Monday, 10 December 2012

Forget the canapés – try northern nostalgia

Trying to look glam – with oven gloves and a very large pie.
If you have any parties planned for the festive period, and are contemplating what food to serve, then TV ads for such entertaining are probably best avoided.

There is, of course, the usual Iceland ‘prawn ring’, which this year, you could follow with ‘lasagne bites’, before tucking into a cake filled with Bailey’s profiteroles.

If the cake sounds overly sweet, just turn your mind back to the pasta.

The mere idea sends shivers down the spine the moment you find yourself wondering how they do it.

How do you make a lasagne – with a real ragu and a real béchamel – but that comes in tiny portions that hold together enough to be finger food.

Yes. Exactly.

Not that such dismal ideas are the preserve of Iceland. M&S are currently bigging up their ‘prawn balls covered in croutons’. Now I like prawns and I like croutons, but this sounds like an idea created by some sort of malfunctioning random generator.

And on the basis of the TV advert – where they’ll inevitably be seen at their best – they look about as enticing as a snowball covered in stones.

So when it came to deciding what I was going to serve at a small and dreadfully select 50th birthday bash on Saturday evening, such finger food was the last thing on my mind.

Instead, with a lurch of northern sentiment, I opted for meat and potato pie à la the Hairy Bikers – before realising I hadn’t got a big enough pie tin.

That was easily solved. But the outstanding question was still what to serve for afters.

I had been iffing and umming for weeks. But with the autumn having proved a busy one, plans had gone onto the back burner, along with pretty much the whole of Christmas, where they both barely raised a simmer.

Thus I found myself sitting in bed on Saturday morning, a tisane by my side and the iPad in my lap, praying for answers from the Great God Google.

When one arose, it came with the heady aroma of nostalgia – and delivered by the most perfect vehicle of precisely that: Nigel Slater.

The answer was a coffee walnut cake.

Now I like baking, but I don’t actually do avery much of it.

Slater’s recipe, though, looked a doddle and, he said, only took an hour from start to finish.

As soon as I got back from the Saturday shopping, it was straight into the kitchen.

First up, the sponge cake. At this juncture it became clear that while I have three cake tins, they are all of slightly different sizes. In the case of two of them, the difference is only very, VERY slight.

What to do? Use the two and hope to sketch lightly over the slight difference with the aid of plenty of buttercream?

Or make one deeper sponge, hope the timings still work the same – and then cut it in half?

I opted for the former. Followed by a brief bit of hair tearing on seeing the words: ‘Line two cake tins’, only to nearly collapse with relief when I read the recipe properly and found that only the bases needed lining.

The next discovery concerned the sugar. I had a bag of unrefined light brown sugar in the cupboard and, having not been completely thorough in my reading of the recipe, had thought that that would do. In fact, the order of the day was “unrefined golden caster sugar”.

Drat and double drat.

I decided to go with what was in the cupboard. This was creamed with butter before three eggs were gradually added to it in the mixer.

Goodness – how wonderful is the smell of creamed butter and sugar?

Then the flour and baking powder are gently mixed in, followed by chopped walnuts and a teaspoon of coffee. Slater advises using instant – while he’s used espresso, he has “come to the conclusion that the latter gives a richer, more rounded flavour.”

The next comment is an illustration of why he’s such a joy to read.

“The only bore is having to go out and buy the stuff. And if anyone looks as if they are about to get snooty with you, just remind them that Elizabeth David apparently drank instant coffee by the mugful.”

Once in the tins – and once I’d remembered to put the oven on as well as set the temperature – it was easy.

They cooked in just over 25 minutes – I remembered the skewer test – and then it was simply a question of beating butter and icing sugar together, and adding more coffee.

I really couldn’t be arsed with buying instant coffee, so had made a small pot of strong espresso on the hob.

The buttercream was supposed to include more chopped walnuts, but I skipped that too, and went simply for the nuts to decorate the top.

Spreading the cream mix was enormous fun and it all looked reasonable by the time I’d finished.

And so to the pie. Well, I’d bought 1.1kg of mince, which led to the discovery that I needed to cook the filling in two pans, given that there were also carrots, onions and celery involved – and that was before the potato.

And wow – that’s the most pastry I’ve ever mixed up – and the largest single piece of pastry I’ve ever rolled out.

It took the entire afternoon and left me with only an hour to get myself ready before the hour chimed. I really don’t know how professional cooks and chefs do it.

But get done it did. One of my guests, who is a food tech (domestic science) teacher later observed: “You couldn’t have got more lard in this pastry!” In other words, it was well and truly short.

And she also commented that for all it was very down to earth, it was also sophisticated, simply by being done properly.

Most to the point, there was none left. And the cake was just as well received.

Now that’s what I call party food.

* Nigel Slater’s full article and recipe on coffee walnut cake is here.

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