Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Trials and Tribulations of Nika's Maiden Catering Voyage

Cucumber Soup, Quiche Lorraine, Watermelon and Cucumber Salad, Cardamom Ice Cream, Lemonade and Chocolate Salted Caramel Cake

When my mother mentioned a month ago that she wanted to have an "indoor" garden party for her upcoming birthday, I eagerly offered my catering services to her and planned out an audacious or rather aspirational menu including all of the delectables from the title plus watermelon sorbet and stracciatella (but no cardamom ice cream).
I was so thrilled about the dinner party and perhaps I thought that the energy from my excitement would be my assistant chef. Suffice it to say, I now have a new found respect for caterers. I realize that I left much of my cooking to the last minute as a result of a busy schedule and my only helper was a 9 year old girl (who turned out to be really, really helpful), but still man, it's hard.
To begin, I forgot my ice cream maker at my dad's house and thus had to rely on previously made cardamom ice cream (luckily there was plenty for our 13 guests). Dissappointed, I vowed to make up for the lack of the two promised flavors with a delicious cake. Here's where it gets trickier. I apparently am not skilled in the least when it comes to making layered cakes.
I don't know if the problem lies in my imperfectly shaped pie plates (which are not perfect cylinders since they're for pies) or in my general layering ineptitude, but my three tiered chocolate cake from Martha Stuart's website decided to spontaneously become the leaning tower of pisa.
I thought cursing loudly enough at it would scare it into being vertical again, but it only continued to slide and made no argument when I began taking fistfuls of the top layer and chucking them into the garbage...vehemently. But let me back track for a minute. I began making the cake on a Friday night after 7 hours of slicing mouse brains on a machine called a cryostat 14 microns thick.
I was really, really tired and so not in the mood for more scientific experiments, which this cake turned out to be. I began by making the caramel, which was supposed to be the glue that held the layers of cake together. This worked perfectly and allowed me to use my candy thermometer for the first time.
To begin, add 4 cups of sugar, 1/4 cup of water and 1/4 cup light corn syrup to a pot and put it on high. Mix it in the beginning to incorporate the ingredients but then just let it sit until it becomes a dark amber (around 15-20 minutes). Then remove the pot from the burner and pour in 2 cups of cream (careful of any splatter).
Put the pot back on the burner and wait until your candy thermometer reads 238 F (maybe 3-5 min). Then pour the liquid into a glass or metal bowl (no plastic, it's really hot), wait for about 5-10 minutes and then add one tablespoon of butter at a time until you've added 1 cup and 1 tsp of sea salt. I put it in the refridgerator to thicken and harden and moved onto the batter.
Be warned: this recipe makes 3 individual cakes, even though mine was only 2 layers (read on). First, I poured 3 cups of flour, 3 cups of sugar, 1 1/2 cups cocoa powder, 1 tbs baking soda, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder, and 1 1/2 tsp sea salt into the bowl of my mixer. I used the mixer on a low setting to incorporate all the dry ingredients.  Then I added 1 1/2 cups warm water, 4 eggs, 2 tsp vanilla extract, 1 1/2 cups buttermilk and 1/2 cup plus 2 tbs of safflower oil.
Mix this until all the ingredients are incorporated and then divide into 3 buttered and floured tins and put them in the oven at 350 F for 3 minutes. I might add that due to our lack of counter space and my helper's height, I placed a foldable wooden table behind me in the kitchen for her to work on. I went to open the oven to check on the progress of the cakes, and instead knocked over the table with my rear end, sending the bowl of cocoa powder mixed with water onto the rug and back of the couch.
I also managed during dinner to knock over my mother's limonata, which was sitting precariously on the carpet. Slapstick aside, I moved on to the frosting using Martha Stuart's recipe included in her instructions for the cake. She said that you could put it in the fridge overnight until you were ready to frost the cake, but the next morning, I discovered that the frosting had hardened in the bowl in a way that forced me to melt it out so I could clean the bowl and start over.
This time, I used Tea and Sympathy's trusted recipe for frosting, which called for 8 tbs milk, 1/2 cup of butter creamed, 1 cup melted semi-sweet chocolate chips, a few dashes of salt and 3 1/2 cups of confectioner's sugar. The frosting worked perfectly. It was Saturday around 11 AM, with guests arriving in 4 hours when I decided to put the cake together.
I carefully cut the cakes out of their tins and flipped the first one onto a plate. Success. I took some caramel on a plastic spatula after letting it thaw until it was spreadable, and began to swirl caramel about the surface of the cake. I flipped the second layer on top and it seemed to be going smoothly. Again, I frosted the surface with caramel and added the last layer.
I am pretty good with science, and I say that because I have no explanation for what happened next, but the caramel seemed to melt when the last layer was put on as if it was having some sort of phase reaction with the chocolate (which was completely cooled overnight). Anyway, the entire bloody mess started to lean over and the caramel started to drip down onto the table and I began to reason with the cake.
Me: Fine, you want to do it this way? Cake: Apparently. That brings us back to the beginning of the story, in which I threw away a perfectly delicious layer of cake and in doing this unspeakable crime, managed to save my now two-story building.
It leaned slightly, but it was safe and I immediately put it back in the fridge as if to halt the caramel's melt down and mine.  When I felt it was time, I frosted the cake and one would never know the energy spent on it. I could hear Julia Child's voice in my head (I just finished her memoir, My Life in France), saying, "One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”
Luckily I fixed this cake, with a lot of emotional cheering on from my mom and helper cook. We finally moved onto the quiche, now with three hours until humans arrived, and I designated tasks. My mom would cook one package of bacon and my helper would crack the 12 eggs needed for my 3 quiches, while I made the crust. Crack 12 eggs into a bowl and whisk until frothy. Then add 3 cups of cream (I used 2 cups plus 1 cup of half and half, and this worked fine). 
Then you must chop up three 8 oz packages of Gruyere cheese and add that to the cream and egg mixture. When the bacon is done, crumple it with your fingers and add it to the mix along with a few healthy dashes of basil and some pepper. Mix it all together a bit more and move on to the crust. I used Rose Bakery's recipe for shortcrust pastry involving 3 1/3 cups of flour and 1 cup of butter kneaded together. 
Then add 1 egg yolk and use a fork to incorporate the ingredients and a bit of ice cold water until the dough is kneadable but by no means sticky. Put it in the fridge for 30 minutes. When the 30 minutes was up, I rolled out the dough onto floured wax paper and flipped it into the pie plate. 
I poured in the batter, added a few shakes of parmesan cheese and put it in the oven for 20 min at 425 C and 35 min at 325 F. The quiche worked beautifully even though I dropped one further into the oven on the way out of the oven; which I managed to salvage with only a minor burn. 
While the quiche was cooking, I made the cucumber soup and cucumber and watermelon salad to be served with the quiche. My helper peeled and chopped all the cucumbers. The soup required 5 cucumbers, about 1 cup of minced cilantro (fresh), 1 minced jalapeno, 1 1/2 cups or so of sour cream (taste as you add), 3/4 clove of garlic, the juice from 2 limes, 1 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper. 
Add the vegetables and seasonings (not the sour cream) to the blender gradually until it is pureed and then once it is done pour it into a bowl, add the sour cream, mix until incorporated and then chill. I used our nifty ninja blender and it made enough for 2 small bowls per guest. 
I also made croutons to go along with the soup by chopping up some Italian bread into bite sized cubes, drizzling them with olive oil and a bit of oregano and putting them in the oven at 375 for about 18-20 minutes or until they were golden brown (depends entirely on your oven and their size). 
My mom chopped up the watermelon (about 1/2 a melon) for the salad and my helper added 3 diced cucumbers to the mix meanwhile I squeezed two limes and sprinkled a sprig of mint onto the salad and mixed it up. I had eaten the salad previously at a southern restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Pies and Thighs. 
The lime juice changes the flavor of both fruits and takes away a bit of the sweetness. It lasted for about 3 days. Finally, I made lemonade using 20 lemons and a lot of water and sugar. I like lemonade to be lemony and even though I poured some concentrated mixture into a bowl and diluted the liquid in the pitcher, it was still pretty damn tart. 
Everyone seemed to love it though, leaving the Limonatas and Aranciatas untouched and it provided a wonderful companion to the chocolate caramel cake. 
I won't go into the details of making cardamom ice cream since I already have, but it too was delicious. In the end, it all worked out so perfectly that I forgot how frustrating the process was and the paper lanterns we strung from our ceiling danced above our guests dining on quiche and cucumber soup all evening long. 

Happy Birthday Mommy!


  1. Thank you with all my heart & soul! Exhausted just re-reading (reliving) this post it was a spectacular outcome and the best birthday ever!