This chocolate-deep, star-topped cake formed part of my New Year’s spread, the first party I’ve thrown in absolute years.
The rest of the menu:
- Massaman curry, half of Leela’s with chicken drumsticks
- Khanom jeen nam ya (rice noodles + curry chicken) – this is made to be served at room temp, which helps a lot
- Mac & cheese, 3/4 of Alton Brown’s recipe
- Carrot som tam
- Medium boiled eggs
- Mushroom & stilton tart – dear god, that photo is unappetising, but it is good, keeps very well, and can be eaten cold
- Half a recipe no-knead bread roughly formed into 4 sticks/torpedos
- Small red velvet cake
All the main courses make 3 – 4 servings each; there were 6 people, and now I have a comfortable amount of leftovers.
I’ve been almost solely in charge of things like Christmas dinner since my late teens, but somehow, hosting things as an adult is different. These are things I learned:
- Paraphrased from Nicole Cliffe: do only as much as you want to, or people will be able to tell you’re stressed and resentful.
- Guests appreciate being told how they can look after themselves in your home and help you pull off a great party, but also, good friends will understand that it’s sometimes stressful to delegate and make decisions (because that’s a kind of labour, too). It’s okay to warmly boss people into peeling and slicing, but also nothing will go wrong if you come back to a decision or an offer of help a bit later.
- Focus cleaning efforts on safe food preparation, storage, plates, glasses, and utensils, plus plenty of space to sit and a clean toilet. Guests won’t really notice anything else or raise a fuss about it; it’s you they’re here to see, they’ll be comfortable and well fed even if there’s pasta stuck on the cooker…
- If you know people will be drinking, please god provide some proper food or tell them about reliable neighbourhood takeaways, otherwise people might go somewhere else for a proper dinner, not to mention it’s practical and kind to provide something to soak up the drink.
- Cook things you know you’re good at, not what you think people want you to make.
- Unless tradition necessitates, simplify and reduce as much as possible: write out your menu–then remove the dishes which sap your will. I removed cookies and onion tarts and was much happier for it–individual portioning is cute, but time-consuming. Deep pots and dishes of flavourful saucy things > mimsy plated arrangements, always. Such dishes improve with keeping and are truly made for high-volume catering.
- That said, cater for much fewer servings than you think and/or make things which sit and become leftovers happily. Let a good, sharp, fresh salad be your one exception to the latter.
- If a thing can be done in advance in any spare moment, do it. This is patronisingly obvious, yes, but I’m always surprised at the number of times I’ve been all, ‘Oh, I can just do that on the day,’ and then realise, distressingly elbow-deep in half-cooked food, that I really could have done it earlier, and any small sacrifice in texture and flavour would be a worthy compromise for additional spoons.
- Do not forget to account for fridge space, particularly if people are bringing drinks or dishes of their own and you have no cooler, also table space. Do not worry so much about how people will arrange themselves; they’ll be fine.
- It will not be perfect. You will forget something. One dish will go un-eaten and there will not be enough of another. People may or may not arrive. At times it will feel very stressful and difficult, yes, and other moments will be better than you could ever hope. Your friends are there for you and are grateful, they want to have a good time with you, not at your expense.
Finally, this quote from Nigella Lawson’s Feast (2004) soothed and reassured me:
I think the first thing you have to let go of is the anxiety about whether everything is being served at its point of perfection. It won’t be. Some food will just cool down and even get a little leaden on the plate. But mostly, this doesn’t matter. A few drinks in, and no one will mind. Otherwise, concentrate on food that either is OK at whatever temperature it’s eaten, or that can be made in advance and kept warm in a low oven (generally gas mark 1/140 C is the setting you should switch the dial to) for a gradual, unstressful handing-out of foodstuffs for assembled friends. And try to remember they are your friends, not an army of roving restaurant or lifestyle critics, fierce judgements at the ready. If you can’t quite feel that way about things, either change your friends or stop giving parties.
CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT BROWN BUTTER CAKE
Makes 10 – 12 medium slices, enough satisfy after a meal or just with a hot drink. Could certainly stretch to more.
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s nutella cake, about 3/4 recipe, scaled to fit a 20 cm springform tin. The un-iced cake can be made at least 2 days (and 3 nights) in advance, kept refrigerated and well-wrapped, if not longer, and the iced cake keeps for at least 1 night.
This is Nigella Lawson’s nutella cake, with a few changes. Since I can’t easily get ready-ground hazelnuts where I am, I have to grind my own–and since you’re toasting hazelnuts for the topping, anyway, I just did the whole lot. If you can’t get ground hazelnuts and don’t want to make your own, use the same amount of ground almonds. And as I was browning the hazelnuts, I decided to also brown the butter.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the original recipe–it’s spectacular already–it’s just that these two extra steps really point up the rich roasted hazelnut flavour, especially if you can’t get any hazelnut liqueur. Also, I’ve scaled it down very slightly to fit a smaller tin. I won’t urge you to follow my additional fuss, they are simply suggestions, and the original is, anyway, linked above.
It’s the perfect thing for almost any event, provided people are ok with nuts, obviously. It’s rich and fragrant without being leaden; there’s a bit of a melt-in-the-mouth quality. It’s not too sweet, gluten free, and vegetarian. People eat slice after slice.
for the cake:
75 g/2/3 cup ground toasted hazelnuts, see note below (can be prepared in advance)
100g browned butter or soft unsalted butter, see note below (ditto)
5 large eggs, separated
1/8 tsp salt
300 g (10.5 oz) chocolate hazelnut spread, a 400g/13 oz jar would do nicely
2 tsp vanilla extract, or frangelico, rum, water
75 g dark chocolate, melted
ganache (makes just enough to thickly cover top; scale up by a fraction more if you want to cover the sides):
50 ml double cream
1 tsp vanilla extract, or frangelico, rum, water
50 g dark chocolate, finely chopped
Remaining toasted hazelnuts (from above) left whole, or chopped as finely as you want
Any other decorations you like!
Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (350 F). Grease and line a 20 cm (8 inch) springform cake tin.
Ensure everything’s ready–your chocolate is melted, butter is softened/cooled, etc–before proceeding, because egg white-based cakes wait for no-one.
for the cake:
In a large bowl, whisk egg whites and salt until they reach stiff peaks. Set aside.
In another large bowl, beat butter and nutella until creamy. Beat in vanilla extract (or liquid flavouring of choice), egg yolks, and ground hazelnuts.
Fold in the melted chocolate. Lighten mixture with 1/3 of the egg white, beating in as roughly as you want, then gently fold in remaining egg whites in two additions.
Pour mixture into prepared tin and bake for 40 – 50 minutes, or until cake is well-risen, edges are springy to the touch, and a cake tester poked into the middle comes out with a few moist crumbs and damp smears.
Set on cooling rack and cool completely in the tin before unmoulding, leaving it on the base–a good couple of hours, depending on your room temperature. It doesn’t matter a jot if it sinks or shrinks.
At this point you can wrap the cooled cake and store for at least 2 – 3 days before topping. If the cake is thoroughly firm and cold, baking paper + base can be easily removed; otherwise it’s just too damp.
for the ganache:
Heat cream in small pot on medium heat just until bubbling at the edges. Remove from heat and immediately add the vanilla extract (or whatever liquid you like) and chopped chocolate. Leave until melted, whisking well. Spread on top of the cake. If your cake’s chilled, it’ll set quickly, so work swiftly.
If you haven’t already toasted the hazelnuts, do so now, allowing them to cool completely lest they re-melt the ganache. Leave whole or chop as desired. Top the cake and dive in.
to toast & grind your own hazelnuts:
Toast 100g hazelnuts in a dry pan over a moderate – medium low heat, adjusting so nuts gently sizzle but the pan doesn’t smoke. Stir constantly until nuts are patchily golden brown and aromatic. Going cautiously, it takes 8 – 12 minutes on my stove. (Alternatively, dry roast them in the oven; it’s the same temperature as for the cake.)
Allow to cool. Transfer 75g nuts to a mortar or processor, reserving remainder for topping. Carefully grind/pulse nuts to a coarse, clumpy powder, stopping short of a paste.
Butter – Melt the butter in a medium pot over a medium-low heat. Allow to bubble; it will foam up twice, the second time more thickly. Stir gently, scraping bottom; once light brown specks are visible, remove from heat. Fill sink or washing-up tub with an inch of cold tap water and plunge in the saucepan, stirring carefully for a minute or two and changing water if it gets warm–go carefully at first in case of scalds. Once neutral, it’s ready–shouldn’t take more than 5 – 10 minutes. (Also completely fine to cool until solid and creamy.)