Monday, November 23, 2009

Best of Sacramento 2009

It's hard to believe it's been a year since Grange participated for the first time in the annual Best of Sacramento event at the Convention Center. Back then we were the new kid on the block, having just opened the hotel and restaurant a few days before in a whirlwind of frenzied activity. Everyone has worked so hard since then to make Grange one of the best dining spots in the city, and so it was sweetly rewarding to go this year having been voted "Best New Restaurant" and "Best Hotel Restaurant" by Sacramento Magazine subscribers.

A group of us went - me, Chef, my assistant Jackie, sous chef Brad Cecchi, extern Randy, and our PR angel Sarah Essary. Jackie and I made over 1,500 mini Ginger Guinness Cakes with Caramel-Braised Pears and Guinness Sauce to go along with gallons of Chef's Butternut Squash Soup. We all had a lot of fun handing out samples and meeting everyone who stopped by our table. It was a great party and we look forward to doing it again next year!

Today's Secret Ingredient Is ... Duck Fat!

Thursday, November 12 was the Duck-Off at Grange, a cooking competition between Chef and Hank Shaw, a local food blogger, avid hunter and great cook. As part of the special event we offered a five course dinner menu featuring duck in each course. My assignment was to produce a dessert for the menu, with the only parameters being that I had to use pears, creme fraiche and duck fat in the crust. I thought, no problem ... I can do that. I simply substituted half of the butter in my standard tart dough with the fat. It was challenging to work with because duck fat melts when you merely touch it, and the dough had to be kept very cold at all stages. But it made a wonderfully flaky crust. OK, that was done. Now what? I wanted to surprise Chef and Hank by using the fat in another way in the dessert. I thought of how it's used in savory cooking, such as sauteeing potatoes in duck fat. Hey, what if I sauteed the pears in it? So that's what I did. I used small Bartlett pears, peeled, cut in half, cored, then sliced but with the halves kept intact. Sauteed in the hot fat and sugar, the pear halves took on a glistening golden brown color, with the slices softening and fanning out like a bird's wing. They tasted wonderfully sweet, but also had a delicious, lightly savory flavor from the duck fat. Pulling the dessert together, I chose huckleberries and port as the complementary components.

I assembled the dessert by filling the tart shells with lightly sweetened whipped creme fraiche and cream, then topped that with a layer of sweet huckleberry compote. The compote was drizzled with a port and star anise syrup, then a sauteed pear half was fanned out over it and napped with a pear brandy sabayon. I used a propane torch to toast the sabayon and warm the pear. A little more of the port syrup on the plate completed the dessert.

I was really pleased with the way it all came together and loved how the pears looked against the dark purple huckleberries. The duck fat made a great flaky crust but also gave an unexpected yet intriguing flavor note to the sweet, juicy pears. It was such a fun dessert to create and Hank told me that the pear tart was one of the most complimented dishes of the night ... very cool!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Featuring ... Dessert!

As some of you may know, Grange offers daily 3-course dinner menu features in addition to our regular menu. I'm pleased that we're now offering a special dessert each week to accompany the feature menu. We're starting today with an Orange-Almond Cake with White Wine Poached Pears and Orange Muscat Sabayon. The cake is citrusy and nutty, made with ground toasted almonds, chopped whole oranges and olive oil. It's garnished with D'Anjou pears which are poached in white wine with a little bit of sugar and lemon juice until they're just tender. The pears are sliced and laid against the cake, then sprinkled with slivered candied oranges. The cake is topped with a lovely orange muscat sabayon which is lightly toasted. Delicious! Next week we'll offer a new dessert, so if you'd like to try this one you'd better come in soon!

The Sweet Flavors of Fall

Fall is my favorite season. The days grow shorter, the weather cools and the bright, juicy fruits of summer give way to the burnished yellows, oranges, reds and browns of apples, pears, persimmons, quinces, cranberries, pomegranates, squashes and sweet potatoes. To celebrate the change of seasons I've put several new desserts on our menu joining our Chai Creme Caramel with its infusion of cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, clove and black peppercorn ... believe me, if fall had a flavor it would be this dessert (see 9/28 post below). Our seasonal lineup now also includes Sweet Potato Tart, Guinness Ginger Cake and Apple-Cranberry Strudel.

I make the Sweet Potato Tart by roasting orange sweet potatoes until they're soft, then pureeing the flesh. I blend the puree with eggs, milk, cream, brown sugar, cinnamon and ginger, then pour the filling into pecan tart shells and bake them at a low temperature so they bake evenly and gently. The tarts are garnished with a dollop of toasted meringue, and flanked by candied pecans and a compote of butternut squash, Granny Smith apples and maple syrup. The gently spiced, creamy filling marries beautifully with the nutty pecan crust and the maple poached squash and apples - it's a delicious change from the usual pumpkin pie!

The Guinness Ginger Cake is packed with flavor - it has molasses, dark brown sugar, Guinness, ground ginger and cinnamon, and lots of candied ginger. I wrap the top of each little cake with slices of caramel-braised D'Anjou pears, then top them with lightly sweetened whipped cream and a candied pear chip. Since the taste of the Guinness is subtle in the cake I emphasize the flavor of the beer by making a sauce with it. I slowly reduce Guinness with dark brown sugar, then streak the sauce across the plate and place the cake on top. The cake is served warm so that the deep flavors really come through - the sweet pears are such a great complement to the moist, gingery cake and slight bitterness of the sauce - yummy!

Last, but certainly not least, is our Apple-Cranberry Strudel. In fact, it's already become very popular with our customers and staff as well. I slice Granny Smith apples, add dried cranberries and gently cook the fruit with brandy, white and brown sugar, and butter until the apples are just tender. The fruit is drained and the cooking juices returned to the stove to reduce to a lovely caramel, with cinnamon and a touch of cloves stirred in at the end. The fruit is then added back to the caramel and the mixture is laid out on phyllo sheets that have been buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. The strudels are rolled up like giant burritos and baked until golden brown. I make an apple-brandy sauce by reducing apple juice, brandy, lemon juice, brown sugar and cinnamon to a syrup, which is drizzled over the warm slices of strudel and French Vanilla ice cream. Oh, is it good - warm apples, sweet-tart cranberries, cold ice cream and flaky pastry ... not the mention the brandy ...

I hope you can join us for dessert - the sweet flavors of fall won't last forever!