Dinner at Home

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Guest at the Table: Author Neil Plakcy Does Cheesecake

Foods of Bucks County
By Neil Plakcy 

In writing the golden retriever mysteries, set in a town very much like the one I grew up in, I’ve had the chance to revisit a lot of memories. Those memories, of course, include food. In the newest book in the series, WHOM DOG HATH JOINED (due out in March), my hero, Steve Levitan describes a visit to the Harvest Festival in his hometown of Stewart’s Crossing, Pennsylvania. Those familiar with Bucks County, halfway between Philadelphia and New York, may recognize a similarity to a festival called Yardley Harvest Days.

“The jazz band from the high school was playing off-key, and someone on the other side of the half-moon driveway was selling candy apples, guaranteed to rot the teeth of even the most careful eaters. The light breeze brought the sweet smell across to us, and I remembered going to Styer’s Farm Market when I was a kid. My mom wouldn’t buy me one of the apples, covered in a shiny red lacquer, but my dad would.”

Flea markets and festivals were staple events of my childhood, where I’d cadge a quarter or two from my parents and head for the funnel cake table, where someone poured a kind of pancake batter out of what looked like a watering can with a funnel-likespout. The ribbons of batter would swirl around on a hot griddle, creating a kind of heavy lace pancake, which was then dusted with powdered sugar.

Back in the 1960s, we had limited exposure to ethnic food. Our next-door neighbors, the Pappases, were Greek and owned a diner where you got coffee in paper cups with a squared key design around the rim and moussaka was an exotic dish. My parents and I drove into Chambersburg, the Italian neighborhood of Trenton (immortalized as “the Burg” in the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich) for pizza and pasta at Roman Hall, one of those old-time restaurants with maps of Italy on the placemats and posters of the Coliseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa on the walls.

My family ate a lot of what we called “Jewish food” at home – chopped liver, chicken soup with matzo balls, lox and bagels, brisket and roast chicken. When I was in high school we had a Polish cleaning lady, Helen Wielninski, a heavy-set, big-busted woman in her sixties who came to us once a week in a flowered smock to rearrange the dust. If she was in a good mood, or we were celebrating a special occasion, she brought us a cheesecake, made according to her own special recipe. The cakes were baked in a springform pan, one with a spring on the side so the pan could be opened and a removable bottom, and they cracked in the middle while baking, giving you a sneak preview at all the rich goodness inside.

Making Helen’s cheesecake today is an exercise in nostalgia for me – for the days when I could eat four or five slices of cheesecake at once and not gain a single pound, when I could ride my bike anywhere in town and many of the stores where we shopped were owned by people my parents had grown up with. That’s the kind of place I’ve created in Stewart’s Crossing (though my hero watches his weight now.)

Helen's Cheesecake
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup melted butter
5 eight ounce cream cheese packages
8 eggs
3 tablespoons flour
dash salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar
8 ounces chocolate mini-chips

Preheat the oven to 500° F. Open the cream cheese and leave it out to soften. Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter and press into the bottom of a 9" springform pan.

Cream the cheese with a wooden spoon, and then, using an electric beater, add in the eggs, one at a time. Then mix in the flour, sugar, salt and vanilla. Beat until there are no more lumps, then add in the chocolate mini-chips. (Regular size chips will sink to the bottom of the cake, which is fine if you want a chocolate layer down there. The mini-chips are small enough to remain suspended in the batter. You can also swirl in some chocolate syrup if you want.)

Pour into the springform pan, and bake at 500 degrees for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 250 degrees and bake for an additional 40 minutes. Then turn the oven off and let the cake cool in the oven for one hour.

I like this cake best after it has been refrigerated, but if you're too eager to wait it tastes just as good right out of the oven.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Guest at the Table: Author Lane Hayes and Pasta Arrabbiata!

Thank you Rick for having me on your blog to chat about one of my personal favorite subjects… Food!! As an author I find myself incorporating parts of my own life in my work. Eating is a given. We’re human. We need food. Period. But the culinary experience is one that can go well beyond the basic necessity of basic nutrition. There are some great cooking shows that do a great job of showcasing how varied the experience can be. We might dine at a hip new bistro or an elegant restaurant or we may choose to make our own creations. Sometimes it’s all about tried and true recipes and other times, it’s about creating something special.

In my latest release with Dreamspinner Press, Better Than Chance, one of the MCs decides to make dinner for the other. Peter’s mother is from Cortona, Italy and he wants to make pasta from scratch as he was taught growing up. He states right from the beginning he may not be as skilled in the kitchen, however he has a couple of signature dishes… one of them being homemade pasta.

The following recipe is one I picked up on my last visit to Cortona in the summer of 2011. My husband and I took a fantastic cooking class and learned how to make basic pasta with Arrabbiata. It’s simple but delicious!

Basic Pasta Dough
1 cup pasta flour*
1 egg
3 Tablespoons water
Salt optional
*Note: Pasta flour is a blend of half all purpose flour and half semolina flour. Many cookbooks recommend using unbleached white flour.

Pile flour on clean work surface and make a hole in the middle. Add salt and egg into this indentation and start to mix with a fork (like making scrambled eggs) Now mix in the water pulling the flour in from the sides. Flour your hands and knead the dough until it is satiny. Wrap dough in cheese cloth (or wrap) and let rest for 20 minutes before rolling it out. There are many pasta cutters available to hand shape your dough as you prefer. And of course, running the dough through a pasta machine works too. *Fresh dough cooks quickly. 2-3 minutes in boiling water tops!

Arrabbiata Sauce
Arrabbiata is one of the simplest sauces to make because there are so few ingredients and very few steps. I know some recipes call for red wine and tomato paste, but I like to keep it simple.
¼ cup of olive oil
 4 teaspoons fresh minced garlic
5 large fresh tomatoes or 1 28oz can of diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon of red chili pepper *if you like it spicier, go for more!
Heat olive oil and add garlic. Cook for 1 minute before adding tomatoes and chili peppers. I like to add fresh basil & black pepper to taste once the sauce is gently tossed with the pasta. That’s it! Seriously. Bon Appetit!

Lane Hayes Author of Better Than Chance

Blurb from Better Than Chance:
Jay Reynolds has a crush on his project leader at work, but an office romance with Peter Morgan isn't likely to happen since Peter is straight. Worse, Jay soon fears Peter is homophobic, and his initial infatuation turns to loathing. But one fateful night, Jay is forced to acknowledge things aren't quite as they seem with Peter. Suddenly, his crush is back and unbelievably, Peter is interested too.

They begin a “friends with benefits” arrangement, which becomes difficult for Jay when he starts falling for his sexy boss. Peter’s past issues keep him from committing, and Jay has to decide if he can be satisfied with friendship if Peter isn’t ready to take a chance on anything more.

“Close the door, Reynolds.” His tone was sharp and concise. No argument was expected or welcomed. I obeyed and waited for him to speak. He didn’t say a word. He pointed to a chair and directed me to sit with a simple wave of his hand as he began a slow pace around the perimeter of the small round table. It was like being stalked by a tiger. There was an electric air of danger in this tiny space and I had set it in motion. I clung to my anger. I wasn’t wrong. Was I?

Peter suddenly stopped. He stood at the other end of the table with his arms crossed over his broad chest. As usual he was impeccably dressed in a gorgeous dark suit tailored to perfection. His dark wavy hair seemed a little longer. I absently wondered if he was growing it out. But his dark furrowed brow and intense stare told me to keep my ponderings to myself. He wasn’t in the mood to chat about hair. He looked pissed.

“Explain yourself.”

I blinked twice. I was almost afraid of him, but I knew that was irrational. I had a legitimate reason for my outburst. I just wished I had been a bit more professional about it.

“Fine. I will.” Professional, I cautioned myself. Don’t get personal.

“You have given me rather baffling critiques, Mr. Morgan that I frankly find ridiculous and almost contrived in a way that suggests you want to point out the negative whether or not it has any bearing whatsoever to the project at hand.” Good, well said, I thought.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” He looked genuinely perplexed.

“You know what I’m talking about!” I exploded. “Correct paragraph two, sentence one.... that’s one example! What was today’s going to be? Change the use of my pronoun from direct to indirect? Or is it an adjective that you want me to reconsider? Or...”

I had become so worked up that I didn’t register that he’d moved until he was three short feet away from me. He wore the strangest expression. It was a cross between tempered fury and frustration. He held up his hand in that authoritative way of his, demanding that I stop. Stop everything. Don’t talk. Don’t move. I waited like a deer in headlights to see what he’d do.

A fresh wave of adrenaline rushed through my veins as I found myself literally shoved up against the conference room wall with Peter’s large hand at my throat. I swallowed hard and looked into his dark angry eyes, his face was two short inches away from mine. His breath was warm against my cheek. He pulled back and shook his head as though puzzled by his own actions before he tightened his hold at my neck and covered my mouth with his own.

I could barely breathe. There was nowhere to hide, no retreat possible so I gave in. My mouth melted underneath his allowing the lip lock to become a kiss. A fiery passionate joining. Our tongues fought for dominance, licking and sucking. Peter’s hands trapped my head as he plunged even further into my mouth taking every last bit of control away from me. He ran his tongue over my lips before tracing a path along my jaw and biting my earlobes. I nudged him back with my nose and heard his low groan as he once again fused his mouth over mine.

I wrapped my arms around him and pulled his body close to mine. My hands kneaded his perfect ass through the fine fabric of his pants as I sent my hips forward to meet his. We gasped at the first feel of friction as our hardened cocks pressed together through our suits. It was electrifying and wickedly carnal. A mere glimpse into how intensely hot the real thing could be if we let ourselves go there. Peter stopped abruptly, straightening his arms on either side of my head. Our heavy breathing was the only sound in the room.

“I want you.” He growled, resting his forehead against mine.

Dreamspinner Press