My dream of the perfect Mother's Day meal, even if my girls will never make it

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Devil's Food White-Out Cake (left) and veal chops with rosemary butter.

I’m not someone who feels particularly compelled to celebrate those greeting-card holidays, like Valentine’s Day, not to mention the patriotic ones, like Memorial Day or Fourth of July.

But there is one exception to my curmudgeonly attitude, and it’s Mother’s Day.

 For more than a quarter-century, that second Sunday in May has been sacred to me. It’s a day when I expect to spend quality time with my daughters, Grace and Julia, enjoying their company and being indulged by them however they see fit. Good daughters that they are, they always come up with some elaborate plan that typically involves some creative activity and a meal.

The activities have included everything from taking a painting class to renting bikes for a day of tooling around Philadelphia to visiting the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. The meal usually involves going out to a restaurant of their choosing, and I so appreciate their consideration, not to mention their spending their hard-earned cash on me. But, truth be told, my greatest dream meal would be a home-cooked one that they cooked for me. Being two busy, young professionals, both now living in New York City and both tuned in to the trendiest restaurants, it’s unlikely they’ll select that path.

That’s not to say they’ve never cooked for me. They have, and even on the occasional Mother’s Day. Just not lately. It was some years ago that Grace insisted I stay in bed one Mother’s Day -- or at least out of the kitchen -- while she labored over eggs Benedict and an exotic fruit salad, which she laid out on a beautifully set table on the deck, complete with cut flowers. And Julia, a talented baker, has certainly made her share of cakes and pies, some for Mother’s Day, usually from her dessert bible, a dog-eared copy of Dorie Greenspan’s classic book, Baking.

Nor can I claim to have set any precedent myself by cooking up a wonderful Mother’s Day meal for my mother when I was younger. Like me, my mother didn’t measure her children’s love for her by their showy displays. On most Mother’s Days, she was happy to receive the six-pack of barely blooming marigold seedlings I had bought for her at the school fair. (She was less happy the year I won a goldfish at that same fair and presented it to her for Mother’s Day, only to have our cat scoop the fish out of the round glass bowl at the first opportunity.)

So rather than merely dreaming of a home-cooked Mother’s Day meal, I determined the best chance I'd have to actually eat it would be to make it myself. Which is exactly what I did last weekend, indulging in a pre-Mother's Day gift to myself.

For a starter, I sought out a sprightly salad that takes advantage of early spring produce and found just the ticket in the endive, radicchio, apple, and walnut salad offered up by QVC’s Meredith “Blue-Jean Chef” Laurence in her Comfortable in the Kitchen cookbook. The contrast between the bitter endive, tender radicchio, and crisp, sweet apple slices works well, all brought together with a tangy white wine and Dijon vinaigrette and shards of salty Parmesan cheese.

For the main course, I went straight for the most opulent cut of meat I could find: inch-thick veal rib chops, which, at $23 a pound, is far more extravagant than I would expect my daughters to finance,  not to mention cook. My pescatarian daughter Julia grimaces whenever I try to order veal at a restaurant. But since I’m in charge of this fantasy, and fulfilling it myself, I’m diving in.

I turned to Greenspan's recipe for veal chops with rosemary butter, from her Around My French Table cookbook, an easy plan that lets the fantastic cut of meat do all the heavy lifting. In a skillet of hot olive oil seasoned with fresh herbs and garlic, the chops are quickly sauteed on each side (the recipe says two minutes, but I found four minutes produced a less-rare outcome). Then the pan juices from the meat serve as the basis for a sauce of white wine and chicken broth. The pat of rosemary-flecked butter may seem like overkill, but it adds a rich, earthy finish. 

Accompanying the chops, I added two simple side dishes from internet chef Laura Vitale’s Laura in the Kitchen cookbook, which not only lent pleasing flavor and texture contrasts, but also made for a beautifully colorful plate. First is Vitale’s minty pea salad, which takes about 10 minutes to make, combining quick-cooked frozen peas with thinly sliced shallots and Belgian endive, and plenty of chopped mint and parsley, all tossed in red wine vinegar and olive oil.

Next up are balsamic roasted beets. Beets are another dish I like to order out, often resulting in my daughters’ rolled eyes — obviously not for the animal-rights reasons, but because they simply don’t understand my obsession with beets. This dish is particularly delicious, with the prebaked, peeled, and wedged beets paired with red onions and fresh rosemary, then drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and roasted until they are slightly caramelized.

For dessert, I turned back to the tried-and-true Greenspan’s Baking book. And why not go for the cover recipe: a triple-layered dark chocolate cake with billowy white frosting? The only problem is that those clouds of frosting are akin to marshmallow fluff, which is not only difficult to make but also not my favorite. Since Greenspan notes that the cake can be filled with “almost any thick frosting,” I opt for a rich buttercream icing instead, which nicely complements the deliciously moist chocolate-chip-studded chocolate cake.

Since my daughters have talked me into going up to New York on Sunday for a day full of surprises, I’m pretty sure this meal is not part of their secret planning. Which is really fine by me. I'm still enjoying my leftovers.  Besides, Mother's Day is their day to celebrate, too, a chance to demonstrate their love in whatever way they decide.

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Minty Pea Salad

Makes 6 servings

INGREDIENTS

2 cups fresh or frozen peas

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar

½ shallot, sliced thin

1 head Belgian endive

¼ cup coarsely chopped mint

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Salt and fresh ground pepper

DIRECTIONS

1. Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Add peas to boiling water and cook for 30 seconds. Drain peas and plunge them into ice water to stop them cooking. Drain again and put in a large bowl.

2. Add oil, vinegar, and shallot to the peas, along with pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Mix to coat peas, and let stand for 15 minutes or up to 2 hours.

3. Just before serving, add endive, mint, and parsley. Toss and season with salt and pepper to taste.

-- From “Laura in the Kitchen” by Laura Vitale

Per serving: 120 calories; 4 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; no cholesterol; 110 milligrams sodium; 6 grams dietary fiber.


Balsamic Roasted Beets

Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

 3 medium red beets, peeled (about ¾ pound)

1 small red onion, cut into large chunks

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary needles

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

Salt and fresh ground pepper

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees

2. Individually wrap beets in foil, put them on a rimmed baking sheet, and roast until tender when pierced with a knife, about an hour. Let cool slightly, and leave the oven on.

3.  Unwrap beets and cut each into 6 wedges. Return cut beets to the baking dish with onion, rosemary, garlic, a pinch of salt, and ground pepper. Drizzle oil and vinegar over the vegetables and toss to coat evenly.

4.  Roast until beets are completely tender, about 20 minutes longer.

5.  Sprinkle parsley on top and serve.

-- From “Laura in the Kitchen” by Laura Vitale

Per serving: 116 calories; 2 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; no cholesterol; 142 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.


Devil's Food White-Out Cake

Makes 12 servings

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ¼ sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
  • ½ cup buttermilk or whole milk, at room temperature
  • ½ cup boiling water
  • 4 ounces semisweet or milk chocolate, finely chopped, or 2/3 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

For the filling and frosting:

  • ½ cup egg whites (about 4 large)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS

1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter two 8-by-2-inch round cake pans, dust the insides with flour, tap out the excess, and line the bottoms with parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

2. To make the cake: Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

3. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugars and continue to beat for 3 minutes more. Add the eggs one by one, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla; don’t be concerned if the mixture looks curdled. Reduce the mixer speed to low and mix in the melted chocolate. When it is fully incorporated, add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, adding the dry ingredients in three additions and the milk in two (begin and end with the dry ingredients); scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter. At this point, the batter will be thick, like frosting. Still working on low speed, mix in the boiling water, which will thin the batter considerably. Switch to a rubber spatula, scrape down the bowl, and stir in the chopped chocolate. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops with the rubber spatula.

4. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pans at the midway point. When fully baked, the cakes will be springy to the touch, and a thin knife inserted into the centers will come out clean. Don’t worry if the tops have a few small cracks. Transfer the cake pans to a rack and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them, and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. (The cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.)

5. When you are ready to fill and frost the cake, inspect the layers. If the cakes have crowned, use a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them. With the same knife, slice each layer horizontally in half. Set 3 layers aside and crumble the fourth layer; set the crumbs aside.

6. To make the filling and frosting: Put the egg whites in a clean, dry mixer bowl or in another large bowl. Have a candy thermometer at hand.

7. Put the sugar, cream of tartar, and water in a small saucepan and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, cover the pan, and boil for 3 minutes. Uncover and allow the syrup to boil until it reaches 242 degrees on the candy thermometer. While the syrup is cooking, start beating the egg whites.

8. When the syrup is about 235 degrees, begin beating the egg whites on medium speed with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer. If the whites form firm, shiny peaks before the syrup reaches temperature, reduce the mixer speed to low and keep mixing the whites until the syrup catches up. With the mixer at medium speed, and standing back slightly, carefully pour in the hot syrup, pouring it between the beater(s) and the side of the bowl. Splatters are inevitable — don’t try to scrape them into the whites, just carry on. Add the vanilla extract and keep beating the whites at medium speed until they reach room temperature, about 5 minutes. You should have a smooth, shiny, marshmallowy frosting. Although you could keep it in the fridge in a pinch, it’s really better to use it right now.

9. To assemble the cake: Put a bottom layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or on a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Using a long metal icing spatula, cover the layer generously with frosting. Top with a second layer, cut side up, and frost it. Finish with the third layer, cut side down, and frost the sides and top of the cake. Don’t worry about smoothing the frosting — it should be swirly. Now, cover the entire cake with the chocolate cake crumbs, gently pressing them into the filling with your fingers.

10. Refrigerate the cake for about 1 hour before serving. (If it’s more convenient, you can chill the cake for 8 hours or more; cover it loosely and keep it away from foods with strong odors.)

-- Baking: From My Home To Yours by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton, Mifflin, 2006)

Per serving: 284 calories; 4 grams protein;42 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams sugar; 11 grams fat; 55 milligrams cholesterol; 146 milligrams sodium; 1 grams dietary fiber.


Veal Chops With Rosemary Butter

Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme 

Generous pinch of salt

4 veal rib chops, each about 12 ounces and 1 inch thick, at room temperature

3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary, plus 1 rosemary sprig

¾ teaspoon minced fresh thyme

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 large garlic clove, smashed (there's no need to peel it)

3 tablespoons dry white wine

3 tablespoons chicken broth (you can make this from a bouillon cube)

DIRECTIONS

1. To make the rosemary butter, using a rubber spatula, beat the butter in a small bowl until it is smooth and very creamy. Stir in the rosemary, thyme, and salt, and turn the butter out onto a piece of plastic wrap. Use the plastic to shape the butter into a log about 1½ inches in diameter. Wrap the log well and chill it for at least 2 hours. (Wrapped airtight, the butter can be refrigerated for 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months.)

2. To make the chops, put them in a large baking dish (a Pyrex pan is perfect), drizzle with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, sprinkle with the minced rosemary and thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Rub the oil and seasoning into both sides of the chops. (You can season the chops up to 1 day ahead, cover and keep them in refrigerator. Let stand for 1 hour at room temperature before cooking.)

3. Put a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat, pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil, add the rosemary sprig and smashed garlic, and cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, about 2 minutes. Pull out and discard the rosemary and garlic and raise the heat to high. Slip the chops into the pan and  cook for 4 minutes, or until the undersides of the chops are golden brown. Turn and cook for 4 minutes more (or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a chop reads 130 degrees F). Transfer the chops to a warm serving platter and cover loosely with a foil tent.

 

4. Pour out whatever fat remains in the skillet and put the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the wine and cook, stirring to scrape up any browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan, until only about 2 teaspoons remain, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken broth and cook until you have about 2 tablespoons of liquid in the skillet, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and drizzle the sauce over the chops.

5. Divide the rosemary butter into 4 pices and top each chop with a pat. Serve immediately. 

-- Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan (HMH, 2010)

Per serving: 1,286 calories; 126 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; trace sugar; 82 grams fat; 601 milligrams cholesterol; 815 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.