The menu for a Sunday afternoon gathering with some girlfriends was simple enough:
Butternut Squash Soup
Lobster Salad Sandwiches
Stress free, right? Well, there are some days in the kitchen where you just can’t find your groove. Two spectacular failures come to mind: when I had to make a devil’s food cake three times because the first time I forgot the leavening agents and the second the sugar. And when I had to make angel food cake three times because I wasn’t whipping those finicky egg whites properly. Or I was on my period. Or something. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen and yesterday I must have been preoccupied with less mundane matters than my menu.
The first stumbling block presented itself at Wholefoods, where I couldn’t find lobster meat. What do you mean no lobster meat? I asked the fishmonger. You have $20 a pound bass but no lobster? I see how they are trying hard not to be perceived as too high market. I swiftly changed my plans and opted for salmon. Not too terrible.
At home, while sauteing perfectly cubed butternut squash (why did I bother with perfect cubes when the soup was going to be pureed? First ridiculous idea), I remembered the canned chipotles I opened a while ago and that seemed to reproduce themselves because they are still there, no matter how often I use them. So in they go with the chicken stock, with so little restraint that when I went to taste the soup I had to reach for water. Immediately. On the second spoon I am trying to convince myself it’s edible but, unless my friends’ mouths were upholstered with asbestos, there was no way they could get past the first spoonful.
I let the soup sit overnight, tasted it again in the morning, cold and, despite liking my soups with no cream, I broke down and tempered it with some bland veggie stock and a healthy dose of cream. Still spicy, but now I could taste the squash behind the smokiness of the chipotle.
Because we were among friends and I felt some experimenting couldn’t hurt anybody, I picked a 16th century French recipe for hazelnut cake. I figured it could make for a good story when everybody would ooh and aah in between bites. The recipe was completely untested but I pride myself in being able to read a recipe and figure out at first glance if it is going to work. What was all that training for after all? While making it (essentially a genoise with hazelnuts) I had a sneaky suspicion the batter wasn’t enough to rise to cake proportion. A suspicion fully confirmed by the pancake sorry-looking thing that emerged from the oven.
There was technically nothing wrong with it and it tasted fine – it was just….sad.
I had no time to start over and that is when the chef’s training came in handy. I cut the cake with a heart-shaped cookie cutter, whipped up a Prosecco sabayon (no Marsala to be found in this particular household) into which I folded the whipped cream left over from the soup and some dark chocolate chips. I spooned it in pretty bowls and stuck a hazelnut cake dressed as a cookie in it. I would have defied anybody to challenge it wasn’t born that way.
The grape focaccia cooperated – I still have my way with a dough – and the salad, well I couldn’t screw that up. All is well that ends well but next time I am staying clear of any French patisserie pre-Marie Antoinette.