the day before

December 24th, 2009

Yesterday I noted an item on my chore list that read, “List of lists,” which translates into “Make a list of needed lists”.  And from there came sub-lists within lists along with second and third generation lists and that’s when it struck me.  The execution of a dinner party is just like software development!

You start with a Project Charter (the menu) followed by Technical Specs (necessary equipment and table settings) and a Design Spec (decorations).  Then come Prioritized Requirements (grocery lists), Quality Assurance Scripts (taste testing), Data Collection (mise en place) and then the roll-out.

The difference between the two is that dinner parties don’t get an alpha and beta release – they get just one shot to nail it correctly, and that’s when you’re grateful for all the copious lists of lists that ensure you haven’t forgotten a single thing.  Season’s greetings to all and to all a great dinner.

Christmas Dinner 2009

yuletide bites

December 21st, 2009

No matter where we lived, Mother was renowned amongst local friends and neighbors and the visiting bank execs Dad would bring home as the queen of dinner parties, Hunt Breakfasts, cocktail get-togethers and bread making and each Christmas there was a flurry of baking and delivering of her prized Honey White Bread.

Amongst her greatest fans was my older brother Philip, who couldn’t get enough of that bread, and one winter when he was nine, had a hard time grasping the reality that none of the seven beautiful loaves of bread resting on racks on the kitchen table were not going to be consumed by us, or, more importantly, by him.

We had recently moved into and were remodeling an absurdly large house and for the time being Mother had to make do with a wood-burning stove and oven.  With breads safely resting, she donned her tweed coat and hand-knitted cap and ran across the road to a neighbor’s house on some kind of errand.  In her absence, I wheedled my way over to the bread table for an uninvited and impromptu inspection.

Upon picking up one loaf, I discovered a small bite taken from the underside, and the same from a second loaf, and so on through all seven loaves, each missing one single bite.  The culprit couldn’t be my sister because she was too small to espy anything on top of the table.  And it wasn’t I, for heaven’s sake.  It had to be my brother and I was quick to inform Mother of this bit of news as soon as she returned.

She immediately looked at her young prince, whose eyes had widened into great orbs of acknowledgement and fear, and as her head nodded down towards her chest and she slumped back against the kitchen door, I caught that look of exhaustion exposed on her face for the all-night ahead of her while she re-made the seven loaves of bread in the wood-burning oven.

Mother never punished, criticized or admonished Philip over that bread event and even my stupid young self knew better than to ever mention it.  But there’s beauty in pathos because of the under-stories never mentioned or told.  The love of a mother for her son and the love of a son for any and everything his mother does, especially when it’s baked.

Honey White Bread

sweets for the sweet

December 16th, 2009

The Twelve Days of Christmas have begun in earnest for the man who came to dinner and never left.  They include none of the infamous calling birds, partridges, pear trees, leaping lords, golden rings, geese or milkmaids that make the song such a challenge to remember.

The man’s twelve days are exclusively edible and today heralds in Dark Chocolate Almond Toffee, which pairs especially well with French roast coffee.  “Dunk worthy!” is his assessment and a happy way to start the season or simply the day.

Seasonal Sweets

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just say no to panko

December 15th, 2009

For the last several years, Japanese Panko Breadcrumbs have been the darling of all cooks; celebrity and common alike, but cannot compete with the real crumbs of real bread and anyone who disbelieves is invited to challenge me to a throw-down!  Sometimes I don’t generate enough homemade bread ends and bits to make a batch o’ crumbs and have to make a loaf designated solely for this purpose and it proceeds directly past EAT and into the food processor, a zipper bag and the freezer and I sleep better knowing it’s there.

Fresh Breadcrumbs

balls! said the cook

December 14th, 2009

The aebleskiver pan winks at me from its pot hook around the corner, daring me to change something flat into something round.  I’ve been thinking that a savory aebleskiver made with buckwheat flour and filled with a bit of ham pate and some melty cheese would be fun upgrade to the classic ham and cheese Crêpe.

But since there’s no milk in the ‘fridge, how about filling the aeble holes with scrambled eggs and a cube of Fontina dropped in the center?  And some crispy O’brien potatoes while I’m at it and a mock crème fraîche seasoned with a little smoked paprika.  The man who came to dinner and never left nods agreement and heads up to his office with cup of coffee number three.

Fontina Egg Puffs

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wieners roasting on an open fire

December 6th, 2009

Jack Frost nips at our noses inside the house.  Even with a pellet stove, a gas stove, an oil furnace and three fireplaces, there’s just no way to get warm in this big old barn of a house.  We wear many layers.  The kitchen hearth becomes the place to hang out because the fire is lit for ten months out of the year.

Makes sense to cook whatever we can over the fire and an odd assortment of tools have been collected for that very purpose.  The extendable forks hang right by the fireplace and there’s something truly fun about making s’mores in the dead of winter.  Beef franks and smoked sausages like to sit atop a wobbly grill rack right over the embers and enjoyed smoking hot after a brief dunk in a homemade mustard or currywurst sauce.

Winter Warm-ups

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a man, a plan, a flan

November 20th, 2009

The Man who Came for Dinner and never left gets to pick the weekly homemade sweet and that frequently results in pies and galettes (key lime, blueberry, apple, pecan, pumpkin) or cookies (oatmeal, macaroon, sugar), sometimes a cheesecake (any flavor will do), and is not particularly fond of meringues, tortes, bread puddings or cupcakes.

Of late, however, the request for flan keeps getting repeated.  Unfortunately, each instance conflicted with either an oven reserved for proofing bread dough, or a lack of milk or a stovetop covered with various stages of roast chicken soup.  Hence, the default sweet, brownies, began to be omnipresent.  This weekend, the kitchen spirits came through in a cooperative moment and the man got his flan.

As a note, this is identical to the Hidden Treasure Custard that I enjoyed as a child, and is more true to the French custard than to the Mexican, which utilizes condensed milk.  Other than requiring a bit of dexterity and the right sized vessels, this preparation is so simple a Geico executive could do it.

Flim Flam Flan

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bread demystified

November 10th, 2009

From Syria we get pocketed pita, from France crusty baguettes, from Italy golden foccacia and chewy ciabatta, from America homey sandwich loaves, from India na’an and from Germany porous fladenbrot. And I’ll bet you don’t realize that they are all the same recipe.  What gives them their respective signature is simply the manner in which the dough is proofed, shaped and baked.

Bagels are great example.  The Caraway Rye Bagels pictured below are nothing more than Caraway Rye Bread rendered differently and it’s that unique difference that manages to spin a simple dough into a chewy ring of magic.  Eaten fresh from the oven or toasted on one side, homemade bagels can tear through a package of cream cheese with frightening speed!

Oven Fresh Bagels

Gal Pals

November 8th, 2009

So our neighbor Susie called the other night to tell me that she was hosting the local Gal-Pal group at her house on Monday and asked what I’d recommend she serve.  I’m always happy to make recommendations, provide recipes, odd ingredients and/or stray serving dishes, but this request rankled me a little because I’ve never been invited to join the frequent Gal-Pal get-togethers.

Nevertheless, I agreed to think about it and the next day suggested she do a cheese fondue with a multitude of side dishes.  We agreed that I’d make fresh baguettes, create her a shopping list and lend her the fondue pots and forks.  Sounded very easy from my side of things until Susie informed me that she wouldn’t be home until late afternoon on the day of the party.

So we agreed that I’d additionally set the table, organize the kitchen, prepare a fire in the dining room hearth, stage the wine counter and then make the fondues prior to or just in advance of her arrival.  I ended up hauling over so much stuff that I had to drive it all there – next door – but got it all done and looking good, warming and welcoming.  And then I drove back home.

Swiss Fondue

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November 2nd, 2009

My constant friend, insomnia, has been around since high school and it has its ways and means.  About a month ago while channel surfing at 3 in the morning, I happened upon TV Diner with Billy Costa, which is a great little show that features New England restaurants and chefs.  It’s especially nice television for us in the north country boondocks, because there is no restaurant in our town, but we can enjoy an evening out, vicariously, through TV Diner.

This episode mentioned a Hood Dairy Cook-off and the next morning I looked it up online.  The rules were simple enough; utilize one or more Hood products in a recipe that can be prepared, cooked and served in 40 minutes.  That would leave out my two specialties, entrees and artisan breads, so I looked around the kitchen and my eyes lit on the many dozens of jars of freshly canned apple butter.

To make a very long story short, my little recipe of Apple Butter Aebleskivers with Maple Chantilly was selected to participate in the semi-finals, so we headed down to Portland, Maine last Sunday to experience a first ever cooking competition.

I won the semi-final round and now we had seven hours to fill until the finals.  We watched the next two rounds and the talent at this competition became all too apparent and utterly intimidating for my funny little pancake ball.

Back in the venue at 4:15 p.m. for the final competition, stations set and aprons tied, the five contestants explained their dishes to the 200 visitors and the television host and crew from TV Diner.  We were cooking for five judges this time in the same 40 minute period with the added challenge of movie cameras and lots of hot lights.  At one point, Billy Costa actually came into my station, microphone in hand, to discuss the history of aebleskivers while I was trying to fill the first of three aebleskiver pans.

Ahead of me at the judges’ table were Million Dollar Mussels, whose outstanding aroma had taken over the venue, followed by an equally aromatic Shrimp and Lobster Linguine with Creamy Lemon Scampi Sauce, followed by a sensational Southwest Potato and Corn Chowder with Chili Rotisserie Chicken.  And then my dish was presented followed by beautifully plated Wild Blueberry Chocolate Blintz Crepes.

While the judges tallied the scores we cleaned our stations and stowed all the gear we’d been lugging around all day.  And then the results were announced; third place with 213 points was the lueberry chocolate crepes, second place with 214 points was the southwest chowder, and finally, in first place with 223 points were the little aebleskivers.

The $10,000 cash prize will be gone by the end of next week because we need to replace the furnace before the weather gets any colder.  But it’s the generosity of spirit and enthusiasm exhibited by the judges, contestants, coordinators and helpers that is the real prize, and one that will last my lifetime.

Prize Winning

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