Flawed but interesting

That's what they say about a movie that engages us because it was brave and daring even if it could have been better executed. Often we'd rather see these kinds of films than those that are perfect but soulless.

The birthday meal I made for Sweetie yesterday was definitely ambitious. I did what you're not supposed to do when you have company—make something you've never made before. In this case, it was two somethings. And poor Sweetie was the guinea pig. But for whatever reason, I felt I could pull it off.

The day started pretty successfully. When I make pancakes, I usually make a variant on a recipe from the Deaf Smith Country Cookbook, an old vegetarian hippie cookbook I've had for years. The whole wheat pancake recipe is about the only reason I keep the book. But yesterday, I had a half carton of buttermilk left over from having made Red Velvet cupcakes on Valentine's Day, so I made actual buttermilk pancakes with white flour. Yikes! I added some frozen blueberries to the basic mix, as well as some extra milk (the batter was too thick). I made them with Sweetie's brunch favourite, bacon (good stuff from a Fraser Valley farm). The pancakes were yummy! I might have to go non-virtuous more often.

For the actual birthday dinner, I had planned potato gnocchi in a beurre noisette sauce. Those are the two things I had never made before. Foolish but brave? More confidence than ability? I started by steaming B.C. Yukon Gold potatoes (revealing the provenance, as they might on a menu). Once they're done and peeled, while still hot (I'm pretty good at that), they're supposed to go through a ricer. A ricer makes the gnocchi lighter. We don't have a ricer. And after listening to Chef Robert Irvine on Worst Cooks in America drilling into people to use the right tool for the job, I should have known better than to try to get away with not having that. I had thought I could force the potatoes through a metal colander. What potato did go through was actually in pretty good riced shape, but it was too much effort to get more than a little that way. I ended up mostly mashing, almost killing my food processor motor, and finally getting a reasonably acceptable pile of potato.

I whipped up the egg mixture—egg, salt, white pepper, and a bit of nutmeg (a great touch). I made a well in the potatoes and started incorporating the egg mixture, some freshly grated Parmigiano (I can't remember if I bought Reggiano or Padano last time), and flour. I did pretty well with that step, not kneading for too long (if the gluten in the flour develops, the gnocchi will be tough).

Pretty labour-intensive so far, but we're not done yet. Next, I cut the dough into six parts. I rolled each one into a half-inch rope. The dough had a bit of spring, but I hoped not too much. I cut little gnocchi pillows from the rope, about 16 for each. I rolled each pillow into a ball, then rolled each one against the back of a fork, making a little indentation on the other side with my thumb. Those help hold the sauce. This is not the quicker method I've seen on cooking shows, where the dough seems a bit looser and is put into a pastry bag. The dough is then extruded, and pillows are sliced off and fall into boiling water.

I made about 80 gnocchi before I stopped, leaving the final brick unrolled and unused. That seemed like enough gnocchi. I had already started a sautée of chopped butternut squash in a little olive oil, lightly seasoned.

I switched to making the appetizer: crab cakes. No, I didn't make the crab cakes! I probably will at some point, but the crab cakes from the Daily Catch are great. I had already made a spicy remoulade. I like to make that from scratch, but the amount of mayonnaise is determined by the amount of egg. It's pretty hard to use half an egg, and a whole egg makes more than a cup of mayonnaise. So I used pre-made (good organic stuff), with some Dijon mustard, chopped pickles, and Tabasco sauce. I seared the crab cakes and served them with mixed greens and a Balsamic vinaigrette. Simple and tasty.

Then it was back to the main course, and time for the beurre noisette. Here is where I would have been eliminated from Chef Anne Burrell's team. Never having made beurre noisette before, and having only the exact amount of butter I needed, I was too cautious. I was afraid to burn the butter, so I stopped a little short. At least I'm pretty sure I did. Maybe it was tan butter instead of brown butter. It did cook for a while, and butter browns pretty easily. The recipe also called for sage, and I should have held off on adding that until I could see the colour change clearly. At any rate, I pushed it as far as I did, and then added some chicken stock. Meanwhile, I was cooking gnocchi, which have the convenient habit of floating to the top of the water when they're done. I put the drained gnocchi in the sauce, added the sautéed squash, and tossed it all together. I served it with another sprinkling of Parmigiano and some chopped flat-leaf parsley.

Flawed but very tasty. Sweetie was making food-gasm sounds, and so was I.

I had chilled some Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris, one of our favourite wines. Burrowing Owl is always good, but some vintages are better than others. We had one bottle left of the 2009, but I figured my baby deserved the superb 2010, which paired wonderfully with the gnocchi.

And somehow we had room for cake. I didn't make the cake. I make good cupcakes, but I've never tried a whole birthday cake. Sweetie made a special request for a Black Forest cake from Bella Cakes & Pastries across town. Since I had had to pick it up before they closed on Saturday (and they do not open on Sunday), the cake was not intact for the actual birthday. In this picture, you almost can't see the missing slices.

I definitely want to make gnocchi again, and I want to make beurre noisette again. For the gnocchi, I must get a ricer. That's all there is to it. I did everything else pretty much as I should have, and the gnocchi actually came out pretty well. For the beurre noisette, what I should do is experiment. Melt one pat of butter in a pan and watch it to see how long it takes to change and exactly what happens. I've seen a video, but there's no substitute for actually seeing it in front of you. Sweetie went back for seconds even for this batch. Wait until I get it right!

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