Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Opera Cake

Quail and Cornish game hens be damned! The hit of the night was dessert.

The presentation of the glistening little birds ringing a large platter was impressive with additional walnut stuffing mounded in the center. The fruit and wine reduction sauce was velvety smooth. Since fig balsamic vinegar went into the sauce, I made a fig balsamic vinaigrette for the salad, and gave the option of adding the toasted walnuts and chevre, which were out for appetizers. I’m glad I was inspired to change at the last minute. The flavors really dovetailed all around, from soup to nuts – well, from appetizers to the repeated use of the walnuts.

But in the end, it was the Opera Cake.

“Elise, this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten here,” my father-in-law gushed, adding that anything he’s “had at Latour doesn’t even compare.” [A restaurant in Bergen County]

I delivered two slices of the cake on Monday morning to my best friend, who at the last minute could not attend. I felt like the Easter bunny, hopping up to her back door and hanging the gift bag on the doorknob early in the morning. Once she found the surprise, she called immediately, confessed that both pieces were gone, and that she’d be “out of commission for the next two hours” on her Wii Fit.

It is a beautiful and tasty cake to say the least, with a 100+ year history. But honestly, it looks a lot harder to make than it is. Sure, there are a number of components, but if you break them down empirically, it’s Pastry 101 (maybe Pastry 201): sponge cake, simple syrup, icing, melted chocolate.

My five-year-old daughter was there every step of the way with a very active hand, and it came out great.

Here is a link to the recipe from Gourmet Magazine, September, 2004 issue. Good luck, and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Quail Quandary

I knew they were just too good to be true.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a supply of Canadian quail at, of all places, a local Asian market. Frozen, four to a package, and unbelievably cheap, at least compared to what I’ve seen or paid in the past – if you can even find them!

Since that date, I’ve been fantasizing about a quail dinner, planning and plotting for basically as many friends and family can attend. Pan seared and oven finished, I would fill them with a fruited stuffing with walnuts and dress them in a fruit and red wine reduction glaze. I started accumulating odd ingredients for the meal and appetizers, from veal demi glace to a really nice Camembert I happened upon last week and snapped up at a great price.

I didn’t entertain as much as I intended to over the holidays, so I’ve been itching to go all out. I rounded up some of the usual suspects for a Sunday dinner then called more. Monday the 18th is a holiday, no work, no school, so a late night wouldn’t be out of order. I had my final head count on Monday night and headed out to buy the quail after work on Tuesday.

I eagerly start piling the packages in my arms. Then I really looked at them: they seemed a little too plump and “whole.” I peeked through the cello-wrap and try to see into the birds’ cavities. The neck part of each bird is facing toward the outer rims of each package. A big label from the Canadian farm covers most of the top, so I can’t see into the bird’s “other end.” I start to wonder.

“Are these cleaned?” I ask a random worker stocking a separate freezer case.

He looks, turns the package all around in the same way I did, and says, “I don’t know.”

I go to the butcher’s counter and encounter a language barrier. No biggie, I’ve communicated through more. He “thinks” they’re clean, but can’t be sure. Then he looks, and says, “No.” He calls over a woman who looks at me like I’m nuts. She has a thicker accent than the butcher, but speaks some English. She looks them over, brings them to another worker to caucus, points to me – I think I saw an eye-roll at that point – and returns.

“Not cleaned,” she says. I still don’t want to believe it. How can I pass these up? I’d been fantasizing about a Night at the Opera-type dinner for weeks.

I ask, “Is the liver inside?” A basic question, easy to answer, to get my confirmation.

“Yes!” she says, almost excitedly.

“And the lungs?”


Turns out, these birds weren’t cleaned. Sure, they were plucked, and as the final man I spoke with said, “Lady, head cut off.”

It’s not the head I’m worried about.

Cleaning the quail would be like doing an autopsy on a sparrow. Sixteen of them. I did consider it, almost at length. I really wanted to make them. They are delicious, impressive and secretly so, so easy to cook. Could I just thaw and eviscerate? Sixteen stomachs, 16 livers, 32 lungs, a football field’s length of intestines. No, I’m not cleaning these things.

Cornish game hens will do, one per person plus spares.

Sunday’s Menu

D’Artagnan paté de foie gras on toast points with cornichons
Warm duxelles over chevre on toast points
Morbier and Tomme de Savoie cheeses; Chevre.
Champagne grapes
Toasted walnuts
Acacia honey
Veuve Cliquot Champagne and Santi Nello Prosecco [Santaniello is my maiden name. I had to get this!]

Roast Cornish game hen with fig and walnut stuffing and a fruit reduction sauce.
Mache salad with a warm sherry vinaigrette and Camembert on Baguette
Roasted mini red and Yukon gold potatoes
Steamed green beans
A red Bordeaux or Margaux [TBD]

Opera Cake and truffles
Tawny Port and coffee.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Girl Can Dream, Can't She?

Plant, plant, plant your seeds
Neatly in a row
Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily,
Don’t forget your hoe!

My first garden catalog
Came by mail today
Seeds and vines and roots and herbs
I can’t wait ‘til May.

We won’t wait ‘til then
You know just what I mean
Seedlings started extra early
Will deliver green.

Heirloom tomatoes, climbing beans
Seed potatoesWow!
Purple basil, baby squash
I can nearly taste them now.

But first I have to narrow down,
From a thousand items all told
I want them all, I can’t decide
This winter has been so cold.

But spring will dawn, my beds will thaw
My robin will make the scene
But until that day, I’ll close my eyes
And all I’ll do is dream.