Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Come in number 99, your time is up...

Last weekend saw our 99th birthday party (mine and Tallboy's - and if you're wondering how we add up to 99, I'm not going to tell you). As the art of the RSVP seems to be rather on the decline, I had no definite idea how many people were planning to come, which made planning the catering a bit of a challenge. (The total was 42 in the end).

I spent most of the day before baking, and had to get up at half six on party day to finish it all off. By the time the party started I had had enough of seeing food and couldn't face any of it...

On the menu:

Pains d'Epi
Brown rolls
Bertinet breadsticks with chili halloumi
Brazilian potato salad (with coriander and olive oil, courtesy of the Brazil Nut)
Mexican rice salad
Mushroom & Thyme quiche (30 x 20 cm) (I'm not sure why I needed to specify the size but the tin is new and I'm still a bit excited about having a rectangular one)
Caramelised shallot and mature cheddar quichelets (6 10 cm diameter little quiches)
Sausage rolls (Sosmix Lincolnshire sausage mix inside)
Pizza with special tomato sauce
La Schiacciata con l'Uva (Tuscan flatbread with grapes)
99 cupcakes
Genoise sponge with summer berries

The épis looked beautiful and were around for a long time until people got the idea about pulling a bit off - then they disappeared pretty quickly. The breadsticks were incredibly popular and if I'd done as many again I'm sure they'd have gone too. The fougasses looked attractive but again I think people were loath to handle them so in the end I sent some home with guests. The brown rolls were delish but I suppose looked a tad boring compared to the rest so they were sadly neglected. As I worked my various doughs, it was obvious once again that working a larger amount at once is so much easier than a smaller 500g of flour mix. An excuse to make lots of bread!

The Tabbouleh recipe came from here and was utterly delicious. There was a lot of parsley chopping involved, but the flavour was amazing, and the look of it, mostly green, flecked with cream coloured grains and the odd red of tomato, was really attractive.

For the pizza, I made my special tomato sauce, which always makes a huge difference to the final taste. You just need to remember to start it early... I slosh some olive oil into a large, deep and wide-based pan, then add some crushed garlic and cook for a minute or two just to soften but not brown. Then in goes a pack of passata, along with a slug of Worcestershire sauce (veggie version for me, obv) or any other seasoning you fancy, and a couple of pinches of dried oregano or mixed herbs or whatever. Now you just need to simmer this very gently. For ages. There will be a fine splatter of red droplets around your pan, gunking up your worktop and sprayed decoratively across the tiles behind your cooker. You can stir it a bit if you like, this helps you to see how well it's going, but you should be only on the very gentlest heat so there shouldn't be any danger of it sticking or burning. The stuff in the pan will reduce over time, concentrating the flavour and making some very strange noises. When it looks distressingly like those flatulent hot mud springs you see in New Zealand, it's done and you can turn the heat off and leave it to one side until you need it.

The Mexican Rice Salad isn't really very Mexican I suppose - I made it up as a cheap version of one we used to buy from the deli counter, and loved it more than the original.

I made all my pastry (for the quiches and sausage rolls) and the sponges for the monster summer berry cake with a fantastic plain flour from Fattoria La Vialla, which I find of exceptional quality. I'm quite the fan of them and their products - but I'll leave the waxing lyrical for another time, as I need to get on and tell you about the grape bread. I found the recipe in the book Le Ricette di Giuliana (again from Fattoria La Vialla) and was both enchanted by the image of the purple-studded bread and puzzled by the concept of using grapes for cooking. It was the first recipe that I tried from the book, and it was so delicious that I've made it again and again. It was a big hit at the party, with requests for the recipe and mere crumbs left in the bowl. You can see a bit of it peeking into the second photo.

Now, as it was a 99th party, I felt the need to echo the 99 ice cream cone somewhere. Cupcakes were the obvious answer, once I'd looked into hiring an ice cream machine for the day, and had sat down quietly to recover from the prices they were asking. I based mine on these vanilla cupcakes but didn't colour the icing and once I'd put down the icing bag, I sprinkled with chocolate strands or strawberry sauce and staked each cake through the heart with a little Flake. I could easily have made double the number of these too, they were very popular, especially with the children.

The pièce de resistance, much admired by the assembled company, was Eric Lanlard's Genoise Sponge with Summer Berries. I made the sponges the day before, and as I don't have two cake tins of the right size, I had to make one sponge, cook it, decant it, wash out the tin, make the other sponge and cook that. The tins were a bit bigger than those in the recipe so I scaled it up and that worked well, but I was a bit shy on the cream and fruit front, so that's a lesson learned for the next time. That and get another tin the same size so I don't have to spend hours making two cakes. The initial mix is done in a bowl over barely simmering water. The thing with whizzing up eggs and sugar is that there's an incredible expansion. If you start off in a bowl not much bigger than the bare ingredients, you're in for a bit of a shock, a few moments of reflection, and a sticky transfer operation. I'd imagine. I left the two sponges overnight on a cooling rack, draped decoratively with a fetching red and white tea towel. I think you could probably get away with another combination of colours if you need to. The next morning I used my new cheesewire-type-cake-bisector to turn each sponge into two even subsponges. It worked really well, although I needed some sponge-steadying from Tallboy. It was great fun to assemble the cake, and after the final dusting of icing sugar I was rather proud of my creation. The sponge was so light, and although there was a fair bit of cream, it wasn't overpowering and the fruit was a good foil to it. Everyone wanted a slice, and I'll definitely make this one again. I just need to find an excuse...

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