Put the pressure of the formal Christmas meal behind you and plan a simple lunch for friends or family.
Planning for my Christmas eating is continuing. Although the pressure for formal Christmas dining will pass, the need to produce a special lunch for a largish number of friends and family remains to be considered. I want to spend less time in the kitchen, so it becomes a delicate act of balancing ease and simplicity with the expectation of something out of the ordinary arriving at the dining table. These should be the days of long, leisurely eating - the best bit of a Christmas holiday, really - and I want to enjoy them.
The first course will be a salad of sorts, one that can be plated individually or passed around as a platter, depending on the number of guests. In a small kitchen it's sometimes easier to plate food this way.
I will start with a soft goats' cheese marinated in herbs, tossed through warm asparagus and sparkling pomegranate seeds - the very colours say Christmas. An entrée like this will mean I can get the main course under way with minimal fuss. Then, to keep things light, I will serve grilled fish served with a salad of watercress tossed with thinly sliced fennel and a dressing of lime juice whisked with olive oil, salt and pepper.
It's worth getting dessert sorted out the day before, and this year it's an old family favourite of profiteroles with chocolate sauce. A jumble of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries will make a magnificent salad that adds more than a touch of elegance to a mound of crunchy choux buns filled with honey-scented cream and drizzled with a sauce spiked with just a hint of coffee. It is a simple yet perfect addition limited only by the choice of available fruit. I have learnt over time that a selection of two or three berryfruits is enough - any more just become redundant. It's a marriage of flavours and textures that requires a certain degree of fussiness and with another couple of weeks' worth of eating still to be organised, it's worth being just that.
The sweetness of the pomegranate seeds contrasts with the fresh, chalky-tasting goats' cheese. The asparagus balances the two and makes this into a stylish entrée.
Marinated Goats' Cheese and Asparagus Salad with Pomegranate
300g soft goats' cheese
3 sprigs of thyme
8 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pomegranate or 1 tub of seeds
2 bunches of asparagus
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cut the cheese into even-sized pieces, and place in a shallow dish. Strip the leaves from the thyme sprigs and sprinkle over the top of the cheese. Lightly crush the peppercorns. Scatter over the cheese with the bay leaves, then pour in the oil. Leave in a cool place - it doesn't have to be refrigerated (it's better if it isn't) for at least six hours, turning at least once.
Prepare the pomegranate by removing the crown, then cutting far enough down to expose the white. Score the skin in quarters from top to bottom, then place in a bowl of cold water for 30 minutes. Lift the fruit from the water, pull the quarters apart and place the jewel-like seeds in a bowl.
While the pomegranate soaks, bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the asparagus for 3-4 minutes. Drain. Place the hot asparagus in a bowl and set aside. Pour the oil from the cheese into a bowl and whisk in the red wine vinegar, seasoning with salt and pepper as you go. Add the cheese to the asparagus and gently toss together. Divide between serving plates, scatter the pomegranate seeds across the top along with any juices that may have collected, then spoon over the dressing.
When making choux pastry, there are a number of points to follow. The first is to add the flour to the buttery water in one go. If you do it slowly, the first amount of flour will absorb more water than the last and for a variety of reasons cause the dough to rise unevenly.
The second point is to allow the mix to cool slightly, allowing steam to be released, before adding the eggs.
The third point is to allow the buns to dry out overnight in a low oven, then pipe the cream in at the last minute so the pastry remains crisp.
This recipe will make around 20 golf-ball-sized profiteroles.
Profiteroles with Chocolate Sauce and Berry Salad
a pinch of salt
2 tsp sugar
100g unsalted butter
140g plain flour
4 free-range eggs
2 tsp honey
Preheat the oven to 250°C. Slowly bring the milk, water, salt, sugar and butter to the boil in a saucepan. (The butter should be melted just as the mix begins to simmer - this avoids too much evaporation.) Add all the flour, whisking well to combine. Cook the flour over a medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. This should take about 10 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to an electric mixer and, using the paddle attachment, beat it until cooled - about 4-6 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time until the dough is smooth and shiny. Put the mixture into a piping bag. Line a baking sheet with baking paper, pipe 2cm balls onto the paper, then bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 185°C and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven, reduce the heat to 70°C, then use the tip of a knife to pierce the base of each profiterole to let the steam out. Return the tray to the oven and cook overnight or for 6-8 hours. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Combine the cream and honey in a bowl and whisk until firm. Put the cream into a piping bag, then fill the profiteroles with it. Divide between 6 serving plates.
1 cup milk
1 tsp instant coffee
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp cocoa
60g dark chocolate
Bring the milk, coffee, sugar and cocoa to the boil in a small saucepan. Simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and stir until melted. Pour over the profiteroles.
1 tsp vanilla extract
juice of a lime
200g mixed berries
Bring the water and sugar to the boil in a small saucepan. Simmer for 2 minutes with the vanilla and lime juice. Turn off the heat and when cool, add the fruit.