Sunday, January 20, 2013

Better Than Chocolate
The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, with snow
I'm not exactly sure how to write about the retreat that my PARADISE LOST company took up to the O'Neill Theater Center - it exceeded even my wildest expectations, both in terms of productivity and fun.  When we met today in New York to work on Book V, the members of the company who were unable to join us on the retreat asked me to talk about how it went, and the first thing I did was realte the menu.  This was it:

O’Neill Retreat


Thursday, January 17



Appetizer: Guacamole & Corn Chips
Entrée: Tacos  (choice of Pork or Beans, with accoutrements)
Dessert: Dark chocolate shredded over blueberries on a bed of Greek yogurt

Friday, January 18

Strata with Spinach, Gruyère and spicy sausage (vegetarian available)
Coffee or Tea

Sandwich spread
(cold cuts, cheese, & condiments on whole wheat bread w/pickles)

Appetizer: Arugula & Romaine salad with apples, goat cheese, & toasted walnuts
Entrée: Roast chicken breast, broccoli rabe, & wheat berries
Dessert: Strawberries drizzled with a balsamic reduction over vanilla ice cream

Saturday, January 19

Coffee or Tea

Sandwich spread
(cold cuts, cheese, & condiments on whole wheat bread)

I have to give props here to Chris Grabowski, director and cook extraordinaire, who accepted my invitation to join us a week before we left, and who prepared both dinners (with help from company members).  

Those of you who have been following my blog might recognize some of the recipes - especially the tofu scramble and the lentils.  When cooking for large groups, it's good to throw a few things in that you're uber-familiar with.  I'm all for leaving the comfort zone, but in that kind of situation, one recipe goes astray and there you are with a company of hungry actors and that's not a pretty thing.

A Group Dessert That'll Wow 'em

The biggest surprise for me, recipe-wise, was how big of a hit the second dessert was, which I'm titling BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE because that's what the company kept insisting.  It's easy to make, but I'm going to share with you a few tips to take this simple, delicious dessert and catapult it into extraordinary.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Strawberries, Swimming in Balsamic Reduction 

(These portions served 14 actors just right.  It can obviously be made on a much smaller scale).

3 gallons really high quality Vanilla Ice Cream
1 quart strawberries
1 bottle good balsamic vinegar

Notes on Ingredients:

Let's start with the ice cream.  When a recipe is this simple, you have to splurge for the good stuff.  It doesn't have to be fancy (I used Breyers).  The ingredients should basically read cream, sugar and vanilla.  Breyers also has milk and tara gum, a thickening agent that probably isn't going to kill you.  If the ice cream has any ingredients you can't pronounce, don't get it.

Strawberries are only in season in the northeast in the summer, but the store had some delicious ones from California, and I swallowed my green-guilt and bought them.  Berries are usually interchangeable in simple desserts, but with the balsamic vinegar, strawberries' sweetness is key.

First, pluck the heads off the strawberries.  Some people cut them off, but I think you lose some good strawberry that way.  Next, and this is very important, soak the strawberries in cold water.  If you really want to gross yourself out, do this in a transparent glass bowl, and you'll see all the seeds and dirt they release.  After fifteen minutes (or ten, or twenty - who really cares), rinse them out and soak them again.  I got this tricky from Mother Barakiva, and it does wonder for their taste.  After they're soaked, cut them in half.

Finally, buy yourself a good bottle of balsamic vinegar.  You're going to be boiling it down, so don't go crazy, but again, don't buy bottom shelf or you'll regret it.  Look for a seal from the Consortium for the Protection of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (CABM). A burgundy-colored seal (you'll find it on the neck band of the bottle) means your product is authentic.

If you've got a dish large enough to hold all the ice cream, or if you're using a few dishes, put them all in the freezer - that'll keep the ice cream colder longer.


1)  Pour the bottle into a sauce pan bring to a boil, drop down to a simmer, and reduce by 50%.  That's all a balsamic reduction is - vinegar that has been boiled down.   How do I know when it's reduced by 50%, Michael?  Well, this is a very good question, reader.  Until the people at Calphalon figure out how to include measurement notches inside of their pots (this doesn't seem like it would be so difficult to me, but I've never seen it, so what do I know?), this is what you do: get a large Pyrex measuring cup, and after it's been boiling for around 10 minutes, pour the liquid in the cup and compare it to the bottle's capacity.  Warning: at a certain point, the reducing vinegar will give off noxious fumes and you'll feel like you're the victim of chemical warfare.  That means you're doing it right.  A few minutes of those and you'll have your reward.  Put the ice cream into the serving dish(es).

3)  Put the halved strawberries on top of the ice cream.

4)  Pour the reduced balsamic vinegar (still hot) on all of it.

5)  Serve immediately.

My company went crazy for this.  Most of them couldn't believe that the dessert didn't have any chocolate.  I'd never thought about it, but the richness and tartness of the reduced vinegar in that quantity did imitate dark chocolate's punch.  The product is exquisite - the richness of the ice cream creating a base of which the sweet strawberries and sweet/tart vinegar can dance.

We also got a lot of work done on the retreat, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that.  But honestly, writing about how Lucifer impregnated Sin after she sprung out of his head, during a counsel he organized to try to overthrow God, and how she gave birth to Death, and the amazing metaphorical significance of all of that, just doesn't seem as interesting to me as delicious and simple-to-make desserts for groups.


  1. M: All sounds wonderful...but is being a Vegan a necessary pre-requisite to working with you? If so, glad you handed the baton to Bob for SHINING CITY...just kidding (sort of...the thought of daily tofu scares me), because I would have loved to have seen what you would have done with it and with me... :)