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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter @roadeats.