Sunday, February 11, 2007

Honey, I shrank the dinner

When Stephanie set the theme for February’s Blogging Party I was very pleased to see that it was comfort food. And this month I am sticking to her rules and producing only comfort food themed canapés instead of an entire three-course meal. So I got my thinking cap on to decide what little nibbles I should I consider produce. I made a list of some of my favourite comfort foods: sausages and mash (number one on the list, of course), beef Wellington, steak and mushroom pie, fish pie, cauliflower cheese, soft boiled egg and soldiers, fish and chips, risotto, poached egg on toast and macaroni cheese. And then all I had to decide was which ones to cook and how to miniaturise these into bite size canapé portions.

The first one was easy – abundant teaspoons of creamy mash topped with half a pork chipolata cocktail sausage. I got the idea years ago when hosting a client event and the caterers served platters of stainless steel spoons with yummy sausages and mash. And these went down extraordinarily well! In fact every time I organise any client entertainment now I try and have at least sausages if not sausages and mash. I did get one caterer to recreate this particular desire but they didn’t do a brilliant job frankly, plastic spoons (yuck!) and rather scalded mash. The clients still lapped them up but ‘must do better!’ kept ringing in my head. So when I recreated this it had to be a generous scoop of perfectly cooked mash on a tea spoon topped with part of a really tasty sausage. Just delicious!

Next I thought I’d shrink one of the egg dishes. I could not really think how a soft boiled quail egg would work but a poached quail egg on a toast square should work quite well. I consulted the French Laundry cookbook by the great Thomas Keller as he does a fabulous and infamous egg and bacon canapé that I painstakingly recreated years ago for a dinner party.

The method he recommends is whilst the pan of water is coming to the simmer, take your box of quail eggs and carefully slice the more rounded end of the egg off with a serrated knife (this allows the yolk to slip out more easily). Quail eggs are notoriously difficult to release from their shells, whether peeling them to dip into celery salt or cracking them raw like I needed to do. Mr Keller suggests placing the beheaded quail egg shells back into egg box ready for poaching as they don’t take long to cook and if you place one on the water and then start tackling the next, the first one would probably be overcooked. It’s a good idea and I prepare my little topless eggs and line them all up ready for their two minute poaching. They really don’t need any more than two minutes, in fact maybe a moment less. And even though they look a tad alien perched on top of the little blond toast squares, they are very tasty.

As I wasn’t having an actual party that I needed to make some canapés for, I opted to cook my petite comforting tasters over several mealtimes. And rather coincidentally my actual desire for culinary solace increased meal by meal as I caught the nasty cold bug that has been going around and craved comforting food.

My next meal was going to be steak and mushroom pies with cauliflower cheese. I didn’t want the pastry to be too overwhelming so I opted for making little puff pastry vol au vents and then fill them with a steak and mushrooms with a creamy peppercorn sauce that I'd already cooked. Doing it this way was a good idea because they weren’t too hot and made perfect little two bite portions.

I struggled to think what receptacle I could successfully serve the cauliflower cheese in and eventually opted for china spoons as these would enable me to glaze the cheesy top under the grill and would be easy to eat off. What I didn’t really take into account was how hot they would be and firstly they’d be almost impossible to pick up with oven gloves on as I couldn’t get a safe grip on the tiny china handles and they were way, way too sizzling to pick up without oven gloves. When I did finally get them out from under the grill and onto a plate I did wonder how on earth I would manage to actually eat them. Fortunately they took so long to get safely out from under the grill, arrange and photograph they were just the right temperature to wolf down. And so I did.

As my cold really took hold I craved a nice warming baked macaroni cheese so this seemed the perfect choice for my final canapé. I learnt from struggling to retrieve cauliflower cheese spoon from the grill so I served spoonfuls of macaroni cheese straight from the oven on my Alessi heart-shaped spoons and didn't attempt to glaze under the grill. When I first served the macaroni I realised that the pieces of pasta were just too large for a canapé portion and lined up on the spoon like little soldiers, so I swiftly cut the macaroni pieces up and tried piling it on the spoon again. These spoons are slightly bigger than a teaspoon but still the right size for a good mouthful so worked well as a macaroni cheese carrier.

The rule of Stephanie’s blog party are canapés and a drink, but a comforting drink? This week I’ve been consuming many a mug of hot lemon but I wouldn’t inflict this on any party guest and it doesn’t really so to go with the nibbles so my thoughts turn to hot chocolate instead. Now as much as I love chocolate I’ve only had hot chocolate a few times. And this would be generally abroad like when very cold half way up some Swedish snow covered mountain, or on a balmy day in a fabulous little house of chocolate café in Valencia, or on a rainy day in the Vendee sipping very intense hot chocolate out if a tiny cup accompanied by a glass of water because the chocolate is so intense. But I’ve never made my own! My main issue is that I don’t like warm milk and I can’t bear cream just whipped and put on top of things so this might be a bit of a challenge. So the first thing I ensure is that I have some very fine chocolate to work with. I consulted the hot chocolate aisle in Waitrose and marvelled at the choice. There seemed to be a whole plethora of hot chocolate drinks flavoured with everything under the sun. Personally I was aiming for an intense chocolate flavour and was worried that these might be a little pale and watery. Green & Black’s have some interesting options but they all seemed to be cocoa and I wasn’t sure that was the comfort I had in mind. After due consideration I plumped for this sleek skinny tube as there were some words that particularly attracted me – ‘dark’, ‘100% real Belgian’ and ‘pure indulgence’. It seemed like I was onto a winner. As the thought of both milk and cream make me feel a little queasy, I opted to make mine just with boiling water. It was okay, definitely not my favourite drink, not even my favourite hot chocolate but an interesting experiment. Next time I’d perhaps make it with cooked cream or convinced myself that the boiling milk is just part way to making a béchamel (which I love) rather than just hot milk which I think smells funny! I think this hot milk abhorrence is deep routed in some sterilised milk trauma suffered at the hands of my grandmother. Sterilised milk is utterly vile, and probably the reason I’ve eschewed tea for so long! What a revelation weak milk-free Earl Grey was! I’m not utterly sold on hot chocolate but it did give me the chance to christen my Nigella liquorice matt and gloss cappuccino cup complete with egg-shaped saucer. So designed to have a resting place in between bites of a biscuit or small delight or in this case - more chocolate! As I can’t ever imagine drinking cappuccino ever, I think these will make perfect little soup bowls. And when I’ve decided how to inaugurate my new tiny Nigella liquorice espresso cups, they will be featured here.

I’ve really enjoyed pondering, preparing and consuming my shrunken comfort food morsels. It’s been an really interesting challenge to consider both scale and two bite-ability! And I feel thoroughly comforted now. See you at the party on Saturday!


Brilynn said...

Wow! You've certainly gone above and beyond, everything looks wonderful!

Ian said...

Wow. Bangers and mash have got to be one of my all-time favourites, too. Or toad-in-the-hole. Everything looks YUMMY.