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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dinner for Four, Please.

This weekend, I held my first (of many to come) formal-ish dinner party.  I don't mean formal in the sense that everyone dressed up in ball gowns and we ate caviar, just the type where I actually had a three course dinner planned, used the "nice" plates, linen napkins, and water glasses, and did not wear sweatpants (I know, right?!) 

Since I was so nervous, I made a soup (easy), salad (easy), and dessert (terrifying).

The Menu:

Baby Arugula Salad with Roasted Golden Beets, Blue Cheese, 
Cracked Pepper, Pink Sea Salt, and Sesame Dressing

French Onion Soup with Mushrooms and Barley, 
accompanied by delicious French bread that I did not make 
(thanks Kathryn!)

French Pear & Almond Tart, with Shortbread Crust

The soup and salad were easy.  I made the soup the night before (and made some substitutions to the original recipe -- used beef broth instead of water, more ginger, omitted the beef, and didn't forget the sesame oil), and roasted the beets that morning.  The pear tart was the part that scared me the most, because I had never made this sort of tart before. 

I had scoured the internet for a dessert recipe that would go with such an already earthy menu.  I knew that I couldn't use citrus, and I didn't want to do a chocolate dessert, because I felt that it would be far too rich.  I finally got the idea to make a tart of some sort (since I had perfected the shortbread crust not too long ago), and decided on pears, because they're readily available in the winter and are pretty hearty.  The French and almond parts came into play when I was doing more research.  I happened upon David Lebovitz's blog, and fell in love with his French Pear Tart recipe (along with many of his other recipes).  I used the shortbread crust recipe from Ina Garten's cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (except I doubled the quantities to make for a more substantial crust).  Everyone seemed to like it, and James gave it the seal of approval (my toughest critic, besides myself). 

First, I poached the pears in sugar and water, and added a whole vanilla bean.  I followed David Lebovitz's recipe pretty much to the T (I used organic Bosc pears which held up nicely and had great flavor), except I put a cover on the pot instead of using the parchment paper.  Then, I made the Almond Cream also according to his recipe, only I omitted the liquor at the end.  I don't know if it made a difference.  I had a significant supply of poached pears on-hand afterward, because I found that I didn't need the 5 I had poached.  I assembled and baked the tart according to the recipe, except I didn't add cherries or any other fruit; just pears.  The 40-minue bake-time left me with a slightly over-cooked crust, so in the future, I would probably pre-bake the crust for only 10 minutes instead of 15 (if at all). 

Here's the final result:



 I glazed it with the reduced poaching liquid, and served it with vanilla bean ice cream.  Dish Delish.

 I felt that the whole dinner was successful, because nobody recoiled in disgust after tasting any of it, and if they didn't like it, they hid it well.  My dinner guests were very polite!

Oh hey, what's this... a picture from a snazzy new camera?  YES!   :o)
(I'm still geting used to it, and it frightens me a bit since it's a DSLR with lots of settings)

Shortbread Tart Crust
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, by Ina Garten

3/4 c unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 c sugar
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 c all-purpose flour
pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix butter and sugar together until they're combined.  Add vanilla extract, flour and salt (sifted together -- although I didn't sift and it turned out just fine).  Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together.  Gather dough and press it into a 10-inch round false-bottom tart pan.  Be sure to make the finished edge flat.  Chill until firm (I put mine in the freezer until totally firm).  
Butter one side of a square of aluminum foil (make sure it will completely cover the bottom of the tart) and place it in the bottom of the tart, buttered side down.  Fill with beans and press the foil down around the sides, but don't cover the edges of the crust.  Bake 10-15 minutes, then remove beans and foil and bake 5 minutes more.  

If you're planning to fill the tart with a fruit-curd (like lemon!), then cook the crust 20 minutes with the beans and 20-25 without the beans, so it's completely cooked through.  Cool, then fill with your delicious curd.
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