Sunday, October 3, 2010

PFB Challenge 3: Making Thirty-Three Luxurious

My gift, which was appropriately called "Foodies".

I turned thirty-three on the 30th. It was a perfectly good reason to throw a luxury dinner party and a challenge I was ready to take on for Project Food Blog. Big, fat thank yous are on the menu as well. One for all of you who voted and another to the three fabulous judges, who have kept me in the game.

What was the first thing I did for this challenge? I looked up the word luxury in the dictionary, of course.

Merriam Webster Online defines luxury as such:

: a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort : sumptuous environment
: an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or ease

Initially, the word luxury, inspired thoughts of polo, big hats, hearty belly laughs and cigars; clanking champagne flutes, small talk and haute couture; mansions, hired help, elaborate marble fire places; smoking jackets, baby grand pianos and creepily thin moustaches.

But since that isn’t the case at the Zabaneh household (except for hearty belly laughs and the occasional clanking of champagne glasses), I thought what would luxury be for us?

Luxury would be dinner, without being Mommy, manners police or a short order cook for my three little ones.

Luxury would be champagne or any sparkling wine. I love champagne.

Luxury would be having adult conversation without interruption (and that does not count the chat with the cashier at Hobby Lobby the other day).

Luxury would be finding my pink tweezers when I need them.

Luxury would be having a butler.

All except for the last one was doable. And the second-to-the-last, well, that one has nothing to do with a party, but it sure would be a wonderful luxury to have. So that is how I planned my party- around what we would consider to be luxury, at this point in our lives.

The color scheme.

Since ease and comfort are definitions of luxury, I decided to take advantage of that. I made a three course meal that had one simple cocktail for the night (although, the tequila somehow snuck it's way out of it's cozy pantry abode and the beers seemed to have found themselves chilling on ice, because others -a.k.a "the guys"- felt they needed to fortify their alcohol consumption) and prepared many things ahead of time.

See what mean?

 Here's my time line:

2 days ahead: Menu plan and go shopping for all the ingredients

1 day ahead: I made the chocolate sorbet and cookie dough. Washed the lettuce, made the vinaigrette and got all crafty with my menu. I also had all the silverware, plates, chargers and glasses polished and ready to go. I practiced napkin folding while watching Top Chef: Just Desserts on Bravo.

Day of: Baked the olive bread and cookies, put the sorbet cups in the freezer, chilled the salad plates and made the place cards. I also made my table runner and set the table.

Once our guests, John and Heather arrived, I pulled Heather into the kitchen, having her help with salads and cocktails. The men did what men do- drink and moan about their jobs. I think, being that Heather and I are both moms of young children, we were giddy over the fact that we could chat and drink and try to arrange salad without a trantruming or teething child. And drink we did, which, in turn left us with a "what the hell" attitude about our salad arranging.

I only invite "good help" to a party. That is luxury.

"Oh, what the hell." she said to herself. (Julia would be proud.)

I chose the Chicken Marsala because you simply cannot go wrong with this recipe. The sauce is so luxurious that you forget you are eating a lowly chicken breast. As much as I wanted to do scallops, for the budget, I had to choose a less expensive protein. I threw it together in 20 minutes, so by the time we had had a few drinks and eaten our salad, our main course was done.

I have to say, I found myself wrapped up in the details of this party planning. I'm a details-kind-of-girl. And the great thing about details, they can be cheap and easy… and according to the Hubs, so is the hostess (bah-duh, ching! I know, I can't help myself.) Little things like place cards, fancy napkin folds (click here to learn this fold) and table runners can make your guests feel extra special and you don’t have to spend much to do it.

I chose my favorite colors for the table- pink and green. Teeny-bopper? Yes. Chic? That was my challenge. I was off to the craft store, (my home away from home) to pick up some inexpensive supplies. Seriously, give me a give me a bag of groceries, a toothbrush and drop me off at the local Hobby Lobby and you won’t hear from me for a week.

I found the gorgeous green chargers at two bucks a pop. The napkins are actually bandannas from the kid’s craft aisle and my runner was this brown butcher paper stuff that comes on a huge roll. I cut it the length of my table and chose hot pink ribbon to go along the edges to bring in more pink. I simply used double stick tape to adhere it to the paper. The dishes I used are just our daily dishes, but with the addition of the charger, fancy napkin and name card, it looked pretty chic.

That was my little tutorial on how to set the table, my way.

Silverware was limited. I literally emptied the entire silverware drawer and was scrounging for one more of the short forks (don't know the technical name) and couldn't find it. Someone got two long forks instead of a short and long. Oh who cares, really. Several of my nice regular-sized spoons had gone for a spin in the garbage disposal, leaving them jaded and potentially harmful. I finally came up with a motley crew of silverware, not at all as luxurious as I wanted but completely reliable. I suppose after moving 9 times in eleven years, you lose some of your silverware. That's the only way I can figure it. No matter, I scrubbed and polished what I had with Bar Keeper’s Friend until is was shimmering. I felt like a butler and was loving it.

I kept the center piece simple: votive candles. No stretching necks to see each other over huge arrangements of flowers, just simple flickering flames bouncing off of the jewel-studded, hot pink votive holders.
My favorite thing about this table setting was mixing fancy shiny things, with the dull rough paper runner. I love contrast. Whether I’m painting, doing a mixed media project or even putting together an outfit, rich contrast always seems to push something over from ordinary to stunning and it keeps it from getting too fussy.

Check out my special guest! The Hubs knows how much I love The Godfather. (See my impression HERE, I know, no shame.)

"I just love that hot pink ribbon on the runner."

Heather is already calculating how to attack that proscuitto.

The Hubs enjoying that beer. Cheers, Babe.

Hearty, belly laughs = luxury.

We look a bit like statues. And what's with the ketchup bottle? I know...NOT luxurious. It was extra dressing if anyone needed it. But it hung around far too long at the table.

The conversation at the dinner ranged from the cute things our kids do, to the not-so-cute and ridiculous things the Hubs and his brother John did (mainly the Hubs) when they were children. Much was said about how we should either wait until the kids are in their forties to tell them or just never tell them- ever. There was talk about John's newly acquired eye wear and how we were all going to regret the alcohol we imbibed that night. There was laughter over trying to cut the crispy proscuitto with a knife and how it was better to pick it up and eat it like a caveman. And there was something about how to properly hold a fork, you know, like the Brits do? We all tried to turn our forks over and push the food onto it with the knife. And then we all decided we weren't any good at that.

Panforte was one of my luxury items, as it is twenty dollars a pound. But it is simply one of my most favorite things ever. I thought it would go well in Ina's Ultimate Ginger Cookie and it did. Because of the cinnamon in the chocolate sorbet and the cinnamon, clove, ginger and nutmeg in the cookies, they buddied-up together swimmingly. They also became my breakfast the next morning with a hot cup of coffee.

Prosecco Cocktail

1 bottle chilled Prosecco (I used Presto Brut)

4 pure cane sugar cubes

Zest of half an orange

Couple hours before dinner, place sugar cubes with zest in an air-tight container and let the orange infuse the sugar cubes.

To make the cocktail, place one cube at the bottom of the glass and slowly pour the Prosecco over and garnish with orange rind.

How many blonds does it take to make a cocktail?

Apparently, two happy ones.

Butter Leaf Salad with Burrata Cheese and Crispy Proscuitto
Serves 4

1 head butter lettuce

1 ball of Burrata cheese

4 slices proscuitto

drizzle of agave nectar

Good quality balsamic vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lay proscuitto out on a parchment lined baking sheet. Lightly brush agave nectar on each slice and bake 13-15 minutes, until crispy. Let cool slightly before placing it on salad.

Arrange whole lettuce leaves on each chilled salad plate. Cut burrata cheese into quarters and place one quarter on each base of lettuce. Break proscuitto into big shards and place on top. Drizzle with vinegar and oil. Serve.

Basil and Olive Focaccia (which I called Herbed Olive Bread)

Adapted from Paul Hollywood’s 100 Great Breads

• Scant 4 cups bread flour, extra for dusting

• 1 tbsp salt

• ¼ cup olive oil

• 1 oz. yeast

• 1 ¼ cups water

• 1 handfuls leaves basil (and 2 tsp. fresh minced rosemary, my addition)

• 2/3 cup black, pitted olives (I used green)

Salt water glaze

• 1 1/2 tblsp. salt, dissolved
• 1/2 cup warm water

Put the flour, salt, half the olive oil, the yeast and water into a large bowl and mix with your hand for three minutes until all the flour has been picked up.

Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead well for six minutes. The dough should be quite sticky. Put the dough back in the bowl and leave at room temperature for two hours.

 Lightly oil a baking tray. Mix the basil into the dough then flatten the dough out onto the baking tray to about 1” thick. Brush the top of the dough with a little olive oil and make indentations in the top with your fingers. Leave to rise for one hour.

Set the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the salt with the warm water to make the salt-water glaze and brush liberally over the top of the bread. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil.

Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool a little before serving.

That's what a hostess loves to see...

Chicken with Mustard Mascarpone Marsala Sauce

Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis’ recipes

• 1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, each breast cut crosswise into 3 pieces

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 2 tablespoons olive oil

• 5 tablespoons butter, divided

• 3/4 cup chopped onion

• 1 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced

• 2 tablespoons minced garlic

• 1 cup dry Marsala wine

• 1 cup (8 ounces) mascarpone cheese

• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (I used only 1 tbls.)

• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves, plus whole sprigs, for garnish

• 12 ounces dried fettuccine


Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over high heat. Add the chicken and cook just until brown, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate and cool slightly.

While the chicken cools, melt 2 tablespoons of butter to the same skillet over medium-high heat, then add the onion and saute until tender, about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and garlic and saute until the mushrooms are tender and the juices evaporate, about 12 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it is reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Stir in the mascarpone and mustard. Cut the chicken breasts crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet. Simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat until the chicken is just cooked through and the sauce thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley. Season the sauce, to taste, with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the fettuccine and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Drain. Toss the fettuccine with 3 tablespoons of butter and season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Swirl the fettuccine onto serving plates. Spoon the chicken mixture over top. Garnish with parsley sprigs and serve.

Chocolate Sorbet

Adapted from Ina Garten’s Recipes

• 1 cup sugar

• 1/2 cup very good cocoa powder (recommended: Pernigotti, but I used Hershey’s and it was great!)

• 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

• 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

• 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

• 2 cups water

• 1/4 cup brewed espresso

• 11/2 tablespoons coffee liqueur (recommended: Tia Maria, I just used rum, because that's what I had)


In a large saucepan, mix the sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in 2 cups water and the espresso. Cook over low heat until the ingredients are dissolved. Off the heat, stir in the coffee liqueur. Transfer to plastic containers and refrigerate until very cold.

Freeze the mixture in an ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer's directions. The sorbet will still be soft; place it in a plastic container and freeze for 1 hour or overnight, until firm enough to scoop.

No worries. I took care of that ice cream bowl.

Ultimate Ginger Cookie (Which I call Ginger Panforte Cookies)

Adapted from Ina Garten’s recipes

• 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

• 1 teaspoon baking soda

• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves

• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

• 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

• 1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed

• 1/4 cup vegetable oil

• 1/3 cup unsulfured molasses

• 1 extra-large egg, at room temperature

• 1 1/4 cups chopped crystallized ginger (Instead, I used 6 ounces panforte)

• Granulated sugar, for rolling the cookies


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.

That little thing is nutmeg. I like to use whole and freshly grate it. It has much better flavor.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and salt and then combine the mixture with your hands. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the brown sugar, oil, and molasses on medium speed for 5 minutes. Turn the mixer to low speed, add the egg, and beat for 1 minute. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula and beat for 1 more minute. With the mixer still on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the bowl and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add the panforte and mix until combined.

The glorious panforte.

Scoop the dough with 2 spoons or a small ice cream scoop. With your hands, roll each cookie into a 1 3/4-inch ball and then flatten them lightly with your fingers. Press both sides of each cookie in granulated sugar and place them on the sheet pans. Bake for exactly 13 minutes. The cookies will be crackled on the top and soft inside. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for 1 to 2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

It was a frivolous evening and one I will always remember. The joy I took in preparing this meal is in the top five of my life. I loved every single step of it. From menu conception to the final bite of my chocolate sorbet, I found myself very happy to be thirty-three...and tipsy. 

Clean-up- not so luxurious. Where's my butler when I need him?

Voting begins Oct. 4th. I will send you a reminder, so keep your eyes luxuriously open for that!
Love ya, Foodies!

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