WASHINGTON — Last month as President Barack Obama met with world leaders in New York during the final U.N. General Assembly of his tenure, Michelle Obama sneaked off to Greenwich Village to plan for some parting diplomatic flourishes of her own.
For about two hours at a private table at Babbo, Michelle Obama sampled appetizers, entrees and desserts prepared by Mario Batali, the chef she had chosen to put together the last state dinner of the Obama era, honoring Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy.
The menu of dishes that ultimately made the cut for Tuesday night's dinner was being as closely guarded this weekend as any state secret, though an official preview was scheduled for Monday afternoon at the White House.
Officials would say only that the 500 guests could expect "traditional Italian dishes that have been ingrained in American cuisine" — so, presumably, some of the more daring fare for which Batali is known, like goose liver ravioli, is not on the menu.
The dinner, in a lavishly decorated tent on the South Lawn, will be the 13th of Obama's presidency. The chef the Obamas enlisted to prepare it is something of a familiar figure at the White House — a celebrity restaurateur who is also a longtime supporter of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative and other efforts to promote healthy eating.
"These are some of my favorite people on the whole planet, and they're asking me to cook for the final state dinner of the presidency, and, oh, by the way, it's the Italians who are coming?" Batali said in an interview. "It doesn't get better."
But that does not mean it isn't also intimidating. "I'd be lying to say I wasn't shaking in my boots a little bit," Batali said — or, more precisely, his signature orange Crocs, which he confirmed he would be wearing to cook at the White House. ("It's all I've got," he said.)
Batali planned to arrive in the White House kitchen with four assistants early Monday and begin a frenzy of cooking and plating that would include five or six "test drives" of each dish before the Tuesday dinner hour.
While he has never pulled off anything quite like a formal seated dinner for two world leaders and hundreds of prominent guests, Batali said his strategy would be "quite similar" to the one he employs in his many acclaimed restaurants, where preparation is paramount.
"We perceive it as the same type of thing as the dinner rush, but a little less complicated," Batali said, because the vast majority of diners will be eating the same thing, rather than choosing among 17 appetizers, 20 pastas and 15 to 18 main dishes as they would at Babbo.
At the White House, where even the edible is political, Batali will avoid the more adventurous dishes found on Babbo's menu, like the aforementioned ravioli, as well as the head cheese, tripe, pig foot and sweetbreads.
"I knew it was going to be something using almost 100 percent American ingredients, and nothing that would alienate anybody or frighten anybody or look like it was really fancy," Batali said. "The dishes were all inspired by Italian dishes, so they will be simple and recognizable, but each with something to delight and surprise."
Still, Batali said he had tried to stay true to his culinary instincts, as other chefs who have prepared state dinners for the Obamas have done.
"I looked at the other dinners by chefs that I know," including Marcus Samuelsson, who prepared the India state dinner, the Obamas' first; Rick Bayless, who cooked the Mexico dinner; Masaharu Morimoto, who did Japan's; and Anita Lo, who was featured at the second China state dinner. "They didn't back away. They made food that was very indicative of their personal taste."
Batali knows his way around the White House, where he appeared in 2010 for an Iron Chef battle that paired him with Emeril Lagasse against Bobby Flay and Cristeta Comerford, the White House executive chef. The teams cooked a menu showcasing Michelle Obama's kitchen garden. "They resoundingly crushed us," Batali said.
And last year, he accompanied Michelle Obama to the Milan Expo for an event about nutrition.
So when it came time to collaborate with Batali on this week's dinner, Comerford and Susan Morrison, the White House pastry chef, knew what they were getting.
Comerford will prepare passed canapés made with ingredients from the final harvest of the White House kitchen garden. Morrison has constructed 44 fall harvest dessert centerpieces, complete with pumpkins and cornucopias made of chocolate, and she will serve miniature pastries, including a sweet corn crema and blackberry cup, an homage to one of Batali's signature desserts.
The event, to be capped off by a performance by Gwen Stefani, will be the Obamas' last chance to put their singular stamp on the button-down ritual of state dinners. Their debut, a 2009 dinner in honor of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, was marred by a party-crashing couple whose unauthorized entry later prompted a congressional inquiry.
Seven years and a dozen dinners later, the East Wing is well practiced in staging the kind of affair the Obamas want.
"I wouldn't say we've got it down to a science, because there are so many details and logistics that go into making a state dinner a success, but we do know what it takes," said Deesha Dyer, the White House social secretary.
This time, however, the process has been bittersweet, as the White House staff grows increasingly conscious that its time is drawing to a close.
"There is a little bit of nostalgia and beauty in knowing that you're bringing this together for the last time under this roof," Dyer said.
Batali said he had waited for eight years for an invitation to cook at the White House, and he was "proud to have made the list" of chefs who had the privilege.
"Knowing this is the last one, I only hope the meal lives up to the occasion," he said.
A Signature Dish by Mario Batali
Batali shared his recipe of sweet corn crema with cornmeal zeppole and blackberries before he hosts the Obamas' last state dinner.
Sweet Corn Crema With Cornmeal Zeppole and Blackberries
Recipe courtesy of Mario Batali
2 ears fresh sweet corn
1 cup milk
2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
8 egg yolks
pinch kosher salt
5 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 2 cups sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. whole milk
1 2/3 cups unbleached AP flour, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. instant polenta
2 tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
6 cups vegetable oil, for frying
2 pints blackberries
2 tbsp. creme de cassis
1/4 cup sugar
To make the crema:
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Place eight 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups in a baking dish large enough to fit them with at least an inch of space between each ramekin.
With a sharp knife, slice the corn kernels off the cob. Cut the cobs in half and place in a medium saucepan with the kernels, milk, cream and 1/3 cup of the sugar. With the tip of a knife, scrape the vanilla bean into the pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, then remove from the heat and steep until cool.
Discard the corncobs, then use an immersion blender to puree the mixture until somewhat smooth. This step may also be done in a regular blender in small batches. Bring the mixture back to a boil, stirring constantly, then set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar until completely blended. Gradually whisk half of the hot corn custard into the yolks, then pour the tempered yolk mixture back into the remaining custard and whisk well. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible. Stir in the salt.
Stir in the corn kernels and divide the custard evenly among the ramekins. Add enough hot water to the baking dish to come one-third of the way up the side of the ramekins. Cover the entire baking dish with aluminum foil. Bake the custards on the middle oven rack for about 40 minutes. The custard will be done when they are no longer liquid in the center and are completely set.
Carefully remove the baking dish from the oven and discard the foil. Allow the custards to cool in the water bath for 20 minutes and then refrigerate until completely chilled.
To make the zeppole:
Cream together the butter and 1/3 cup of sugar until very light. Add the eggs and continue to beat; the mixture will appear broken. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the vanilla extract and milk.
In a small bowl, stir together the flour, polenta, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture and beat until completely incorporated. You will have a very soft, sticky dough. Sprinkle the dough liberally with flour and wrap tightly in plastic. Chill until somewhat firm, at least 2 hours.
When the dough is completely chilled and firm, flour a board liberally and unwrap the dough. Roll to 3/4-inch thickness, using as much flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking.
Using a small doughnut cutter, cut out as many zeppole as possible, rerolling the scraps as necessary until you have used all the dough. As you cut the zeppole, place them on a baking sheet sprinkled lightly with flour to prevent them from sticking. Return the zeppole to the fridge and chill for 30 minutes.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the vegetable oil to 340 degrees. Place the remaining 2 cups of sugar in a shallow bowl. Line several baking sheets with two layers of paper towels.
Fry the zeppole a few at a time in the hot oil, until golden brown on both sides and cooked through. Drain on the paper towels, and while they are still hot, roll them in the bowl of sugar to coat each one completely. The zeppole may be fried up to four hours before serving, but they are especially good served hot.
Spoon some of the compote over each serving of cream and serve with a warm zeppole.
To make the compote:
Place the berries in a medium saucepan and toss with the creme de cassis and sugar. Place the pan over low heat and cook slowly, shaking the pan occasionally to cook the berries evenly. When the berries have softened somewhat and released their juices, remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Serve the zeppole simply by itself, or with the blackberry compote to jazz it up, or take the dessert to spectacular heights with the silky corn crema.