Too nervous – or knackered – to host a dinner? Ask a few friends around for a drink and think small, says Trish Deseine …
Life is still too short to stuff a mushroom – unless, in my case, it’s a large, cheese-topped Portobello mushroom alongside your steak and chips. Likewise, as we crank ourselves up into something approaching a party mood and consider entertaining more than a handful, if not exactly a crowd, we know the effort-versus-appreciation ratio of minutely constructed nibbles-with-drinks is most unsatisfactory.
Guests are usually ravenous when they arrive, but they are also at their most distracted, and need a drink most of all. Their bouches will be amusées just as much by a sliver of good Vendée ham as a three-tiered petit four, so do not get sucked into performance apéritif-ing. Leave all the chiselling, layering and tweezering to the chefs and make your life easier.
In France, every decent small bakery always has cold and warm petit fours on sale or, for larger numbers, on order. Reassuringly, in all my years here, the basic collection has barely changed. Mini-pastry quiches, anchovy and onion tarts, sausage roll slices and snail puffs are national institutions, and no French homecook would dream of making such an array of fiddly, teeny mouthfuls herself. And then there’s Picard, our posh Iceland. A stash of Picard mini-truffled boudin blancs and croque monsieurs in my freezer will always save the day.
If I’m sounding so sure of myself, it’s also to do with the compounding trauma of a few weekends ago, when I catered (yes, catered!) for 60 extremely discerning French guests. It takes a very good reason for me to venture into professional territory. I have only done it once before, for 450, which involved me taking a rather scary wrong exit, driving a refrigerated lorry on le périphérique at 3am, trying to find the hire company car park. This particular event was the gentler, très chic three-day birthday party of one of my oldest friends, in a small château near my home.
Dips, charcuterie and other nuts and olives were, sadly, out of the question. I devised a brunch menu of the most labour-unintensive, well-behaved dishes possible. But the theme was “British” and, seen through the French food cliché filter, there had to be sandwiches, fresh, last-minute sandwiches, teeny, two-bite, dainty and crustless, two sorts, mint and cucumber and cheese and chutney. There was also pie. And Stilton. And butterfly cakes. I felt like I was catering lunch at a Home Counties amateur cricket club.
We all know the punishing drill when it comes to mass sandwich making. The cucumbers needed to be peeled, slightly salted for precisely 20 minutes and drained, the butter just soft enough, the bread fluffy, the mint finely chopped, the cheese sliced with a mandoline slicer, and the chutney spread thinly. Then the perilous task of de-crusting and cutting them into four mini-triangles without squishing their insides out, before arranging everything cutely on cute trays.
Everything else I had cooked and baked at home, helped by my chef-in-training son, Tim. But the sandwiches had to be made spanking fresh, in the château’s kitchen, 250 of them, one hour before the guests arrived. Thankfully, the serving staff happily dropped what they were doing to help. Our production line was swift and efficient and the château’s chickens as delighted with the crusts as the guests with their mini-sambos.
In the end, it was a lovely party, with everything else made beforehand and served by the château’s team, I was actually able to attend and enjoy. But for the much smaller numbers coming for a drink over the next few months, when gatherings become increasingly festive, I have an extra urge to treat the friends and family I haven’t seen for so long. I want to make it simpler than freshly made sandwiches of course, but chic all the same.
Here are two super-easy recipes which you can take out of the oven last minute, or up to an hour before guests arrive and leave to cool at room temperature, allowing time to make the finishing touches to the food, the table – and yourself! They also go very well with champagne or any dry sparkling wine. All you need to do is find the tins. Thekitchenwhisk.ie has a very good selection. @TrishDeseine @trishdeseineencore
Mini Crustless Quiches
A basic recipe you can easily adapt. Add bacon, smoked salmon, prawns, goats’ cheese, anchovies and olives and/or herbs.
For 12-20 quiches, according to the size of your tin/moulds
10 minutes preparation
10 minutes cooking
• 110g flour
• 250 full fat milk
• 2 eggs
• 60g grated cheese
• Salt and pepper
• 80–100g bacon, ham, salmon, prawns etc.
1. Heat the oven to 200ºC.
2. Beat the eggs with the milk then mix in the flour and beat again.
3. Add the other ingredients and mix well.
4. Pour into the tins/moulds and cook for 10 minutes until golden on top.
5. Remove from the oven and leave to cool at room temperature so they are still slightly warm when guests arrive.
Mini Herb and Parmesan Madeleines
These are really delicious – crisp and herby, easy to serve – and eat. No pesky cocktail sticks or collapsing or dribbling when bitten into! You will definitely need a silicone mini madeleine as unmoulding is tricky, even in a non-stick mould.
For 12-20 madeleines, according to the size of your tin/moulds
10 minutes preparation
6-8 minutes cooking
• 50g flour
• 1 large egg
• 75g Greek yoghurt
• 1 tsp baking powder
• 30 grated parmesan
• 1 tsp rosemary, sage or thyme. Or a mixture
• Butter or oil for greasing
1. Beat the flour, baking powder, egg and yoghurt together until smooth. Then stir in the parmesan, herbs and season with pepper.
2. Leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour.
3. Heat the oven to 210?c. Generously butter or oil the tins/moulds, making sure you go into all the little ridges.
4. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, until the madeleines are golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before removing from the mould and serve. Or leave them there until you are ready.
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