Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year's Eve: Before Dinner

Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

In my first year of cooking, Cooper and I had people over for dinner on a very regular basis - at least twice a month. We were young(ish), and no one else knew how to cook either, so even the simplest dinners seemed wildly impressive.

Fast-forward three and a half years. Today, our friends are both busier and more settled down and, as a result, we only have people over for dinner occasionally. But on those occasions, I hold myself to a much higher standard than I used to.

This New Year's Eve, my self-imposed standards were at an all-time high. I started planning the meal three weeks ahead of time, combing my cookbooks and recipe spreadsheet for ideas, and mentally planning my tablescape. Yes, I just said tablescape.

And I am very, very happy to report that the evening surpassed even my highest expectations. First of all, I love that planning part. Making grocery shopping lists is fun for me the way gambling, or fishing, or watching football are fun for other people. I got to use my old faithfuls (Julia's The Way to Cook and the Annapolis Junior League's cookbook) and my new Barefoot in Paris and French Laundry Cookbook.

And the table turned out exactly as I'd hoped. Exactly:

Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Finally, there was the food itself. As I mentioned the other day, Alison and Alicia each brought a few dishes, and Suzanne brought wine - so much help that I never even felt any stress.

We started with Barefoot's cheese straws, which were super easy, though they weren't terribly photogenic (no pics, sorry). Basically, I rolled out puff pastry, sprinkled some Gruyere and Parmesan and thyme on the sheet, then cut it into strips. I twisted the strips, then baked them. So simple, though my twists weren't as elegant as Barefoot's. By a lot.

Alicia also made a marinated cheese dish as an hors d'oeuvre, which was a nice, sharp complement to the mild, buttery cheese twists. On top of that, I made Parmigiano-Reggiano crisps with goat cheese mousse, recipe courtesy of Thomas Keller. Looking back, these weren't that difficult to make, though while in the midst of cooking them, I wasn't so sure.

The goat cheese mousse is incredibly simple - just a combination of goat cheese, cream and parsley. Nothing to it. And at first, the crisps don't seem so tough, either. Grate a little cheese, press it into a round mold on a cookie sheet, put it in the oven. But when they come out...that's where it gets tricky.

When I took my first batch out, my first thought was, "Well, at least we don't really need three appetizers." I was positive they were ruined. They looked runny and burnt:

parmesan crisps2
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

A second later, though, as I lifted them off the cookie sheet to place them in the egg carton mold, I realized I was wrong: they'd cooked just fine. Now, only my indelicate shaping could ruin them.
I've never been so careful as I was, placing those sixteen little Parmesan discs into an empty egg carton. "Gingerly" doesn't begin to describe how I gently pressed them into the egg cups, crossing my fingers that nothing would shatter. And "relief" also doesn't do justice to the emotion I felt once I realized that only one of my 16 crisps was broken, and that piping the mousse into the crisps was not as intimidating as it sounded.

Oh, and they tasted great, too. The savory crisps were perfectly balanced by the tangy, cool mousse. Really, quite elegant. And totally worth the stress:

parmesan crisps3
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Once everyone had adequately appreciated the crisps, and I'd had a glass and a half of champagne, it was finally time to sit down for dinner.

But this has gotten long enough, so that will be another post. More deliciousness to follow.

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