Company’s Coming

Gourmet touches for your at-home entertaining

Coffee and dessert ’round the fire … mix-and-mingle snacks — food is at the heart of our holiday gatherings.

Put a gourmet touch on these special times with family and friends, and gobble up the compliments, with tips gathered from local professionals who create amazing edibles year-round. Yum!


Toast Café of Cary
Since opening its doors in Cary in late September, Toast Café has been serving up gourmet breakfast, brunch and lunch in an upbeat atmosphere.

Photo caption: This page, the off-menu special Avocado Benny is just one of Toast Cafe’s creative spins on eggs benedict; the restaurant opened recently in Cary, and serves scratch-made breakfast, brunch and lunch. Right, Toast’s spinach, mushroom and Gruyere cheese quiche, with fresh fruit.

The Charlotte-based restaurant concept recently transitioned to a franchise model, and longtime Toast devotees Dean and Beth Kessel bought the rights to the Triangle area and opened their first location in Waverly Place.

The 4,000-square-foot eatery boasts a warm, French-country motif with expansive windows, reclaimed wood artwork and a sleek fireplace.

“We have a passion for simple, fresh-made food and quality customer service,” said Dean, a former sports marketer. “The distinct energy of the staff and the down-to-earth feel at Toast make guests feel at home.”

Specialty menu items abound. Consider the Cali Benny (poached eggs, avocado, tomato, English muffin and Hollandaise); the mushroom, spinach and Gruyere cheese quiche; and the strawberry and cream cheese-stuffed French toast — recipe at right!

“All the food is fresh and made from scratch, and we don’t even have a fryer in the kitchen,” Dean said.

While food is first and foremost at Toast, customers also appreciate the café’s distinct service model.

“Our ‘every-server-is-your-server’ approach means anyone in a Toast black shirt can help any customer,” he explained.

From Toast Café Chef Scott Swanson:
“For quiche, the trick is to par-bake your crust,” he said. This technique involves halting the baking process at about 80 percent of the normal cooking time and then rapidly cooling and freezing the crust. “You want to add eggs and cream at a 60/40 mixture and cook at a moderately high temperature. “Just be sure to cook it all the way.”

Strawberry & Cream Cheese-Stuffed French Toast
Makes 10-12 servings
1 cup half & half
10 eggs
10 egg yolks
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
Two slices of Texas toast per serving
Mix all ingredients well. Recipe can be used for gluten-free French toast; just dip with gluten-free bread in different batch.

To assemble:
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 cup sliced strawberries
Mix well. On one piece of Texas toast, spread ¼ cup of strawberry and cream cheese mixture. Sandwich with a second piece of toast to seal. Dip into batter; be careful not to oversaturate. Place onto a 350-degree preheated grill greased with 1 tablespoon butter. Allow to cook for 2-3 minutes and repeat on other side. Cut in half diagonally and plate. Add powdered sugar and additional strawberries. Drizzle with maple syrup as desired.

Making regular French toast? Swanson says, “Brown the battered bread in a sauté pan, but finish it in the oven.”

Toast Café
316 Colonades Way, Suite 201C
Waverly Place, Cary
(919) 655-1971


Sweet Cheeks Bakery
Jackie Green, founder and owner of Sweet Cheeks Bakery, learned the art of baking at a young age. Following the death of her mother when Green was just 7 years old, she spent innumerable hours in the kitchen under the guidance of her grandmother and aunts. Ultimately, Green learned traditional baking techniques and developed a passion for making every sweet treat from scratch with love.

Photo caption: Sweet Cheeks Bakery offers cakes, pies, pastries and more, made the old-fashioned way. Caramel is cooked in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop, says owner Jackie Green, and staff brown their own sugar.

Sweet Cheeks Bakery churns out delectable cakes, pies, cheesecakes, cookies, cupcakes and pastries.

“We pride ourselves on using natural ingredients like sugar, butter, eggs and flour with no additives or preservatives,” said Green. “Our methods take a lot of time and patience. For instance, for our old-fashioned caramel cake, we cook our caramel on the stovetop in a cast-iron skillet. We brown our own sugar. We believe in doing it just like Grandma used to make it.”

Mainstay cakes like carrot, red velvet, toasted coconut and ’nana pudding are baked daily, and the store works off demand.

“At any given time, we will have over 20 cakes to choose from, and newer ones rotate in over time,” said store manager Tamara Stafford. “We are a hospitality-driven destination desserty.”

Cakes are available in full or by the slice. Sweet Cheeks also makes wedding, birthday and other special-occasion cakes.

Sweet Cheeks Bakery
803 E. Williams St., Apex
(919) 303-9305

From Sweet Cheeks Bakery:
To spruce up a cake or pie, add dollops of whipping cream on top, then sprinkles of cinnamon for a flash of color.

When making piecrusts with homemade dough, use the excess pieces to make cutouts of pumpkins or holly leaves. Place the cutouts on top, coat them in egg wash and bake them in to create beautiful tops to the pies.


Blackfinn Ameripub
For at-home entertaining from Don Gale, vice president of culinary for Blackfinn Ameripub:
“Give your guests lots of choices without a lot of work, by putting them in control,” Gale said.

For example:
Combine cold cut vegetables, hot stuffed wontons, diced cheeses and diced meats with a variety of dipping sauces. Provide various combinations already skewered, but encourage your guests to build their own.

Provide a placard that recommends certain combinations, but leave a pen so guests can add their new favorites to the list.

Salads are a great light option, but can be hard to manage for a stand-up cocktail party.

Salad skewers are a great alternative, Gale says. Here are some options:
• Mini-iceberg wedge bites, with bleu cheese dressing and bacon
• Caprese skewers, each made of fresh mozzarella, grape tomato, fresh basil leaf and a balsamic glaze
• Greek salad, of romaine heart cubes, grape tomato, red onion, Kalamata olive and Greek dressing
• Asian shrimp, featuring cold shrimp, red bell pepper, pineapple, Thai sweet chili, and optional Sriracha dip.

Yum — the Chocolate Chip Cookie Avalanche features chunks of warm chocolate chip cookie and brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce, whipped cream, white chocolate chips and peanut butter chips. It’s served in an iron skillet.

Diners are flocking to the new Blackfinn Ameripub, a lively, roomy restaurant and bar that opened its second North Carolina location in Morrisville this past summer.

Serving American favorites with special twists, the Blackfinn menu sports a range of offerings including this starter that staffers say customers can’t resist: The crispy signature Finn Fries, tossed in a sweet-smoky-savory seasoning blend, and served with both house-made barbecue and buttermilk Parmesan sauces.

The long and varied menu ranges from the secret-recipe California Naked Bird turkey burger, served on a lettuce cup and topped with chive aioli, barbecue sauce, pepper jack, avocado and cilantro, to Cashew Chicken Salad and shrimp and grits.

At the bar are local and regional craft beers, wines, and fresh-squeezed cocktails like the grapefruit-based Carolina Sipper, made with Tito’s handmade vodka and St. Germain liqueur.
Don’t put down that fork — the Chocolate Chip Cookie Avalanche, served in an iron skillet, is a dreamy mix of warm chunks of chocolate chip cookie and brownie under vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and whipped cream, with a sprinkling of white chocolate and peanut butter chips.

Blackfinn Ameripub
3201 Village Market Place, Morrisville
Park West Village
(919) 468-3808


Flavors Restaurant
How would you like to enjoy a three-course, fine-dining experience for less than $10?

At Wake Technical Community College’s Flavors Restaurant, students in the Culinary Arts and Baking & Pastry Arts programs prepare gourmet-quality cuisine three days a week at lunchtime. Each patron receives an appetizer, entrée, dessert and beverage for just $8.

Located at the college’s main campus in Raleigh, the restaurant is so popular that it grants reservations to the public through a lottery system.

“We have 300 to 400 people apply for each lunch service, and we only accept about 35,” said Suya Campos Rosa, a hospitality management instructor at Wake Tech. Approximately 24 services occur each semester.

Depending on the day of the week, traditional or global cuisine is available. Standard featured menu items include grilled lamb chops, pan-seared sea scallops and duck breast.

Would-be customers are encouraged to complete an online profile and apply for the days they desire a table. The fortunate chosen ones are informed by email.

Flavors Restaurant at Wake Tech is so popular that reservations are granted via a lottery system! A few reasons why, clockwise from top: Seared sea scallop on a bed of vegetable julienne citrus Beurre Blanc and avocado relish; the Opera dessert, a French-style cookie layered with chocolate and coffee crème anglaise; first-course cantaloupe melon soup with lime granite; and grilled lamb chops with braised lamb shoulder entrée.

“A program on my computer randomly selects names each week,” said Campos Rosa, a native of Brazil who completed Wake Tech’s Hospitality Management program in 2011.

Flavors Restaurant
9101 Fayetteville Road, Raleigh


From Fredi Morf, culinary instructor at Wake Tech Community College:
• Don’t leave foods out at room temperature for extended periods of time while prepping and during the party.
• Look for pairings/combinations that provide complementary flavors and contrasting colors.
• Think about texture components in the food and have a variety of textures if possible.
• Avoid crowding plates/platters with food, as it will look much better if the food is not piled up to the rim of the dish.
Construct balance on a plate or platter and create flow by shingling, or leaning, food.


Angus Barn
For more than 50 years, family-operated Angus Barn has been beefing up the Triangle’s standings on the culinary map. Named among the country’s top 10 steakhouses, the rustic and cozy restaurant is famous for its corn-fed beef steaks, aged and cut in the Barn’s own facilities for tenderness and flavor.

But before and after the steaks come good things too: The most-ordered appetizer at Angus Barn, pork ribs are slow braised in saltwater brine for hours, then sauced and finished on the grill. Brushed with honey, their taste is sweet and tangy.

“Everybody loves pork ribs,” said Chef Walter Royal; he adds these recommendations for serving ribs at home:

“Pair ribs with your favorite side dish and have lots of finger napkins,” he said. “They’re best eaten with your hands — no forks or knives allowed!”

Sweet treats at Angus Barn include the nationally-recognized Chocolate Chess Pie, its most-often-ordered dessert. Easier to make than you could have imagined, this recipe, printed at left, will make you popular too.

 “The Angus Barn Chocolate Chess Pie is timeless,” Royal said. “It is best served room temperature, or slightly warm. To take your guests back in time, make it a la mode!”

Last but not least is the New York-style cheesecake, featuring a homemade graham cracker crust and real cream cheese. While it comes in cappuccino and chocolate flavors, the most-requested rendition is plain, garnished with assorted berries and coconut.

“Our cheesecake is great for all holiday gatherings,” Royal noted. “A little fresh fruit of your choice, cranberries, blueberries, blackberries or glazed apples, make the perfect dessert that can be prepared ahead.”

Angus Barn Chocolate Chess Pie
(Pictured left)
1 unbaked pie crust
1 stick butter
2 squares baker’s chocolate, semisweet
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
Dash of salt

Melt butter and chocolate, then mix with other ingredients which have been blended together. Pour into pie crust and bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees F. Top with fresh whipped cream.

Angus Barn Plain Cheesecake 

5 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon vanilla
1 ¾ cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
4 to 5 eggs
2 egg yolks
¼ cup whipping cream

¼ cup sugar
¼ cup melted butter
1 ½ cups crushed graham cracker crumbs

Mix crust ingredients together and press in bottom and half up the sides of a cheesecake or springform pan. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 8 minutes. Cool.

Beat cream cheese with sugar, salt and flour until creamy. Add vanilla; add eggs and yolks, one at a time, beating to blend. Gently blend in cream.

Pour into the baked crust. Wrap foil around bottom of pan. Place in a larger pan and add ¾-inch of water surrounding the cake pan.

Sweet-tangy ribs, the most-ordered appetizer at Angus Barn.

Place on low rack in preheated oven. Bake at 300 degrees F. for 1 hour and 40 minutes. Top with sour cream mixed with sugar, or top with fresh fruit.

Angus Barn
9401 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh
(919) 781-2444

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