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My sister called recently looking for ideas on dessert to take to a dinner party the next day. For the life of me I couldn’t think of more than one on the spot, but a few more have come to me since then, so I thought I’d catalog them for myself, and anyone else who’s interested.

The best things about all these desserts is that they have a fancy, WOW factor yet are extremely easy to prepare. So they’re perfect for dinner parties when you don’t want to add a lot more cooking to your agenda, or for a last minute dish.

1. Choco Hoto Pots – Basically your classic molten chocolate cake, in a ramekin. You can buy very cheap ramekins at World Market so don’t let that stop you. The ingredients are probably already in your pantry (if you keep chocolate chips on hand, which you should).  You can use regular sugar and skip the white chocolate chips. Mix these up by hand (no getting lots of dishes dirty) and then pour into the ramekins and stick in the fridge til you’re ready to bake them. I like to put them in the oven just when everyone has finished dinner, that way there is plenty of time to digest and be ready to eat again by the time they’ve cooked and cooled a bit. Be sure to err on the side of under-baking than over-baking…they need to be gooey in the middle! Spectacular with fresh whipped cream on the top or side if you have extra time.

2. Chocolate Roll – this is a recipe my Mom makes and we’ve all loved it since we were kids. You buy these Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers in a yellow box, often stocked near the ice cream toppings for some reason, in my grocery store. Whip up some fresh whipped cream and then just layer them on top of each other with the cream between, then ‘frost’ the whole roll with whipped cream after laying it on the platter. Super easy. After it chills in the fridge for several hours, the wafer cookies soften and taste like little cake layers. Be sure to cut on a diagonal to get a pretty looking slice.

3. Gingerbread – This is best for fall and winter, and it’s full of all the best spices of those seasons. The cake is a very basic batter to whip up and it’s quite moist so it doesn’t need a frosting. I love it with fresh whipped cream on top. There is also a nice lemon sauce that you can pour over. Easy to make in advance. Very classic recipe.

4. Pumpkin Streusel Squares – This recipe feels like cheating when I make it (using a couple other prepared products makes me feel like it’s not really baking) but it tastes delicious, makes the house smell great, and people go crazy for it. To fancy it up for company, I’d serve it with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.

5. Panna Cotta with Balsamic Strawberries – This is a wonderful, cool, flavorful summer dessert. Panna cotta sounds fancy but you’re essentially just mixing a few dairy products together with flavorings and gelatin. Balsamic strawberries are genius – macerated strawberries all grown up with the balsamic vinegar and pepper which somehow, I swear to you, totally work. You can make the panna cotta the day in advance and strawberries a couple hours ahead.

Hopefully these are helpful ideas the next time any of us are in a pinch for something easy and special at the last minute!

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Since returning to work full time, I am taking a serious look at how we’re going to eat during the week, or more practically, how in the world I am going to find time to cook between my full time job and the baby.  I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that soups are going to be the way to go – or maybe soups in the winter and big hearty salads in the summer?

Cold and rainy/snowy weather is the perfect time for soup.  Something about it is as right as a roaring fire for this season.  I also love the process of making soup. I love the chopping and the smell of onions sauteeing in olive oil, which is how soups almost always start. I love the sizzle as more ingredients hit the pan.  I love peeking into the pot and seeing it bubble away.  I like that it’s a whole meal, possibly with bread or salad on the side, but not necessarily.  I like being able to put leftovers into the freezer for another heart- and belly-warming meal on another cold and rainy day down the road.

Since I’ve been making soup a lot recently I’ve been thinking about all my favorites.  Here is my list of top five vegetable soups – all super healthy and super delicious.  I highly recommend an immersion blender for making some of these soups – it comes in handy for lots of other things as well.  It makes the whole process quite a lot easier when you don’t have to transfer hot soup to a blender or food processor in batches, and this one cleans up easily and is not bulky to store.

1. Provencal Vegetable Soup

2. Broccoli Soup

3. Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Curry Condiments

4. Pappa Al Pomodoro

5. Spiced Pea and Coconut Soup

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