Spring Birthday Party

Crocuses

It’s spring here! Guess how I can tell? These crocuses were actually a little late to the party, my daffodils had already bloomed before these guys got started. But they’re pretty sweet!

I can also tell you that spring is coming because we’re in full swing with the birthday season here. My Mom and Grandma have birthdays about two weeks apart, so we gathered to celebrate both. I thought I’d share them with you!

The menu was: Chicken Caesar Sandwiches, Kale and White Bean Soup, Green Salad, and Revelatory Caramel Cake.

I also made some PB&J and turkey sandwiches for little ones who might not care of the regular sandwiches. Do you dig my green St. Pattie’s Day nails?

Several years ago I bought the biggest table that would fit in my dining room. I don’t really believe in a table for the kids that’s separate from the adults. How are the supposed to learn to act like humans if they never eat with them? So I got a big bench where lots of little butts can schooch in together.

And this is how I set up my table. I believe in cloth napkins and centerpieces, though we usually have so much food that a centerpiece is kicked to the side. A centerpiece doesn’t need to be an expensive, fussy deal from a florist. My forsythia were already starting to bloom, so a few days before the party I brought some in so they would have time to acclimate to the warmth of the house and open up.

Several years ago I also invested in some rather inexpensive white plates (with matching bowls and salad/dessert plates) and silverware. Enough for 10-12 place settings. We don’t use them everyday, but when we have a special occasion I like to use them. The white is nice because you can add any color plate, placemat, tablecloth, whatever, and it coordinates. These special meals are my gift to my family and I want them to look as beautiful as a wonderfully wrapped present (which I don’t do).

Chicken Caesar Sandwiches

I served these Chicken Caesar Sandwiches for a luncheon a few days prior and am totally addicted to them. My family loved them too! What a great sandwich!

Chicken Caesar Sandwich

Recipe courtesy Barefoot Contessa

  • 2 split (1 whole) chicken breasts, bone in, skin on (I also use a whole rotisserie chicken in a pinch)
  • Good olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 ounces thinly sliced pancetta
  • 1 large garlic clove, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons anchovy paste (don’t be tempted to omit this, stop being a chicken and give it a try, it doesn’t taste fishy, I swear!)
  • 1 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup good mayonnaise
  • 1 large ciabatta bread
  • 2 ounces baby arugula, washed and spun dry
  • 12 sun-dried tomatoes, in oil
  • 2 to 3 ounces Parmesan, shaved

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

(Skip this step if using a rotisserie chicken). Place the chicken breasts on a sheet pan skin side up. Rub the chicken with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until cooked through. Cool slightly, discard the skin and bones, and slice the meat thickly. Set aside.

Meanwhile, place the pancetta on another sheet pan in a single layer. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes, until crisp. Set aside to drain on paper towels.

Place the garlic and parsley in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until minced. Add the anchovy paste, mustard, lemon juice, and mayonnaise and process again to make a smooth dressing. (Refrigerate the Caesar dressing if not using it immediately.)

Slice the ciabatta in half horizontally and separate the top from the bottom. Toast the bread in the oven, cut side up, for 5 to 7 minutes; cool slightly. Spread the cut sides of each piece with the Caesar dressing. Place half the arugula on the bottom piece of bread and then layer in order: the sun-dried tomatoes, shaved Parmesan, crispy pancetta, and sliced chicken. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and finish with another layer of arugula. Place the top slice of ciabatta on top and cut in thirds crosswise. Serve at room temperature.

A simple green salad, just dressed mixed greens and a few shavings of Parmesan cheese is a great accompaniment for a flavorful sandwich like the one above. You don’t want the flavors in the sandwich and the salad to compete. Mark Bittman has a lot of great vinaigrettes you can mix up quickly. WAY better than that fat-laden stuff out of a bottle!

Since I served the soup hot, and don’t like to be pointing the camera at my hungry family while they’re trying to eat, there aren’t any soup photos. But here’s the recipe. It’s a great soup. I make a big batch and use it for lunches or a quick dinner.

Kale and White Bean Soup

Recipe courtesy of Real Simple

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, celery, onion, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 4 to 6 minutes.

Add the beans, pasta, kale, rosemary, 8 cups water, and Parmesan rind (if using). Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the pasta and kale are tender, 4 to 5 minutes.

Remove the Parmesan rind. Stir in the lemon juice and sprinkle with the shaved Parmesan before serving.

Revelatory Caramel Cake
No birthday would be complete without cake! I had a hard time committing to a cake. I wanted one that everyone would like (thereby eliminating coconut) but I also wanted something different than what I normally do (thereby eliminating chocolate). So I decided on a Caramel Cake and it was a great choice. It was soooo good! I had been hanging onto this recipe since it appeared in Food & Wine, September 2010.

Revelatory Caramel Cake

Recipe courtesy of Food & Wine 

from The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook

Cake

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 4 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, softened
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
Icing
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter three 8-inch cake pans; line the bottoms with parchment paper. Butter the parchment and flour the pans, tapping out the excess.

In a bowl, mix 1/4 cup of the milk with the egg whites and vanilla extract. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, mix the flour with the sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and the remaining 3/4 cup of milk. Beat at low speed until blended, then beat at medium speed until smooth, 1 minute. Beat in the egg white mixture in 3 batches.

In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream until soft peaks form. Stir one-third of the whipped cream into the batter, then fold in the rest. Divide the batter between the pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean. Let the cakes cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Unmold the cakes and peel off the parchment. Invert the cakes and let cool completely.

In a saucepan, stir 2 1/2 cups of the sugar with the corn syrup and milk. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Keep warm.

Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in a deep, heavy saucepan. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, swirling occasionally, until an amber caramel forms. Carefully pour the warm milk mixture over the caramel. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until the caramel dissolves. Stop stirring and cook until the caramel registers 235° on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat. Stir in the butter, vanilla and 1/4 cup of the heavy cream. Strain the caramel into the bowl of a standing mixer. Let cool for 15 minutes.

Beat the caramel at medium speed, gradually adding the remaining 1/4 cup of cream, until creamy, about 15 minutes. Let icing cool at least another 15 minutes, longer if your work area is warm.

Set 1 cake layer on a plate. Pour enough icing over the layer to cover the top. Top with a second cake layer and cover it with icing. Add the final cake layer and pour the rest of the icing over the top of the cake, letting it run down the sides. Working quickly, use an offset spatula to spread the icing gently around the cake. Let the cake stand for 2 hours to set the icing before serving.

Tip: This cake is even better the day after it’s made.

Once lunch was over the cousins got to play. This is my niece and my daughter.

We checked out a little more nature in our yard.

And acted silly! See the nice shiner my niece gave herself? It’s hard to be little!

How does your family celebrate big days? Is it a small group of a few or a big extended family? If you could have any birthday cake in the world, what would it be?

SoupaPalooza: Tortellini Soup with Beans and Swiss Chard

Soup is the salad of winter. I would never eat a cold salad for lunch in February, but I will definitely eat bowl after steaming bowl of soup. We have at least one kind of soup each week. It’s an easy lunch for me or a great quick dinner with a piece of crusty bread or a grilled cheese sandwich.

Normally, I have some kind of leftover meat in the soup. A piece of ham, some bacon, maybe a few odd bits of chicken. That’s what’s great about soup, you can scrabble it together from any type of leftovers. The soup I’ve made for you today can be vegetarian, just use vegetable broth in place of the chicken broth. Of course you can also amp up the soup with the addition of meat, if you please.

Tortellini Soup with Beans and Swiss Chard

closely adapted from a recipe from Annie’s Eats

2 T olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T tomato paste
1/4 t red pepper flakes
1 1/2 quarts all-natural, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
15 oz diced tomatoes
15 oz cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
2 t Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf
1 Parmesan rind (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
6 oz. dried tortellini
1 bunch Swiss chard, with stems removed and sliced (or other leafy green)
Freshly grated Parmesan, to finish

It’s so much easier if you use the idea of mise en place (having everything prepped before you begin cooking). I used to be a grab-as-you-go kind of girl. But, once I adopted the idea of doing all the gathering and chopping before beginning the cooking process, I ended up with much better results. And, you’re WAY less likely to get halfway in to a recipe and realize you’re missing ingredients.  It’s super frustrating when that happens. It also eliminates a lot of the stress around prepping the ingredients.So take a few minutes and gather everything together. Do the chopping and measuring and off you go.

Gather the ingredients

Even though I gathered everything, everything did NOT make it into the photo. Obviously I was having a moment. 5 points to Gryffindor if you can figure out what I left out. 10 more if you have any idea what that joke means. :)

Forgotten chard

Ah, yes, the chard. You are correct. There were two types of chard when I was shopping, red and white (obvi!). The red is so beautiful! I bought both so you could see them. I used half of each in my soup. You don’t have to do that.  Chard has a super earthy taste. If you’re not customarily an eater of greens, you might want to turn back the dial and go for kale or collards, spinach would also be fine. It doesn’t really matter which green you choose, but definitely put some greens in. It’s good and it’s good for you.

Saute the onions

In your favorite soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Let it get nice and hot before dropping in the chopped onion. Saute the onion until it’s tender, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic, tomato paste, and red pepper flakes. Saute another minute until you can smell the garlic.

Add the tomato paste

Believe me when I say, tomato paste in a tube was not available in any store when I was growing up. I only stumbled upon this wonder in my grown-up life. I LOOOOOVE it. I mean love, love, love it. It lives in the fridge and you use only as much as you need. In my grocery store it’s not with the regular tomato paste in a can, but off by itself in the Italian food section. If you don’t have access to this, you can also buy a regular can of tomato paste, portion out teaspoons or tablespoonfuls onto a wax paper lined baking sheet and freeze them. Once they are frozen, plop them in a container or freezer bag and store them in the freezer. Then you can just pull out what you need. You could also do it in an ice cube tray. Not sure you’d want to make ice in it after that, but whatever. That’s up to you.

Rinse and drain the beans

Rinsing and draining your beans is an important step in any recipe. Aside from removing the (grody) bean juice, it also gets rid of a ton of sodium. Much healthier.

Parmesan rinds

This is what Parmesan rinds look like. I get a few in a tub then store them in the fridge. They won’t totally dissolve in the soup so you’ll have to fish them out later. They lend a nice richness to the soup so if you can find them, do put them in. You may have to ask at your cheese counter to get one (if your store even has such a thing!)

Drop in the Parmesan rind

Add the broth, tomatoes, beans, Italian seasoning, bay leaf, and Parmesan rind.

Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer for about 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, add the sliced chard and tortellini.

Add the tortellini

Return the soup to a simmer and cook the tortellini to package directions. If your tortellini is fresh instead of dry, it will take less time. It shouldn’t take more than about 10 minutes.

With the chard

Remove the Parmesan rind and bay leaf. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with croutons or freshly grated Parmesan on top.

Soup!

So there you go! A perfect quick dinner you can serve tonight! A nice piece of crusty bread on the side and I’m in heaven!

Do you have a favorite soup? Do you eat soup in the cooler months or year round?

I’m linking up to SoupaPalooza, you should check it out!

Come join SoupaPalooza at TidyMom and Dine and Dish sponsored by KitchenAidRed Star Yeast and Le Creuset!