Cooks Exchange

A little preparation makes the celebration much more enjoyable

Rehearsal dinner, baby shower and a wedding in the course of two days make for a hectic schedule, but offer some new got-to-try recipes.

I share these food bites to show that simple can be good, and with a few homemade touches frozen or prepared foods can be a cook's best friend. With Memorial Day on the way and plenty of summer activities, we can all put prepared or make-ahead dishes to good use.

Make-ahead foods such as spaghetti sauces, layered salads and wraps or roll-ups let the cooks enjoy the party, wedding or holiday, too. For holiday picnics, the grocer's deli and prepared salad cases are the best place to find fixings for sandwiches to go along with homemade make-ahead desserts.

For the rehearsal dinner, the bridegroom's mom prepared gallons of spaghetti sauce made with ground meat and smoked beef sausage. I have had Italian sausage in spaghetti sauce, but never smoked sausage. That sausage added another dimension of flavor, that little extra that takes a dish from good to excellent.

Because she works a full-time job, my friend did all the food preparations in advance and froze the sauce and desserts. She's a smart woman.

Individual pecan pies and muffin brownies made for simple, but delicious desserts. Guests really liked the "finger-food" desserts, a way to keep things simple and tasty.

Now, the wedding re

ception done by the bride's gourmet friends was appetizer heaven with coconut shrimp and mango chutney, crab cakes with white remoulade sauce and beef and chicken satay with peanut sauce. I plan to steal one appetizer for future parties, individual phyllo cups with roasted pear, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese and caramelized walnut pieces.

These foodies applied some of Sandra Lee's "Semi-Homemade" techniques that worked. They used prepared crab cakes, but made their own remoulade and did the same with the frozen coconut shrimp and homemade mango chutney. The phyllo cups also can be found in the supermarket's freezer section and the Gorgonzola in the dairy case, but roasting the pears and caramelizing the walnuts made the dish.

An email that I received from Better Homes and Gardens and www.recipe.com offers a sandwich idea that makes use of deli roast beef and prepared tapenade, but the dessert is homemade, chilled lemon cheesecake squares. How easy is this for a holiday outing or concert?

BEEF AND TAPENADE OPEN-FACE SANDWICHES

1/3 cup light mayonnaise or salad dressing

1 teaspoon Dijon or yellow mustard

4 slices crusty Italian or sourdough bread

1/4 cup olive tapenade

12 ounces thinly sliced deli roast beef

2 small tomatoes, thinly sliced

1 cup fresh baby spinach

In small bowl combine mayonnaise and mustard. Lightly spread on one side of each bread slice. Spread with tapenade. Top with roast beef, tomato slices and spinach. Serves 4.

-- From www.recipe.com

LEMON CHEESECAKE SQUARES

9 graham crackers (about 5 ounces)

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted

1 pound (two 8-ounce packages) cream cheese or Neufchatel (1/3 less-fat cream cheese), a room temperature and cut into approximately 1-inch pieces

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 or 2 lemons)

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

2 large eggs

1 recipe Lemon Curd, warm or at room temperature

LEMON CURD

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 or 3 lemons)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Cut two 8-by-16-inch pieces of parchment. Put the strips in an 8-by-8-inch baking pan (preferably straight-sided) so that they cross each other and the excess hangs over the pan's sides. Push the parchment into the bottom and corners of the pan.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325 degrees.

Break the graham crackers into a food processor and process until finely ground. Add the melted butter and pulse until the mixture resembles damp sand. Transfer the crumbs to the lined pan and press them firmly and evenly into the pan. Set aside.

Rinse, dry and reassemble the food processor. In the cleaned bowl, combine the cream cheese, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest. Process until smooth, about 30 seconds, stopping halfway to scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs and process until the mixture is perfectly smooth and blended, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary, about another 20 seconds.

Pour the cheesecake mixture into the prepared pan. Bake until the sides are slightly puffed and the center is dry to the touch, about 40 minutes. While the cheesecake is baking, make the Lemon Curd for topping the squares.

When the cheesecake comes out of the oven, pour all of the curd onto the cheesecake and use an offset spatula to spread it evenly. Let cool to room temperature and refrigerate for at least 5 hours, preferably overnight. You can refrigerate it uncovered, as no detectable skin forms on the curd.

When the cheesecake is thoroughly chilled, carefully lift it out of the pan using the parchment handles and onto a cutting board. Slide the parchment out and discard it. Using a large sharp knife, cut the cheesecake into quarters, and then cut each quarter into four equal squares. To make clean cuts, wipe the knife blade with a damp paper towel between each slice.

Tip: For the best results, measure your flour by weight instead of volume. (1 cup of all-purpose flour equals 4 1/2 ounces) If you don't have a scale, be sure to use the proper technique when filling your measuring cups.

Tip: These cheesecake squares are a perfect addition to a picnic menu. To make packing and serving them easier, flatten a paper muffin liner, set a cheesecake square into the center and fold the sides up. Repeat for the remaining squares and then pack them in a box or plastic container. The squares need to be kept cool, so remember to include freezer packs in your picnic basket.

LEMON CURD DIRECTIONS:

Set a fine strainer over medium bowl. In another medium bowl, whisk the lemon juice, sugar and eggs until thoroughly combined and most of the sugar has dissolved.

Pour the lemon mixture into a nonreactive saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula, until the curd is steaming, but not boiling and thickened and registers about 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 3 to 7 minutes.

Take the curd off the heat, add the butter and stir until the butter has melted. Pour the curd through the strainer to get rid of any lumps. Set aside but top the cheesecake while still warm.

-- Better Homes and Gardens recipe fromwww.recipe.com/

Wanted: pistachio cake or pie

"Thirty years ago when I lived up North, I had the recipe for pistachio cake/pie," said Paul Goll. "I have lost it. Can you help me out and print said recipe?"

I know some of you readers have pistachio cake and pie recipes. These were popular during the 1970s, and some were called Watergate Cake/Pie.

Coming next week

If you can believe it, we have more sweet potato pies that are different from the already published ones. Lynette Faul is already trying some of the recipes.

Marie Panyik of Ellenton shares some Hungarian goulash recipes from a cookbook that she picked up in Budapest, Hungary.

Andrea Yeager, a freelance writer, can be reached at ayeager51@cableone.net. Send contributions or requests to Cook's Exchange, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.

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