Scenes From a Birthday Party

You wouldn’t expect a birthday party for a six year old to include house-cured duck prosciutto and steak tartare, but then again, it’s not every day that a restaurant has a birthday party.

We had the fortune of being invited to the sixth anniversary birthday party for Alison at Blue Bell, Chef Alison Barshak’s second venture since her return to the Philadelphia area in 2001.  As the sunlight of late afternoon faded into an early evening dusk, we mingled among roughly a hundred friends, family, and associates, all of whom had come to celebrate the restaurant’s entry into its sixth year.  That, and also the pig.

That’s where this story actually begins, with a tweet about a pig.  On Twitter, Chef Barshak had started following me, and having heard a great many good things about her, I followed her back.  Over the course of a week or so, I followed her updates and watched with interest as she started mentioning the preparations for this party.  She noted that they were pit roasting a whole pig for the event – an exchange of DMs led to an invitation to join the fete.

We arrived right at 5pm to find Alison at Blue Bell nearly empty – the kitchen was in its final moments of preparation, and guests who shared our sense of timing were standing around making small talk.  We were offered our choice of sangria or beer, and we settled into a table, nursing our drinks while partaking of pita wedges and hummus, only a mere preview of what was soon to come out of a kitchen that was clearly running on all cylinders.  By the end of the evening, I was glad that we arrived when we did – within an hour, all of the seats and tables in the small bistro would be filled, and latecomers would find themselves standing for much of the meal.

Standing turned out to be not as bad as one would expect.  Service was flawless, with the servers flowing through the crowd with trays of passed hors d’oeuvres like a performance of culinary ballet dancers (kudos to the server who, after witnessing my repeated failures in getting a sample of the bacalao fritters, made a priority out of dashing from the kitchen straight to our table when the next tray became available).  In addition to the constantly rotating offerings that were emerging from the kitchen, a long table running the length of the dining room featured platters of oysters and bowls heaped to overflowing with caesar and garden salads.  I typically don’t expect great things from salad, but the garden salad caught me off guard, bursting with the flavors of mint, tomatoes, radishes, tarragon, and snow peas in a light vinaigrette.

To date, I am still amazed at how well the handful of servers at Alison at Blue Bell managed to cater to that many people, with such a grand variety of dishes.  There were the aforementioned bacalao fritters, small marble-sized croquettes of fish, quickly breaded and fried, the delicate nature of the cod offset by the salty hit of a disk of chorizo sausage.  Wooden skewers bore small pieces of sweet melon wrapped in the house-made duck prosciutto, a combination that was only enhanced by a small dollop of mint pesto.  Small anchovies, known as boquerones in Spain, were accented with baby artichoke and bread crumbs.  The mozzarella en carozza were light pillows of cheese, breaded and flash-fried – the perfect food-on-a-stick, something that ought to come by the dozen in a paper cone at the ballpark.  Hangar steak tartare was served on crostini, topped with a sharp gorgonzola.  Bowls of lamb meatballs and tomato sauce were a surprising departure from standard beef-pork-veal combination. Small dishes served to bear a single ravioli, a delicate envelope of pasta wrapped around an eggplant filling and served with a sauce that bore the unmistakable tang of goat’s milk.

Among this panoply of treasures were more than a few outstanding preparations worth noting specifically.  Hollow egg shells were transformed into serving cups, holding an absolutely heavenly spring pea and parmesan custard, its foamy lightness tempered by the slightest hint of earthy truffle.  Shot glasses were filled with warm sunchoke soup blended with the irresponsibly decadent combination of foie gras and truffle.  Of these, I probably ate more than I should have, but I would have regretted it had I not.  You know those dishes that haunt your dreams?  I now have two more.

While all of this was going on, the pig slowly rotated on a spit outside, its skin having turned to bronze from the heat of the charcoal beneath it.  My overindulgence meant that when it was time to serve the pork, I admittedly wasn’t very hungry anymore, but when Alison Barshak presents you with something that has spent the better part of a day in the making, you don’t refuse.  It was an interesting choice to serve the slices of spit-roasted pork with a tonnato sauce, that concoction of tuna, olive oil, and mayonnaise that is more traditionally served as an accompaniment to veal.  I ate maybe three-quarters of one slice of pork before realizing that I had to throttle back to ensure that there was enough room for the cake.

Cake? Cake!  Of course, every birthday party needs a cake, and this party was no exception.  Like the prosciuttio (and, I suspect, everything else) the cake was made in-house, but that’s not really surprising given the caliber of the kitchen.  The really outstanding aspect of the cake, something that has made me completely forget mostly all of the other details about it – was the filling.  Running throughout the center of the cake was a layer of burnt caramel filling, the best of all worlds sweet, smokey, and dark, which pulled everything else about the cake – the frosting, the crumb, into a perfect synergy of flavors.

Happy birthday, Alison at Blue Bell.  You sure know how to throw down.

May 16, 2009   Comments

The Big Finish

So, I had mentioned that I spent part of the morning on Friday making dessert. While I knew that one of our distinguished guests was bringing a homemade cake (completely from scratch), I also knew that, in said cake, there would be no chocolate. That was my in.

I decided to augment the dessert selection by making a chocolate pots de creme, which is really just a fancy way of saying “melted chocolate held together by egg yolks”. Really, it is.

At first, I had the hardest time finding which cookbook had held the recipe that I used earlier. I grabbed one book, but the pots de creme recipe didn’t look familiar (also, it called for a dozen egg yolks, and I’m fairly positive I would have remembered that). Finally, I grabbed my copy of Williams Sonoma Paris: Authentic Recipes Celebrating the Foods of the World, and found a recipe whose page was splattered with bits of chocolate and stained with cocoa. Pretty sure that was it.

So, here’s the magic formula, with the ingredients straight out of that book and the procedure based on the book but adjusted somewhat for my tastes:

Pots de Creme au Chocolat

1.5 C whole milk

1 C heavy cream

1 C powdered sugar

8oz bittersweet chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger, 72% if I remember correctly), chopped up

2 T unsweetened cocoa

pinch of salt

1 large egg, whole, plus 6 egg yolks

1/2 t vanilla extract

These things are incredibly easy to make, which is probably why they are my go-to recipe for chocolate desserts. First things first, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Some preparatory steps – take eight 6oz or 8oz ramekins (they are cheap and widely available, about a buck and a half each if you shop around) and put them into an ovenproof dish that will fit them (a Corningware casserole is good for this). Take a saucepan of cold water and pour it into the dish until the water level reaches about a third of the way up each ramekin. Take out the ramekins and pour the water back into the saucepan. Set the saucepan of water aside, or pour the water into something that you can heat up in the microwave. As long as the water is hot when you put the dish into the oven, it doesn’t matter how it got that way.

You know what you just did? You just made the preliminary measurements for a bain marie, or water bath. It’s an important part of custard making – by cooking the custards, covered, in water, it maintains a nice, steady temperature which cooks them evenly. You’ve now measured the proper amount of water needed to cover the ramekins halfway (and before you quibble that I specified a third of the way – Archimedes Principle. That is all).

Onwards to the recipe. Take another saucepan and set it over medium heat, then throw your milk, cream, and sugar into it. Give that a good stir to dissolve the sugar, and heat it up until you see some simmering action going on along the edges. Turn the heat off.

Toss in your chopped chocolate, cocoa, and salt and stir until everything melts together. Turn the heat back on and heat until you see small bubbles at the edge, then turn the heat off again. Set this pot aside to cool for a bit while you go get the eggs.

In a large measuring cup (I mean large, like 8 cups or so) or large bowl, whisk the whole egg and the egg yolks together until blended. While stirring with one hand, ladle a little bit (like, half a ladle) of the warm chocolate mixture into the yolks, then a little more (you do it this way to avoid cooking the eggs with the hot chocolate – this brings the temperature of the eggs up slowly). Slowly incorporate the rest of the chocolate in a slow stream (don’t stop stirring). Add your vanilla.

At this point, the book suggests running the mix through a sieve. Seeing that I am lazy, and I don’t mind lumps in my food if they are lumps of chocolate, I generally skip this step.

Assembly. If you haven’t already, bring that reserved pot of water to a simmer, or microwave it in a microwave-safe thingy until it just boils. Either pour or ladle the chocolate mixture into the ramekins, then set the ramekins into the oven-safe dish (leave out one so you have a space to pour the hot water). Pour the hot water into the dish until the water level reaches the halfway mark of the ramekins, then put the last ramekin in. Cover the dish, either with a lid or with foil.

Carefully place the dish into the oven for 25 minutes. Take it out, uncover it, and with great care because you will most certainly burn yourself if you aren’t careful, remove the ramekins and place them on a kitchen towel to cool. When they have cooled to room temp, cover each one with plastic wrap and throw them into the fridge until you’re ready to attack them.

I just realized that the picture here has a sprig of rosemary sitting in the chocolate, and I haven’t mentioned it before. One thing about this recipe, once you get the hang of it, is that you can infuse the chocolate mixture with any number of other flavors, just by simmering an extra element (such as rosemary) in the milk-cream-sugar solution prior to adding the chocolate. Here, I chose rosemary, but you can also go with lavender or anything else you can imagine. Just pick out the flavoring element, or sieve it, before you add the chocolate.

The pots de creme ended up being the perfect counterpart to the strawberry cake that was brought to the party. The cake, which was so light it felt like a prop when I lifted it, was a white cake with fresh whipped cream, and strawberries in the shape of hearts (which is great, because I don’t shape my food often enough), was the exact opposite of the chocolate custards, which were very dark and very dense.

So, to keep things fair, I ate both.

Pictures of each, below:

May 1, 2008   Comments

The Main Event – A Springtime Dinner Party in Three Courses

Man, I’m a little tired.  But it’s a good kind of tired.  Three courses, ten people, and everything turned out alright.  I have to apologize for not having more pictures – I was too busy running around the kitchen and forgot to grab the camera until, as you can see, the aftermath.

I spent part of Thursday and all day Friday putting together as many things as I could ahead of time.  On Thursday, I made the duck ragu and a batch of chicken stock.  On Friday morning, I made a chocolate pot de creme, stuck that in the refrigerator, and spent some time chopping the asparagus and mushrooms for the soup.

That being said, we were still a little late getting dinner rolling, but that turned out fine because we had the most compatible group of guests that I think we’ve ever had for a party.  The very best parties are the ones where you can disappear from the conversation into the kitchen and the guests carry on for themselves.

The culprit in my tardiness turned out to be the pasta.  I had forgotten that, despite the fact that the dough is really easy to put together, the rolling and cutting of the pasta sheets by hand takes a bit of time.  I had gotten through three-quarters of the mound of dough when I realized that I only had a half hour before go time – so we decided not to roll and cut the last bit of dough.  I took a few minutes to get some cheese out, prepared the one “made” appetizer – goat cheese marinated in olive oil, lemon zest, black pepper, parsley, and chive – and cut the last sheet of pasta into ribbons before running upstairs into the shower.

Guests started arriving at around 7:15, and between the beer, wine, the conversation and the appetizers, we all found a sweet spot where time just slowed down.  I had the asparagus soup ready by around 8pm, and we ushered everyone into the dining room, which my wife had bedecked with a lovely centerpiece of candles and glasses.  I ran out of soup and tried to extend it with some stock – so, for a fact, I know that three of us had overly thin asparagus soup.  I motored through my bowl and headed back into the kitchen for the pasta course.

Having set a pot of water to boil well beforehand, the pasta course was the easiest of the three to prepare.  The duck ragu, having been made earlier, needed only to be heated, and the ribbons of pasta had had a good long time to dry a bit in a colander, which contributed considerably to their texture in the final dish.  One minute and thirty seconds after entering the kitchen, the second course was ready to send out.

This is the point in the evening where I was entering unknown territory.  The one dish that I had not had time to do a dry run for – grilled shrimp over risotto – was going to take a bit more time to prepare.  I had peeled the shrimp when guests first started arriving, and thrown them into a ziploc bag with some white wine, garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.  As I started the risotto, we drafted one of our guests to skewer the shrimp for us, which was a real timesaver.  I started a chimney of charcoal on the grill and came back to the risotto.

Here’s the thing about risotto – it takes 18 minutes.  No more, and no less.  But it also requires constant attention, stirring and adding stock constantly for nearly all of those 18 minutes.  The great thing is, hearing the conversation carry itself in the next room, I was actually quite fine with standing at the stove.

The risotto deserves its own entry, but I’ll summarize here now:

Roasted Tomato Risotto

6 C chicken stock, simmering
1.5 C arborio rice
1/2 onion, chopped

A few roasted tomatoes (I need to tell you about these later, too)
Shallot, chopped
White wine
Saffron, pinch
1/4 C light cream

In one saucepan, combine chopped roasted tomatoes, the shallot, about 1/2 C white wine, and the saffron and bring to a hard simmer.  When that’s reduced by about half, stir in the light cream, bring back to a simmer for about five minutes, and turn off the heat.  You’re done with that for now and can back-burner it.

Take a pot with high sides and melt some butter in it.  When it’s good and hot, toss in your chopped onion and saute that for a couple of minutes, then add your rice, stirring that up to coat all of the grains with butter.  Add 1/2 C of white wine and stir it in, letting the grains of rice absorb it, and then start adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, allowing the rice to absorb each 1/2 cup before adding more.  At around 15 minutes, bite into a grain to check for doneness.  It should be ready at 18 minutes.  Turn off the heat and stir the tomato cream mixture into it, and add salt to taste.

Grilling the shrimp took no time at all.  I dumped the coals into my grill, set the skewers of shrimp on, and grilled them for about five or six minutes per side.  There was enough risotto to grant everyone a fairly large serving, with four shrimp each.

I’ll talk about dessert in the next episode.  Everyone had a wonderful time, and that’s not even mentioning the beer-fueled Rock Band extravaganza that lasted until 2:45am, which certainly had a lot to do with it.

April 29, 2008   Comments