Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine Dinner - A Home Run

In what turned out to be the usual Saturday "too much to do in one day" scenario, I was still determined to turn out a really nice Valentine's Day dinner. My husband, Barry, really is the accomplished cook in our family; I can bake, but cooking for some reason just doesn't come as easily to me. But since he does 99% of the cooking every day for us, I wanted to make something over and above my "throw some pasta together" fall-back.  

So I went to my trusty cooking magazine archives and in the January 2009 Gourmet issue that I was raving about in a blog post a few weeks ago, I found a recipe for Polenta-Crusted Chicken with Balsamic Caper Pan Sauce (you can find the recipe here).  Sounds good, no?  And, it was in the Gourmet Everyday Quick Kitchen section - another good sign. I was intrigued by the fact that the chicken was coated with polenta, rather than breadcrumbs, and it was served with escarole (or in New Jersey-Italian, 'scarole). Well, it turned out to be not so quick. It wasn't difficult, but definitely not quick.  And when dinner was finally on the table, I wasn't all that thrilled with the outcome. The chicken was moist and I did like the polenta crust - nice and crispy. But the balsamic caper sauce was just not doing it for me.  Barry liked it more than I did (luckily).

But, as they say, even if your main course doesn't turn out so well, your guests will remember the last course.  Thankfully, for me, last night I hit dessert out of the park (now you get the baseball reference in the title, right?). In my very own little "Pastry Chef Hall of Fame," Claudia Fleming is in the top five (what, everyone doesn't carry around a mini Pastry Chef Hall of Fame in their heads?). For many years, Claudia was the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern (part of the Danny Meyer restaurant empire in NYC). As Time Magazine said when they included her in their "Culinary Arts Innovators" series, her desserts are "deceptively simple." A few years ago, Claudia and her husband, Gerry Hayden (formerly the executive chef at Aureole), opened the North Fork Table and Inn on Long Island. The inn has been garnering rave reviews since opening, and no wonder with these two at the helm. This place is on that other list I keep in my head of inns/restaurants I must get to some day (another list I assume every real food-passionista keeps in their head).

So last night for my dessert course I made Fleming's "Almond Cakes with Chocolate Passion-Fruit Sauce." This recipe was from her Valentine's Day menu on Epicurious. This had everything you could want in a Valentine's Day dessert - small, cute, chocolate, and "passion." You don't want a big, heavy dessert at the end of a romantic meal. 

The scent of almond as I prepared the batter was heady. And the batter, oh my, the batter. Due to the beating of the almond paste with sugar and butter for two minutes, which on it's own creates a light batter, but then with the addition of individual beating of the eggs for one minute each, this batter was incredible. So light, so airy, so divine. You bake these in half-cup ramekins (be sure to thoroughly butter and flour the ramekins) so they are just adorable on their own. But with the addition of what has to be the easiest chocolate sauce ever, you have a delectable, show-stopping last course. Let me tell you how easy this chocolate sauce is. You chop up bittersweet chocolate and transfer it to a bowl. In a saucepan, you heat to boiling heavy cream and passion fruit juice. Once it boils, you pour it over the chocolate, stir until smooth, and let stand for 30 seconds. Hello? That's it. Delicious and so, so easy. The only thing I might add next time would be some fresh raspberries sprinkled around the plate. The sauce was fabulous with the almond cake, but I could totally see this drizzled over some good quality vanilla ice cream. 

And wait the almond cakes -- all I could say after the first bite (and each subsequent bite) was OMG. People, I don't swoon easily. Make these cakes for your next dinner party (the recipe makes six and they can be made ahead) and you'll be nominating yourself for your own little Hall of Fame (you do have one, don't you?).

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