Posts Categorized: Recipes

Say Cheese, Please: Recipes and Musings


By Jim McCaffrey • Photos by Aryn Henning Nichols

So let’s talk about the product that made Wisconsin famous. (No, not beer.) Cheese! I have been blessed in this life to be lactose tolerant. Good thing, too, because I am woefully enamored by the astounding number cheese varieties produced in the world. And what is more astonishing is that they all are created from a single source: Milk. Cow’s milk is the most common, but let us not forget sheep, goats, water buffalo, and not to be left out, yaks. According to Wikipedia, the earliest archaeological recording of cheese making dates back to 5500 BC in Kujawy, Poland, where strainers with milk fats have been found. Now that’s some well-aged cheese! Theory has it that cheese was probably created by accident. The idea is that when sheep were first domesticated approximately 8000 BC, their stomachs were used to store milk. The milk mixed with rennet contained in the stomach and turned into cheese curds. To this day, all of us lovers of fermented milk have a few nomad shepherds to thank for their culinary contribution to world society. Who’d a thunk?

I decided to put together a lunch, a cheesy lunch at that. Any excuse for a staff meeting. I brought to the table a motley crew of rogue cooks and bakers, including this shanty Irishman, to construct a four-course meal starring cheese. Lets start with an appetizer! I have a good friend, Greg Eaton, who was a former chef at the Spring Green Restaurant just outside Spring Green, Wisconsin. I was at a party at a rural farmstead near Waukon some years ago and in walks Greg. He’s carrying a big cast iron skillet and a large bulging paper grocery sack. He starts pulling out quart mason jars of peanut oil and I knew that something good was about to happen. “Whatcha making?” I queried. “Oh, I got some jack cheese and green chili that I’m going to fry up in wonton wrappers.” He did not disappoint. I took it a step further and made up a simple dipping sauce in my rendition of this tasty appetizer.


Second course was just a simple salad served with strawberries, grapes and McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita bleu cheese dressing. At the restaurant we make all of our salad dressings from scratch. I’m a firm believer in transparency, so I decided to share how we make our bleu cheese with you. We have a customer who comes in and always orders it for his salad. He thinks we should give up the restaurant business and concentrate on marketing this dressing. Some days you have to wonder!

Our next course is courtesy of the man Jacques Pepin has described in the following manner: “Mitch Omer makes Anthony Bourdain look like an altar boy.” Mitch, along with his wife, Cynthia, and with Mitch’s sous chef, Steve Meyer and wife, Kim, are founders of Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis. Currently, it is an 8000 square foot area located in the basement of 80 South 9th Street just off of Nicollet Ave. Open 16+ hours a day, it is manic, wild, and absolutely delightful. Oh, did I mention the same applies to Mitch? His food is eclectic, with dishes such as Bison Sausage Bread, Mahnomin Porridge, and the best peanut butter I have ever tasted. Like me, Mitch is also a big believer in transparency. So much so, he, along with Ann Bauer, conspired on a cookbook named, appropriately, Damned Good Food. It is a collection of great life stories (believe me, it’s a wild ride) and 157 recipes from Hell’s Kitchen. All pretty much from scratch – my kind of chef. I contacted Mitch to get permission to reprint his recipe for Macaroni and Cheese. He grew up on it and “Never realized until he went to college that Kraft made an unremarkable product libelously bearing the same name.” Original recipe follows. I changed it up a little for our lunch, though. I used RP’s gluten-free fresh fusilli pasta. Pretty much my first foray into the world of gluten free, this pasta produced in Madison, Wisconsin is remarkable. It is also available at the Oneota Co-op in Decorah. To top the mac off, I sautéed some oyster mushrooms from Back Forty Farms and the last of our fresh asparagus. Delightful. Thanks, Mitch.


Dessert came in the form of Turtle Cheesecake. Not long after we opened the restaurant, we decided to make our own cheesecakes. So I went to the Internet and typed in Best Cheesecake Ever. There were several. I picked one out and tried it. Pretty good. In walks Tanya O’Connor, former head of wait staff and baker at the once-famous-in-Decorah Café Deluxe. With a mischievous grin, she said “Not bad, Jim. But I think we should tweak it a bit and add some ricotta cheese.” We did and came up with this light and fluffy cake that we think is outrageously good. The following recipe is our head chef, Brock Dansdill’s version. See what you think.


Time for lunch. Staff lunch that is. Aryn and Benji from Inspire(d) were there with their newly turned one-year-old daughter, Roxie. Adorable and couldn’t get enough mac and cheese. I’m on their staff. Jim Ronan came as well. He’s on our staff helping out with all of the music venues. Our staff as Dolce Vita owners included myself, Brenda, Shanon, Fawn, Conor, and Sara, as well as our newly born member of the family: Rowen Ash McCaffrey. He joined our staff, er…family on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 6:54 am. Not quite ready to devour a four-course meal, he was content to look around, sleep, and pass gas. Aw, the sweet life!

Green Chili and Jack Cheese Wontons
Peanut oil
40 wonton skins
8 oz. Monterey Jack Cheese (Cut into 40 small pieces)
2 (two) 40 oz. cans diced green chilis
2 cloves garlic, minced fine

Dipping Sauce
1 C sour cream
1/4 C spicy brown mustard

Assemble! Place a piece of cheese just over center on a wonton skin. Add a little green chili. Wet the two sides of the wonton skin the cheese is on and press top edges to bottom edges into a triangle. Using a candy thermometer, heat about an inch of oil in a heavy skillet to 350 degrees. Check with a candy thermometer – hotter and it might burn. Slip wontons in one by one. Cook for 15 seconds and turn. When golden brown, drain on paper. Whisk dipping sauce ingredients ahead of time and chill. Enjoy!

Bleu Cheese Dressing
1 C Bleu cheese crumbles
4 turns fresh ground black pepper
4 C mayonnaise
1 Tbl. lemon juice
1 cup +/- heavy cream
1 Tbl. white vinegar
3 cloves minced garlic
Pinch of Kosher salt

Whisk all ingredients together and chill.

Mitch’s Macaroni and Cheese
7 qts water
1 stick unsalted butter, divided
1 lb. penne pasta
5 Tbl. all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp garlic powder
2 C rich chicken broth
1 C whole milk
1 C heavy cream
1 C shredded fontina cheese
1 C shredded Vermont white
1 C shredded Swiss cheese
1/2 C shredded Wisconsin sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 C crumbled Maytag blue cheese
2 Tbl. Kosher salt
1 C Seasoned Bread Crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat water, salt, and 2 Tbl butter in a large pot to a rolling boil. Add pasta, cook for two minutes and remove from heat. Cover with a lid or a kitchen towel and let rest six minutes. Remove the cover and drain pasta into a colander.

Melt 6 Tbl of the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour, dry mustard, cayenne, and garlic powder and whisk vigorously with a wire whip until flour mixture begins to bubble. Slowly add chicken broth, milk, and cream. Cook and whisk continually about five minutes, or until sauce begins to thicken. Add all cheeses, cook and whisk continually until completely incorporated and sauce thickens. Remove cheese sauce from heat.

Butter four ovenproof ramekins or one large baking dish. Divide pasta among the ramekins, or pour into the baking dish. Pour sauce evenly over the pasta, and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Place on center rack of the oven, and bake for 29 to33 minutes, or until top(s) have just begun to brown.

Turtle Cheesecake
1 1/2 C graham cracker crumbs
5 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 C white sugar
1 3/4 C white sugar
2 oz. butter, melted
2 Tbl all purpose flour
6 (six) 8 oz packages cream cheese, softened
16 oz ricotta cheese
1/4 C heavy whipping cream
3 oz pecans
Caramel and chocolate syrup

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix graham cracker crumbs, white sugar, and melted butter together. Press mixture into the bottom of a 10-inch spring form pan.

In a large bowl, combine cream cheese, eggs, and egg yolks. Mix until smooth. Add the remaining sugar, flour, and heavy cream. Blend until smooth. Pour into prepared pan. Spread pecans over the top and drizzle heavily with the caramel one way and chocolate the other way creating a grid pattern.
Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn temperature down to 300 degrees and bake for one hour or until batter is set. Knife the outside edge all around so cake does not adhere to sides. Let it cool on a perforated rack, 2-3 hours. Release spring form. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 3-4 hours. Divide the cake into equal slices and dish it up. We top it with homemade whipped cream. No cholesterol or calories here! Have fun with this, Mitch.


Jim_RowanJim McCaffrey is a chef, author, and co-owner with his family of McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita restaurant and Twin Springs Bakery just outside Decorah. He is author of humorous cookbooks “Midwest Cornfusion” and  “Mississippi Mirth”. He has been in the food industry in one way or another for more than 40 years.

Now, That’s Italian! Recipes and Musings…


By Jim McCaffrey • Photos by Aryn Henning Nichols

I have been kind of enamored – okay, totally hooked – by the food and culture of Italy ever since my good friend, James Ronan, and I backpacked Southern Europe the fall of 1976. We spent three memorable days in Venice.

On our first outing we ventured down to the open-air fish market right near the Rialto Bridge. A plethora of freshly harvested sea inhabitants was set out on ice. The fishmongers used long water hoses to constantly spray their wares, keeping everything as fresh as possible. Well, looking fresh, anyway. The buckets packed with squirming live eels are indelibly etched in my mind even now, close to 40 years later. Eeew!

Being young men on the go, hunger was always just around the corner, so we moved down to the end of a pier to a little takeout restaurant. Clueless to what to order and being on tight budgets, we went with the least expensive item on the menu. OMG! Mind-blowing. That spinach gnocchi had just added a credit or two to our culinary credentials. We enjoyed it so much we repeatedly kept returning back for more during our three-day stay.

I’ve been back to that fair country a couple of times with my wife and current traveling companion, Brenda, and the food never disappoints. The meals are always simple and totally delicious. I decided for this month’s column I would like to recreate this dining experience for you (or really, for a fun group of my friends – you will recreate it for yourself with these recipes!). For the main dish I would prepare gnocchi from scratch, pan seared in a brown sage butter. Add to the plate Chicken Marsala with organic oyster mushrooms. Raised by local food producers, Fred and Caroline Finch of Back Forty Farms. They’re located just north of Harmony, Minnesota, and their mushrooms are to die for! I can’t get enough of them. If you like mushrooms at all, you positively have to try these beauties. Great bold flavor and texture. They’re available to the public at the Oneota Food Co-op in Decorah. Yum!

Anyway – back to the meal! Chicken Marsala is a surprisingly simple dish to prepare. Fifteen minutes from start to finish. Being a culinary genius is not a requirement here. Just bring your poultry to the kitchen counter, follow the easy instructions, and your loved one (ones) will be fawning all over you. Ok, maybe not quite fawning, but you get the gist. Finishing out the plate, I decided on asparagus drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. Simple. Delicious.

But that still leaves the best part: dessert! Every good Italian meal should have a scrumptious dessert. My choice was Torta de Mele con Pinoli e Uvetta. Translation: Apple torte with pine nuts and raisins. I found this recipe a few years ago in a Williams Sonoma cookbook called Savoring Tuscany. I’m usually not much of a dessert person, but this rendition is decadently delicious. (Don’t forget the spring form pan; it makes life so much easier.)


Our Italian dinner party happened to be a lunch party – we invited Aryn, Benji, and Roxie out, and the latter goes to bed too early for any late-night camaraderie. I realized that I have been working with Inspire(d) for almost four years and we haven’t really ever gotten together and broken bread, so it was high time! I also invited my erstwhile traveling companion James Ronan, and rounding out our little venue was the hostess with the mostest, my lovely wife, Brenda. High noon arrived and so did our guests. Everybody got settled in and I started by serving a simple salad with choice of homemade dressing. While Brenda and our guests were working on that, I went to the kitchen to prepare the main meal. Since the Marsala Chicken had the longest cooking time I began with that. Next I put my asparagus under the broiler. Timing is everything. I had already boiled my gnocchi and now pan seared those delectable puffs of potato pasta in a fresh sage butter. I plated up everything and brought it out just as salads were being finished. I got a few utterances of delight as Brenda and I served, and the Chicken Marsala was a hit with Roxie. Aryn almost couldn’t cut it fast enough to feed her. We chatted, laughed, and giggled through the meal, and everybody sat fully sated. But I jumped up: I’d forgotten to serve dessert! We managed to make room for that decadence just in time for Roxie’s nap…and I think we were all ready to second that notion. Ciao Baby!


3 large russet potatoes, washed
1 egg yolk
2 1/3 cups flour
½ stick butter
1 Tbl fresh sage, chopped
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
¼ cup fresh grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prick and bake potatoes until soft (about 90 minutes). While still hot, cut potatoes in half lengthwise. Let cool. Scoop potatoes out of skin and mince with a food scraper. Spread potatoes into a 24” by 12” rectangle. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle beaten egg yolk over potatoes. Add 1 ¼ cups flour and cut into potatoes. Turn mixture over on itself and fold together. When dough looks like coarse crumbs bring mixture together into a ball. Sprinkle a little flour unto the work surface. Flatten the ball into a disk. Add a little more flour.

Fold and press dough until flour is incorporated. Add a little more flour until dough is no longer sticky. Roll into a compact log and cut into 8 pieces. Lightly dust work surface with flour. Roll each piece into a ½ inch cylinder. Cut into 1 inch pieces. Use the back of a fork to indent each piece. Heavily salt a pot of water and bring to a boil. In three batches, drop gnocchi in water for 2 to 3 minutes until they float. Retrieve with a slotted spoon and place on a plate. When ready to serve, melt butter in a skillet and add sage. Pan sear gnocchi until slightly browned. Plate up and add parmesan. Yum!

Now, for the Italian Recipes you’ve been waiting for…

Chicken Marsala
¼ cup all purpose flour
4 Tbl butter
½ tsp salt
4 Tbl olive oil
¼ tsp ground black pepper
1 cup sliced mushrooms (Oyster if available)
½ tsp dried oregano
4 skinless, boneless chicken
½ cup Marsala wine
breast halves-pounded ¼ inch thick
¼ cup cooking sherry

Combine flour, salt, pepper, and oregano. Dredge chicken breasts in flour mixture. Melt butter in oil in a large fry pan in medium heat. Lightly brown chicken, turn over and add mushrooms. Add wine and sherry. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, turning once. Chicken should be no longer pink inside. Enjoy!

Apple Torte with Pine Nuts and Raisins
2 Golden Delicious apples
1 cup cake flour
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp baking powder
3 eggs
1/8 tsp salt
1 ½ cups sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
1 stick butter, melted
1/3 cup raisins, (soaked ½ cup milk in warm water 30 minutes)
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup pine nuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 10 inch spring form pan. Dust with flour and shake out excess.
Peel apples, halve and core. Thinly slice and place in bowl with lemon. Whisk eggs and sugar together in a bowl. Stir in butter, milk, and vanilla. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking powder, and lemon zest. Gradually pour and stir in egg mixture. Drain raisins and add along with pine nuts into the batter. Pour batter into spring form pan. Arrange apple slices on top in concentric circles. Bake for 45 minutes until a toothpick comes clean after inserting in center. Let cool completely. Cut into wedges and serve.


Jim McCaffrey is a chef, author, and co-owner with his family of McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita restaurant and Twin Springs Bakery just outside Decorah. He is author of humorous cookbooks “Midwest Cornfusion” and  “Mississippi Mirth”. He has been in the food industry in one way or another for more than 40 years.

Comfort Food

1DumplingsBy Jim McCaffrey • Photos by Aryn Henning Nichols

The weather outside is frightful but the fire is so delightful, and since there’s no place to go, let it snow, let it snow…wait a minute! Let the sun shine! Guess that’s not quite as catchy.

But we really could use a break. Last winter in the Driftless Region was no piece of cake. In fact, to my understanding, it was the coldest winter we have had for 35 years, and this week is feeling like déja vu. BRR! When weather like this moves in, people tend to hunker down. So while you are in the throes of hunkering, you might as well treat you and your loved ones the pleasures of comfort food. Come to think of it, anytime is a great time for home-cooked comforting meals.

Growing up, one of my favorite comfort foods was Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup fortified with an equal amount of milk and store-bought white bread slathered with butter for dipping. I guess I’ve come a long way from that, baby, but boy it was enjoyable!

There is probably a different comfort food for everyone on the planet (…more than one!). Take Italy alone. How many variations of pasta have the Italian mamas been cooking up for generations? France has Coq Au Vin (braised chicken with mushrooms and onions). Go to Wales and find Cornish Pasties (little meat turnovers the miners used to carry for lunch at work) and Ireland has Guinness. Need I say more? Closer to home, Canadians have long been enamored by their poutine, a crazy dish originating in Quebec which is basically French fries smothered in gravy and covered with cheese curds. Who’d a thunk, EH?

Back here in the States, a nationwide love affair is centered on our beloved mac and cheese. Although when one thinks about it, a blue box comes to mind. That’s all our kids would eat growing up. But actually mac, made from scratch, is a hundred notches above that. I included a recipe for mac and cheese in issue 35 issue of Inspire(d) (find it at Mitch Omar, owner of Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis, grew up on it and it is to die for. Try it, you will like/love it.

Even closer to home, we have a Norwegian community that swears by a traditional dish called lutefisk. Well, probably half of them swear by it. It is essentially dried cod soaked in lye, which was the standby in Norway before refrigeration. When Norwegians immigrated to America, those crafty dogs brought lutefisk along with them.

One of MY all-time favorite comfort foods is chicken and dumplings. This was the highlight of the lunch I made the other day for the Inspire(d) crew. The number one comfort food for my wife is salad, though. I swear she could eat salad three times a day and be one happy camper. For her, I made a wonderful winter salad of mixed greens with both sweet and tart apples, toasted pecans, and topped with white cheddar cheese. Drizzled with an apple cider vinaigrette and Brenda was good to go. And everyone else was as well, for that matter.


Next on the agenda was the chicken and dumplings. I cheated and bought a couple of rotisserie chickens and diced the meat up. I’m glad I did because it added immensely to the overall flavor of the dish. I also cheated and used Bisquick for the dumplings because I had it on hand. But that doesn’t make me a bad guy or does it? Basically, I made a simple chicken and vegetable soup and added dumplings. Homemade comfort food: It doesn’t get any easier than this.

Rounding out our meal was a dessert straight out of heaven: Pears poached in red wine. I first had this delightful dish back in 1976 when James Ronan and I backpacked across Europe for seven weeks. We were staying with some friends in Zaragoza, Spain. They took us out to eat at this restaurant located in a huge and ancient basement that had an equally huge fireplace. The chefs had long spits over the fire on which they were searing and cooking enormous slabs of pork. Highly entertaining and wonderful food. But the highlight of the evening was the dessert. I think it might have been the highlight of the entire trip. Go ahead, surprise your loved ones with this and you will reap praises from all. I guarantee it.


And just remember, a chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.


Jim McCaffrey is a chef, author, and co-owner with his family of McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita restaurant and Twin Springs Bakery just outside Decorah. He is author of humorous cookbooks “Midwest Cornfusion” and “Mississippi Mirth”. He has been in the food industry in one way or another for more than 40 years.

Winter Salad

1 head green leaf lettuce
1 head red leaf lettuce
1/2 head romaine lettuce
1 Large Granny Smith apple
1 Pink Lady apple
1 cup pecans, toasted
6 oz block sharp white Cheddar cheese

2 1/2 T. cider vinegar
6 T. olive oil

Chop all lettuces and toss. Quarter the apples and core. Slice thinly lengthwise. Add to lettuce. Add pecans. Shave cheese with a vegetable peeler over the top. Whisk vinegar and olive together with some salt and pepper and drizzle over the top of salad. Yum.

Chicken and Dumplings
2 rotisserie chickens
4 stalks celery, sliced
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 small onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, diced
8 oz sliced button mushrooms
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
4 qts chicken broth, preferably homemade
1 T. dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
6 cups Bisquick
2 cups milk

Remove chicken skin and bones. Dice meat and set aside. Sauté vegetables until soft, about 5 minutes in a large pot. Add chicken and broth. Mix Bisquick and milk and form a soft dough. Bring soup to a boil. Using a dinner teaspoon, cut dough into spoon sized pieces and drop into soup. Reduce heat. Cook uncovered for 10 minutes, and then covered for 10 minutes. Serve and enjoy. Yum Yum!

Note: If you do not want to use Bisquick just mix 6 cups flour with 2 1/2 T. baking and 1 tsp baking powder.

Pears Poached in Red Wine

4-6 Bosc pears, peeled, cored and sliced in half the long way
1 1/2 cups dry red wine (I used Shiraz)
3/4 cup sugar
2 T. lemon juice
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp cinnamon

Combine all ingredients except pears in a large sauté pan and bring to a full boil. Turn heat to a simmer. Add pears and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Turn over and simmer until fork tender. Remove and cool. Reduce wine sauce to one half.

Pour over pears and top with whipped cream. Yum Yum Yum!