Monday, December 28, 2009

What Should I Bring? An Advice Column for Appetizers and Desserts

Q: I'm going to a party and I'm supposed to bring an appetizer. I want to bring something that's going to make me look good, something deliciously creative and impressive! However, time is against me. Do you have any ideas for should I bring?

A: Yes, I do, as long as this party is not for vegetarians or people who are kosher: It all starts with prosciutto.

Photo not mine.

The first and simplest idea travels extremely well, whether you'll be walking, driving, or taking mass transit to this little soiree. Buy a package of thinly sliced prosciutto at any grocery store or well-stocked market. Next, hit the bakery (or bakery department of the grocery store) and buy fresh bread sticks, something along the lines of "twisty bread," but without the cheese if you can manage. Buy the slimmest sticks you can find. Think fingers. Crunchy breadsticks work, too.

When you arrive at the party, as the host for a cutting board, sharp knife, and either a platter or wide-mouth container, like a medium-sized canning jar. Open the prosciutto and very carefully slice each piece in half, aiming to make long strips. Wrap a piece of prosciutto around the end of several breadsticks (two per person, I'd say), and arrange them nicely on a platter or in the jar with the meat-wrapped ends up.

Alternatively, if you can't get bread sticks, use melon. Buy a cantaloupe and either cube the flesh or use a melon baller to cut bite-sized pieces. Cut the proscuitto into smaller slices, but big enough to wrap around each piece of melon one and a half times. Secure each piece with a toothpick. Arrange and serve.

Photo not mine.

If the melons are no good, try peaches, and slice each one carefully into eight segments.

In making this extremely easy and low-effort appetizer, you absolutely have to promise to do two things.

First, you must swear that you will not buy a loaf of bread. The whole point of this starter is that it is elegant, and all your efforts (and the $9 you spent on a measley 3 oz. of prosciutto) will have gone to waste if you display it all on doughy hunks of bread. There are other times and places for big crusty wedges breads, but this is not one of them. Equally, if you opt for fruit, you must cut the pieces carefully. It will take you 18 minutes instead of 12, and it will be what makes the dish impressive. You've already skimped by not cooking anything, and you're about to pull it off, so don't cut corners now!

Second, you have to write down "prosciutto" so that you don't accidentally buy pancetta. That would be disastrous.


Q: I'm supposed to bring a dessert to a special occasion, but there are a few problems. 1) I don't really bake. 2) All the people who will be there are finicky eaters. 3) My budget is a tight and I can't go out and buy a nice $40 cake. What should I bring?

A: Brownies. From a packaged mix. With extra chocolate chips thrown in.

Photo not mine.

It is the biggest sham in all of baking, but as long as you don't over cook them, a pan of brownies made from any store-bought package will please and awe 95 percent of all people who have ever existed. They will all love you and fawn over you, at least until someone eats the last brownie.

I don't really know why this is, but I'm just as guilty as the next person on this matter. Everyone loves brownies. Everyone loves brownies from Betty Crocker, Ghiradelli, Duncan Hines, Pillsbury... it doesn't matter as long as you bake them that day, throw in a cup or two of semi-sweet chocolate chips before you bake them, and undercook them ever so slightly.

One easy way to make your brownies seem even more appetizing is to cut them into equal pieces using a rule. This is a trick that doesn't work if you try to eyeball it. You really need to use a ruler or tape measure (there are actually specific baker's tools for this, but you don't need them at home). Nevertheless, it makes a huge difference in how people receive the dessert.

Do not, under any circumstances, add raisins, cranberries, walnuts, pecans, granola or anything else. Do not put M&Ms in there (the colors will bleed). Do not top your brownies with white frosting. Do not swirl cream cheese into them. Do not put a fancy raspberry puree on the side. Just give the damn people the damned brownies and let them love you. Trust me. It will happen!

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