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Easy holiday entertaining with Baked Stuffed Brie

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How easy can holiday entertaining be? Extremely easy when someone else plans the menu, provides tried and true recipes complete with tips for success, and offers suggestions for wine and beer pairings.

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That's exactly what Minneapolis cookbook author Carmela Tursi Hobbins presents in her newly published cookbook, "Celebrations with Carmela's Cucina."

"In the cooking classes I teach, students often tell me they have a hard time putting a menu together for a special holiday meal," Hobbins said during a recent phone interview. "The 14 menus in my new cookbook take all the guess-work out of planning and preparing a delicious and impressive meal."

Menus in "Celebrations with Carmela's Cucina" follow the calendar year, beginning with a New Year's Day buffet and ending up with a New Year's Eve dinner for eight.

"The recipes in the book come from classes I've taught, as well as some great recipes shared by my friends. And many of the recipes come from my relatives in Italy or have been inspired by food enjoyed on my culinary tours to that country," said Hobbins.

The author's husband, Robert Hobbins, suggests wine and/or beer pairings for each menu. The great majority of the wines recommended may be purchased for $20 per bottle or less. None of the recommended craft beers are unduly expensive.

In her first cookbook, "Carmela's Cucina," Hobbins shared favorite recipes she inherited from her Italian relatives and improved over the years. In "Celebrations with Carmela's Cucina," she offers recipes with an Italian twist. "For Italians, the Christmas Eve celebration meal serves up the traditional Seven Fish. The Christmas Eve menu in my book had to include at least some fish."

From seafood antipasto flecked with sea scallops, shrimp and cod to sardine spread, tuna cream in phyllo cups, linguine with clam sauce and fillet of cod Florentine to cauliflower salad with some anchovy fillets, the Christmas Eve menu is one of just a few menus with a strong Italian influence.

Although the book is divided into menus, many of the recipes can be pulled out and used outside of the menu. Baked Stuffed Brie is the appetizer for the Valentine's Day menu. Hobbins got the recipe from her friend who served it at their Wood Hill Book Club. I'll be serving it for holiday gatherings.

Brie is a soft cheese with a rich and fruity flavor. The paper-thin layer of white mold that covers the outside of the cheese is edible and has an earthy taste. Hobbins recommends keeping the mold on the cheese for this recipe. With the addition of chopped apples, dried cranberries, almonds, brown sugar and cinnamon, the baked round gets just the right amount of sweet and tart to balance the soft, creamy cheese. It's an appetizer that is easy to create with no fuss and little muss.

The recipe calls for one large round of Brie cheese. I used an 8-ounce round. It was just the right size for one batch of fruit and nut mixture to generously fill the middle of the round and provide an ample amount to spoon over the top.

If you choose to serve wine with Baked Stuffed Brie, Robert Hobbins suggests a big red wine such as a California Cabernet or a Brunello di Montalcino.

How easy is that?

"Celebrations with Carmela's Cucina" can be purchased from the author's website at carmiescucina.com. It is also available in some bookstores.

Baked Stuffed Brie

1 large round of Brie cheese

1/2 cup of chopped and peeled green apple

1/4 cup sliced almonds

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon melted butter

French baguette or crackers

Mix together chopped green apple, sliced almonds, dried cranberries, brown sugar and cinnamon. Melt the butter and gently fold it with the other ingredients. Cut cheese horizontally in half and place bottom round of cheese on a pie plate or other oven-safe dish. Place half of the mixture on the cut side of the cheese. Replace the top of cheese and cover with the remaining mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with a thinly sliced baguette or crackers. Garnish with more fruit.

Recipe from "Celebrations with Carmela's Cucina," by Carmela Tursi Hobbins. Nodin Press. 2011.

Carmela's comments

--When slicing the cheese make sure that it's very cold.

--The fruit and nut mixture for this recipe can be doubled; it will spill out from between the pieces of cheese and add to the beauty of the presentation.

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