(We’re thrilled that this recipe is being featured at Oprah.com’s roundup of holiday recipes for 2009. For more of our featured posts, visit Oprah.com today.)
Throughout this past year, my home has been thronged with friends, laughing and talking, sharing stories and listening. And of course, mostly eating. Everyone is welcome in my kitchen. I don’t have only female friends. I love men. Oh boy, do I love the men in my life. And throughout the year, my home has been filled with men and women alike, an amalgam of ages and backgrounds, no discrimination based on sex.
However, sometimes, there’s nothing like having a room full of fierce, alive women, laughing together, unabashedly. And last week, in one of the best food evenings I have enjoyed all year, my home was filled with seven fabulous women.
It all started with the IACP conference. At this festival-of-food gathering, I met so many people I liked that I walked around feeling dazzled. But some people stood out even more vividly than the others. Becky was the most vivid of the bunch. I was standing in front of the booth for PCC at the food expo, introducing myself to the women in charge of teaching cooking classes. When I said the name of my website, this hip woman with sharp eyes blurted out, “You have the funniest blog!” I turned toward her, we talked for ten seconds, and then we were friends. Sometimes — in one of those gifts in life one can never analyze or explain — people arrive in front of you, and you know instantly that you want that person in your life. Becky is one of those people for me. I felt like the geeky seventh-grader, trying to be friends with the cool kid at the best lunch table, when I said to her, fairly quickly, “Here’s my card. We should hang out. You’re clearly amazing.” Luckily, she felt the same. And here we are — friends. Becky is a brilliant chef, having spent three years at the Herbfarm, and now teaching classes and working as a personal chef. A few days after my party, she walked onto a yacht, to serve as the chef for a three-week cruise, up from Seattle to the Inside Passage in Alaska. If you want to follow her adventures (and oh yes, you do. She has the funniest blog.), you can find her at Hardtack at Sea, right now. (And if you should want to know what is fresh and in season, right this minute, in the Pacific Northwest, check out her professional website, Seasonal Cornucopia.)
Traca had been at IACP, but apparently she was in the bathroom when I first met Becky. Turns out she was also a fan of this site, and she wrote to me just after the conference. A fan letter, but with a twist. I’m grateful for all the letters I receive from readers all over the world, but rarely do people write from Seattle and invite me to lunch. Traca and I began writing emails back and forth, fast and furious, about food and friends who care about it. She is, unofficially, the Grand Poobah (or Poobette) of the food scene of Seattle, since she knows everyone and likes them all. When we met for lunch, we were already friends, and we hugged each other with enormous warmth. She has a laugh that fills the room, a huge desire to learn and live, and an enormous, generous urge to connect people together.
Traca led to Dana, whose blog, PhatDuck, I had been reading for awhile. She is the pastry chef at one of the better restaurants in Seattle, with a precise vision of how matters should be in the kitchen. Her stage at the Fat Duck, the restaurant in Maidenhead, England that was named the best restaurant in the world in 2001, compelled her to begin a blog. Later, her writing was picked up by the Guardian, in London. So, when I met her at the Green Leaf, the Vietnamese restaurant in the International District in Seattle, where she, Traca, Becky, and I were meeting for lunch, I was surprised to find how young she is. How could she be so accomplished already? Having read her website, I wasn’t surprised to find her quirky and intelligent, a live nerve ending, alive in the room.
At lunch that day, Dana asked me about Molly, my dear friend who writes Orangette. “I think I’ve seen her in Whole Foods!” Dana said with excitement. “Is she the woman with that fabulous poncho?” Well yes, she is. It’s hard for me to remember that I once did not know Molly. She has become, indelibly, a huge part of my life. And of course, we met through our websites. (My god, this generous world of food blogs.) We have eaten well, and talked fast and laughing, swapping stories of love and writing. We don’t have to explain much to each other, since we are both writers. We understand. I love her laugh, her sassy sense of humor, and the way she looks at the world. She is dear to me. And when Dana asked, with a sense of awe, if we could invite Molly to my party, I felt like the cool kid that time.
The night of the party, Traca brought along Fiona, one of the most outrageously alive people I have ever met. She walked into the kitchen with a massive bouquet of spring flowers for me, and she was welcome, immediately. She has an enormous laugh, wide-open eyes, a bawdy sense of humor. No sense of shame. She is in the world, quite clearly. If she started a food blog, we’d all be reading it. (Fiona? Are you listening?)
And then, of course, always, there is Meri. Dearest, darling Meri, who has been my food friend and best buddy in Seattle for years, who has shown up on this blog multiple times. My first taster. My constant listener. My farmers’ market strolling partner every spring and summer. No one knows how to pronounce her name at first — (it’s a soft d instead of an r; her full name is Merida, which is from the Spanish) — but they all end up loving her joyful spirit, her great sense of life.
You see why I was so happy to have this dinner party?
However, I was a bit nervous. A few days before the event, when I was planning the menu, I suddenly thought, “What the hell am I thinking of? Why am I cooking for a bunch of professional chefs and foodie professionals?” But in the end, I remembered what I always tell my students about writing: write to connect, instead of to impress. Cook to connect, to give people joy. After that, I was fine. (Besides, both Becky and Dana said people are afraid to cook for them, so they don’t have that many home-cooked meals.)
And so, this is what we ate:
– goat cheese marinade with capers, tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar
– black olive spread with gluten-free crackers
– Tomme de Chevre cheese with fig spread
– ceviche with sea scallops and snapper
– thin-grilled, goat-cheese polenta with fennel-sage sausage
– an asparagus-spinach soup, made with fresh greens and a touch of cream
– a raspberry-pomegranate molasses-sumac sorbet I created the previous weekend
How does that sound?
Well, everyone seemed to enjoy it. We stood in the kitchen, all seven of us, leaning against the countertops, sipping wine and taking little nibbles of everything. That’s when you know it’s a good party — when no one leaves the kitchen. We had to spread out each course as far as possible, just to make room in our stomachs for more. This is why it wasn’t until 11 pm at night that I fired up the skillet again and browned the polenta I had made the night before, sunny yellow and fillled with first-lactation goat cheese from Idaho, studded with fresh basil. I topped each little square with fennel-sage sausage, and we ate once again. No one seemed to complain.
At some point, the seven of us talking freely and laughing in the living room turned into an episode of Sex and the City, with giggling and tumbling sharing of stories. One of us made a gesture to illustrate a point that will remain indelible in all our minds. There were even drawings proferred. We laughed late into the night.
Toward the end of the evening, Traca powered up the blowtorch and burnished up some butterscotch creme brulee. The roar of the flame and the smell of the burning sugar excited us all. The taste? Ah — powerful. Outrageous, fierce, alive sweetness. Just like the women in that room, in that fabulous blast of an evening.
Butterscotch Crème Brulee, adapted from an Herbfarm cooking class
Before I stopped eating gluten, I would never have dreamed of making creme brulee. Cracking the burnt sugar top with my spoon was a sensory pleasure reserved for special occasions in restaurants. But watching Traca finish these, and hear her tell of how easy they were to make, convinced me I could do it. Eating these — the delicate sweetness, mellow with an unexpected depth — convinced me that I need to make them again soon.
One and one-half cups heavy cream
Six tablespoons dark muscovado sugar
Two tablespoons turbinado sugar
One-quarter teaspoon salt
Six tablespoons water
Four large egg yolks
One-half teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees, with the one of the racks in the middle of the oven.
Pour the cream, muscovado sugar, and salt into a small saucepan. Put the pan on a burner already heated to medium heat. Stir the mixture, gently, until the sugar has completely dissolved. (You’ll know this has happened when the creamy mixture feels smooth, when your wooden spoon can no longer find any grittiness.) Set aside for a moment.
In another saucepan, bring the tablespoons of water and turbinado sugar to a boil on medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Keep cooking this mixture, stirring fairly frequently, until it has browned and become bubbly. (This should be about five minutes.) Remove this pan from the heat. Slowly, savoring every smell, pour the hot cream mixture in a drizzle. Whisk this continuously until it has all combined.
In a separate bowl, mix the egg yolks and vanilla extract until it has become a custard. Pour this custard through a fine strainer, slowly. Remove any foam from the remaining custard, then portion it equally into the ramekins.
Place the ramekins in a baking pan just larger than the ramekins, then pour in enough hot water to fill the baking pan halfway up the side of the ramekin. Bake in the 300° oven, uncovered, until the custard has set around the edges, but the centers are still just a little aquiver. (This should be about forty minutes.) Transfer the ramekins to a wire rack, then place this in the refrigerator to cool.
After a few hours, remove the ramekins from the refrigerator to find that the custards have firmed up.
Now — here’s the fun part. Spread a thick layer of turbinado sugar over the top each custard, covering the surface entirely. Shake off any sugar that has not stuck to the top of the custard by turning each ramekin upside down over the sink. Taking care not to burn yourself, switch on your blowtorch. Hold the flame about four inches from the surface of the custard and slowly move it back and forth across the custard until it has become caramel brown. Be sure to pay atttention to the sounds — a rush, a roar, a wonderful wind. (And if you don’t have a blowtorch, put the ramekins under the broiler. Be sure to watch them closely. You definitely don’t want these to burn.)
Put a spoon in the brulee, lift it to your mouth, and be prepared to moan. .