Sunday, October 30, 2011

Chocolate and cheese

Last Monday was Jeff's birthday and I decided that a good present for him would be giving all of his coworkers the flu, because then he would automatically become the happiest person at work for the entire week. It's the gift that keeps on giving. So on Monday night I volunteered to make dinner and we invited his whole legal secretary crew over to share in the fun. If the date had been a little closer to Halloween, I actually would have dressed as Typhoid Mary.

I had been pretty wiped out after my choir concert on Sunday afternoon, and also I wanted the whole menu to be a surprise, so I had only about three hours after work on Monday to shop for, transport, and prepare a suitably festive birthday dinner (Jeff had handbell practice, so we didn't sit down to eat until around 9:30 PM). I knew that I wanted to make a couple old standby recipes, and when I sat down to write up the menu, the first thing that popped into my head was butternut squash soup, the star of one of the first dinner parties I ever threw. I tried out a few new things, like adding some brown butter, celery, and fennel, but overall this was no sweat for me.

Jeff's favorite food in the entire world is every kind of cheese, so I knew that cheese had to play a starring role in his birthday dinner, even if it meant just serving a handful of cheddar cheese cubes on a plate next to a bowl of butternut squash soup. Luckily, it didn't come to that, because after I thought of butternut squash soup my next thought was dipping. And what is better for dipping than a grilled cheese sandwich?

So, here it is. I used my friend The Grilled Cheese Guy's recipe, and even though I didn't have a brick (which apparently is the trick) to smash the sandwiches down while cooking, they still turned out crispy and nicely caramelized. Since the posted recipe isn't too clear on exactly how much cheese to use in your sandwiches, I decided to err on the side of queso and stuff each one with over a quarter pound of cheddar and mozzarella. For my taste, that was a little too much cheese, not enough grilling, but Jeff's ideal grilled cheese sandwich is basically a six-inch square slab of melted cheese with a one-atom thick layer of bread on each side, so I think he liked this version a lot. And it was his birthday, after all.

I do have to say that this dinner just a little bit disappointed in myself. Each dish that I made could have been just a little bit better. The salad should have had a fruity pop to it, but I didn't quite have time to seed the pomegranate I had bought. The grilled cheese could have been more balanced. I forgot to buy candles, so Jeff had to blow out our grill lighter to make a wish. And the soup would have been much better if I had just had an extra twenty minutes to pass it through a sieve, giving it a dazzling perfectly smooth texture worthy of a birthday party. I even got out my sieve around 8:55 to start working on this final step, but when I got a text from Jeff at 8:57 letting me know that he was on his way home, I knew that I would have to choose between Jeff coming home to a lumpy soup or Jeff coming home to me screaming at a mesh strainer full of lumpy soup as I beat it into silky submission with a rubber spatula. It took a lot of emotional maturity for me to choose the former. It was his birthday, after all.

And this chocolate cake with peanut butter icing, well, let's just say that I'm not very good at making icing and it ended up being more of a chocolate cake with a peanut butter glaze (thanks to Stephen, who is very good at emergency dessert nomenclature). Luckily, Jeff's favorite dessert is any dessert that has chocolate in it, so I think it would have been hard to screw things up too badly when the base of the dessert was rich chocolaty goodness.

Overall and everyone seemed to have a good time, aided by a couple bottles of champagne gifted to Jeff both at the office and at home. Hey, he works with some fun people. Chocolate and cheese, and maybe champagne--I think that those are really the only critical elements at a birthday dinner for Jeff. And since his birthday seems to coincide with the onset of flu season every year, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Oh, hi Javier.


Recipe roundup...

Butternut squash soup heavily adapted from Ina Garten's recipe

Grilled cheese sandwich recipe from The Grilled Cheese Guy, as published on the Tillamook cheddar website

The salad was arugula, pluots, pears, and toasted walnuts in a mustard vinaigrette. Pomegranate seeds would have been the secret ingredient, and goat cheese would be great if you're not already serving it with a cheese sandwich.

Chocolate cake with peanut butter icing was inspired by my grandmother's recipe, but since I lost that one, I was in a hurry, and I knew that Carol Blymire is also from Central PA, I used her family recipe, substituting wheat flour for the gluten-free flour that she used. It turned out great. Maybe we have the same family recipe.

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