Monday, 30 June 2008

'Le Weekend'

Our friends Lesley and Dudley came to visit us on Saturday night with two of their children - Elliot, Guy's Godson and Tilly - our God-daughter. They had been to Lego Land for Tilly's birthday. So I needed a kid friendly birthday dinner, but also something comforting and a little bit elegant for the grown ups. I did not want to be fussing in the kitchen either as I wanted maximum visiting time.

After much thought, I decided to bake some potatoes, sausages (really good quality Waitrose ones) and chicken breasts (marinated in a bit of oil, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar) and serve them along with some steamed broccoli and carrots. In order to jazz things up a bit for the grown ups I decided to try a version of the Mustard and Tarragon sauce I made a few days ago, but one that I could make in a saucepan. So I melted the butter in the saucepan, then stirred in some single cream and a mustard and cooked it together, stirring constantly. I threw in some chives at the end instead of using the shallots hoping to keeping it a bit milder in flavour. It was a tremendous success and even the kids were scraping it up off their plates. The whole sauce pot went, and ironically it was even more popular with the sausages than with the chicken, which was a possibility that had never crossed my mind.

The birthday cake was my Devil's Food Cake (recipe follows) topped with my favourite Betty Crocker Vanilla Frosting. I have to say, I have never enjoyed making my own icing - I often end up in the "add more icing sugar...oh no its too thick...add more milk...oh no it's too thin..." vortex of doom. I do make scratch frosting, but certainly not all the time. I decorated the cake with chocolate buttons and smarties and Tilly's face just lit up when she saw it. It's may favourite trick when decorating a cake for children, just to cover it in sweets and candies. In my experience, they love it.

We had a really lovely visit with our friends, who stayed overnight. After a breakfast of fresh fruit and French pastries on Sunday morning, they made their way back home.

Sunday evening we decided to have baked chicken again, but this time I used another one of my favourite sauces, one that I have already featured on my website . In a saucepan I mix together a half pint of chicken stock and four tablespoons of marmalade (thin cut). I heat it all together and bring it to the boil., then lower the heat and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly. I usually add some fresh thyme at this point, but as I had no thyme in the fridge I used tarragon instead. It was a very successful substitution! You can serve this sauce poured over the chicken, or in a sauce boat for people to pour over the chicken for themselves. It's a delicious sauce, and I often find people put it on their potatoes as well!

For dessert, we had leftover cake - what else?!

The 21st Century Housewife's Devil's Food Cake

2¼ cups plain flour (all purpose in North America)
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I use Cadbury’s)
1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda (baking soda in North America)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1¾ cups granulated (white) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 large eggs
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons cold water

Grease and flour two 8 inch round cake tins.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl (I use an electric mixer for this but you can mix by hand), beat the shortening until light and fluffy. Add sugar and vanilla and beat until creamy. Add eggs one at a time. Beat well after you add each egg. Add the dry mixture alternately with the water, beating lightly after each addition.

Pour the batter into the cake pans.

Bake at about 150 C (fan oven) or 160 C (conventional oven) or 350 F in North American ovens for about 25 - 30 minutes until a piece of spaghetti inserted into the layers comes out with no batter clinging to it. Watch carefully the first time you bake them and adjust time and temperature according to your oven.

When they are cooked remove from the oven and cool on wire racks. When they are completely cool, ice and stack the layers on top of each other. Then ice the sides. Unless you are a complete chocoholic, I really do recommend a vanilla icing for this cake. These little cakes are really rich all by themselves, and chocolate icing has always been a step too far for me! You can also make cupcakes with this recipe, which makes about 24 large ones. Bake them for about 15 to 20 minutes. I often decorate the iced cake or cupcakes with sweets or chocolate. Maltesers make great decorations, as do Smarties or M&Ms. Or you can sprinkle hundreds and thousands over top. Use your imagination and have fun!

A delicious variation is to mix about 1 cup of chocolate chips – dark, milk or white or a combination of all three – into the batter just before you bake it. Yum! If I do this, I generally sprinkle some of the chocolate chips on top of the icing.

Cupcakes will freeze before icing. They will keep well for about a month in the freezer. They taste delicious even without icing, so they are great to tuck into a lunchbox frozen and they will help to keep other foods cold, whilst defrosting in time for lunch!

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