Thursday, September 18, 2008

It's my party and I'll share if I want to...

So Stephanie sets this month's blogging theme as 'birthday' and I think “result” with it being my birthday and all. And then I realise it can't be all about me even though I’m an expert at being a 'birthday queen' so I'm happy to share my birthday blog party with all the other Virgoeons (and whatever comes after Virgo, Libra I think). So I'm going to extend a special diamond encrusted invite to Stephanie and promise some non meaty and alcohol free treats to toast your birthday also. And of course a pink fluffy invite to KK who shares a birthday with me and wasn't feeling well enough to enjoy her own pink 2nd birthday cupcakes. I'd offer you one of mine but as will be explained later I don't know if mummy would approve! And for my dearest DD, only a few short weeks until we're back at ‘our table’ in Union Square Café sipping Kir(a) Imperials and nibbling those nuts. Oh the divas are back in the Big Apple again, be very afraid! But birthday food is just not enough; it just needs a little more hence me deciding to give my 'birthday' party a little more heart-shaped, sparkly, diamond dusting to it. First the important fact of the cake, well miniature cupcakes seemed to be perfect and of course chocolate ones in particular. In fact I went for chocolate brownie cupcakes as all my cupcake recipes needed milk and I don't generally have any in unless I'm expecting MC and the brownies recipe was milk-less. And they looked ever so cute in their leopard print cupcake cases! Now if I'd left it there it might have been okay but I considered that they needed that little more pizzazz and for the occasion I had procured some edible black glitter, black sparkly candles, dug out my heart shaped silver candle holder and even adorned a black plate with some suitable heart-shaped bling. Yes just a little more juzzing to make them officially 'diva' cupcakes. The edible black glitter had the requisite sparkle, added an extra sweet crunch and to my horror turned my lips and mouth black! Ah, happy birthday to me! Well maybe it's because they're still warm from the oven, maybe by the time I pack up the two dozen leopard print jacketed brownie morsels and get them to the office the alarming sooty lip staining effect will have subsided. Well at least I hope so. I don't really want to booby-trap my birthday cake for everyone! When my team starting tucking in I was on the phone so wasn't able to warn them, apart from a hasty mumbled hint at their 'unusual properties'. But looking around after a few had vanished none of them looked like they'd been snacking on coal so indeed the comedy effect seemed to have diminished. Well, at least unless the last few! I'd just done the rounds of the office with the plate and was discussing with dh my birthday plans when I noticed her lips and then teeth were distinctly inky blue. Oh my! These are joke cupcakes, but with an intriguing Russian roulette element. Either it's a freaky chemical reaction that only some people have (a little like the infamous asparagus one) or some of the bite-sized cakes just bit back! So feel free to grab one or two but at your peril!
As well as cake it had to be jelly and ice cream but with that extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ again!
But first before the sugar high I thought I'd better squeeze in some savoury nibbles. I'd been desperately trying cast my mind back to birthday parties of old to recall our chosen party fare. But my main memory was a wasp caught inside the large carton of orange squash and the 9-shaped birthday cake having my name spelt incorrectly. I'm sure there must have been more for my be-ribboned party guests to scoff but I can’t really recall. I'd take a bet at crisps and peanuts and maybe some skinny possibly slightly curled at the edges sandwiches or finger rolls. It would have never ever been marmite at my party but perhaps hard boiled egg, potted meat or cheese. I am fairly sure of cocktail sausages or sausage rolls. So perhaps I can bring these three sandwich fillings up to date, lose the bread and give them a little gourmet canapé treatment. So instead of potted meat or meat paste (that even sounds evil) I opt for considerably more delicious beef Carpaccio enveloping cubes of Grana Padana cheese and spiked with the evitable diamond picks, well when I have a theme... And they were certainly a fine little nibble.
So that's the meat and cheese revamped, now the egg! And the modern take on the old favourite hard boiled egg was little glossy quail eggs and a miniature mound of celery salt, again impaled with the bejewelled sticks. All these lovely food needed capturing and writing up but therein lies the problem. My laptop had done the thing it did last time and just refused to switch on so I rang 'if your computer is ill call Phil!' again and he relieved me of my dead HP for a little open heart surgery. But that's where all my photos live of all the fabulous foodie excursions I've indulged on and haven't yet blogged. I guess there's always my work laptop, it wouldn't have my photos but at least I could write my blog. But sadly my work IBM being such a homebody doesn't really like leaving my desk. Even if I take it into a meeting room it sulks, refuses to connect to the wireless network and flatly refuses to do anything useful until it is back safely in its docking station. It’s like a moody teenager, if there's a computer equivalent to the 'whatever!' attitude then annoyingly my laptop has it. But ignoring its proclivities, needs must so I took it home. Big mistake! There was a little run in with some torrential rain, part of the 'glorious weather we've endured all summer' and the laptop went bang! Well it turned out to be the power pack and the wall socket it was plugged into. Yes, a stroppy teenager, one that has now resorted to downright vandalism! So it seems no laptop, no access to the internet and no blogging for me! But during the hiatus I've been visiting a host of fabulous extremely blog-worthy establishments and now am even further behind with all the catch-ups. When I finally get my laptop back at the beginning of the week, I am then utterly embroiled in trying to prepare for a work presentation so yet again no blogging for me. And then I had to wrestle with some heart-shape jellies, hastily post the photos to the blog, pack for two trips and leave to run for my train. I’m sitting on my train writing the words to accompany the hurriedly uploaded images and wondering when I’ll be able to release it all to the world. Seemingly the computers I am coming into contact with at the moment are determined to misbehave and M’s is no exception as it has itself been convalescing for the last month at another home of a PC doctor and therefore she is also internet-less.
Whilst I have been denied access to the world-wide-web I did find some time to embellish a crystal martini glass for my birthday-blog party drink. I was veering between some sort of Chambord-Champagne combo but I thought I’d be alcohol free this month in Stephanie’s honour and made some sort of raspberry liqueur laced (hmm maybe a tiny percentage of proof in there) and sugar-free Red bull. It was actually a great combination; it’s a cut down version of The Chambord Energiser which would normally have a healthy slug of vodka. The original drink recipe normally uses sugar-ful Red Bull but personally I find this a little too exuberant for my tastes. The advert does say that ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ and that’s probably the intention to give you a little head-rush but the combination of the excessive caffeine and sugar is a little too stimulating for me. In deference to the recipe change, I’ll change the name and in honour of the rather fabulous glass I’ll call it a Chambord Sparkler.
I also had to consider how to add a little glamour to the obligatory ice cream and jelly. The ice cream was an easy one – after several previous canapé productions for blog parties where I spent way too long trying to corral rapidly melting ice cream into something attractive I decided just to just serve small porcelain spoons of the finest Belgium chocolate ice cream scattered with the tiniest of silver sugar balls served on the canapé platter I bought back from Portugal. The balls were so small I feared I may have inadvertently bought ball bearings but no these dots of ‘robot dandruff’ were indeed edible – phew and they didn’t turn your mouth silver or black!
My final birthday bite was the jelly; I’d been determined to make some heart-shaped raspberry jelly studded with fresh raspberries. Firstly I had to track down a silicone heart-shaped ice tray mould, and ignoring the fact that I’m sadly allergic to it (that’s the silicone bit not the heart-shapedness of it!) I then got the raspberries but sadly work stuff and birthday stuff got in the way and the raspberries became a little furrier than I’d like before I had a chance to encapsulate them in jelly. So new raspberries procured and time rapidly running out, I arrived home on the last train and in the wee small hours thought I’d make the jelly and pack. In a moment or creativeness/insanity I made up the jelly mixture with more Red Bull and then dropped a plump raspberry in each. After nowhere near enough hours sleep mainly due to some last minute furious emailing (you know who you are!) I awake to find the jelly is still very much liquid but hope that a quick burst in the freezer will allow me to turn out the perfect jelly little hearts. Just in the nick of time I was able to turn some out in the manner I’d envisaged and produce a rather tasty little morsel, though I did feel I was having my monthly virtual feeling of waves of disbelief coming from the direction of D, if she had been there there would have been much head-shaking and eye-rolling. Even since the debacle with the mini chocolate Magnums I can sense what her thoughts are on the bizarre machinations I conduct in the name of a diva-esque canapés each month. Well, a girl's got to have a hobby!
I would recommend jelly with Red Bull, it certainly gives the jellies and intriguing kick and a subtle fizz on the tongue. Maybe not entirely ideal for children's parties however, as you may have to scrape the little darlings off the ceiling if they have more than one!
All in the all, despite the last minute panic (would it be me without one?), the catastrophic failure of all technology around me and the incredible yet selective mouth-staining brownies it was a glittering birthday affair. Now leaving a little trail of black fairy dust in my wake, I must finally extinguish the birthday candles and find a working computer. Cupcake anyone? Happy birthday to me and Stephanie and all the rest of you that celebrate this month.
See you on Saturday...hopefully - if of course M's computer rises from its deadbed - cousin A, I am depending on you!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Midsummer night's dream

Midsummer House in Cambridge has been on my list of must visit places for ages and because D and MC are wonderful they took me there for my birthday. It was supposed to be a complete surprise but MC dropped a huge hint so I rather sussed it out beforehand but it was still a fabulous treat and an extremely fine meal. However because my life got somewhat complicated around then I seem to have lost my way in blogging, which I keep promising that one day I will address. Inspired by watching Daniel Clifford not completely excel in the latest Great British Menu I thought I should really start trying to fill some of the gaps in my life from the last few months and a bit of smoke and mirrors from the Cambridge magician seemed the perfect place to start.
After all this time some of the details may be hazy but luckily I have a stack of photos, some fortuitously scribbled notes in my little black book and D’s remarkable memory to fall back on.
So here we are in our finery strolling over the little bridge making our way to the smart little conservatory that adjoins the Midsummer House villa. As we walk over we can see a group on the roof terrace all decked out in their tuxes and we do wonder for a moment if we checked the dress code, but we needn’t have worried on two counts – they’ve got a private room for their little shindig so it’s not mandatory and frankly we don’t look too shabby ourselves anyway!
After perusing the choices on offer we immediately opt for the tasting menu as we’re keen to see Daniel showcase his inimitable talents.
Our first table adornment is a little copper pan of warm cheese scones and some curvaceous bowls of balsamic crisps. Hmmm just-from-the-oven cheese scones, like the warm cheese rolls at Gaucho’s but with two Michelin stars!
Next we have a palate cleanser of Champagne and grapefruit foam in a fancy pink Murano glass dish. This isn’t what I expected with all the swathes of crisp white linen and single black lilies but a lovely surprise!
But clearly I was to be surprised more as the first course of our tasting menu was delivered – on the menu as Cep, Pumpkin and Parmesan this was a delicious Pumpkin velouté with submerged mushrooms and gnocchi. I do so love this tendency for velvety soup tasters, I do adore soup but it is rare that I want to devour an entire bowl. Well certainly as an individual course in a meal anyway, I reserve my soup consuming to a winter warming lunch where I am not saving myself for the delights ahead.
After the Venetian glassware is scraped clean the square plates come out topped with the very elegant Langoustine and King Crab. This is crowned with a little tangle of taste of the sea angel hair pasta; it is a stylish and scrummy seafood starter and is really demonstrating Daniel’s skill.
Next we enjoy the sculptural Duck, Jerusalem Artichoke and Salsify. Ever since I was introduced to salsify by Jeremy Lee I am always pleased to see it on a menu. Our duck is impaled by a wooden skewer so after a little disinterring we get to sample our nugget of duck and smoked duck sliced. Rather duck-tastic I may add!
The glass is back, this time in the form of an etched plate and adorned by an immaculate Sautéed Scallop, Celeriac and Truffle. This plump and beautifully caramelised scallop is topped with matchsticks of apple and has the obligatory and oh so lovely smear of the smoothest of celeriac purées, delicate cubes of fragrant apple jelly and a drizzle of toffee.
To mix things up a bit we have another soup, but in total contrast it is Chicken Consommé, Sweet Corn Snow, Won Ton. I’m not normally a huge fan of Asian broths but this was a subtle little Eastern twist to our feast.
For the fish course we tuck into a meaty tranche of Roast Zander, Red Wine and Nettles. The moist chunks of the whitest flakes of this tasty fish has little sautéed cubes of potato and artful drizzles of a tasty wine sauce to be mopped up with the thankfully non-stinging nettles.
Next our gastronomic tour of Daniel’s mind produces a shot or as the menu explains a Pousse Café. A Pousse Café is a colourfully striped drink normally consumed post coffee as a digestif. This unusual offering has layers of Jack Daniels, maple syrup and egg yolk and chive cream. It is intriguing, thought provoking and rather wonderful.
We are still discussing our first taste of a Pousse Café when a eye catching gold plate is placed before us with a sunshine splash of orange and deep burgundy hues of the Bourbon smoked Pigeon, Iceberg Lettuce, Sweet Potato. The sauce is so rich an unctuous and despite feeling a tad full it is soon polished off.
Our dread that we may exceed our capacity has not dampened our enthusiasm for a couple of shared ceramic dishes of the Artisanal Cheese though we do struggle to finish all the morsels and the sliver of quince jelly we selected.
We are fearing some sort of inability to proceed further but fortunately reading our minds the next course of Vanilla Rhubarb and Apple is the perfect anecdote as it is the lightest snowball sprinkled with a scatter of biscuity crumbs.
We think there is nothing more to astound us but we have underestimated Daniel’s culinary theatre and with no fanfare a trio of perforated dishes are bought to the table entirely shrouded in tendrils of smoke.
As the smoke subsides we can examine our Mango, Passion Fruit and Peppermint Tea Jelly we is refreshing and just the most perfect finale to an extremely special menu.
We linger longer and enjoy our selection from the tea menu accompanied by the flakiest and crunchy sugar dusted Bottereaux which are like the lightest of doughnuts but so much nicer. And of course there are home made chocolates as well, as well as a delicious glass of some honeyed dessert wine.
We leave this delightful cosy little conservatory on the banks of the Cam having enjoyed one of the finest of tasting menus. All the many plaudits gained by Daniel Clifford are definitely deserved; this is a gem of a restaurant, elegantly appointed serving the most fabulous food with fascinating table ware, witty touches and, as we now know, Daniel’s signature smoke! And all in all a truly a magnificent end to my birthday celebrations this week, thank you D and MC and may I add to all the accolades my three very much merited forks.