Thursday, September 18, 2008
My friend Mary and I, along with the other members of Mary's Grassroots Political Therapy Group, decided to throw a house party/fundraiser for Barack Obama. Our division of labor: Mary would supply the house, and I would supply the food. Betty brought many bottles of wine; Pat made signs and greeted people; Pam and Linda were the bartenders; Karen and Sandra arranged the food artistically on platters and served. Our representative from District 60B, Frank Hornstein, was there to fire up the troops, and playwright-storyteller (and neighbor) Kevin Kling wrote a political allegory devised just for this occasion. Eighty to ninety friends and neighbors came to eat, drink, talk, cheer each other up, and put checks in the hats. We had a fine time.
I stayed home from work on Thursday to bake and assemble. My menu was miniature biscuits with ham and hot honey mustard, palmiers Provencale, toasts with cream cheese and Spanish olives, figs stuffed with blue cheese and nuts, and granola-dipped brie and grapes on toothpicks. Dessert was brownies and lemon bars. At 8:00 a.m., the whole day spread out before me, and I started the palmiers in a leisurely manner.
The palmiers (from First Impressions, Betty Rosbottom's book of appetizers) were fun to make, especially if they were the only thing you were making all day. It sounded easy--after all, it's not like you made the puff pastry dough yourself. You just take some Trader Joe's frozen all-butter puff pastry dough, roll the dough out with a little Parmesan, spread each piece with a mixture of chopped Kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes, garlic, basil, thyme, and fennel seeds, roll the dough up from each side until it meets in the middle, cut off little slices, and bake them. Easy, right? And it was, except that every step took longer than I thought it would, and I could only bake one pan at a time, and I was making about 100 of them. But I finished by 10:30.
Then the brownies, a doubled recipe of "Classic Brownies" from Dory Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours.
These are really good brownies: made with butter, bittersweet and unsweetened chocolate, eggs, sugar, vanilla, plus a little instant espresso powder and lots of walnuts. What's not to like? The espresso powder just brings out the intense chocolatey-ness, and there are walnuts in every rich bite.
At this point I should mention that my intrepid photographer-husband kind of fell down on the job here. As we left the house to go over to Mary's house, I said, in my encouraging wifely way, "What is wrong with you Jim? You haven't taken pictures of everything I baked! How do you expect me to blog about this if you don't take the pictures!" "Dammit," he said in his sweet husbandly way, "why didn't you say you wanted pictures before now?" So he managed to snap a few photos, but they are not up to his usual standard as he would be the first (well, maybe the second) to admit.
On a dessert bender, I decided it was time to bake the lemon bars. This recipe is from Rose's Christmas Cookies, my first Rose Levy Beranbaum cookbook and one of my favorites. I had never made this recipe, but I knew that if Rose promised that these lemon bars were "the ultimate lemon butter bar," she wouldn't let me down. And she didn't. Although there was a moment, when I was cooking the lemon curd, which I was instructed to cook until thickened but not to boil or it would surely curdle, that I was reminded of the infamous rum cream pie. I was thrown into a tizzy. I had lost my custard confidence. "This isn't going to thicken," I said to myself. "I'm going to have to take bowls along for the lemon bars, and no one is going to speak encouraging words to me, like they do on the blog." And, when I took the pan off the stove and poured it on top of the buttery shortbread base, it was not very thick. "I'm doomed," I said. (I was doing a lot of talking to myself at this point). But bless her heart, Rose's instructions were 100%. I baked it and put it in the refrigerator. After a half-hour, I tested it, fully expecting the lemon curd to be in a liquified state, but it was perfect.
These lemon bars looked stunning cut into tiny squares and arranged carefully on a shiny white platter. I realize they don't look so stunning in the cakepan, but if I could have stood around this platter all night, surreptitiously eating lemon bars, I would have.
By the time I took the lemon bars out of the oven, it was past 1:00, and I was getting a little nervous about the things I still had to check off my list. I decided to take a break from baking, and make the stuffed figs. Very simple. Just cut a whole bunch of little baby figs in half, stuff each half with a little tiny piece of blue cheese, and artistically arrange a candied walnut half atop the cheese. Or, if you run out of candied walnut halves, artistically arrange a pecan half on top. I figured I could cross this baby off my list in ten minutes. Except that I was making about 150 of them. By #75, I had completely given up on the "artistically arranging" part, and was smooshing cheese into the damn fig and throwing a nut on top.
No pictures of the figs. Jim didn't think they counted as things to be photographed. Fortunately, Sandra and Karen made them look impressive on the platters.
Back to the oven. I had little biscuits to bake. I was planning to use Rose's recipe from The Bread Book, but when I read the directions, I realized that the recipe wouldn't work well for miniature biscuits because you don't use a cutter, so I quickly switched to Dorie Greenspan's Basic Biscuit recipe, using a 1 1/2" biscuit cutter instead of a standard 3" cutter. I ignored the instruction to mix the cold butter in the flour with my fingers--no time!--and used the food processor instead. These little biscuits were so much fun to make! But I was beginning to feel like I was in one of those movies where the clock keeps ticking and the hero has only a few hours left to save all of humanity. When I took the last tray of biscuits out of the oven, it was after 4:00, and I still had two appetizers left.
"Jim!" I yelled. "I need you!" I think he could tell I wasn't speaking in the Valentine's Day card sense, because he came running down the stairs. "What can I do?" "Cut brie in squares!" I barked. "Roll in granola. Put on frilly toothpick with a grape! Capisce?"
Meanwhile, I was cutting baguettes in slices, brushing olive oil on them, and making toasts. Then I quickly mixed up some cream cheese, Spanish olives, roasted red peppers, scallions, and smoked paprika. As the toasts came out of the oven, I spread a little of the cream cheese mixture on each toast and sprinkled with Parmesan. Then they all went under the broiler. Jim stabbed the last brie cube at the same time I removed the toasts from the oven.
It was 5:30. I had just enough time for a quick shower before changing my clothes and attempting to look presentable. Jim and I trotted over to Mary's house carrying buckets, baskets, and trays of food.
"Marie!" Mary cried. "How did you make all this?"
"Oh," I said modestly. "It was nothing."