Apéritifs

P1020922L’apéritif is sacred in France. That means it comes with all kinds of rituals and even special equipment, though that’s not what counts. You can have a fine apéro, as the French like to shorten it to, with just a glass of wine. The ritual can be done by anybody.

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Filling the streets near the Saturday market.

The first and most important ingredient is people. You thought I’d say alcohol, but no. Even if you’re having a soft drink, you can enjoy apéritif hour. It’s a moment of socializing with friends, family, even strangers. The connections and conversation, regardless of whether they’re lubricated with alcohol, are what count.

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I photographed this one too early; usually the Saillan is one of the busiest cafés

Around here, there are two times for apéritifs: the typical one, around 6 p.m., for before-dinner drinks. And similarly around 11 a.m., for before-lunch drinks. I find that to guarantee an unproductive afternoon, so instead I raise a cup of coffee to toast friends I bump into at the Saturday market.

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Beer: Breakfast of champions? A daring place to place a glass, on a bollard barely big enough.

Indeed, the cafés around the market buzz with activity, and many of the coffee cups get replaced by stemmed glasses of wine as noon approaches. Cafés put tables (chairs optional) or wine barrels into the streets that are closed for the market. It’s a big party, and some are so packed, despite the extra street space, that you can barely wiggle past. Feel free to strike up conversation with anybody. It’s all friendly, especially at noon.

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Preparing for a crowd.

A few set up tables serving appetizers, called zakouskis. Zakouskis are part of the ritual. Don’t drink on an empty stomach! Olives and nuts are popular. Pretzels, chips, all that jazz. Charcuterie, or hard sausages, though cheese usually is reserved for after dinner except for little cubes, sprinkled with herbs or celery salt. Also smaller nibbles, which can be elaborate, like tapas, or even become a meal, in which case it’s an apéritif dînatoire.

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Plenty of choice in the olive department, and this isn’t even everything.

For drinks, you have the standards: wine (red, white and rosé), sparkling wine, white wine or sparkling wine with a dash of cassis liqueur for a kir or kir royale (if sparkling), the apéro of Dijon.

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Best served cold, under a palm tree.

Around here, anise-flavored pastis is popular, called un jaune–a yellow–because the clear, golden pastis oxidizes and becomes a cloudy yellow when ice and water are added. It’s a drink with lots of equipment–special glasses with a line showing how far to pour the pastis; water pitchers and ice buckets. The Ricard brand is so popular that many people just ask for a Ricard, if they don’t say “p’tit jaune.”

 

 

Among cocktails, le petit ponch, also shortened to ti-ponch, has rum, lime and cane syrup with origins in France’s tropical colonies.P1030304

Oysters are also popular, with a glass of white wine. Not so much in summer….

Apéritif comes from the Latin word aperire, to open. They had a medicinal origin, with the concoctions of herbs for laxative effect, cited in the 13th century. (See some here.) But in modern times (since the mid-1700s), an apéritif is intended to open your stomach, to make you hungry.

Will you be raising a glass with friends this weekend?

Party Prep

IMG_0311Christmas was just yesterday but I am so over it already. It was lovely and quiet and cozy, but even though our celebration was low-key, I feel like I’m coming off a sugar high from the saccharine consumerism everywhere. It permeates the air. It’s like second-hand smoke.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the decorations, the carols, the food. We joined the no-gift movement, so there was no pressure for shopping. We spent Christmas afternoon baking cookies. For Christmas dinner (on Christmas Eve), we ate favorite dishes–ris de veau  (veal sweetbread–the thalmus to be specific) in a mushroom cream sauce for the Carnivore and tofu turkey loaf with risotto for me and our kid. The Carnivore even flambéed his ris de veau. Cut no corners.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, we watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” AND the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Childrens’ shows were so classy in the 1960s, with jazz on the soundtracks. Even the Grinch song has a jazzy feel.

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A mocha bûche de noël…from a bakery. Very good!

We are gearing up for a little party on Friday with our neighbors–about 18 people, so too many for a sit-down dinner. Instead, we are hosting an apéritif dinatoire, or appetizer buffet, as we did last year for the Fête de la Lumière, which came and went earlier this month without us getting our act together.

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Count on a wine region to work the local specialty into holiday decorations.

In fact, today I must get the chicken wings in their marinade and make a few dishes. I can do the crudités and the ranch dressing while our kid decorates the cookies that we made yesterday. Thinking about buffets I have known and loved, I realize that while cheesy potatoes or green bean casserole are delicious, they aren’t in the French style. For one thing, it’s hard to eat with a knife and fork from a plate perched on your lap. So almost everything in our buffet is cold (except the wings and meatballs) and made in single servings that are easy to pick up and eat with one’s fingers.

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The reindeer lights just above the fake cacti made me smile.

The plates are dessert size, which is easier to hold with one hand. They’re real china, not plastic, and have gotten a lot of use in the 20 years I’ve had them. We noticed a happy side effect–the small plates mean people get up to serve themselves again from the buffet. And they often sit down in a different spot, which encourages mingling. Only the eldest member of our gang stayed in one seat for the entire evening; everybody else played a kind of musical chairs.

I’ll try to get some photos and will share recipes next week, because it’s unlikely I’ll post on Friday.

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The Carcassonne Christmas market and produce market hip by jowl on Saturday.

How was your Christmas? Do you also feel overwhelmed by the consumerism?

 

 

 

A World of Finger Food

P1100529So many cultures have snacks or appetizers that involve stuffing wrapped with pastry or something similar. Greece has kreatopetes. India has samosas. East Africa has its own take on samosas, with spicy ground meat. South America and Spain have empanadas. Asian cuisines have various kinds of egg rolls and spring rolls. And Morocco has briouates–envelopes.

We had them a few times in Casablanca, but the best were at the home of friends, who baked, rather than fried, them. (Actually everything we ate there was heavenly.) When we got home, I had to try to make them myself.

I made both chicken and beef fillings, because the Carnivore considers chicken unworthy. While I gave these Moroccan spices, it’s clear from the international list at the top that you can make them however you like. With holidays coming up, it’s nice to have some easy-yet-impressive appetizers or snacks that you can make ahead.

You can fold the briouates into triangles or roll them like fat cigars. I did triangles. I used “brick,” which is easier to work with than phyllo/filo (you don’t have to worry about it drying out in seconds), but not quite as light. Although I linked to a recipe for making brick, I bought it ready-made–it’s easy to find here.

I used chicken thighs because all the meat gets pulled off the bone and minced up after cooking. Cooking with the bones adds flavor. I didn’t go so far as to cook with the skin, though. P1100524Chicken Briouates

500 g/1lb. chicken thighs, skin removed if you prefer

1 large onion, minced

3-5 garlic cloves, minced

a handful of pine nuts (if you can afford them!) or slivered almonds

1 carrot, grated–this is my determination to add vegetables to everything, not at all traditional

1 teaspoon ras el hanout (easy to find in stores here but you can make it yourself, too)

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 package feuilles de brick

1/4 cup melted butter (you might use more, but melt it a little at a time)

Olive oil

Salt, pepper

2 eggs

Drizzle some olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep skillet–just enough to cover the bottom. Brown the chicken. Add the onions and garlic. When the onions start to get translucent, add the spices and carrots and stir to mix well. Add a good cup of water. Cover tightly with a lid and let it simmer until the chicken falls apart easily with a fork. If there’s still a lot of liquid, take out the chicken (see below) and cook the remaining mixture uncovered, stirring often so it doesn’t scorch.

Remove the chicken to let it cool so you can pull the meat from the bones. If pieces of chicken are large, tear them up or set them aside to chop up. Return the chicken to the onion mix in the skillet, and stir in the eggs. Cook it over low heat for a couple of minutes, just to set the egg a little. Let all that cool.

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Tastes better than it looks. No wonder it’s a filling!

Heat up the oven to 180 C/350 F.

Using scissors, cut the rounds of brick according to the size you prefer–if you want big briouates, you can go with half. I cut each brick into four strips (about 7.5 cm/3 inches) to make dainty briouates.

Have a baking sheet ready (I use silicone mats for easier cleanup; you can put parchment paper, but I don’t think briouates pose a sticky cleanup mess). You also need a clean space for folding–I used a cutting board. And you need the melted butter and a pastry brush.

To fold, you have several videos: This one, or this one, or this one that has interesting music. They all do it differently. The first one folds the half-rounds of brick lenthwise to make a strip. The others cut the brick into strips. I did strips because doubling over a half-round seemed like way too much crust.

Swipe each strip with butter–not much, just enough to make them crisp up in the oven. Deposit a spoonful of filling at one end of the strip, leaving about a centimeter/quarter-inch flap at the end. Fold over to make a triangle; as you continue (anybody who was a scout will recognize that it’s like folding a flag), the flap will tuck in. Make sure you push the filling all the way to the tip of the triangle; you can add more filling if needed. When you get to the end of the strip, fold the excess or cut it into a triangle (like the first video) and tuck it inside. In some videos, they glue the ends with a dab of flour/water mix. But I didn’t find that necessary.

You can bake these fairly close together because they don’t expand. They will be brown and crispy in 15-20 minutes. About 10 minutes in, turn them over.

P1100527To make them ahead, make sure you don’t overdo the browning in the first place. They are best reheated in the oven for 5-10 minutes–it keeps them from getting soggy. While the folding takes time, it isn’t difficult. As recipes go, briouates are a sure-fire success.

Apéro Hour

IMG_5113One of the most sacred moments of the French day comes around 6 p.m. (or 18h, as they say here, because they sensibly use the 24-hour clock). Time for l’apéro, or apéritifs.

It can be simple–a glass of wine and some nuts and olives or a few slices of saucisson (hard sausage), to be nibbled on as one makes dinner. For many people, rushing home from work to throw together dinner for the family, l’apéro is appreciated only on the weekends, an almost sacred rite attached to the evening meal.

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Mini clafoutis with boursin and chorizo.

Drinks are always accompanied by food, very light, not to ruin the meal. I remember learning about l’apéritif in my French class in New York–that it comes from the Latin word aperire, which means “to open,” and what’s getting opened is your stomach.

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The crème de cassis and pêche de vigne get added to white wine or blanquette/champagne. Guignolet is like kirsch.

The drinks started off as alcoholic beverages made with herbs. Medicinal, of course. However, the most popular apéritifs in our region are simply a glass of wine or un jaune–a glass of pastis, the golden anise-flavored spirit that oxidizes when water is added, turning a milky yellow. If you want to sound like a local, ask for “un p’tit jaune” (a small yellow).

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A roll of piecrust, some spaghetti sauce and mozzarella become mini croissants.

Last weekend was the Fête des Voisins (European Neighbors’ Day), and about 15 of us gathered for dinner en terrace, each bringing a dish. Potlucks are unusual in France. They aren’t unheard-of, but if you’re invited to dinner, you are unlikely to be assigned a dish. However, you can bring flowers, a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates or another thoughtful gift for the hosts.

Homemade gifts are OK, too. Like this one:

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An artisinal strawberry liqueur.

Which is not the same as a potluck dish.

But the Fête des Voisins is different. In our neighborhood, it was the Carnivore who took up the mantle of organizing a meal. Tables and chairs were rented (for a ridiculously cheap amount from the village, including delivery and pickup the next day!). Somehow, no matter how hot the preceding days had been, every year as dinnertime approached, clouds would roll in and the temperature would drop.

This is when it’s good to be neighbors with a winery. Several times, the tables were set up amid the huge cuves, or tanks, of wine, with plenty of room, not to mention atmosphere.

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Chorizo-olive “cookies”

This year, the group was smaller, but the intimacy was nice. The weather behaved and we had apéritifs next to the pool before moving to the table. I was assigned to bring appetizers, some of which I wrote about when we hosted a pre-Christmas apéritif dînatoire–basically a cocktail party.

I again made the chorizo cookies and two kinds of croissants (ham and Boursin, and “pizza” with tomato sauce and mozzarella). And I made two new ones that are SO easy: goat cheese mini tarts and savory mini clafoutis.

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Goat cheese mini tarts (packed in a bakery box for easy transport)

For the goat cheese mini tarts you need:

A readymade pie crust (feuillété, or flaky, if you have the choice)

A bûche, or log, of goat cheese

Honey

Fresh rosemary sprigs

Cut rounds out of the pie crust. I used a small glass. You want the rounds to be slightly bigger than the diameter of the goat cheese. Slice the goat cheese and lay the slices on the rounds. Place a tiny dab of honey on the goat cheese (I used a knife and just dipped the tip into the honey). Top with the rosemary. Bake at 360 F (180 C) for about 10 minutes–until the cheese has melted a little and the crust is cooked.

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Olive and boursin clafoutis.

The clafoutis recipe is similar to the recipe I used for rhubarb clafoutis, but without the sugar. You can put anything you want in them. I had Boursin left over from the croissants, and I thought sliced black olives would be pretty. When I used up the olives, I still had batter left, so I sliced up some more chorizo (the Spanish kind, which is a hard sausage). Both were delicious. You could do bacon, diced peppers, diced sun-dried tomatoes, other cheeses….

2 eggs

1  cup milk or cream or a combination

3/4 cup (30 grams) flour

pinch of salt

butter for greasing the muffin pan

Beat the eggs and milk/cream. Mix the flour and salt in a medium bowl that you can pour from. Add the liquid to the flour little by little, so you don’t get lumps. Let it rest for about half an hour. Pour into a greased mini-muffin pan. Drop your add-ins on top. Bake for 20-30 minutes (I had to turn the pan halfway through). IMG_5131À votre santé!

 

Big Night

IMG_4511The French apéritif dinatoire–cocktail dinner–is a way to invite a crowd for dinner without having them sit down around the table. More than just cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, it’s a whole dinner but not served in the usual French style with courses, and with everything in small portions that are easy to manage while standing and mingling.

On Saturday, our little house was packed to the gills with friends for the Fête de la Lumière, or the Festival of Light, a tradition started by dear friends who moved away and whom everybody at the party admitted to missing terribly. We picked up the baton because it was such a great way to see people, whereas with dinner parties the number of guests is limited to four or six (with us that makes six or eight around the table, which is about all you can do and still have conversation).

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By the morning of, most of the food was made and ready to plate.

Recipe testing began a few weeks ago, and, despite good intentions to make dishes in advance and freeze them, I made everything in the days before the party. I kept a spreadsheet with dishes, showing how many days ahead they could be done, ingredients and links to the recipes. Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 11.50.08 AM

The spreadsheet was very useful for assembling the shopping list. I could go through and count, for example, how many eggs and how much butter and flour in total.

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Chorizo “cookies.” Instead of sun-dried tomatoes, we went with black olives. Prettier.

I could have cut the number of chicken wings by half; since they were done fresh, we froze the leftovers. The madeleines won raves, but I could have made a single batch (considering we ate the test batch quickly, I was surprised). Happily they freeze well. Also the chorizo cookies–double the recipe would have sufficed. It seemed to me it made such a small batch. Also froze the leftovers. Nothing wasted.

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Nut bars. Easy and yummy. From the Silver Palate cookbook.

On the other hand, the meatballs and deviled eggs disappeared. The nut cake was nearly gone and a fan happily took the few remains home.

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For deviled eggs: mix yolks with mayo and mustard (same number of spoonfuls, but use tablespoons for the mayo and teaspoons for the mustard, until you have the consistency you want). Put into a plastic bag whose corner you’ve reinforced with at least six strips of tape. Seal the bag, cut off the tip and you have no-mess filling of the eggs.

The list above, plus charcuterie, cheese and baguettes, came to about €200 for a guest list of 36. Cheese alone was about €40. The total doesn’t include the wine because we tapped our cellar. IMG_4494Most of the food was on the dining table, with no decorations but a silver tray with candles. We put the charcuterie on a buffet and the cheese board on a small bookcase near the table. We had two conversation areas, but people stood for the first two hours, mingling and eating, before slowing down and migrating to the chairs and sofas. IMG_4490Although everybody was from the village, not all the guests knew each other, though they all knew at least some of the others. The grown daughter of a neighbor had come back to visit her parents; she had been our babysitter back in the day. She came, which I took as a high compliment, since she certainly had other options for socializing on a Saturday night than hanging out with neighbors her parents’ age.

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Crudités, for something light and fresh amid the carbs. I love that purple cauliflower.

Here are the links to the recipes again:

Zucchini cheese chips (no need for a recipe, since it’s grated zucchini and cheese, dumped in little piles and baked–you can find many similar).

Chorizo cookies (I made them mini)

Salmon croissants

Pizza croissants

Ham and cheese pinwheels

Curry-cheese madeleines

Cheesecake bars

Raspberry mousse bars (if you use frozen berries, thaw them first)

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Chocolate cake done as mini cupcakes for easier eating.

The Thai chicken wings and nut bars are from cookbooks; I’ll share those later. The meatball recipe changed when we couldn’t find the ingredients (no hoisin around here), so I just mixed ground pork with breadcrumbs, eggs, lots of minced onions and herbes de provence and baked them (honestly, the onions made them. OMG). The crinkle cookies and chocolate cake are old family recipes that I also will expand on later.IMG_4464This shouldn’t sound intimidating. It was a lot of work for two days and totally worth it. The advantage of cooking ahead and freezing is that the work gets spread out into small bits; but the advantage of doing everything just before is that it’s all fresh and you can freeze leftovers. A win either way.

Also, don’t overthink. We decorated the tree and put Christmas balls here and there, plus lots of candles. No elaborate centerpieces. The food is the main event. Actually, the conversation is the main event, and the food is just fuel for it.IMG_4516

 

 

 

 

La Pissaladièra

P1090099The day after Thanksgiving might not be the moment to share a recipe. Some of you will be reading this in a postprandial carb-induced stupor. But after you’re back from Black Friday consumption, you can turn to this little treasure, either for an appetizer—feeds a crowd!—or for a kind of pizza niçoise.

La pissaladièra or la pissaladière is a dish from the Mediterranean city of Nice, and like most dishes that carry the city’s name, it includes anchovies and olives. La pissaladièra is like pizza or focaccia, but topped with onions, garlic, olives, and, above all, anchovies. It can be served hot or at room temperature, which means you can make it a while in advance. For appetizers, cut small pieces.

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Montagné’s recipe. Even the one (ONE!) garlic clove is optional!! Almost no quantities given.

As with many French recipes, there are several ways to go about this. Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, the great chef who wrote the original bible of French cooking, Larousse Gastronomique, says you can make it with bread dough or with demi-feuilletage, which is a simpler form of pâte feuilletée, but still with lots of butter. Montagné says that pissaladièra (he spells it with an “a” at the end) is much more savoureuse—tasty—with demi-feuilletage. The wonders of butter. He even offers an option using stale bread, because when it was published in 1936, people did not throw away food, even stale. Yet the French always eat well, even in bad times. They have much to teach us.

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Rising under plastic wrap. Your astuce for success.

Someplace (and I can’t find it! but I didn’t imagine it nor invent it but I always do it) suggested dressing up the rolled-out dough and covering it with plastic wrap so it rises again, for an even airier crust. This works very well. For pizza, I want to eject the dressed-up dough onto the stone in the oven, so it can’t sit or it sticks to the pizza paddle. But pissaladièra gets cooked in a sheet pan, so it can rest and rise with ease. If you do this, be sure to use plastic wrap and not a tea towel. I tried to be all écolo (environmentally correct) and put a clean cloth on top, but the anchovies stuck to the cloth and came off when I removed the cloth. Blech.

While pissaladièra is associated with summer, there is no good reason for that, other than that people tend to visit Nice when it’s nice. But there are no seasonal ingredients and in winter, onions are a staple. A year-round winner.P1090087Montagné says to cut out a round of dough with a kind of straight-sided mold (un cercle à flan) and then to place it in a large pie plate called a tourtière (in Canada, tourtière is a kind of meat pie, just to keep it confusing). You can make it round or square.

For all that I love and respect Montagné, he suggests only ONE garlic clove. How is that even possible? I used a head of garlic, which I broke up and cooked, the cloves still in their jackets, very slowly with the onions. First, garlic makes this a great winter dish because it’s supposed to ward off colds. Second, the unpeeled garlic kind of steams in its jacket, rendering it very tender and mild. Being a nice chef, I peeled the soft cloves before putting them on the pissaladièra, because who wants to do that when they’re about to take a bite?P1090082Last, the European way is to measure ingredients by weight rather than by volume. It’s very convenient and once you try it, you won’t go back!

La Pissaladière/Pissaladièra

Make the dough:

500 grams (3 1/4 cups) flour

2 packets of yeast

200 ml (3/4 cup) warm water

60 ml (1/4 cup) olive oil

1 tsp salt

Sprinkle the yeast on the warm water in a small bowl. In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt and olive oil. When the yeast has bubbled up, pour it into the flour mixture. Knead. Put in a large oiled bowl, cover with a tea towl and let it rest for at least an hour.

Cook the onions:

1.5 kg (3 1/3 pounds, but hey, onions are forgiving; you can go over or under) onions

At least 8 cloves to a whole head of garlic, broken into cloves with the skin still on

2 Tbs thyme

100 g (3 or 4 oz.) of black olives

10 filets of anchovies in oil (or more)

2 Tbs anchovy cream (optional)

Peel and thinly slice the onions. Heat a little olive oil in a large pot—enough oil to cover the bottom, and cook the onions over low heat. Stir in the thyme and the garlic. Cover and stir from time to time. It will take a good 45 minutes. Before the onions are finished, preheat the oven to as hot as it will go (400F or 200C).

The onions should be nice and soft, a little caramelized but not crispy, and the garlic should be completely melted. Pick out the garlic cloves and let them cool so you can peel them.

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OMG those soft garlic cloves!

Spread the dough on a sheet pan. You can roll or use your fingers. Prick it all over with a fork. Spread the onions on the dough. Distribute the peeled garlic, anchovy filets and olives.

Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for another 30 minutes or longer.

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Before cooking. This is the moment when it got too dark for natural light and I turned on the garish lamp in the stove fan.

Remove the plastic wrap and bake for about 20 minutes. Check on it; your oven might be faster or slower.

Serve hot or cold. We had it for dinner—why not?

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Done! So delicious!