October 22, 2009

An Italian Feast with Friends

Last Wednesday night my friend Sarah and I, with plenty of help from our friend Caitlin, had a dinner party that has been four months in the making. It all started in June with an email from Sarah suggesting we cook together sometime, followed by a few months of indecision when it came to setting a date, then being broke and needing to postpone until a new round of student loans came out, and finally cold feet. Most people get cold feet about getting married. I apparently get cold feet about dinner parties. I'm not really sure why. I never thought twice about cooking dinner for my friends in college, and I once went so far as to have a couple of my professors over for brunch. Since college my time in the kitchen has increased considerably, but the number of people I'm regularly cooking for has decreased. I'm usually only cooking for Matt and myself, and cooking for your boyfriend who is content eating Kraft singles and Tuna Helper is a little less intimidating than cooking for a dozen of your friends who read your blog and think that you know what you're doing in the kitchen. I knew I had to break out of my one man audience shell eventually, and that time finally came.

Sarah and I committed to a date for the dinner party a couple weeks ago, although it was a commitment made late at night at a crowded, poorly lit karaoke bar. Or was that a different night? I'm not really sure, but fortunately Sarah had the good sense to follow up with an email the following day, and so a date was set.

The original idea back in June was to use some recipes from an Ina Garten cookbook Sarah had checked out from the library, but in our last minute planning the menu shifted to an Italian theme. I think it had to do with the fact that I got a new pasta making attachment for my KitchenAid when I was in Seattle last week, and I could not wait another day to try it out. Our friend Caitlin heard we were making fresh pasta and understandably wanted to get in on the action, so the three of us donned aprons, sipped on some wine, and cooked up an Italian feast for some of our fellow FLA* members.

*Future Lawyers of America

Il Menu:

Salami, cheese, olives, bread
Spinach + ricotta gnocchi
Fresh pasta
Cheese + rosemary pizza
Chocolate + sea salt truffles

I'll start out with a picture of the cooks: me, Caitlin, Sarah. Geez, I am short.

Have you ever wondered what 2.5 pounds of spinach looks like? Wonder no more, my friends.

After my one class of the day was cancelled I decided I would start getting some things ready ahead of time so it would be less hectic once people came over. Sarah was in charge of the bolognese and I knew she and Caitlin wanted to be around for the pasta making, so the obvious choice was the spinach and ricotta gnocchi. The recipe came from Silver Spoon, and it was one of the first recipes I bookmarked to make when I got the cookbook a couple years ago. It took me two years to make the recipe, and it will probably take another year or two before I work up the nerve to make it again. Keep reading.

Here's about half of the 2.5 pounds of spinach after being cooked and squeezed as much as I could possibly squeeze to get all the liquid out. As much as I could possibly squeeze was apparently not enough, though.

The bowl full of chopped spinach, ricotta, egg yolks, parmesan, salt and pepper made me very hopeful. It made me think of delicious spinach balls, which remind me of Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday, which makes me very happy and hungry. Unfortunately, hope alone does not result in spinach and ricotta gnocchi.

After I formed the mixture into little balls I decided that I should go ahead and do a test run by boiling a few of them. What. A. Disaster. My lovely little bundles that looked like snow dusted evergreens hit the boiling water and instantly morphed into a watery spinach and ricotta soup.

Here's what the book says they'll look like. The only thing I didn't do exactly as it said in the book was to use 2.5 pounds of spinach instead of 2.25 pounds. You wouldn't think that a quarter pound of spinach would ruin the result, though. I did a google search for the recipe, and I think people who had a more liberal interpretation of "dust with flour" had better results. Maybe next time I'll roll the balls in flour instead of dusting them. I hope I can remember this a couple years from now when I work up the nerve to try this recipe again.

In case you're worried about the fate of the gnocchi that weren't involved in the test run, you can relax. I ended up baking them instead of boiling them. I wish I could say they were still great, but I'm not a very good liar. The spinach flavor was overpowering, and to be honest I can't really think of any redeeming qualities. I would have much rather had spinach balls or plain potato gnocchi.

Fortunately, the rest of the food was delicious.

We started out with a meat and cheese tray for people to munch on while the pasta was being made. From the left: brie, sopressata, Dubliner. There were also some olives and sliced baguettes.

I know I said that the rest of the food after the gnocchi was delicious, but that doesn't mean everything went smoothly. Caitlin and I each made a batch of pasta dough from two different cookbooks, and we both had wells of flour that gave way after we tried to squeeze too many eggs into them.

I guess I could blame Sarah for my well collapsing since she was the one to add the final egg, but I was the one who encouraged her to take part and the same thing would have happened had I cracked that egg. After the first well collapsed panic ensued and Caitlin's well gave way, too. This is a photo of the aftermath.

Not to worry, though. In the end we had two balls of pasta dough, which went on to become two large bowls of pasta. Caitlin's dough is pictured above.

Overhead shot of Sarah making the bolognese. Boiling beets on the left.

I was very, very excited that my new KitchenAid attachment was spitting out macaroni(!!).

So were Tom, Ron, and Caitlin.

Caitlin stepped in to make the rest of the pasta while I threw together a pizza.

Fettucini and a pile of uncut macaroni. Pretty good for three girls that don't have Italian grandmothers.

Ron enjoyed his sippy cup of wine while Caitlin enjoyed the food.

Sarah ate. Dan drank. I see a trend here.

Kate ate. Garin watched. Why are only half the people eating?

Here's my plate. The big pile of macaroni kind of weighed itself down, so by the time we tried to cut it into little pieces it was no longer hollow. Instead of hollow little tubes we ended up with rustic slabs. Delicious rustic slabs. The salad was green leaf lettuce, beets, parmesan, balsamic, and a little olive oil. Yum.

Who invited these (matching) dweebs?

Sarah made some awesome chocolate and sea salt truffles. She warned me that they were incredibly rich and a whole one may be too much, so I ate half of one. Ten minutes later I went back for the second half. They were amazing.

Thanks to Sarah and Caitlin for your cooking help and photos!

Thanks to Dan and Ron for your cleaning help!

And sorry, Sarah, but go Hawks!



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