Packs a punch

Try lemon meringue pie, inspired by “Million Dollar Baby.” (Bryan Chan / LAT)

Return with us to the days of yesteryear, when glamorous movie stars roamed the streets of Los Angeles — and dinner was served during the Academy Awards ceremony.

Imagine, if you will, the Cocoanut Grove, where the awards presentation banquets were held from 1930 to 1936. It looks like a scene from "The Aviator." (Wait, it is a scene from "The Aviator"!)

A vast room with hundreds of tables lighted by tiny lamps, waiters rushing by with silver trays, women in evening gowns and serious jewelry, men in tuxedos.

But what are they eating? How can you duplicate that excitement, that sense of occasion at your home Sunday? What would the Cocoanut Grove's Chef Henri, who oversaw banquets honoring presidents, emperors, admirals and comedians, do for such a noteworthy event?

Why, he'd create a theme menu. Something to represent each of the films nominated for best picture in each course.

To start, a toast from "Ray." Champagne? Maybe not: Instead, we'll sip Bols gin, just like Ray Charles' (Jamie Foxx) girlfriend (Regina King) did when she drank her dinner. She drank it straight out of the bottle; we'll raise a martini glass.

The first course, a goat cheese and hazelnut salad with oven-dried tomatoes, is drawn from "Sideways," the surprise hit about a couple of middle-aged guys, Miles and Jack (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church), on a yuppified bender through the Santa Ynez Valley. This is the same salad Miles has for his first course at Los Olivos Cafe, where Miles and Jack go on a double date with Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh). It pairs beautifully with Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc, one of the wines served in that scene.

Our main course is from "The Aviator": steak and 12 peas. In a scene set at the Cocoanut Grove in 1927, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is such a regular that the headwaiter, upon seating him and Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), simply asks if he'll have "the usual." Hepburn is offered clementine soup (whatever that is), roast duck and poached pears in rose-petal sauce. Hughes' "usual" was a steak and "12 peas," which had to be meticulously arranged on the plate in a grid pattern because he was, shall we say, a picky eater.

Chef Henri, by the way, though French, had a streak of Alice Waters-like passion for local produce, according to Betty Goodwin, author of "Hollywood du Jour: Lost Recipes of Legendary Hollywood Haunts." He created dishes with avocado, citrus fruits, abalone, sand dabs, California oysters and California figs.

To accompany the steak, turn to "Finding Neverland" for a traditional Scottish dish of mashed potatoes and turnips called clapshot. OK, it wasn't actually served in the movie, but it could have been: In the scene in which "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) endures a tense, silent meal with his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), they dine on roast beef and a potato dish that's spooned from a square silver serving dish. Clapshot? Likely as not. Our tasty version, with chives and just a wee bit of butter, is from "Traditional Scottish Cookery" by Theodora Fitzgibbon. The wine pairing? Whitcraft Pinot Noir, imbibed in "Sideways," of course.

From "Ray" comes the bread basket, featuring cornbread and molasses, a dish so much a part of African American folklore that it's enshrined in story and song ("Don't want no cornbread and molasses, / Gimme beans, Lord, gimme beans!"). Cornbread and molasses were among the few staples that got rural poor Southerners through the Depression.

In the film, when Charles takes his future wife, Della Bea (Kerry Washington), to lunch while he's on tour in Houston, he teases her for being a country girl. How does he know that? She'd asked for molasses with her cornbread.

And for dessert — what else but lemon meringue pie from "Million Dollar Baby"? As Clint Eastwood's tough-on-the-outside character, Frankie Dunn, begins to warm up to the fiercely ambitious Maggie (Hilary Swank), he reveals a fondness for lemon meringue pie — but, he says, the real thing, with homemade lemon custard, none of that store-bought stuff. Maggie helps Frankie find the pie of his dreams even as he helps her fulfill her own dreams.

The Times Test Kitchen director Donna Deane's recipe is from her mother, a classic version with a buttery-toasty crust, terrifically lemony filling and a cloud of ethereal meringue.

It's so good, we couldn't help but name it "Million Dollar" pie.


'Midlife Crisis' salad of goat cheese, hazelnuts and red onion

Total time: 20 minutes plus 1 hour, 30 minutes roasting time

Servings: 4