The common denominator in today's roundup of baked dips is cream cheese.
I won't call it the lowest common denominator, because in the pantheon of ingredients we should eat with extreme infrequency, cream cheese is among the highest. Still, as the year comes to a close and we've got one more chance to wear our dancing shoes before we switch to runners, cream cheese, especially when it comes to baked dips, is a good partner.
In a dip, it serves as a binder, bringing all the other ingredients together with smooth aplomb. There's a characteristic you want at your farewell-2012 party.
As you consider the menu for a New Year's Eve gathering or a New Year's Day parade-football bash, think about a baked dip. A crock (or pie pan or baking dish) of hot, gooey, cheesy deliciousness is likely to be one of the first offerings to go. Provide interesting — and sturdy — dippers, too.
I like baked dips because they can be made ahead and popped into the oven an hour or so before you want to serve them. They travel well because cheese-laden baked dips should sit for about 30 minutes before the first scoop is taken. They will remain warm during that time but also firm up. If they are served immediately, the cheese will run and drip, plus your guests run the risk of burning their mouths.
If you'd like to serve a special cocktail with your cheese dip, look for something fruity. Cheese and fruit, especially apples and pears, are natural partners. An Apple Cider Shandy is simply 6 ounces of stout beer mixed with an ounce of apple cider. This would go particularly well with the muscular Hot Baked Bean Dip that accompanies this story.
Apple Crisp, made with applejack, and Lemon Apple Ice, powered by vanilla vodka and vanilla schnapps, both pair nicely with hot crab dips and spinach-artichoke offerings. The sweetness of the apple cuts the rich dips. Another tasty cocktail that's perfect to ring in the new year is a Sorbet Sparkler, which is just a flute of champagne or sparkling wine augmented with a small scoop of sorbet. I especially like Whole Foods brand Valencia orange in champagne with a mandarin orange slice or two floated in the glass.
What a dip
Now back to that cream cheese.
You can use reduced fat or even nonfat if you'd like to get a jump on New Year's resolutions that revolve around more healthful eating. If you opt for nonfat, I recommend using at least some low-fat. A dip of all nonfat products might taste more like metal than food. Another way to save on the calories is to offer crunchy veggie dippers along with crackers and bagel or pita chips.
For instance, the Baked Buffalo Chicken Dip screams for ice-cold crispy celery stalks to scoop up the melange of chicken and cheese. The recipe calls for quite a bit of hot sauce and a bit of cayenne. Do not chicken out and cut back. The full ⅔ cup of hot sauce will not make it too hot. Two blocks of cream cheese and 3 cups of diced chicken do their part to quell the heat. In fact, after baking this dip my family doused it with even more Buffalo Tabasco sauce.
You'll find many baked dip recipes with crab, and that's because the sweet shellfish pairs so nicely with cheese and spices such as Old Bay and herbs like parsley. I especially like Hot and Spicy Crab Dip with Jarlsberg because the mild Swiss cheese adds another level of flavor. Resist the urge to use canned crab and spring for backfin, also called lump, meat. Canned crab will become almost like tuna when you mix the ingredients, and the backfin crab retains its shape if you mix it gently. Truth is, if I am spending money for crab, I want my guests to know it!
When making artichoke dips, cut the artichoke hearts in small pieces. It's a bit of a chore, but you'll be happier with the results. Sometimes the outer leaves can still be a bit tough and chewy and you don't want your guests feeling like they are gnawing on something inedible. Cut them small and you'll avoid this. Also, for added flavor, I often use marinated artichoke hearts. Drain the brine and save for salad dressings if you'd like.
If you're planning a Mexican-themed party, consider Hot Baked Bean Dip, which relies on canned refried beans and a taco seasoning mix for its flavor. Despite the addition of cream cheese, this dip seems lighter than other layered bean dips. Let it sit for at least 20 minutes before serving, surround with tortillas chips and watch the sparks fly as your guests dig in.
If I still haven't made you feel any better about indulging in cream cheese, remember it's still December. We'll pay the piper next week. So, for now, let's just say so long to 2012 with a mouthful of something else to feel guilty about. And doesn't it taste good?
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter @roadeats.
Artichoke, Spinach and White Bean Dip
¼ cup (1 ounce) grated fresh pecorino Romano cheese
¼ cup canola mayonnaise
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground red pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (15-ounce) can white beans, rinsed and drained
1 (14-ounce) can baby artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
1 (9-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed dry
½ cup (2 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place Romano cheese, ¼ cup mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, salt, black pepper, red pepper, minced garlic and white beans in a food processor and process until smooth. Spoon into a medium bowl. Stir in the artichokes and spinach.
Spoon the mixture into a 1-quart glass or ceramic baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with ½ cup mozzarella. Bake for 20 minutes or until bubbly and brown.
Serves 8 to 10.
Source: Cooking Light
Hot and Spicy Crab Dip With Jarlsberg
1 pound backfin crabmeat
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and pressed
1 ½ teaspoon Old Bay or other seafood seasoning
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon dry mustard
½ cup Jarlsberg Swiss, shredded
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pick through the crabmeat, and mix with cream cheese, sour cream, lemon juice, garlic, Old Bay, Worcestershire and mustard.
Spoon the crab mixture into a shallow baking dish. Top with the shredded Jarslberg and bake for 30 minutes. Serve hot with crackers or bread.
Source: Dishing Up Maryland by Lucie L. Snodgras (Storey, 2010)
Baked Buffalo Chicken Dip
3 cups diced cooked rotisserie chicken
2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
¾ cup hot pepper sauce (such as Frank's RedHot)
½ cup shredded pepper Jack cheese
½ cup blue cheese dressing
½ cup crumbled blue cheese
½ teaspoon seafood seasoning (such as Old Bay)
1 pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoons shredded pepper Jack cheese
1 pinch cayenne pepper, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Combine chicken, cream cheese, hot pepper sauce, ½ cup pepper Jack cheese, blue cheese dressing, crumbled blue cheese, Old Bay seasoning and cayenne pepper in a large bowl.
Transfer chicken mixture to a 9-inch round baking dish and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons pepper Jack cheese.
Bake until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and garnish with cayenne pepper.
Serves 8 to 10.
Spinach and Artichoke Dip
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup (1 ounce) grated fresh Parmesan cheese, divided
¼ teaspoon black pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
2 (8-ounce) blocks cream cheese, softened
½ (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry
1 (13.5-ounce) package baked tortilla chips (about 16 cups)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine 1 ½ cups mozzarella, sour cream, 2 tablespoons Parmesan and the rest of the ingredients, through spinach, in a large bowl; stir until well blended.
Spoon mixture into a 1 ½-quart baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining ½ cup mozzarella and remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown. Serve with tortilla chips.
Serves 8 to 10.
Source: Adapted from myrecipes.com
Hot Baked Bean Dip
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
2 (16 ounce) cans refried beans
½ (1 ounce) package taco seasoning mix
5 drops hot pepper sauce
2 tablespoons dried parsley
¼ cup chopped green onions
1 (8 ounce) package shredded Cheddar cheese
1 (8 ounce) package shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a medium bowl, blend the cream cheese and sour cream. Mix in the refried beans, taco seasoning, hot pepper sauce, parsley, green onions, ½ the Cheddar cheese and ½ the Monterey Jack cheese. Transfer the mixture to an 8- by 12-inch baking dish. Top with remaining Cheddar and Monterey Jack.
Bake in the preheated oven 20 to 30 minutes, until cheese is slightly browned.
Serves 8 to 10.
4 ounces applejack
4 ounces fresh lemon juice
1 ounce Cointreau or triple sec
Red apple slices for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the ingredients, shake vigorously, and pour into a tall glass with ice. Garnish with apple slice.
Lemon Apple Ice
2 ounces vanilla vodka
1 ounce vanilla schnapps
1 ounce apple juice
4 ounces lemonade
Lemon peel garnish
Put all ingredients in a blender with a cup of ice and blend until completely smooth. Pour into a glass and garnish with lemon peel.
Scooping it up
Delicious as they are, potato chips aren't usually a good choice for baked dips. Save those for softer, cold dips. Otherwise you run the risk of the dippers breaking off in the dip and the dippee forced to somehow fish it out.
Pita and bagel chips and all kinds of crackers are the best choices. Go for whole wheat if you'd like, but avoid heavily flavored crackers and those overwrought with garlic, salt or seeds. Basically, you want a vehicle to get the food to the mouth.
Vegetables like carrots, jicama, celery, radishes, cucumbers, broccoli, asparagus and red or green peppers are good scoopers. Since you've taken the time to make a delicious dip, take care with the crudites, too. Don't just open a bag of those tumbled carrots that go by the name "baby." (They aren't, you know.) Peel carrots and trim asparagus, broccoli and pepper strips. Blanch in boiling water for a minute and then plunge into ice water to stop cooking. This will make the color pop and take just a bit of the rawness away. Store in fridge before arranging around dip.
Janet K. Keeler