Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Happy Holidays! (Party Planning)

So you have made the decision to throw a holiday party this year, but where do you begin?

First – call your caterer, ha ha.  But, seriously, it is okay to ask for help for all or just part of your party.  But whether doing it all yourself or not, here are some planning tips from our 20 plus years of experience to ease your stress.

What you serve at your party will be determined by what time your guests arrive.  An open house can start at 2pm and just be light hors d’oeuvres, a snack between lunch and dinner.  If inviting guests at 5 to 6pm you should plan enough food to cover dinner; it might not be an actual sit down dinner, but plan on them eating that much.  Inviting guests after 7pm you can just do cheeses and desserts.

An open house is a great way to go for family and friends, especially if kids are involved.  Plan 3 or 4 hors d’oeuvres plus 1 stationed item.  By a station I mean a large focal point, such as an abundant fruit and cheese display.  For a dinner hour party (but not dinner) plan 2 stations plus 4 to 5 hors d’oeuvres, this way if the guests are hungry they can help themselves.  The late evening is a lot of fun, just do a nice cheese display, and make a couple of other items, and ask friends to bring their best dessert.

Don’t feel you need to be traditional just for the sake of it.  Of course, whatever traditions are important to your family you want to keep, but otherwise be creative.  For instance we always host Christmas Eve at our house, and for years we started with hors d’oeuvres, stuffing ourselves because we all love them!  Then waiting until we can barely fit any more to start dinner, and finally forcing dessert, which was a shame because we love dessert too.  But now we just put out a grand buffet of hors d’oeuvres and desserts and nibble all night long!  It allows a huge variety, plenty of food, and everyone can eat at their own pace between presents, conversation and cocktails.

Whatever type of party you are having, when planning your menu you should keep in mind three balances.  First is pre-prepped items versus things that must be done at the last minute (ala-minute). Second, hot versus cold items.  Third is purchased versus homemade.

Purchased versus homemade – what do you have time to make?  Can a part of something be bought and you finish it; semi-home-made?  Save making things to those items that are your personal or family favorites, where that homemade touch really comes across.

Now that you have decided what to make versus purchase, what is your prep schedule like?  Doing everything the day of party can get very hectic and leave you too tired and stressed to be a good hostess, and don’t forget you want to enjoy your party too.  What can be done a day or two before?  In part or in whole?  For instance most sauces and salsas can be made 2 days in advance.  Vegetable prep for sautés or crudités can be cut and bagged the day before.  Some great items to think about are puff pastry rollups filled with ham and cheese or pesto that you can just pull out of the freezer and bake.  Homemade meat balls can be made a week in advance and just reheated.

Hot versus cold versus room temperature items make can make a big difference.  How long can a hot item be hot and still be good and how will you keep it hot?  How long can a cold item be out of the refrigerator and how much refrigeration do you have?   Many items can be cooked in advance and just reheated, only tying up the oven for 5 to 10 minutes.  Spanakopita and empanadas can be easy hot items.  Buy smaller baking sheets that can fit side by side in the oven for a greater variety.

Keep room temperature items in mind if refrigeration will be an issue.  Baked goods, sweet or savory, are usually a good choice.  Some wet items can be safe at room temperature for hours; their key trait is usually be very salty or acidic; think dried salted meats, pickled items, or others in a high salt or vinegar environment.  For instance, although it’s odd to think about leaving fish out, cured salmon (lox), ceviche, and smoked oysters are safe at room temp for periods of time.  But, even these should be covered and out of the sun or particularly warm locations.

And lastly, do you have enough plates and glassware?  Or will some of your guests be enjoying that award will Pinot Noir out of a Flintstones glass?  Rentals are easy and can ease your clean up too.  I plan 2 glasses per person for a cocktail party.  For 30 guests with wine and cocktails I would order 25 wine glasses, 20 cocktail and 15 water to use for back up.  I use JRB Event Services and Encore Events (aka Cal-West) for rentals.  Just call them a week or two in advance to arrange what you need; for small amounts you can usually arrange to pick them up the day before and return the day after the party.  Larger quantities can be delivered.

Always remember your ice.  I have found that extra ice makes everyone happy.  When that guests asks what to bring - ask for ice; they can pick it up on the way and no one needs to find freezer space to store it.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Caramel, ‘tis the Season

Here's my Petaluma Post article from September/October:

Is there any sweeter time of year than fall? My absolutely favorite time of year.  The chill in the air, the smell of falling leaves, the first rains.  It is time to be cozy and warm.  The perfect time to cook!

Whether dipping apples or drizzling on cobbler caramel is the essence of fall.  That deep caramelized sugar with notes of vanilla bring back child hood memories.  I am not talking those small plastic wrapped candies that you had to sit and unwrap, my memories are the wonderful smell of caramelizing sugar with butter and vanilla. There are so many ways to use caramel.

To caramelize - the browning of sugars.  This is one of the most used terms in cooking.  Don’t think just sugar.  It is usually the first step in most recipes, from searing beef to caramelized onions.  In meats it is the Maillard reaction, causing carbohydrates in meat to brown at 310 degrees.  In baking it is carbohydrates - sugars begins to brown at 260 degrees.  It is what makes toast brown and French fries golden.  And what makes sugar into caramel.

Today I want to talk about desserts. There are two ways I usually caramelize sugar, dry and wet.  Each one has its own uses.  Dry method is quicker and results in a hard crack caramelized sugar good for candies and flan.  Where your wet method stays soft and is great for sauces and soft candies.  There are some key elements that are essential to both; time, attention and a heavy bottom pan.  Remember you are boiling something to 260 degrees, that is hotter than boiling water and it is sticky, if you burn yourself it will stick to you and blister very quickly, please use caution.

For the dry method you will need a heavy sauce pan, wooden spoon, and an immediate place to put the hot caramel.  A heavy bottomed sauce pan is important to distribute the heat evenly, otherwise you will get burnt spots.  And remember the heat from the pot will continue to cook your caramel once off the stove, so you should transfer as soon as possible.

Dry Caramelized Sugar
Place your heavy bottom pan on the stove and add sugar.  The sugar has a small quantity of moisture and it will begin to melt and puddle.  Stir gently, it will go from clear to an amber color, once the color begins to turn reduce the heat to low, continue to stir and watch closely as the color increases. Remove at dark golden and finish your recipe.  What you do next depends on your recipe, but get it out of the hot pan.  If the sugar begins to smoke you have gone too far and it will be bitter, so just throw it out and try again.  Some of the recipes this can be used in is brittles, flan, spun sugar and croquembouches.

¾ cup Sugar
4 eggs
1 can Sweet and Condensed Milk
1 can Evaporated Milk

Caramelize the sugar as we did in the Dry Caramelized Sugar method, and pour it into a 9” round cake pan.  Allow to cool until hard.  Next, combine the eggs and milks, and whisk well, but to not whip, you don’t want too many bubbles.  Place the cake pan in a roasting pan, and pour the egg and milk mixture into the cake pan.  Add water to the roasting pan to about half way up the cake pan to create a water bath.  Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes.  Remove the cake pan from the roasting pan and chill for 2 to 3 hours.  To release run a knife tip around the edge and invert on to your serving dish.

I love caramel sauce, not butterscotch, true caramel sauce.  And what could be better than adding just a bit of sea salt.  The intense sweetness cut with just that pop of salt - oh yeah!  This next recipe uses the wet method of caramelization.  This means that you will be starting your caramel with water to boil.

Wet Caramelized Sugar
1 cup Sugar
¼ cup Water
¾ cup Cream
3 Tbl butter
1 tsp Sea Salt

Combine water and sugar in a thick bottom pan, stir or swirl gently. Try to avoid splashes in the pot; sugar is a crystal and wants to go back to crystal form, not stay a liquid, so if you splash crystals up onto the sides of your pot they can fall back down into your liquid and cause it to recrystallize (in French is called masse), making your caramel look opaque and grainy.

Bring to a gentle boil, stirring gently.  As the sugar begins to color watch closely and turn down the heat to a medium low.  You are looking for a mid to dark amber color, since you are adding cream you need to get enough color out of the sugar for good color in the sauce.  One of my techniques is to drizzle caramel from the spoon into the pot, look at the thin stream for color, the pot will look darker than the drizzle.  Look to the drizzle for your color.

Remove from the heat.  This next step is tricky.  You are going to add the cream and the butter into the pan.  Remember you have boiling hot sugar at this time and you are adding liquid back in, it is going to boil hot and fast.  Using a long handle spoon, gently pour cream into the sugar stirring as you can, then add the butter.  If it begins to harden, continue to stir and return to the stove if necessary.  Finish with sea salt.

This is a great sauce for many desserts, like baked apples, pumpkin pie and is especially great with chocolate