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Recipes for impromptu entertaining

Internationally known cooking instructor Lauren Groveman shares advice
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With the following ingredients and concoctions waiting in the wings, you’ll always be ready to entertain in a delicious “home-made” way. And, it’s no problem if no one shows up, because each one of these recipes is designed to fit happily into your life, whether for breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack time! Additional head-note information for all of the following recipes can be found in 'The I Love to Cook Book' and 'Lauren Groveman's Kitchen, Nurturing Food for Family & Friends.'

Smoked Salmon and Scallion SpreadYield: about 2 cups


  • 12 ounces whipped cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 rounded tablespoons sour cream (optional)
  • 1/3 to 1/2 pound sliced smoked salmon, minced
  • 1/2 cup packed minced scallions (green onions), trimmed white part and 1 1/2 to 2 inches of the tender green
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely ground white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Suggested Accompaniments

  • Sesame Bread Sticks
  • Garlic Pita Toasts or Pita Chips
  • Homemade Bagels or Bagel Chips
  • Crusty Deli Rye Bread
  • Assorted raw vegetables (crudités)

Combine cream cheese with sour cream in a medium-sized mixing bowl until well combined. Add remaining ingredients, except accompaniments, and fold together well. Spoon mixture into a serving bowl or a decorative crock and cover well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serve as a spread on any one of the suggested accompaniments. Store leftovers in the refrigerator well covered for up to 4 days.

Garlic-Scented Roasted PeppersFor the roasted peppers:

  • As many red and yellow bell peppers, as desired
  • Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Thinly sliced or minced fresh garlic, to taste (optional)
  • Kosher or sea salt, to taste

Suggested embellishments: drained capers, pitted oil-cured olives and, just before serving, slivered fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar

To roast the peppers, stick a sturdy metal skewer into the stem end of a red or yellow bell pepper and place the pepper over (actually into) a direct flame. Let the skins blister and become blackened, turning frequently (see the sidebar). When blackened all over, remove the pepper from the flames and slide it off the skewer, directly onto a clean kitchen towel (or into a paper lunch bag). Enclose the pepper completely in the towel (or scrunch the bag shut) and let it become cool enough to handle (during this time, the interior of the pepper will produce steam which will further tenderize the flesh.)

Alternatively, to broil the peppers, preheat the broiler with the rack as close as possible to the heating element. Halve the pepper(s) and lay them on a cold broiler pan (skin side up). Broil the peppers until the skins are blackened and blistered, then remove them from the oven and let them cool (as described when roasting over a direct flame).

To skin, seed and flavor the peppers, first unwrap them (they will look somewhat shriveled and feel limp). Rub the blackened skins off the peppers, revealing the flesh which will have a deeper, slightly darker red color. If little stubborn bits of the blackened skin bother you, just rinse them off, though this will remove a bit of their smoky flavor. Cut the peppers in half, through the stem end, and pull out their seeds along with any translucent membranes from the interior. Again, feel free to lightly rinse out any stray seeds, then dry the peppers, meticulously, and place them in a clean wide-mouth jar or in a sturdy plastic tub. Drizzle the peppers with the garlic oil or another great tasting olive oil and grind in some freshly ground black pepper to taste. If serving within 24 hours, you can layer several thinly sliced (or minced) garlic cloves within the halved peppers.

If serving that day, keep the peppers at room temperature. If planning to refrigerate, for best flavor, bring the peppers close to room temperature, before serving. In a pinch, zap them in the microwave (uncovered) for 30 seconds to 1 minute, on high, just to help loosen any congealed oil and to take off their extreme chill. Sprinkle the peppers lightly with coarse salt, just before serving.

Timing is Everything
• The peppers can be roasted, skinned, seeded, flavored with oil and ground pepper and stored in the refrigerator several days ahead and used throughout the week. The addition of fresh garlic, however, will reduce their longevity, so add garlic no longer than 2 days before serving. Either way, keep the peppers securely covered, to preserve best flavor.

Whole dates stuffed with shards of Parmesan cheeseYield: serves 8 to 10

  • 12 large, best-quality dried dates
  • 1 small wedge (about 8 ounces) best-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Make a lengthwise slit in each date and remove the pit but keep both halves attached at the spine. Mound some small shards of cheese in each date, filling it from side to side. Line them up on your platter in a single layer, cheese-side up and serve.

Timing is Everything
• The stuffed dates can be assembled early on the day of serving and kept refrigerated, well covered. Let sit out for 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Hot-Spiced Mulled CiderYield: 2 quarts


  • 1 half gallon (2 quarts) apple cider
  • 1 5-inch long stick cinnamon (cracked in half)
  • 6 whole black peppercorns
  • 7 whole allspice berries
  • 1 star anise
  • 5 whole coriander seeds
  • 3 whole cardamom seeds, cracked
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 2 five-inch long (1/2 inch wide) strips orange zest

Dry toast dry spices (not peel) in a hot 10-inch skillet, stirring constantly, until toasted and fragrant (about 2 minutes) pour out onto a plate. Pour cider into a nonreactive saucepan and add orange peel and toasted spices. Bring to a simmer (with the cover ajar), and cook very gently for 30 minutes, occasionally skimming off any foamy substance that rises to the surface.
Strain mulled cider through a fine mesh sieve lined with a doubled layer of dampened cheese cloth or a paper coffee filter. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Heat gently, before serving, accompanied by a cinnamon stick, if desired.

The Sexiest Candy I’ve Ever Tasted...Mixed-Nut Butter-Crunch ToffeeIf I had to choose, this would be my favorite candy in the whole world. Savory, sweet and incredibly delicious, this recipe is a great choice when you want to prepare the “sweet part” of your menu a week or two ahead. The candy keeps really well, when refrigerated in an air-tight tin. If unsalted nuts are not available, reduce the salt in the recipe to 1/4 teaspoon. Oh, and you might be wondering why I add baking soda to a candy recipe, when there’s no obvious need for leavening. The candy mixture needs to be lightened, in order to keep you from breaking a tooth on it, once it’s hardened. Once baking soda is stirred into the hot toffee, the soda is activated, producing millions of microscopic bubbles which “interrupt” it’s hard texture, forcing the candy to shatter (and not crack) when you take a bite.  For those allergic to nuts, see the nut-free variation, at the end of this recipe.

Yield: About forty 1 1/2-inch square candies

For the candy: 

  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) melted unsalted butter, for brushing, plus 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, for the candy mixture
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped deeply toasted unsalted macadamia nuts (page XX)
  • 3 cups finely chopped toasted nuts (combine toasted blanched almonds, walnuts, pecans and/or macadamia nuts)
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate

Butter a shallow 12 x 10-inch baking sheet and line it with a sheet of parchment paper, allowing some excess paper at both ends. Brush the paper with some melted butter and set the sheet aside, on a wire rack. Reserve any remaining melted butter, for later. Line two more shallow baking sheets or trays with wax paper, for holding and chilling the candy, once assembled, and set the sheets aside. Cut each unwrapped stick of butter in half and place both on a plate next to your work surface, along with a tiny bowl with the pre-measured salt and baking soda, an opened bottle of vanilla and the coarsely chopped macadamia nuts. Place the finely chopped nuts in another bowl. Place a small bowl half full of boiling water, next to the stove and insert a pastry brush in the water. Place your candy thermometer, within easy reach. Place a medium bowl of ice water close by and, if by accident, any hot sugar syrup should touch your skin, dunk the affected area into this bowl.

Place a 2 1/2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan on the stove. Place 1/3 cup of water, the sugar, and the corn syrup into the pan and stir gently, to combine. Place the pan over medium-high heat and let the mixture come to a rolling boil. Don’t stir anymore. If, while the sugar was dissolving, any sugar crystals jumped to the sides of pan, use the moistened pastry brush to wash down the sides down. Cook the syrup until the color turns very light amber. Reduce the heat and add the butter, one half-stick at a time, stirring very gently, with the clean stem end of a wooden spoon. Add the next piece of butter, only after each preceding piece has melted and become fully incorporated.

When all of the butter has been added, and the mixture is well combined, clip the candy thermometer on the side of the pan, so the bottom is submerged in the boiling toffee without allowing the mercury tip to touch the bottom of the pan. Raise the heat to medium and boil the mixture, until the temperature reads between 295oF and 300oF. Remove the thermometer from the pan and stand the bottom in the bowl of boiling hot water. Working quickly, but carefully, immediately take the pan off the stove and stir in the combined salt and baking soda, vanilla, and macadamia nuts (in that order). Immediately, pour the candy mixture onto the prepared baking sheet and, using a long, buttered metal icing spatula, or a table knife, spread the toffee into a thin even layer, about 1/3-inch thick (the toffee won’t cover the entire pan). Use a buttered blade of a pastry scraper to frequently push the toffee into a rectangular shape as it cools, giving it a straight edge. Let the mixture set for a few minutes, or until firms up a bit (not too long, however, or the candy will become too hard to cut).

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate, stirring constantly, either in a heat-proof bowl, set in a skillet filled with an inch of very hot, but not simmering water, over low heat or in a microwave oven for 1 minute on high, stirring until smooth after heating. As you work with the chocolate, occasionally check the slab of toffee, using the straight edge of your scraper, as needed, to move it back in line. Once the chocolate is melted, place the bowl next to your work surface.

While the toffee mixture is still warm and pliable, use a buttered pastry scraper to score it into 1 1/2-inch squares. Let the candy set, until it’s firmer, about 5 more minutes. Score again, through the original cuts, making sure that the candy is in separate squares all the way through, to the bottom. If stubborn, reapply butter to your pastry scraper and place the blade in your original cut. Using a heavy mallet, whack the top of the scraper, forcing the blade through any sticky, tough spots. 

When firm and separate, make sure the toffee pieces are in their original positions and pour the melted chocolate over the top. Using a long, metal icing spatula spread the chocolate evenly over the toffee. (It's fine if the chocolate runs down into the grooves.) Scatter 2 cups of the ground toasted nuts on top of the chocolate and press them, gently, into the chocolate. Reserve the remaining 1 cup of nuts. Lift one end of the parchment paper so the first line of cut candy bends and separates from the next line. One by one, carefully lift each piece away from the rest and, if there are any bare spots, sprinkle them with the nuts. Place the candy, in a single layer, on the prepared baking sheets and refrigerate the pieces, covered with plastic wrap, to let   the chocolate harden, 1 to 2 hours. Once set, place the candy into an airtight tin, in layers, separated with wax paper. Although these candies may be stored at room temperature, to best preserve the freshest flavor, store them in the refrigerator. 

Nut-Free Variation
Be sure to purchase chocolate that isn’t made in an environment with nuts, since this can cause inadvertent cross-contamination. In this recipe, I use Nestlé’s brand. For a company that specializes in nut-free chocolates, see my Source list on page XX. Since I suggest the use of chocolate wafer cookies (by Nabisco), which contains coconut oil, if allergic to this, you’ll need to find another cookie that’s safe for you to eat (like Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, also by Nabisco).

For a nut-free version, make the following changes in the original recipe. Instead of using nuts in the toffee, use an equal amount of coarsely chopped salted thin pretzel sticks. Mix 1 1/2 cups each of crushed Nabisco chocolate wafer cookies and Lorna Doone shortbread cookies, and use them to top the melted chocolate. Reduce the salt to 1/4 teaspoon. All other instructions are the same.

Timing is Everything
• Toast and chop the nuts one or two days ahead of assembling the candy and keep them at room temperature, securely covered. Freeze any extra nuts, or leave them at room temperature and use them within two weeks.
• These candies stay well for over a month, when covered tightly and stored in the refrigerator.

Source: Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates
316 Route 2
P.O. Box 124, South Hero, Vermont 05486

Lauren Groveman is an internationally known cooking and baking instructor, offering nonvocational (hands-on and demonstration) cooking and baking classes to men, women and teenagers.  She is also a radio host, television host and author. Lauren appears monthly as a family food contributor to MSNBC TV.  For more information, please visit