EVENT: Holiday Dinner, Version 2010
VENUE: Cara’s Apartment, Prospect Heights
PARTY SIZE: 12
TYPE: Make-Ahead, Festive Sunday-Night Supper
MENU: Olive and Tomato Focaccia Squares; Chicken Marbella; Barb’s Corn Pudding; Baguette; Arugula Salad with Pomegranate, Dried Cherries, and Orange-Raspberry Vinaigrette; Chocolate-Pecan Tart; Chocolate Bark
Last night, in front of the first Christmas tree Cara has ever owned (and her one single ornament–a clove-studded apple handmade by her mom), we celebrated the holidays with Chicken Marbella and Corn Pudding, Focaccia Squares and Pecan-Chocolate Tart, red wine and a Yankee swap. We ate around the coffee table, plates on our laps like good quarter-lifers, to the tune of high school anecdotes, a dachshund puppy (not mine) running around, and some classical music just audible beneath the chatter.
A perfect holiday dinner? Maybe. Who knows, really.
Last year, as a lot of you know, Phoebe appeared on an episode of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa called Perfect Holiday Dinner. Just before it aired for the first time, Phoebe hosted a group of eight to eat the meal from the show: Chicken with Goat Cheese and Sun Dried Tomato, Tagliarelle with Truffle Butter, Roasted Parsnips and Carrots, and Red Berry Trifle. We sat at the real live “dining room” table, the one Phoebe usually reserves for the buffet or the drinks. Incidentally, it was also the first time we made the puff pastry tartlettes of which we are now so infinitely fond to have made in a billion other iterations. Ina’s meal was fantastic, celebratory but still simple enough to be enjoyable for the host. It was a really nice dinner. But perfect? Surely there was some gaffes and disasters we laughed over that night, and it’s always hard to say if such things add to or detract from perfection. In our view, perfection is a goal. Menus can be perfect; parties really can’t.
Holiday Dinner, Version 2010 had a menu that was perfect in that it was celebratory, largely make-ahead, and engrossing to put together without being difficult.
Chicken Marbella, one of Cara’s standbys for entertaining, only gets better the longer it sits, and its flavor accents–olive, dried fruit, herbs–are surprising and delicious. The salad was topped with the jewel hues of pomegranate and dried cherries.
The pecan tart was de-Thanksgiving-ified–it was thinner, more chocolaty, and less completely gooey. Perhaps the star of the show though was the Corn Pudding. Made by our friend Kate’s mom each Christmas, it’s custardy and just a tiny bit sweet. Cara begged for the recipe and brought it to our table.
So what, you may ask, kept perfection at bay? We could have used a few more chairs and a few more matching plates. The tree might have liked to have held a couple additional ornaments. The yankee swap sure had its moments of tension. In spite of or because of these things, Version 2010 was a success, and we recommend the menu for your holiday dinners, at least the ones you want to near perfection.
From our kitchen, albeit small, to yours,
Cara and Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOKS
Olive and Tomato Focaccia Squares
Serves 12 as an appetizer
1 recipe focaccia dough
2 tablespoons ground black olives
1/3 cup canned tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (optional)
Make the dough according to this recipe, up through the 1 1/2 hour rise.
Brush one 9 x 13-inch and one 8-inch baking pan with a generous amount of olive oil.
Place two-thirds of the dough into a 9 x 13-inch pan and the rest into a 8-inch square pan. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Puree the tomates with the garlic and a pinch of salt.
Top the large pan with dollops of the tomatoes and the small pan with the olives. Scatter the shaved parmesan if you wish. Sprinkle with salt. Bake for 25 minutes, until the focaccia is pulling away from the pan and is risen and golden around the edges. Remove from the oven and drizzle with olive oil.
Cool 5 minutes in the pan, then transfer to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut both focaccia rectangles into 1 1/2-inch squares. Serve within 2 hours, or rewarm in the oven.
Barb’s Corn Pudding
Says Barb: “I tend to under bake (like a flan) rather than over bake since it can dry out easily. I make it ahead of time often, under baking it and then throwing it into the oven again just before serving.” (This is just what I did.)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted, plus more for the pan
1/2 cup sugar
8 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups milk
4 cups corn (either fresh off the cob or defrosted frozen work well)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9 x 13-inch baking dish that’s nice enough to serve out of.
In a large bowl, combine the melted butter with the sugar and stir to combine. Beat in the eggs, then sprinkle the baking powder, flour, and salt over and mix in. Stir in the milk, then add the corn and stir again to combine.
Pour into the prepared dish. Bake for 50 minute to 1 hour, until the pudding starts to brown on the top a when the pan is nudged it jiggles only just slightly. Serve immediately, or cool to room temperature and reheat for 15 minutes before serving.
This tart is not too sweet and perfect beneath a dollop of whipped cream. Amazingly enough, it’s dairy free–if you hold that cream!
1 pie crust (I used this one, with Spectrum vegetable shortening substituted for the butter)
1 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 teaspoons neutral oil, like safflower
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups toasted pecan halves
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Roll out the crust and place it in a nonstick 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Double up the thickness of the sides. Prick the crust several time with a fork. Freeze for 10 minutes. Cover loosely with tin foil to prevent browning, then bake for 8-10 minutes. Remove to a rack and leave the oven on.
While the crust is baking, make the filling: melt the chocolate with the corn syrup and the oil in a double boiler (put the ingredients in a heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water). When the chocolate has melted, stir in the brown sugar.
Remove the bowl from the double boiler and add the salt, espresso powder, vanilla, and eggs. Stir to combine.
As soon as the crust is out of the oven, prick it to deflate it if it’s risen, then scatter the pecans evenly across it. Evenly scrape the chocolate mixture over the pecans and smooth it across the top.
Return the tart to the oven. Bake until the filling is puffed and looks dry, about 10 minutes. It will still jiggle slightly in the center if you shake it gently. Cool on a rack. Serve in small slices, warm or at room temperature.