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Wednesday
May112005

A Dinner in Three Episodes: The Grand Finale

lavendercake1.jpg

PREVIOUSLY, ON DINNER: The Main Event

All good things must come to an end. In my case, there was some debate as to whether things would end at all on Saturday night, as I had inadvertently stuffed everyone to the point of no return. Feeble protests of 'just a little breather' were heard from various corners of the table, and being a polite hostess I acquiesced, leaving the evening's coup de grace sitting neglected in the kitchen. However, when it became clear that this breather might extend until the next morning, I forced upon my guests the only antidote I trust to swiftly combat overindulgence: copious amounts of brandy and espresso, the first to numb the stomach and the second to jolt the digestive organs back into action (very scientific, I know). Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. Sure enough, ten minutes later, as if on cue, people were perking up, rubbing their eyes and murmuring that they might actually be able to fit in some dessert. Heaving a silent sigh of relief, I brought out the cake.

Let me tell you a little bit about this cake. I'm not normally drawn to cakes, at least not to American-style spongy frosted cakes, because apart from the frosting things usually tend to taste remarkably similar to nothing. When I make cakes, I tend to make gâteaus or tortes, which have lots of interesting layers of whipped cream, custard and ganache, as well as plenty of fruity, oozy, fudgy, sticky, or crunchy bits that make it a whole lot more exciting to eat. To tempt me into making it, a plain cake has to offer something out of the ordinary. To be honest, I didn't know what to expect from this cake when I picked the recipe out of the book*. I needed an interesting dessert to show off my new lavender, and this seemed like a safe bet, though I wasn't sure how people would react to this nontraditional flavor. At best, I figured, it would be a novelty - something that would cause people to exclaim 'wow, this is interesting', or 'wow, how unusual', but not something that would cause me to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to have the leftovers all to myself.

How wrong I was. This cake is delicious. Really, really delicious. The lavender is very much there, lending its unmistakable earthy, herbal perfume, but it in no way overpowers the orange and almond - in fact, it seems these three flavors were made for each other, as each lets the others shine through like different voices in a barbershop quartet. They work together, somehow managing to be simultaneously subtle and intense. The cake is citrusy and fresh and nutty and floral; it's also buttery and moist and has the perfect amount of resistance under the fork. You could serve it with whipped cream, ice cream, yogurt or nothing. People did unanimously say 'wow' upon tasting it. It wasn't just any 'wow', however - there was no 'wow, how interesting' or 'wow, how unusual'. It was the ultimate in wows - a simple, plain, crumbs-spilling-out-of-full-mouth, 'WOW!'.

Lavender, Orange and Almond Cake
Source: adapted from Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons
Serves: 8-10

for cake:
4 teaspoons dried lavender
250g/9oz (1 1/4 cups) sugar
225g/8oz (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
juice from 2 large oranges
finely-grated zest from 2 large oranges
1 teaspoon almond extract
4 eggs
3/4 teaspoon salt
200g/7oz (1 2/3 cups) flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
50g (1/2 cup) ground almonds

for topping:
50g (1/2 cup) flaked almonds
30g (1/4 cup) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon dried lavender (optional)

Put the lavender and some of the sugar in a clean coffee grinder (or a food processor) and grind to a powder. Combine this with the rest of the sugar. Cream the lavender sugar and butter together until light and fluffy, then add the orange juice, zest, almond extract and the eggs. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, and beat into the wet mixture, along with the ground almonds.

Pour the batter into a 9-inch greased and lined springform pan. Sprinkle the flaked almonds evenly over the top, and sift the powdered sugar over them. Bake in a preheated oven at 350F/180C for 40-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake, unmold and sprinkle with the remaining teaspoon of dried lavender.

*Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, in case you're just joining us.

Monday
May092005

A Dinner in Three Episodes: The Main Event

poussin1.jpg


PREVIOUSLY, ON DINNER: The Entrée

In my opinion, a meal should get better as it progresses. I would never put all my energy into an exotic and complicated starter, and then follow it with spaghetti and jello (okay, I would never follow anything with jello, but that's beside the point). A simple meal is fine, and especially when I have perfect, top-quality ingredients, I love to leave things as unfussy as possible and prepare things like soup or salad, roast meat and vegetables, and fruit, and leave the flavors of the food to speak for themselves. That said, sometimes I crave something a little bit different, and I love finding recipes that combine flavors and textures in unusual and unexpected ways. I love the sensation of eating something for the first time and having my tastebuds sing out "wow!". And of course, if I prepare something a little bit exotic as part of a multi-course meal, it has to be matched, if not outdone, by everything that follows.

Following recipes from books can sometimes be a hit-and-miss affair, and long-established kitchen wisdom dictates that you should never try out new recipes on unsuspecting guests. Phooey, I say! I use my guests as guinea pigs all the time; the thing I normally worry about is not whether the food will be good (since I brazenly figure I can fix most bad recipes before they hit the table), but rather if it will be as good as what came before it. For Saturday's dinner there was the added pressure (self-imposed) of no longer falling in the ranks of normal people, but instead of Food Bloggers. This is completely ridiculous, I know. But when you're putting your thoughts on food out there for all the world to see, you don't want anyone discovering that you can't even stumble your way around a kitchen! Well, I can happily say that the recipes I selected for Saturday's meal all came up to bat for me and hit home runs. Each dish was slightly more interesting and unexpected than the one before, and they all built upon each other's strengths to create one truly memorable meal, and at least for the moment, my membership in the food blogging brotherhood (sisterhood? personhood?) is still intact.

So, without further ado, the main event:

Moroccan-Spiced Poussins with Saffron, Honey and Tomato Jam

Recipe Source: the marinade came courtesy of the Moro cookbook, and the sauce came from the aforementioned Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons with a few detours.
Serves 4.

For the marinade:
4 poussins (baby chickens - you can substitute Cornish game hens)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons cumin
3 cloves garlic, pressed or mashed
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil

For the sauce:
pinch saffron (threads or powdered)
4 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, minced
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon black pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
800g (2 lbs) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (or 3 (400g/15oz) cans chopped tomatoes, rinsed in a sieve)
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 cup mild (I used orange-blossom) honey
1 teaspoon orange flower or rose water (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cup blanched almonds, toasted
chopped fresh coriander/cilantro for garnish
organic rosepetals for garnish (completely optional)

Mix together all the marinade ingredients and rub over the poussins. Leave them in the fridge to marinate for at least a couple of hours.

For the sauce, soak the saffron in 1/4 cup hot water. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook slowly, stirring often, until the onions begin to caramelize and melt together, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper, and fry for another minute. Add the tomatoes, and fry until they start to break up, about 5 minutes. At this point add the stock and saffron, and let simmer until the mixture reduces by about a third, about 20 more minutes. At this point I pureed the mixture, but you don't have to. Add the honey (the amount should depend on how sweet you want it to be - I added the full amount to get it really jammy), lemon juice and flower water, if using. Let it continue to cook until it gets to the consistency you want - it should be quite thick - and do a final taste for sweet and salty. At this point you can leave it until you're ready to serve, just reheating at the last minute.

For the poussins, preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Put the birds breast-side down in a roasting pan and roast in the oven until golden on top, about 25 minutes. Flip them over and continue roasting breast-side up for another 15-20 minutes, until well browned on the breast and juices run clear.

Serve the poussins on a pool of the jam, sprinkle with the almonds, chopped coriander and rose petals, if using.

Note: Poussins are a great 'company' thing, since everyone gets their own little bird, and here in the UK they're quite easy to find. The original recipe for this dish actually calls for plain old chicken, and has you brown the chicken pieces and then add them to the sauce at the same time as the stock. I might try it that way in the future, but I found the contrast between crispy roasted bird and sweet jammy sauce to be really delicious. Either way, though, it will be magnificent.

STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT: The Grand Finale

Sunday
May082005

A Dinner in Three Episodes: The Entrée*

avocadosoup.jpg


Recently we've become completely hooked on the HBO show 'Curb Your Enthusiasm', brought to us by our friendly local DVD lender. I don't know why it's so much fun to watch people who have too much money for their own good make fools of themselves, but we find the show absolutely hilarious, even with its predictable plot lines: Larry runs into somebody unknown at the beginning of the show, Larry says or does something stupid in front of this person, this person shows up later in the show as an important character, vindictively embarrassing Larry in front of everyone he knows, a big chaotic mess ensues, and Larry ends up the idiot. Side-aching stuff. But what I've noticed, as of course I can't watch a show and not notice the references to food, is that nobody on this show ever cooks. They eat out constantly, which admittedly I would probably do too if I had millions to burn, but every so often they do something homely like have people over for dinner. Instead of whipping out the Larousse and proving that film-god status and kitchen-god status can coexist in La-La land ("where do you find the time to cook with your hectic filming schedule?"), they invariably have the whole thing catered, even if it's just a small intimate affair. I mean, I suppose I understand: you wouldn't want to drip bacon grease on your Jimmy Choos, now would you?

I find this a very sad state of affairs, because preparing a dinner for friends is one of the most pleasurable things I know. Of course I enjoy the part of having them over and talking etc etc, but for me the fun of the whole event is amplified a hundredfold by having the cooking to occupy myself with beforehand. In fact, I find the preparation usually follows a predictable dramatic pattern, not unlike an episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'.

The theme is introduced by fervent cookbook reading, menu planning and shopping-list writing days ahead of time.
The shopping commences with audible tension - Will I find everything I need? Will I forget to buy something essential?
The crescendo of panic, as I realize that no, they're out of the main ingredient and hastily phone Manuel to beg him to stop at the bigger, better supermarket on his way home from work.
The momentary relief as we manage to locate everything we need, only to be replaced by the buildup to the final climax, the tense drama of preparation - Will these recipes work? Will I finish cooking in time?
The heart-stopping terror of last-minute finishing touches and quick floor-sweeping before the guests arrive...and finally
The resolution, as everything is pulled off seamlessly, guests ooh and aah and I wipe that little trickle of sweat from my brow before anyone has even noticed it was there.

Okay, maybe a little more melodrama than your typical episode of CYE, but this is real life, right?

So last night I put my thespian skills to the test for a couple of our friends with a carefully planned multi-course extravaganza. All the dishes I made were based more or less faithfully on recipes from Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons. The following recipe was our overture for the meal, a gem of a soup, and perfect, I would imagine, for hot summer days. Chilled soups are great to make for dinner parties because they have two diametrically opposed yet complementary characteristics: (a) guests love chilled soups because they're out of the ordinary, and (b) chilled soups are a breeze to make, being prepared hours ahead of time and left to do nothing but mellow out in the fridge until your guests arrive.

Chilled Avocado and Coriander Soup

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 leek, white part only, chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons cumin
1 liter (1 quart) chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or harissa
3 ripe avocados
juice of 1 lime
large handful fresh mint leaves, chopped
large bunch cilantro (fresh coriander), leaves separated from stalks, chopped
1/2 cup greek yogurt (or sour cream)
salt and pepper
pomegranate seeds, to garnish*

Start by sauteeing the onion and leek in 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat until they are translucent and soft. Add the garlic and cumin and cook another minute or so. Add the stock, cayenne pepper, mint and coriander stalks, and simmer for fifteen minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool until lukewarm.

Halve the avocados, scoop out the flesh and add it to the soup with the cilantro leaves, lime juice and remaining two tablespoons olive oil. Puree everything with your hand- or normal blender. Stir in the greek yogurt, adjust the seasoning, and chill until cold, at least 2 hours. Serve with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and another dollop of greek yogurt, if you like.

*the pomegranate seeds were a last-minute addition for aesthetics' sake, but I thought they went really nicely with the tart, creamy soup, and next time I make this I will definitely add them again.

STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT: The Main Event

*that's French for starter, by the way, not American for main dish!