It must be said that the New Year's Eve dinner parties I put on at work are my favorites.
Why? The numbers are manageable, the food is--or can be--elegant, and I have complete creative control. No time-honored family traditions to contend with (yes, I'm thinking of that flaming figgy pudding)--just culinary playtime for Melissa.
And you all know how I feel about this cookbook--I would make anything from it for the first time for any event. Last New Year's I made Individual Beef Wellingtons. Mmmmmm.
We thought we might have a group of 14-16 for this dinner, and I figured this would be a fun time to try out crown roast. Here was the menu I came up with:
Chilled Lobster Cocktail with Tarragon Vermouth Sauce
Crown Roast with Baked Apple Stuffing and Glazed Apples
Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Beets with Lime Butter
Salad with Candied Walnuts
a Dacquoise of my own invention
In the event that you, too, would like to put on a fancy dinner party like this, I'll tell you just for your own planning purposes that I cooked for two days straight--the first day was an 8 hour day, the second a ten--although that second day did include the actual dinner. And should you be in a celebratory mood, I recommend Prosecco to go with the meal--an Italian sparkling wine. We had three bottles on ice for this evening.
I certainly wasn't the first person to come up with the idea of a lobster cocktail (though I've never seen one on a menu or had one myself) but it's possible that most of my diners had never had one with what is essentially chilled Bearnaise sauce.
Here's a photo of somebody else's so you can get the idea. Mine were similar except the small cordial stemware were filled with Bearnaise and had two long, elegant chives sticking out (like lobster antennae!)
Crown roast. I've never had one, and I've never even seen one cooked. But no time like the present for new experiences, so I called Henry's and asked for a Frenched, tied crown roast for 16. And throw in some of those little paper hat thingeys. By the way, Frenched means the bones are cleaned, not that the butcher has been French kissing it back in the meat room.
Before I picked it up, I had a long conversation with Nick at the Cork N Cask about crown roast while I was picking up the Prosecco. Nick used to be a butcher, and he prides himself on his tying technique for crown roasts (lamb or pork--apparently you get lamb for a smaller crowd, or I guess if you like lamb instead of pork). So Nick was full of opinions about lazy-ass butchers who don't tie them right and had an even lower opinion of somebody on tv who criss-crossed the string through the bones, making it impossible to stuff, which is sort of the point of these meat dishes.
Anyway, I digress. My point, the one I'm trying to get to (if Nick would stop talking) is that when I picked up my crown roast it looked like this:
instead of this:
Now, perhaps only the most obsessive person would be bothered by something tied in an oval shape rather than a round shape, but COME ON PEOPLE, crowns are ROUND not oval, and if you're going to have an oval-y shaped roast, then why not call it a football roast? Or a, a, a....(trying to think of something oval-y shaped and not succeeding) anyway you get my point. I was bothered by it way too much for my own mental health and state of mind and no amount of prodding could get it round instead of oval.
You might be asking, why not cut it here and there? You have a degree in sculpture, for christ's sake!
OK, true, but since I've never cooked a crown roast I didn't want to mess with something I knew nothing about. Fine time to be thinking about these things, I know, but come on, cut me some slack. The stuffing is a pretty straightforward apple/onion/celery stuffing, and the stuffing did help push the sides of the roast out.
The instructions say to count on 2 1/2 to 3 1/4 hrs with 20 minutes resting time--with a probe measuring 150 degrees inserted 2 inches into the meat. And here is where I ran into my first problem with the crown roast.
Problem #1--it cooked way too fast. I was counting on a serving time of 7pm, so I put it in just before 4pm. Well, by 5:15 it was clear that I was going to hit 150 within twenty minutes or so. Was I near the bone? No. Was the probe too far out? No. What to do? What I did was first turn the oven way down, then I just turned it off--and a little after 6 I turned it back on to 350.
Problem #2--remember that issue I had with the oval that wasn't round? Turns out I had good reason to be worried.
The oval shape (and the resulting variation of thickness here and there) meant that some of the pork was cooked perfectly, and some of it was pretty rare. Now, this fun fact was discovered while all the guests were seated and some of the guests were carving the roast. What to do? I turned on the broiler, lay the rare-ish chops on a cookie sheet, and broiled them six inches from the heat for a minute or two. Perfect. If you do this, don't forget to take the little paper hats off.
Next time, that roast will be round if I have to re-tie it myself.
The Glazed Apples that went with the roast were fine, but they didn't ever really get glazed per se. I think if the recipe had the sugar syrup boiled down a bit it might have worked but as it was it was too watery and didn't have much of an impact. They were popular, however. Like I said, I had quite a few elders at the table, and soft food = good.
I bet you're thinking that the Crown Roast was my biggest headache of the night, right? Well, you're wrong.
The prize for that goes to the Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes, and you can blame it all on this little gadget right here:
That, my friends, is a potato ricer. And the idea is that you cook the sweet potatoes in the oven until soft, then de-skin, rice, and mix with cream/maple syrup/butter etc. It seems simple in concept but this is how it really went.
1. Peel hot skin off hot potato
2. Wave fingers around in air to cool off
3. Slice potato in three parts
4. Put one or two parts in ricer
6. Get hot sweet potato water spattered on forearms
7. Regard with irritation the sweet potato that has extruded from the holes but not fallen off because of the fibers
8. Scrape sweet potato off with sharp knife
9. Regard with irritation the fibrous mass left behind in bowl of ricer and pull out with fingers.
10. Repeat about ten times
11. With each time getting stickier
And let's not even talk about the fact that the handles of the ricer look a lot like that friend of all women everywhere, the speculum. Ack!!
It is my solemn conclusion that this dish would be better served by using a FOOD PROCESSOR instead.
I've made Beets with Lime Butter before and talked about it here. They proved to be one of the most popular items on the buffet--it's the first time I've made them at work, and this family of beet admirers had never had beets like this before. High marks.
Likewise with the Creamed Spinach, which although it's not the most interesting dish in the world is becoming a standby for me in my two jobs.
Out of everything on the buffet, the dish that I put the most time, thought and care into was the Dacquoise.
Now, I've made the dacquoise before. And I realized while I was making it that the structure (layers of meringue and buttercream) had the possibility of infinite flavor variations. Meringue can contain ground nuts of any type, or coconut, or it can be chocolate. Buttercream can be coffee, chocolate, white, or citrus flavored. Daughter K. speculated on the possibility of whipped cream, which can also hold all kinds of flavors.
So this is what I came up with--almond meringue, chocolate buttercream, stabilized raspberry whipped cream, and chocolate ganache for the top.
I basically followed the directions for the dacquoise to get the meringue, but with both the chocolate buttercream and the whipped cream I was flying by the seat of my pants. I used the recipe for coffee buttercream but substituted cocoa powder for the espresso powder, and then I folded in melted bittersweet chocolate, hoping that the fat in the chocolate wouldn't somehow screw up the fat ratio as I was throwing in the softened butter.
One interesting thing that didn't happen (this is probably only interesting to people who make a lot of buttercream) is that you know how at a certain point in buttercreams the frosting breaks down and looks curdled...but then it comes back together?
This never did that. It just stayed smooth, firm and creamy the whole time. I don't know if it was because of the body of the chocolate or what but anyway I was breathing a sigh of relief that it turned out fine. And yummy.
I used the recipe for stabilized whipped cream from the Hungarian Chocolate Mousse Bars, which has you use unflavored gelatin to keep it...flated? Is that the opposite of deflated? Anyway, to keep it perky. I folded in raspberry puree and crossed my fingers.
The only problem I had with either of these was the day I put them together I let them come to room temp and re-whipped the buttercream to loosen it up. When I did the same to the whipped cream, it did deflate, a little bit.
I didn't need the chocolate ganache--really, it was gilding the lily but visually the dacquoise seemed unfinished and the ganache was really spectacular on top--glossy and dark.
Here's my sea of plates ready for the dessert/coffee service:
The best thing about dacquoise is that nobody in the US knows what the heck they are. I'm sure in other countries (France, for sure) they're a commonplace dessert item but here I can be virtually certain that my diners have never heard of them, let alone tasted one. So they seem exotic--they ARE exotic--and that adds to the fun.
Happy New Year, folks! I hope 2009 is a great one for us all. Oh, and if you want to try a crown roast but don't have the bucks and/or the fortitude to try the above recipe, here's a variation--sure to be the same temp all around no matter what you do to it:
"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."
--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008