Chef James Lewis of Bettola Restaurant in Birmingham contributed this recipe to my book, Birmingham's Best Bites. I've come to love his homemade ricotta and this crostini is a wonderful party bite any time of the year. The ricotta can be kept in the fridge and used for other recipes.... like Jalapeno Poppers, Gnudi (Gnocchi like dumplings), cheesecake, as a filling for manicotti, or in my luscious Lemon Ricotta Pound Cake!



House-Made Ricotta:

1 gallon whole milk

½ teaspoon citric acid

½ teaspoon sea salt


½ cup olive oil

1-2 cloves garlic

8-10 slices slightly stale Italian or French bread, thinly sliced


16-20 small cherry tomatoes

1 teaspoon olive oil

Pinch Sea salt, or to taste

Fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces

Black pepper (optional)

Aged balsamic vinegar (optional)


To prepare House-Made Ricotta, heat whole milk to 360°F, then remove pan and let cool. Add ½ teaspoon citric acid and ½ teaspoon sea salt and stir. Chill and strain with linen or double lined cheesecloth; drain to catch whey.

To make Crostini, heat, ½ cup of oil on low in a cast iron skillet or pan. Add one smashed garlic clove and heat on low 4-5 minutes. Remove oil and garlic from skillet.

Return a small amount of oil and heat skillet to medium.

Add several slices of bread into pan and toast until lightly browned on each side. Remove slices when they have reached desired level of crispness. Add a small amount of garlic oil back into skillet and continue toasting until lightly browned.

To prepare tomatoes, lightly rub ion olive oil and sea salt. Char them in hot cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat before toasting the bread for crostini or roast them under a broiler to blister the tomato while toasting the bread. Once tomatoes are charred or blistered, smash the tomatoes to break them up a bit. If they are sweeter, leave them whole.

To assemble, spread ricotta on bread. Top with charred tomatoes. Garnish with fresh basil, season with sea salt, olive oil and a pinch of black pepper and balsamic vinegar, if desired.

Tip: When making the House-Made Ricotta, it helps to put cheesecloth over a colander and let it slowly drain. After you have strained the ricotta, remove it from the linen. At this point you can mix in your choice of seasoning; such as fresh herbs, citrus zest, honey, bacon; adjust the seasoning to fit the dish you are serving the ricotta with.

For smoother cheese, pulse in food processor until you’ve reached your desired consistency.

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Perfect for St. Patrick's Day parties, this beer cheese fondue is made with Irish cheddar and Guinness, the stout Irish beer. Your friends will love this recipe. And once you have it made, you can leave it on low in a slow cooker or fondue pot and forget it. Best of all, it is self-serve; you just need to make sure you have enough because your guests will scarf this down. And don't worry if St. Patrick's Day is long past, this is a wonderful starter for any party, an appetizer for a dinner party, or a nice dinner for two in front of the fire.


Makes about 2 1/2 cups, enough for an appetizer portion for 8 guests

Serve with a brown hearty bread or French baguette cut into cubes


2 lbs cheddar cheese (Irish cheddar, like Kerrygold, is great. Find it at most Whole Foods stores.)

1 1/2 cups Irish beer, like Guinness stout

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon dry mustard(like Coleman's)

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Dash cayenne pepper

salt and pepper to taste


In a 2 quart fondue pan or heavy pot over medium heat, warm 1 cup of the beer until bubbles slowly rise to the surface, about 5 minutes. While you are waiting, mix the cheese, cornstarch, and mustard together in a bowl. Add the cheese mixture to the hot beer,  one handful at a time, stirring until all the cheese is melted before adding the next. Stir until the fondue is smooth and bubbly, adding the other 1/2 cup of beer a little at a time to thin the mixture slightly, stirring constantly. Add the salt, pepper, cayenne, and Worcestershire. Stir well and transfer to a fondue pot or lower heat and let the mixture slowly bubble. Dip chunks of hearty bread, veggies, or fruit into the mixture. Warn guests that the mixture will be hot and do check the temperature from time to time. 

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According to Derby lore and my good friend Traci Badenhausen, you cannot NOT have Benedictine on your menu for Derby parties in Kentucky. She's provided the original recipe from Louisville caterer and cookbook author Jennie Benedict, who made it famous years ago. It is so famous, it has its own Wikipedia page and a Pinterest board! Her first cookbook, Blue Ribbon Cooking, was published in 1902 and while it did not originally have the recipe for Benedictine, it now does, according to Wikipedia. Used for cucumber tea sandwiches or as a spread for other sandwiches, you can use it for a veggie dip, too.

While you can barely see it, there's Benedictine Spread in those little tea sandwiches. It's often used for dip as well.

While you can barely see it, there's Benedictine Spread in those little tea sandwiches. It's often used for dip as well.


1 cucumber
1 onion

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon salt
A few grains of cayenne pepper
2 drops green food coloring (optional, but a local favorite)


Peel and grate the cucumber, then wrap it in a clean dish towel and squeeze the juice into a dish. Discard the pulp. Peel and grate the onion, then wrap it in a clean dish towel and squeeze the juice into a dish. Discard the pulp. (Use a juicer if you prefer)

Combine three tablespoons of the cucumber juice, one tablespoon of the onion juice, cream cheese, salt, pepper and food coloring in a bowl. Mix with a fork until well blended. Serve as a dip or as a sandwich filling.

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