Thursday, August 21, 2008

Stepping back in time

Wow the month has whipped round quickly again, the Retro themed blogging party is nigh and I’ve been immersed in mandarin slices, pear cider, lashings of cheese, pineapple, fat garlic bulbs, breadcrumbs and three flavours of ice cream. In fact I thought last week was the deadline and had a mad panic to finish everything. Stephanie assured me that I was being a tad too eager and I relaxed slightly, and that transpired to be the fatal mistake! When I turned on my laptop to titivate my photos, write my blog and get posting, that’s where it all went wrong. The lights were very much on but there was no-one home. I could hear the comforting sound of the hard drive whirring but the screen was utterly blank. Disaster, it would have to return to the laptop hospital again and I would have to find another computer to toil over. That would mean my attempt to finish posting all the GrandLuxe escapades would have to wait also. Fortunately I was able to take my work laptop on a holiday and use that but even that one has been playing up. What highly strung little computers I seem to be saddled with; they are like race horses or possibly premier league football players! So I figure I better write this sharpish before something else goes wrong.

Stephanie announced that the first month of the fourth year of monthly blogging parties would be a return to old theme – Retro. Immediately my mind was a whirl of prawn cocktails, black forest gateau or something in enrobed in the dreaded aspic. And then I remembered I didn’t actually like any of them so I think of some old classic dishes that I would actually deign to eat. Next I had to consider the crockery, I had some fabulous 50’s black and white side plates I purchased off eBay last year and I turned to that global marketplace again for a couple of other bits. I found some vintage looking 'homage to Missoni' black and white plates when I went looking for the infamous Midwinter crockery I recall so well from my childhood. Actually as could be expected I did unearth some fine examples of the brown and burnt orange flowered chunky Denby plates from the 70’s but that it was rather terrifying then and utterly excruciating now so stuck to the black and white theme much closer to my little monochrome heart. But I did get inspiration for the drink which is always a challenge for me at these events, it’s a party, it’s digging out some glitzy jewellery and you know what they say “nothing sparkles like a Babycham” So whilst perusing eBay I bid for an old Babycham glass, I purposely choose the the one where the gold rim was rather worn and almost non-existent as even though I was aiming for authenticity I had to retain a modicum of my own tastes and I can’t bear a gold rim.

So I have the table laid, the frock picked out, I just need to get the food sorted and I can have my very own Abigail’s party.

After my initial thoughts leapt to food I didn’t even really like I consulted Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham “The Prawn Cocktail Years” cookbook for a little taste bud stimulation. And there I realised many of the food I still love transpires to be the bistro and trattoria fare of days gone by. There was so much to choose from but eventually I whittled them down to a smaller selection.

I did consider whether the retro look should extend to the photography as well and had a vague attempt at emulating that slightly over-garish and brown tinged look but I think the styling gives it away. There’s too little in the picture to really conjure up the food photography of the 70’s, there should be a plush patterned curtain, coloured napkins many of, bowls overflowing fruit, cut flowers everywhere, candles preferably lit and the shot should be much wider taking in the chunky dining chairs and much of the room beyond. We do so like our” less is more” now, the Donna Hay way of clean white lines, the odd folded again white or ecru napkin (or possibly tea-towel – so very outré!) and minimum accoutrements. The polka dot plate, although retro is totally the wrong era for the look I was aiming for, it should have been the chunky brown glazed slightly rustic Denby. If I’d really wanted to go the whole hog maybe I should have scoured charity shops for inspiration instead!

My first thought turned to cheese fondue; I just recall many a party at home would have one of these kirshed-spiked creations bubbly at the side of the table with that evocative smell of the burner mingling in with the aromas of hot cheese and wine. I had bought a bottle of pear cider or perry and figured that would do the job for a mini-fondue. I did look around for a suitable volcanic orange or red ramekin to serve the fondue in but I must have left all these back in the 80’s so a Serious Food ceramic pot it is. The best thing about individual cheese fondues is you don’t really have to mess around with the fondue burner et al. Though saying that it is a crucial part of a fondue party, setting forfeits for losing your impaled bread cube and everyone tipping a little extra white wine into the dregs to revitalise it. And if truth be told I now have an electric fondue set so I don’t have to mess around with all those vapours but in this case I wanted the scaled down cheese fondue experience. I made the fondue in a pan with various rinds of cheese, the perry and cornflour. The smell of the wine cooking is very evocative and I am instantly transported back to many a previous fondue. The unctuous cheesy mixture turned out to be the perfect vehicle for my poppy-seeded bread cubes skewered on little cocktail forks.

My next ambitious plan was to make dinky little Chicken Kiev bites. Like many children I couldn’t initially cope with garlic so would eschew the fragrant garlic bread, garlic-laced mushrooms and garlic butter spurting chicken Kiev so this was a chance to make amends. I first replenished my freezer of its stock of heavily garlic studded parsley butter for the Kiev innards. I often pummel ends of pack butter with garlic, herbs or other zesty ingredients in the pestle and mortar to add a bit of interest to some steaming vegetables or plain fillet of fish. I wrap the butter into cling-filmed sausages and pop in the freezer to just slice off a couple of flavoursome discs when needed. I flattened the recently free-ranging chicken breast between two more pieces of cling film and wrapped the tiny slices around a pat of the garlic butter. It would have been easier to turn the chicken into a mousse but I thought it might change the whole dish so I soldiered on. I had some ends of a white loaf I’d been saving so Bamixed them up into the finest of breadcrumbs. The diminutive chicken parcels were floured, eggs and then drenched in the seasoned breadcrumbs and popped in the fridge to firm up. I pan-fried the nuggets just to get a nice golden colour and then finished them off in the oven. The worked perfectly, as long as you didn’t mind possibly taking an eye out with a spurt of hot garlic butter that made excellent little party nibbles. Maybe next time I’d serve them with safety goggles.

I recall an always present though rather naff table adornment to any self-respecting buffet was some tin foiled covered half a melon speared with cubes of cheese, pineapple and sometimes but not in my house – tiny silverskin onions. I remembered I was a huge fan of cheese, pineapple and ham or tuna in a toasted cheese sandwich which I used to conjure up in our first sandwich toaster as a gourmet treat for me and friends after school. But would the cheese and pineapple work without the ham or tuna I wondered? Well it was okay, I scaled down my little savoury hedgehog for the occasion and they did indeed take me back to plates of flaccid sausage rolls, Twiglets – ugghh Marmite!, strange pale possibly chicken v ol au vents and rivers of salad cream. Being such a fussy child I was never in my element being presented with platters of unidentifiable foodstuffs, especially when it was anyone’s guess what it was supposed to be. Maybe that’s why I like a good menu now, less nasty surprises!

Neapolitan ice cream was another retro treat, slices of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream cut into slices so you could admire the strata. To be honest I don’t think the ice cream was of the highest quality I did briefly consider for my re-enactment that I should procure some Belgium chocolate, homemade juicy strawberry and vanilla seed dotted and not vanilla essence ‘the proper stuff’ vanilla ice cream. But then it probably wouldn’t really be Neapolitan ice cream. So Waitrose Neapolitan ice cream obtained, all I had to do was make the slices much thinner to recreate the slabs I remembered but miniaturised. This proved tricky as the ice cream was determined to melt instantly on contact with the air and I had to wrestle with it to obtain any semblance of the dish I was striving for. In the end I was able to cut some vague slices from my reassembled ice cream and serve them on spoons – quickly!

A couple of stalwarts of early M catered gatherings I recall were Quiche Lorraine (still a favourite of mine, sorry D but not rustled up on this occasion), a mandarin sliced cheesecake and she assures me an apple tarte thin. Though I can’t really recall the later, maybe I was more excited by the prospect of crushing digestive biscuits, stirring the resultant crumbs in melted butter and squishing them down to in the tart mould to make the base – still as satisfying as ever it seems! The minute slice-ettes of mandarin proved tricky but baby wedges of tinned mandarin topped cheesecake were eventually produced.

Whilst reacquainting myself with the various Babycham adverts kindly preserved on I was reminded of the “I’ll have a Babycham” tagline that once uttered by a cool person would mean that it was then acceptable for everyone else in a bar to also shout “I’ll have a Babycham” I was certainly aware of it as a drink, as an alternative to Cinzano, a snowball or the slightly racier Martini Bianco that were the acceptable drinks for the females at a party. I was definitely under the legal drinking age when I had my first daring sip of a Babycham. I was enjoying a festive meal at my friend’s house and her mother produced two little bottles of this glamorous elixir to allow us to join in the toast at the dinner table. I know it seemed terribly grown up to be drinking the ‘Little Miss’ version of Champagne (and I use the term Champagne in the loosest sense) but it was billed as Perry Champagne before the dreadful might of the French Champagne houses would descend upon you in all their wrath at the merest suggestion that Champagne is available outside France and horreur de horreurs was made of pears! Babycham was advertised by a prancing, spindly legged Bambi that with its doe-eyes and endearing smile was supposed to attract the younger, girlier drinkers. I’m not sure that such a tactic would be permissible now and frankly I’m not sure the alcopop swigging generation would actually be remotely interested in such a cute drink.

I’m not sure if Babycham is still available in its little blue foil topped bottles, I must admit that I didn’t look particularly look hard and just got a bottle of sparkling perry from Waitrose to top up my new Babycham saucer instead. Well at least I had enough left over to make the cheese fondue!

For the final flourish with this being such an elegant party I thought I better get out the Ferrero Rocher. As the infamous voice-over said - "The Ambassador's receptions are noted in society for their host's exquisite taste that captivates his guests", and when the waiters pass round platters of golden pyramids of Ferrero Rocher the entranced partygoers exclaim "Eccellente" and "Monsieur, with these Rocher, you're really spoiling us" and a kitsch way to treat your guests was born. I must admit that my attempts at turning mine into a pyramid didn’t quite work so perfectly, I guess the Ambassadors staff are better at Ferrero Rocher stacking than I am. I also wanted to preserve the chocolates so I could take them to work. Being recently made an Ambassador for my team it seemed a very appropriate way to ‘spoil’ my team mates.

Well despite the best efforts of my various laptops, a retro post is finally produced. See you Saturday, enjoy the party everyone! I'll add the other guests retro offerings here when they arrive...

Update: I was delighted to see all the other guests, everyone with their best frock on. Lots of interesting and tasty goodies for us all to sample and ne'er a Twiglet in sight. I saw that Stephanie produced the obligatory Prawn Cocktail, but being a true vegetarian she has made a 'Prawn Mocktail' replacing the seafood for a shrimp substitute and I'm guessing that's not the squishy too pink shrimps some would favour from the sweet shop. The problem of course with me that even though I can take or prawn or leave it, nothing would persuade me to sample the seafood cocktail sauce so I'd be asking "is their a substitute for tomatoes?". Another fabulous party, Stephanie - see you next month!