Six New York girls get together once a month, or as often as their busy schedules allow, to cook dinner, drink wine, talk, laugh, and generally be merry. This is Food Group. It was born out of a love of food, a passion to learn, a desire to bond, and a bevy of fond memories linked to dinner parties hosted by parents and family members from years gone by. The goal was ambitious at first: monthly dinner parties each hosted by a different member – but we’ve been going strong for over a year.
We’re not always consistent and no two Food Group members are alike. Some of us obsess over every detail (guilty) while others prefer to take it easy. We’ve had dinners that are planned to the last bite by one hostess and some that are more of a pot luck style that includes everyone. What makes Food Group work is that we each bring our own varying and valuable contributions – from food and wine to advice and conversation topics. It’s honestly one of the most mature and enjoyable activities I’ve ever been a part of. When we’re gathered around that table (or seated on a couch – plates balanced on our laps) everything gets simplified. I look at the five beautiful faces around me – smiling, talking, drinking, eating, and know that no matter what happens, we’ll always have this.
Our most recent Food Group dinner was hosted by my friend and name-buddy Kate. She is brilliant and lovely, but has the most unfortunate work schedule that involves her getting up at 4am on Saturday mornings. So she wins the FG trooper award for staying up late to host us. She outdid herself with a magnificent roasted butternut squash and apple soup served with toasted parmesan croutons. One of two Hallie’s in the group (we have some issues with repeating names…we rely on nicknames most of the time) whipped up a mouth-watering kale salad with red onions, gorgonzola, and apple. Apparently the first step in making this salad is to massage the kale. I don’t even know what that means, but I like it. Meghan, who is one of the most skilled self-taught cooks I know, graced us with an Ina recipe that put traditional pot pies to shame. The food was fantastic. There was copious amounts of wine, naturally, and we started off the meal with a tasty bread and cheese course, provided by other Hallie and Jenny.
Obviously, I’m the dessert girl. I may have forced that moniker on myself because of my obsession with baking. Bringing baked goods to a party is pretty much my favorite thing to do. AND this was a perfect opportunity to do something fun for the pumpkin challenge! I wanted to do something special for such a highly-anticipated event. We’d set a harvest theme for the dinner so I started flipping through Martha’s pumpkin desserts and when I saw this recipe, I knew I’d found the one.
Pumpkin Cake with Brown Butter Icing and Candied Walnuts. It was heavenly. Two people commented on separate occasions that it was the best thing I’d made to date. I am not trying to brag at all, but it was amazing. Fact. The cake was dense, moist, and not at all too pumpkin-y. You could taste each and every spice throughout the cake.The rich nuttiness of the brown butter icing complemented the cake perfectly and the candied walnuts added an aesthetically pleasing element, as well as a sweet, crunchy finish.
This dessert can be broken down into three parts: cake, walnuts, and icing. I was intimidated at first, having no idea what exactly a candied walnut was, but I was determined to persevere. I crossed my fingers that I might overcome the curse where I only ruin the food I’m scheduled to take to an event. In order to get a head start and beat the odds, I actually baked the cake last week and froze it — this is a great method to save time and be prepared when it comes to cakes. As long as you seal it up tightly, it will last forever in the freezer. I popped it in the fridge day-of so it would thaw and then it’s perfectly cold and firm when it comes time to frost. If I’ve learned anything from baking with pumpkin over the last few weeks it’s that your baked goods will be very dense, very moist, and take a very long time to bake. Lots of ‘very’s. I was concerned that once again, it hadn’t completely baked through — but freezing the cake worked in my favor because it unified the texture and made it consistent all the way through.
The brown butter icing had me nervous from the get-go. I thought it would be quite tricky to make. But after just one burned batch of brown butter, I had it down. First of all, what is brown butter? My thoughts exactly. It’s basically butter that’s melted until it takes on a honey brown color and nutty aroma. It will also have little bits of dark sediment which are browned butter fat solids. So they’re responsible for all the flavor…and your clogged arteries. I have a minor bone to pick with the recipe here though (sorry, Martha) — it says to melt the butter “over medium-high heat until nut-brown in color, about 10 minutes.” TEN MINUTES?! Are you out of your brown butter-loving mind? Mine was torched after a minute. Black, charred, grossness, hardly resembling anything remotely nut-brown in color. My second attempt yielded the aforementioned shade in just about a minute — it was perfect. So maybe it’s a typo? Or a sick joke? I have no idea.
Once the butter is browned the rest of the icing process is absurdly easy. Stir in some powdered sugar, vanilla, and a bit of milk to thin it out and you’re ready to go. I actually strained out a few of the larger brown bits but kept most of them in for added flavor. And I love the look of it — the dark flecks of butter flavor crystals are speckled throughout the caramel-hued frosting. It’s the perfect complement to the cake. I spread it over the top and just let it swoop down the sides, for dramatic effect, naturally.
More from the dauntingly intimidating category: candied walnuts. I was so close to just buying some. But this plan was hindered by that tiny voice in my head that encourages me to make everything from scratch. That and the fact that I have no clue where one purchases candied walnuts. So late one night after work, I stopped by the store and picked up a pack of walnuts. After sifting through them to find a few perfectly shaped specimens, I set some sugar on the burner to melt. Cooking sugar never ceases to freak me out. It’s so temperamental and goes from perfect to burned in about .06 seconds. Not a big window of opportunity. Also, there was a girl in my high school who, while making cookies for her boyfriend, spilled a batch of melted sugar all over her bare feet. Yikes. That must have been painful. And he probably dumped her after one look at her mangled, sugar-coated feet. This baking horror story has stuck with me. So as much as I’d like to be the Barefoot Contessa, shoes in the kitchen are a must.
Our Food Group dinners always go by in a flash. And it’s often a month or two before we can get everyone together again. Suffice it to say, we savor every moment. By the time we’d finished the food and drained our wine glasses, slicing the cake seemed a little bittersweet. It signified the end of our evening. Why is dessert always at the end? It’s funny how we signify that something’s over by offering up something sweet. As if to say, I know you don’t want this to come to a close, so here’s a jolt of sugar for the road.