Friday, November 27, 2009

200 through 205: Adam Cooks a Feast!

I'm sorry that I haven't posted anything in a few weeks. I've been incredibly busy at work. So, to thank you for your patience, faithful readers, and to celebrate reaching the milestone of 200 recipes, I thought that I'd take a few dishes out of order and tell you about the pull-out-all-the-stops feast I cooked to celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday last month.

Here's the menu:
Brandied Chicken Liver Pate (p. 22)
Baby Greens with Warm Goat Cheese (p. 131)
Twenty-First-Century Beef Wellington (pp. 418-20)
Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Shallots (p. 559)
Pan-Browned Brussels Sprouts (p. 526)
Devil's Food Cake with Brown Sugar Buttercream (p. 742)

Up first was the Brandied Chicken Liver Pate. The Book describes this as a "simple, classic pate" with a twist: currants, which The Book calls "a delightful surprise." To make the pate, I started by melting some butter in a skillet and adding some finely chopped onion and garlic. Then I added a pound of chicken livers to the onions and garlic. I've never cooked with chicken livers before, but I've always wanted to try. The first thing that took me by surprise was the price...they are dirt cheap. Ninety-nine cents per pound. The other thing that surprised me was the rich, meaty and decadent flavor. I'll definitely seek out some more chicken liver recipes. Back to the recipe. I gently sauteed the livers for about ten minutes, and then added some cognac to the pan and simmered until it was almost evaporated. It was really starting to smell amazing. Then, I put the liver mixture in the food processor and added some spices: nutmeg, allspice, salt and pepper. I processed the mixture for about a minute until it was nice and smooth. After it had cooled a little bit, I stirred in some currents that I had plumped-up in some boiling water. I packed the pate into a large ramekin and chilled it for a few hours. About an hour before our dinner guests (our good friends Travis and Jodi) arrived, I took the pate out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature. The recipe doesn't make very much, but that's OK, since it's so rich. A couple of canapes is just about all a person can handle. The flavor of this pate was excellent, but unfortunately, I didn't love it. I'm not sure if I overcooked the livers, of it something else went wrong, but it was a little dry. If it had been smoother, it would have been excellent.

For a first course, I chose a salad of Baby Greens with Warm Goat Cheese. I was looking for something light, elegant, and most important, something easy, since the rest of the menu was pretty aggressive. This was a really excellent salad. In fact, it just might have been my favorite part of the meal. First, I prepared the goat cheese rounds by mixing together some egg whites and a little bit of water in a shallow bowl. Then I put some panko breadcrumbs in a dish. Next I cut a log of goat cheese into 1/3-inch rounds. I took The Book's advice to use dental floss to cut the goat cheese. It worked a lot better than a knife, which would have mashed it down. Instead, the floss just sliced through the log, leaving perfect little rounds. I dipped each round in the egg mixture and dredged it in the crumbs. I put the rounds on a tray and refrigerated them until I was ready to cook them. I made a simple vinaigrette of cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and extra-virgin olive oil. I tossed some pre-mixed salad greens with the vinaigrette and arranged them on four plates and stashed them in the refrigerator for a few minutes. When I was ready to serve the salad, I heated a bit of oil in a small skillet and cooked the cheese rounds until they were golden on both sides. I arranged three cheese rounds on each plate, and we enjoyed. This was a very simple and delicious salad. The cheese was warm and creamy and the crust was crisp and tasty. I always love recipes like this that are easy, but that make a big impression in terms of flavor and presentation. I'll certainly make this one again.

The main event was the stunning Twenty-First-Century Beef Wellington, which I served with Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Shallots and Pan-Browned Brussels Sprouts. Since my wife doesn't eat beef, I don't get the chance to cook it very often. Since this was my special day, I was going to make the most over-the-top beef dish in The Book. First, I needed to get the beef. The recipe is written for 12, but since I was planning a dinner party for 4, only three of whom eat beef, I cut the recipe in half and counted on leftovers. So, instead of the 4 1/2 to 5 pound center-cut tenderloin called for in the recipe, I got a 2 1/2 pound tenderloin. I was taken aback, but not surprised, by the price of the beef: $15 per pound. Expensive, but still cheaper in the end than dinner for four at a fancy restaurant. This recipe includes two sub-recipes: the Cilantro Walnut Filling that surrounds the meat, and the Sour Cream Pastry Dough that encases the whole thing. The filling wasn't too difficult. I blanched some spinach, cilantro and parsley and squeezed out as much moisture as I could. I pulsed the greens in the food processor with some walnuts, garlic, breadcrumbs, egg whites, honey and spices: cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. The pastry dough was fairly straightforward, too. I combined some flour, a little salt and some cold butter (cut up into cubes) with my fingertips until it was crumbly. Then I added some sour cream and a little bit of cold water. The dough was very sticky, but it was workable. After a little bit of frisage, I shaped the dough into a flat rectangle, wrapped it in plastic and put it in the refrigerator to chill. With the dough and filing done, I was ready to assemble the roast. First, I seared the roast on all sides. Then I rolled out the dough into a large rectangle. Using a rubber spatula, I spread some of the filling in the middle of the rectangle and placed the seared beef on top of the filling. I then spread more of the filling all over the roast. I wrapped the pastry around the beef and sealed the edges with an egg wash. I cut a few steam vents on top of the wrapped roast and brushed it with more egg wash. The Book wanted me to decorate the roast with shapes cut from the scraps of the pastry dough. But, because I cut the pastry dough recipe in half, I didn't have any scraps left, so I had an unadorned Wellington. No matter, it was still a show-stopper. Once fully assembled, the whole thing went in the refrigerator to chill for an hour. Then I baked the wrapped roast for about an hour until the pastry was golden and the meat registered 115 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (My new Themapen digital instant read thermometer, which was a birthday gift from my wife!) I let the roast rest for a few minutes before slicing it. This was really an amazing dish. First, it was beautiful. But beyond that, it was also delicious. The pastry was flaky and tender. The sour cream gave it a nice lightness and tang. The filling was excellent, too. The cilantro was a bright and unexpected note that really updated what you would otherwise expect to be a very staid, traditional dish. The beef was wonderful, too. It was perfectly cooked: very tender and nice and rosy inside. A real special-occasion meal.

For the sides, I chose a couple of simple, but sophisticated accompaniments. For the Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Shallots, I caramelized some thinly-sliced shallots in a little butter and then stirred them into some Yukon gold potatoes mashed with buttermilk. The Pan-Browned Brussels Sprouts were very easy. First, I melted some butter in a cast-iron skillet and cooked some thinly sliced garlic until it was golden (OK, it burned on the first try.). Then I removed the cooked garlic and lowered the heat. I cut the Brussels sprouts in half lenghtwise and put them cut side down in the skillet and sprinkled pine nuts over the top. I let them cook undisturbed for about ten minutes until they were nicely browned on cut sides. I removed the Brussels sprouts from the pan with tongs, leaving the pine nuts to cook a little longer with the garlic, which I added back to the pan. These Brussels sprouts were excellent. They were not at all soggy or bitter as Brussels sprouts can get with some cooking methods. The crispy seared edges and the pine nuts were a nice touch.

And the finishing touch? Devil's Food Cake with Brown Sugar Buttercream. After last year's less-than-impressive birthday cake, I was reluctant to make another cake from The Book for my birthday. But, this year's cake was a real success. Because I knew that I'd be so busy cooking the main meal on dinner-party day, I decided to cook the cake layers a week before and freeze them. The cake batter isn't too difficult. First, I mixed some cocoa powder and boiling water and then added some milk and vanilla. In a separate bowl, I mixed some all-purpose flour, baking soda and salt. Using my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, I beat two sticks of softened butter with some dark brown and white sugar. I added in some eggs and then the cocoa and flour mixtures, a little bit at a time. I appreciate The Book's occasional warnings about what to expect when you're cooking. For example, The Book helpfully notes that the batter for this cake might look curdled. If it hadn't been for this little note, I might have assumed that my batter was a failure, and been driven by desperation to throw the batter away and go with a store-bought cake. I divided the batter into three cake pans and baked them for about a half hour, switching positions half way through. Once the layers were cool, I wrapped them in plastic wrap and foil and put them in the freezer until the day before my dinner party, when I transferred them to the refrigerator to thaw slowly.
For the brown sugar butter cream, I started by putting three room-temperature egg whites and a bit of salt in the bowl of my Kitchen-Aid. Then, I heated some dark brown sugar and water in a pan until it began to boil. While the sugar syrup boiled, I turned the mixer on and added some lemon juice once the egg whites started to get frothy. When the sugar syrup reached 238 degrees, I very slowly poured it into the hot sugar syrup into the egg whites, constantly beating at high speed. Once the meringue was nice and cool, I began adding three sticks of softened butter, a tablespoon at a time. By the time about half of the butter was added, the frosting broke and looked very curdled and unappetizing, but thanks to another comforting warning from The Book, I knew to soldier on because it would be fine in the end. When all of the butter was in and the frosting had come back together, I added some vanilla and beat it for two final minutes.
I frosted the cake the morning of the dinner party, covered it loosely and put it in the refrigerator until that evening. After dinner, I took the cake out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter to let the frosting come back to room temperature. This was an amazing cake. The cake layers were rich, moist and chocolaty. It kind of reminded me of those Suzy-Q cakes I used to eat as a kid. The frosting was really rich and creamy, and its flavor was very unique. It had a very sweet, caramely taste that I've never had in a birthday cake before. It was a real winner.

It was a huge amount of work to make this feast, but I couldn't think of any other way I'd rather spend my birthday. Good food, good friends, my wife and son ... a good day!

Date Cooked: October 24, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: It took ALL DAY! But it was worth it!
Pate: B-
Salad: A+
Beef: A
Potatoes: A-
Brussles Sprouts: B
Cake: A-


Anonymous said...

Wow Adam Paula Dean would be proud 5 sticks of butter in that cake!!!!
Sounds like a fabulous way to spend your b-day and you will always remember that meal. congrats and happy belated

very belated obviously I just found this blog!

Melissa Bach Palladino said...

Happy Birthday, Adam!! Wow, that salad sounds fabulous. I made the beef wellington for New Year's Eve, cooking for a dinner party at work a few years ago. It occurred to me in the middle of cooking them that I, um, had actually never cooked it and was making it for a fancy dinner party for 25 or so diners. Talk about sweating out the results!!

Hey, when exactly is your birthday? Mine is close by--12/18.