grated (optional)

Directions
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and scrub potatoes, but don't bother to peel. Dice into 3/4" cubes and place in a large bowl. Drizzle generously with Extra virgin olive oil and toss to coat. Season generously with kosher salt. Add the paprika,  aleppo, black, and cayenne peppers, and toss again.

Spread out on a baking sheet and roast 25 minutes. Use a spatula to stir and flip the potatoes, and return to the oven for about another 15-20 minutes, or until golden and completely cooked.

Taste and adjust seasoning. Top with fresh cilantro and Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Gin & Honey-Soaked Mandarin Champagne Cocktails

I'd like to introduce you to my new favorite thing to drink.

It's essentially a twist on my previous favorite thing to drink--the French 75. To make, I just soaked mandarin orange segments (I bought canned ones soaked in water--these by Roland are my favorite), then rinsed them and placed them in a large jar or container. I top them off with a simple honey syrup (equal parts good honey and water, simmered), a few cups of gin, lemon slices, and a vanilla bean.

And then I let them sit and macerate for a couple days; as they soak, the gorgeous little bathing beauties drink up that honey and gin, and amazing things start to happen.

And THEN, I drop a few mandarins and a few tablespoons of the honey-gin in a champagne glass and topped it off with bubbly.

Amazing! We drank these New Year's Eve and then I made dozens of them to serve at the party last weekend. 

And it is so, so simple!

To be honest, the gin-soaked mandarins alone would make a wonderful dessert, but I'm not one to ever turn down a little bubbly.

(If you prefer, you can swap out raspberries for the mandarins, though I really do prefer the citrus-gin combo.)


Gin & Honey-Soaked Mandarin Champagne Cocktails
Makes enough oranges for about 12 cocktails
  
Ingredients
2 14oz cans mandarin orange slices in water (Not light syrup)
2 cups gin
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup water
1/2  lemon, sliced
1 vanilla bean, split

Champagne or sparkling white wine, to serve

Directions
Drain and rinse the mandarin oranges under cool running water. Place in a medium storage container with a lid. Add the gin and set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the honey and water and stir, heating just until the honey is completely dissolved. Add the lemon slices and vanilla beans, and then pour over the oranges and gin. Stir to combine, cover, and place in the refrigerator to chill and soak for at least 6 hours, but preferably 24-48 hours.

To serve, add a few soaked orange segments and a few tablespoons of the gin soaking liquid in a glass and top off with champagne or sparkling white wine and serve immediately.

Oranges will keep well in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

Stuffed Apricots with Maple-Gorgonzola

I served these little bites at my birthday party last weekend. They're kind of amazing.

Sticky and salty and sweet with that little shiver-shock of flavor goosebumps from the gorgonzola. (I guess it's really called umami, but I prefer shiver-shock.) Ugh...so good.

I don't really remember what it was that made me come up with the idea. I was planning the food for the party--it was a pajama cocktail party, with everyone dressed in sleepwear, lots of cocktails, and plenty of breakfast-themed food. It was all inspired by this one photo I spotted a few weeks ago of a 1950s model with a turban and a cocktail and a cigarette, and my subsequent obsession with the idea of hosting a party decked out in similar glamorous style.

Fortunately Moe, my co-birthday girl, was all about the idea and so we went with it. But back to apricots, which I guess were born out of the idea to use up some leftover gorgonzola mixed with real maple syrup (because it's breakfast-y). And the apricots were kind of hanging around my pantry all perfect for stuffing with their little natural God-given seams.

I recommend you try these. They take seconds to make (though your fingertips and the table will end up a bit sticky). They're also better in advance since it gives the maple and cheese a chance to mingle. I suggest you make, like, three times as many as you think because they disappear so quickly.

Leftovers, if you have any, would be awesome smushed inside two pieces of toasted baguette with roast turkey.




Stuffed Apricots with Maple-Gorgonzola 
makes about 45 (depending on size of apricots)


Print this Recipe
Ingredients
1/2 pound dried apricots (about 45)
1/4 pound crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cup maple syrup (use the good, dark stuff) plus a few tablespoons for drizzling

Directions
Combine the Gorgonzola and maple syrup in a bowl. Stir to coat completely.

Use a small paring knife or your fingers to split each apricot lengthwise along its natural seam and stuff with about a teaspoon or so of the filling. Set on a tray and repeat with the rest of the apricots. Drizzle a couple tablespoons over the apricots once filled.

Cover with plastic and keep chilled until serving.

Giveaway: Win a Tate's Bake Shop Valentine's Day Cookie Tower

So here's the thing. Tomorrow is my birthday. It's also my most excellent friend, Moe's, birthday. I'm actually about to run and go try to find myself some fabulous pajamas to wear to the joint-birthday pajama cocktail party complete with breakfast-themed hors d'oeuvres and cocktails I'm hosting for my nearest and dearest tomorrow evening. (And yes, there will definitely be more about that later). But in the meantime, I'd like to celebrate by giving you a gift.

A gift of cookies. 

When it comes to cookies, I am firmly in the bake over buy camp. But I do have a few exceptions. One of those are these incredible, buttery, super thin and crunchy chocolate chip cookies by Tate's. Tate's is a local NY brand based out of the Hamptons.

I discovered them via (who else?!) the Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten, who raved about them in an episode featuring lots of her attractive gay male cheese shop-owning friends. Even though I'm usually a fan of chewy cookies, I decided to give them a shot (because Ina said so), and I was blown away by how delicious and addictive they are.

Let me repeat, ADDICTIVE!

Tate's was lovely enough to provide me with this super cute tower of cookies to give to one of you. It's Valentine's Day-themed, so you can either gift it to your sweetheart on that special day OR (my choice) enjoy the cookies yourself while sipping dessert wine and watching so-bad-they're-good movies on TV.


To win, all you have to do is leave a comment below telling me your favorite guilty pleasure (edible or otherwise).

The winner will be selected via Random Number Generator. Your entry must be in by 5PM EST on February 10, 2012. US residents only, please.

You can get extra entries by doing any of the following and leaving a separate comment for each one you did. If you don't leave a separate comment, it's just going to count as one entry so LEAVE A SEPARATE COMMENT.

1. Subscribe to my brand NEW Alejandra Ramos Culinary & Lifestyle newsletter or indicate if you're already a current subscriber, and comment here to say you did.  
2. "Like" Always Order Dessert on Facebook. Already a fan? Leave a comment on the page to say hello, then comment here to say you did. 
3. Post about this giveaway on your own personal or fan page Facebook wall, then comment here to say you did. 
4. Post the following message or a similar one in your own words on Twitter: Giveaway! Comment to win a tower of Tate's cookies from @nandita: http://bit.ly/xpzxte  (then comment here to say you did)
5. "Stumble" an Always Order Dessert recipe or DIY post of your choice and then comment here to say you did.

Also, don't forget to visit Tate's Facebook page!

xoxo

Alejandra

P.S. Can't wait to try these cookies? You're in luck, because Tate's is offering $10 off any of their Valentine's treats with the code VDAY2012. Visit their website to redeem. (Offer expires 2/14/12 at 11:59 p.m. EST.)

P.P.S. I'm hosting a fabulous dinner party style cooking class in NYC on Monday, Feb 6th. Click here to read more and sign up!

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