Tuesday, March 11, 2008

education of a young glutton: dinner with the business associates

It is high summer, and I am eleven years old. I have been dragged away from the backyard swimming pool because we are going out to dinner, and my mother has insisted that I wear a dress. I know that this means dinner with one of my father's business associates. I am not entirely happy.

Chinese culture dictates that while most business dinners may involve just the men, there are always a handful where the entire family comes along. The food tends to be good, but my mother frowns when I bring books to pass the time. I resign myself to a very long meal.

Most of my father's business associates favor Chinese cuisine, and we usually end up in Chinatown, eating stir-fried spicy lobster or green-lipped abalone poached in clear broth. But this business associate has a taste for Western cuisine, and what is presumably an enormous expense account, because we're going to the Ritz-Carlton in Double Bay, one of Sydney's swankiest hotels.

We meet the business associate and his wife in the lobby, and make our way to the restaurant. The dining room is dimly lit, with candles on the tables and sconces on the walls. We are seated. Menus arrive, orders are placed, and the meal begins.

The business associate's wife has placed an order of two dozen oysters Kilpatrick for the table. The oysters arrive in the half shell on a bed of rock salt, rich with butter and sizzling bits of bacon. They are creamy and briny, and the bacon adds a deliciously smoky crunch. This meal isn't winning any points for the conversation, but the food is definitely good.

The dining room is quiet, and the service is leisurely. The adults talk on, and I am half-asleep in my enormous high-backed chair when our main courses arrive.

The waitress sets my plate before me, and I am immediately wide awake. I chose steak au poivre with French fries because I read about it in a book on French cookery. The contents of my plate look remarkably similar to the photo that accompanied the recipe: a small, thick steak in peppercorn-flecked sauce, with a generous heap of golden French fries.

I pick up my knife and fork and tuck in. I followed the advice of the waitress and asked for the steak medium-rare; the meat is pink and tender, and tastes almost buttery. It goes beautifully with the spicy green peppercorn sauce. The French fries are worlds better than the ones at McDonald's. And my mother is too preoccupied with the conversation to stop me from eating too many.

In fact, my mother enjoys herself enough to let me order dessert, which makes this dinner a rare and monumental occasion. I read each entry on the dessert menu carefully. I am immediately drawn to the one at the very end, the one that mentions fresh raspberries and vanilla ice-cream. Raspberries are rare and expensive. I can count on one hand the number of times we've had them at home.

The waitress returns with our desserts, and sets a plate with an elaborate tower before me. I sink my spoon into gently warmed fresh raspberries mashed with thick cream, topped with vanilla ice-cream and an elaborately curled tuile. The berries are fruity and tart-sweet, and their warmth is an interesting contrast to the chill of the ice-cream. The tuile provides extra sweetness and crunch. My mother is still caught up the conversation, and doesn't notice when I scrape my plate clean.

I fall asleep during the car ride home. I think I dream about dinner. And I am still dreaming about that dinner, even now.

(Adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini's recipe for langues de chat.)

True tuiles are shaped using templates that make them uniform in size, and draped over a rolling pin while still warm and pliant to give them a curved shape. As these are formed freehand and left flat, they're really more not-quite-tuiles.

(Makes one dozen.)

Cream together just over half a stick of butter with one slightly heaped quarter-cup of sugar. Add two egg whites, half a cup of flour, half a teaspoon of vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth. Chill the batter in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat oven to 400F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment and spread the batter in a dozen rough circles with plenty of space in between. Bake for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the tuiles are golden in color and have crispy brown edges. Remove from baking tray and allow to cool.

Warm Raspberries with Cream and Tuiles

You can make this into an elegant dessert by whipping the cream with a touch of liqueur, folding it into the mashed raspberries and spooning the mixture into a wineglass, but I like this better as a simple, indulgent afternoon snack.

(Serves one. You're not going to share, are you?)

Get a nice, large bowl and dump one punnet of fresh raspberries into it. Mash them gently with a fork, and briefly warm them in the microwave, about thirty seconds or so. Drizzle with heavy cream. I prefer my raspberries without sugar, but you might want a little if you prefer your desserts on the sweet side.

Stick a tuile or two into the bowl. Grab a spoon and go sit in a sunny place. Dig in.

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