JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Birthday planning - and an orange cake

Here, never mind Valentine's Day, we are planning for Lucius's 60th birthday, which falls on February 15th. Thank heavens he wasn't born a few hours earlier, or he would have been called Valentine, so his mother used to tell me. So this year's not the year for little heart-shaped amuse bouches, or relentlessly pink puddings (not that I've ever gone in for that sort of cooking, in truth).

On the great day itself, I am organising a magical mystery tour (he wanted it to start at 2pm, after he'd had a meeting, but I told him to rearrange it - it's not every day you have your sixtieth birthday during half term, so that the children can join in too). Then on Saturday 17th, some of his closest friends are coming to dinner - we'll be 10 or 12 round the table. The following day, his family are coming for lunch, and then we'll be 35-40, everyone helping themselves. That's a lot of cooking in a short space of time (& I forgot to mention breakfast on Sunday morning for the friends staying the night), so it has to be carefully planned.

Careful planning means, of course, getting out the recipe books. You can't really follow a recipe for a large party, because, in general, they are for 4-6 people, and not conducive to multiplication. So when there's a crowd, it's easy to get stuck in the cold-ham-baked-potatoes-and-a-salad rut (or in summer cold salmon, boiled potatoes and a salad - you get the idea). On the other hand, it's got to be easy enough to serve without fuss, and so that I am at the party, rather than stuck in kitchen maid mode: red-faced, cross, & missing all the fun.

So, for inspiration, I've been reading Skye Gyngell's lovely book A Year in my Kitchen, as well as Diva Cooking by Victoria Blashford-Snell and Jennifer Joyce. And then, to keep my feet firmly on the ground, Cook Now, Eat Later by Mary Berry, whose work is a little like Delia's. Nigel Slater's no good for this sort of thing, because he only ever seems to cook for two or three, and for him a crowd is six, whereas, with four children, that's my starting point; Nigella doesn't like crowds, either, although I think that's because all her crowd-pleasing recipes seem to involve so much last-minute work.

Here, we want special, celebratory food. I've got plenty of time to prepare ahead, and don't want too much last-minute fuss to spoil the party for me. I also don't want to veer too far from our usual path of avoiding saturated fat, eating plenty of seasonal fruit and veg. However, it is a party, a special party, and rules are made to be broken. And there's another thing: potatoes are Lucius's favourite food, in fact, he doesn't really consider it a meal unless there are hot potatoes.

At the moment, I'm thinking Skye's cauliflower and Gorgonzola soup with pickled pear relish - the relish can be made several days in advance, and will probably be all the better for it; the soup can be made a day or two ahead, and will be easy to reheat and serve. Also, I'm still getting terrific pears and cauliflowers in my veg box. A little cheese in the soup will be a real treat for us. This agra dolce combination, so typical of Skye's food, will be wonderful with home-made white bread, the NY Times recipe that so many bloggers have just discovered.

Skye also has lots of tempting salads, particularly one made with sprouting broccoli, radicchio and frisee dressed with chilli and garlic oil. That sounds as if it would be good with lamb, but I haven't yet decided - I need to talk to the butcher.

Pudding - Skye has a lovely blood orange jelly, which I thought I'd make for dinner, and serve with sliced blood oranges. I love them, always have, that little bit of Sicilian sunshine which brightens up the dark months of northern Europe. There are plenty of them in the market at the moment, although I have noticed that Waitrose has started to call them blush oranges. What's wrong with traditional names, particularly when they are more descriptive than the new, mealy-mouthed marketing department's apology for a name?

So dinner's getting sorted - I just have to decide on a main course, and something to hand round with drinks.

Buffet lunch - the only thing I have so far decided is that for pudding we'll have meringues and some sort of fruit compote, together with an orange cake, the lovely Claudia Roden cake from her Book of Jewish Food, which is one of my all-time favourite winter puddings. It looks like the summer sun, vibrant with colour, it tastes of the southern Mediterranean - sweet with almonds, bitter with orange. It is a recipe redolent with history, a Sephardic recipe which has been made for centuries to celebrate the winter months. Our chickens have come into full lay, so it's a useful way to use their eggs to good effect - cakes are definitely better made with the best eggs, and our Buff Orpington chickens scratch around the garden most days, finding whatever they like to eat (and last weekend that was the young shoots of the kale I've been anticipating for the kitchen!).

So ... lots more decisions, any suggestions welcomed.

Claudia Roden's orange cake

2 oranges
6 eggs
250g sugar
2 tbsp orange blossom water
1 tsp baking powder
250g ground almonds

Boil the oranges in water until they are soft. This will take about an hour, perhaps a little more. Carefully drain them in a colander, and, when they are cool, split them open with your hands and take out the pips. Put them into the Magimix with all the other ingredients, and whizz until everything is smooth (the oranges will disintegrate in moments, which makes me think you could probably mix this by hand without any real difficulty, although I have never tried this).

It would be better if you beat the eggs and sugar together first, but I never do. It would be better if you ground your own lightly toasted almonds, but I seldom do. It does not much matter if you leave out the orange blossom water, which I sometimes do. Last time I made it I forgot to put in the baking powder, and the result was a little less light than usual, but it did not spoil the cake. This is a very forgiving recipe (and you can make it with any sort of orange citrus - clementines are good).

Pour into a 26cm tin which you have greased (I always use olive oil for this). CR says you should dust it with flour or Matzo meal; I never have, because I use a clip tin with a removable base. Bake for one hour at 190C, and leave to cool in the tin before turning out.

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