Rastelli Market Crowns South Jersey’s Best Eggnog Cooks

Rastelli Market recently hosted their 5th annual Nog Off competition. Judges selected three winning eggnog recipes. A holiday sampling event followed the contest.

Rastelli Market staff distribute samples of Rastelli’s own family eggnog to attendees at their 5th Annual Nog Off Competition. Photo Credit: Amaris Pollock

Does good eggnog need to contain eggs?

No – at least not according to the judges of Rastelli Market’s fifth annual Nog Off competition, which was held at their Marlton location on Saturday, December 8, 2018.

For the second year in a row, Catherine Nichole Gray was the reigning champion of the competition. The event’s three judges – Rastelli Executive Chef James Liuzza, Philly cheesesteak mogul Tony Luke Jr., and Philly food truck ambassador John Cohl – awarded Gray’s vegan recipe first place.

Nog Off judges sample participants’ eggnog. (From left: James Liuzza; Tony Luke Jr.; and John Cohl.) Photo Credit: Amaris Pollock

For Gray, baking is a “side trade.” She originally created the winning eggnog recipe for her vegan customers. Gray’s award-winning, coconut-based nog contains Puerto Rican rum and is similar to Christmas coquito, a traditional Puerto Rican, eggnog-esque beverage.

South Jersey baker Catherine Nichole Gray receives her first-place prize, a $300 Rastelli gift card.  Photo Credit: Amaris Pollock

Gray’s was not the only entry with a multi-cultural influence. One participant included the dry ingredients from savory mole sauce, a Mexican cuisine staple containing chocolate and chili peppers. The participant – one half of an Instagram duo self-described as “home cooking enthusiasts” – topped off his recipe with tequila and Mexican hot chocolate.

Nog Off attendees learn about each participant’s unique eggnog recipe.

In total, sixteen South Jersey home chefs participated in the competition, all putting their own unique twists on the classic holiday beverage.

For several participants, eggnog making carries across multiple generations. There was even a young child who entered the competition – with the help of his father. Their eggnog, of course, was alcohol-free. 

Nog Off participants describe their eggnog recipes to attendees. Photo Credit: Amaris Pollock

This year marked an entrant named Angela’s first time making eggnog without the help of her mother. Her eggnog tradition began 70 years ago when her grandmother began making the drink. Every year, her family updates the eggnog with a new kind of alcohol. Their 2018 recipe uses bourbon infused with honey liquor.

Participant Barry Bachman’s family eggnog tradition began 45 years ago with his father. His son now helps with the eggnog recipe, which – like Angela’s – includes bourbon.


Photo by John Fornander on Unsplash

Nog Off entrants used a variety of liquors to create their eggnogs. A participant named Colleen, whose family is Irish, combines Irish Whiskey with brandy and spiced rum. After twelve years of practice, she is confident about her blend. “I turn people who are not eggnog drinkers into eggnog lovers,” Colleen says during the event.


“I turn people who are not eggnog drinkers into eggnog lovers.” 

Second-place Nog Off winner Lori Kusevk makes her eggnog using a rich blend of peanut butter, dutch chocolate, and vodka, which the judges compared to the taste of a Butterfinger. Al Irons, who was awarded third place, blends coffee and cream for a white chocolate mocha eggnog.


Photo by Tereza Rubá on Unsplash

More than one participant cited the Nog Off as helping them to cope with grief or to overcome obstacles in their lives. Food is uniquely tied to memory and emotion, and it’s difficult to remember food without also remembering the loved ones with whom we’ve shared it.

This past August, Pam Ingram Walsh lost her brother to a four-year battle with colon cancer. In previous years, her brother had placed first, second, and third in the contest. “I’m here today to carry on his tradition,” she says.

Visitors take comfort in Rastelli’s homemade foods and family traditions. “This is the place to come if they’re going through some things,” remarks the Nog Off’s emcee.

Participant Emily Dawson’s grandmother began making eggnog because she believed it could help cure illness. She made it whenever her children got sick. When Dawson fell ill herself, she followed her grandmother’s wisdom and started making eggnog.

Many of the Nog Off’s entrants have participated in the event during previous years. After last year’s competition, Jeff Bravo resolved to “focus” harder on his eggnog game. To hone his recipe, Bravo experimented through a process of trial and error – or, in his words, “tasting and tweaking.” All that tasting necessitated a lot of alcohol consumption.

“I definitely stayed in that evening,” Bravo says of his eggnog experiment.

For Bravo and another participant named Linda Falcone, high-quality ingredients are a must for eggnog making. Bravo credits the quality of his eggnog to vanilla bean paste, a gamechanger for anyone who likes to bake – according to Bravo. Falcone believes the key to great eggnog is quality nutmeg, which she purchases directly from Barbados.

Rastelli Market judges and participants pose for a photo following the competition. Pictured standing: (from left: third-place winner Lori Kusevk; first-place winner Catherine Nichole Gray; and second-place winner Al Irons.) Pictured seated: (from left: James Liuzza; Tony Luke Jr.; and John Cohl.) Photo Credit: Amaris Pollock

Each participant took home a $25 Rastelli’s gift card. Gray claimed a $300 grand prize gift card. Kusevk took home a $200 gift card, and Irons was awarded a $100 gift card. When Gray received her first-place prize last year, she spent it “just sampling everything” on offer at Rastelli’s.

Event attendees also sampled many of Rastelli’s dishes on Saturday. During the Nog Off, Rastelli Director of Culinary Joe Muldoon and other Rastelli staff handed out samples of Rastelli’s own family eggnog, which contains whiskey and rum.

Rastelli chicken picatta
Rastelli Market dishes available for catering

Following the competition, Rastelli Market hosted their annual holiday sampling event, where children enjoyed a visit from Santa Clause. Shoppers sampled Rastelli favorites like gourmet meats and cheeses, crab cakes, rib eye roast, shrimp pasta, and baked ziti. Rastelli staff distributed informational brochures detailing Rastelli’s catering services – including their Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner.

Rastelli’s rib eye roast with au jus and side salad

During the celebration, shoppers also had the opportunity to enter a free raffle. The lucky winner will take home a 22-pound Panettone cake.

As for my personal favorite attraction of the day, I enjoyed Irons’ second-place white chocolate mocha eggnog the most of any I sampled. Its coffee flavor put me in the mood for Rastelli’s house-roasted espresso drinks.

Rastelli’s house-roasted coffee beans

Rastelli’s makes the best lattes in South Jersey – at least of the ones I’ve sampled. As the barista crafted my latte, the alluring aroma of the store’s coffee beans roasting nearby enticed my husband to order a cup of coffee too.

We vowed to visit Rastelli’s more often. Their coffee beans alone are worth the trip. While I’m there, I might just pick up ingredients to whip up some eggnog of our own. 

A special ‘thank you’ to Amaris Pollock for sharing her photography talent and to John Cohl and Tony Luke for giving me the chance to talk about Fork in the Pines during the competition. 

Nog Off judge and Philly food truck ambassador John Cohl. Photo Credit: Amaris Pollock

Cheese Education at Whole Foods Marlton, Dessert at Murphy’s Market Medford, & Homemade Empanadas

Whole Foods Marlton educated customers on all-things-cheese this Saturday.

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Image by: (WT-fr) Regiondesaintjeansurrichelieu at French Wikivoyage [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cheese Terroir

Often applied to wine, the French word terroir refers to the environmental factors – climate, soil quality, sunlight, and local wildlife – that can affect a food’s appearance or taste.

Ed Reynolds knows all about terroir. As a part-time Whole Foods employee, he has logged more than 4,500 hours of cheese experience. On Saturday, November 10 from 1 pm – 3 pm, he led a talk at Whole Foods’ Marlton, New Jersey location for their free Flavors of the Moment cheese tasting, an educational event that taught me a lot I didn’t know about cheese. Reynolds’ passion for all things cheese shone as he introduced the word terroir – as it relates to cheese – at the start of the tasting.

“What grows together, goes together,” he explained to our small group of eager cheese samplers. In general, when foods – like honey and cheese – are grown or produced in the same geographical area, they tend to complement one another. Before the presentation, Reynolds and the rest of the Whole Foods’ cheese team used the concept of terroir to pair several varieties of cheese with the accompaniments that complemented each.

The History of Cheddar

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The tasting began with a sample of Keen’s Cheddar, a mild, unpasteurized cheese. Keen’s Cheddar is a “farmstead” product, a label given to cheese produced on the same farm where the cows are raised to make it. Producing farmstead cheese is a terroir practice that lends cheese unique properties depending on where it is made.

Reynolds and his team served the cheddar with a side of Cremenelli Tartufo Salami, an uncured Italian meat lightly dotted with black truffle. Beta-carotene lends Keen’s Cheddar its deep yellow color as a result of the cows’ grass-fed diet. While cheeses made from goat’s or sheep’s milk are often grass-fed, their cheeses do not produce as vibrant a color because goats and sheep do not secrete beta-carotene in the same way cows do.

Cheddar cheese originated in the village of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England, where cheesemakers used caves to mature it. Since 1899, Keen’s has produced cheddar and the farm remains in the same family today. They are one of only three farms still producing raw-milk cheddar in Somerset. The taste was decidedly mild and distinct from the mass-produced varieties of cheap shredded cheddar I often toss into my family’s scrambled eggs and tacos.

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Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England Image, the birthplace of cheddar Image by: Diliff [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Sweet Italian Cheese

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Moliterno al Tartufo cheese with Mitica Acacia honey and a cracker

Next, we sampled a pecorino-style Italian sheep’s milk cheese called Moliterno al Tartufo, a sweet, salty cheese that contains black truffle. For Reynolds, Moliterno al Tartufo recalls memories of growing up in Philadelphia eating salted pretzels with sweet ice cream.

We sampled the cheese with a drizzle of a raw Italian honey called Mitica Acacia, which Reynolds called “low-glycemic,” ideal for people who are watching their sugar intake. (I was unable to find an online source that verifies this claim.) Boasting a long shelf-life, this light-bodied honey rarely crystallizes. Mitica Acacia comes from an acacia tree, which is native to Bulgaria but also grows in Italy.

Steps to Cheese Tasting

As we sampled, Reynolds talked about the process of professional cheese tasting. Professional cheese tasters practice what is called ‘retronasal breathing,’ a practice that uses exhalation during the swallowing phase to aid the perception of aromas in the back of the throat.

Because professional tasters, such as competitive cheese judges, often sample hundreds of cheeses in a single weekend, they don’t always eat all of the cheese they judge. Instead, they use other senses – like smell – to judge the quality of the cheese.

Reynolds also discussed the importance of food temperature in relationship to taste. Few foods, he said, are meant to be eaten cold. The temperature of a cheese, for instance, can alter the cheese’s entire taste profile. Reynolds argues that most cheeses should be consumed at room temperature, a belief shared by many other experts – like the team at Serious Eats.

Sweet Partners: Jam and Cheddar

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La Clare Farms’ Chandoka cheese with Bonnie’s Jams’ Bourbon Berry Jam

The Whole Foods team brought out Chandoka cheese from La Clare Farms Family Creamery in Wisconsin next. Like Keen’s, La Clare is a farmstead cheese producer, and they have been in business since 1978. Aged inside a cave, this cheddar cheese is mixed-milk, meaning it contains both cow’s and goat’s milk. The team paired it with a sweet jam called Bonnie’s Jams’ Bourbon Berry Jam, popular with Whole Foods customers.

Stilton: “Gateway to Bleu”

Next up was an English Stilton, a cheese that can only be produced in the British counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, or Leicestershire. Candied pecans accompanied the Stilton. Reynolds called Stilton the “gateway to bleu cheese” because Whole Foods’ employees often suggest this mild, beginner cheese to customers who are new to the world of bleu. 

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Stilton cheese

Types of Rennet

Most cheeses are made using rennet, which is traditionally obtained as a byproduct of veal. Today, the vast majority of today’s cheese producers are moving away from animal-based rennet and instead using a genetically-engineered, vegetarian rennet grown in a lab. In fact, about up to 90% of the world’s cheeses are now made with lab-grown rennet, which Reynolds says is “100% identical” in chemical composition to its animal-based counterpart.

Dessert at Murphy’s Market

Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the rest of Whole Foods’ informative presentation. But later that day, I took my son to Murphy’s Markets in Medford for their free Taste of the Seasons sampling event. (I like free samples, okay?)

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Lars Ginger Snaps with Murphy’s Pumpkin Dip

We sampled Lars Swedish Ginger Snaps with Murphy’s pumpkin dip, which Murphy’s often has available for sampling throughout the season. The dip, which is made at Murphy’s, is a creamy, delicious blend of pumpkin puree, sugar, and cream cheese. I’m not usually a big pumpkin-spice gal – despite my love for all-things-fall – but this one had me reaching for more.

Murphy’s also had out a basket of their brownies to try (pictured above). This chewy, enticing brownie has become locally famous, and if the crumbs on the floor were any evidence of their popularity, I’d say a lot of people enjoyed them on Saturday.

My son’s favorite Murphy’s sample was the caramel cranberries – fresh cranberries dipped in gooey caramel, which would make for a delectable, light Thanksgiving appetizer or dessert. We also tried several of Murphy’s seafood spreads and dips with crackers, including their buffalo chicken dip.

My experience at Whole Foods and Murphy’s gave me a lot of ideas to think about for Thanksgiving dinner – cheese grazing boards, desserts made with locally-grown cranberries, imported Italian meats. I might think twice next time I reach for the cheap shredded cheddar at Wal-Mart.

But I think even processed cheese has its rightful place, and no one was complaining this weekend when I used Target cheese on my homemade empanadas. If you ever make empanadas, be sure to use this dough recipe from Laylita’s Recipes. I used frozen butter, and the result was a flakey, buttery crust. I stuffed mine with shredded chicken, canned corn, canned tomatoes, and Mexican spices (chipotle, smoked paprika, salt, and chili powder).

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My homemade cheap-cheese empanadas