Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!
Episode: “Perfect Dinner Party”
The Set-up: Ina is creating a special but low-stress dinner party menu.
0:22 – Ina’s philosophy on dinner parties is that the host and hostess actually have fun, preferably while maintaining a thin veneer of effortlessness. Entertaining Pro Tip #1: go with no-cook appetizers, a make ahead entrée, and grown-up candy for dessert.
1:17 – I’ve noticed a bit of a theme here: gratin + candy = simple party. Totally works for me!
2:29 – Ina’s starting with Fleur de Sel Caramels which involves melting sugar until it turns, you guessed it: caramel colored.
3:04 – She warned us that when the warm cream and butter were added to the hot sugar it would bubble up violently, but seriously. That’s pretty scary!
4:51 – Pro Tip: Don’t forget the vanilla extract! Also, use a candy thermometer and keep a sharp eye on the caramel while it cooks.
5:22 – Entertaining Pro Tip #2: keep the party moving (literally) by having the courses in different places, which keeps things casual. Her table as usual is beautifully set.
6:33 – The caramel has cooled in the pan, now it’s time to form the candies by rolling each half up and then cutting the log into pieces. I wonder if you could just use a narrower pan to get a thicker layer and skip the rolling?
9:28 – Onward to candy number two: White Chocolate Bark. Ina’s tirade against methods of tempering chocolate is pretty amazing. “Forget it, I hate them all!”
10:57 – “I don’t even have the patience to read the instructions let alone do it. Forget it.” Anyone else think “forget it” is Ina-speak for “f**k it”?
11:40 – It’s fascinating to see her cook essentially the same recipe three different times because instead of a double boiler like last week she’s using the microwave.
12:33 – With Ina’s dislike (hatred?) of tempering chocolate I wonder how she discovered this method?
13:28 – This version of chocolate bark calls for roasted walnuts, roughly chopped, apricots, and cranberries.
14:15 – It’s probably obvious, but good to note that the chocolate needs to be warm and soft in order for the fruit and nuts to adhere to the base.
15:51 – Ina’s really on a roll with flouting convention wondering aloud “who really cares about white wine with fish…? I drink whatever I like.” We agree for sure on white & rose in the summer, red in the winter. She’s obviously a genius.
16:09 – We’ve moved on to shopping for No-Cook Appetizers. App #1: shards of Parmigiano Reggiano, full stop. App #2: Fig halves wrapped in smoked prosciutto. App #3: Briny olives. Done and done.
19:34 – Moving on to the main course: Bay Scallop Gratin in individual gratin dishes.
20:46 – Ina shares some more words of wisdom on dinner parties – make just a few special things, no one has a better time just because you made ton of different dishes.
21:52 – This topping is a bit different from the creamier gratin we saw last week and it seems to be a little bit more Italian in flavor – garlic, prosciutto, Pernod.
22:33 – She still uses panko bread crumbs which I like the texture of; more little edges to brown and crisp.
27:11 – Out on the porch for the no-cook apps and glasses of white wine and Pellegrino, then the Bay Scallop Gratin goes in the oven.
28:45 – She really has this down to a science. While the gratins bake and the guests are occupied with drinks Ina is in the kitchen setting up the coffee maker, slicing bread for dinner, and mixing a quick vinaigrette to go with the green salad.
29:58 – She’s such a pro. Everything looks gorgeous and elegant and everyone is laughing and talking. Perfect Dinner Party indeed.
I have such a strong seafood dish = Pernod association that it's hard to imagine just drinking some. I wonder what it’s like in a cocktail?
Ina’s philosophy of dinner in three acts is a solid one. It does stink to be stuck at the table for hours, so her idea to have multiple locations is brilliant.
Ina said something truly shocking: she’s not a chocolate lover!? How? Why?!@
I’m still getting the hang of working with sugar and I wouldn’t say that it’s in my comfort zone yet, but it’s been fascinating to experiment. Here’s what I learned from making Fleur de Sel Caramels….
Cooking – Is really nothing to be trifled with, the temperature of molten sugar is very, very high so it’s important to be extremely careful when handling it and have your oven mitts at the ready. Start the sugar/water mixture in a big, deep pot (bigger than seems really necessary) and use a smaller vessel for the cream. When the sugar is ready and has turned a color somewhere between maple syrup and wildflower honey, beautifully golden it’s time to add the hot cream mixture.
Do so very slowly and stir gently to avoid splashes. The caramel will bubble up and more than double in volume, so you’ll need the extra room.
Candy Thermometer – This is an essential tool and will help cook the caramel to your desired firmness. Cooking to Ina’s recommended temperature (248 degrees F) will result in soft pliable caramels, melt in your mouth and stretchy. If you’re looking for something a little firmer, then try cooking just a degree higher to 249 degrees F.
Prep & Timing – As with marshmallows, this is a recipe that rewards advance preparation. Do have the cream mixture measured and in the pan before you start cooking the sugar syrup. Do prepare the pan in advance and a trivet for cooling.
Battling the Sticky – A generous coating of non-stick spray and parchment are 1,000% required or risk losing your mind trying to get the caramel out of the pan.
Cooling & Shaping – I didn’t understand the need to roll the caramels so I used a 8 x 4 inch pan to get a thicker layer, no rolling required. I was also concerned about difficulty cutting the pieces, so I cooled to room temperature not in the refrigerator. Possibly a tactical error since the caramels were very soft and almost melty? I would cool in the fridge before cutting next time to make them a little more firm.
Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, amazingly. I used a 4 quart sauce pan, a 1 quart sauce pan, a liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, a wooden spoon, and a heat proof pan. You’ll definitely need a candy thermometer and parchment paper. Non-stick spray will be helpful too, even though the recipe doesn’t call for it.
If I had known how relatively easy it is to make Fleur de Sel Caramels I might have done so sooner. But, on the other hand with great power comes great responsibility and I’m not entirely sure I can be trusted with something so addictively delicious just yet. Sweet, of course, but these caramels are also gloriously creamy and rich with that necessary salty topping making them just that much more difficult to resist. You should definitely make them for everyone you know and let people think you’re some kind of culinary genius.