Sunday, March 8, 2009

Breaking Out of My Hermit Shell for a Night

Those who know me in real life won't be surprised by the confession I'm about to make: I'm somewhat of a hermit. I like my family and I like my friends, and occasionally I even like my coworkers. But put me in a room full of strangers and acquaintences, and I'm completely ill at ease. It's not a situation I like to put myself in. But sometimes there are invitations you can't refuse.

Take Carol, a coworker of mine, and a friend. We've known each other for years, though it's only been since 6 months since we began seeing each other in person with any regularity (previously she lived in New Zealand). We go to lunch every week -- at least, we try to. She's a food enthusiast, like me. So when she said she was throwing a dinner party for a handful of people, I couldn't say no.

There were only 7 of us, so the "room full of strangers" claustrophobia didn't set in, even though I didn't know anyone well (or at all) other than Carol and her husband, David. And the best part of dinner parties is getting to take pictures of all the wonderful food, without having to do the work of making it (and worse, cleaning up afterward).

It wasn't the best timing for a barbecue (they'd just gotten a new Webber grill) -- it ended up getting extremely cold during the day and started snowing. I wasn't even sure I should go, as the roads were sure to be a mess. But I had made a pumpkin pound cake that I didn't want to eat all by myself, and I do actually try to make an effort at not being such a hermit all the time. So I went, and other than one terrible spot on the freeway, it wasn't too bad. A fun time was had by all, and though I didn't get home till well after midnight, I was glad I had gone.

Now for the pictorial, and a recipe for the pumpkin pound cake at the end...

We begin, appropriately, with the appetizers. Here is a bowl of chicken wings, marinated in Malaysian spices (which had a hint of sweetness to them), then deep fried. They were delicious; possibly my favorite of all the food served!

Here we have some fantastic salami from Whole Foods, a duck spread that has a French name that I've forgotten, and freshly sliced French bread.

Next, I helped Carol wrestle this special, extra-long pasta into a pot of boiling water. Its black color comes from -- squid ink!

Here we've got some on-the-vine tomatoes, roasted with a couple of cloves of garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

The tomatoes, along with their sauce, were stirred into the pasta, along with sliced scallions, pine nuts, apple-flavored olive oil, and a dash of salt and pepper. It was light and delicious.

Here we have a huge salad (though you can't really tell that from the photograph) of mixed greens, candied walnuts, cucumber, shaved parmesan, and thinly sliced apple and pear. It was served with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette.

The lamb roast on the grill:

And off:

Unfortunately, the problem with serving meat at home is that people tend to like it cooked with some variation of rare or well done, and neither the twain shall meet. I like my lamb (and beef) cooked medium rare, as did 3 others. The other 3 liked their meat practically burnt ("cook it as much as you can cook it, and you're just about there" is how one described it). It's very difficult to prepare meat that caters to everyone's preferences without either letting some portion go cold (those of us who like it on the rare side), or making people watch others eat (those who need their meat cooked longer). Sadly, those who like meat on the rare side tend to get screwed, because while we can usually still suffer through over-done meat, those who like their meat well done absolutely cannot eat meat that has even the slightest amount of pink (at least, that was the case last night). So last night, the meat was cooked too well. There were a few slices with some hint of pink, but that was as rare as it got.

David, who prefers his meat medium rare as well, was muttering to himself as he sliced: "God! Ugh.... how can people eat their meat this way.... and this probably isn't even done enough for them! Ugh!" The meat was tender, though, so in that way it was still good. Flavor wise it was less than ideal, due to it being overdone, though since the lamb was fresh, it didn't have that gamey flavor that I don't like.

Along with the pasta and salad, the lamb was served with some beautifully roasted potatoes:

Putting it all together, it made for a very eye-catching plate:

As I mentioned, I brought a pumpkin pound cake laced with chocolate chips, which Carol served after dinner along with a cheese plate, an assortment of crackers, and slices of apple.

The cheese included an Irish cheddar, some kind of bleu that was wonderful with an apple slice, a caramel-flavored gouda, and one that looks like Brie but that I don't think was Brie (though I can't actually remember what it was):

The crackers included two types of New Zealand cracker, and one that was laced with dried fruit and nuts. My favorite was the one in the middle, which had a great taste and crunch. Naturally it was the one that Carol had actually physically brought back from New Zealand, which means I won't be able to find it here. Sigh.

My favorite thing about this pumpkin pound cake, which probably would have been more suitable in October or November, is that it actually sort of resembles a pumpkin. It's not an extremely sweet cake, and the pumpkin and spices are fairly subtle.

I laced it with chocolate chips, which you can see better here:

And a slice:

Pumpkin Pound Cake


For the cake:
  • 3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups pumpkin puree (or mashed fresh roasted pumpkin)
  • 4 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

For the buttermilk glaze:

  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 4 Tbsp. (½ stick) unsalted butter, cubed
  • 2 tbsp pure pumpkin puree
  • 1 ½ tsp. cornstarch or flour
  • ¼ tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 10-inch non-stick Bundt pan with cooking oil.
    In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt. Whisk well.
  2. In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the milk and vanilla.
  3. In stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and two sugars until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  4. Scrape down, add the pumpkin, and mix until the batter is combined. The batter will look grainy at this point; that's okay.
  5. With the mixer on low speed, add half of the flour mixture. Beat until just combined. Add half of the milk mixture and beat on low speed until well blended. Add the remaining flour, followed by the remaining milk, using the same method. Beat on low until the batter is thick and smooth.
  6. Scrape half the batter into the prepared pan. Scatter the chocolate chips as evenly as you can over the batter, then spoon the rest of the batter into the pan. Bake for 60 to 75 minutes (in my oven it took 70 minutes), or until the cake springs back when pressed lightly and a toothpick inserted in one of the cracks comes out clean.
  7. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. If needed, run a thin knife around the edge to loosen the cake. Carefully invert it onto the rack.
  8. Meanwhile, make the glaze. In a medium saucepan, combine the buttermilk, sugar, butter, pumpkin puree, cornstarch, and baking soda. Place it over medium heat, and bring it just to a gentle boil. Remove it from the heat, stir well, and set it aside to cool to room temperature. Once cool, add the vanilla and stir well.
  9. Set the wire rack over a rimmed sheet pan or long piece of foil. Spoon the glaze, which may have lumpy bits of cornstarch in it, through a cheesecloth-lined strainer over the warm cake if you want the glaze to soak into the cake. If you want the glaze to sit atop the cake, don't use it until the cake has been cooled significantly. Cool completely before serving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I actually could have eaten a lot of that meal!