Monday, November 28, 2016

Swedish Butter Cookies

"The first fall of snow is not only an event, but it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of world and wake up to find yourself in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment, 'where is it to be found?' J.B.Priestley Wreaths are on the house windows, cedar roping is draped around the front door, urns are filled with greens, Christmas stockings hung by the fireplace, and holiday pillows scattered in rooms throughout the house. The extent of my holiday decorating efforts this past weekend. The trees, lights, ornaments, chalkware Santa collection, indoor wreaths, and goodness knows how many other holiday items are still up in the attic waiting. Waiting for me to get in the decorating spirit. Not yet sure when that will happen. Quite possibly I am waiting for the first snowfall. While I may not yet be inspired to get the house dressed in all of its' Christmas finery, I have had an overwhelming urge to begin making an assortment of cookies, chocolate covered caramels, marshmallows, chocolate covered coconut balls, toffee, chocolate bark, orangettes, and of course, candied walnuts and pecans. There is only one problem with all of this unbridled enthusiasm. I need to reign my baking desires in as its' still too early and too dangerous (at least in my world) to begin putting the boxes of homemade confections together.

Sometime next week I will put together a recipe recap of some of my favorite cookies and candies while interspersing my blog posts with a couple of new holiday cookie recipes. Like this one. On Thanksgiving, my sister had made these Swedish Butter Cookies (Vaniljkakor), only she called them her version of a Kolachke. I suppose it's because these Swedish Butter Cookies closely resembled a Kolachke. Like the apricot and/or poppy seed filled ones my Polish father lovingly made every Christmas. The Kolachke is usually made with a cream cheese or yeast rolled out dough and filled with either a jam/preserve or cream cheese filling. These cookies are made with butter. While I am calling these bites of deliciousness Swedish Butter Cookies (Vaniljkakor) they are actually missing an ingredient found in the genuine, bona fide, official ones. My apologies to those of you who treasure your grandmother's Swedish Butter Cookie recipe, the family heirloom passed down through the generations, and are a little concerned this derivation lacks some authenticity due to the missing egg yolk. But whether I named these cookies Swedish Butter Cookies or Kolachkes I would be a little bit right and little bit wrong, invariably upsetting someone. Although less wrong on one of them. Seriously though, I am not convinced anyone would notice the missing egg yolk. Heck, if their centers weren't filled with jam, they might easily pass as Scottish or Irish Shortbread cookies.

We all need these cookies in our lives.

The cookie batter has only five ingredients: unsalted butter, confectionary sugar, vanilla, kosher salt and sifted all-purpose flour. Having room temperature butter is key when assembling the batter.

While I usually prefer to make a cookie dough in my standing mixer (with paddle attachment), the dense cookie batter came together perfectly using a hand held mixer.

I used a 1 1/4" ice cream scoop to form the dough balls, although once scooped I didn't roll them into balls. If I had, the finished edges of my cookies would have been smoother. Personally I wanted a more 'rustic, ragged edge, homemade' versus 'bakery finish' look to my cookies. I used a glass to flatten them to approximately 1/3" thickness and a shot glass (instead of my thumb or a spoon) to make the indentations to hold the preserves.

I used apricot and raspberry jams for these cookies. But feel free to use any of your favorite preserve flavors. The Bonne Maman preserves are my store-bought go-tos. Crane's Orchard's preserves are my new favorite small batch go-tos. The well of each cookie will hold about 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of preserves.

In a preheated 325 degree (F) oven, the cookies bake for 18-22 minutes or until set and very lightly brown on the bottom.

The Swedish Butter Cookies are sprinkled with confectionary sugar once they have cooled to room temperature. If sprinkled while still warm, the sugar will melt.

The melt in mouth buttery richness of these crisp, vanilla and preserve flavored cookies is what makes them addictively delicious. They are destined to be your new favorite cookie! How good are these cookies? Well if cookie maven Dorie Greenspan, cooking goddess Ina Garten, or pastry chef extraordinaire Mindy Segal read my blog, I would secretly be wishing they would invite me to bake with them someday after they make and taste these cookies. They are that kind of good.

Of all of the cookies I make for the holidays, these by far are one of the easiest. Additionally, I would rank them really high on the best tasting cookie list. If you are looking for one of those 'gets rave reviews' cookies, make a batch of these Swedish Butter Cookies. Like now. Then make another batch or two when you are putting your cookie exchange or holiday cookie platter/packages together. You need these Christmukkah cookies in your life sooner rather than later. Just like I need a little snow, sooner rather than later, to get me started on decorating the house for the holidays.

Swedish Butter Cookies 
Makes about 18 cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectionary sugar
2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Approximately 1/2 cup of Apricot, Cherry, Mixed Berry, Peach, and/or Raspberry Preserves, divided
Additional sifted confectionary sugar for dusting

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees (F). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
2. In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer, beat butter, confectionary sugar and vanilla at medium speed until light and fluffy. 
3. Beat in flour and salt on low speed. Mix until blended.
4. Using an ice cream scoop, create generous 1" balls of dough. Flatten to about 1/3" thick. Using the bottom of a flat bottomed shot glass, press dough down in center to make a well. Note: If you want a more finished edge to your cookies, roll the balls of dough before pressing down with the glass.
5. Fill each well with 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of preserves.
6. Bake 18-22 minutes until set, but not browned. Remove cookies from pan and transfer to a cooling rack. Allow cookies to cool. Note: Rotate cookie sheet halfway through baking.
7. When cool, sift with confectionary sugar. Serve immediately.
8. Store in a tightly covered container. Note: May need to re-sprinkle with confectionary sugar to refresh if covered for more than 24 hours.

Barager Pines, a Christmas Tree Farm in Fennville, Michigan (November 2016)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Roasted Butternut Squash Salad w/ Warm Cider Vinaigrette

Ready, set, it's almost time to get your stretchy pants on! In less than twenty-four hours the Thanksgivings festivities, food fest, annual Turkey Trot races, football binging, and family drama begins! As this is my most favorite holiday, I can hardly contain my excitement for the day. Ours will be a somewhat non-traditional day, one without turkey (be still my traditional heart), one without my niece at the dinner table (unfortunately collegiate swimmers going to school on the east coast don't get to come home for this holiday), one drama free (we didn't invite our individual politics to the table), one beginning with a hometown 5K run with some of my friends, and one where this Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette will be served for the 'first' time on Thanksgiving.

If your Thanksgiving menu isn't yet carved in stone or if you have been asked to bring a dish to a gathering, consider making this Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette. And if for some reason, you can't bring yourself to make yet another trip to the grocery store or couldn't possibly add one more 'new' dish to your Thanksgiving holiday meal, then plan to make this salad for your next dinner party while butternut squash is still in season. It took me six years to make this salad (this is what happens when one has too many cookbooks, cooking magazines, recipes clipped from newspapers, or recipes shared by friends). Hopefully it won't take you that long. I have already made it twice and will be making it for a third time for Thanksgiving (my contribution to this year's family dinner at my sister's house). 

The benefit of now making this salad a couple of times is figuring out the adjustments to the recipe albeit relatively minor ones. The first time I made it I tossed the arugula, roasted squash, cranberries, roasted walnuts and grated cheese with the dressing. While still delicious, it felt that the salad become a little 'overdressed' and didn't have as much as the visual 'wow' factor on the platter. The second time I tossed the arugula only using about a 1/4 cup of the dressing then arranged the squash, cranberries, walnuts and cheese on top. The remainder of the dressing was served on the side. I liked it even more the second time.

The second adjustment may or may not be an adjustment at all, more like a preference. And it involves the cranberries. More on that later.

Technically butternut squash is a fruit, although we treat it more like a vegetable. It's tan-yellow skin is easily peeled with a vegetable peeler. Normally it is sliced lengthwise (be sure to have a good sharp knife), but for this salad you can (if you want) cut half-inch slices starting at the smaller/top end of the butternut squash. When you get near the bottom of the squash, the place where all of the seeds are, it is much easier to cut in half. Scoop out the seeds and cut into one half inch slices. Keep cutting the slices of squash until you have beautiful deep orange little 1/2 inch diced bites. 

The diced butternut squash is tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, pure maple syrup (use the real stuff), kosher salt and pepper and baked for 22-24 minutes in a preheated 400 degree (F) oven. At least once during the baking the process use a spatula to turn over the squash. To test for doneness, insert a sharp knife into several pieces of the squash. If the knife goes through easily, your butternut squash is done. 

Okay here's the part where I talk about the cranberries. In the original recipe the cranberries were added to squash during the last 5 minutes of baking. I did this the first time I made this salad. Somehow I forgot to add them the second time and instead simply added them to the salad. Either way worked, but I think I liked them added to salad instead of being baked.

The dressing can be made a day ahead, brought to room temperature and slightly reheated or it can be made while the butternut squash is roasting. The apple cider, cider vinegar and shallots are cooked over medium-high heat until the mixture reduces to about a 1/4 cup. The dijon mustard, kosher salt, pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil are whisked in after you take the pan off the heat. 

Walnuts are always better toasted. In a 350 degree (F) oven they toast up beautifully in 8-10 minutes. If you don't have a thin slicing grater to create chards of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, use a vegetable peeler. And if all else falls, use a boxed grater.  

Lightly dress your arugula with about a 1/4 cup of the dressing and taste. If it needs more, add more. Season with kosher salt and pepper. Serve the remaining dressing on the side.

Evenly scatter the roasted butternut squash, cranberries (baked or unbaked), toasted walnuts and grated cheese and serve. 

The Roasted Butternut Squash Salad w/ Warm Cider Vinaigrette is what I would call a 'platter' versus a 'bowl' salad. Whether you make it for Thanksgiving, for a dinner party, or even a weeknight meal, bring out one of your favorite platters so everyone can first eat with their eyes before they actually taste the sweetness of the butternut squash, the tartness of the dried cranberries, the nuttiness of the cheese and walnuts, and the peppery bitterness of the arugula all dressed in a warm cider vinaigrette. Pure beautiful deliciousness!

Wherever or however you are celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday this year, may your day be filled with joy, harmony, peace, contentment, abundance, and gratefulness. As you take time to be thankful for the family you love, for the friends you cherish, and for all of the blessings received and yet to come, take some time to spread the holiday spirit to others. Happy Thanksgiving wishes to all of you!

Roasted Butternut Squash Salad w/ Warm Cider Vinaigrette (slight adaptations to Ina Garten's Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette as shared in the Barefoot Contessa's Bake to Basics: Fabulous Flavor from Simple Ingredients cookbook)

1 1/2 to 2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch dice
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons kosher salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper, divided
1 Tablespoon pure maple syrup
1/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup fresh apple cider
2 Tablespoons cider vinegar
2 Tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard (recommend Maille)
4 - 5 ounces baby arugula, washed and dried
1/2 cup walnut halves, toasted
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (F).
2. Place diced butternut squash on a baking sheet. Add 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, the maple syrup, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and toss.
3. Roast squash for 22-24 minutes, turning once, until tender. Note: Add cranberries to the pan for the last five minutes of roasting or save cranberries to toss in salad.
4. While squash is roasting, combine apple cider, cider vinegar, and shallots in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until cider is reduced to about 1/4 cup. Remove from heat.
5. Whisk in dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Whisk in 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil until dressing is emulsified.
6. Place arugula on a large platter. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the dressing over the arugula and toss. 
7. Top with the roasted squash mixture, walnuts, cranberries (if not already combined with the roasted squash) and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve extra dressing on the side.
8. Serve immediately.

Notes: (1) My butternut squash was cut into a 1/2 inch. Original recipe called for cutting into a 1/4 inch dice. If cut smaller, adjust roasting time. (2) Use a good quality fresh apple cider, the kind found in the refrigerator section of a grocery store or orchard. (3) Toss salad in the dressing right before serving. (4) The butternut squash can be peeled, diced, put in a ziplock bag and stored in the refrigerator several hours or the night before roasting.

The edge of Lake Michigan in South Haven before sunrise. (November 2016)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

"Some of the most beautiful places in the world, your true soulmate, or obvious answers are staring you right in the face, and you don't even notice them." On a gorgeous unseasonably warm day in November, a friend and I went hiking in Starved Rock State Park. A first for me, a second return trip for her. With no knowledge of the terrain or trail conditions, we embarked on an ambitious 5 mile "catch your breath, break a sweat, took only one wrong turn" hike. Not sure if we felt more accomplished or ravenous when we finished. How or why it took me so long to discover the incredible canyons, bluffs, rock formations, waterfalls, views of the Illinois River, and multi-layered landscapes of a place only the eight-four miles away from my home is the proverbial '$64,000 question'. If I hadn't spent all but about three years of my semi-long life in Illinois, maybe I could come up with a credible answer. If I was someone who didn't drive hundreds of miles to hike through parks in surrounding states, maybe I would be able to put forth a plausible reason why I overlooked the one located in my own backyard. If I didn't own two pairs of hiking shoes, a set of hiking poles, and more outdoor running/hiking gear currently in inventory in any number of athletic stores, I could hide behind having a lack of gear. Well, the simplest answer is I wasn't able to see what was almost right in front of me. With my 'virtual' blinders now off, I am already planning a return trip as well as an overnight stay in one of the rustic cabins. I need to make up for all of the years of lost opportunities of embracing all of the park's wonders. Although I could do without another getting lost experience.

Which brings me to talking about this "on a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 38" Oatmeal Raisin Cookie. With my nephew returning home for an extended Thanksgiving visit, I texted him to ask if there was a cookie he wanted me to make. I thought or was rather pretty certain he would request Irish Shortbread. What he texted back was 'oatmeal raisin'. My first thought was 'yikes, I don't think I have a really great oatmeal raisin cookie recipe'. Seriously. With his plane set to land twelve hours after the text exchange, I didn't have time to go on a down the rabbit hole Oatmeal Cookie recipe hunt. But I did have one for a killer Oatmeal Currant Cookie. Which meant the over the top Oatmeal Raisin Cookie recipe was almost staring me right in the face. Cookie crisis and failure to live up to the best aunt in the universe reputation averted!

All I needed to do was to gather up the ingredients and make a few minor tweaks to a cookie recipe where, fortunately the dough didn't need to chill for several hours or overnight. It's also one of those recipes where all of the ingredients are almost always in your refrigerator and cabinets. 

A simple cookie needs simple ingredients. Save the fancy raisins and imported steel cut oats for something else. These Oatmeal Raisin cookies want, need, must, have to be made only with Thompson Seedless Raisins and Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats.

If you are seeking Oatmeal Raisin Cookie perfection, use pastry flour. This high starch, low protein flour creates a fluffy, meltingly tender, crumbly texture in cookies. Most bakeries use either cake flour or pastry flour which may explain in part why bakery cookies usually are nothing short of beautiful deliciousness. With whole wheat pastry flour now readily available, we all can now create our own bakery perfect cookie confections! 

After sifting the dry ingredients (pastry flour, baking soda, cinnamon and kosher salt), the butter and sugars are beat until light and fluffy. This usually takes at least 5 minutes. Don't be tempted to shorten the sugars-butter beating time. Eggs are added one at a time. After adding the vanilla, the sifted dry ingredients are added in eight additions until just incorporated. With the mixer on low, the oats and raisins are added. Be careful to not over beat the really, really thick batter. 

There is almost a 2 to 1 brown sugar to white sugar ratio in these cookies. However, dark brown sugar accounts for the majority of the 'brown sugar' used. Dark brown sugar has a slightly more complex flavor than light brown sugar resulting in a toffee or caramel like finish to a baked good. I might even go so far as to say the molasses in the dark brown sugar adds a kind of nutty flavor to this Oatmeal Raisin cookie.

Like a bakery cookie these Oatmeal Raisin Cookies are ginormous (approximately 3" to 4" in diameter). Containing slightly more than two tablespoons of dough, the cookie dough balls are golf ball sized. Before putting the baking sheet in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven, the cookies are slightly flattened. You will slightly flatten them again when you rotate the cookie sheet after they have baked for 7 minutes. Total baking time for the Oatmeal Raisin Cookies ranges from 17-20 minutes.

If you love a crunchy, slightly chewy in the center Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, cookie delirium awaits you. Allowing the baked cookie to cool on the baking sheet for about 2-3 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack further contributes to their crunchy texture. For a slightly less crispy texture, transfer the baked cookies to a cooling rack immediately after they come out of the oven. 

Another dominant flavor in these Oatmeal Raisin Cookies is cinnamon. If I tell you there are three tablespoons of cinnamon in these cookies, you might think I be sending you down the wrong cinnamon path. But I wouldn't do that to you. I am reluctant to suggest backing down the amount of cinnamon to two tablespoons (if you aren't the biggest fan of cinnamon in your oatmeal cookies) as the three tablespoons is what further differentiates these Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from all others. 

You can reduce the amount of cinnamon if you want to, but would encourage you to stay the course on this recipe and use the three tablespoons. It's what a '38 on a scale of 1 to 10' Oatmeal Raisin Cooking needs.

The next time I want to bring a batch of cookies to a gathering, make a welcome home treat, assemble a gift for friends, put life sustaining snacks in a hiking backpack, the decision to make either Tara's Chocolate Chip Cookies or these Oatmeal Raisin Cookies is going to be a really difficult one. Although, if I had to make that decision today, these throw down worthy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies would win out. 

If there is room for only one bold, spicy, crispy, soul satisfying, addictive Oatmeal Raisin Cookie recipe in your life, it should be this one. Quite possibly after one bite of these cookies, they may be the only ones you will ever want. With this amazing recipe now staring you in the face, what will you do?

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies (slight adaptation to the Corner Bakery Cafe Oatmeal Raisin Cookie recipe)
Makes 40-46 large 3" to 4" sized cookies.

3 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
4 teaspoons baking soda
3 Tablespoons cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 cups dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
Scant 4 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats (Recommend Old-Fashioned Quaker Oats)
2 to 2 1/2 cups Thompson dark seedless raisins

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Line two  baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
2. Sift flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and kosher salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
3. In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat butter and sugars together until light and fluffy (at least 5 minutes). Do not rush this step.
4. Add eggs in one at a time, beating until fully incorporated.
5. Beat in vanilla.
6. Add sifted flour mixture in 8 batches, just until incorporated.
7. Slowly mix in oats and raisins.
8. Using an ice cream scoop, scoop up the equivalent of 2 generous tablespoons (approximately the side of a golf ball). Place on prepared baking sheet (no more than 9 dough balls to a tray). Flatten balls slightly.
9. Bake for 17-20 minutes, rotating the sheet after 7 minutes and slightly flattening again, to ensure even making. Bake until cookies are golden and set.
10. For a crunchier cookie, allow the cookies to cool on baking sheet for at least 2-3 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. For a slightly softer cookie, immediately transfer baked cookies to the cooling rack.
11. Store cooled cookies in a tightly covered container or package in cellophane bags tightly tied.

Notes: (1) For a less molasses flavored cookie, use 1 cup dark brown sugar and 1 1/3 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed. (2) I used 2 generous cups of Thompson seedless raisins, but may want to increase to 2 1/2 cups to ensure each cookie has a greater raisin presence. (3) These cookies have a great cinnamon flavor. If you desire a more subtle cinnamon flavor, reduce cinnamon to 2 Tablespoons. But you may be sorry for making that decision. (4) Recommend placing baking tray in the center of the oven and baking one tray at a time.

Views of the Illinois River and changing/falling leaves seen from the trails at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois (November 2016)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hot Macadamia Dip

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend." (Melody Beattie) More so than at any other time of the year, the Thanksgiving season encourages all of us to reflect on and openly share the things in life and people we are most thankful for. Many of us include on this list friends, family, and those guardian angels who have come into our lives for sometimes not immediately known reasons. Some of us extend our gratefulness out to those we may not know, but whom we value for their sacrifices, contributions, or heroic actions. Shifting to the 'things' in life, what comes to mind may be somewhat dependent on our age, perspective, values, and/or life experiences. Maybe our health, running water, access to education, our freedom, and open spaces make the list of those things we openly admit to being most grateful for. Secretly our list might include things like chocolate, ice cream, and Netflix.

For a myriad of reasons, I find focusing on the more substantial and thoughtful aspects of gratitude in the days leading up to Thanksgiving to be a bit challenging this year. As at the moment, my gratitude short list is nothing short of what might be considered somewhat superficial. And what might be on this ostensibly half-baked list? Well, movies, books and wine. More important than the 'things' on this list, are the reasons, or rather reason, why. Not only do they happen to be much needed distractions, albeit temporary, from all of the angry rhetoric expressed in the months prior to and days after the recent Presidential election, they are enabling me to keep my sanity as well as the ability to remember all the things I really do like about the people I call friends. My over the top immersion into books, movies and wine is not so much a means of escaping from reality or putting my head in the sand, but rather the means to enable me to regain some perspective on who and what matters to me, on who and what I am genuinely grateful for. By the time Thanksgiving gets here, I want to be in a place where it feels good to be able to count all of my blessings. Call me naive or call me Pollyanna, but I continue to have faith that sooner rather than later we all will give ourselves the opportunity to take a deep breath, to take pause, to decide how to contribute to the greater collective good, and to take some solace in remembering there are endless possibilities in life when we decide to live a life filled with hope. And maybe for some of us, it will only take a few bottles of wine for this to happen.

Rather than drink alone, I convinced some of my friends to be my partners in crime at a wine tasting event this past weekend. Being a 'good, not a completely bad influence' friend, I planned to make sure my potentially 'tipsy' friends had the opportunity to sober up with a yummy follow-up dinner at my house. Fortunately for me, this is a somewhat adventurous group of food and wine friends. So I always know I can try some new recipes. Of course in addition to food, there would be more wine. What kind of hostess would I be if I didn't keep the wine theme going? (Not a very good one.)

The first time I tasted this Hot Macadamia Dip was a lifetime ago (okay so it was a few decades back and that's as specific as I am going to be) at the home of a friend who taught me many things, including how to set a beautiful table. It immediately turned into one of those appetizer regulars. And then it became one of those recipes put on extended hiatus. A few weeks ago we had dinner at the home of some friends. And lo and behold the Hot Macadamia Dip reappeared like a divine intervention. There were only four of us but we devoured it. When planning the post wine tasting dinner I knew this dip had to make a reappearance.

They key to this dip's creaminess is starting with softened/room temperature cream cheese. I usually take the blocks of cream cheese out before going to bed to ensure it will be the right consistency for beating it with a hand held mixer.

Once all of the ingredients are blended together, the dip is spooned into an 8 inch ceramic dish or pie plate. This is one of those dips you can make the night before or early in the day making entertaining seem slightly effortless when guests arrive.

Macadamia nuts take the flavor of just about everything up a notch or two. It's definitely the icing on this cake.

A half cup of chopped macadamia nuts are mixed with 1 1/2 tablespoons of melted butter and then spread evenly over the top of the dip. 

In a preheated 350 degree (F) oven, the Hot Macadamia Dip bakes for 25-30 minutes or until bubbling hot on the sides as well as hot through the center. Because this is one of those hot dips served in the container it is baked in, use a ceramic dish or pie plate you love. On my recent trip to Michigan I saw a piece of pottery at the Khnemu Studio of Fernwood Farm in the town of Fennville and immediately thought it was destined to be the container for this Hot Macadamia Dip.

Served hot/warm with buttery crackers or cocktail rye breads, it is one of those appetizers winning the 'most likely to disappear' award. It's the perfect hot appetizer to serve at any gathering. It's creamy yet has a bit of crunch from the green peppers, onions and macadamia nuts. Especially ones where there wine or cocktails or both wine and cocktails are being served.

Hot Macadamia Dip

11-12 ounces cream cheese, softened/room temperature
2 Tablespoons milk
2 small packages (2 ounce size) of Buddig's beef (thinly sliced and cut into 1 inch pieces)
1/3 cup finely chopped yellow or sweet Vidalia onion
1/3 cup finely chopped green pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 cup coarsely chopped macadamia nuts
1 1/2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Cocktail rye and/or pumpernickel bread and/or butter/Ritz crackers

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F).
2. In a medium sized bowl, blend the softened cream cheese and milk together until smooth using a hand held mixer.
3. Fold in black pepper, ground ginger, garlic, green pepper and onion. 
4. Mix in sliced, cut beef.
5. Fold in sour cream. Transfer mixture to an 8 inch ceramic dish or pie plate. Smooth top.
6. Mix together the chopped macadamia nuts and melted butter. Spread evenly over the top.
7. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until completely heated through. Serve hot/warm with assorted crackers and/or small rye breads.

Notes: (1) The dip can be made the night before and/or hours before. Cover and chill in the refrigerator. To prevent the chilled ceramic dish and/or pie plate from breaking, put it in oven and then turn on oven temperature to 350 degrees (F). (2) Instead of the Buddig's beef can use the dried jarred beef. Rinse and dry before slicing and adding to the dip mixture.

Starved Rock State Park, Utica, Illinois (November 2016)