Windstorms (featuring Individual Pommes Anna)
Supermarkets make me nuts.
When I was a little Manhattan-raised kid, I remember being thrilled by the thought that one building covering a few suburban blocks (because they didn’t have mega supermarkets in New York City) could sell everything. Imagine how much ice cream and frozen pizza a store that large could hold! I marveled at the concept of picking up an organic tomato, frosty pink nail polish, a dartboard, a spicy tuna roll, a bag of fertilizer, and a set of truck tires in one stop. How American!
Nowadays I’m either bored with the number of choices or totally overwhelmed by them. While 95% of my shopping is done in smaller stores featuring local products/ produce or with wholesale food purveyors, there are a few items I can only find at the megastore.
It seemed almost comedic to me how many birthday candles our local mega supermarket had. Shelves and shelves, solid and stripy, numbers and letters, pastels and primaries. I just wanted something cheap and lightable for crying out loud!
Ok, there– Betty Crocker Brand birthday candles, simple and classic, with a name you can trust.
It was a catered birthday dinner that my brain was focused on; a multi-course meal for repeat clients. We were in the Omicron stage of the pandemic so it was a party for 6 with only the client’s close family.
A few years ago, most of my gigs were raucous cocktail parties for 50 or more guests, with menus full of tiny versions of everyone’s favorite party foods – mini cheeseburgers, mini crabcakes, mini baked brie… the list goes on. The pandemic tweaked my average client’s ask from swinging shindigs to small soirees. As a chef in constant pursuit of more tasteful and taste-full presentations, I found the shift in focus vexing. It’s surprisingly easy to hind behind 7 dozen small cheeseburgers. But dinner for 6 is just me, plating my insecurities for all to see.
I’ve learned over the years that if you show up with things like birthday candles and a lighter, clients are so impressed with your attention to detail that they’ll forgive almost anything.
The menu included some apps from my big party menu; fried cauliflower with sweet tomato chutney and chicken chorizo empanadas. Then they would sit down to baby greens and roasted beet salad with crumbles of blue cheese and a white balsamic vinaigrette served with freshly baked bread. I always feel confident in the salad course.
The entrees were seared salmon with leek and lemon puree for half the guests and bacon-braised scallops with swiss chard for the others paired with broccolini in garlic oil. I suggested serving both entrées with individual pommes anna, which would fan out like a potato flower in full bloom under the scallops and salmon. I’m always looking for hacks to make the plates look fancy. Entrees need to be plated prettily in record time to keep the food hot for service. It takes a steady hand and artistic foresight that I frequently don’t have to make a plate really sing.
I hoped the individual pommes anna would be my saving grace. Bless us, potato flower. Amen.
At the client’s house, an hour before dinner, I set about crimping squares of foil into 5- inch rounds. I slathered butter on the foil and then lay my peeled, mandolined Yukon gold potato rounds in concentric circles around a single anchor spud. More butter, salt, and fresh thyme were sprinkled on top of the first layer and then repeated so that the finished flower had two 5-inch layers of buttered, thymed potatoes. Into the hot oven they went while I cooked the rest of the food.
My internal monologue was all business at those final moments, focused only on what I could do in a second or two to beautify the plates. I wiped down the rims, sprinkled with parsley, crinkled my face with insecurity, and then embraced my fate. Here is what I made, I thought.
Then, arms loaded with plates, I pushed open the door and began setting them in front of guests. “Oooohhh! Ahhhhh!” they exclaimed. Under my mask, I grinned, thanked them, and then returned to the kitchen.
The kitchen space felt different when I returned. It felt more relaxed and forgiving. The only course left was the tres leches cake that I had baked earlier. No cooking to do, just easy plating, candles, and singing.
Covid has altered birthday cake procedures a bit. Instead of presenting the whole cake for her to blow on, I put a candle in a single slice. I sang loudly as I marched the candled birthday cake wedge to the table, setting the plate in front of her as others sang along. I turned quickly to get the next two cake slices from the kitchen.
When I re-entered the dining room, she was still blowing. Everyone was laughing and cheering. Her daughter had crawled onto her lap, clapping and squirming.
I returned to the kitchen for the last two cake pieces.
And when I came out, she was still blowing. The candle was still lit.
She looked at me. “It won’t go out!”
I honestly laughed and said, “That’s funny. It’s just you!” I felt my shoulders happily lift to emphasize my thought. “Your internal flame is strong!” I was smiling and confident.
She tried to grin but looked confused. She blew and blew. The flame happily danced but did not diminish.
*Sidenote, this is a client I like a lot and I was 100% earnest in my statement. I’m not woo-woo about much, so I was a little surprised by my spiritual response. In my mind, there was no other reason for the candle to still be lit.
“This must be one of those joke candles. One that won’t go out?!?” Her voice was deeper now. She spat on her finger and snuffed the candle out looking annoyed. The heads of everyone at the table turned toward me slowly, in unison, to silently accuse.
“Oh my gosh, no! I can show you the box. It’s not like a prank candle! I would never do that to you!!!”
I ran back into the kitchen, yanked out the Betty Crocker candle package, and there it was, “Betty Crocker Relight Candles”!!!
“Ohmygod,” I whispered to myself, too afraid to go back into the dining room. I hadn’t carefully read the box because it had never occurred to me that I needed to.
What I didn’t know was that some candles are designed to stay lit for an extra 90 seconds so that you can light a bunch of them, stick em in the birthday cake, and then walk through a windstorm without the candles going out. This is a great idea that I could have used numerous times in my catering career, but unfortunately, NOT this time when I was just walking one candle through a windless dining room.
The package should read, “Humiliate your clients and never get asked to cook for them again candles!”
I blame the mega supermarket. Too many damn candles… and ice cream… and tires.
Though no one got angry, there was a detached feeling between me and the clients for the rest of the party– as if the door to the celebration had slammed in my face. Family only.
No one could remember the potatoes by the end of the night, but I still think they’re pretty and delicious. You also don’t need to go through the fuss of individual foil rounds. I’ve since done them on a sheet pan lined with parchment and they stay together perfectly in the oven.
Individual Pommes Anna
- 1 large Yukon Gold Potato per guest
- 1 tablespoon butter per guest, melted
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme per guest
- Salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Peel the potato and then slice thin using a mandolin or a sharp knife.
- Place one potato slice in the center of what will be your potato flower. Place the next potato on the edge of the first, followed by another to create a concentric fan around the center one making a 5-inch potato flower. Brush with butter, sprinkle with salt and pepper and some fresh thyme and begin the next layer of potato rounds. Repeat until you have 3 layers.
- Cover pan with a layer of tin foil and bake for 25 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 25 minutes.
- Let cool for 5 minutes before using a spatula to plate.
And read your candle packaging!