• deborahreinhardt

When life gives this Kansas-City-area cook lemons, she makes a remarkable dessert.

Lisa Waterman Gray enjoyes gelato while traveling.

When I put a question to my friends to name the best thing they’ve ever baked—it is National Baking Month after all—I didn’t expect to get more than 40 replies with delicious recipe ideas. Ranging from chocolate chip cookies to an award-winning hand pie made with bacon, bananas, whiskey, and the Southern favorite Goo Goo Clusters, plus something I’d never heard of (Japanese milk bread), my circle of home cooks inspire me all the time.

A few of them said various cheesecakes were their best baking recipe, but when Lisa Waterman Gray mentioned her limoncello cheesecake, I had to find out more.

Limoncello is a liqueur produced largely in southern Italy and served as a digestif. Each time I take a sip, my mind transports me to my first European trip. I was in my 20s (a LONG time ago) visiting Rome and Tuscany, which is where I was introduced to this drink. I wasn’t fond of the country’s most popular liqueur, Campari, but this lemon-flavored drink I’d often get after dinner was marvelous; it was if I was sipping Tuscany from a delicate, tiny glass.

Thus, a limoncello cheesecake made me feel tingly all over, so I messaged Lisa, whom I had met years ago during my time as a travel writer and editor. She graciously agreed to share more story details and the recipe.

Travel and food are best mates, and when Lisa isn’t writing about a destination for one of the many regional and national publications or websites to which she contributes, she’s leading the charge in the Kansas City area for the slow food movement and spotlighting local restaurants.

Several years ago, the chef at Kansas City’s renowned Jasper’s Italian restaurant, Jasper Mirabile Jr., gave Lisa (who lives in nearby Overland Park, Kansas) a bottle of his homemade limoncello. She wanted to do something to thank him, so she developed a cheesecake recipe using the ingredient and delivered it to the chef, who also had a sweet tooth.

“After he tasted the cheesecake, he said he had a special dinner in the works—where he creates a menu that may not reflect anything on the usual restaurant menu—and asked me if I would make five cheesecakes for the dinner. The title was right on the menu, and he invited my husband and I to come at no charge,” Lisa said.

Limoncello cheesecake is finished with a lemon curd sauce.

That event spurred more culinary creativity for her, and she created a few additional cheesecake flavors, including cranberry and white chocolate, lime pistachio, and raspberry chipotle, the latter using a sauce made by and father-and-son duo from Fredericksburg, Texas, whom Lisa met while visiting the city on assignment.

Lisa discovered cooking in her 20s while at college. Her sorority house had a full kitchen, which she had access to. “The fellow I was dating cooked up a pan of sautéed mushrooms, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she said.

After 40 years of baking and cooking, Lisa says her biggest challenge is fighting boredom.

“There are plenty of nights I say to my husband, ‘I don’t feel like cooking so can we forage tonight?’” she said.

Her strongest food memories as a child include her mother’s chocolate chip cookies and black bean soup. The family also made a lot of Italian food. After finishing graduate school, she moved to Kansas when she was 23 years old. She’s written a travel guide about the state and is well informed about the area’s food scene.

And in recent years, the greater Kansas City area has received a good deal of national press for its food and drink. During Restaurant Week, hundreds of establishments developed special menus and dining specials for area residents to enjoy.

But when she’s craving comfort food, Lisa said she’ll go for something sweet or Mexican food. “I really do love green chilies,” she said.

She also loves using ingredients that are in season, a hallmark of the slow food philosophy. Recently, to make a pumpkin pie, Lisa roasted and puréed a small pumpkin, but there wasn’t enough in the end to fill a pie. So she blended in leftover sweet potatoes.

In fact, Lisa gave this bit of advice to home cooks. “Don’t be scared to try something or to change a recipe to your own taste. As my own personal rule of thumb, the first time I make (a dish), I make it the way the recipe reads, but I’ll change it the next time.”

More recipes from other inspiring home cooks

  1. Dorothy Reinhardt's sour cream coffee cake

  2. Katie Reinhardt's mock filet mignon

  3. Deborah Patterson's shrimp orzo

  4. Diane Carson's sausage roll appetizer

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  • deborahreinhardt

Flavors of the Mediterranean come forward in this satisfying and versatile family supper that’s ready in about 30 minutes.

These pita sandwiches provide a taste of Greece and come together in about 30 minutes.

Do you ever stand in front of your pantry around 3 p.m. and say to yourself, “what am I going to make for dinner?” It’s coming close to a year of COVID-19 that’s changed every facet of our lives, including how we plan meals and grocery shop. Remember the early stages of the pandemic when many stores were running out of staples? More menus had to be modified.

Whether you limit trips to the grocery store (like me) or you're snowed in for a day, the big plus to this recipe is its versatility. With pantry items like olives and diced tomatoes, as well as ground beef (which is likely in your freezer), you can have dinner on the table in half an hour. Just add the pita and funky feta cheese.

This recipe starts with the ground beef and Greek seasoning. I have a large jar of Greek seasoning in my newly organized spice rack. “But I don’t have that in my pantry,” you say? I’ll bet you do; you just have to blend it together. It’s basically dried oregano, dill, basil, parsley, black pepper, onion and garlic powder (or garlic salt). If you have fresh mint to chop up or a lemon to zest, all the better.

Let’s talk canned tomatoes. If you have whole San Marzano tomatoes in the pantry, yay you! I think these have the best flavor. Plus, these contain less herbs, spices, and sugar than stewed or diced tomatoes. Tip: Keep whole tomatoes on hand and you can do whatever you want with them. And another tip: Look at the labels and avoid brands with calcium chloride, which is used to help the fruit hold its shape but can also affect taste.

Moving on to olives. Black or green (or both) can work in this recipe. I was out of black olives, so I chopped up the green variety. Should you be out of olives but have capers, these will provide the same briny tang and also are an important ingredient to many Greek dishes.

Let’s cut to cheese. Feta, of course, is usually available in any grocery store. It can only be made with sheep or goat milk. Its salty taste comes from the brine that’s used in making it, and I love it. But let’s say feta’s funk is a bit too much for you or your kids’ palette. What else can be used? For consistency and crumble, ricotta would work well, and its flavor is very mild. Otherwise, any goat cheese would be a suitable replacement; just tear or pinch it into the recipe.

A sandwich needs to be dressed, right? Go the authentic route with homemade tzatziki (of course, store-bought sauce will work, too). It’s basically yogurt, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, cucumber and mint.

And like most sandwiches, the bread can make or break the deal. Now, it’s just my opinion, but grocery stores near me do not stock decent pita bread (I can sometimes find better pita at Aldi’s but it’s not a guarantee). I can make a trip to a Middle Eastern market or make my own (it’s basically flour, salt, yeast, water, and olive oil). Oh no! You don’t have yeast on hand? This quick flatbread made with self-raising flour and plain yogurt couldn’t be easier. Stop it! You only have all-purpose flour in the pantry? Just add baking powder (1/2 teaspoon per cup of flour). A flatbread won’t have the pocket, but you can wrap it around the filling “taco style” without a problem.

So, this recipe is definitely versatile, but will your family like it? What’s not to love? Soft bread, seasoned ground beef cooked in a tomato sauce topped with cheese and a cool cucumber sauce—it’s all here. Serve these pocket sandwiches with a traditional Greek (horiatiki) salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, feta cheese and olives (or capers) dressed with olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper.

Now, where did I put that honey jar and phyllo dough? I suddenly have a taste for baklava.

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  • deborahreinhardt

You can bake this delicious Impossibly Easy Buttermilk Pie in less than an hour.

The crust in Impossibly Easy Pie is created as it bakes.

Pie makes everything better.

Just type “pie quotes” in a Google search and you’ll see a myriad of memes to that effect. I think pie’s ability to make us feel better could be rooted somewhere in science, probably something with sugar and seratonin. Maybe it’s as simple as a connection to a memory you have.

One of my favorite movies, Julie & Julia (2009), has a scene with Amy Adams‘ character (Julie Powell) at the stove. She’s had a lousy day at the office and she’s whipping together a chocolate cream pie. While smoothing the mixture in her pie pan, she explains to her husband that she finds comfort knowing chocolate, cream, eggs, and sugar will make something wonderful. Today, I find myself saying, “Girl, you know that’s right” as I wait for my vanilla and buttermilk custard pie to come out of the oven. Sometimes, the world just gets a little heavy and a slice of pie with a cup of coffee is in order, you know?

But for many, myself included—especially when meringue is involved—pie can scare off a home cook. There’s always the pressure of a perfectly flaky crust (or the scowl from your mother-in-law if you tell her it’s store bought) lurking just behind the flour in your pantry.

Friends, let’s look to the past for the answer to this problem. Pull out your mom’s Bisquick Impossible Pie recipe and let's get baking. It’s so easy, a child could make it, yet so completely comforting and versatile that it will satisfy just about anybody's pie craving. Stick with vanilla or add other flavors like chocolate or pumpkin. Go savory for dinner or brunch.

Curious about the history of this tasty classic, I reached out to the media office at General Mills. To my surprise, the recipe doesn’t reach as far back as I’d thought. The first Impossible Pie recipe was published in 1978, with the first Buttermilk Impossible Pie following in 1982. Bisquick users immediately loved the recipe—now referred to as Impossibly Easy Pie—and were hungry for more flavors like chocolate, pumpkin, and fruit. The appeal, for those not familiar, is these are “pies that magically bake their own crusts,” as stated in the cookbook, Betty Crocker Impossibly Easy Pies (2004).

I remember the Impossibly Easy Coconut Pie that Mom or Grandma would sometimes make, but then, Grandma always knew how to make wonderful pies. I have her pie crust recipe, but though I try, it doesn’t seem to turn out as well as she made it. I may give it another shot in honor of National Pie Day on Jan. 23. Thankfully, the American Pie Council offers these tips for making a good pie:

• Cold ingredients and utensils are essential when making the crust.

• Don’t overwork the dough.

• Bake pie in the lower third of your oven to avoid a soggy bottom crust.

Although pie making dates to ancient Romans, the first fruit pies surfaced in the 1500s in England. American Colonists used pie crusts as a vessel—called a “coffyn”—in which a savory filling was cooked. The dough wasn't meant to eat.

You know, that Impossibly Easy Pie looks better all the time. Why not make one for your family and one to take to a neighbor or a friend to brighten their day?

A friend gifted me with spiced Madagascar vanilla extract from the KC Vanilla Company so I used that in this recipe. They also have pure vanilla extract and sell vanilla beans. Check out this artisan vanilla made in Kansas City, Missouri, then cut yourself a piece of pie and put your feet up.

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