French Chocolate Bark

French Chocolate Bark   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

French Chocolate Bark | Image: Laura Messersmith

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: “Festive Fun”

The Set-up: Ina and Jeffrey are having friends over for a pre-holiday celebration and christening the barn with its first dinner party.

The Menu: Seafood Gratin, French Chocolate Bark, Mulled Wine, Pumpkin Mousse

0:18 – Ina says everyone gets so busy preparing for the holidays that we forget to actually have fun. Preach!

1:20 – First up, she’s making Pumpkin Mousse instead of pumpkin pie although so far the ingredients seem to be the same.

2:31 – Ina says she’s not really a fan of pumpkin pie calling it “cloying and sweet”, which would be a treasonous statement to another audience, but sound spot on to be. Apple pie #FTW

3:09 – Home-Ec Ina says that she only needs the yolks for this mousse, so an egg-white omelet is on the menu for lunch.

4:42 – Another recipe calling for gelatin, but thanks to my marshmallow adventure I’m no longer intimidated!

5:13 – I’m honestly not fond of pumpkin-centric baked goods, but Ina is so good at “layered flavor” (who else would think to put a mashed banana into a pumpkin mousse?) I could almost be convinced.

6:29 – The pumpkin mousse is in the fridge, Ina says you could make it up to 3-4 days in advance, now it’s time to go shopping!

7:34 – First stop: a giant bunch of mixed evergreens from Michael the Florist TM who is decked out in his signature bright sweater (candy cane red). Then, onto the Seafood Shop for ingredients in the Seafood Gratin.

10:28 – Moving on the main course and Ina has designed this menu to be special and festive for company, but also something she can make in advance. Music to everyone’s ears.

11:45 – The seafood will cook in a fish stock based broth with cream, tomato and white wine, yum! Pro Tip #1: To make the shrimp bite sized while retaining the shape, cut them in half lengthwise.

12:06 – Oooh, tricky. Since some of the fish is cooked (the lobster) and some of it isn’t, Ina is cooking each ingredient separately and then lifting it out of the stock when it’s done.

13:30 – Now that all the fish is cooked stock continues to simmer and will reduce into a sauce. Clever way to retain all the flavors…

14:54 – Onward to the vegetables which are sautéed in butter while Ina makes a panko bread crumb topping.

15:23 – Friends, this will come as no surprise, but we’re not dealing with a low-cal recipe here. Lots of butter, cream, and cheese went into the making of this gratin.

16:12 – Pro Tip #2: the butter in the gratin topping is for flavor, but also ensures that it browns.

17:48 – Interesting, I thought at some point that the cooked seafood, sauce and vegetables would all be stirred together, but instead they’re layered in a large baking dish and then topped with the bread crumbs.

21:17 – Next on the docket: French Chocolate Bark starting with a combination of bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate bricks. The two different kinds are meant to balance each other out.

22:21 – Ina is using toasted cashews, cranberries, and apricots, but she has also given us leave to top it with trail mix if that’s what suits you.

23:02 – Fun fact: American chocolate bark has the fruit and nuts mixed in, while French chocolate bark starts with a sheet of chocolate and is then topped with the ingredients so they’re more visible.

24:36 – Ina is not messing around with the chocolate bark either, she’s planning to use it in S’mores over coffee gathered around the outdoor brazier. Boom, gauntlet thrown.

25:05 – The table setting is in silver and taupe, because you know Ina probably isn’t going to rock red & green. She’s using large glass jars of lemons and clementines softened with some of her greenery from Michael the Florist TM and mercury glass votive holders. Gorgeous, naturally.

27:24 – Part of Ina’s strategy for the Mulled Wine is to serve it after dinner with the chocolate bark since it’s already on the sweet side, and it's a nice hot drink to have on a cold night.

28:50 – I honestly never knew what was in mulled wine but Ina is using a combination of sweet spices, apple cider, and a little honey. Sounds pretty good, actually.

29:49 – Dinner is served and everyone seems to be diving right in. Ina disappears to set up the s’mores tray and the mulled wine while her guests enjoy the fire. Looks like a blast – invite meeee! (please.)

Final Thoughts:
Add an outdoor brazier to my future home wish list.
s anyone else contemplating the thousands of different types of chocolate bark to make?
Just imagine if Ina had made her own marshmallows and the chocolate bark. Heads would explode.

French Chocolate Bark   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

French Chocolate Bark | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
I’ve really been enjoying my starter candy course this month, and frankly this French Chocolate Bark, is even easier than the marshmallows I made last week, but I still managed to learn a few things along the way.

Double Boiler/Bain Marie – this really is the time to use a water bath to melt the chocolate. Nothing could be more tragic (okay, that’s an exaggeration) than ruining high quality chocolate by burning it. A double boiler allows you melt the chocolate through indirect heat and reduces the chances of a mishap due to inattention. Make sure the bowl is heat proof (ie. pyrex) and that the water doesn’t actually touch the bottom.

Advance Prep – The double benefit of using a water bath is that it allows you to get your other ingredients ready without stressing that your chocolate is charring. And, since the chocolate will cool and harden fairly quickly after it’s spread on the parchment it’s a good idea to have the toasted cashews and fruit ready before that step. Much less panic inducing….

Sweet & Salty – I realized as I was making this recipe that the cashews I had were toasted, but not salted. They’d still have worked and been quite good, but as we’ve discussed a balance of sweet and salty is what makes a dessert really amazing. Hence, the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency use of the Maldon sea salt. A good trick to have in your back pocket and regular Kosher salt (used sparingly) could work in a pinch.

French Chocolate Bark   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

French Chocolate Bark | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
100%. I used a medium Pyrex bowl, a medium sauce pan, a large cutting board, chef’s knife, and a rimmed baking sheet. Parchment paper is a must, and if you’re into precision then a ruler and a pencil to help mark the boundaries.

The Verdict:
I ask you, how bad could dark chocolate studded with tart cranberries, sweet musky apricots, and roasted cashews be? Add in a shower of coarse sea salt and this French Chocolate Bark could be your new favorite treat. It also would make a lovely gift for anyone who likes a decadent little something. I’m already plotting my next chocolate bark concoction – maybe spiced like Mexican Hot Chocolate or make use of those leftover starlight mints? What about crunchy pretzels? Candied ginger? Sky’s the limit!

French Chocolate Bark  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

French Chocolate Bark | Image: Laura Messersmith

Steak with Béarnaise Sauce

Steak with Béarnaise  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Steak with Béarnaise | Image: Laura Messersmith

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: “Happy Anniversary”

The Set-up: Ina and Jeffrey are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary with a special dinner.

The Menu: Rosemary Roasted Potatoes, Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce, Steak with Béarnaise, String Beans with Shallots

0:39 – Ina starts this episode by making two statements – first that Jeffrey is a “creature of habit” and second that Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce is a “fairly 70s” dish. I can’t speak to the veracity of these claims, so I’m just going to roll with it.

1:03 – Pro Tip #1: if you’re poaching your own shrimp, leave the shells on and cook them for three minutes in boiling water. It‘s all the time they need.

2:18 – Cut to Mr. Garten driving along and expounding on the importance of anniversaries and admitting that he forgot their 20th. I hope Ina made him sleep on the porch.

3:20 – Back to Ina peeling and deveining the shrimp (tails on.) She says that even though shrimp cocktail is “really old-fashioned” it’s the first thing to go at a party. Guilty as charged. I make a beeline for it.

4:33 – On to the cocktail sauce part of the recipe. I thought I had made this before, but as I review the ingredients list I’m realizing I’m totally unfamiliar with chili sauce.

5:11 – Back to Mr. Garten who is on a mission to bring Ina a box of brownies just like she used to send him in college. So sweet!

6:07 –Ina is hating on the old martini glass, crushed ice presentation. Guess what first Google image search result for shrimp cocktail is… I guess they were taking the name literally?

7:25 – She plates her dish using a silver bowl on a white platter, but isn’t above cutting a lemon into a retro-chic garnish. I suppose we all have to have fun somehow.

10:29 – On to the Rosemary Roasted Potatoes which if you’ve been following along for the past year involve the standard olive oil, kosher salt, black pepper, and in this case, minced rosemary. I seriously cook 90% of the vegetables we eat this way now.

11:36 – Over to Jeffrey who’s hitting up Michael the Florist TM for some ribbon to jazz up the box of brownies with. Good call, J, always enlist help!

12:45 – Ina has moved on to the Steak with Béarnaise starting with the sauce – white wine, champagne vinegar, tarragon – sounds good to me!

13:38 – Ina separates her eggs same the way I do by using the shells as little cups. Twinsies!

14:40 – Raw egg yolks + hot vinegar/white wine/tarragon/shallots + hot butter = béarnaise. Hmm. Usually adding hot things to eggs is a no-no, but the blender must prevent them from scrambling?

15:51 - It strikes me that this kind of recipe where the steps themselves aren’t that tricky, but the order is essential.

18:27 – Pro Tip #2: Remove the steaks from the refrigerator a few minutes before you intend to cook them to take the chill off the meat.

19:12 – Steak grillin’ time! Jeffrey’s grill-lighting activities are accompanied by the “getting things done” music. Charcoal chimney: check.

20:36 – Ina brushes the steaks with olive oil and then goes out to the patio to manage the grilling (read: tease Jeffrey) and then immediately abandons him to cook the main course. Ahahahaha.

21:44 – Ostensibly it’s so she can go inside to show us how to make String Beans with Shallots, so I’ll let it slide. This time.

22:18 – For a simple haricot vert this recipe requires a lot of equipment – a pot of boiling water, a bowl of ice water, a large skillet. Remind me to save this one for when we have a bigger kitchen!

23:33 – Jeffrey seems to be muddling along with the rib eyes pretty well and Ina does have some good-looking green beans. Dinner is coming together!

26:21 – Out on the terrace again to deliver the Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce – sustenance for Jeffrey as he grills, seems pretty fair now I guess.

27:10 – Actual “secret sauce” time as Ina reveals that the trick to make-ahead béarnaise is a few tablespoons of very hot water blended in at the last minute. Very tricky…

28:49 – Rosemary Roasted Potatoes are out of the oven, looking perfectly golden brown, steaks are off the grill and rested. It’s time to eat!

29:55 – As Ina teases Jeffrey about the time he forgot their anniversary over dinner he reveals the surprise: a walk on the beach and the box of brownies! So charming! 

Steak with Béarnaise    | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Steak with Béarnaise | Image: Laura Messersmith

Final Thoughts:
It’s amazing how some of the simplest dishes (I’m looking at you string beans) can have so many steps!

Ina has such a great way of de-mystifying seemingly fancy recipes.

I’m thinking this might be a great Valentines Day meal – just add a glass of red wine?

Lessons Learned:
Talk to the Butcher – I’m always looking for excuses to practice cooking steak, but it’s also intimidating. After spending $$$ on a cut I worry that I’ll mess it up! I figured, who knows steak better than the butcher? So, I had a long conversation with Ritchie at Schatzie's about my plan to make Steak with Béarnaise and he recommended buying two different pieces: a 1 inch thick ribeye and a 1 1/2 inch thick NY Strip. This solved three problems - portion size, cooking time, and "doneness" - it allowed me to cook both pieces of meat for the same length of time and get one medium for me, and one medium-rare for Mike.

Pan Temperature – The steak is the star of this dish, so cooking it properly is essential and also honestly the trickiest part. I used an 8 inch cast iron skillet heated over high flame for 4-5 minutes before the steak even hit the surface. You want to hear that ssssssss sizzle sound. The length of time depends on the thickness of the steak and your desired internal temperature. A 1 inch steak cooked for three minutes on each side yields a medium (hot red) center.

Sauce Reduction – To get the right texture of the béarnaise sauce the vinegar/white wine/tarragon/shallot mixture should be reduced to about 2 tablespoons. It serves two purposes – concentrating the flavor and making sure the béarnaise sauce isn’t too thin.

Steak with Béarnaise    | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Steak with Béarnaise | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, assuming you have a small food processor or blender. I also used an 8 inch cast iron skillet, a chef’s knife, medium cutting board, small sauce pan, liquid measuring cup, and measuring spoon.

The Verdict:
I made Steak with Béarnaise for Mike and I – thanks to the excellent advice from Ritchie both steaks turned out just the way we like them. The béarnaise sauce is just slightly fussy, but thanks to Ina’s make-ahead hot water trick I made some earlier in the day refrigerated it and it still turned out beautifully. Steak with Bearnaise might not sound like a week-night meal, but it honestly takes less than 30 minutes start to finish and, btw it’s delicious.

Steak with Béarnaise    | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Steak with Béarnaise | Image: Laura Messersmith

Coq au Vin Blanc

Coq au Vin Blanc  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Coq au Vin Blanc | Image: Laura Messersmith

I’m always interested in a great glass of wine and I love recipes that incorporate it as an ingredient. I made the traditional version of Coq au Vin for the first time last winter to rave reviews from Mike and now that the weather is freeeezing (25 today in New York, yikes!) I was toying with the idea of making it again. Then, serendipitously, as I was scanning through my Pinterest board this gorgeous picture reminded me of Nigel Slater’s Coq au Riesling. Genius!

I loved the flavor of the original dish with red wine, but burgundy or cabernet can sometimes be a little overpowering and I was really intrigued by the idea of using white instead. The recipe calls for riesling (surprised?) which I’m sure is delicious, but I prefer dry white wine, specifically, sauvignon blanc. And, since I was already thinking about ways to use more subtle flavors I also decided not to use bacon and honestly, I didn’t miss it. I can hear gasps of horror from across the land, but trust me on this it works!

The first 30 minutes of the recipe are a little prep intensive, but then the entire pot goes in the oven and requires ZERO tending until it’s time for dinner. In my book this is the perfect amount of effort. Extra bonus: Something about the wine in this low-stress dish makes it feel special enough for guests, so file it away for your next dinner party.

Coq au Vin Blanc   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Coq au Vin Blanc | Image: Laura Messersmith

Coq au Vin Blanc (serves 4)

1 (3 lb.) whole chicken, on the bone in pieces
1/2 cup (1 large) diced shallots
3/4 cup (1 medium) diced yellow onion
1 1/2 teaspoons (2-3 cloves) minced garlic
1/2 cup (2 stalks) diced celery
3 cups (3 large) diced carrots
1 cup sliced white mushrooms
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons minced thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Heat three tablespoons olive oil in a large French oven over medium-high heat. Rinse the chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle both the skin and the underside of each piece with kosher salt and black pepper. Starting skin side down brown the chicken pieces in batches, about 3-4 minutes per side. Resist the urge to crowd the pan! Remove the browned chicken to a plate with tongs and set aside.

While the chicken browns, prep the vegetables. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and slice the caps about 1/8 inch thick. Dice the shallot, yellow onions, and celery into 1/4 inch pieces. Next, peel and dice the carrots into 1/2 inch pieces, and mince the garlic cloves.

Once the chicken is finished browning, reduce the heat to medium. If the pan is a little dry, add another teaspoon or two of olive oil. Sauté the sliced mushrooms in the olive oil until browned. Remove from the pan and set aside. Next, add the diced shallots, yellow onions, celery and carrots to the pan. Sauté until the shallots and onions begin to soften and become translucent. Add the garlic to the pan and sauté one minute more. Return the mushrooms to the pan.

Sprinkle the entire mixture with 2 tablespoons all purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir to coat the vegetables with the flour and seasonings and cook for 1-2 minutes until the flour absorbs the pan juices.

Add the bay leaf, minced thyme, chicken broth, and dry white wine to the pan. Use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring the chicken broth and wine up to a low simmer before replacing the pieces of chicken in the pot.

Use the tongs to nestle them, skin side up, into the broth and vegetable mixture. Pour any collected juices from the plate into the pot and cover. Braise at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 - 2 hours until the chicken is tender. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve hot.

Coq au Vin Blanc   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Coq au Vin Blanc | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, it is! I used a 5 qt. French oven, medium cutting board, chef’s knife, vegetable peeler, wooden spoon, and tongs. I also needed dry and liquid measuring cups, spoons, a large plate, and paper towels.

The Verdict:
This version of Coq au Vin Blanc is pretty darn awesome – the dry white wine, mushrooms, and vegetables compliment the chicken beautifully. Mike said he would happily eat this anytime I want to make it. The sauce manages to be rich without being heavy and I’d definitely serve this with crusty bread, or mashed potatoes so none of it goes to waste.

Coq au Vin Blanc   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Coq au Vin Blanc | Image: Laura Messersmith

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine | Image: Laura Messersmith

A few years ago when Mike and I were back in Boston I tried a French bistro classic for the first time. We had the afternoon to ourselves while we waited for our friends to finish their work days and decided a leisurely lunch at Aquitaine in the South End was the best way to pass the time. That lunch stands out in my memory for the relaxed pace of the day and the deliciousness of the food – beautifully smooth tomato bisque, a bright vinegary salad, and the star: a crisp, buttery Croque Monsieur. 

Since then I’ve ordered the CM on other occasions and discovered - somewhat to my disappointment - that what I believed to be the ‘traditional’ style was actually Aquitaine’s own method. Research on the semi-reliable internet tells me that Aquitaine dips their CMs in a little egg and then cooks the sandwiches underneath a hot brick for an crisp exterior and a slightly flattened sandwich. Instead of cheese melted over the top; all the delicious Gruyere and its accompanying ham are contained in the crunchy bread for something more akin to a panini by way of a Monte Cristo sandwich. Photo evidence here.

After some experimenting (blame my need for a really good, crunchy bread for the lateness of this post) I give you my tribute to the flavors and textures I remember from that afternoon when I learned that grilled cheese could be grown-up and elegant.

I love serving this toasty sandwich with an extra schmere of whole grain mustard and a bunch of cool green grapes or a small pile of salad dressed with the same vinaigrette that goes in the spread. Maybe a glass of sauvignon blanc? Instant bistro. 

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine | Image: Laura Messersmith

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine (serves 4)

4 teaspoons whole grain mustard, like Maille Old Style
4 teaspoons creamy vinaigrette (see recipe below)
1/2 pound gruyere cheese, finely grated
4 thin slices Virginia ham
8 slices country bread, about 1/3" thick
4 tablespoons softened butter

In a small bowl, stir together the whole grain mustard and the creamy vinaigrette (recipe below) until well mixed. Spread one side the bread with a thin layer (about 1/2 teaspoon) of the mustard mixture and the other side with a thin layer of the softened butter.

Arrange the bread on a plate, buttered sides down. Divide half the grated gruyere among four slices of bread and top the cheese with a piece of Virginia ham. Sprinkle the other half of the gruyere over the ham - again, dividing equally among the sandwiches - and top with the remaining slices of bread, mustard-side in.

Meanwhile, heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Press the sandwiches down gently to keep the halves together and place in the hot skillet.

Cook 3-4 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Resist the urge to crowd the pan. Repeat the procedure with remaining sandwiches keeping the first batch warm in a 200 degree oven.

Cut in half with a serrated knife and serve hot.

Creamy Vinaigrette (adapted from Ina Garten)


2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
Pinch sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg yolk
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil


In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade combine the vinegars, sugar, salt, pepper, and egg yolk and blend for 1 minute. With the motor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube until the vinaigrette is thickened. Season, to taste. The dressing will last in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks, so wash out an old jam jar and save it!

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?

Oui. I used a 4 cup food processor, 10” cast iron skillet, microplane grater, liquid measuring cup and measuring spoons, and a small bowl along with a medium sized cutting board and serrated knife. A metal spatula will make life easy for turning and pressing the sandwiches.

The Verdict

The extra effort to get the bread crunchy and toasted was so worth it. The gruyere is nutty and rich, while the ham adds a little bulk and saltiness – add in the tang of the vinaigrette & mustard mix and you’re in business. This is definitely a “grilled cheese” that I’d serve to guests for a casual lunch and it’s perfect a day when Mike and I need a little spoiling and only fancy sandwiches will do.

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine | Image: Laura Messersmith