Brunch Beauty

This holiday season I’ve gone crazy with fresh Homemade Ricotta.  Now that I have perfected the process, I’m looking for ways to use it and haven’t been disappointed with the range of spreads, dips and desserts that it delivers.

Here’s a brunch idea I’ve used for years and tweaked this Christmas.  It begins with a tasty and impressive French toast which can be cooked to order or made ahead for all to enjoy together.

French Toast Tower, Ricotta Cream, Berries

At its heart is a luscious Ricotta Cream, reminiscent of a cannoli filling, teamed up with plenty of fresh berries.  The scrumptious cream begins with a good quality ricotta cheese whisked with a bit of sugar or honey and flavored with fresh grated orange.

Despite its simplicity, the cream is incredibly versatile. You could include grated chocolate, pistachios or almonds, but they tend to get lost here.  Instead, add them on top with a flourish.

For bread, I’ve had surprising success with a bake-at-home sourdough batard sliced and soaked—without pre-baking. But any dense, day-old bread such as challah will work; one which absorbs and holds the soaking custard.  You’ll probably have extra dipping liquid, for more toast and taller towers…

Once all the bread is toasted a quick heat in the oven results in a lighter, crisper French toast. Let everyone personalize their toast with an assortment of toppings.

French Toast Tower with Ricotta Cream and Berries

Ingredients
8 slices ¾” thick, dense day-old bread
2 Tbsp melted butter
Soaking Custard
4 eggs
1 cups milk
1 Tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla
Ricotta Cream (see below)
12-ounces strawberries or other berries, trimmed, sliced and sweetened with 2 Tbsp sugar
Toppings: chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts;  ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, honey or maple syrup

Instructions

  1. Ahead, make Ricotta Cream, slice and sweeten berries with sugar. Line 2 baking sheets with foil.  Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a wide bowl for dipping, whisk the eggs with milk, sugar, and flavorings.  Lightly dip both sides of bread slices in the egg mixture and place on a baking sheet and repeat with all slices.
  3. Heat a wide flat skillet or griddle over medium heat and brush with butter. Place soaked bread onto hot surface and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Flip and brown the second side, 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Place on baking sheet, cover with foil and repeat. Prior to serving, place French toast in oven for 5-10 minutes, until heated and still moist.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
  4. To serve:  spread French toast with Ricotta Cream, top with fresh berries. Add another toast layer if desired, more berries, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, drizzle with syrup or honey.  Serves 4

Ricotta Cream
2 cups homemade or good quality ricotta cheese
4 Tbsp granulated or confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla or ¼ tsp almond extract
2 tsp grated orange zest, or ½ tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts (optional)

Whisk the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest to lighten. Adjust flavors.
Add or garnish with chocolate and/or nuts if using. Chill the cream for 2 hours or longer to set and blend flavors. Can be done a day ahead.  Yield: 2 cups

Football Food: Ooooh la la!

It’s football season again.  In truth, I’m not much of a fan. I don’t have a favorite team, I tend to lose focus, and I end up rooting for the underdog.  But I do enjoy a good game and all the trimmings…

You could say I’m there for the food.  Since there is a big time investment, it’s smart to think ahead so that everyone is happy. I like to have a few uncomplicated treats in mind for back-up.

My latest creation is an upgraded grilled cheese sandwich called French Toasted Pastrami & Cheese. As you would expect it is a marriage between French toast and a pastrami & cheese sandwich with marinara or pizza sauce thrown in for dipping.

One of the tricks is to use a good firm bread that will hold up as dippable finger food. To avoid questionable flabbiness, slices of bake-and-serve sourdough batard are used straight out of the bag (unbaked.)  The firm slices are quickly dipped into an egg batter and hit the grill where they are formed into grilled sandwiches laced with Dijon mustard and filled with sliced pastrami and melting mozzarella cheese.

You could make a quick marinara sauce, I happened to have a jar of Trader Joe’s (Trader Giotto’s) Pizza Sauce which works out very well.  The recipe yields 3 sandwiches or 6 portions, and it easily doubles as many times as you need.  The sandwiches can be held in a warm oven or grilled ahead and re-heated in the oven when needed.

French Toasted Pastrami & Cheese with Dipping Sauce

Ingredients
6 – 5” slices dense sourdough bake-and-serve batard, or other firm flavorful bread
1 egg
¼ cup milk
¼ tsp each salt and grated nutmeg
1 Tbsp combination butter and olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
½ cup mozzarella cheese, thickly grated
12 slices pastrami, thin sliced
1 cup marinara or pizza sauce for dipping

Instructions

  1. Whisk the egg, milk, salt and nutmeg together in a wide bowl.
  2. Heat a wide skillet over medium heat and melt enough butter and olive oil to coat bottom of pan.
  3. Quickly dip each slice into the batter and place in the skillet in pairs with bottom edges butting up together. Drop heat slightly and cook 1-2 minutes to lightly toast and turn.  Add butter/oil as needed.
  4. Spread the toasted sides with mustard. Layer one slice of each set with cheese and top with pastrami. Cover with its matching top to form a sandwich. Toast 2-3 minutes and turn.
  5. Cook for 2-3 minutes to toast second side and melt the cheese. If making batches, they can be held in warm 200°F oven. To serve, cut in half and serve with marinara or pizza sauce for dipping. Makes 3 sandwiches or 6 portions.  Note: can be reheated in 375°F oven for 5-8 minutes.