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Light up a birthday

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Today is my birthday and like Jack Benny, I am 39. Again. Until I was about 10 years old, my parents tossed two parties — one during the day for my friends and the other at night for family and grownups. The old Super 8 movie camera made an appearance, especially when I blew out the candles on my chocolate birthday cake.

Birthdays are special celebrations. I had a Sweet 16 luncheon (do girls still have them?) and a low-key fete with friends when I turned 21. When I became a "woman of a certain age," as the French say, my husband Edward threw me a surprise party on Boathouse Row. It was a marvelous cookout with every type of food that makes a barbecue so much fun.

Most people think that since I am a restaurant critic, I prefer gussied-up wonders on the plate. My biggest disappointment when dining out is when the chef fails to focus on allowing top-quality ingredients to speak for themselves. My second pet peeve is the lack of competent service. Wait staff should be seen and rarely heard. They should watch the tables. I don’t want to become best friends and I don’t like someone to greet us and say, "Hi, you guys."

On several occasions, I celebrated my birthday (and Edward’s and my anniversary) at the now-shuttered La Truffe. It was one of my favorite restaurants and I miss it dearly. Marcel the maitre d’ treated every patron as if he or she were dining in his home. The wine and cuisine were classic French.

Of course, I like to enjoy my favorite foods on my birthday. I love freshly shucked, slightly salty oysters and large cherrystone clams. Lobster ranks high on my list and I prefer it simply prepared, either steamed or broiled, with lots of drawn butter. I once ate a 3-pound Maine lobster all by myself.

I don’t know where Edward and I and some friends will celebrate this evening, but if I had a choice, it would be in a restaurant like La Truffe. A bit of caviar would be nice, along with a glass of champagne, but it is pricey. Foie gras, either formed into a cool terrine or served warm with a few cool greens, would also be on the list. A glass of Sauterne would be in order here.

I rarely find sweetbreads on restaurant menus, but when I do, I always order them. They have a mild flavor and meaty texture and adapt to all kinds of light sauces, herbs and spices. For the main course, I would want Dover sole, especially the way it is prepared in London restaurants. It should be a generous portion, cooked on the bone, wheeled over to the table on a gleaming trolley and quickly filleted.

Some steamed asparagus and piping-hot potatoes au gratin would make me happy. Chef Georges Perrier one created a dish in honor of Princess Grace, who was coming to dinner at Le Bec-Fin. At the time, she wore her hair in braids, so he braided Dover sole with Norwegian salmon and steamed it over simmering water. I tasted this dish and still dream of it.

I developed a strong taste for a cheese course before a sweet while dining in Europe, particularly in Paris. My favorite dessert of all time is a hot chocolate souffl� with cr�me Anglaise. A glass of vintage port, such as a 1977 Warre, would do nicely here.

Here is a recipe for an updated version of an easy-to-prepare hot chocolate souffl�. It is from Le Bec-Fin Recipes ($35, Running Press, hardbound, with full-color and black-and-white photographs) by Georges Perrier.

Gateau Au Chocolate Valrhona
(Warm individual Valrhona chocolate cakes)

Ingredients:

1/2 pound Pur Caraibe Valrhona chocolate (or other bittersweet chocolate couverture), finely chopped
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
5 eggs
5 egg yolks
6 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
Raspberries for garnish

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Brush 8 (4-ounce) ramekins with butter. Dust lightly and evenly with flour, shaking out any excess. In a medium bowl, barely melt the chocolate with the butter.

In a mixer, beat the whole eggs, egg yolks and the sugar using the whisk attachment until light and fluffy. Fold the egg mixture into the chocolate. Stir in the flour. Divide among the ramekins and bake for five to seven minutes or until the cakes have puffed up. (The outsides should be cooked, but the inside still liquid.) Remove from the oven, unmold each cake onto an individual dessert plate and serve immediately with creme Anglaise and fresh raspberries or with a colorful homemade fresh fruit puree such as mango.

Cr�me Anglaise

Ingredients:

2 cups milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 egg yolks, at room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar

Directions:

Place the milk and vanilla bean in a small heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until light and thick. Gradually whisk half of the hot milk into the egg yolks until thoroughly blended. Return the mixture to the saucepan and whisk to combine. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sauce thickens slightly. (Do not let it boil.) When it’s ready, the custard will reach 165 to 170 degrees. It should lightly coat the back of a wooden spoon and you should be able to see a clear trail when a finger is drawn across the surface.

Strain the custard into a heatproof bowl. Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean and stir the seeds back into the custard. Cool the bowl over ice, then cover with plastic and refrigerate until ready to use. Can be prepared up to one day ahead.

Serves eight.

Note from Phyllis: You can substitute real whipped cream for the cr�me Anglaise. Making fruit purees is easy. All you do is place raspberries, strawberries or the flesh of a ripe mango or two in a blender or food processor fitted with the steel blade and puree. Some people like to add a bit of sugar to fruit purees but I prefer them straight.

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