Cooking at the Cove: Transported to Italy

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My week began with a Tuscan-themed celebration for my daughter’s birthday that spilled over into the next few days with more opportunities to sample other delicacies that involved sauce, cheese, and amaretto. Whatever you use for an excuse to prepare these dishes, they’ll transport you straight to Italy via your kitchen table.

For Chicken Parmesan Bake, the robust homemade sauce is worth the extra effort. Splurge on high-end bottled tomato puree, ramp the garlic up to your taste, and finish it off with fresh basil. You’ll be glad you did.

This unusual savory cheesecake is best when served hot out of the oven. Creamy and gooey, it puffs up beautifully and can be served as a first course or as a luncheon entrée with a salad.

And you haven’t lived until you’ve had a slice of Amaretto Cake that can be made ahead, wrapped up snuggly, and stored in the fridge to stew in its own syrupy sweetness. This is the perfect treat to serve when an unexpected guest drops in for tea. And that’s how we do things at the Cove.

Chicken Parmesan Bake

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, minced

1 (24-ounce) jar tomato purée

1 pound chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 tablespoon fresh basil, shredded

Salt and black pepper, to taste

1 pound medium shell pasta

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/4 cup bread crumbs

Italian herb seasoning blend

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 3-quart casserole dish. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté for 6-8 minutes or until softened and fragrant. Add tomato purée and bring to a simmer. Add chicken and cook for about 10 minutes or until sauce is thickened slightly and chicken is just cooked through. Stir in fresh basil and season generously with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling salted water until not quite al dente. Reserve a cup of pasta water before straining. Stir pasta and a bit of pasta water into sauce and stir. Transfer to casserole dish. Add cheeses and combine. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and Italian herb seasoning. Bake for 30 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly and pasta is heated through. Yield: 8 servings

Florentine Cheesecake

2 cups homemade bread crumbs

1/2 cup butter, melted

1 (10-ounce) pkg. frozen chopped spinach

3 (8-ounce) pkgs. cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

4 eggs

1 1/4 cups Gruyere cheese, grated

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/4 tsp. paprika

1/8 tsp. cayenne

1/4 cup scallions, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine bread crumbs with melted butter in a bowl and press into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake for 8-12 minutes until lightly browned then set aside to cool.

Cook spinach according to package directions. Place in a strainer and press out the liquid with a spoon.

In a large bowl, beat together cream cheese, cream, salt and mustard with a mixer until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add spinach, cheeses, spices and scallions and mix on low speed until well-combined.

Pour mixture into prepared crust and bake for 1 hour, or until filling is set and golden on top. Cool for 15 minutes on a wire rack. Yield: 12 servings

Amaretto Cake

Cake:

3/4 cup butter

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup amaretto

1 tsp. grated lemon peel

1/2 tsp. vanilla

Syrup:

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

2 tbsp. brown sugar

2 tbsp. light corn syrup

1/2 cup amaretto

Allow butter and eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Generously butter and flour six 4-inch Bundt pans or one 6-cup Bundt pan. Combine flour, baking powder, and nutmeg in a bowl and set aside.

In another large bowl, beat butter for about 5 minutes with an electric mixer, adding 3/4 cup sugar a bit at a time, until mixture is light and fluffy. Stir in 1/4 cup amaretto, lemon peel and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition and scraping bowl often. Gradually add flour mixture to egg mixture, beating at medium-low speed until combined. Pour into prepared pan(s).

Bake for 20-25 minutes for small cakes and 40-45 minutes for large cake or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes then remove from pan. Prick top and sides all over with a fork.

For the syrup, combine 1/3 cup sugar, water, brown sugar and corn syrup. Cook and stir over medium heat until bubbly and the sugar is mostly dissolved; remove from heat. Stir in 1/2 cup amaretto. Cool for 5 minutes. Place cake on plate and spoon syrup over top and sides. When cake is cool, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill until time to serve. It will keep in the refrigerator up to 3 weeks. Yield: 12 servings

You’ll want to make a double batch of this family favorite, Chicken Parmesan Bake.

Karen Schneider cooks and writes in the village of Cundy’s Harbor. You can reach her at iwrite33@comcast.net.

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