Though I had been toying with the idea for a little while, the final decision to host a dinner party on my birthday weekend was made only hours before the event itself.  I had not thrown a party in a while, and I considered the menu planning and grocery shopping a gift to myself.

Had I made this decision a day beforehand, I might have tried out the cassoulet recipe in The NY Times magazine last Sunday.  It’s still chilly enough in the Northeast to make the idea of a cassoulet party very appealing.  And it’s been something I wanted to try – such a project.  Bean-soaking, confit-making, in addition to providing another opportunity for me to confront my lamb issues.  But it may just have to wait until next winter.  Instead, I built the menu around a recipe in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, something called a sweet-salty potato far.  It involves grated potato, raisins, prunes, and a crepe-like batter.  (Oh, I can just hear the groans of raisin detractors far and near!)  Dorie’s description, and its Breton roots captured my imagination.  The infinitely more common version of the recipe is the traditional far breton, a clafoutis-type dessert, studded with prunes.

Now that I had decided on potatoes, beef was not far behind.  A few backward turns of the pages, and there it was, Dorie’s beef daube, calling for carrots and parsnips.  An arugula and endive salad (surprised?) would round things out.  And dessert?  It was a toss-up between two custard recipes from this week’s dining section of The NY Times.  Baked Tapioca Pudding with Cinnamon Sugar Brûlée or Chocolate Pistachio Pots de Crème?  The salty/sweet idea won out.  And don’t birthdays just about demand a little bit of dark chocolate anyway?

Since it was to be a birthday celebration, I also wanted something festive to begin the evening, something other than our usual olives and cheese.  Since I clearly had a French theme at work, I chose gougères and Kirs.  Gougères are essentially cheese puffs, and the Kir is a popular French aperitif, made of white wine with a splash of crème de cassis.

List in hand, at 3 p.m. I headed to the grocery store.  Though a very late bedtime the night before was beginning to catch up with me as I drove to the store, I felt my energy grow and my anticipation build as my cart began to fill.  There is something I simply love about carefully selecting each shallot, looking over the different chuck roasts, deciding which extra-bittersweet chocolate to use, and seeing these ingredients assembled together in my shopping basket, imagining how they will leave their packaging or have their skins peeled away, be melted or chopped, stirred or seared, and become something altogether other.

Provisions procured, the cooking began in earnest, since the daube was going to require 2 1/2 hours in the oven.  As I began cutting the roast into large chunks, my sous-chef (aka my sister) began the browning process – of both bacon and beef.

Somehow I always underestimate the time it takes to properly brown 3 1/2 pounds of cubed beef.  We would have been eating at midnight if my sister had not been available (and willing!) to assist.  But thankfully she was both, and I moved on to the other tasks.  Carrots and parsnips were pared and chopped, onions, shallots, and garlic skinned and sliced.  Next up, the gougères – our guest were due shortly!

Gruyère is traditionally used for these puffs, but in a nod to the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, I used an Irish farmhouse cheddar.  Once the cheese is shredded, these whip up in a matter of moments.  Some very brief melting and stirring on the stove, and then eggs are beaten into the batter (it’s a basic pâte à choux – water, milk, butter, flour, eggs),

followed by a goodly amount of shredded cheese.  Spoon tablespoons onto a baking sheet,

and about 30 minutes later you will offer your guests the airiest bit of cheesy loveliness ever.

The potato far is rather fun to make.  First some thick batons of bacon are browned.  Next, an easy batter is whipped up (milk, eggs) and shredded potato, a cup of raisins, and some halved prunes are folded in.  It’s poured into a buttered deep pie dish, studded with more butter, and baked.  The end result is certainly more rustic than sophisticated, but all agreed it makes an excellent partner for a saucy beef stew.

Finally, the pots de creme.  Once again I was measuring milk and cracking eggs, to which I then added a mixture of ground pistachios, flour, and sugar.  Thinking about the salty-sweet relationship, I had opted for roasted, salted pistachios.  Not sure this is what Melissa Clark had in mind, as The Times recipe didn’t specify.  Next time around – and there will be a next time – I will go with unsalted nuts and I will cut down on the sugar, as I think both ends of the spectrum were a little too intense.  One of my guests commented that the dessert was almost like chocolate fudge, and in my book, that’s not a good thing – too sweet.  I had used extra-bitter dark chocolate (72% cocoa), but the additional sugar in the recipe took things a little too far for my taste, as did the pre-salted pistachios.   The freshly whipped cream (no sugar added) did help to balance things out.

All in all, the dinner was a terrific success, and a great deal of fun.  The only thing that could have improved it, and would have immeasurably, would have been the presence of several super special guests who, due to reasons varied but unalterable, could join us only in spirit.  Maybe they’ll be the beneficiaries of the cassoulet and baked tapioca next year . . .