A Marriage Made in the Garden

Photo by Cindy Dyer

Is there a better match for strawberries than cheesecake? I made these as part of an afternoon tea buffet for A Garden Muse reception for Photographer Cindy Dyer’s macro photography botanical exhibit at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia. These wonderful bites were scooped up in no time.

Difficulty Level…None!
Wash, hull and hollow out medium-size strawberries. Buy a quality New York-style cheesecake like the one from Trader Joe’s. Use a melon ball scooper and stuff the cheesecake into the strawberries. Dip the top in graham cracker crumbs. How easy it that? They can be made the day ahead and wrapped tightly. Garnish with all that mint you have wildly taking over your garden as I did in this photo.

I found this ingenious recipe on My Sweet Life.  And, oh, it is such a sweet life! Thank you, Kelley Hospitality readers.

Please Pass the Marigolds

Tea sandwiches with edible flowers.

I catered a spring afternoon garden tea last week for an art exhibit titled “A Garden Muse” at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia. My menu was inspired by Artist Cindy Dyer’s exhibit of breathtaking botanical photography. View her exhibit here and you will see why I was so inspired. Her work is nature at its best and I wanted my food to be worthy of such an exhibit.

I went to see the exhibit before I decided on the menu and I was glad I did. After taking in her macro images of flowers, my first instinct was to use edible flowers, but what did I know about them? I know one thing I want to share right up front: NOT ALL FLOWERS ARE EDIBLE. In fact, some are poisonous. Don’t assume if a dish in a restaurant is garnished with a flower that the flower is edible. Do not purchase flowers to eat from florists or roadside stands; grow them yourself or buy them from a reputable horticultural vendor. They have to be grown without any pesticides and in a perfectly-Ph-balanced soil.

Enough scare tactics. I purchased my edible flowers from Gourmet Sweet Botanicals. They were fresh, gorgeous and most of all, safe to eat. I chose the Premium Flowers Mix. The description on their website read: “Elegant assortment of edible flowers with full array of colors; fragrant, colorful, and versatile; an extraordinary garnish for any entree or dessert; create beautiful presentations on multiple dishes with this amazing collection!”

This sounded exactly what I was looking for. They were not exaggerating in their description. The box was sent by FedEx, packed with three small ice packs, and included, but was not limited to, the following flowers:

Marigold

I’ll prove it to you that you can eat these!

These familiar flowers are common in flower beds because their blooms are vibrant yellow, orange, and red. Who would have known they have a citrus flavor? In a bold move to prove to a guest that the flowers were, indeed, edible, I popped a marigold in my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. I rather liked its zing. And, I did this all without wincing.

zucchini bread with white crysthansamum and blackberries

Nasturtium

“Jethro, fetch me some salt…these fleurs are so dang peppery they need a little.”

These red, yellow and orange flowers were tasty and “peppery” and worked well with the tea sandwiches.

Orchid

“Please, darling, would you be so kind to pass me another orchid while I sit here and look pretty?”

Nibbling on these, bright pinkish-purple flowers with their mildly sweet crunch gives one a sense of exquisiteness.

Stuffed cucumbers adorned with edible flowers

Pansy

“Oh don’t be a pansy, eat a pansy, would ya!”

These ubiquitous spring annuals are a spectacular combination of colors: purple, blue, yellow, orange, lavender, and violet. These silky flowers (which they added to my purchase as a free sample) were surprisingly bland which was safe for those timid souls wondering if they should really take a tea sandwich. Any flavor the pansies had were masked with Alouette cheese. Pansies will always be on my must-have list.

Viola

“Viola, dear, could you float a viola on top of my gin and tonic? I’ll be waiting by the pool.”

Their purple with yellow and blue hues was striking. They had a mild taste with a hint of tartness. Gourmet Sweet Botanicals says they are fantastic on cheesecakes, desserts and salads, or floating on drinks.

Snapdragon

“Mom! Don’t blog about these. They are terrible!”

These unusually-shaped flowers have a bitter-tart flavor much like radicchio. Their odd shape added dimension to the tea sandwiches. Our 12-year-old son wanted to try one when they arrived. He created a lot of drama around the tasting. Well, he won’t eat radicchio either.

Rose

I hate being upstaged.

They sent small rose blossoms but it was the one big, fat rose in the middle of the package that made me laugh. I had visions of chomping on it at the end of the day, leaning in the corner with a glass of wine while others looked at me like I was a nut-case. (Kind of like Daryl Hannah in Splash when she ate the lobster whole, shell and all.)

Roses are 95 percent water and, therefore, low in calories. Thank goodness because something had to be low calories that day! They also contain Vitamin C and fibers, so eat up. I didn’t get to eat the rose but one bold man was caught on camera chomping down. (Drat! Upstaged by a rose-eating man!)

Michael S. chomps on the rose.

Artist Palette Open-Faced Tea Sammies

Since I was preparing an afternoon garden tea for a botanical photography exhibit, I thought about tea sandwiches, but they couldn’t be ordinary. How about a piece of bread being the palette for various spreads, herbs and flowers?

I used flower-shaped cookie cutters to cut dense bread for the open-faced tea sandwiches. Two different spreads – cream cheese softened with milk and chopped chives, and a spreadable Alouette cheese — served as the next layer. Then, I topped the “palette” with the flowers on some and red and yellow peppers and herbs on the others.

Use flower-shaped cookie cutters for the tea-sandwich bread.

Since Gourmet Sweet Botanicals were so generous in their quantities, I had plenty of extra blooms to create my garden of food. What more can I say? Let the pictures tell it all. Something tells me I’ll be playing around with edible flowers again and again and again. Until I blog about more of the menu items, enjoy the show.

Whip It Up…Fast!

Cool Whip was introduced in 1967 by the Birds Eye division of General Foods. Within two years of its debut, it became the largest and most profitable product in the Birds Eye line of products. Who doesn’t remember Cool Whip growing up with those Jello-y salads mom made? Cool Whip has endured the test of time.

My neighbor gave me a gift jar of dry chocolate cookie batter to make “Chocolate Crinkles.” All I had to do was add one egg and Cool Whip. Cool Whip?  I was skeptical about the Cool Whip part. The cookies were chewy and moist just like they should be. I know now it was a chocolate cake mix and the Cool Whip gave it the crackly texture after rolling the dough in confectioner’s sugar and baking it.

Cool Whip resurfaced last week when I found a Lemon Burst Cake Mix Cookie recipe on Tidy Mom’s blog. The same procedure: add Cool Whip and an egg to a cake mix! How easy is that?

So, your well-stocked pantry can include a lemon or chocolate cake mix and Cool Whip in the freezer. You can make homemade cookies in a jif.

Photo by CIndy Dyer

Lemon Crinkles
Adapted from Tidy Mom’s Recipe

  • 1 box lemon cake mix
  • 1- 8 oz container Cool Whip
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar (for rolling)

Hint: I’m a lemon lover, so I added a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice with the pulp and 1/4 teaspoon of lemon zest.

Preheat oven to 350°

In medium bowl, beat Cool Whip, egg, cake mix, lemon juice and zest, until well blended. Dough will be thick and sticky.

Drop by teaspoonfuls into a bowl of powdered sugar and roll to coat.

Place on parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes. The parchment paper is essential. Let the cookies completely cool on the sheet or they are too gooey to remove.Hint:If you don’t have parchment paper then grease a cookie sheet with Crisco and flour it. Don’t use wax paper. (I can attest to that failure.)

The Old Ways Work – Easter Baskets

Easter basket ready for blessing.

In the Polish tradition and many of the eastern European countries, Easter baskets are blessed the day before Easter, known as Holy Saturday. Baskets are filled with a sampling of the foods to be eaten on Easter Sunday. The contents vary according to its owners. I’ve seen baskets filled with butter in the shape of a lamb, Easter candy, colored eggs, Polish sausages, leg of lamb, ham, asparagus, Greek Easter bread, flowers, candles, wine, salt, and anything that will represent the Easter dinner. Swieconka (sh-vee-en-soon-kah), as this tradition is known in Poland, is one of the most enduring and beloved Polish traditions.

Easter lamb made of butter.

Not being Polish and not living in Eastern Europe, I came to this tradition late, but nonetheless, it is one that I’ve cherished on Holy Saturday mornings for the last ten years. My friend Melanie always makes me a lamb made out of butter from a special mold. One year I asked her where I can get a mold, and she said no need, she will just keep making me one every year. Lucky me!

Blessed baskets

This morning’s baskets did not disappoint. After the priest blessed the baskets (and us), we admired each other’s selections. I love to see what everyone brings as a representation of their Easter food. My basket had asparagus, chocolates, colored eggs, tulips, Spanish wine, vodka, limes, strawberries, and perhaps most important to me, salt and baking soda. I will use the blessed salt and baking soda throughout the year in all my recipes. Although I will still burn my share of cookies or have a dish that flops, blessed salt can’t hurt, right?

There is something that feels good about resurrecting a tradition from the past or borrowing one from another county and making it your own. The old ways really do work. Happy Easter!

The brownish egg was colored by boiling it with onion skins, an old-timey way to color eggs in Poland.

Re-Creating Chocolate-Covered Pretzels for Easter

I was in Balducci’s last week stopping in for a fresh-brewed cup of their wonderful coffee on my way to the office. I noticed the gorgeous display of chocolate-covered pretzels. Price: $15.99 for 20 ounces of hand-dipped pretzels cleverly decorated with colorful toppings. I don’t know if prices are high this year or I’m feeling frugal, or just wanting to do things myself, but for whatever the reason, I re-created the pretzels, Easter style.

I took some ordinary, bagged Easter candy and used them for the pretzel toppings. Whoppers’ mini Robins Eggs and egg-shaped M&Ms are easily ground in a food processor. Or, put them in a Ziploc bag and smash them with a rolling pin. (The kids love to do the smashing.) I also used some spring-looking toppings.

In the end, I produced about 100 chocolate-covered pretzels for around $20 max. I won’t even attempt to do the math to figure out what 100 Balducci’s pretzels would cost. I did the math in my last blog and got the calculation wrong. So, now you all know, I don’t do numbers, I do letters.

Crush candies for topping after you dip the pretzels in chocolate.

Be creative, use various toppings, different-shaped pretzels, bag them in cellophane with ribbon similar to the Kids Kandy Kabobs for Easter, and give them as gifts. This is a great project to let the kids help with. Messy but easy.

Ingredients

  • Pretzels
  • Chocolate for dipping. I used white and dark chocolate. You can buy the Wilton Candy Melts where cake baking/decorating supplies are sold or Dolci frutta meltable chocolate from your grocery store. Check the baking aisle for other brands.
  • Various toppings: crushed candies, mini M&Ms, nuts, mini chocolate chips, sprinkles, and more.

    I used four different toppings on white and dark chocolate.

Have at It!

Melt the chocolate according to directions. Dip a pretzel in the chocolate, and then dip in the topping. Place on waxed paper to cool.

That’s it! Have fun! And, please, don’t get me wrong, Balducci’s is great.

Kids Kandy Kabobs

I saw these in a local boutique…so clever! The price: $8 per kabob!

I wanted lots of kabobs so I bought my own candy and materials and spent $20 max! So far, I’ve made 20 kabobs and still going. (Retail price for 20 would be $200 oops, I mean $160.)

For all You DIYers Out There

Materials: wooden skewers (available in the grocery store), roll of cellophane, ribbon, Easter grass, twisties, ribbon.

Candy: I used Reese’s cups, Peeps, chocolate eggs, fondant eggs, and some gummy shapes. The candy is tricky. I found the candy wrapped in foil with soft centers (such as a mini Reese’s cup or caramel-filled eggs) work really well. Next time, I would like to find a little bigger chocolate egg wrapped in foil.

The photo tells it all – slide candy on skewers, wrap in cellophane, secure Easter grass with a twistie and finish with pretty ribbon!

The designs are endless depending on the candy, the type of Easter grass and the ribbon. Have fun!

Birds Love It!

I photographed the kabobs outside on this gorgeous spring morning. The azaleas are out, the birds are chirping, everything is coming alive again. My camera batteries died so I had to go back inside. While inside, I put on some coffee. All the while worrying about our active bird and squirrel population! I thought I better get back before the feast began. Hurrying, I went out and there was a lovely bluebird hovering perched on a branch ready to grab the Easter grass for a nest he might be contemplating. Happy Easter to you Mr. Bird. I promise to leave you some colorful Easter grass in the yard when I finish this blog.

Thinking Ahead

How about kabobs for Christmas and Valentine’s Day?

Easter Brunch Menu Inspired by Spring

Here’s a menu I came up with for Easter with added items inspired by spring. Let me know how it turns out if you try it. It never disappoints.

♦ Lighthouse Point  Brunch Dish (recipe below)
♦ Freshly steamed asparagus
♦ Freshly sliced tomatoes (if they look really good, punctuated with fresh basil)
♦ Fresh fruit – even a bowl of simple berries will do (think color!)
♦ Assortment of pastries and muffins (either homemade or store-bought from the bakery section)
♦ Coffee, teas, juice, Mimosas and Ina Garten’s Bloody Mary’s

Lighthouse Point Brunch Dish

This baked brunch casserole could easily be called Spring Brunch or Patio/Porch/Deck Brunch. Mom made a version of it for Christmas morning after the presents were opened and called it “Tahoe Brunch” from her version of it from The California Heritage Cookbook (even though she lived on the East Coast). She might have called it “Lighthouse Point Brunch” because Christmas morning on the southeast coast of Florida was neither snowy nor mountainous. But knowing mom, she liked the name and was sticking to it. I think I’ll change it right now to “Lighthouse Point Brunch” (with apologies to mom).

Casual spring brunch a few Sundays ago.

Like most recipes, this one has evolved into something I call my own. There are many variations of one-dish brunch recipes that must be prepared the day ahead. But, hands down, this is the best! That declaration was affirmed when I made it a few Sundays ago for family and friends. It’s made the night ahead which makes it easy to relax and enjoy your guests. Set the table the night before (tulips are a must for Easter), pop the brunch dish in the oven, and add some extras…so easy.

Happy brunching and Happy Easter!

Recipe

  • 12 slices white bread, crusts removed
  • butter or margarine, softened to spread on bread slices
  • 1/ 2 cup additional butter or margarine of choice
  • 1/2  pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 3/4 cup (or to taste) finely chopped onion
  • 1 pound (approx.) thinly sliced quality deli ham (like Boar’s Head) or Canadian bacon
  • 3/4 – 1 pound combination of grated cheddar and Swiss cheeses
  • 5 eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • Chopped freshly chopped parsley
  • Butter the bread on one side with softened butter and set aside.
  • In skillet, melt the 1/2 cup butter and sauté mushrooms and onions until soft
  • In a greased 11” x 17” casserole pan layer 1/2 the bread, mushroom/onion mixture, ham (or Canadian bacon), and cheese.
  • Repeat the layers and end with the cheese.
  • In a bowl, mix the eggs, milk, both mustards, nutmeg, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Pour over the casserole.

Cover and refrigerate overnight. When ready to bake, sprinkle with parsley.
Bake uncovered in 350 degree oven for one hour or until bubbly.
Let stand until set, and then cut.