Crostini with Ricotta and Assorted Veggie Toppings

These little toasts have a lot going for them, starting with their name. As if “crostini” weren’t inviting enough — roll that “r” and you’ll even sound Italian — few kids I know would pass up toast. And little toasts…well, I hardly have to say more.

Anyone who has ordered a bruschetta appetizer is familiar with this concept: toast up a slice of bread and top it with something yummy. True peasant fare, which is probably how these tidbits became popular in the first place. Economizing with meat or vegetables piled on leftover toasted bread in the absence of elaborate place settings. In the middle ages, after all, you were lucky if you owned a fork and knife, let alone a bowl or plate.

Suffice it to say that the concept of crostini have been around for a very long time. I, however, credit the Italians for elevating this dish by improving upon the toppings (see the afore-mentioned bruschetta as an example) and serving it, frequently enough, with a glass or two of wine.

Now, the kids in the house will have to substitute their favorite non-alcoholic beverage for that wine, but they can easily partake in both the crostini making and eating. And here’s an observation: you may even persuade a non-veggie eater to try something new if you pile it on top of toasted bread smeared with a healthy dollop of creamy ricotta cheese.

The ricotta is a star ingredient, and this ricotta from Fulper Family Farmstead is fresh and fantastic

The ricotta is a star ingredient, and this ricotta from Fulper Family Farmstead is fresh and fantastic

You can’t go wrong with ricotta! Keep reading for our recipe for Crostini with Ricotta and Assorted Vegetables….

Spinach Manicotti with Homemade Pasta

I feel like I should use my best infomercial voice when I say this post is “two, two, two recipes in one.” The first recipe is for homemade pasta, which, if you’ve never tried to make it, is much easier than you undoubtedly think. The second is for the manicotti filling — rich, creamy, and, in this case, packed with spinachy goodness.

If you decide to give this a go you’ll definitely be rewarded. Fresh pasta is tender, silky and delicate, with a flavor unrivaled by dried pasta. Pair that with a savory manicotti filling highlighted by the tang of fresh ricotta and parmesan, the smoothness of fresh mozzarella, and the brightness of spinach and onions, and you’ve got a winning dish.

Manicotti, fresh out of the oven

Manicotti, fresh out of the oven

Homemade pasta is one of those things that, when you find out how easy it is to make, will have you rolling out batch after batch. How easy? Try four-ingredient easy…or even three, if you’re a purist and omit the olive oil. It also lends itself to a bit of experimentation once you get the hang of it, adding fresh pureed spinach or chopped herbs to the dough as desired. But…there is a little bit of a time investment in making your own pasta, and you’ll need some specialized equipment in the form of a pasta machine (or a lot of patience, flour for dusting, and a good rolling pin).

My pasta machine has followed me around since college and is none the worse for wear over the years. It’s also one of those things that can sit in a cabinet for months, years even, waiting for inspiration to strike. Which is what happened recently. It had, in fact, been years since I last made pasta, but Daughter 1 expressed an interest. More of a curiosity, really, when I decided to use up the last of this fall’s butternut squash to make ravioli (a post, perhaps, for another day…once we perfect the filling).

I should have realized just how much fun it is for kids to not only make dough, but to roll the dough through a hand-cranked pasta maker into progressively thinner and thinner — and longer and longer — sheets. Both our girls absolutely loved helping me, improvising by making “crackers” with the dough scraps and rolling and re-rolling any bits they could get their hands on. And no, no fingers were crushed in the process. Whew!

Rolling the pasta dough

Rolling the pasta dough

So, manicotti seemed like the perfect kid-friendly project. Once you roll out the long sheets of dough it’s easy enough to cut them into six-inch sections. Then it’s just a quick swim in boiling water before being stuffed and baked. This same pasta recipe, however, can be used for making plain old pasta, to be cut down into spaghetti or fettuccine and doused with a butter/garlic sauce or a ladle of marinara.

But back to the manicotti. I liked this filling for several reasons. Even though we included some meat in our batch it’s easy enough to leave the meat out for a vegetarian manicotti, which I think I prefer. We used extremely fresh ricotta and mozzarella from Fulper’s Dairy Farm, currently available at the Slow Foods Central New Jersey Winter Market among other places. The spinach we used was frozen, but you could use fresh chard or kale if you have it on hand. Just be sure to wilt it in a hot sauté pan first and squeeze out as much liquid as possible before adding it to the recipe.

I had a couple of champion rollers in our kitchen. Daughter 1 manned the pasta machine, and then did double duty by instructing Daughter 2 on how to fill and roll the manicotti (they are going to put me out of a job soon; good thing I’m still needed to boil water and work the oven). Daughter 2 impressed me with how carefully she spooned the marinara sauce over the finished rolls, and they both put on the finishing touches with a generous sprinkle of grated mozzarella.

Our expert roller - great job for a kid

Our expert roller – great job for a kid

We will definitely make this dish again. Now that I’ve dusted off the pasta machine I’ve got all sorts of pasta adventures in mind. But if you don’t have a pasta machine or are short on time, don’t let that stop you. A good-quality dried lasagna noodle can sub for the homemade pasta sheets — just boil the lasagna noodles longer, until they are al dente. That quick swap will definitely get this dish on the table quickly, and may just save your sanity on a packed weeknight.

Assembling the manicotti

Assembling the manicotti

One final note on the below recipe: the amounts here will make approximately 12 generously-filled manicotti, feeding 6 – 8 people. If you have fewer mouths to feed (and don’t want to make extra and freeze them, which you could easily do), I suggest making the full batch of pasta dough and only use half of it for the manicotti — it’s kind-of difficult to put in one and a half eggs, and two eggs will make this dough a little too wet. Then halve the filling amount. You’ll get 6 – 7 manicotti that way, and some dough to be rolled out and cut the next day for a big batch of fettuccine.

Here’s how we prepared our dish:

Spinach Manicotti with Homemade Pasta

Pasta Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
Generous pinch Kosher salt (about 1/8th teaspoon)
3 fresh eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil

Manicotti Filling Ingredients:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 16-ounce bag frozen spinach, thawed and wrung in a clean kitchen towel to remove as much moisture as possible
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 cups fresh ricotta cheese
4 cups grated fresh mozzarella cheese
2 cups grated fresh parmesan cheese
2 eggs
Approximately 1 cup cooked, crumbled and cooled Italian sausage (from 2 large links) or similar amount ground beef – optional
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to season, and additional salt for the pasta water
1 24-ounce jar marinara tomato sauce (when we don’t make our own, we’re partial to Wayne, PA-based Vesper Bros. Signature Marinara these days)

Begin by making the pasta. Mix together the flour and the salt and, on a large, clean surface (a large cutting board or marble slab works well). Mound the flour into a hill and then make a deep well in the center of it…large enough to hold the eggs. Break the eggs into the well, add the olive oil, and begin to slowly beat the eggs with a fork. Working carefully, begin to incorporate a little flour at a time into the eggs until a loose dough forms. When the dough is too stiff to use a fork any longer, begin using your hands to knead the dough, using the heel of your hand to press the ball of dough away from you and your finger tips to bring the dough back towards you.

Making the dough - eggs and olive oil in a flour "well"

Making the dough – eggs and olive oil in a flour “well”

When all ingredients are well incorporated and the dough is stiff but still pliable, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours. During this time the gluten strands will relax and the dough will become softer. It’s much easier to work with a dough that has rested because it won’t spring back when it’s rolled out.

The dough, before it has rested

The dough, before it has rested

While the pasta dough is resting, make the manicotti filling. Begin by sautéing the onions in 1 teaspoon olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the drained and squeezed spinach to the onions and stir well, breaking up any large clumps of spinach.  Add the garlic, stir, turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool.

In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the ricotta, 2 cups of mozzarella (save the additional 2 cups for sprinkling on top of the rolled manicotti), the parmesan, eggs, salt and pepper to taste, and any cooked and cooled meat you are using. Stir in the cooled onion/spinach mixture. Set aside until the pasta is ready.

Meanwhile, fill a large stockpot with water, salt it liberally, and bring to a boil over high heat. At the same time, preheat oven to 375 degrees and prepare a large Pyrex baking dish (4.8 quart, if you have it, or two 2-quart baking dishes…or whatever baking sheets you have) by ladling in several large spoonfuls of the marinara sauce, enough to coat the bottom of the baking dish(s).

Getting back to the pasta dough, remove it from the refrigerator after it has rested. Working with one-quarter of the dough at a time, run it through the roller of your pasta machine on progressively more narrow settings, going through the press twice on each setting. You do not need to go to the narrowest setting (which is “7” on my machine, but “9” on newer Atlas pasta machines) — this is a little too thin for the manicotti.

After the last time through the roller you’ll have a very long strip of dough that is 6-inches wide and many, many inches long. Lay it out on a flour-dusted surface (don’t allow dough to double over on itself or for the raw pasta sheets to touch one another…they will stick like crazy). Trim the uneven ends and, using a ruler, cut approximate 6-inch sections to make 6-inch by 6-inch pasta squares. Keep pasta squares separated from one another but covered with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Repeat these steps for the remaining dough quarters. You’ll get approximately 12 – 14 pasta squares in total.

When all your pasta sheets are cut, cook them by briefly sliding them, two to three at a time, into the stockpot of boiling salted water. They only need to cook for a minute or two. When they rise to the surface remove them with a slotted spoon and place on a clean plate or baking sheet.

Fill each manicotti by spooning a generous amount (between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup) of the filling along one side of each pasta square and rolling it up to enclose the filling. Place it, seam side down, into the marinara sauce in the bottom of your baking dish. Continue to fill manicotti and line them up in the baking dish…or dishes, depending on what you have on hand.

Rolling the manicotti filling in the pasta sheets

Rolling the manicotti filling in the pasta sheets

When all the manicotti have been filled, spoon the remaining marinara sauce over the top and then sprinkle with the remaining grated mozzarella cheese. If you want, drizzle a little olive oil over any exposed pasta at the ends of the manicotti (where the sauce doesn’t coat the noodles).

Waiting to go into the oven

Waiting to go into the oven

Place the baking dish onto a baking sheet (helps protect your oven if the sauce bubbles over) and bake for 45 minutes to one hour at 375 degrees. Dish is ready when the sauce is bubbling, the mozzarella cheese is melted, and the manicotti at the center of the baking sheet are hot. During the last minute or two of baking you may want to broil the top to slightly brown the mozzarella. Be careful not to burn the cheese.

Remove from the oven, allow to cool for about 10 minutes (or the manicotti filling will be quite loose), and serve.

Serves: 6 – 8

That first bite can be hot

That first bite can be hot

Kid rating: four stars. Daughter 1 prefers this dish without meat. She’ll eat two helpings. She doesn’t rate the meat version quite as highly though. Daughter 2, who normally professes not to like spinach, cleaned her plate.
Parent rating: four stars. This is like an easy lasagna, and we have in fact used the filling for lasagna before. Rolling it in delicate pasta sheets somehow makes this dish even better. Great winter meal. Warm and warming, and everyone can lend a hand getting it ready.

Enjoying the manicotti

Enjoying the manicotti

Mini Ricotta Cheesecakes with Gingersnap Crusts and Apple-Walnut-Dried Fruit Compote

I envy those organized folks who have their Thanksgiving menus planned weeks in advance. Turkeys ordered, Parker House rolls made and frozen, pantries stocked with cans of pumpkin purée. Truth is, I’m usually deciding on dishes up until the last minute.

My husband, wise man that he is, is a big fan of “tradition,” which to him means making many of the same tried and true — and loved — holiday dishes every year. I’m a lot less decisive than he is (and by “a lot,” I really and truly mean a LOT). Tradition could certainly help us avoid the “ew, yucks” with the two young kids in the house. I mean, who, really, could turn their nose up at a big bowl of creamed corn? But every year I’m tempted to try something new. Personally, I think it’s because I like food so much that I just can’t commit to any one dish. And I think the family is patiently waiting to see what dish that will be this year.

If you’re like me, one of the few areas of the meal where you can spread your culinary wings is dessert. Sure, pumpkin pie is a staple on our table (tradition!), but the girls and I made a wonderful dessert this week that they both declared a winner. These were fun to make, fun to eat (they are so small that portion control is automatically built in!), and I could easily see us serving these along with the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving…leaving our more “traditional” side dishes alone for once.

Ready for dessert - miniaturized

Ready for dessert – miniaturized

Several notes on ingredients: this was yet another opportunity for us to highlight the fresh ricotta cheese from Fulper’s Farm that we picked up at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market. It’s a creamy, moist ricotta which needs to be drained for several hours in a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a bowl before using. You don’t want watery cheesecakes, believe me. For the gingersnap crust, I’m partial to using Sweetzels Spiced Wafers, a regional Philadelphia cookie that my sister and I remember having with warm apple cider when we were kids. To me, they are the epitome of fall.

The stuff of memories. Love these cookies.

The stuff of memories. Love these cookies.

And speaking of all things apple, we picked the apples for the compote at Terhune Orchards in Lawrenceville, NJ. You’ll want firm-fleshed apples for this recipe so that they hold some shape and texture when cooked. I even thought about using the last of our Asian Pears from Stultz Farm (also picked up at the farmer’s market) in this recipe, which would have been just as good. Maybe next time. And finally, do yourself a favor and use local honey for the compote if you can — nothing too fancy, either. Clover honey works just fine, but there is something special about fresh honey when it comes from a few miles, vs. a few states, away. It just tastes better.

Terhune Orchards Farm Store - the farm cats are a big draw

Terhune Orchards Farm Store – the farm cats are a big draw

Oh – you’ll want a mini muffin tin for this as well, though I suppose you could use a regular muffin tin and just be careful not to fill the cups up too much. Ours is non-stick, which really helped us when it came time to un-mold these babies. This recipe made 12 mini-cheesecakes so portion accordingly.

Making crusts with gingersnap crumbs and butter

Making crusts with gingersnap crumbs and butter

So, if you’re feeling stuck in your menu planning and want to add something new onto your holiday dessert table give these a try. Who knows — you just might start a whole new tradition in your house!

Cinnamon and cardamom marry nicely in these little gems

Cinnamon and cardamom marry nicely in these little gems

Mini Ricotta Cheesecakes with Gingersnap Crusts and Apple-Walnut-Dried Fruit Compote

Cheesecake ingredients:
8 gingersnap cookies, crushed to a medium-fine crumb
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese, drained for at least 3 hours and preferably overnight
1 egg, separated
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 ounce dark rum
1 quarter-sized slice of fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of Kosher salt

Apple Compote ingredients:
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large or 3 medium firm-fleshed apples, cored but NOT peeled, and cut into medium (1/2 inch) dice
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/16 teaspoon ground cardamom (if you don’t have a 1/16 teaspoon measure, eyeball it by only filling half of a 1/8 teaspoon measure
1/4 cup honey
Pinch of Kosher salt

Begin by preheating your oven to 325 degrees.

Mix together the gingersnap crumbs and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter until the mixture resembles moist sand. When you squeeze a handful together in your palm it should just barely hold together.

Using half of the remaining melted butter, grease the bottoms and sides of the cups in a non-stick mini muffin tin (one dozen capacity). Pack about a teaspoon to a teaspoon-and-a-half of the cookie crumbs into the bottom of each muffin cup, packing them down gently. The bottoms of each should be covered, but not too deeply.

Bake the crusts in the 325 degree oven for 10 minutes and remove to cool. Leave the oven on at 325 degrees.

Combine the 1/2 ounce rum and ginger slice in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer and then reduce heat to low for another minute before taking the mixture off heat. Add the vanilla and allow ginger to infuse the rum/vanilla mixture for at least another 10 minutes. Remove the ginger and discard.

Put the ricotta into the small bowl of a food processor and process for about one minute, until the cheese is quite creamy and smooth. Add the egg yolk, granulated sugar, the infused rum/vanilla mixture and a pinch of salt and process until all ingredients are very well incorporated.

Ricotta mixture, coming together

Ricotta mixture, coming together

In a separate medium bowl, whip the egg white using a hand mixer until it holds soft peaks. Carefully fold in the ricotta mixture.

Using the remaining melted butter, grease the sides of the muffin cups one more time and pour the ricotta mixture onto the crusts, leaving about 1/4 inch of space at the top. Be careful not to over-fill the cups even if you have a little ricotta batter left or they will run over. Believe me. Salvageable, but messy.

Cheesecakes in a water bath, waiting to go in the oven (hint: don't fill your muffin tins this full!)

Cheesecakes in a water bath, waiting to go in the oven (hint: don’t fill your muffin tins this full!)

Place the muffin tin on a larger rimmed baking sheet and fill it 1/2 full with water to create a water bath around the cheesecakes. Cook the cheesecakes at 325 for 45 minutes, until they are set but the center is just barely cooked through. They shouldn’t be too jiggly, but you don’t want them to dry out and crack either. Take a peek through the oven window about 35 minutes into baking to gauge progress. The tops may develop a bit of a skin, and that’s OK.

Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating for at least another 3 – 4 hours and preferably overnight.

While cheesecakes are cooling make the compote. Begin by toasting the walnuts in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Stir frequently so they will not burn. When they are toasted, remove to a deep-sided bowl and crush into slightly smaller pieces. Do not pulverize — you’re looking for walnut chunks, not crumbs.

Wipe the sauté pan clean and bring to medium-high heat. Melt butter until it is foaming and add the apples, cranberries and raisins. Sauté for one minute until the apples are slightly soft and add the vanilla, cinnamon, and cardamom. Stir well and add the honey. Stir again and continue to cook over medium heat until the honey begins to bubble vigorously and thicken, coating all the other ingredients. When the honey is thick and has cooked down a bit, turn off the heat, add a pinch of salt and stir well, and allow the compote to cool completely.

To serve the cheesecakes, run a sharp knife around the edges of each cheesecake and carefully un-mold (if you’re using a non-stick muffin tin, try not to scratch it with the knife!). Top each cheesecake with a tablespoon or so of the compote. Keep the cheesecakes cool until ready to serve.

Makes: 12 mini cheesecakes.

So good I can't move my hands fast enough....

So good I can’t move my hands fast enough….

Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. These are really good — almost too cute to eat. Almost. They are a great way to end a holiday meal. Next time I make them I may add just a little more cardamom. Cardamom is, in my opinion, an under-used spice but it has a very specific flavor. It’s rich and perfume-y but pairs quite nicely with cinnamon and ginger and gives a great autumnal flavor to these cheesecakes. By the way, if you’ve gotten this far and just don’t think you have the time to make these, do yourself a favor and make just the compote. Spoon it over a wedge of softened brie cheese and serve with crackers. Delish.
Kid rating: it’s unanimous: four-and-a-half stars from the kids as well. Both girls gobbled these up (turkey pun intended). I actually held out a small portion of the apple compote before adding nuts, and Daughter 1 had the no-nut version (no allergies, but she isn’t a fan). Daughter 2 had the walnut version. Both were delighted. Dessert dilemma, solved!