When winter’s chill recedes and the first spring blossoms appear, our thoughts naturally turn to the outdoors — and perhaps outdoor entertaining. The allure of an al fresco party may be hard to resist, but pulling one off can be tricky this time of year, when Mother Nature’s moods are whimsical. But the focal point of the garden party described here is an unusual tabletop arrangement, which helps make your gala seem spingtime fresh, even if it’s forced indoors by rain.
A plain pine tabletop is where the celebration begins. Covered with velvety moss, wheat grass and spring flowers, it provides a garden landscape beneath an array of desserts. Everyday clay pots, painted and weathered to a pleasing patina, are carefully sized and stacked to form the centerpiece for these treats. Garden-themed plant stakes announce the dessert menu. Rooted near potted desserts, these markers add ambience and direct guests to the sweets. The recipes are infused with fresh herbs, which add to the feeling of celebrating the season.
Tips for Tablescapes
1 PREPARE GARDEN POT DESSERT PLANTERS
ASSEMBLE SEVERAL GARDEN POTS and liners (the trays that go under the pots), new or old, allotting five to eight for a centerpiece stand or two to four for a smaller, footed stand for an individual dessert. Make sure at least half the pieces are liners, as they will be needed to create broad serving surfaces. To add interest to plain pots, paint and texture them: First, apply a coat of flat white paint, and then dab on moss green or brown glaze with a rag. Allow the pots to dry completely. For a weathered appeal, sand the pot edges to expose some of the underlying terra cotta. Use a damp cloth to clean off any excess sanding dust.
Experiment with various centerpiece configurations. Stack your pots in different combinations until you come up with a design that feels stable, and has the desired height, width and serving area (see examples on Page 34). Use a level, as needed, to be certain your final set-up is straight.
2 MAKE YOUR MARKERS
START BY MAKING TAGS out of “aged” paper: Use a sponge to dab brewed tea onto a few sheets of off-white cardstock. Dry cardstock until just slightly damp, then weight it with books so it dries flat. When the paper is completely dry, print recipe names onto it by hand or with a computer printer. Be sure to leave enough room between the names so you can later cut around each to form a 2- by 3-inch tag. To soften the tag edges, try deckling (tearing the edges using a ruler as your guide).
For a stake to hold each tag, cut a 10- to 12-inch length of bark-covered wire (available wherever you can buy floral supplies). Loop one end around your fingertip two or three times. Slip the wire off your finger and insert the tag between the loops so it stands upright. For a shortcut, insert tags between the spines of floral frogs.
3 PLANT THE TABLETOP
TACKLE THIS STEP the day of the party so that it looks fresh. If using a valuable table, line it carefully with some plastic first. Conceal the plastic by draping it with burlap — the more tattered, the better. Begin by putting your centerpiece and other pot planters in position. Next, arrange large potted plants, such as flowers and wheat grass, taking care to balance colors and to vary heights across the tabletop. If you want to add cut flowers to the arrangement, anchor the stems in water-soaked oasis or floral foam so they stand straight and stay fresh. Hide any unsightly plastic pots by packing sheet moss around them, and lay additional moss and rocks in between larger plants to fill out the tabletop. Water any potted plants if they appear thirsty.
Next, stand recipe stakes next to the centerpiece and other pot planters by inserting stake ends into small pieces of oasis or by wedging them between rocks. Other garden accessories, like miniature wire fencing or watering cans, also can be worked into the tabletop décor for added interest. Right before guests are due, mist the moss and arrange desserts on your centerpiece and other stands.
ORANGE-TARRAGON BERRY PARFAIT
Tarragon has a delicate anise flavor that pairs wonderfully with citrus. Here, a pastry cream is infused with tarragon, lightened with whipped cream and accented with orange zest. The resulting mousse is then layered with a berry sauce to create a spectacular parfait. We assembled our parfaits in 15 small votive glasses, as they fit perfectly on our garden pot dessert stand, but any size portion will work just fine.
12 ounces fresh blackberries
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
5 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, or to taste
1 cup loosely packed tarragon leaves, stems removed, coarsely
3 cups heavy cream, divided
5 teaspoons cold water
1 teaspoon powdered unflavored gelatin
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
5 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
Fresh blackberries (one per serving)
Small fresh tarragon sprigs (one per serving)
Clean and dry five 8- to 10-ounce wine glasses or fifteen votives. Set aside.
Sauce: Place berries in food processor. Process until very soupy. Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain mixture into a small bowl to remove seeds. Stir in grated orange zest. Gradually add confectioners’ sugar to achieve desired sweetness. Store, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to use. Note: The amount of sugar required will vary with berry sweetness.
Mousse: Combine tarragon leaves and 2 cups heavy cream in a stainless steel saucepan. Bring to scalding over medium heat. Turn off heat and let tarragon steep in warm cream for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, pour cold water into the top of a small double boiler. Sprinkle gelatin uniformly over water. Let gelatin sit for 5 to 10 minutes until it has completely absorbed water. Then melt over low heat in the double boiler. Turn off heat once gelatin has melted.
Whisk yolks and sugar together in a medium bowl. Whisk in flour. Using a stainless-steel sieve, strain cream mixture into yolk mixture to remove tarragon, pressing leaves through the sieve. Discard leaves. Whisk cream and yolk mixtures to combine.
Pour mixture into stainless-steel saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring slowly and constantly in a figure-eight pattern with a stainless steel spoon or whisk. Cook until mixture just comes to a boil. Immediately remove pan from heat. Note: A whisk can help break up lumps that naturally form in this 100 percent cream-based custard. However, do not whisk too aggressively, or mixture may break.
Using a stainless steel fine-mesh sieve, strain custard mixture into a large bowl to stop the cooking process. Whisk in melted gelatin, grated orange zest and vanilla extract while mixture is hot. Cover surface flush with plastic to prevent a skin from forming. Allow custard to cool to room temperature, 20 to 30 minutes.
Combine remaining 1 cup heavy cream and confectioners’ sugar in an electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Whip cream to soft peaks. Once custard has cooled, but not set, remove plastic and gently fold in whipped cream.
Assemble: Pour mousse and sauce into separate containers with pouring spouts. Fill wine or votive glasses halfway with mousse. Refrigerate until mousse is partially set, about 20 to 30 minutes. (Be sure to leave remaining mousse at room temperature.) Pour or spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons sauce (1 tablespoon for votive-size portions) on top of each dessert. If sauce sinks to the bottom, mousse is not sufficiently set. Finish parfaits with remaining mousse. Cover with plastic and chill until completely set, about 6 hours. Garnish with single blackberry and/or small tarragon sprig, as desired. Serve immediately.
ROSEMARY-PINE NUT SHORTBREAD
Makes about forty 1-inch daisy cookies
These rosemary-laced butter cookies are great with slices of Stilton and fresh fruit, or as a stand-alone treat. You can cut them into rounds or any other shape, but to keep with the garden party theme, we cut ours into small daisies and arranged them in clay pots.
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary leaves, stems removed
2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, for dusting work surface
About 2 to 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, for sprinkling on cookie tops
Toasted pine nuts (for garnish, optional)
In a food processor, pulse pine nuts and rosemary with 2 tablespoons flour until mixture is finely ground but not pasty, about 20 to 30 seconds.
Sift remaining flour and salt together in a medium bowl. Add ground nut-herb mixture and stir to combine. Set aside.
In an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream softened butter, granulated sugar and confectioners’ sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn to low speed and gradually add flour-nut mixture, mixing until just combined. Stir in vanilla extract.
Place dough on work surface and knead lightly, one or two times, until any dry crumbs are fully incorporated. Flatten dough into two disks and wrap each tightly in plastic. Chill for about 3 hours, or until very firm.
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 300 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Working with one disk at a time, roll chilled dough on a lightly floured surface to a 1/4-inch thickness. Use just enough flour to keep dough from sticking, or cookies may get pasty and dry. Cut dough with a 13/4-inch daisy (or any other shape) cutter. Cut a center in each cookie with a 1/4-inch round cutter, or place a toasted pine nut in the center. Transfer to two cookie sheets, placing about 1/2 inch apart.
Sprinkle cookies evenly with granulated sugar. Bake until shortbread is lightly browned on the bottom, about 25 minutes. Remove shortbread immediately to racks to cool. Repeat for second cookie sheet.
Cool shortbread completely. Store in airtight containers at room temperature for up to a week.
Makes 25 to 30 truffles
This recipe steeps basil in heavy cream and adds a fine semisweet chocolate to create a surprising filling for truffles. Served on basil leaves, these creamy confections lend garden flavor to our dessert menu.
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves, stems removed, coarsely chopped
14 ounces high-quality semisweet chocolate chips, or finely chopped block chocolate
2 pounds high-quality semisweet chocolate
Basil leaves (one for each truffle)
2 ounces high-quality white chocolate, melted; for dot accents
Truffle filling: Place cream and coarsely chopped basil leaves in a stainless steel saucepan. Bring mixture to the scalding point. Turn off heat and allow mixture to steep for 30 minutes.
Strain cream into a large bowl to remove basil leaves. Squeeze basil leaves to release absorbed cream before discarding them. In a saucepan, heat strained cream to just below scalding point. Strain hot cream into a large bowl to remove any skin that may have formed while re-heating.
Immediately add chocolate chips or finely chopped chocolate; stir until chocolate is entirely melted. Lightly whisk, if needed, to bring chocolate and cream together. If chocolate does not melt completely, place mixture over a double boiler on low heat, stirring as needed until mixture is perfectly smooth.
Pour mixture into a shallow pan, cover tightly with plastic and refrigerate several hours or overnight, until mixture is very stiff.
Using a 11/4-inch melon baller, scoop mounded balls of chocolate mixture that weigh about 1/2 ounce each. Roll between your palms to make perfectly round truffles. Gently drop truffles onto a parchment-lined sheet tray, and continue shaping truffles until mixture is depleted. Place rolled truffles in the refrigerator or freezer so they stay very firm for dipping.
Dipping chocolate: Melt semisweet chocolate over low heat in a double boiler. Be sure you have enough chocolate to fully submerge truffles. Cool chocolate to about 85 degrees. Maintain chocolate temperature throughout dipping process by periodically placing over low heat to warm.
Submerge each chilled ball into melted chocolate to coat evenly. Gently shake to remove excess chocolate. Place dipped ball onto another clean, parchment-lined baking sheet, trying not to leave a chocolate “footprint.” When tray is full, place it in the refrigerator until chocolate completely sets. Note: Cover truffles as soon as possible after dipping to prevent chocolate from looking gray and streaky. You will have dipping chocolate left over. To store for later use, wrap the bowl with plastic and keep it at room temperature.
As soon as chocolate has set, lift truffles (using gloves as desired to prevent fingerprints) and trim any chocolate footprints with scissors. Place truffles in small paper candy liners. For added dimension, use a parchment cone, or a pastry bag fitted with a #2 round tip, to pipe a tiny dot of melted white chocolate on top of each truffle. Refrigerate truffles, tightly covered, in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Truffles will stay fresh even longer, but they will look their best if served within a few days.
To complete the garden theme, remove paper liners from truffles and present truffles on fresh basil leaves. Serve immediately once garnished.
Former boutique bakery owner turned freelance writer, Julia Usher has contributed recipes and articles to many publications, among them Better Homes & Gardens and Bon Appetit. She is working on her first book about designing delicious and memorable dessert parties.