First of all, a big thank you for your birthday wishes! You are all very sweet!
And since we're still on that topic... I mentioned that Laurent made me a delicious birthday dinner this year. Well, perhaps “dinner” isn’t exactly the right word. There was no main course.
I’ve always been crazy for appetizers. In my family, when I was growing up, a pre-dinner drink was traditional for the adults: l'apéritif, in French (or l'apéro, for short). I, being a child, didn’t drink, of course – apart from the occasional tiny sip of wine or beer. Indeed, that is one way the Western European education differs from the North American one: children are not necessarily encouraged to drink, but they are not taught to see alcohol as a taboo, or a forbidden fruit. Instead, they are gradually taught to appreciate it in small doses, so that when they grow up, they know what it is like.
However, there weren’t only pre-dinner drinks in my family: there was also pre-dinner food. For me, a true apéritif needs some tasty snacks. For some reason, we called them zakouski in my family, which is the Russian word for appetizers – however, there is not a drop of Russian blood in my family, and there was nothing Russian about the appetizers themselves. It was just a habit of my parents to use that word. In fact, for the longest time, I thought it was a French word; in my head, it was spelled something like “les accousquis.”
So, as a child, since I couldn’t partake in the drinks, I would often indulge in the zakouski. They could range from very simple (cheese cubes and chips) to decadent (saucisson and stuffed olives) to fancy (salmon on puff pastry and vegetable-bresaola verrines), depending on whether we were entertaining guests or not.
The problem with appetizers is, it’s easy to have too many. I can’t even count the times I’ve overfilled on tasty zakouski and was left picking at my plate at the dinner table. The solution? How about a meal composed entirely of appetizers?
It just so happens that Laurent is especially fond of making appetizers. And he’s really good at it. He gets that from his father, the oft-mentioned Italian Gourmet, who can whip up some of the tastiest morsels I’ve ever seen. So, for my birthday, I requested an endless line-up of appetizers. I left the rest up to Laurent.
And he completely delivered. He made me a line-up of old favourites which he hadn’t made in quite a while. Among them was the lemon and crab dip which was featured in one of my very first entries on this blog. And also these sausage-and-pastry bites, which he had also treated me with before.
There were also some delightful salmon and curried crab spreads, which have never failed to wow me. And there were these little cheese crisps, which were crumbly, rich, and salty (recipe below).
He also made me bite-sized variations of filo- and puff pastry-based first courses we’ve made in the past: smoked salmon with a creamy onion concoction, and pear with broiled Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese (one of my favourite cheeses ever).
And finally, he made me the one thing I had specifically requested: spinach salad in a parmesan bowl. This is not exactly an appetizer, but it’s not a main course either, and more importantly, it’s something I am definitely afraid to make myself. Indeed, the bowls require melting the parmesan in the oven under very high heat until it bubbles, then taking it out and letting it cool just enough so that it is still malleable but on the verge of solidifying, so that you can shape it into bowls. I like to think that I can manage quite a bit in the kitchen, but this handling of semi-melting, still-boiling cheese is beyond me right now. But Laurent can do it. And the result is not only beautiful, it is delicious. I’m including the technique (I wouldn’t really call it a recipe) for those of you who feel up to the challenge.
But what about dessert, you ask? There was some, but Laurent didn’t make it. And neither did I. Although I consider cooking and baking to be a vacation from work, I just didn’t feel like eating my own desserts for my birthday. I was also a little short on time, having just met a school deadline. So instead of frantically beating egg whites on my birthday, I went out to buy a couple of luscious individually-sized portions of cake from the nearby bakery, Première Moisson, which has some absolutely delicious pastries: croquant au chocolate, and chocolate-raspberry mousse cake. Just what I needed.
And that’s how I spent my birthday. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am spoiled, spoiled, spoiled. I guess I’ll just have to try harder to deserve all of it.
Adapted from Apéro (Marabout collection)
Makes 40 crisps
125g (4.5 oz, 7/8 cup) flour
1 tsp curry powder
125g (4.5 oz, 2/3 cup) butter
75g (2.7 oz) parmesan, grated
80g (2.8 oz) cheddar, grated
20g (0.8 oz) blue cheese, crumbled
1 tbsp lemon juice
Paprika, for sprinkling
Combine the flour, curry and butter, in a blender or by hand, until you obtain a coarse mealy mixture. Incorporate the cheddar, blue cheese, 2/3 of the parmesan and the lemon juice. Shape the dough into a ball.
Roll the dough into a 30 cm (12.5 inch) log. Wrap tightly with plastic film and refrigerate for an hour.
Preheat oven to 200 °C (400 °F) and line a baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper. Take the dough out of the fridge and slice it into 5 mm (1/4 inch) discs. Arrange the discs on the prepared baking sheet, 1 cm (1/2 inch) apart. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan and the paprika. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until golden. Let cool on baking sheet. Store in an airtight container.
Laurent’s Sweet Spinach Salad in a Parmesan Bowl
Approximately 80 ml (1/3 cup) grated parmesan
1 tbsp paprika
360 ml (1 1/2 cups) fresh baby spinach
1 small ripe pear
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp wholegrain mustard (moutarde à l’ancienne)
2 tbsp cider vinegar (or balsamic, for a sweeter taste)
1 tbsp honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine the parmesan and paprika. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet, to form a 10 cm (4 inch) disc. Take another baking sheet and place a bowl on it, upside down.
Place a rack in the center of your oven and set on “broil.” Put the cheese mixture in the oven and keep an eye on it. After about a minute, the mixture will begin to spread and bubble. The bubbles will start off large and slow; when they are small and close together, take the cheese out of the oven.
Let cool for about 1 minute. This stage is a little tricky, and the cooling time may vary. You want the cheese mixture to have solidified enough to hold together, but still be liquid enough to be malleable. Test the texture with a wide spatula a few times until it feels right. Then, quickly remove the mixture from the baking sheet with your spatula and spread it over the upside down bowl you prepared earlier. Shape the cheese into a bowl (or a deep dish of some sort). Let cool and harden completely.
When ready to serve, fill the bowl with fresh spinach. Peel the pear, slice or dice it, and arrange it with the spinach. Mix the remaining ingredients to make the dressing and drizzle over the salad.
Note: if making several bowls, make them one by one – no multitasking here!