What are you doing for New Year's Eve? As much as I'd like to be waltzing in silver lamé, this year I'll be taking a page from the late novelist and essayist Laurie Colwin, who wrote persuasively in More Home Cooking about the joys of opting out of the big razzle-dazzle. Instead, she brought the party home, making a tradition out of sharing champagne, salmon, and homemade biscuits with friends and family at home.
After all, who wants to scramble for reservations when so many restaurants will be flinging confetti on the tablecloths and pushing high-priced prix fixe menus and set seatings?
Instead, I'll be corralling a small group for dinner at six, starting with a champagne cocktail hour with crab salad in endive spears, followed by chestnut soup with warm popovers, slow-roasted artic char plastered with herbs, and for dessert, an adaptation of David Lebovitz's Champagne Citrus Gelée, from his excellent first cookbook, Room for Dessert.
Lebovitz, who used to be a pastry chef at Chez Panisse, took the ex-pat route over a decade ago and has since created an enviable life for himself in Paris, writing cookbooks and a very popular blog, teaching cooking workshops, and leading food/chocolate/pastry tours throughout France. In my experience, every recipe of his that I've made has been plate-cleaningly delicious, since he has not just skill and smarts but also a great palate and a willingness to test and test and test again.
This, however, is my own version of Lebovitz's recipe, tweaked and modified to reflect my personal taste. But I'm absolutely indebted to his book for the original concept, and for creating a dessert that's not only sparkly and festive but also perfectly seasonal for San Francisco in the wintertime, when the citrus and pomegranates come in.
It can also be eaten by almost everyone, no mean feat in the Bay Area. Wheat-, gluten-, dairy-, and fat-free, there's nothing here to wreak havoc on even the most stringent January 1st resolution. No, you couldn't serve it to vegans, but you could probably mess around and figure out how to replace the gelatin with agar-agar. Skipping the alcohol? Replace the champagne with a pleasant, not-too-sweet sparkling fruit juice. Strictly no-sugar? Serve the citrus compote plain. Even without the gelée, the colors look gorgeous enough to be worth a toast.
Sparkling Citrus Gelée
Look for the little orange-and-white boxes of Knox unflavored gelatin in the powdered dessert mix/Jell-O section of the baking aisle. Don't even think of using lemon Jell-O.
3 pink grapefruits
2 navel oranges
2 blood oranges
1-2 tbsp good-quality orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier (not the cheap stuff that tastes like baby aspirin)
2 envelopes powdered unflavored gelatin (such as Knox)
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1 bottle (750 ml) sparkling wine, Prosecco, or Champagne (not Cooks, but not Tattinger, either. Something Californian in the $10-$15 range should be just fine)
Juice of 1 lime or lemon (and use a real one, not a squirt from one of those nasty plastic jobs full of bitter battery acid)
12 kumquats, ends and seeds removed, sliced thinly
Seeds of 1 large pomegranate
Soft Candied Citrus Peel in syrup (see below)
1. First, prep your fruit: Cut off the top and bottom of the grapefruit so it sits flat, then slice off peel and white membrane from top to bottom in vertical strips, moving around the circumference. Trim off every speck of white pith. Really, get it off now. You'll thank me later.
2. Cupping the now-naked fruit with one hand, free the fruit segments from between the "fans" of tough membrane using a small sharp paring knife. Do this over a bowl so you can catch all the excess juice. Slice or wiggle the fruit out, so you get a glistening arc of membrane-free fruit. Drop fruit slices into the bowl.
3. Repeat with remaining grapefruits and oranges. Sprinkle with orange liqueur, if desired. Refrigerate, tightly covered, if not using right away.
4. When you're ready to make the gelée, drain juice from fruit segments and reserve; you should have at least 1 cup. Sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup reserved fruit juice and let soften for 5 minutes.
5. Heat additional 1/2 cup juice with sugar until sugar dissolves and mixture is hot. Pour sugar syrup over gelatin and stir until gelatin is thoroughly dissolved. Pour the gelatin mixture into a big bowl.
6. Pop the cork on your sparkling wine and pour in the whole bottle. Watch out for the froth! Add about half the lime or lemon juice, then taste and add more as needed. Cover and refrigerate until it begins to thicken and set.
7. Make the candied peel in syrup (recipe below), or take it out of the fridge if you made it earlier. Warm gently until syrup is liquid again. Stir in sliced kumquats. Take off heat and set aside.
8. Take out 8 stemmed parfait or wine glasses. Drain the kumquats/candied peel. (Save the orange syrup if you can think of something to do with it later). Get out the gelée, the pomegranate seeds, and the bowl of fruit slices.
9. To assemble, spoon some of the gelée into each glass. Add some pomegranate seeds, a few pieces of citrus, a few slices of kumquat, and a few strands of candied peel. Continue layering gelée, pomegranate seeds, citrus, kumquat, and candied peel until glass is full. Repeat with remaining glasses. Chill for several hours, until fully set.
Soft Candied Citrus Peel
4 lemons or oranges, preferably organic, washed
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp corn syrup or honey
1. Remove zest (the colored part of the peel) with a vegetable peeler. Cut lengthwise into very narrow strips. Cover peel with water, bring to a boil, and cook until soft and translucent, about 5-6 minutes. Drain peel and discard water.
2. Bring 1 1/2 cups water, sugar, and syrup to a boil. Add peel, reduce heat, and simmer until peel is translucent and candied-looking, about 20 minutes. Cool in syrup and refrigerate.
Sparkling Citrus Gelée photo by Steve Duell