Saturday, 1 February 2014

Twelfth Night Feast

I have, of late, rather missed the challenge of Alphabet Soup. Especially the cooking and hosting part (the writing is yet to be published on here in the hope of a future book deal). That's not to say I haven't had other challenges to keep me busy in the meantime. I've written two books and am currently writing my third, but there was something really special about those nights. Something electric, which charged those letter-themed evenings with a peculiar air of excitement and silliness, sprinkled with just the slightest touch of fear. Perhaps it was the secrecy of the menus. Perhaps it was the special musical playlists. Perhaps it was all the booze. Whatever it was, I have missed those wonderful nights and felt hungry for a new culinary challenge.

With this in mind, I decided to host a Twelfth Night dinner party, with a 12 course menu based on the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Some guests thought it was just a dinner party on the night of epiphany, but those who know me better missed lunch in preparation. Our lovely epiphany diners were Sous Chef founders, Nicola and Nick Carter-Lando, fiction writer, Sophie Ranald, political commentator, Hopi Sen and the marvellous Andrea Binfor.

Initially, my plans included making the correct number of things (mostly birds it seems) to serve each person for each course; so, if seven swans are a-swimming, seven swans they would get on their plates. But, after talking this idea through with the ever rational Richard, and agreeing with him that this course of action would only be sensible if my intention was to kill my guests in a dramatic Mr Creosote fashion, I reluctantly reined it in a bit.

As is my usual wont, I left the food shopping and prep work until the eleventh hour. This, coupled with the fact that Richard ended up working late, all the pre-party tasks of throwing the hoover around, table laying, candle lighting and loo cleaning were still yet to be done at 7.30pm. Luckily, our friends are a lovely bunch, so they kindly offered to pop over the road for a pint while the final prep was done.

After a quick glug of fizz, the guests sat down for the first course: A Partridge in a Pear Tree. This comprised of confit of partridge mixed with spiced pickled pears, stuffed into hollowed out savoury poached pear halves.  These were served on a reduced partridge and beef stock “tree” adorned with leaves plucked from a packet of fresh oregano.

Next up, Two Turtle Doves. The closest match I could find for doves (without shooting my own) were pigeons. So, I made individual pigeon hand pies. I had bought a little silicone mould to create two pastry turtle doves on top, but forgot about it until the blasted things had already gone in the oven. The best laid plans and all that... Still, the guests didn't seem to notice.

Post-pie came Three French Hens. I breadcrumbed three chicken wing lollipops each and served them with sauce à la Française, which is a lemon and caper buttery sauce. After watching this video, I decided doing all my own butchering would be a piece of piss. I was wrong. These lollipops (about 30 in total, just to be on the safe side) took me two and a half hours to make and I was almost weeping with boredom by the end. Still, they tasted good and that was the main aim.

There was more butchery still, in the name of Four Calling Birds. My initial plan was to make a four bird roast, but after Richard asked if I'd invited Mr Creosote after all, I thought better of it. Instead, I made ballotines from the leg meat of a duck, a guinea fowl, a chicken and a pheasant. I paired the duck with the guinea fowl and the chicken with the pheasant. After boning all eight legs and discarding the sinew, it was a simple matter of making two stuffings (one with livers and mushrooms and the other with garlic and spinach), leaving them to cool and rolling them up in streaky bacon. I wrapped them tightly in cling film and poached them for twenty minutes, before discarding the cling and roasting for a further 15 - 20 minutes. I served my ballotines with cauliflower puree and a game bird and red wine reduction. This was many people's favourite course of the night, despite the photo being one of the worst.

Next came the most memorable verse of the song: Five Gold Rings. For this, I gave each guest five squid rings in a crisp and golden turmeric and gram flour batter, which I served with saffron aioli.

I left the sixth course to Richard, while I put my feet up and tried to catch up with how drunk the others were. For Six Geese-a-Laying, my idea had been to get in some goose eggs (obvs), but, it turns out you can't get goose eggs for love nor money in early January. Instead, Richard swapped the goose eggs for duck's and scrambled them with white truffle butter and goose rillettes and served them in the washed out hollowed duck eggs.

Seven Swans-a-Swimming were next. I made Parmesan choux swans and filled them with a mixture of seasoned mascarpone, paprika and more Parmesan, before setting them on pea and mint soup for a swim. They were rather larger than I had initially intended, which may, in part, have been responsible for what happened next.

At this point in the evening, Nick (designated driver of the evening and the only sober one at the table) declared that he was too full to carry on. Temporarily deflated, I imagined having to toss the puddings I'd made in the bin with one hand, while grasping a bottle of the ready chilled dessert wine in the other. Thankfully, a better suggestion was made. They all wanted to come back the next evening to finish what they'd started.

I've never before spread a dinner party over two consecutive nights (especially on a Monday and Tuesday), but it was so much fun, I might just start making a habit of it.

Beginning an evening with multiple puddings seemed too deranged to cope with. Besides, I had a fridge-full of semi-butchered game birds to use up, so I decided a game bird stew and mash served with greens would be a welcome beginning to night 2 and, as Richard said, it provided something of a catch-up for the courses of the evening before. I got as far as getting a chopping board out and then decided I'd had enough of butchering birds for one week, so barked instructions at Richard for the stew instead, while I cleaned up from the night before.

Our guests arrived, slightly bruised from the night before, but still eager. Game stew demolished and more corks popped, it was time to get back to the Eight Maids-a-Milking. For this, I had made dainty little eight milk panna cottas topped with milk chocolate soil. The eight milks were Jersey cow's, coconut, buttermilk, rice, soya, almond milk, evaporated and condensed. Everyone agreed it had just the right amount of wobble, moments before it wobbled off my spoon and down my top.

Not one to cry over spilt milk, it was onwards and upwards for Nine Ladies Dancing. Individual Pink Lady Apple Charlottes constructed with homemade Lady Fingers made up the ninth verse. I also chucked in some deliciously fresh-tasting apple liqueur for a little extra sparkle too.

Worried the evening had become too sober and having decided against frogs legs or leaping salmons (who wants their puddings to be suddenly interrupted by either of those? and besides, Richard is allergic to fish), the Ten Lords-a-Leaping came in the shape of a cocktail of the same name. Richard got the shaker out for these whisky based cocktails with added pimento rum liqueur, honey, lime, bitters and nutmeg. They were fragrant with Christmas spice and a welcome hiatus from solid food.

For the penultimate course, my Eleven Pipers Piping came in the shape of berries poached in pipe tobacco and star anise syrup, served in a chocolate pipe on a Maris Piper potato sponge cake. I made chocolate pipes with tempered chocolate and acetate sheets, poached some berries in a pipe tobacco and star anise syrup and balanced it all on Maris Piper potato sponge cake. It was light and fragrant and, despite the fears of some that the tobacco syrup would make the whole dish taste like an overused ashtray, it received unanimous thumbs up from all.

And, finally, we reached the end of the meal with a cheese course. Twelve Drummers Drumming
came in the guise of a whole 2 kilo Dorset Denhay Drum, served with celery carved into drumsticks, biscuits and chutney and to the soundtrack of our collective dulcet tones singing the full twelve verses with raised glasses.

All in all, my Twelfth Night feast was a total hoot. Until my next food-related challenge, there's a lot of cheese left to get through...