Thursday, March 17, 2011

Birthdays, Black & White

Birthdays beg us to ask ourselves big questions. Another year older and what have I learned, lost, accomplished, given up on or gained? Besides pounds! Last Saturday was my 33rd birthday, and I’ve noticed that as the years tick on, the questions begin to feel more acute. The stakes get higher, though my desire to devour another year of living, loving and cooking remains a constant. How I choose to celebrate that constant, what sort party, feast or adventura I opt for to commemorate the occasion, is not so black and white. Except when it is…

Only a year ago I was blowing out the candles on a blazing cupcake tower I baked and assembled for the Black & White Birthday Bash I threw for my besties in a historic loft space above my friend’s Wall Street Burger Shoppe. It was a memorable evening decked out with a strict black and white dress code and a matching menu to pair. Sixteen of my closest friends joined me to toast the occasion with bubbly poured into my Great Aunt’s champagne coupes from her 1930’s Manhattan wedding, while bottles of my favorite wines and beers were kept chilled in a vintage claw foot tub.

With my Tribe at my side, we made our way through the loft’s hidden entrance lit only by candlelight. Climbing the winding staircase, we passed through the 1950’s style diner on the first floor, the Western saloon slinging drinks on the second, a cyber slick office space occupied by fashion designers, architects and bloggers on the third, arriving at a gorgeous penthouse gem filled with collected artwork and NYC landmarks, like the seemingly ancient elevator shaft and Romeo & Juliet balcony from which I delivered the evening’s toast. It is one of the most singular loft spaces in the city, but for me, the pièce de résistance is the ten foot long reclaimed wood farmhouse table from which I laid a black and white buffet of my comfort-chic foodie favorites. On order was American hackleback caviar with cloud white crème fraiche and black pepper blinis, black & bleu burgers, black stout battered onion rings, blackened Cajun-spiced French fries and black & white milkshakes spiked with Hudson Valley whiskey.

All of the food hit the mark, but the dish that was the easiest to assemble actually got the most acclaim–my black and white cheese platter. The great thing about offering an assortment of cheeses at a party is that people can snack on fromage all night long without feeling full. It works as an hors d’oeuvres to wet the appetite before dinner, it can be left out during a meal to act as a pairing with your entrée, and it’s a perfect savory dessert course to offer alongside something sweet. There is planning that goes into pairing cheese and accoutrements, especially if you’re building your cheese board off a specific motif like the black and white theme I was going for, but once you make your purchases and lay it all out prettily, the cheese stands alone!

You should choose 5-6 cheeses from a variety of milks (cow, goat, sheep, blends, etc.), regions (California, Spain, Ireland, Italy, etc.), and textures (hard, soft, semi-soft, and my personal fave, dripping, etc.). Once you’ve chosen your cheeses you should arrange them on the plate or platter starting at 12:00 and moving clockwise from mildest to strongest (if you’re not sure which is stronger, smell it!). Stinkier cheeses like bleus and roqueforts tend to have a stronger taste, whereas fresh cheese like burrata, mozzarella di bufala and chevre are much milder. The hard cheeses typically land somewhere in the middle.

For a black and white platter, think about both the appearance of the cheese and the ingredients that flavor it. For instance, any bloomy rind cheese that begins to ripen on the outside first is likely to bear a white-crusted coating perfect for your platter (my preferred selections are Brillat-Savarin triple crème from France and Constant Bliss brie from Vermont). Conversely, a bleu cheese like King Island’s Roaring Forties may be blue and cream in color, but is covered in a glossy black wax that makes for a stunning display. Another visually appealing cheese is California’s Humboldt Fog, a tangy, white, ripened goat’s cheese which features a black ribbon of edible vegetable ash along its center and a second coating of ash under its exterior to give it a distinctive, birthday cake-like appearance. Think too about incorporating cheeses like Pecorino Peppato, a sheep’s milk Italian cheese studded with black peppercorns, or a black truffle cheese like Sottocenere, another Italian formaggio, this one made of cow’s milk and hailing from just outside of Venice.

Be sure to serve all cheese at room temperature for the fullest flavor, which may mean giving yourself plenty of lead time and setting out your cheese board hours before guests arrive. I always start to crumble the harder cheeses in advance so guests aren’t intimidated to dig in. Soft cheeses require a knife that has a rounded edge to make for easy spreading, while harder, drier cheeses need a sharp knife or a cheese plane. If you’ve got a drippy cheese on hand, you may even opt for a spoon! Keeping things simple is best with cheese since it is full of body and flavor all its own, so serving plain crackers, crostini or a crusty baguette is ideal. That said, for my black and white platter, I was able to hunt down deeply hued charcoal crackers and peppercorn crusted biscuits to stay on theme. I served these alongside a smattering of accoutrements and fresh flowers chosen to pair in color and taste with my cheeses. These included: honeycomb, spiced fig spread, black olive tapenade and black currant jam. Simple, chic and easy, this no-cooking, no-hassle, all-course spread endured the entire evening’s festivities and was still being eaten up once the last of my bourbon Manhattan cupcakes had been gobbled down.

With a new year that has already provided plenty of excitement and anxiety, I decided to take a departure from the sophisticated parties of birthdays past and settle instead into a romantic weekend away with Mr. Mix. Taste testing our way through Boston before landing at a quiet B&B in Mystic, Connecticut, the two of us rang in my 33rd year with little more than a good book, local lobster and bubbles (both in our flutes and in our fireside hot tub). I traded in the glam of a New York City soiree for the sugarhouses and dairy farms of rural Connecticut, but you better believe there was still plenty of cheese on hand! Though I cannot show it to you, because perhaps the greatest gift I’ve been given this birthday, was the freedom I granted myself not to document it. No photos, no videos, no friends, no family, no cooking, no writing, no calls, no emails, no one but me, my man and our ferocious appetite for life, love and food allowed!

As I age and the hum of those big questions looms large, living a good life, deciding what matters most and choosing how to honor my existence does not always feel as black and white as I might like. Except when it does.

All photos courtesy of Max Lau Photography.

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