Cooking in Taipei: Ten-Course Tasting Menu for Brett’s Birthday
Not sure how Brett lucked out for me to plan an entire foodie weekend for his birthday this year, but we made reservations for a couple nice restaurants over the weekend and I agreed to cook dinner for him on Friday night. Being the overachiever that I am, I somehow deluded myself into thinking I could pull off a ten course dinner by myself! We tried to go to bed early Thursday night so I could get up for my favorite Twitter travel “Tweetup” at 4am — #TNI! Unfortunately, when it was over around 6 am, all I wanted to do was nap — not get up and start cooking. Fast forward to 9am when I bolted back up and realized I needed to get started otherwise we’d still be eating this dinner come Saturday morning breakfast.
I did as much prep work as I could early in the day (sauces, chopping, etc.), but somehow the day just flew and guess what? We were still eating well after 1am. As usual, the best laid plans gone awry! Overall, it was a success – apart from a few cooking snafus and wrangling with the world’s most difficult dessert in my opinion. I must point out how well-adjusted I have become to our small kitchen here in Taipei after coming from a huge Western style kitchen with easily sourced ingredients. It has taken time to get used to cooking with only two burners, a small and quite temperamental oven, and having to run to five different types of grocery stores to get supplies, so I am rather impressed I managed to pull off a dinner this grand.
Here is a look at the courses and links to recipes where applicable. I planned the entire meal around two special bottles of wine for the evening — 07 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and our rather expensive 02 Heitz Cellars‘ Martha’s Vineyard legendary Cabernet Sauvignon.
First Course: Bagna Calda
Bagna Calda is one of my all-time favorite dishes from The Stinking Rose Restaurant in California. Both Brett and I love garlic so I was thrilled to introduce him to a garlic themed restaurant when we first started dating. Bagna Calda is one of their signature dishes, which is basically a garlic bath. Cloves of garlic are baked in olive oil, butter, and anchovies. Once the cloves are soft, you can spread these garlicky delights on bread, crackers, etc. Since we were doing a big multi-course dinner, I opted to cook just a few cloves for each of us, otherwise I am sure we would’ve filled up on these right away.
I used some of my favorite Northern California Lucero Olive Oils (Basil and also a bit of the Lemon), some anchovy paste, high-end French butter, and baked everything in a small dish for about 35 minutes on 325 degrees F. They key is to coat the cloves in oil so they stay moist in the oven.
Second Course: Scallops on Potato Pancakes
This course was inspired by a Food & Wine recipe for Scallops with Potato Pancakes and Caviar Sauce. Since Brett is Jewish and loves his Hanukkah latkes, this was a perfect opportunity to combine them into his fancy birthday dinner too!
Caviar is not that easy to track down here and for the price of $100 US, I didn’t think it was really worth spending that much for sauce. I opted to make a vanilla butter sauce instead. Since I was making only four scallops I just used a portion of a Tahitian vanilla bean we got in French Polynesia. I made a simple sauce of chopped shallots, white wine, butter, and the vanilla pod scrapings. The Food & Wine recipe says you can make the latkes ahead of time and keep them at room temperature for two hours, but I recommend making them fresh so they stay extra crisp.
Third Course: Ravioli Filled with Brie, Pumpkin, and Leeks Tossed in a Browned Butter Sauce
This is definitely the course where disaster began to strike. The pasta dough I intended to use had an awful consistency, so I ended up making dough from scratch! Unfortunately, our apartment is either overly humid or skin-cracking dry. Brett had turned on the dehumidifier because of all the cooking I had been doing so the dough ended up cracking and drying out too soon. I couldn’t get it rolled as thin as I needed so I knew my ravioli skins were going to be more dense than normal ones.
Although the ravioli were quite thick, at least the filling came out great. I heated fresh pumpkin puree I had already made with some Brie and a small handful of finely chopped leeks. I made a simple browned butter sauce and topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Fourth Course: Leek and Red Wine Soup
This course was inspired by Food & Wine’s recipe for Silky Leek and Red Wine Soup. The soup has a nice blend of leeks, a pinch of saffron, red wine, and of course heavy cream. This is a great recipe, but for the dinner I varied it slightly to be less creamy and more of a true red wine soup. When I was working on this dish, Brett’s face was priceless…I opened the saffron and I think he saw dollar signs floating above. We can only get one kind of saffron here and it’s over $30 US for 1 gram or 0.03 ounces. I only used a pinch I swear!
Fifth Course: Mini Baked Mac and Cheese
These are fun and really simple to make. Take cooked elbow macaroni and mix with your favorite blend of cheeses and drop into buttered muffin cups. You can make them ahead of time and keep in the fridge until you are ready to bake. I used a blend of Padano, Parmesan, Mozzarella, and Cheddar. Top them with additional grated Parmesan and bake until they are golden brown on the top.
Sixth Course: Caesar Salad
To counter the two heavy pasta courses, I did a light salad with a traditional Caesar dressing (just used very little egg yolk). Instead of shaved or grated Parmesan cheese, I used Parmesan crisps I had baked earlier in the day. These provide a nice crispy texture in a salad (especially if you do not use croutons).
Seventh Course: Herb Crusted Lamb Chops with Caramelized Broccoli
Brett loves his lamb chops so I couldn’t imagine a big dinner without them, not to mention they pair perfectly with our beloved Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I marinated the lamb in red wine and herbs for most of the day and then crusted them with a mix of additional herbs. About five minutes on the grill and they were perfect. For a side dish, I prepared a little caramelized broccoli with sliced garlic.
Eighth Course: Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Soufflé with Vanilla Rum Caramel Sauce
This was a course of concern for me. I had not made a true chocolate soufflé before, so probably not the best time to try one now! I had really wanted to use Valrhona chocolate, but we could not find it at the store this time, so I opted to use an interesting Lindt Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt. I also added 1/4 of the Tahitian vanilla pod to the chocolate mixture. I used a recipe from Food Network for the soufflé itself. I had a rough time getting my egg whites to stiffen and I think I must have had a tiny bit of egg yolk on the beaters. As I continued to mix for what seemed like 30 minutes, Brett found a tip online that said to use cream of tartar. It did work — the egg whites began to form peaks shortly thereafter!
Earlier in the day, I made a Tahitian vanilla bean and Cuban rum caramel sauce. It was quite thick, super sweet, but oh so delicious! Looking forward to finishing the leftover sauce with some vanilla bean ice cream!
Ninth Course: Passion Fruit Macarons with Dark Chocolate Passion Fruit Ganache
I’ve read numerous recipes and blogs about how difficult these are to make, but I wasn’t dissuaded. I can see why you need to make them over and over again to get them right. I could not find food coloring anywhere here in Taipei (go figure), but we did find food flavoring drops that had some color. I bought the passion fruit and coffee flavors in hopes I could use one of these two. Combing the fruit stand, I found fresh passion fruit and decided to try a passion fruit macaron with a passion fruit chocolate ganache.
While I aspire to make macarons as good as Pierre Herme, I figured it was a bit ambitious to start off trying that complex of a recipe. Instead, I went with the queen of simple and straight forward – Martha Stewart! It appears she can really do anything. Her basic macaron recipe was quite simple and easy to follow.
I started the macarons in the morning and the first few ended up sticking together (when they say leave at least 2 inches in between…they really mean it!) Trying to get the almond mixture in the pastry bag was a challenge in itself. If you have wedding rings on and happen to be a lefty like me, take them off! That almond mixture is a $&@*@( to clean off rings, especially if you have any pave set diamonds!
Out of 20 something macaron halves, I did manage to get at least 6 sets that were reasonably the same size and shape. A tip: let them cool completely otherwise they are very easy to break. Set them aside and do something else for an hour or so — if you live in a humid climate like we do, it may take even longer for them to completely set.
For the ganache, I actually used a Pierre Herme recipe with fresh passion fruit puree. Making your own passion fruit puree is not hard if you basically put the “guts” in a food processor and then strain. Some people use sugar as well but since it was going into a ganache, I did not add any extra sugar. And now we have extra puree for passion fruit margaritas!
One recommendation on piping the ganache — let it harden completely. I put it in the fridge for nearly an hour; however, it started softening quickly due to the humidity and the heat of my hands on the pastry bag and began to spit. It probably would’ve been easier had I let it set up longer.
Overall, the macarons came out better than I expected for my first time and they were delicious, so that is what’s important! Next time I can work on the aesthetics.
Tenth Course: Aged Cheeses and Gourmet Honey
We love pairing gourmet cheeses with wine and have been known to make a meal out of meats and cheeses before. Our favorite chef here in town often treats us to special aged cheeses, gourmet honey, and homemade raisins after one of his big degustation menus. Finding certain gourmet cheeses here can be hit or miss sometimes — one thing I definitely miss from the States! In the end, I served the aged Parmesan and Padano since we still had a little Cabernet Sauvignon left. Not terribly exciting, but a clean way to finish off after those two rich desserts.
By the time we finished this course, I was exhausted. When I woke up Saturday morning, I was actually sore! Standing hunched over a counter on hard tile floors for 12+ hours made for a long day, but Brett was worth it…sore muscles and all!