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De la cuisine: Fine Fête

An elegant gathering with simple, yet sophisticated fare

Every year, the day after Christmas, my mother declared the interim week before New Year’s as “the lull between two storms.”

Indeed, Mama cooked up a storm for the family’s fête de Noel. Besides preparing for Christmas dinner that included baked capons and roast pork with all the trimmings, she also made dozens of pralines, chocolate fudge, cocoons and rum balls for gift giving. She also had gathered all the fixings — black-eyed peas, ham and cabbage — for New Year’s Day, so she could take it easy during the week in between. In recent years, I’ve set aside an evening during this break from festivities and began a tradition of having a small dinner party for friends visiting from out of town.

It’s a great excuse to set the table with Mama’s fine linens, sterling silver tableware and her special-occasion China. I encourage my guests to dress up. I have a favorite little black dress with which to wear Mama’s string of pearls. My husband is quite dashing in his tuxedo. The menu is simple, but elegant. I’m a big believer in doing as much in advance as possible so I’ll have time for an “hour of beauty” before the guests arrive. By the time the doorbell rings, there’s a fire in the fireplace, the votive candles are twinkling and camellias from my baby brother Bruce’s yard are arranged in small crystal bowls around the house.


Beef Tenderloin with Peppercorns

Make the horseradish sauce by combining 2 cups sour cream with ¼ cup prepared horseradish and a couple dashes of hot sauce. Whisk to blend well. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Butterfly 1 beef tenderloin, trimmed (5 to 6 pounds), leaving edge intact. Fold a large piece of heavy-duty plastic wrap over opened tenderloin and pound to flatten slightly. Remove wrap.

Spread evenly with 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard and sprinkle with ¾ tablespoons black peppercorns (coarsely ground) and ¾ tablespoon white peppercorns (coarsely ground). Fold one side back over and tie securely with kitchen twine at three-inch intervals. Rub with 3 tablespoons olive oil and ¾ tablespoons black peppercorns (coarsely ground) and ¾ tablespoons white peppercorns (coarsely ground). Sprinkle generously with salt.   

Insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the tenderloin and place on rack in roasting pan. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the thermometer registers 130 degrees for medium-rare; 35 to 45 minutes or until the thermometer registers 145 to 150 degrees for medium. Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil and let stand for about 10 minutes. Serve sliced with sour cream and horseradish sauce.

Makes 8 to 10 servings


Spinach au Gratin

Heat 2 tablespoons clarified butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and cook, stirring, to make a blond roux.

Add 1 pint half-and-half, whisking to dissolve any lumps of the roux. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. The mixture should thicken enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Drop 1½ pounds frozen chopped spinach (thawed) into the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain well in a colander. Remove excess water by mashing the spinach in the colander with the back of a spoon.

Add spinach to cream sauce in the saucepan and mix well. Season with salt and pepper. Add a pinch of nutmeg and stir to blend. Fill eight small gratin dishes or ramekins with creamed spinach, and top each with 6 ounces grated Gruyere or Fontina and a sprinkling of bread crumbs or panko. Place under the broiler in a 400-degree oven until the cheese is melted and evenly browned. Serve hot in the gratin dishes.

Makes 8 to 10 servings


If you want another side of vegetables, boil new potatoes in salted water, drain, then toss with butter and minced flat-leaf parsley.


Decadent Chocolate Truffle Torte

The torte can be chilled up to three days. Cover loosely after torte is completely chilled (covering before may cause condensation). The crust, without filling, can be made one day ahead and kept, covered, at room temperature.


Put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap a sheet of foil over the bottom of a springform pan (in case of leaks). Lightly butter side of pan.

Stir together 8 chocolate wafers such as Nabisco Famous, finely ground in a food processor (1½ cups) and ¾ stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled completely in a bowl until combined, then pat mixture evenly onto bottom of pan and 1½ inches up side. Bake until the crust is slightly puffed, about 10 minutes, then cool completely in the pan on a rack, about 15 minutes. Leave oven on.


While crust cools, melt ½ pound fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao if marked), coarsely chopped and ¾ stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring until smooth, then remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes.

Whisk together 2 large eggs, lightly beaten, ½ cup heavy cream, ¼ cup granulated sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract in a bowl. Whisk the chocolate mixture into egg mixture until blended.


Pour filling into cooled crust and rap the pan once on the counter to eliminate any air bubbles. Bake until the filling 1 inch from edge is set and slightly puffed but center trembles slightly when pan is gently shaken, 20 to 25 minutes. (Center will continue to set as it cools.)

Cool the torte completely in pan on a rack, about 2 hours. Chill, uncovered, until center is firm, about 4 hours. Remove side of pan and sprinkle with powdered cocoa to serve.

Makes 1 torte to serve 8 to 10


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