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My Aunt Doris made canapés the way other women garden or take tennis lessons. She was always on the hunt for a new recipe or a source for discounted Pepperidge Farms thin-sliced white bread, and was never happier than when she had eight or 10 dozen hors d’oeuvres wrapped in aluminum foil and tucked into her basement chest freezer.
She often spent Saturday afternoons practicing a recipe, lining up assembly stations all across the kitchen counters, leaving no square inch unutilized. When my mom and her cousins were young, they were often used as foot soldiers in these battles of woman versus cornichon, pimento and caper.
Aunt Doris would lay out large rounds of rye at the kitchen table, almost as if she was setting up a meal with edible plates. Each child was given a pastry bag that Aunt Doris filled with whipped and flavored cream cheese or chicken liver pâté. They would take their positions standing behind a slice of bread and with militaristic precision, would pipe a circle of cream cheese or pâté onto the bread, using the outer crust as a guide.
When the first circle was finished, everyone stepped to their left, and once again, put down a ring, just inside of the first. The result would be a large round slice of bread covered in concentric circles of various colors and flavors. The bread would get further decorated with olives, chopped gherkins and anchovies, which were creatively inserted into the rings of cheese. When they were all finished, Aunt Doris would slice each one into wedges with a pizza cutter, so that her guests would be able to pick up once slice and experience all the flavors within the course of a few bites.
Aunt Doris loved to entertain and hosted every major family holiday until she was no longer able. She particularly enjoyed the challenges of Passover, because it forced her to get creative and think beyond her normal array of appetizers. Instead of her regular, bread-based offerings, there would be a bar of dips and spreads, flanked by matzo and crudité.
The centerpiece was her famous chicken liver pâté. The recipe had come to her from another aunt and was always chopped by hand in a large wooden bowl until smooth. It was meaty, savory and tasted exactly right with salted matzo.
A few years ago, I took responsibility for the Passover chicken liver pâté. The scrap of paper that once held Aunt Doris’s recipe disappeared some years after she died, so I started experimenting in the hopes of finding something similar. My trial and error led me to Alton Brown’s recipe for Chicken Liver Mousse, and the family consensus was that it tasted just like the original.
I like to clear a couple of hours when I make it, both so I have plenty of time to do it right and also so that I can spend a few moments lost in thought as I remember my aunt. In my book, that makes it a good one for The Weekender.
Before you start cooking your liver, here are a few things you should know:
- Start with fresh, plump chicken livers. Pat them dry and carefully cut away any bits of fat or membrane.
- Alton suggests that you cook the livers until slightly pink inside. I find it works better to cook them just a bit more, so that they don’t add too much liquid to the final product.
- When it comes times to add the cream, don’t dump it in all at once. You may not need all of it and it’s easier to add more later than it is to remove it once it’s already in the food processor.
- Remember to chill your mousse fully before serving.
More Weekender Recipes:
Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her first cookbook, also called Food in Jars, will be published by Running Press in May 2012.