Chicken Veronique

As I’ve mentioned before, after Lista’s Italian Cuisine closed in 1980 I went to work at a national pancake franchise that had opened a restaurant in Brockport. After working there for a couple years I had the opportunity to work at the SUNY College at Brockport (where Dad worked until he retired). As a non-union kitchen employee I was asked to do lots of different things, but one of the jobs I liked the most was when I was asked to prep for banquets. And that brings me to today’s post about Chicken Veronique.

I first learned about Chicken Veronique from my Dad who often made a version of this classic French dish while at SUNY Brockport (apparently it was a favorite of the then college president). Although not a traditional representation of the original dish, Dad’s version of Chicken Veronique combined the familiar technique of chicken piccata (dipping the filet in flour before sauteing in butter and lemon) then adding the more typical Veronique ingredients of shallots, white wine, cream, and seedless grapes.

During my time cooking at the college I was called upon once to make Chicken Veronique for a catered luncheon of about 200 students and faculty. Fortunately for me this was not as daunting a task as it sounds since I had plenty of experience catering alongside my Dad, and the college kitchen was fully equipped for large batch cooking. Therefore, everything was moving along splendidly — I had filleted and pounded the dozens of chicken breasts, sauteed them with shallots and butter, simmered them in white wine and chicken stock, and was ready for the final step of adding cream and… seedless grapes… “where are the grapes?” I asked my manager, a good man, who knew food service and handled people quite well — unfortunately his one failing was inventory control. It turned out he had not ordered fresh grapes for this menu. Not a problem, I was told as he handed me two #10 cans labeled “Jubilee Grapes in Syrup.” Okay. So I opened these enormous cans only to reveal hundreds of shriveled grapes that were dyed a bright Maraschino cherry red.  Still, I was told to use them — so I did. I rinsed them off the best I could and added them as a liberal garnish to top my beautiful pans of chicken, wrapped them up and placed them in the holding oven until serving time. As each pan was sent out to the serving lines, I peeled back the foil to reveal those darned “Jubilee Grapes” had stained my Chicken Veronique with neon pink blotches. Yikes! Luckily for me college students and faculty are not very fussy when it comes to free food.

Since then I will only prepare Chicken Veronique with fresh seedless green grapes so there could be no possibility of repeating of the pink chicken fiasco.

Vinnie Lista’s Chicken Veronique 

Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

4 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast Halves (about 1 1/4 pounds)

Salt and Ground Black Pepper to taste
1/4 cup All Purpose Flour
2 TBSP Butter
2 TBSP Olive Oil
1 large Shallot (or 1/4 of an onion) – thinly sliced
1 large clove Garlic – minced
1 cup Chicken Stock
1/2 cup Dry White Wine (like Sauvignon Blanc)
1/4 cup Half & Half Cream
2 TBSP Butter
1 TBSP Mild Dijon Mustard (such as Grey Poupon)

1 cup Seedless Green Grapes – halved lengthwise
Chopped Fresh Parsley – as garnish (optional)

1. Trim chicken breasts of all visible fat, place one at a time in a gallon size zip-top bag and pound evenly with flat side of a meat mallet to about ¼ inch thickness (if preferred, you can butterfly each breast before pounding). Season both sides with salt and pepper and coat with flour, shake off excess and set on a plate in refrigerator for 10 minutes. 

2. In an extra large skillet, heat 1 TBSP each butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken (in batches) and cook, turning once, until no longer pink inside, 3-4 minutes per side (add additional 1 TBSP butter/olive oil as needed). Transfer the chicken to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
3. Add the shallot and garlic to the skillet and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken broth and white wine, bring to a boil and reduce liquid to about 1/2 (about 4 to 5 minutes). Reduce heat to med-low, whisk in cream, Dijon mustard and additional 2 TBSP butter – cook for another 5 minutes.
4. Add the grapes, chicken and any accumulated juices to the pan, turning to coat with the sauce. Simmer in sauce for about 5 minutes (or until sauce begins to thicken).
5. To serve, place chicken portion on dinner plate and spoon the grapes and sauce over the top, garnish with a little chopped fresh parsley if desires.

There you have it, my Dad’s version of Chicken Veronique served countless times at SUNY College at Brockport during the 80’s and early 90’s. This is one of those chicken entrees that looks elegant and sophisticated yet is simple and quick to prepare. You can serve it for a dinner party with special guests or as a week day meal for your family. You can even elevate it a little more by adding sauteed fresh mushroom or artichoke hearts with the grapes.

This dish is great served over seasoned rice, quinoa or couscous — it goes very well over angel hair pasta or even buttered noodles. Pair it with some roasted asparagus, Brussels sprouts, haricots verts, or even a simple green salad. Magnifique!

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Extra Easter Eggs

For all my regular readers who may be wondering why this post-Easter post is coming out so late… well, this year I was able to spend Easter week with my Mom in sunny South Carolina (which happened to be serendipitous, since Rochester NY had cold, snow, and wind all week) and getting back into the groove was a slower process than expected, so as Mom would always say, “better late than never.”


Spending the holiday with Mom reminded me of Easters growing up in Brockport. In our house, it seems we always made more colored Easter eggs than we ever needed. There were five of us little Lista’s and we all had to make at least one egg in every color. I remember that while Mom was hard boiling two or three dozen eggs, we kids would cover the kitchen table with newspapers and get out some coffee cups and tablespoons. We filled each cup with warm water, a tablespoon of white vinegar, and several drops of McCormick food coloring — stirring up red, yellow, blue and green — and then mixing colors to make orange (red and yellow) and lavender (red and blue). Of course, it seems, one of us boys would always try mixing all the colors in hopes of getting black… unfortunately it would only produce a disappointing murky greenish-brown.

Soon after we made a huge mess all over the kitchen table, counters and floor — we were the proud artists that created a giant basketful of pastel colored Easter eggs ready for hiding, hunting, and eventually eating.

In those days, we were a frugal lot and wanted to use up all those eggs before they spoiled, so in the days following Easter Sunday, my Mom would use those extra Easter eggs to whip up a few simple egg dishes. First, there was the familiar Egg & Olive Salad sandwiches (Dad would use sliced pimiento stuffed Spanish olives), next there were the more stylish Devilled Eggs (Mom only used Nance’s Sharp & Creamy mustard  which gave these afternoon snacks a little tangy bite that I really love), and finally it would be the informal Creamed Eggs on Toast, a traditional dish that used to be very popular as a breakfast or brunch item but in my family was served for dinner — not my personal favorite, but my brother Bill loved it!

Dad’s Egg & Olive Salad

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: None if using leftover eggs
Makes: 2-4 sandwiches

6 leftover Hard Boiled Eggs – peeled & chopped
24 Pimiento Stuffed Spanish Olives – sliced
4 TBSP Real Mayonnaise (like Hellman’s)
Black pepper to taste
Salt to taste (optional)
Toasted Bread for making sandwiches

1. In a suitable bowl mix the chopped eggs, sliced olives, mayo and black pepper using a dinner fork — making sure to mash the eggs and olives well. Taste and add a pinch of salt if needed.
2. Spread egg salad on toasted bread (I prefer a good whole grain bread) – cut in half diagonally and serve.

Mom’s Devilled Eggs

Prep time: 10-15 minutes
Cook time: None if using leftover eggs
Makes: 12 devilled eggs

6 leftover Hard Boiled Eggs – peeled & cut in half lengthwise
2 TBSP Real Mayonnaise (like Hellman’s)
2 tsp Sharp & Creamy Mustard (like Nance’s or similar type)
Paprika for garnishing

1. Carefully remove the yolks from the egg halves. Set whites on a serving plate and put yolks in a small bowl.
2. Using a fork, mash the egg yolks and add mayo and Nance’s mustard – continue to mash with fork until a smooth paste forms (add a little more mayo if too thick).
3. Using a teaspoon fill the egg whites with the yolk filling and sprinkle with a little paprika as a garnish. Serve.

Mom’s Creamed Eggs on Toast

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes

6 leftover Hard Boiled Eggs – peeled & sliced into 1/2″ rounds
4 TBSP Butter
4 TBSP All Purpose Flour
2 cups Whole Milk
1/2 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp White Pepper
Sliced Bread for toasting
Butter for toast (optional)
Paprika or Cayenne Pepper for garnish (optional)

1. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Whisk in flour until smooth. Continue to cook and stir until bubbly.
2. Whisk in milk, a little at a time, until it’s all incorporated. Season with salt and white pepper.
3. Continue to cook and whisk until sauce is thick and creamy.
4. Remove from heat and add sliced eggs, stir to coat.
5. Toast bread slices and butter if desired. Cut toast diagonally.
6. To serve, lay 2-4 toast triangles on individual plates and spoon creamed eggs over toast. Garnish with a sprinkle of paprika or cayenne pepper if desired.

There you have it, three simple ways the Lista family would use up those Extra Easter Eggs. Maybe not haute cuisine, but certainly worthy of a humble blog post. I hope you try at least one when you find you have a few hard boiled eggs in your fridge. 

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Easter Time

It’s almost Easter Time and I’m reminded of those early restaurant years when, of course, Lista’s Italian Cuisine would be open for business even on Easter Sunday. For my family, holidays were a mixed bag of religious obligations, pseudo-traditions, traveling to family gatherings, and keeping up with a thriving small business.

At Easter time Dad would inevitably be busy with the restaurant, while we kids would be coloring eggs with Mom; sneaking peeks at our Easter baskets, and looking forward to the big meal with extended family. For our Italian-American family, Easter may have held the closest thing to Italian holiday traditions. As Roman Catholics, church services were an important part of the Easter season (and since I went to Catholic school I attended Mass several times during Easter week). Symbolic foods like roast lamb, asparagus, artichokes, eggs, cheese, and traditional braided Easter breads were usually served. We would often gather with my Dad’s extended family including my Great Grandmother Carmela (Tanzola) Lista — we kids always called her Grandma Lista-Lista.

Carmela Tanzola at 14 years old, and betrothed to a much older Pasquale Lista, emigrated to America around 1905 — she was a beautiful Italian woman who came from a tiny place called Casalicchio (population 20) in the Campania Region of Italy.  Although I never met my Great Grandfather, Grandma Lista-Lista was the anchor of this Italian-American family for many, many years.

In her later years, Grandma Lista-Lista lived with her daughter, my Great Aunt Delores, in Gates NY and we often spent time there on weekends, especially around the Holidays. My favorite thing about visiting Grandma Lista-Lista was her cooking! She had a kind of apartment in the ground floor of Aunt Delores’ house and she had her own kitchen which she used to cook all kinds of traditional Italian foods. I remember trying things like dandelion greens, fried burdock stems (carduni), giant “puffball” mushrooms, salt cod (bacalao), squid (calamari), octopus (polpi) and smelt — along with homemade pizza, pasta, and many types of traditional sweets and cookies. Grandma Lista-Lista’s biscotti (what we called anisette toast) were one of my favorites.

Around Easter and throughout Spring, cooking artichokes and asparagus was very common in Italian-American households. I recall one day while visiting Grandma Lista-Lista she made an interesting dish of artichokes, eggs, and peas. I thought it was delicious and for some reason it is one of the few dishes that brings back memories of childhood and those family visits. 


Grandma Lista-Lista’s Artichokes, Eggs & Peas

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Serves: 2-4 servings

3 large Eggs
2 TBSP Olive Oil
1-2 cloves Garlic – pressed or minced
1 (14 oz) can Artichoke Hearts – roughly chopped
1 cup Frozen Green Peas – thawed
Salt & Pepper – to taste
Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese – for topping (optional)

1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over med-high heat. Add minced garlic and cook until fragrant (1-2 minutes), add chopped artichokes and peas – stir and cook until artichokes are falling apart and peas are getting tender (7-10 minutes).
2. In a small bowl scramble eggs with 2 tsp water, pour into artichokes and peas and quickly stir to coat and cook the eggs through (3-5 minutes). Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Serve with a generous sprinkling of grated Romano cheese if desire.

Another Easter memory is eating Spinach & Ricotta Pie.

In northern Italy Torta Pasqualina or Easter Pie is the highlight of the Easter lunch table. Traditionally made with a puff pastry double crust (33 layers representing the age of Jesus Christ), chard or spinach (representing the green of Spring),  and whole hard cooked eggs (representing new life) which are nestled inside the herb and cheese filling.

My take on this dish is much simpler and quick to prepare. I choose to make it with one crust and mix the eggs into the cheese filling. It is similar to a dense quiche and very flavorful.


Dan’s Spinach & Ricotta Pie

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45-60 minutes
Serves: 6-8 servings

1 prepared 9″ Pie Crust (regular or Gluten Free)
3 large Eggs – beaten
1 (16 oz) container Ricotta Cheese
1/2 cup Shredded Mozzarella Cheese
1/4 cup Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
2 TBSP Fresh Basil Leaves – chopped
2 cloves Garlic – pressed or mince
1/2 tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Salt – to taste
2 TBSP Grated Pecorino Romano for topping (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with rack in the center position.
2. In a large bowl combine the beaten eggs, ricotta, mozzarella, Romano cheese, chopped basil, garlic, and black pepper until smooth.
3. Squeeze as much moisture as possible from the thawed spinach and fold into to the cheese mixture – season with salt to taste.
4. Pour spinach cheese mixture into the prepared pie crust and smooth out the top with a spatula. Sprinkle with additional Romano cheese it desired. Place pie on a rimmed baking tray (cookie sheet) and place in the center of the preheated oven.
5. Bake pie until crust is nicely browned and filling has puffed around the edges and firm in the center about 45-60 minutes (check after 30 minutes and then every 15 minutes until done). Remove from oven and cool slightly on wire rack before cutting.
6. Serve Spinach & Ricotta Pie warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.

There you have it, two Easter Time recipes for you to try… one old time favorite from my Great Grandma Lista-Lista — and one simplified take on an Italian Holiday tradition. Both dishes would make a nice addition to your Easter Brunch or Dinner. You can increase the Artichokes, Eggs, & Peas recipe to serve more people as needed. Spinach & Ricotta Pie can also stand alone with a nice green salad on the side. 

Whether or not you try these recipes, I hope you and your family have a chance to spend some time together during this Easter Time

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Corned Beef Hash un-Canned

If you grew up in the 60’s and 70’s like I did, you probably remember some of your meals coming from cans. Back then we had some canned “convenience foods” that by today’s standards would be… well… sub-standard. Such wonderful offerings as Dinty Moore Beef Stew, La Choy Beef Chow Mein, Chef Boyardee Ravioli, VanCamp’s Beanee Weenee… and of course Armour Corned Beef Hash.

On nights when Mom wasn’t home or she just didn’t have time to cook, we opened cans. Quite often it was cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup to go along with our grilled cheese sandwiches (or Chicken Noodle with PB&J), sometimes it was cans of tuna so my big sister could make her famous Tuna Noodle casserole (about the only thing she knew how to make aside from chocolate chip cookies) — but once in a while it was a so-called “complete meal in a can” that we would dutifully eat with our slices of Wonder Bread and Parkay margarine. 

Although I like to reminisce about those childhood canned meals, I certainly don’t miss them — and I probably wouldn’t go out and buy those product for my own pantry (unless of course the Zombie Apocalypse occurs and then all rules are off!)

Of all the canned meals I grew up with, about the only one I still enjoy every so often is Corned Beef Hash. Maybe because my Dad liked the stuff and would make it for us topped with perfectly poached eggs (actually I think what he really liked was the poached eggs, which he would always order when eating breakfast at a restaurant.) So when the notion hits me, and I’m yearning for the old time breakfast staple, I’ll pick up a can; fry it up in  the old skillet, top it with some poached eggs and dine on that perennial favorite. 

Even better though, is when I have the time and ingredients to make my own Corned Beef Hash from scratch. I’ve made it using canned corned beef (not so great) and I’ve purchased deli corned beef (pricey and usually tough) — but the absolute best home made Corned Beef Hash comes the day after St Patrick’s Day when I have freshly made corned beef leftovers (is that an oxymoron?). So below is my take on Corned Beef Hash un-canned and I hope you have an opportunity to make it next time you put that brisket in your slow cooker.

Dan’s Corned Beef Hash un-canned

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes (including potato cook time)
Makes: 4-6 servings

1 1/2 lbs. Potatoes – peeled, cut, cooked, cooled and chopped
1 lb. Cooked Corned Beef (preferably freshly made) – chopped
2 TBSP Butter
2 TBSP Olive Oil
1 large Yellow Onion – peeled and diced
3 cloves Garlic – minced
1 cup Corned Beef cooking liquid (or beef broth)
1 TBSP Sweet Paprika
Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper – to taste
Poached or Fried Eggs for serving (optional)

1. Peel potatoes and cut into uniform sized pieces. Place in a large pot, cover with water, add 1 tsp salt and bring to a boil. Cook until just tender but still firm enough to hold shape about 15 minutes. Drain and allow to cool enough to handle. Chop/dice potatoes into small pieces. (Note: you can use leftover boiled potatoes if available.)
2. Meanwhile in a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter and oil together, add diced onions and minced garlic – spread evenly and cook until garlic begins to brown and onions are translucent about 3 – 5 minutes. Add chopped corned beef to skillet along with paprika and one cup beef cooking liquid – stir into onions/garlic. Cook until any fat on corned beef begins to melt about 5 more minutes.
3. Add chopped potatoes and stir to combine with beef/onion mixture. Press hash down to cover entire bottom of skillet and allow to cook undisturbed for 10 minutes while liquid cooks off and hash begins to brown on bottom.
4. Using a spatula flip sections of the hash over, season with salt and pepper, press down again and allow to brown for another 5 minutes. Flip sections one more time with spatula – don’t press down and cook for another 5 – 10 minutes until a crust forms on bottom.
5. If serving with eggs, poach or fry eggs during the last 5 – 10 minutes of cooking.
6. To serve lift a portion of hash from skillet and turn over on plate so crusty side is up. Top hash with 1 or 2 cooked eggs (optional) and serve.

There you have it, my take on Corned Beef Hash un-Canned. This tastes so much better than the canned variety and is most likely better for you. Although my Dad was a master at making poached eggs, I find it difficult (maybe because I’m easily distracted and tend to over or under cook them) so I usually serve the hash topped with fried eggs over-easy and a few shakes of red hot sauce on top. I also like a good whole grain toast with mine. You could also try making this hash with 1/2 regular and 1/2 sweet potatoes (just know that sweet potatoes cook faster than regular potatoes, so adjust the cooking time accordingly). We have even made this hash for dinner and paired it with a green salad or steamed broccoli. I hope you give it a try… and let me know how it comes out.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”



Shrimp Alexander (two ways)

Back in the early 90’s I was working for a large contract foodservice company in Rochester, NY. As an account manager, one of the occasional perks was having a dinner meeting at one of the many upscale local restaurants.

On one such occasion, my colleagues and I dined at a small exclusive restaurant located near the Genesee River — I can’t recall the name of the place (and it has been closed for many years) but I still remember one dish I had called “Shrimp Alexander.” 

At that particular restaurant, Shrimp Alexander consisted of sweet and tender colossal shrimp stuffed with salty feta cheese, wrapped in smoky bacon, and served on a bed of garlicky wilted spinach drizzled with lemon. The flavor combination was amazing — and I remember thinking that it was one of the best things I had ever tasted.

photo credit Democrat & Chronicle

Once or twice, over the years, I have seen the dish recreated as an appetizer but usually under another name, and never quite hitting the mark of that original dish. Just recently when I looked up Shrimp Alexander online, I found reference to a breaded and pan-fried shrimp appetizer from a popular steakhouse, which doesn’t come close to the dish I remember enjoying all those years ago.

Every once in a while, I make my own version of Shrimp Alexander at home using the following recipe developed from memory. 

Restaurant Style Shrimp Alexander

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Serves: 6 appetizers or 3 dinners

12 Jumbo Raw Shrimp (the bigger the better)

1/2 lb Feta Cheese (use the block – not crumbles)
6 slices Good Quality Bacon
1 lb. Fresh Spinach – cleaned and spun dry
1 cup Chicken Broth
1/2 cup White Wine or Sherry
4 TBSP Butter – divided
2 TBSP Fresh Lemon Juice (about ½ lemon)
2 cloves Garlic – minced (about 1 tsp)
1/4 tsp Paprika
Lemon Wedges – for garnish
Cooking Spray – as needed

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cover broiler proof pan with foil and spray with cooking spray.

2. Remove shells from shrimp (leave tail if desired) and butterfly.
3. Stuff each shrimp with a generous amount of feta cheese and wrap with 1/2 slice of bacon (secure with toothpick if needed). Arrange on prepared pan and sprinkle with paprika.
4. Bake in preheated oven for 5-7 minutes. Change oven to broil and finish shrimp under broiler until bacon browns slightly and shrimp is white throughout (about 5 minutes more). Remove from oven and keep warm.
5. In a large covered skillet over medium heat, melt butter – add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add chicken broth, wine, and lemon juice – bring to a simmer and allow alcohol to cook off (about 5 minutes). Add spinach, toss and cover for 2-3 minutes or until spinach is wilted. Remove spinach with slotted spoon and keep warm. Add remaining 2 TBSP butter and continue cook/reduce sauce whisking until smooth and shiny (about 5-10 minutes).
6. To serve, place some spinach in the center of each plate – place shrimp with tail end on spinach (2 for appetizer or 4 for dinner). Spoon some of the remaining sauce over shrimp and garnish with lemon wedge.

There you have it, my version of the Shrimp Alexander I enjoyed in a little restaurant somewhere in Rochester, NY in the early 90’s. It’s really good, so I hope you try it. Be sure to splurge on the biggest shrimp you can find since that’s what makes this dish look and taste so impressive.

For those of you that need a more frugal version, why not try this next recipe which is a Shrimp Alexander Dip I created for a recent dinner party with some good friends.


Dan’s Shrimp Alexander Dip

Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 10-12 people as a party appetizer

6 slices Smoked Bacon – diced
16 oz Cream Cheese – softened

6 oz. Feta Cheese – crumbled
1/2 cup Real Mayonnaise (like Hellman’s)
2 TBSP Lemon Juice
1/2 tsp Garlic Powder
1/2 tsp Black Pepper
10 oz. Frozen Chopped Spinach – thawed and squeezed dry
12 oz. Frozen Cooked Salad Shrimp – thawed
1/2 cup Plain Bread Crumbs (optional)
3 TBSP Bacon Fat – melted (optional)
Cooking spray – as needed

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a skillet over med-high heat, cook and stir diced bacon until almost crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate, and reserve 3 TBSP rendered bacon fat.
3. In a large mixing bowl blend together cream cheese, feta cheese, mayo, lemon juice, garlic powder, black pepper and chopped spinach. Fold in cooked bacon and cooked shrimp until thoroughly combined.
4. Coat a 9 inch glass pie dish or similar size baking dish with cooking spray. Spoon shrimp mixture into the dish and spread evenly.
5. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes until heated through and bubbling at the sides.
6. OPTIONAL: If desired mix 1/2 cup plain bread crumb with the reserved bacon fat until combined and sprinkle evenly over the surface of the dip before baking.
7. Serve dip warm (or room temperature) with your favorite crackers, chips, veggies or bread.

Now you have two ways to enjoy Shrimp Alexander. The original appetizer/entree is delicious and impressive to serve guests… the appetizer/dip is a great way to share the flavors with a bigger crowd. Either way I’m sure it will be a big hit with your family and friends.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!” 

Battle of the Cookie Bars!

I love cookies.. actually I love most any kind of sweets, but I really love cookies! Especially home-made oatmeal raisin, molasses, or chocolate chip cookies. My big sister made chocolate chip cookies all the time when we were kids… and each and every time, she would burn at least one tray full (which was okay because Mom likes burnt cookies).

Sometimes when we wanted something a little different, we would get out Mom’s recipe collection and find the card for making “Hello Dollies.” Even though I never knew where the name came from, Hello Dollies (also called Magic Bars or Seven Layer Bars) were one of my very favorite sweets as a kid, and since we didn’t make them very often they were always a special treat. These decadent cookie bars are chock full of chocolate, coconut, and nuts — plus a salty sweet graham cracker crust and gooey sweetened condensed milk. Yum! I mean, who can go wrong with combining a few pantry staples and coming up with an extraordinary, sinfully delicious dessert. 

Speaking of “sinfully delicious,” there is another cookie bar treat that I have come to love as an adult — I was introduced to this equally decadent dessert several years ago by a very good friend who comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch cooking tradition of “everything is better with more butter and more sugar in it.” My friend calls her recipe “Sin & Temptation” and it consists of a similar group of pantry staples: saltine crackers, butter, brown sugar, chocolate chips, and pecans. Also known simply as Saltine Toffee Bars these things are truly addicting, and so I rarely make them (lest I eat the entire batch and suffer the wrath of my loving wife’s reminders that I’m supposed to lose weight and stay healthy enough to some day retire).

So if you find yourself wondering what to do with that bag of semi-sweet chips, box of crackers, and the few other odds and ends in your baking pantry… you need to try one of these amazingly quick to make, and hard to resist cookie bar desserts — or maybe make both and have your own Battle of the Cookie Bars!

Mom’s Hello Dollies

Prep time: 10 minutes
Bake time: 30 minutes
Makes: 12-15 bars

1 stick Butter – melted
15 Graham Crackers – made into crumbs (about 1 1/2 cups) 
2 cups (12 oz bag) Semisweet Chocolate Chips
2 cups Sweetened Shredded Coconut
2 cups (about 8 oz) Pecans – chopped
1 (14 oz) can Sweetened Condensed Milk

1. Preheat oven to 350°F with oven rack to middle position.

2. Pulse graham crackers  in food processor to make coarse crumbs. Combine melted butter and graham cracker crumbs in a bowl until thoroughly combined. Press evenly into bottom of “9 x 13” baking dish.
3. Top crust with chocolate chips, followed by coconut, and then chopped pecans. Drizzle entire can of condensed milk over layers.
4. Bake until any crust visible is golden brown and pecans begins to toast, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely.
5. To cut easily, refrigerate for about an hour before serving. Cut into 12-15  bars. Bars can be stored at room temperature for 3-5 days, or kept in fridge for 2 weeks.

Sin & Temptation Bars

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook/Bake time: 15 minutes
Makes: 20-40 pieces

1 sleeve Saltine Crackers (about 40 crackers)
1 cup Brown Sugar
1 cup Butter
2 cups (12 oz bag) Semisweet Chocolate Chips
1 cup Pecans – chopped
Cooking spray – as needed

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 10 x 15 cookie sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray.
2. Cover cookie sheet with whole saltines (don’t break or crush them) in a single layer — sides touching.
3. In a saucepan over med-high heat, melt the butter and 
sugar together and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately (carefully) pour mixture over saltines and spread evenly — taking time to re-position cracker as needed so they lay flat in a single layer.
4. Bake 5 minutes in preheated oven, or until the toffee is bubbling evenly over the whole surface of the crackers. Remove from oven and sprinkle with chocolate chips, let sit for one minute, then gently spread melted chips with spatula (an offset frosting spatula works best). Sprinkle evenly with chopped pecans, and press down lightly.
5. Cut into individual squares immediately — or cool until firm, then break up into serving pieces. Can be stored at room temperature for 3-5 days, kept refrigerated for 2 weeks, or can be frozen in an airtight container for about 2 months.

Well there you have it, two easy to make treats that should satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth — whether you choose Hello Dollies or Sin & Temptation you will be glad you did. Plus they make a great welcome gift or office treat (if you don’t mind sharing). Both store at room temperature in a sealed container — but keeping them in the fridge helps them from sticking together (or being eaten too quickly). 

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Lista’s Baked Manicotti

At Lista’s Italian Cuisine we were known for our Lasagna but the menu also featured other stuffed and baked pasta dishes. One of my favorites was Baked Manicotti (manicotti al forno)… delicate pasta wrapped around creamy ricotta cheese, covered with sauce and mozzarella and baked until it was melt-in-your-mouth delicious!

baked manicotti

Manicotti is often found in Italian-American restaurants and may be called manicotti or cannelloni interchangeably. Both these dishes are prepared in a similar fashion, typically a sleeve of pasta wrapped around a filling and baked with sauce.

Cannelloni (“large reeds” in Italian) are often sold in America as large dry pasta tubes that can be filled and baked — in Italy, the pasta is a typical blend of wheat flour, salt and water which traditionally was rolled into flat sheets, topped with filling, and then rolled up into a cylinder shape before baking. Cannelloni is from the Naples region of Italy, but types of cannelloni can be found in other countries as well.

Manicotti (“little sleeves” in Italian), on the other hand, are traditionally not a true pasta dish but authentic manicotti is made with a crepe and would be called a crespelle in Italy. Authentic manicotti are made with an egg rich crepe batter cooked in a traditional crepe pan and then filled and rolled like a burrito. Manicotti can also mean “cooked hands” in Italian — from cooks burning their fingers while handling the hot crepes. In America true manicotti or crespelle are not commonly found on menus. Now for me. growing up, cannelloni was always made with a meat filling, while manicotti was always filled with cheese (sometimes with spinach added).

At Lista’s we served a more traditional manicotti that was made with a lighter, egg based, crepe-like pasta. I can remember one of those Sunday afternoons when I was 12, working with Grandma Lista in the back kitchen, helping her make the crepes that would become those magnificent, cheese filled, delicacies we called manicotti. Although her original recipes are lost to time, I know it was basically 4 eggs, 1 cup water, 1 cup flour, and a pinch of salt — this was whisked together and then chilled. Grandma would then heat up her crepe pans and ladle some of the batter into each pan, give it a ‘swirl’ to evenly spread the batter and coat the entire pan, then briefly cook the crepe on one side (just until the tops were dry), then turn them onto sheets of waxed paper to cool. Once cooled, we would spoon the ricotta filling onto each crepe and roll them up to make the manicotti. The finished manicotti were then lined up in a baking pan that was coated with sauce, they were covered with more sauce and some Romano cheese and baked until hot and slightly browned, and ready to serve the hungry customers.

Since those Lista’s days, I have learned many “tricks of the trade” to make cooking  and life easier… one of those “tricks” is to buy fresh pasta sheets at the grocery store and use them instead of the traditional crepes to make my manicotti. With that in mind, the recipe here is using the short cut of pre-made pasta sheets — but feel free to try your hand at the authentic crespelle method. And of course, you can use the dry pasta tubes if you’re so inclined (Tip: use a pastry bag or zip-top bag to pipe filling into tubes) or possibly use a Gluten Free pasta sheet if that’s what your family prefers.

Lista’s Baked Manicotti

Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Serves: 6-8

2 lbs. Ricotta Cheese
1 cup Grated Romano Cheese
3 Eggs
2 TBSP Chopped Parsley
1 tsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper
12 Fresh Pasta Sheets – cut in half
2-3 cups Prepared Pasta Sauce
1/4 cup Grated Romano Cheese
1 cup Shredded Mozzarella Cheese (optional)
Extra Pasta Sauce heated for serving (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Coat a 9×13 baking dish with cooking spray and spread 1 cup pasta sauce in the bottom, set aside.
3. For the filling: in a large mixing bowl thoroughly combine ricotta cheese, Romano cheese, eggs, parsley, and black pepper, set aside.
4. To assemble: Cut pasta sheets in half to form 24 squares. For each pasta square spoon about 3 tablespoons cheese filling across center and rolls the pasta around filling to make a cylinder. Place manicotti, seam side down, on top of sauce in the prepared baking dish. Continue making manicotti and laying them side by side (touching but not crowded) until the dish is full.
5. Pour remaining pasta sauce evenly over the prepared manicotti and sprinkle with the remaining Romano cheese (and mozzarella cheese if using). Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes until sauce is bubbling and cheese is lightly  browned.
7. Serve 3-4 manicotti per person topped with additional heated pasta sauce if desired.

There you have it, Baked Manicotti alla Lista’s Italian Cuisine. This recipe is a basic cheese filled manicotti like we served at the restaurant. If you want to try something different add some chopped spinach to the cheese filling (Tip: one of those frozen boxes of chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry is just right) — or try topping the manicotti with a meat sauce made with 1/2 ground beef and 1/2 Italian sausage — another traditional touch is to bake the manicotti topped with a bechamel (white) sauce instead of tomato sauce… this is really nice when using the spinach and cheese filling. However you choose to make it, I hope you like the melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness of this fabulous Italian-American recipe.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Make the Difference!”