You may have figured out by now that it’s birthday season around here – as in most families, our birthdays come in clusters, most of them in January and October, with two double birthdays included in this month. This weekend was the end of the January run, as B turned 10. He couldn’t decide between cream puffs and cake (takes after his aunt, he does) and so I made sunken chocolate cakes, their concavity perfect for a pile of cream puffs.
Let me pause here before getting into the sticky details of spinning sugar and dribbling chocolate to use this as a segue way to introduce a fun new series my friend Jan and I have been scheming. Although there is no shortage of recipes on this world-wide interweb, what we love most about food is its ability to bring people together; not just families at mealtimes, but extended families – relatives and friends and strangers connecting around food, whether it’s a celebration or an impromptu gathering. Food is social, it’s comforting, it nourishes and connects us in ways we can all relate to. It’s a common ground. The concept of “entertaining”, though, makes gathering friends around your dinner table seem daunting. People say to me all the time, “you must entertain a lot,” which conjures images of beef Wellington and crème brûlée and me in the kitchen sipping wine in a stylish apron with a 29 inch waist. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with beef Wellington and crème brûlée, but the notion of entertaining in that Martha-meets-the-Stepford-Wives style puts so much pressure on the host that most often we’re dissuaded from doing anything.
So. This year Jan and I are bringing back the casual gathering – and taking the pressure off of those fancy events we so often approach from a standpoint of damage control – and having as many dinner parties and other gatherings as possible. On the last Wednesday of each month we’ll post about one or more of them here, which will allow us to get a running start on a new blog – called Gatherings – where we’ll share recipes, ideas, techniques and tools that we hope will inspire (and help!) anyone putting together a party, or just looking for new ways to bring friends together around the table. (Jan used to be a professional party planner, you know! she knows all about quantities and catering secrets and tons of helpful stuff!) Gatherings will (hopefully!) launch April 1, and we’re even talking about turning it into a book… although those details haven’t been figured out yet. For now, we’ll start here.
As I mentioned, we had a huge handful of birthdays this month, with family members turning the clock from 7 to sixtysomething. The first was a milestone birthday for my brother-in-law, with a party full of friends and relatives, and loads of cheese – there were charcuterie boards loaded with fromage all over the house, and enough left over at the end of the night that they’re going to be set for gourmet grilled cheeses until spring break.
Cheese and charcuterie boards are easy. Pile cheeses of varying shapes/sizes/textures onto wooden cutting boards or big slate tiles (you can pick them up for a dollar-ish at Home Depot) and fill in the gaps with crackers, pickles, chutneys, dried fruit and nuts – no matter what, it will look awesome.
Add little spoons and knives – they don’t have to match. If you want to add little signs for the cheese, people like that. Otherwise, the rustic-er the better.
My (not across the street) sister is particularly adept at baking cakes – she made no fewer than 4 stylish cheesecakes, and picked up a monster of a chocolate cake from the Purple Perk.
We were the kids with the most cake.
Later that week, for hers and my mom’s birthday, we all got together and ordered Indian food. Which totally counts. No rule says that when everyone comes over for dinner you have to actually cook.
For B’s birthday, he chose those saucy cocktail meatballs made with grape jelly and chili sauce, pan-fried sole, and Kraft Dinner. Dessert was two dense flourless chocolate cakes, piled with cream puffs. W and I decided to make one in the traditional croquembouche style, covered in spun sugar, and another drizzled with chocolate and sprinkles. There would be 5 boys 10 and under in attendance.
This isn’t the most dramatically sunken cake, but it’s one of the best I know. Deeply fudgy and easy to stir together. The cream puffs were piled, not glued – I dislike having to chip away at a fragile cream puff that has been glued to its tower with hard caramel. On one, we melted chocolate chips in a zip-lock baggie in warm water, snipped off a corner, and drizzled it over. Sprinkles were quickly sprinkled, so that they would stick before the chocolate set.
Spun sugar is a little trickier. All you need is sugar – and if you like, a spoonful of water and drop of lemon juice, which helps convince caramel to stay in its liquid state. Heat it in a small saucepan until it melts and turns deep golden. The trick, now, is to let it cool a bit – rather than work quickly, which will result in drops of caramel rather than spiderweby strands, it needs to cool to the texture of molasses. At that point, get two forks and hold them back to back, dip them in the caramel, and wave them back and forth over your cream puff tower.
You will make a glorious mess. Forget about it. The benefit of hard candy is that once cool, it brushes right off – your cake plate will come instantly clean – it seems like it should be the opposite, but it’s not. And because it’s just sugar, it will dissolve off your pot in hot water – no scrubbing required.
And as you can see, it looks brilliant.