Tuesday, October 9, 2012
A Tisket, a Tasket, A Bread-and-Butter Basket
The Setting: Cloudless blue skies...green leaves clinging steadfastly to their branches.... It looks like spring. If only it felt like it.
The Soundtrack: The dishwasher--did I mention we finally got one? It may be one of the greatest things on Earth.
Steaming up the Oven: Bread, glorious bread!
The Scenario: A restaurant-worthy breadbasket awaits your next dinner party or holiday spread....because bread goes with everything, and butter makes everything better.
I adore dining at truly splurge-worthy restaurants, where everything that arrives on the table, from pre-dinner cocktails through post-dessert coffee, is so spectacular I don't care the cost.
The problem is I am a stay-at-home mom married to a graduate student, and neither Hoosband nor I can claim a trust fund...so dinners like that are rare.
Even trying to re-create the experience at home can be a bit over-indulgent (and a bit of a headache) for the day-to-day.
Fortunately, one of my favorite parts of a pricey restaurant meal, the upscale take on the breadbasket, is a DIY that's both easy and economical.
Go to almost any restaurant and you're bound to be greeted with a basket of bread. But a few things set the best apart from the rest:
1. The bread: There is bread that you eat because you are starving (or bored), waiting for your meal to come. It tastes like nothing, might be stale, and was most likely mass-produced in a factory somewhere, but hey, it keeps you from twiddling your thumbs.
Then there is bread that you eat because it looks and smells so good it lures you in. You eat more than you mean to and almost ruin your appetite for your appetizer because it tastes so good you simply cannot stop.
My favorite breadbaskets contain a variety of tantalizing, baked-in-house breads.
Of course you don't have to spend all day baking homemade bread. Make what you want, buy what you want, but aim for an assortment of three or so different styles of bread.
I like an eclectic assortment: something quick, something yeasted, something whole wheat, something in muffin form, and something with either dried fruit and nuts or cheese.
This basket contains whole-wheat Cuban bread (whole wheat and yeasted), Pistachio-Apricot Soda Bread (quick and containing dried fruit and nuts), and Parmesan and Pine-Nut Corn Muffins (quick and containing nuts and cheese).
Note: Depending on the needs of those you'll be serving, consider including at least one gluten-free option.
2. The butter: I love just about any place that serves real butter. Forget the part-dairy "spreads" that we've come to expect from the local roadside waffle hut and pancake emporium. If I'm fine-dining, it better be butter.
If you can get your hands on (and feel like dishing out seven-to-eight dollars for) some Cultured Butter with Sea Salt from Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery (VBC), by all means, use this and do absolutely nothing to it. It is perfect.
Salted Kerrygold Irish butter is another good choice (and about half the price).
Alternatively, the cheapest, store-brand, sweet-cream butter can be turned into something spectacular with a little creativity. See the recipe for Honey Cardamom Butter below.
Note: Whatever butter you select, let it sit out at room temperature for at least 20 minutes before serving. Not only will it be easier to spread, it'll taste better, too.
3. The presentation: This is the part that ties it all together. Arrange your assortment on a wooden cutting board, heirloom platter, or pizza peel if desired--whatever brings cohesion to your table. I like to use a wooden produce basket lined with parchment paper.
For a little extra flair, I like to make a Parmesan basket or cone for my butter to sit in.
Sprinkle a thin, even layer of shredded Parmesan into a 4-5-inch circle in a nonstick skillet over med-high heat.
Cover and cook 2 minutes or until melted and very light golden on the bottom. Use a spatula to flip the Parmesan circle and cook another minute or two.
Working quickly, carefully transfer the circle to a kitchen towel and place an ice-cream-cone mold on the cheese. Use the towel to roll the cheese into a cone shape around the mold and press gently on the seam, holding here for a few seconds to help it seal as the cheese cools.
Alternatively, gently press the circle into one of the cups in a standard muffin tin so that it forms a cup-shape. Allow to cool completely before removing from the tin.
A medium-sized cookie scoop makes a perfect ball of butter for whatever vessel you choose.
Honey-Cardamom Compound Butter
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup honey
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
Beat all ingredients together until smooth. Use immediately, or transfer to an airtight container and store in the fridge for up to two weeks. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.