Christmas Cooking

Found my “Susie Homemaker” gear yesterday, as I decided I couldn’t ignore the basil forest that was emerging from my herb pot and threatening to take over Garrett’s desk. Making my own pesto has been on my mind, so I did some Google research on the best methods and ingredient equivalents, then formulated my own strategy.

The “How to Make Pesto Like an Italian Grandmother” link caught my eye…but as I read through the comments, I learned the mortar and pestle was the true way to go. Hey, I have one of those.

The food processor method wasn’t appealing, until I ground and pestled for about 30 minutes to come up with a small ball of pesto base. (2.5 cups basil, three garlic cloves, small handful pine nuts, two handfuls of Parmesan.) After mixing in about 2 tbsp of evoo (olive oil), I figured that would be plenty to pour over a block of brie at a party later on.

Note: this pesto had quite the kick, from the bruised basil an lots of garlic. Adding cheese helped make a more dense ball of pesto paste and helped the texture. Also, I used sea salt in the pestle to help break down the basil leaves.

Brie with home-ground Pesto

Knowing I had to double my pesto output to have enough for the Tortas I was planning to make, I pulled out the Cuisinart stick processor (one of those that has four attachments, the most notable being the stick blender…but I use the processor 95% of the time) and hoped my own Nonna wouldn’t shake her head in heaven.

I began to prune the basil forest, yielding about 3.5-4 cups of fresh leaves and a more healthy herb pot.  I loosely followed a basic Pesto recipe for equivalents, but took the “mix and add’ approach by throwing in bits of everything at a time, mixing for about 10 seconds, and adding more of all ingredients together and finally adding about half cup of evoo at the end (though it called for 1 cup). This produced about 1.25 cups of pesto, but I could’ve made more if I wanted it runnier, with more evoo.

My aunt Sue makes this awesome torta with cheese, pesto and sun dried tomato that I tried to emulate, but had to mash a handful of recipes together to do so. With these steps from Epicurious, Food.com and Green Eats Blog, I came up with this:

1 cup pesto (for homemade, see above)
1 cups sun dried tomato (all recipes called for tomatoes in oil, but I had the dried ones on hand)
1/3 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup EVOO (only if using dried tomatoes, not packed in oil)
splash Balsamic Vinegar
8 oz (one pack) low-fat cream cheese, divided in half (softened at room temp)
12 oz goat cheese (softened at room temp)
salt to taste

Make each layer (pesto, tomato & cheese) and set aside in individual bowls.

For tomato: Mix sun dried tomato and tomato paste (plus oil, if necessary) in food processor and blend until nearly smooth. Add a splash of balsamic and 4 oz of cream cheese, blend until mixed well.

For cheese: Mix softened goat cheese with remaining 4 oz of cream cheese in a small bowl. Microwave for 15 seconds first, if you forget to set out the cheese ahead of time, as this will help it blend. Salt to taste.

Layering: If you plan to serve on a plate very nice looking, follow instructions on lining a bowl/dish with parchment paper or plastic wrap, spray with cooking spray, layer, then invert on a platter when serving.  I cheated and used three ceramic mini-loaf pans instead. Cooking spray makes layering a bit harder to do, so you can probably skip it.

Start with the cheese. Halve the bowl, then divide each half in thirds, one for each pan. Spread across the bottom of the pan (thank you mini spatulas) in an even layer. Cheese is the only layer that is added twice.  Add a pesto layer (works best if the pesto is more solid than runny, so reduce the olive oil in the recipe if you can), followed by the tomato spread.

Each layer should set up fairly well. Top with the final layer of cheese. Wrap and refrigerate for a couple hours before serving (can make 1-2 days in advance). Before serving, top with a bit of extra pesto, sundried tomatoes and/or pine nuts for flair. Crackers, crostinis, bread all taste great with this.

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Christmas Cooking