Plant a Garden Party

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Simple terra cotta pots undergo a transformation from plain to pleasing. From left to right: unfinished; painted; painted and glazed; and the last — poised for plants — painted, glazed and sanded for well-worn charm.
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Cardstock, a touch of tea and some bark-covered wire are all you need to fashion a menu into a set of garden stakes. Floral frogs also fit the pastoral mood and can be used to hold small recipe tags that look especially good next to more diminutive desserts.
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From left to right: lichen-covered rocks, sheet moss, purple hyacinth, miniature tête-à-tête daffodils, variegated ivy and wheat grass decorate the table.
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Dimension is added to the tabletop design by upending terra cotta pots and stacking them to form a striking dessert stand that fills the party’s leading role as centerpiece.
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These buttery shortbread cookies, loaded with aromatic rosemary and ground pine nuts, deliver flavor with every bite.
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In this garden, herb-inspired sweets, such as these Chocolate-Basil Truffles, make an unexpected appearance in pots and planters. A marker tucked in an antique frog identifies the dessert.

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.

Recipes

ORANGE-TARRAGON BERRY PARFAIT

Serves 5
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.

Blackberry Sauce


12 ounces fresh blackberries
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
5 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, or to taste

Orange-Tarragon Mousse


1 cup loosely packed tarragon leaves, stems removed, coarsely
chopped
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

Garnish (optional)


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.

CHOCOLATE-BASIL TRUFFLES

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.

Truffle Filling


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

Dipping Chocolate


2 pounds high-quality semisweet chocolate

Garnish (optional)


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.

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