Monday, October 26, 2009

A Dinner Party

Well, it has been quite a couple of weeks here at the Emergency Food Hotline. There were a few of the usual queries regarding Zucchini Pies and wondering what the difference between half & half and heavy cream is, and heartbreak over the demise of Gourmet Magazine...but the main focus of the week was last Sundays’ dinner. A dear friend was having a birthday, and I offered to cook. The number attending added up to about 30 guests, and we planned the menu well in advance to assure all taste buds would be satisfied. A few of the guests would be vegetarian, so we wanted to make the most efficient amount of dishes while attending to the needs of both veggies and omnis. And since it is October, we set our sights on many an autumnal recipe before deciding on the following menu.*

Manhattans and Old Fashioneds
Lemon Water and Sparkling Apple Juice
Mulled Cider with Rum (for dessert)

Cheese Plate with homemade Fig Spread & toasted baguettes
Bacon Wrapped Dates
Fried Okra

Roasted Morrocan Squash, White Summer Squash & Parsnips with Maple Rosemary Glaze
Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Fried Chestnuts & Sage
Pork Speidini with Pine Nut & Currant Sofritto on a bed of Greens
(a Pomegranate at each plate as a favor)

Gianduja Meringue Cradle Cake
Vanilla Ice Cream
Bourbon Caramel

First I will list the timeline, then the process.

A WEEK AHEAD: plan menu, décor, send out invitations.
THURSDAY: Make shopping list, take stock of place settings and what extras are needed.
FRIDAY: Go to farmer’s market and buy all fresh produce needed, and flowers.
SATURDAY: Pick up Pork and dry goods, any last minute necessities, and begin prep for everything you can. I cut up the squash/parsnip mixture, picked and cleaned the herbs from the garden, cut up and salted the pork.**
SUNDAY: Get the show on the road and multi-task the crap out of that kitchen.

The shopping part is always exciting to me. There are always unexpected moments that will change one or more of the recipes because a certain item is fresher or more beautiful at the market, and this allows you to make the recipe more your own. We had a few changes to our plans. We had an idea of what cheeses we wanted, but we really let the lovely French cowboy cheesemonger at the market tell us what he thought was best – and thank goodness he did, because we ended up with a bunch of incredible ones, including a soft cheese his customers have nicknamed “White Ecstasy.” And having tried it, I thoroughly agree with the name. We also changed our plans about one of the squashes we were going to use – White Summer instead of Butternut – and it was a much better complement to the Moroccan than the Butternut would have been. The White was so much more tender and smooth. We gathered the rest of our goods and an entire bucket of gorgeous protea, and were on our way.

The next morning, I got straight to work early. While I was toasting the hazelnuts, I started cutting up the massive amount of garlic needed for the Soffrito (for the pork), got the other Sofritto ingredients ready in the pot, poked the russet and sweet potatoes for the gnocchi and threw them in the oven.

I also pitted the dates, setting some aside for the vegetarians, and wrapping the rest with bacon and setting back in the refrigerator for later. Once the hazelnuts were done toasting I immediately rubbed them in a towel to get the skins off and let them cool. Next, I heated up the Sofritto currant/oil/pine nut/garlic mixture in the proper order and let it simmer a while as I gathered together the ingredients for the meringue part of the cake (this included the toasted hazelnuts, unsweetened chocolate pieces, and a bunch of sugar).

For those who aren’t familiar with a meringue cradle cake (which I wasn’t until someone bought me this book ages ago—thanks, Alyce!), the one I was doing goes like this: a mixture of hazelnut/sugar/chocolate is made, then you begin another different batter, when that’s done you set it aside and beat a meringue, then fold the hazelnut mixture into the meringue and you have two finished batters. Next you create a valley of meringue on the sides and bottom of an angel food pan, and fill the valley with the second batter. This creates a lovely crisp outer and slightly moister, softer inner. It is incredible. This recipe is like eating nutella on fresh French bread – but somehow better. More about that in a minute. Back to dinner first.

While working on the cake and occasionally stirring the Sofritto, I made the sauce for the squash, which mainly consisted of maple syrup, butter, rosemary, salt and pepper. You pour this over your squash and parsnip combo and let it cool in the refrigerator. At this point we decided I would make impromptu fried okra as an added veggie appetizer, so I washed and cut up the okra, made the dredging mixture and set it aside.

Somewhere around this time the cake was done baking – the smell of hazelnut and chocolate mixing nicely with the sweet simmering garlic and pine nut – and it was time to get the pork on the skewers and throw the bacon wrapped dates into the oven. Another helper came along to manage the pork, so I started getting the okra fried and set the squash out to come to room temp before baking.

Oh and also at this time the potatoes were all the way cooked and had been peeled by the birthday girl – who then kindly riced them all for me (not an easy task). So I set about combining all of the ingredients for the gnocchi: potato, flour, egg, salt, pepper, nutmeg, grated parmesan cheese. Kneading all of this into appropriately textured dough did not happen quickly as I was quintupling the recipe and there was a lot of material to work with. But it finally came together and looked gorgeous. I started forming the little dumplings but soon passed off that task to some excellent helpers.

Someone got the cheese plate ready, I plated the bacon wrapped dates and the okra, all of the alcohol was set out in the garden on the bar table, lemon water was made in pretty glass pitchers, places were set with orange patterned plates, and guests began to arrive and snack.

The grill was started and baguettes were toasted in relays in the broiler for the appetizer table, and soon it was time to get slivered almonds on top of the squash and into baking dishes in the oven.

A mountain of gnocchi was piling up, which was my cue to fry up the sage and chopped chestnuts for the topping. I started a huge pot of water to boil, and by the time I was done frying the toppings, the water was ready to meet the gnocchi. In small batches, I boiled them until they floated up (about 3 minutes), drained them lightly, transferred them to the pan I had fried the sage/chestnuts in (after adding a little butter), sautéed them for a minute, and placed them in a huge bowl on the side. The residual butter and oil held a bit of sage and chestnut flavor and gave the gnocchi a nice light coating better than any sauce I’ve ever had. This process kept me busy until the squash was ready to come out (having been turned once in the pan and taken out to cool), and most of the batches of pork were off the grill.

We then placed the pork on a bed of dandelion greens (pleasantly bitter in contrast to the salted pork!) and poured the dreamy sofritto over it, arranged some sage on platters and piled gnocchi on it (with more chestnuts and sage of course), and spooned the roasted squash into large bowls. The table was ready, candles were lit, everyone grabbed a last minute Manhattan or Old Fashioned, and we were ready to eat.

There was a lovely little birthday speech and then we settled in to ooh and ahh and otherwise enjoy ourselves. We passed around my camera to photograph across the table at each other and memorialize the time. After a nice amount of time sitting with a bunch of nice people, I went back into the kitchen to make a bourbon caramel, which ended up being more of a scotch and brandy caramel, since all of the bourbon had been used up! Once the caramel was ready, I iced the cake and adorned it with toasted hazelnuts and some cute striped candles, lit those puppies, and proceeded to sing a roaring happy birthday with the whole crowd. She did a great job blowing out the candles. Another friend then helped me serve the cake with ice cream and caramel, cooking for the night was done, and we were free to enjoy ourselves and each others company.***

NOW!!! While I was doing all of those fun cooking things, it should be said that several of my friends were all hard at work cleaning, building benches for us to sit on, finding butcher paper to line the table with, tying precious ribbons around the pomegranates, and assisting me when I suddenly needed help grating cheese, fetching baking powder, or ran out of clean bowls. It was truly a team effort and I loved every second of it. SUCCESS.

One last thing – has anyone ever heard of adding whiskey to scrambled eggs or omelets to add fluffiness? I was recently told this was a nice trick, but couldn’t find any documentation on it at least not in the world of the internet. It doesn’t seem too crazy though, since like water, it would evaporate as the eggs cooked and theoretically aerate the egg proteins. But I am curious if this is based in fact, so if anyone knows, clue me in! And as always, keep me posted on your questions and cooking quandaries.

Now to tie up my notes:

*A few recipes came from Gourmet Magazine, one from an Italian Cookbook, and the rest were adapted from ones I found online or already knew by heart. Oh, and the cake came from James McNair’s Cakes which I highly recommend.

** Ideally it would have been great to bake the cake the day before, and the squash could have been done as well (and briefly reheated)…but if you don’t mind a mad dash at the end then you can leave more for the day of (which is what I have a tendency to do).

*** I do feel the need to admit that I did not make the ice cream myself! If time and planning and equipment had allowed, I would have loved to…but a person must be realistic once in a while.

Alright, just one more thing - due to the length this post has already reached and the time it will take to transcribe them, I haven’t listed the recipes I’m describing. But I can, if people want them, just let me know. They are delicious and I would recommend each and every one. I will also be posting the link to my flickr set as soon as all the pictures from the party are uploaded. (they are now up, here!) Phew.

Okay that’s it!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Quick Crumb Coat

A week or so ago, I visited my friend Rhonda in Las Vegas for her birthday. Both her mom and her grandmother were going to bake cakes. Her grandmother always bakes her standard Lemon Cake, which involves pudding and jello and all sorts of yummy things. Her mom, Ruth, wasn't sure what cake to bake, so Rhonda consulted one of my favorite cake recipe books (which of course I always carry when traveling) - "James McNair's Cakes." Rhonda settled on one of my faves - the Red Velvet! It's an old standby for me, this recipe. I love it to bits.

So Ruth baked the cake, and had me ice it. I did a crumb coat to be sure the red wouldn't show through or get all crumbled into the top coat of the icing. I put a dab of icing on the cake plate and laid the first layer down - this helps to hold it in place. Then I iced the top of the first layer, carefully turned the second layer out on top of the first, and proceeded to coat the whole cake with a thin layer of icing. Then I set it in the refrigerator for about a half hour, making sure it was set and firm enough that it wouldn't blend into the top coat.

In the meantime, I refrigerated the remaining icing so that the consistency would stay the same and not get runny. When the crumb coat was firm, I got out the remaining icing and folded it over several times with the spatula to bring the temp up a bit and make it evenly spreadable. I coated the sides and the top with an even amount of icing, and while it was still pretty soft, I made a pattern of peaks on the sides and top by dipping the spatula into the top coat and pulling up slightly, in a random pattern. Then I set the finished cake into the refrigerator again to set the top coat. When it was ready for serving and singing, Ruth put lovely rose petals all over the cake, we got the candles lit, and sang Rhonda's birthday praises.

Both cakes were delectable!

* Note! When icing the cake, it's wise to put strips of wax paper slightly underneath the bottom layer, to protect the platter from an icing mess. Saves you from cleaning the platter before serving. (you can see this demonstrated in the top picture)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sweet & Salt, and Lou on Vine

Wouldn't this be good? Chocolate coated bacon wrapped with a candied orange peel. I know it's very popular (and has been for a while) to have the savory-sweet combos on the table, but I can't hide that I am still totally in love with it. It's always been my favorite. Now I just need an excuse to make new treats, and the time to get them done.

One thing I had recently that was pretty incredible and bacon-centric was at a little place on Vine called Lou, tucked away in a little strip mall, just south of Hollywood.

The curtains over the windows take transport you from normal strip mall aesthetic to cozy floral romance, and the hand drawn US map with markers for where the cheeses come from is excellent. Anyway, I had heard about a thing they have called Pig Candy and I was ready to try it out. I was pretty skeptical, but I was totally won over. It was like a danged piece of taffy! Salty, chewy, with a nice smoky aftertaste. I loved it.

I highly recommend trying it out - or simply trying out a few of the tasting glasses of wine since they are so reasonably priced and quite generously poured. I hope to head back soon.