And I’m upping my game! When cooler breezes flurry and crimson leaves begin to fall from the trees my thoughts turn to….cheese.
Why is it that cool weather gives you permission to eat melty cheesy things? It’s like a right of passage.
You turn your nose up to a melty, crisp, gooey grilled cheese sammich in June, but you’ll take that sammich and cram it with more and more cheese in October.
You’ll eat fresh broccoli bathed in only lemon juice and pepper in July, but come November that broccoli is smothered in cheese sauce and topped with butter cracker crumbs.
No shocker….This is how it should be!
Garden fresh veggies tossed in olive oil and garlic, served over thin pasta noodles is a perfect summer supper, while December suppers by the fire require a cheese-filled pasta side dish or better yet a must-have cheese-stuffed casserole. Fall is like a cheese pass aboard the all-seasons train!
I came across ground lamb in the butcher section of the grocery store and it hit the old casserole nerve.
Moussaka is a combination of eggplant, a rich lamb ragù, and a cheesy topping.
The best part is that you can prepare this in advance when you have time (and the inclination strikes) and bake it when the need arises.
I’ll be adding a few of my favorite cheesy casseroles over the next few weeks. Why not…Fall just got here!!
Think lasagna with eggplant instead of pasta, lamb in place of beef, and you have the essence of this Greek-inspired dish. Feel free to add your favorite veggies to the sauce. With this casserole, anything goes.
3 large eggplants, peeled and sliced into ½-inch thick lengths
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
½ cup olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced, about 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried cumin
For lamb ragù:
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced into ½-inch squares (about 1 cup)
2 large carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
2 pounds lean ground lamb
1 cup red wine
1 (16-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cinnamon stick
For béchamel topping:
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 cup ricotta cheese
4 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese (about ½ cup)
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Makes: 6 to 8
Time: 45-minute cuisine plus baking for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425°.Season the eggplants with salt and freshly ground pepper. Place into a colander for 30 minutes to exude excess moisture. Stir together ½ cup olive oil, garlic, oregano, and cumin. Brush both sides of the eggplant with the seasoned olive oil. Place onto a baking sheet and roast until the slices are tender and golden, about 30 minutes. The slices can overlap. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°.
Heat 2 more tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet. Cook the onion and carrots until soft and golden, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the lamb to the pan. Cook, breaking up the meat with a spatula until browned, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in the wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, and cinnamon stick. Simmer the ragù for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the cinnamon stick.
Heat the butter in a deep pot over medium high heat. Whisk in the flour. Cook until golden and bubbling, about 2 to 4 minutes. Pour in the milk. Cook, stirring constantly until the sauce is thickened, about 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the ricotta and Parmesan cheeses. Season with ground nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
Assemble the casserole by placing a layer of eggplant slices in the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Top with half of lamb ragù. Add another layer of eggplant and another layer of lamb. Finish with a layer of eggplant. Top the casserole with béchamel sauce. Bake until the casserole is bubbly, and the top is golden, about 30 to 40 minutes. Allow the casserole to sit for 15 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh mint.
This is breaking news! Did you know the pumpkin puree you got at the grocery store is NOT pumpkin? Apparently, it is a combination of all types of squash. WHO KNEW? I feel betrayed, lied-to, conspired against! Well, not really. The canned stuff is still pretty good, and has been a staple for all my pumpkin treats for as long as I can remember.
Now, you can make your own puree, from your very own pumpkins, but this seems just a little bit too over-the top for me.
So…. BRING IT ON, SQUASH… I can take it! Let’s open a can of puree and dive right in, shall we? I CANNOT WAIT, as home baked bread is a real holiday treat for me! I remember my early days in the catering business. Our signature corporate holiday baskets included at least one mini-loaf of pumpkin quick bread.
We baked hundreds of these each season. But I also love yeast bread, especially when it is laced with a bit of sweetness. I’ve told you the story of Sammy’s favorite “Sammy Bread”, a loaf of sour dough bread, sweetened with cinnamon-sugar and frosted with a sugary glaze. We look forward to placing a loaf in our basket every week from the Farmer’s Market.
I recreated it at home, with a can of fake pumpkin puree, wink wink. It’s SO YUMMY, toasted and slathered with butter, or battered and fried ala French toast. Use leftovers to create a toasted crouton for your bowl of ice cream, or as the lead ingredient in custardy pumpkin bread pudding.
But first, make this bread – it’s a recipe born of two cravings: pumpkin bread and cinnamon bread, married together in the sweetest fall recipe you could possibly imagine.
With Hazelnuts and Chocolate
Yield 1 loaf, about 12 slices
2 ½ hours before you can eat the bread!
¼ cup maple syrup, room temperature
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
2 ¼ cups bread flour
1 ¼ cups whole wheat flour
1 cup hazelnuts, chopped
1 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup pumpkin puree
Pour the maple syrup into a measuring cup. Sprinkle with yeast. Add I cup warm water. Allow the yeast to bloom (foam) about 10 to 15 minutes.
Whisk together the flours, nuts, chocolate, spices and salt in a large bowl.
Place the pumpkin into a bowl. Whisk in the bloomed yeast. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Use a spatula to bring the dough together. Sprinkle your work surface with a generous amount of flour. Pour (the sticky) dough onto the flour and knead the dough until it comes together, and no flour shows through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Place the dough into a bowl coated with vegetable oil spray. Cover with plastic wrap and move to a warm place to rise for 1 hour. I use the warming drawer on the proof setting for this.
After an hour, remove the dough from its cozy hide-out and use a spatula to fold the dough onto itself while your turn the bowl, about 8 to 10 turns. Cover again with plastic and move the bowl back to the warm place to rise for another 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375°. Coat an 8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½-inch with vegetable oil spray. Use a spatula to transfer the (still pretty sticky) dough to the loaf pan. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 31 to 40 minutes.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again! I just can’t get enough of Fall Festival time in the mountains. There is a festival weekend for October Fest (with sausages and kraut), one for Wooley Worms (these furry insects race UP a tight rope!), one for pumpkin patches and corn mazes, one whole month dedicated to the Wizard of Oz and my personal favorite, a festival dedicated to apples!
The Valle Country Fair in Banner Elk is such a place. I visited on a cool, crisp autumn day where my breath blew out steam, and my hands were shoved into my pockets. I didn’t shiver long.
As soon as my gal pals and I walked into the fair, we beelined for the home made apple cider station and helped ourselves to a heaping cup of warm cider. It’s produced the old-fashioned way using a wooden press and aluminum wash bowls to collect the juice.
After that we wandered through the rows of craft booths spying everything from hand carved wooden bowls and cutting boards, to personalized nursery rhyme music CD’s, to gourds turned into Santa faces, to ceramic treasures like those of Triple C Pottery where I bought a set of the cutest bowls…
But, the absolute best, longest wait in line, and most expensive item at the fair is a fresh, warm jar of apple butter, lovingly prepared by the members of the church in huge, steaming pots over wood fires.
The cinnamon-gingery aroma lures you to the booth, where you queue up to spend $8 a jar. Along the way, you make new friends, exchange recipes and meet a guy with a chicken hat on his head (the legs move up and down!) You are only allowed several jars of the golden apple butter, and I usually max out the limit.
Apple butter is terrific on a warm biscuit, sensational on banana bread, exceptional as a condiment alongside roasted pork and delicioso in my apple butter cake that I dedicate to the hard-working church members and schoolteachers of Holy Cross Episcopal Church.
1 to 2 tablespoons milk (as needed to thin frosting)
1 cup walnuts, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350°. Coat two 9 x 9-inch (you can certainly change the size of the pan if you choose) cake pans with vegetable oil spray. Place a layer of parchment paper in the bottom of each pan and coat the paper.
Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt in a small bowl.
Use an electric mixer to combine 1 cup butter with both sugars until fluffy. Mix in the eggs. Pour in ⅓ of the flour mixture followed by ½ cup of the apple butter. Mix well and continue alternating ingredients until all the flour and apple butter are mixed into the batter. Spread the batter into the two pans. Bake until a tester inserted into the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pan for 10 minutes. Carefully invert the cakes onto a rack. Remove the parchment paper and cool the cakes completely.
Use an electric mixer to combine confectioners’ sugar with the cream cheese, ½ cup butter and the vanilla until smooth and creamy. You can mix in a teaspoon or two of milk to get the consistency that you prefer for frosting. Place one cake onto your serving platter. Slather the cake with frosting. Top with the remaining cake. Cover the sides and top of the cake with the remaining frosting. Sprinkle the top of the cake with chopped walnuts.
In the Canvas & Cuisine cookbook, “apples” and “squash” appear over 80 times in the manuscript! During the fall season, we want them more than ever – that’s why I was so happy to dust off a double whammy of an autumn recipe: Apple, Sausage & Cheddar Stuffed Acorn Squash. In this version, I took a few calorie saving shortcuts.
I substituted the Italian sausage with turkey bacon, and served it sans nuts and cheese. For the fall-ish flavor bouquet, I sautéed Granny Smith Apples and bacon in a shallow bath of butter and pure cranberry juice. There was enough left over in the pan to drizzle savory cranberry sauce over the finished product, making the baked squash extra yummy!
The thing with a gutted gourd, is that it’s a blank canvas to stuff with virtually anything you see fit.
But allow me to digress…The stuffed squash comes with quite the story, as so many of my recipes do.
I was on a trip with my artist friend, Sue, Canvas & Cuisine’s co-author. We visited Blarney Castle in Ireland, and…well…I wasn’t feeling quite lucky enough to brave its narrow (I mean EXTREMELY narrow), four-story, windowless and very claustrophobic staircase.
I barely survived my one and only panic attack. I hadn’t even known I was claustrophobic until I met Blarney Castle. When we finally burst out of the tower and onto the top, Sue and I found ourselves in-line to kiss the famous stone. Tradition has it that in order to kiss the stone to receive the gift of eloquence, one has to bend over backwards lowering your head from the parapet walk over an opening in the tower that leads all the way down to the ground below.
There are two very, very young, very, very scrawny teens, on either side of the hole in the floor to make sure you don’t fall, but they were not convincing enough for me! I ended up sprinting past Sue and that stone, down the castle’s back stairs, and found my way to the closest pub. I took refuge in a pint and comfort in a dish called Cheshire Pie, which combines chunky pork and sautéed apples in a flaky crust.
The Canvas & Cuisine recipe for stuffed acorn squash was born shortly thereafter. The recipe posted below is a modified version. In both recipes, the flavors are sweet, tart and rich. It’s super for a mid-week meal and awesome for a brunch gathering before your next sight-seeing trip. Just make sure that you check out the sight to avoid unnecessary fright!
Apple & Candied Bacon Squash
30 to 40 minute cuisine
2 medium acorn squashes, halved and seeded
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
½ pound turkey bacon, finely chopped
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and diced
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup 100 percent cranberry juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup cheddar cheese, optional
Preheat the oven to 400°. Drizzle the cut side of the squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with cinnamon. Place the squash, cut-side-down into a baking pan. Bake until the squash is fork tender, about 20 minutes.
Heat the butter over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and cranberry juice. Add the apples and bacon, and cook until fruit is soft, and bacon brown and crumbly, about 8 minutes. Season with 1 more teaspoon cinnamon spice and some of the salt and pepper.
Pull the baking dish from the oven. Turn the squash so they are cut side up. Stuff the squash with the apple/bacon filling. Use any remaining cranberry/bacon syrup to drizzle over the top.
For the Decadent Cook:
Add cheddar cheese if desired, by placing the dish back into the oven, and cooking until the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes more. Garnish the stuffed squash with a dollop of sour cream.
I made it into the pages of this glossy cooking magazine. I LOVE that. Here’s my quote — hope you’ll download the PDF and cook away the Autumn days!
“Hosting a party with family friends is a most wonderful opportunity for children to interact with others. They learn social skills, etiquette skills, are inspired to taste new foods, dress up and, more importantly, to know how they fit into the world around them.”