Tuesday, April 6, 2010

An A+ Easter Dinner


We had quite the Easter feast this Sunday.  We celebrated with Matt and Sara from downstairs, our go-to friends for just about any sort of celebration.  I have to say, it sure is nice having these two around, for sampling experimental baked goods and helping eat leftovers, for their helpful feedback and conscientious food critiques, and for always being there when we find ourselves in a pinch and need last-minute dinner guests.  I know it sounds like a rather pleasant undertaking on their part, but that doesn’t make me any less grateful for their help. So, a big Thank You to Matt & Sara, and a big Happy Easter to the rest of you!


As you can imagine, Scrumptious Company dinner parties can be a bit involved.  (I’m not talking about the food, exactly – these recipes, for the most part, are pretty simple, and definitely doable for any of you non-professionals at home.)  When I say involved, I’m referring first and mainly to the picture taking.  As a novice photographer, I had no idea it could ever take so much time!  Looking for the best lighting, switching up backdrops, playing with angles, adjusting the food, re-adjusting the food, etc…  And trying to do all this before said food gets cold.  It’s a bit of a challenge, especially as I’m simultaneously playing the role of hostess!  What sets our dinner parties apart from the norm even more, and makes them even a bit more involved, is that we talk about the food.  A lot.  And in a critical way.  As the chef, it can sometimes be difficult to tell how others will react to my food.  I know what I like and don’t, but I’m often surprised by others’ reactions.  So, for me to give you, my readers, all the best possible descriptions of my food, I need to hear what our dinner guests really think.  I’m a real stickler for getting our friends’ true opinions.  Constructive criticism is the name of the game. 

So, you see, these aren’t your average laid-back dinner parties.  But our guests, every last one of them, have been sensational -  really getting into the action, helping enthusiastically with the photos and recipe critiques, and showing total support for the unique intricacies of this project.  Picture taking, constructive criticism and all, it’s been so much fun, maybe even more fun than regular old dinner parties.

Fava Bean Puree with Crostini and Spring Carrots
Beet-Dyed Deviled Eggs
Apricot-Mustard Glazed Ham with Potato-Fennel Gratin & Roasted Asparagus
Ben’s Homemade Butter Rolls
Lemon Tart with Blueberries

Critiquing the food with Matt and Sara (two scholars, through and through), we often find ourselves going by the academic letter-grading-scale, assigning A’s, B’s and so on.  This week’s dinner aced the test.  An occasional A, and the rest A+’s.  There were even a few A+++’s!  With a strong 4.0, this menu is definitely in the running for Scrumptious Company valedictorian!


The fava bean puree scored the first A+ of the night, for both taste and presentation.   Served alongside crostini and fresh baby carrots, the creamy green dip was picture perfect.  But the flavor, man oh man, the flavor!  Smooth, buttery beans with a good dose of nutty parmesan, a splash of lemony brightness, overtones of fruity olive oil, and a subtle sparkle of fresh mint.  I might have said this was the most delicious dish of the night, but that wouldn’t be exactly fair… Snacking on it while putting final touches on the rest of the meal, I got thoroughly carried away by its addictive deliciousness, and may have ruined my appetite just a bit for everything else!


While all the dishes were star students, the beet-dyed deviled eggs were certainly the teacher’s pet.  These were so freaking cute, I had to call my mom (a woman rightfully renowned in Toledo for her delicious deviled eggs) to fill her in.  An adult’s version of colored Easter eggs, these hard-boiled eggs took on a gorgeous deep pink hue from a long soak in a beet-dyed pickling solution.  The soft yellow yolk filling, speckled with grainy dots of coarse-ground mustard and tiny flecks of green parsley, and swirled on top in a pretty spiral, was just as gorgeous as its pink counterpart.  And like a lucky student with both brains and beauty, this adorable hors d’oeuvre was just as delicious as it looked.  Deviled eggs, ordinary as they may seem, are one of my favorite treats of all time.  And this gussied up version, a fancy twist on the humble original, sacrificed none of the original’s fundamental tastiness, for the sake of sophistication.  With a mustardy, mayonnaisy, velvety filling, and just a slight insinuation of pickled beet flavor, these had all the humble goodness of the traditional deviled eggs I love.


The glazed ham and apricot-mustard sauce got another A+.  In fact, I think that this is how I will always make Easter ham from now on.  The simple sauce, made of just apricot preserves, apple cider vinegar and whole grain mustard, hit all the right flavor notes.  Sweet and tart and a little bit spicy, rounded out by the earthy mustard and the fruity apricots.  Slathered all over and rubbed into the nooks and crannies of the diamond-scored ham, it caramelized in the oven into a gorgeously sticky golden brown crust, more sweetly delicious even, than all the candy in your Easter basket.  The ham itself was all around fantastic.  But it’s ham after all, so of course it was.  Ham could get straight A’s without even cracking a book.


Oooh, the potato-fennel gratin.  For the sake of not sounding like a broken record, I won’t even tell you what grade this got ……..…. A+!!!  (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)  Tender and creamy and utterly rich with smooth flavors of roasted fennel and parmesan cheese, and topped with a bubbling golden brown crust, this beautiful gratin deserved its high mark, through and through.



Now, I know some of you may be intimidated by fennel.  Maybe you’ve never cooked with it before – I know I hadn’t until I started cooking professionally.  But honestly, it’s no harder to prepare than an onion.  And maybe you’re put off by its so-called licoricey taste – I know I was.  That is, until I actually tried it.  I hate that fennel has a flavor akin to licorice, not because it tastes bad, but because it scares people away.  Myself, I am not a licorice lover.  On my own personal candy spectrum, licorice lies towards the hate it end.  But on my vegetable spectrum, fennel sits securely at the love it end.  You see, as fennel cooks, the licorice flavor softens and metamorphoses into this sweet and mellow richness, and becomes something altogether different, and altogether charming.  Combined with golden potatoes, heavy cream and parmesan, the subtle fennel flavors just melt into the lovely creaminess of this divine gratin. 


The roasted asparagus was pretty much a gimme A.  Like an easy class where attendance alone is enough to ensure top marks.  So simple.  But, sigh… so delicious. Simply dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then roasted until tender and slightly tinged with golden brown.  A squeeze of lemon at the end, and they’re ready to be devoured. 


If roasted asparagus is a gimme class, we all agreed that the dinner rolls were a college level AP course.  But my dear husband always likes a challenge.  Ben is the baker of the family, which works all too well for me.  He rolls out the pizza dough while I prep the toppings.  He cuts fresh pasta, as I whip up a sauce.  If I have a pot of soup simmering on the stove, he’s most likely proofing the dough for a loaf of fresh-baked bread.  We make a good team, don’t we?! 


These dinner rolls were incredible, an A+ on a 5-point scale.  The tender, buttery crusts were brushed with a light golden hue.  Soft as your favorite pillow, the fluffy white insides had an all too earnest propensity to melt in your mouth, causing these glorious rolls to disappear way too quickly.  Fresh out of the oven and slathered in butter, these were pure heaven.  Sliced in half to sandwich a slice of ham and a drizzle of apricot-mustard sauce, they were pure delights. 


And for dessert, a lemon and blueberry tart, one I’d made before, years ago for another Easter dinner.  I remembered really liking it, but realized last Sunday that my memory hardly did it justice.  On this Easter, this tart was even better than I’d recalled. 


A basic lemon tart, only studded with fresh blueberries.  Blueberries that burse and ooze as the tart bakes, creating swirls of sweet berry sauce among the tart lemon curd.  The flavor is intense, on the edge of being a bit too powerful, a bit too fragrant.  With forthright tones of floral perfume, it’s almost too much.  Almost.  It’s not a dessert I’d want every day, but that’s not to say it’s not delicious.  The beauty of this tart lies in its intensity.  Like a shot of hot sauce, or a chunk of pungent blue cheese, a glass of fine whisky, or a slice of honey-soaked baklava, the intense flavor of this tart is what makes it so sensational, so extraordinary.  And it’s what earns it the last A+ of the night.


Fava Bean Puree  
Serves  8

You can buy fava beans in three different forms – fresh in the pods, frozen and canned. I tend to stay away from the former (because shelling the beans is incredibly time consuming) and the later (because canned fava beans don’t taste all that good) and go for the middle selection, the frozen beans.  Not only are they way easier than the fresh ones and way tastier than the canned ones (in fact, they taste just about as good as the fresh ones, hardly different at all), but they’re the easiest to find in the store.

That said, sometimes they’re still impossible to find in your grocer’s freezer.  In that case, go with frozen lima beans.  Trust me, this dip will be just as incredibly delicious with lima beans as it is with fava.  No one will ever know the difference ;). 

1 # fava beans
2 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp chopped mint leaves
1 tsp kosher last
1/3 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 Tbl water

Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil.  Add the fava beans, wait for the water to return to a boil, and boil for five minutes.  Drain into a colander, then plunge into a large bowl of ice water.  Soak the cooked beans in the ice water for about a minute, then drain thoroughly in a colander.

Reserve a small handful of the prettiest fava beans.  Add the remaining beans and the rest of the ingredients to the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse until nearly smooth, but still just a bit chunky.  Taste and season if necessary with more salt or pepper. 

Transfer the fava bean mixture into a serving bowl and garnish on top with the handful of reserved beans.  Serve at room temperature with vegetable crudités and French bread crostini.  If you choose to make this ahead of time, it can be kept refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to a day.  Remember to bring it to room temp before serving. 


Beet-Dyed Deviled Eggs 
Adapted from Gourmet, November 2009 in Epicurious
Serves  8 

The trick to making these look extra cute and sophisticated: slicing the eggs in half width-wise rather than length-wise.  They’ll look smaller and dainty this way.  (Also, make sure to use large eggs, rather than extra-large or jumbo.)  To make sure the eggs stand up and don’t wobble, slice just the barest sliver off each end to form a base. 

3 cups water
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1 small beet, peeled and sliced
1 small shallot, peeled and sliced
1 tsp sugar
1 bay leaf
12 hard-boiled large eggs, peeled
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbl whole grain mustard
1 Tbl finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the water, vinegar, beet, shallot, sugar and bay leaf in a medium sauce pan.  Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer 20 minutes.  Remove from the heat and cool completely.  (To speed up the cooling, place the pan inside a large bowl filled with ice water and stir the pot frequently.)

Place the peeled hard-boiled eggs in a sizable bowl or container and cover with the cooled pickling mixture.  Refrigerate 2-3 hours, stirring from time to time. 

Remove the eggs from the pickling mixture and pat dry with paper towels.  Discard the pickling mixture.  Slice a small sliver off the top and bottom ends of each egg.  Slice the eggs in half, width-wise.  Scoop out the cooked yolks and reserve in a mixing bowl.  Carefully rinse the whites under cool running water and place on a double layer of paper towels to dry. 

Thoroughly mash the yolks with a potato masher.  Add the mayonnaise, mustard and parsley and continue to mash until well combined.  Taste the egg yolk mixture and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Fill a pastry bag, fitted with a small star tip, with the egg yolk mixture.  Pipe the yolk mixture into the egg white cups, filling them in a circular motion and forming a small dollop rising above the egg white.  Serve at room temperature.


Apricot-Mustard Glazed Ham
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Serves 8-12

The apricot/mustard/vinegar makes both a wonderful glaze and a perfect sauce to pass around the table.  After whipping it up, divide it in two, using half for the glaze and half for the sauce.

1 bone-in smoked ham, shank portion, about 10 #
1/2 cup whole grain mustard
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup apricot preserves
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Wrap the ham in a layer of parchment paper, then a layer of foil.  (It sounds a bit tricky, but it really isn’t too much of a fuss.)  Place the wrapped ham on the rack of a roasting pan and bake in the oven for about 1 1/2 hours. 

While the ham is baking, make the glaze/sauce: Place the apricot preserves in a small sauce pan.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then transfer to a blender.  Puree on high until very smooth, about two minutes.  Pour the puree into a medium mixing bowl and add the mustard and vinegar.  Stir to combine.  Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Reserve half of the mixture to use as sauce (pour it into a small sauce pitcher), and keep the rest to use as a glaze. 

Remove the ham from the oven and increase the oven temperature to 375°F.  Unwrap the ham and discard the paper and foil.  Move the ham to a cutting board and using a sharp knife, score the skin and fat in a 3/4-inch diamond pattern, working all around the ham.  Return the ham to the roasting pan. Pour about 3/4 of the reserved glaze (Remember, this is 3/4 of half of the total sauce/glaze, not 3/4 of all of it.) over the ham and using your hands, rub it all over the ham.  Return the ham to the oven and bake for 30 minutes.  Spread the remaining 1/4 of the glaze over the ham, using a rubber spatula and bake 15 minutes more.  Remove the ham from the oven and transfer to a cutting board.  Allow the ham to rest for 10 minutes before carving.  Carve into thin slices, working around the bone.  Serve hot, with the reserved sauce on the side.  The sauce can be served at room temperature, or quickly reheated, and served hot. 



Potato-Fennel Gratin
Adapted from Gourmet, December 1997 in Epicurious.com
Serves 8

1 Tbl + 1 1/2 tsp flour
2 1/2 cups heavy cream, divided
2 small garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup grated parmesan, divided
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
2 small-medium or 1 large fennel bulb
2 # Yukon gold potatoes
1/2 stick butter, plus more for buttering the casserole dish
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Lightly butter a 9x13-inch casserole dish.  In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk to combine the flour and 2 cups of cream.  Add the minced garlic, chicken broth, 1/2 cup parmesan and nutmeg.  Whisk to combine, and set aside.  In a small mixing bowl, combine the remaining half cup of cream with the remaining half cup of grated parmesan.  Whisk to combine, and set aside.

Trim the fennel stalks, even with the top of the bulbs.  (Discard the stalks, or save them for another use.)  Using a mandolin, slice the bulbs cross-wise into 1/8-inch slices.  Peel the potatoes, then slice into 1/8-inch slices with the mandolin.  

Arrange 1/3 of the potato slices evenly across the bottom of the buttered casserole dish.  Then arrange 1/2 of the fennel slices evenly over the potatoes.   Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.  Using half of the remaining potatoes, arrange a second layer of potatoes, spreading the slices evenly over the fennel.  Arrange the rest of the fennel slices over the potatoes.  Season again with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.  Pour the cream/flour/garlic/ broth/parmesan/nutmeg mixture over the fennel.  On top of this arrange a third layer of potatoes, using the last of the remaining potato slices, and arranging them evenly across the casserole.  Press down on the potatoes to submerge them a bit in the cream mixture. 

Melt the half stick of butter.  Pour the melted butter evenly over the potatoes.  Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes.  Remove the casserole dish from the oven and pour the cream/parmesan mixture evenly over the potatoes.  Return to the oven, rotating the pan in the opposite direction, and bake 30 minutes more, or until the top is golden and the vegetables are tender.  Allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing and serving.  (This is very important, because it allows the vegetables to absorb the sauce.  If you cut it too soon, the cream sauce will run all over the place.)  Serve hot.

This can actually be completely made up to a day ahead.  Cool it completely before covering and refrigerate overnight.   Allow the casserole to sit at room temperature for about an hour before re-heating.  Then cover with foil and bake until hot throughout, about 30 minutes. 


Roasted Asparagus
Serves 8

1-2 bunches green asparagus
1 bunch white asparagus
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed (about 1 Tbl or a little more)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
juice from 1/2 lemon

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Trim the asparagus:  The bottoms of the stems are tough and woody but the tops are tender.  To determine where to trim, take one stem and holding the bottom of the stem in one hand and the middle in the other, bend the stem.  It will snap right at the point where tough turns to tender.  Line up the rest of the asparagus so their tips align, and slice off their bottom portions at the same point where the first one snapped. 

Arrange the asparagus over a parchment-lined sheet tray.  Lightly drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Use your clean hands to toss the asparagus with the oil, to lightly and evenly coat them.  Sprinkle evenly with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. 

Roast in the oven until the asparagus is tender and just beginning to turn light golden brown, about 15-18 minutes.  As long as they are of about equal thickness, the green and white asparagus should take about the same amount of time to cook.  Remove from the oven and sprinkle evenly with a squeeze of lemon juice.  Serve hot.


Ben’s Homemade Dinner Rolls
Adapted from Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques & Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman
Makes 12 rolls 
Just as the awesome baking book noted above does, I’ve included both the volume and weight measurements.  For best and most exact results, go by weight.  But if you don’t have a kitchen scale handy, you can make do with volume measurements.

1# 1.6 oz (4 cups) bread flour
8.1 oz (1 cup) water, 100-110°F
1.8 oz (1) egg
1.4 oz (3 Tbl) butter, softened
1.1 oz (2 Tbl) sugar
0.9 oz (3 Tbl) dry milk (powdered milk)
0.4 oz (2 tsp) salt
0.09 oz (1 tsp) instant dry (or active dry) yeast
butter, as needed for greasing and brushing

Stir to combine the yeast & warm water in a small mixing bowl.  Allow to rest 10 minutes. 

Place the rest of the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Add the yeast-water mixture.  Fit the mixer with a dough hook, and mix on first speed until the ingredients are incorporated, about 3 minutes.  Turn the mixer to second speed and mix for 5 more minutes, until the dough is slightly stretchy. 

Remove the hook from the mixer, cover the bowl with a damp towel, and allow the dough to rest 1 hour.

Grease the cups of a muffin pan with butter.  Divide the dough into twelve 2.3-oz portions, trying to cut even, square pieces.  Divide each portion into thirds (just eyeball it – no need to use the scale here).  Lightly shape the little pieces into rounds and place them in groups of 3 into the buttered muffin cups.  Cover the muffin pan lightly with a damp towel, and allow to rest in a warm spot until the dough has grown to about 1.5-2 times its original size, is rising slightly above the muffin cups, and is light to the touch.  This will take about 2 hours or so.  Brush the tops of the dough with melted butter.  Bake at 400°F until the tops are just lightly golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.  (Even a few extra minutes of cooking will make for very tough rolls, so err on the side of taking them out a little early.)  Immediately remove the rolls from the muffin cups and set on a cooling rack.  Immediately brush the tops with more melted butter.  

These are absolutely the best just out of the oven, with a smear of soft butter and a sprinkling of salt!   But they’re also great for making a few hours ahead, and will stand up well, if stored at room temperature in air-tight containers.  Allow the buns to cool to room temperature before storing in an air-tight container.  They can be stored this way up to a day, but as with all freshly made breads, the quality declines quickly with time.


Lemon Tart with Blueberries
Adapted from Tyler Florence
Serves 8-10

For the tart crust:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbl sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 stick butter, cold, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large egg, separated
2 – 2 1/2 Tbl ice water, plus 1 tsp water

Combine the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse to combine.  Add the butter and pulse until the mixture begins to resemble coarse cornmeal.  Add the yolk and 2 Tbl ice water and pulse until the dough begins to pull together.  If the dough does not start to pull together into a single mass, add just a bit more ice water.  But be careful – This is a pretty dry dough.  You don’t want it too wet.  Pour the dough out of the food processor bowl and form it lightly into a round disk.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about 30-45 minutes.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle.  Roll the dough up onto the pin to lift it, and lay it over a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.  Fit the dough into the pan and press the dough into the edges of the pan, folding the excess dough inside to double-up on the rim.  Trim the dough by pressing any remaining overhand against the top of the rim.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Place the tart on a baking sheet (to catch any drippings).  Prick the bottom of the dough about 10-12 times with a fork.  Cover the dough with a large sheet of crumpled-up parchment paper (crumpling the paper helps it to fit better into the crust) and fill it with pie weights or dried beans.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the dough is set and on the dry side.  Remove the parchment and pie weights.  Lightly beat the egg white with 1 tsp water.  Brush the egg wash onto the bottom and sides of the crust.  (You will not need to use all of the egg wash.)  Allow the tart to cool to room temperature on a rack.

For the filling:
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 5 lemons)
1/4 cup heavy cream
zest of 1 lemon
pinch of kosher salt
1 pint blueberries, washed and sorted through

Lightly whisk the eggs.  Add the sugar, lemon juice, heavy cream, lemon zest and salt and stir to combine with a rubber spatula.  Arrange the blueberries evenly across the base of the tart shell.  Pour the lemon filling over the blueberries.  Bake until the filling is set, and the center jiggles just slightly, about 30-45 minutes.  Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature on a cooling rack.  Remove from the tart ring and slice to serve. 


No comments:

Post a Comment