Saturday, December 16, 2006

Potluck Potpourri

It’s that time of year again…when the dreaded office potluck rears its ugly head. You can’t get out of participating and the thought of eating store-bought potato salad and packaged cookies leaves you nauseous. My one suggestion: bring a stellar dish. You can shine above the rest, and, best of all, you will have something worth eating.

Of course, it isn’t all that simple. There is the logistics of bringing something to feed 10-12 from home, as well as cooking or reheating an item once you get there. This can be problematic if there is nothing but a small microwave. For savory dishes, you can use a crockpot, which serves as both the cooking vessel and heating/serving unit. But traditional crockpot dishes such as stews require bowls, which are not typically available at the office. (I had to use coffee cups for the carrot-ginger soup I brought to help everyone ward off winter ills.)

If you are pressed for time, you could rely on a themed cheese platter. A French platter with a selection of cheeses, baguette, sliced pear, grapes, and Nicoise olives or maybe a Middle Eastern plate with hummus and pita (cut into triangles), feta, kalamata olives, dried or fresh figs, and almonds. Plated on a decorative tray, the variety could sustain you throughout the two-hour ordeal.

Alternately, desserts usually function well at the office party. You can do the traditional cookies, or maybe some mini-cream puffs, and a cheesecake serves a large crowd. But I have a simple dessert, that people rave about, that serves 12 easily. It is plain in its initial appearance but can be dolled up in a variety of ways. It is a bittersweet mousse torte—but molded in a long bread pan, for ease of carrying, unmolding, and serving.

The basics:

2 cups heavy cream
3 egg yolks
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
½ cup butter
½ cup corn syrup
1 t vanilla
½ cup powdered sugar

Mix ½ cup cream with the yolks and set aside. Melt chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in 3 quart saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring regularly. Once melted, add the yolk mixture slowly. Stir constantly for 4 minutes. Take off heat and let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally (you can hasten the process by placing the pot in the fridge). Once cool, whip the remaining 1 ½ cups of cream with the vanilla and powdered sugar just until soft peaks form. Fold the cream into the chocolate mixture completely, making sure no white streaks remain.

Line a long, narrow loaf pan with plastic wrap, draping excess over the sides. Pour the mixture into the pan, smoothing the top. Cover top with excess plastic and refrigerate overnight, or freeze for 3 hours. Unmold onto plate, remove wrap and serve with topping of your choice. Serve thin slices, as this is very, very, very rich.

This is best served with a slightly whipped cream and raspberries or raspberry sauce
For a festive touch – whipped cream and crushed candy canes
Layer raspberries or mandarin orange segments in the bottom of the pan prior to pouring the mixture in
Sprinkle with chopped crystallized ginger or chocolate curls

Prep: this does require several easy steps, melting the chocolate, waiting for it to cool, whipping and incorporating the cream, so time-wise it takes about 45 minutes, but there is a lot of down time in there, where you could be sipping a glass of wine, addressing holiday cards, or…if need be…doing the dishes.

Tips: Guittard bittersweet chocolate chips work fine as a cheap alternative. For those of you with a KitchenAid mixer—use the whip attachment and once cream is at soft peak stage, slowly pour the chocolate mixture in and blend on low.

Recommended Music: Jack Johnson

Friday, December 01, 2006

Tea Time Preparations

With all of my familial obligations, my book tour, and my workload, I have been very remiss when it comes to seeing my friends. One recently got married, one recently got engaged, one is contemplating a move to Seattle, and one is finally settled into a home with her BBE (best boyfriend ever). So several months ago I asked them to mark their calendar to come for a tea party on December 2nd. Lo and behold, they all did, and they are all coming. I am so very excited—a real, grown-up tea party with my friends.

I got the easy stuff out of the way first. Here is the table setting:

Planning the party has been a bit of a challenge. I have at least two vegetarians, one Weight Watchers, one Atkins, and one who is currently on a gluten-, egg-, dairy-, sugar, soy-free diet. I am doing my best to keep the tea traditional, while accommodating the restrictions. On the menu:

Sharffenberger Champagne
British Tea (kindly sent by my London relatives)
Strawberries and clotted cream
Tea sandwiches
—Salmon, cream cheese, and dill
—Cucumber, cream cheese, and mint
—Basil-walnut cream cheese
Rice cake canap├ęs
Mini phyllo quiches
Served with lemon curd, pumpkin butter, and strawberry jam
Eggnog bread
Mini mocha brownies
Mini cinnamon macaroons
Mini fruit tarts
Gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free cookies

Okay, so there are only 6 of us, and I think I may have gone a bit overboard, but nothing goes to waste here. After they all leave, hungry husband, son, and son’s friends will happily scarf down whatever remains, including the crumbs on the plates. So no worries there.

I am making almost everything myself. I did buy the rice cakes, mini quiches, fruit tarts and gluten-free goodies. I would never attempt rice cakes, as I cannot find a singular use for these tasteless items, save as packing material, and attempting a whole batch of gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, egg-free anything would really be going overboard, and amount to a challenge I am not up to, given all else that has to be done (sorry T!).

I made my nanny’s shortbread, featured in an earlier post with my niece and nephew: Eating Suburbia: Tea Party. I received a wonderful silicon mini-cake pan that has decorative edges, so I was able to make individual shortbreads.

Daughter had to make eggnog bread for a meeting at work this week, so she kindly made extra. She is unable to attend our little soiree, as her college roommate has her engagement party the same day. Sure nice of her to contribute nonetheless.

I am getting ready to make the mini cinnamon macaroons, a recipe I pulled out of Bon Appetit some time ago. The recipe is middle-of-the-road when it comes to complexity, due to the use of a pastry bag and the unusual baking process.

1 ¼ cup sliced almonds
3 T plus 1 t packed golden brown sugar
½ t cinnamon
1 ¼ cup plus 2 T powdered sugar
½ cup powdered sugar, sifted
3 large egg whites

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Stack 2 rimmed backing sheets. Line top sheet with parchment paper.
Combine first 4 ingredients in a food process. Using on/off turns, process until almonds are finely ground (do not allow mixture to turn to paste). Transfer to medium bowl.
Using electric mixer, in large bowl, beat eggs whites until foamy. Gradually add sifted powdered sugar and beat until peaks form and mixture is shiny. Gently fold egg whites into almond mixture.
Transfer batter to pastry bag fitted with ½-inch round tip (#12). Pipe batter onto prepared baking sheets in 1-inch rounds, spacing 1 inch apart. Using a wet fingertip, gently flatten tops.
Bake cookies 1 minute. Turn baking sheet around and reduce heat to 350 degrees. Bake 4 more minutes. Turn baking sheet. Bake 6 more minutes until cookies are golden brown. Transfer parchment paper with cookies to rack to cool.
Repeat with remaining batter, using new parchment and making sure that cookie sheets have cooled.

Ingredients: easy to get, cheap to buy
Preparation: Ten minutes
Taste: These cute little cookies are great. They are extremely sweet, as macaroons typically are, so having them be mini in size works out great.
Makes about 6 dozen

As an added surprise, my daughter has brought over her hatboxes. We were able to retrieve quite a few antique hats when cleaning out my granny’s house, plus she has purchased one or two herself. Because what’s a tea party without hats?