Monday, June 26, 2006

I went to a garden party...

Finally...a Sunday afternoon decent enough to have a backyard get-together, and it seemed like every house in the county had the same idea! As for me, I was invited to my friend June's house for a sort of homecoming celebration for one of our former colleagues who was in town for a visit. We had a lovely time just noshing and chatting and drinking margaritas and playing croquet. And since it was a special occasion, I thought I should prepare a couple of nice dishes to take with. The first is an appetizer called Veggie Pizza that is a little on the trashy side, as it is crescent roll-based, but it masquerades as an elegant hors' d'oeuvres and people always love it. Plus, it showcased some of the wonderful fresh vegetables that we got at the farmers' market at St. Chrysostome, incuding the purple spring onions, broccoli, and both the orange and green cauliflowers, not to mention some fresh dill from the herb garden.

And then for a very special touch, I made my best "WOW" factor dessert, a fresh fruit tart. In the past, I have followed Ina Garten's recipe to the letter, but her shortbread crust, while tasty, ends up being a bit tough as a base; your fork has a hard time piercing it, and then the pastry cream oozes out and your fruit might get away from you, too! So this time, I decided to try Gale Gand's sugar cookie recipe for the base, filled with Ina's pastry cream, and then my trusty decorator and roommate, Cyd, made a lovely design on top with various fruits, such as plums, nectarines, kiwi, and the local strawberries and blueberries that we got in Canada. For the finishing touch, I shellacked the top of the tart with some homemade apricot jam that I melted and strained and applied lightly with a pastry brush until it had a glossy shine. Beautiful! I am pleased to report that the tart (and the pizza) got rave reviews at the garden party, as did my wonderful friend, Janice's gorgeous homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie. I'll definitely have to shake her down for that recipe another day. In the meantime, here are the ones for the treats that I took to share. Give them a try at your next backyard (or indoor) affair!

Veggie Pizza

2 cans refrigerated crescent rolls

3/4 cup mayonnaise
2-8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temp.
1 teaspoon dill (or 1 tablespoon of fresh dill, finely chopped)
2 green onions, chopped

your favorite fresh veggies

Unroll the crescent rolls into a rectangular shape and press to seal the perforations. Bake at 375 for approximately 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Mix together (I use a food processor) the mayonnaise, cream cheese, dill and green onions until well-blended and fairly smooth. (I often throw in some other things to this mixture, such as a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of granulated garlic, a teaspoon of celery salt, some cracked black pepper, a pinch of cayenne, or whatever calls to me when I open the spice cupboard. I also sometimes throw in other fresh herbs during the summer when my garden is going strong. Be creative!)

When the crescent roll crusts have cooled, spread half of the cream cheese mixture on both "pizzas" and then top with your favorite fresh vegetables. I like carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, and red pepper myself, but it's your call. Refrigerate until the cream cheese layer firms up, cut into portions, and serve.

Fresh Fruit Tart

Cookie Crust (adapted from Gale Gand):

3/8 cup granulated sugar
6 tablepoons unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/3 cup vegetable shortening (I like butter-flavored Crisco)
1/2 egg (beat it, then pour approx. half in)
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 3/4 cups flour

In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or using a hand mixer), cream the sugar, butter and shortening until fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and baking powder and mix. Add the flour and mix. Shape the dough into a large flat disk, kneading briefly if necessary to bring the dough together. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill 1 to 2 hours. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough 1/4-inch thick. Transfer to a 11-inch tart pan. Refrigerate (or freeze) until firm. Place a round of parchment paper over the tart shell and fill with pie weights. Bake blind for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Carefully remove the parchment and weights, prick the shell all over with a fork, and return to the oven, baking the crust until golden brown, another 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Pastry Cream (adapted from Ina Garten):

8 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch

pinch salt
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla (I like vanilla bean paste for this)
2 tablespoons heavy cream

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or using an electric hand mixer), beat egg yolks and sugar on medium-high speed about 3 minutes, until mixture is light yellow and falls back into bowl in a ribbon. On low speed, beat in cornstarch and salt. In a large saucepan, bring milk to a simmer. Slowly pour milk into egg mixture, whisking steadily, then pour back into saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a whisk or wooden spoon until mixture is thick, about 4 minutes (or less). Bring to a boil and cook on low heat 2 to 3 more minutes. (Taste to be sure cornstarch is cooked.) Remove from heat; mix in butter, vanilla, and cream. Pour through a strainer into a bowl. Place plastic wrap directly onto custard and refrigerate until cold.

Place baked tart shell on a serving plate and spread pastry cream over bottom of shell. Select a variety of your favorite fruits (wash, peel, slice, etc.--and sprinkle cut fruit with lemon juice to keep from browning) and make a casual arrangement. You might consider using any of the following: raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, halved strawberries, grapes (in small clusters), sliced mango, sliced papaya, sliced kiwi, sliced bananas, sliced plums, thinly sliced oranges or limes. Place larger fruit first, then fill spaces with berries. Use colorful fruit, such as halved strawberries or a grouping of raspberries, near the center for focus and height.

Glaze the fruit with about a half cup of melted apricot jelly (or strained jam) or honey using a pastry brush. Refrigerate until time to serve...but it is best if you prepare the separate elements and combine them right before serving so that the crust doesn't get soggy!

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