Then Emily called, asking when she was going to get to come over for dinner again. And since Emily and Tracy and I are all Northwestern University, School of Speech/Communication, Class of '86 grads, it was a short leap to a college mini-reunion dinner party.
Added to the mix were fellow classmates (and former roommates) James (who had already dined at Jeff and Martha's with Emily), Dan, and Victoria. Given that all my guests are distinguished entertainment-world movers and shakers, it was a miracle that we could actually schedule this and pull it off! And I'm so glad we did.
Working backwards from the pasta sauce, I came up with a menu. I knew I wanted to make a salad, so I decided to build one around Martha's roasted mushrooms. I took Martha's suggestion to serve the Bolognese with pappardelle, which I augmented with those yummy mozzarella crostini that I served Marcy last week. And although I originally intended to bake a cake for dessert, my workout buddy, Ken, talked me into choosing something lighter, given that the entree was heavier (i.e. pasta). Good call, Ken. Enter Pavlova.
Roasted Mushrooms (p. 313)
Who doesn't love roasted mushrooms? I chose shiitake and oyster mushrooms, and I slathered them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme, and then popped them in the oven. Of course, while they were in, people were arriving, and I lost track of them, and they got a little... crispy.
Now, I actually love things crispy like this, so I was fine with it. And it added a crunch to the salad, which was welcome. But I'm sure Martha would have tsked.
I do want to describe the salad they topped, because this was my own creation, inspired by some other things I've made from this book. And I was proud of what I think was a successful combo. With lemon vinaigrette, I lightly dressed baby arugula and roasted yellow beets, and put the crunchy mushrooms on top, along with some shaved parmesan. That's Victoria and James pictured with the salad course.
The only thing I might have done differently was the dressing. Maybe a shallot/cider vinaigrette would have been a better match, something a little less zingy...
In any case, I was very happy with this course. And can I just say, the inside of a roasted yellow beet is a beautiful thing to look at.
Jeff: B- ("A" for the salad, but "B-" for over-roasted shrooms)
Bolognese Sauce (p. 383)
Thankfully, this was something I could make in advance of the dinner party, since I didn't have a lot of time for cooking that day. I've made meat sauces before, sort of winging it, but I've never done one as detailed as this.
I think this recipe is quite traditional, as I checked out some other Bolognese recipes online, and they mostly stick to the same formula. Brown pancetta, sauté diced carrots, celery, and onions, brown meat, add tomato paste, wine, milk, stock, tomatoes, and various herbs, in this case thyme and bay leaf, and of course, salt and pepper.
Things that stood out to me:
- I'm curious about the use of the word "brown" when referring to how the meat is cooked. Do we say "brown" because the meat goes from pink to brown, or is it that this meat should actually be getting a dark brownness from being cooked at a high heat, like a slight char? If it's the former, I did it just right. If it's the latter, I messed it up. There were no brown bits sticking to the pot. It was slightly liquidy (with grease) the whole time....
- Again, I had a strange cooking-time situation here. Martha says to cook this "low and slow," i.e. for a long time at a low temperature. So once everything's in the pot, you bring it all to a boil, then "reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook, partially covered, 3 to 3 1/2 hours... (until it has) the consistency of a loose chili." At three hours, it was nowhere near loose chili. It was more like a big pot of soup with meat sunk to the bottom. Since I had to leave my apartment for a while, I turned the heat down to the lowest setting and came back two hours later to find it had barely reduced. That's five hours. Then I turned it back up to "very low simmer" and waited another couple of hours. Still soupy. Finally, I brought it up to what I'd call a steady medium simmer, and in another hour, I had loose chili. So... eight hours total. Oy. Well, it was definitely low and it was DEFINITELY slow.
- I like the way she handles thyme here. What you do is, you tie a bunch of thyme springs into a bundle with cooking twine, and the bundle sits in the sauce as it cooks. And what happens is, all the little thyme leaves fall away, leaving a bundle of bare thyme twigs for you to remove at the end. Neato. Be sure to tie the bundle tightly - mine wasn't tight enough, and I had to fish for some errant twigs.
The homemade pappardelle came out just OK. Similar to the pasta I made for the Ravioli with Butternut Squash Filling, this pasta had an unwelcome heaviness, unlike the lightness of my first few pasta efforts. What's happening? I thought my pasta would get better each time I made it, not worse!
However, unlike all my other pasta, which floated upon hitting the boiling water, these noodles stayed low until they were done, and then they rose. Hooray!
One of my frustrations about serving homemade pasta is that it cools so quickly once plated. One of my readers suggested heating the bowls. (Too complicated for tonight.) I also considered putting the pasta in a covered serving bowl and letting people serve themselves. But then, I'd worry about it sticking together, which it did, in fact, start to do once I'd drained it. So I doled out the pasta into six bowls, brought them to the table, and then put the sauce on each portion at the table. And this completely solved the issue. The sauce was super hot, and it kept the noodles hot. This doesn't work when you're serving ravioli with melted butter, but when you can slather on a bunch of meat sauce, you're golden.
It was a nice course. People seemed happy with it, especially Tracy (see right). I don't mean to sound like a perfectionist, but I wish the pasta were lighter and the sauce were... tastier? Saltier? I don't know. It was good. I'm going to shut up now.
Pavlova (p. 452)
Per Ken's suggestion, I redirected to this lighter choice for dessert. Pavlova is a meringue shell, hardened on the outside, chewy inside, which gets topped with whipped cream and fruit. In Martha's recipe, she uses Poached Apricots and fresh blackberries, which I'm sure taste amazing with it, but apricots are out of season, so I went digging for a seasonal match option, which I found in a Pear Pavlova recipe from Martha's website!
The meringue shell was another thing I could make in advance, so I put it together the night before. It's quite easy, actually, assuming you have an electric mixer. (My new electric mixer is CRA-MAZING, by the way. It whips/mixes things in a fraction of the time you'd expect!) So, you whip egg whites into a frenzy, add small amounts of vinegar, cornstarch, and salt, then a large amount of superfine sugar, and finally a touch of vanilla. Then you transfer it to parchment on a baking sheet, form it into a round with a well in the middle, and bake it at a very low temperature (200°) for 1:40, and let it cool in the oven overnight.
Easy. Done. Until... I tried to get it off the parchment in the morning, and it completely fell apart (see below). There was an ooziness around the edges, which was not a good sign. Did I over mix the egg whites? Undermix them? It was pretty much doing what it was supposed to do, texture-wise, but it was supposed to "lift easily off the parchment" and this shell did nothing of the kind.
Luckily, I had the ingredients I needed to make a second one, so I did. And this one was even oozier than the first! But I'm no fool. I didn't even try to take it off the parchment. I thought, I'm serving this mother on the paper, so there!
The poached pears were a revelation. They were poached in a syrup concoction involving a bottle of red wine, then refrigerated overnight in the poaching liquid, so by dinnertime they were deeply red and gorgeous! Then, the poaching liquid is reduced to a thick syrup, which gets drizzled over everything. And it tasted amazing! While I think the poached apricots and berries would have served as a nice tart contrast to the super sweet meringue, these pears worked just fine.
The meringue on the other hand... oozy. Some of the egg white mixture had separated during the baking process, and there was like a syrup that settled at the bottom of the shell, which glued the meringue to the paper. So serving this was a nightmare. They were the ugliest dessert portions ever, broken pieces of hard meringue, and globs of gluey marshmellowy stuff and whipped cream and pieces of pear. (That's Emily and Dan pictured with the pavlova, and theirs are the two cutest portions!) But it tasted good. For me, it was overly sweet, but that's my personal sensitivity. Other people didn't mind that.
It was definitely an interesting experience, and if it had come out well, I might even consider making it again, since it's sort of an event, and it's not that hard to execute. But two consecutive pavlova failures does not bode well for a repeat performance.
If anyone has insight into why mine came out so gluey, please be in touch, either via email or comment below.
Jeff: C (this would have been an F, except that it was edible, and the pears were an A+)
And before I forget - again! - here's a very belated thank you to Walter H., who was so sweet to send me something from my Amazon wish list: a pie crust protector! I can't wait to use it on my apple pie!
Until we eat again...
Doesn't the Class of '86 look great?