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Baked Brie with Dried Fruits and Nuts

Last year, a baked brie similar to the one in the photo above made an appearance at some point during the holidays – purchased at The Scone Pony in Spring Lake, NJ, a shop selling outstanding scones and other treats.
But the store’s limited opening hours didn’t correspond with my availability to stop in this year, so I decided to make my own for Christmas eve. I’ve got a few vegetarians in the family and the octopus salad, baccala mantecato and shrimp platter just doesn’t cut it with them. I couldn’t leave them out while we were sitting around embibing on prosecco and appetizers.
The baked brie was a snap to make and was just as good as Scone Pony’s – no, better, since it was freshly made.
Maybe you’re having guests at some point in the week, or making merry for New Year’s Eve. This would be a perfect accompaniment to those glasses of bubbly you’re likely to pour.
I start by slicing off the rind from a wheel of brie, an optional step, but it makes it a lot easier to dig into the cheese without the rind.
 Then smear the top with a fig spread, fig preserves or other type of jam, jelly or preserves that you like. I know I’d also love this with either quince jelly, apricot or orange preserves too.
 Then take some of the same flavor of preserves or jelly and mix it with your choice of chopped nuts and dried fruits. I used dried figs, cranberries and cherries, with pecans and pistachios.
Pile the dried fruit and nut mixture on top, then when guests arrive, bake in the oven briefly or place in the microwave for a minute or two.
 Add some crackers and serve.
 And watch it disappear.
 Buon Anno and a big thank you to all my readers for following me this year, for leaving comments on the blog, for making my recipes and for emailing me with questions, or just to send greetings. I wish you all the very best in 2016.
 Are you a social media devotee? Ciao Chow Linda is also on Instagram, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Click here to connect with me on Facebook, here for my Pinterest page, here for my Twitter feed and here for my Instagram page to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.

 

Baked Brie with Dried Fruits and Nuts
All amounts are all approximate. Use as much or as little as you like of nuts and dried fruits.
 If you have too much, it keeps well in the refrigerator.
1 wheel of brie cheese
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup chopped pistachios
1/4 cup chopped dried figs
1/4 cup chopped dried cranberries
1/4 cup fig preserves, plus more for smearing on top of cheese.
Carefully slice the top rind of the brie cheese, trying not to take much of the cheese. A little bit of rind on top is ok. Spread some fig preserves over the cheese. Chop the nuts and fruits, mix in the preserves and pile on top. Refrigerate until ready to use, then bake in a 350 degree oven for five minutes, or place in the microwave for one minute. You don’t want to melt the cheese, just soften it. Serve with crackers.

Fried Calamari (Squid)

Through the years, I’ve gotten away from my childhood tradition of eating fried fish for Christmas eve, opting instead for dishes that are prepared in the oven or sauteéd on the stove top, like pasta with mixed shellfish, or swordfish involtini.  My kids threaten to mutiny if I omit those dishes, or the baccala mantecato or the stuffed squid (which my son now prepares) from the menu, but I have managed to wean everyone from the fried smelts, and all the other fried seafood, including squid. Aside from the difficulty of navigating several pans of sizzling, deep oil amid the chaos and confusion of choreographing seven to nine different dishes to be ready at the same time, frying fish just leaves a huge clean up job and a penetrating smell in the house that doesn’t go away for a couple of days.
But a couple of nights after Christmas eve, when I was home alone and rummaging through the refrigerator, I found a container with a few squid that hadn’t been used for our family dinner. I couldn’t resist the urge to fry up some squid “rings.”
And let me just say, due to unforseen circumstances – which involved another leftover – namely a third of a bottle of Prosecco – these were the best fried squid rings I’d ever made – or eaten. The batter had the perfect lightness and crunch without being greasy and the squid were tender too. I’ve made fried squid using a simple dusting of flour, and I’ve made it with a batter of flour, eggs and beer. My favorite way has been to use just flour and San Pellegrino water, but I figured since I had the Prosecco, why not use the bubbly to give the batter a little “lift.” With New Year’s eve just a day away, you’ll most likely have some Prosecco or Champagne in the house, so why not treat yourself to some fried calamari too?
Just mix some flour (I used about a cup) and pour in some Prosecco (start with 1/4 cup or so) until you get a consistency of a thin pudding. Add a little salt and a couple of dashes of cayenne pepper to give it some “zing.”
Slice the cleaned squid bodies into “rings.” They’re limp when you slice into them, but will take shape as soon as they hit the hot oil. Make sure the oil is good and hot. Test it first with a small piece before filling the whole pan with the squid.  Turn them over once, drain them on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt while they’re hot.
Serve them immediately with lemon slices (or some tomato sauce) and hopefully, you’ll have enough Prosecco leftover to pour a glass for yourself.
But don’t let my kids know I whipped up this batch of fried squid, or I’ll be back on fry duty again next Christmas eve.
Buon Anno Amici!
 May 2015 be filled with as much joy as you have given me,
dear, faithful readers. – Ciao Chow Linda



Batter for Fried Calamari (can be used for other fish, or frying vegetables too)
printable recipe here

1 cup flour (approximately)
1/4 cup Prosecco (approximately)
dash of salt
dash of cayenne pepper

Add all the ingredients together, using a whisk to blend. Add more Prosecco (or seltzer water if you don’t have enough Prosecco) until the batter is the consistency of a thin pudding.
Dip the sliced squid rings into the batter, lift with a fork to wipe off excess, then drop into hot oil. Turn once when golden on the first side and remove when golden on the second side. Drain on paper towels and season with salt immediately.

Kir Royale and Champagne

 With New Year’s Eve approaching, you’ll most likely be breaking open some champagne, but instead of pouring a simple glass of the bubbly, why not have a Kir Royale, a festive drink made with champagne and crème de cassis, a sweet, dark liqueur made from black currants. I never drank a Kir Royale until my trip to Paris this fall, when I made up for all those decades of neglect.  I even went one step further, taking a side trip to Reims, the heart of the Champagne region. It’s only a one-hour train ride east from Paris.

It’s also the site of one of the great cathedrals of the world, where French kings were once crowned.
Construction of the cathedral began in the 1200s and continued for nearly three centuries. It remains one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe. It was heavily damaged during World War I, and work continues to this day on the cathedral.
The artist Marc Chagall designed these stained glass windows,  installed in 1974.
While the cathedral is a big draw for tourists, so too, are the many champagne houses located in the region. I couldn’t pass up the chance to tour the cellars of one such producer — G.H. Mumm.
The “caves” or cellars are exactly that, 75 kilometers of tunnels and passageways dug by hand out of the chalky soil, a process that took 70 years to complete.
The cellars contain 25 million bottles (yes, million, that’s right), some of which are behind lock and key.
Those are the historic vintages, some of which date back to the 19th century. They may be worth a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean they taste very good. The length of time for optimum aging is anywhere from a year and a half to five years. 
Just as in the past, champagne for today’s market goes through a “riddling” process – where each bottle is held on a tilt on a wooden rack and rotated by hand in order to consolidate any sediment prior to removal. After the sediment collects in the neck of the bottle, it’s frozen to make disgorging easier.
 Mumm also has a museum in its cellars, containing many old implements and machines of the trade.
Of course, tasting the champagne is the best part of the visit. In the interest of research, I had to taste three of Mumm’s champagnes, including one of its best – the Grand Cru blanc de blancs, made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes.
A bottle of this will set you back a pretty penny, so you may want to choose a less expensive bubbly, like an Italian prosecco or Spanish cava, to make your Kir Royale. You probably already know that while sparkling wines are produced all around the world, only those made in this geographic region of France have the legal right to be called champagne.
By the way, you can make yourself a plain Kir, rather than a Kir Royale, by substituting dry white wine for the sparkling wine.
Here’s a little bit of trivia for all you nerdy types out there. Bottle sizes still bear the names given them by champagne houses at the start of the 20th century. With the smallest first :
• Quarter or demi bottle = 18.7 or 20cl, depending on the country
• Bottle = 75cl
• Magnum = 1.5 litres
• Jeroboam = 3 litres (named after the founder and first king of Israel)
• Methuselah = 6 litres (named after Noah’s grandfather)
• Salmanazar = 9 litres (named after the king of Assyria)
• Balthazar = 12 litres (named after the regent of Babylon)
• Nebuchadnezzar = 15 litres (named after the king of Babylon)

Whatever you’re toasting with this New Year’s Eve and whatever the size, I’m lifting my glass to all you readers who follow Ciao Chow Linda, and I wish you all a happy, healthy 2013.

Kir Royale
1/2 ounce crème de cassis
6 oz. champagne
Pour the crème de cassis in a champagne glass and slowly fill with champagne. Serve.