I couldn’t wait to make this New Year’s Eve Dinner. As much as I enjoy playing with sugar and chocolate, the prospect of working with meats and vegetables and all sorts of non-chocolate-oriented food was irresistible. It seemed like a vacation, notwithstanding all the standing and cooking… I hadn’t cooked even a semi-real meal in a long time.
I made dishes that I’d tucked into the back of my mind and had been wanting to make for a while… and luckily, since I have freakish knack for consistency, they all fit into each other to make for a nicely coherent menu — even the dessert, with its 4 components, just worked out that way.
I made a few things each day starting on Saturday, and by the time of the dinner party, everything but the risotto was practically ready and just needed to heated and plated. Such prep and organization reminded me of my restaurant stint in Napa, not to mention culinary school. The experience was like speaking a language that I learned a long time ago and was pleasantly surprised that I can still get by with — even if only in the most casual of settings. I cleared away everything from the counter that wasn’t needed for service, laid out my plates, and cleaned up after every course. There was barely any clean up at the end, and I mostly just checked in on food… until I ate it. It was the most stress-free dinner party I’ve ever had.
Spiced Quince Cake with Lemon Posset, Warm Walnut Sauce, Cranberry Sorbet, and Toasted Walnuts
Lemon Posset is my new culinary cause. It’s only lemon juice, sugar, and cream, but it sets up! Like a light-as-air lemon curd, or even a mousse! It’s so easy and brightly delicious, and it contains only ingredients whose flavor I thoroughly like! No eggs or cornstarch or powdered sugar to get in the way. I issue a warning to the next person who mentions lemon curd to me — for I shall sit them down and lecture on the wonders of lemon posset. So, yes, last year, I was amazed by Bacon Baklava, and this year, it’s all about the posset, which — bonus — is also just as much fun to say.
From what I can tell, the reaction between the acid in the lemon juice and the casein (protein) in the cream causes it to set. Like curd, some combination of lime, orange, or passion fruit can be used, too (and some possets are warm, alcoholic drinks… also worth a try; egg nog is related, I believe).
I used this recipe from Claire Clark’s new book, Indulge, which is especially useful as a go-to book for British desserts, though it is not exclusively anglo-oriented as she is currently the pastry chef at The French Laundry. Clark boils the lemon juice and sugar together and adds boiled cream, but most recipes cook the sugar and cream together and add lemon juice at the end. I’m not sure what difference it makes, except for the amount of moisture lost through the boilings.
I have been taking spoonfuls of leftover lemon posset here and there (that is, whenever I can find an excuse to be in the kitchen), but like a mousse, some liquid separated out on the bottom by the second day. I guess magic can’t last forever.
As it happens, this dessert is partially a French Laundry Then-And-Now concoction — the Walnut Sauce is the Cream of Walnut Soup recipe from The French Laundry cookbook. Walnut-infused cream, poaching liquid, and a poached pear are blended together to make a sauce that’s stunning enough to be eaten alone as a soup. French Laundry at Home declares her love for it here, and the date on that post shows me that I’ve been meaning to make this since roughly last February. I think my juicy Bartlett pear may have been a bit too big, as the pear flavor was a little stronger than I wanted, but by putting it under the cake, the pear flavor nicely blended into the quince and still left the walnut flavor strong. Ah, the safety net of plated desserts combinations.
The Spiced Quince Cake is from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course. It called for a 10″ springform pan and the batter was very wet, but I used a 9″ and baked it a little longer and it was fine, if a bit spongy-looking. I poached the quinces on Saturday, left them in the syrup until Monday, when they were drained and baked in the cake; the star anise left the most noticeable impression on them. The batter for the cake was like that of a financier — (homemade) almond flour, a little flour, and egg whites with powdered sugar, spices, and browned butter. Rich flavor with a sugary crust and toothsome crumb, but a little heavy on the powdered sugar to me, esp in the aftertaste — but I am sensitive to that flavor.
The Cranberry Sorbet is based on the Chocolate Gourmand’s recipe from a high school friend. I decreased the alcohol by half, and not having limoncello and welcoming a combination of flavors, I substituted half Damiana and Tuaca. I also measured the sugar on my refractometer and it was off the chart, so I added water until it was about 27Brix. I love the smooth texture and rich cranberry flavor, bolstered by subtle spice and orange from the alcohol.
And there was even savory food, too… after the jump…
For hors d’ouevres, I made Muhammara, Warm Olives, and Popcorn Parmigiana. The Muhammara is a non-dairy dip that makes the best use of roasted peppers, walnuts, pepper flakes, and pomegranate molasses that I can think of. I was surprised by how brilliant the Warm Olives are. The warmth takes their edge off and makes them somehow more comforting. Perfect for a winter’s night. The Popcorn Parmigiana was a little disappointing. It was hard to get an even parmesan flavor, and it was moist from the butter. I usually pop my popcorn and eat it plain and crunchy so I’m just not used to the butter in any case.
Red Wine Risotto with Chorizo
For the starter, this Red Wine Risotto. I’m cool with the color (the same as red wine fondue, which I’m also very cool with), and even more so with the flavor, enhanced by Manchego cheese. It could have been a meal in itself.
Duck Braised in Banyuls
When I am not preaching the word of Lemon Posset, I will go on and on about the Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques Cookbook. Goin’s clever yet sensible preparations and combinations are all winners. I’d love to cook my way completely through this cookbook. And make these duck legs again. And buy another bottle of Banyuls. After enduring incredulous inquisitions from confused wine dept personnel who dared to question my spelling AND appreciating a helpful substitution suggested by a wine merchant all the way across town, I finally found my Banyuls at a Whole Foods that’s close to me.
Banyuls is a red dessert wine with a lightness and complexity that outshines port in my opinion. The recipe called for 2 cups… but I admit that I had a wine glass handy and I cannot be sure how much of it actually made it into the braising liquid…. And I further admit that I almost couldn’t add the chicken stock to the braising liquid, as it would diffuse the lovely Banyuls flavor.
But I’m glad I did as the duck was fantastic. Just tender and juicy, with a rich, just sweet enough sauce. It was the first time that I cooked duck, or braised, I think. I was concerned by how long the duck was under heat — the initial browning, the braising for hours, the heating up again, the crisping — but it was nicely tender without falling off the bone.
I served it with Goin’s suggested side…
Turnip-Parsnip Gratin with Prunes
Yes, I am the patron saint of Not Quite Popular Foods — and I lassoed in a three-in-one here. But the turnips and parsnips had such rich flavor, tinged with just a bit of sweetness, that I don’t know why they’re not more popular. I love potatoes and all, but there’s so much more out there.
I only got a decent pic of this after it was assembled. It gratineed nicely, though. The cream thickened up, almost like a cheese. On the plate, some liquid came out, and I love the way that it combined with the juices from the duck into a sort of light cream sauce. I could drink that by the cupful. And accented with thyme and prunes, the gratin itself is seriously delicious. Ah, Goin, always using every opportunity for flavor.
And I am a firm believer, along with Jane Grigson, that “the prune is a dried plum, full of sunshine and sweetness.” In fact, as I was pitting and chopping the prunes that I got from the Santa Monica Farmers Market I noticed that they really did look like dried plums, not like the typical shiny black torpedoes.
And now I’m stocked with leftovers for a while, which is great b/c as much as I want to cook more, I’m busy with chocolates… and Guitar Hero (though FOUR buttons for Medium level? I dunno about that)…