As inspiration for more adventurous culinary efforts I’m following along with Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, in my tiny New York kitchen. Let’s see if I can keep up with the Contessa!
Episode: “Cocktail Hour”
The Set-up: Ina is helping her friend Jack navigate the rocky shoals of the cocktail party.
0:29 – Ina’s cocktail party food Pro Tip #1: Make three, assemble three. Seriously, why do I think I need to make everything or it’s somehow cheating?
1:45 – First recipe on tap: Blue Cheese and Walnut Crackers – which Ina says can be made way in advance.
2:13 – Pro Tip #2: Always use the correct measuring cups for the ingredient – dry for dry, wet for wet.
3:20 – Ina mentions that she first tried this recipe with the walnuts mixed in to the dough, but that it didn’t work well so she rolled them into an exterior crust. I’d love to hear about more Barefoot Contessa misfires – not to gloat, but to learn!
4:34 – Ina’s right - thanks to the blue cheese this dough does look bizarre and vaguely grey? Hmmm.
5:07 – As Ina does her “slice and bake” technique with the crackers she gives us Pro Tip #3: using the blade of the knife like a saw, rather than pressing straight down, prevents squishing the dough.
6:16 – Now to the question on everyone’s mind – how much to serve? Ina says three to four pieces per person, assuming your serving six different items. I suppose that means if you have ten guests it’s 6 x 3 x 10? Whoa.
9:22 – Next up, Ham and Cheese in Puff Pastry and as far as I can tell Ina has concerns for humanity if they’re not interested in eating that.
10:31 – Now I see what she means – so far there is ham and mustard and puff pastry involved – yum!
11:49 – Watching Ina slice cheese (gruyere, natch) in the food processor I’ve just come to a startling realization – Ina loves efficiency! The gleam in her eye as that cheese came out perfectly sliced in about 7 seconds tells me I’m right. Kindred spirits.
12:25 – Seriously, how does Ina get her pastry to roll out just so? Mine starts in it’s nice rectangle and ends up all wonky – what am I doing wrong?
13:57 – The Ham and Cheese in Puff Pastry has just emerged from the oven and it looks like heaven. Guess what I’ll be making…
14:32 – Now we’re getting into the assemble/buy part which consists of putting olives and almonds in bowls and arranging slices of cucumber and salami on a platter.
18:11 – Last app to make and Ina has decided on Roasted Shrimp Cocktail a sure winner.
19:30 – First a little prep to take the shells off (tail on to use as a “handle” for guests) and de-vein. The whole concept of dealing with shrimp was such a mystery to me until just a few years ago – this process baffled me until I tried it a few times.
20:23 – Cocktail sauce time – with the volume turned up, of course.
21:09 – I’ve actually made Ina’s cocktail sauce before and it is outstanding – no more bottled sauce for me.
22:40 – Shrimp are out of the oven and they look so good arranged around the central sauce bowl. Simple and delicious.
26:21 – Jack has arrived for lessons on setting up the bar and if the major side-eye he’s giving is any indication there’s more than a little uncertainty that he’s up to the challenge.
27:03 – First the patented Ina buffet table cloth folding lesson and glass arrangement strategy. There is a reason this woman is famous for her entertaining – what a pro!
28:15 – I feel like Jack might be a ringer sent in to ask questions for us like “How many glasses per person?” Pro Tip #4: Order 3 glasses per person from the rental company to avoid running out.
28:42 – Ina also recommends scotch, vodka, bourbon and rum in addition to soft drinks and water for the bar.
29:56 – Fast forward to the night of Jack’s cocktail party – Ina has stopped in to check on her student. Wisecracks about how “straight” the line of glasses are flow like “good bourbon” and Jack apple-polishes a little with vodka on the rocks for his professor. Extra credit.
I really would love to hear more about Ina’s kitchen disasters & also-rans – I’m pretty sure she’s mainly self-taught and I bet there were some good learning experiences.
I need to practice that table cloth folding technique but I don’t have one quite that big – maybe a large flat sheet would work?
I’ve never thought to bribe a teacher with booze, but I bet it’s effective…
Ham and Cheese in Puff Pastry is a recipe almost entirely about assembly of ingredients rather than a great deal of cooking, which makes it incredibly simple and frankly the results are pretty impressive for the amount of effort it takes.
The trickiest part is dealing with the puff pastry – after defrosting a box of two sheets over night in the refrigerator I rolled out one of the sheets an inch or so in each direction. I’d highly recommend doing the rolling on a piece of parchment paper that can then just be lifted onto a sheet pan – even straight from the refrigerator the puff pastry gets sticky fairly quickly and this step saves on flouring your countertop and therefore extra clean up.
I used the (now) slightly larger sheet as the bottom layer – spread the mustard (I mixed two teaspoons each Maille whole grain and Gulden’s spicy brown), ham, and gruyere leaving a border – and placed the un-rolled second sheet of pastry on top. Having the bottom crust a little larger allows it to fold up around the filling really easily.
I came across another blogger (Joy the Baker) who made this recipe and suggested assembling ahead of time, refrigerating, and doing the egg wash and baking steps the next morning for an easy brunch dish. BRILLIANT. Pastry needs to be cold anyway, and putting the main course for brunch in the oven while still in your proverbial bunny slippers only to have it emerge golden a mere 20 – 25 minutes later makes you appear to be a domestic goddess on par with Nigella. Again, this all happens with minimal effort.
Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, a surprise considering that it involves a rolling pin. I also used a sheet pan, small cutting board, chef’s knife, measuring spoons, a pastry brush, fork and a small bowl. I also can’t recommend parchment paper (not waxed paper or foil) enough for this – a great help.
I made Ham and Cheese in Puff Pastry for Mike and my parents during their visit and served it for brunch on Sunday morning. This is essentially the flavors of croque monsieur (pastry + mustard + ham + cheese = how bad could that be?) in alternate form and turned out buttery, flaky and delicious. Also, surprisingly filling despite it’s low-key appearance. We all loved it and really wanted seconds, but were unexpectedly full after relatively modest servings. I went with sweet red grapes and blueberry muffins as sides, but you could easily take this in a more “lunch-y” direction with a side salad or soup. This one is multi-tasking winner!