Quality over quantity

Story and photos by Robin Hart

The restaurant at Jane Barleycorn’s Market and Bar isn’t a typical dining experience one would expect to find in Danville. Business owner, meal planner, sommelier, cook and server Mary Robin Spoonamore decided to follow a business model designed to focus on a limited number of patrons and her desire to create interesting food and flavors when she reopened the restaurant on Jan. 1.

The kitchen area at Jane Barleycorn’s was once a darkroom Mary Robin Spoonamore used when her photography studio was at the same location several years ago. Mary Robin said he continues to use her darkroom timer instead of a traditional timer because it’s much louder and easy to read.

“It gets a little crazy. But if you’re organized enough, and everyone is getting the same thing, it’s like having a dinner party at your house,” Spoonamore says.

Unlike a typical restaurant, Jane Barleycorn’s serves a pre-determined three- or four-course meal, by reservations only.

Spoonamore says her restaurant isn’t designed for high-volume service. And since she only seats up to 25 people and everyone is getting the same dish, “There’s time to do detail” for each plate leaving the kitchen. “We don’t have the next ticket coming in to take away manpower from the dish.”

When she started this format at Jane Barleycorn’s, she wanted “the food to be personally interesting to me in some way. I just don’t want to do the same old recipes that worked in the past. The whole idea is for me to have the opportunity to explore vegetables, fruits or meats and processes that I haven’t worked with before.”

On Monday nights, Spoonamore serves bistro suppers. Once a month, themed dinners are offered. And she’s creating special dinners to serve before each show at Norton’s Center for the Arts and other community events.

“There’s an attempt to connect with local events and support the arts,” she explains.

For example, Spoonamore says, when the Shanghai Opera Symphony Orchestra performed on Feb. 20, her “Pacific Rim” menu consisted of a three-course meal. The appetizer was spring rolls with romaine, carrots, zucchini and rice noodles with mint basil and peanut sauce. The second course was Vietnamese beef stew with lemongrass and star anise herbed rice. The third course was ginger cheesecake.

For dinner before the show “Steel Magnolias” in late February, Spoonamore planned cream of artichoke soup, chicken braised in olives and mushrooms and bread pudding with bourbon sauce.

For the local Scarlet Cup Theatre’s performance of “Glass Menagerie” in April, Spoonamore has chosen a salmon dish and blanc mange — both of which are mentioned in the play, she says.

“Being creative like that makes it fun.”

Mary Robin Spoonamore pipes French cheese pastries onto a small baking pan lined with parchment paper.

When planning a fresh menu — which is weekly — Spoonamore heads to her vast collection of cookbooks reads several versions of a specific recipe that intrigues her.

“I try to merge the best of them. … That’s one approach I have. Sometimes I ad lib,” she says.

If she feels a dish needs a little something extra, she searches her shelves and pantry to see what she has on hand.

For example, sometimes she thinks a salad needs a little something sweet, like candied orange peel or drunken figs, “just to make it interesting.”

When learning to cook or trying new recipes or techniques, Spoonamore says you first need to prepare the dish four or five times “so you can understand it.” Then you’re ready to “diverge” by adding your own ingredients to suit your taste “and kind of make it your own,” she says.

“If boredom sets in, you can take that recipe and make it your own way. I think that’s happened a lot and helped me understand food. It is also essentially how I have a creative process.”

Jane Barleycorn’s Valentine’s Day celebration was offered for three nights. The menu was gougers with mushroom duxelles and arugula, beet salad with raspberry, creme fraiche, walnut oil and oranges, finishing with a chocolate and mascarpone tart with pistachios. One option for the main course was fresh halibut from Nova Scotia with julienne vegetables and spinach wrapped and steamed in a parchment package. Spoonamore says it was a delightful surprise when dinners cut through the package and the aroma of the steamed fish, veggies and herbs wafted from the plate. The other choice for a main course was short ribs with port sauce, duchesse potato and baby broccoli.

Mary Robin Spoonamore pipes French cheese pastries onto a small baking pan lined with parchment paper.

Spoonamore says her favorite dishes to prepare are French, Italian and California cuisine. And when she’s cooking, “I’m tasting the whole time.”

French cheese puffs, or gougeres, is a great appetizer for people who want to treat their dinner guests to something special, she says. When your company arrives, offer to get them a drink or cocktail. Have your dough stored in a pastry bag fitted with a star tip, your baking pan prepared and the oven preheated.

“It only takes a minute to pipe the dough and a few minutes to cook the pastries,” she says. By the time you take your guests their drinks, the pastries will be ready to serve.

The recipe that Mary Robin shares is from the Tartine Bakery (San Francisco) Cookbook. The cheese puffs can either be served plain, or sliced and filled with pastry cream or mushroom duxelles, with a side of arugula dressed in vinaigrette.

Gougeres (French Cheese Puffs)

from Tartine Bakery (San Francisco) Cookbook

Ingredients

1 ¼ cups skim milk

10 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

5 large (preferably local) eggs with deep yellow yolks

1 cup Gruyere Cheese (can use Parmigiano-Reggiano or Comté)

Gougeres are plated with a side of arugula and fresh basil.

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

Egg wash made of beaten egg and salt

Extra helpful: pastry bag, star tip and parchment paper

Directions

  • Preheat oven 350 degrees.
  • Butter a baking sheet or line sheet with parchment paper
  • Combine skim milk, butter and salt in a heavy saucepan and place over medium heat until butter melts and mixture comes to a full boil.
  • Add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously using a wooden spoon; keep stirring until the mixture forms a smooth mass and pulls away from the sides of the pan and some of the moisture has evaporated; this will take about three minutes.
  • Transfer the paste to the bowl of a standard mixer fitted with paddle attachment or to a heat-proof mixing bowl.
  • If using a stand mixer, add eggs one a a time and mix on medium speed, incorporating each before adding the next; when all the eggs have been added, the mixture will be very thick, smooth and shiny.  
  • Remove the bowl from the mixer stand, add the cheese, pepper and thyme and mix in with a rubber spatula.  
  • Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a tip, adding only as much dough as is a comfortable weight to work with in the bag.
  • Pipe 1-inch mounds onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 ½ inches apart.
  • To make topping, whisk together egg and salt and then gently brush the top of each pastry with the egg wash. Lightly sprinkle with cheese.
  • Place the pastries in the oven immediately and bake until they have puffed, are nicely browned and light for their size — about 25 minutes (but it will vary according to oven and size of the puff; convection and smaller ones are done in 8 minutes).
  • Give them your full attention so they don’t under- or over-cook; try not to let too much heat escape from the oven as you check on them.
  • Pastries should be brown on top, and if using the star tip, the edges will be browned.

Large size gougeres variation

  • To make 4-inch gougeres, create 3-inch rounds with piping bag about 2 inches apart. Brush with egg wash and top with cheese.  
  • Bake until they have puffed, are light for their size and are golden brown, about 35-45 minutes.  
  • Remove from the oven and poke a small hole in the side of each pastry to allow steam to escape; releasing the steam keeps them from collapsing (This step is unnecessary for the small ones.)
  • If splitting and filling, let them cool to room temperature; otherwise they may be served hot, warm, or at room temperature, but right out of the oven is Spoonamore’s favorite.
  • Fillings and things that work well include pastry cream and mushroom duxelles with side of arugula dressed in vinaigrette.  

Notes

  • Avoid replacing the skim milk with whole milk, as it will cause the larger version of the puffs to fall.
  • The pastry bag is very helpful in getting the puffs to puff. When piping, build them purposely tall rather than wide.  

To see upcoming dinner events and dinner menus at Jane Barleycorn’s, visit www.exploretock.com and search for Jane Barleycorn’s. The website allows you to book reservations, see the cost and even choose to have wines paired with each course.