Out of the blue a few months ago, an old Italian chef I used to work for gave me a ring (I’ll call him Lorenzo). It had been years since we’d talked, and the last thing I remember was missing my last day of work locked up in a jail cell, which in hindsight, is not the greatest way to end an employment. Even so, when I picked up the phone, he was happy, and gave me an offer: cook dinner for his 15th wedding anniversary, for him, his wife and a few guests. I remember he said:
“I have been watching you from afar Alan. I want to taste the Alan food!”
I was busy, and it would mean sacrificing a precious weekend, but I couldn’t turn it down. I knew the chance to reconnect with someone who helped shape and influence me would be well worth it.
Lorenzo wasn’t your average chef, he was trained as a Maitre’d Hotel in some of the nicest restaurants in Europe, including the legendary Roux Brother’s restaurant: La Gavroche, where Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay both trained. It was one of the finest restaurants in it’s day, and the first in Britain to be awarded 3 Michelin stars. It also holds the Guinness book’s record for the most expensive meal per head: a dinner for three that cost nearly 21k.
Just so happens I have an old, dusty tome from La Gavroche’s heyday. Here are some fun excerpts:
Needless to say, I learned a lot from working under him.
He had a couple requests for the meal, but left it up to me to be creative and surprise them for the most part. He has a special way of phrasing things in his thick Italian accent, here’s an example of something he asked for:
“Alahn, we would love some foie gras, you know, a little quack quack?” “Let me tell you though, if you make the foie gras au torchon, My wife will kiss you, but then I will have to kill you!”
The other thing that he wanted was much more sincere. On their honey moon, he and his wife didn’t have much to work with, but he, in his resourcefulness, wound up steaming lobsters on the beach and making a key-lime pie. So for dessert, he asked for something with lime in it, to pay respect to one of their first evenings as a married couple.
Thinking of their night on the beach made me a little nostalgic, and reminded me of a dessert I made a couple years ago. Story goes that I was near flat broke, but I had invited a special lady over for dinner.
For a shoe string budget dessert, I took a single pack of cream cheese, whipped some egg whites and sugar and baked small ramekins of the mix in a water bath. It was stellar, and remains one of my favorite desserts I’ve come up with. It’s like a cheesecake, but more fluffy. It’s like a mousse, but without the whipped cream.
High on memories, I got to work combining Lorenzo’s key lime pie and my old cheesecake-y thing. Instead of cheap cream cheese, I used quark, a German style cheese I love. Milton Creamery in Wisconsin makes a great one.
To the cheese, I added a little lime zest and since I didn’t have enough ramekins for the amount of guests, I cooked the whole shebang in a loaf pan and scooped quenelles out of the mixture. The quark got nestled on a little pile of black walnut praline to provide some texture, then I finished it with a spoon of some jammy black currant coulis to round everything out, since lime and citrus love berries.
Out of everything I made that night, this was the most special, and also what I remember people requesting seconds of. Being as it was the last course, that should tell you something too: it’s worth loosening the belt for, that’s for sure! Enjoy.
Quark-Lime Mousse, Black Walnut Praline, Currant Coulis
Yield: Makes one 9x5in loaf pan, enough to serve 8-10 people a small portion
- 1 recipe black walnut praline (follows)
- 1 recipe black currant coulis (follows)
- 1 qt quark cheese, at room temperature (cream cheese can be substituted)
- 4 large eggs
- 1 tsp fresh lime zest, preferably grated on a micro plane grater
- 3 tbsp fresh lime juice
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1.75 cups granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 325. With a hand or standing mixer, whisk the eggs and sugar until light, fluffy, and pale, about 3-4 minutes on medium speed. Add the quark, salt, lime zest and juice and fold to combine thoroughly. Gently oil a 9×5 in loaf pan, then add the cheese mixture to it.
Fashion a bain marie by placing the loaf pan in a larger pan, the filling it with water 1/3 way up the loaf pan. cover the whole thing with a double layer of foil, then bake for 1 hour, rotating 180 degrees at the halfway point. Check on the mixture to make sure it’s set in the middle, it should giggle when the pan is tapped, but not be liquid. If needed, turn down the heat to 300 and cook for another 25 minutes or until set. When the mixture is set, remove it from the oven and cool in the water bath, then chill overnight in the fridge.
Plating the dish
Chill some small dessert plates. Place heaping tablesoons of black walnut praline on each plate, then, using two spoons or a scoop, place 2 oz scoops of the quark on top of the praline. Garnish each with a tbsp of the black currant coulis and serve immediately.
Black Walnut Praline
Yield: roughly 2 cups of praline
- 2 cups untoasted black walnuts, or another nut of your choice, largest pieces possible, rubbed of their skins .
- 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or really nice flaked sea salt, you want to use the nicest flaked salt possible here, absolutely do not use table salt.
In a 2 qt saucepan, heat the nuts and sugar on medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. The sugar will start to clump and crystalize, this is normal. After about 5 minutes the sugar should start to melt and change color do a light amber, continue stirring constantly with the wooden spoon to prevent burning, and to encourage even toasting of the nuts. When the sugar has melted and caramelized, remove the nuts to a nonstick surface to cool. After the nuts are cooled, pulse them in a food processor until finely ground. Store the praline in an airtight container away from light, it can also be frozen.
Black Currant Coulis
Yield: 1 cup
- 1 pint black currants
- 4 tbsp sugar
Bring the currants and sugar to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Crush the currants with a wooden spoon and pass through strainer, pressing on them to release as much juice as possible. Return the sweetened juice to a pan and reduce on medium heat, skimming occasionally to remove scum that rises to the top until 1 cup of liquid remains. Transfer the coulis to an air tight container and refrigerate or freeze until needed. The natural pectin will thicken the coulis as it sits.