As this was the first food and friends for 2012 it was an aim of mine to get off to a good start with this week’s dinner. Seeing as it has been quite a long break in between meals (with Christmas and holidays and everything) I wanted to shake off any rustiness and get back in there full pelt. This was almost a certainty when everyone I invited for dinner rsvpd with a ‘yes’- I suddenly had ten people coming to dinner. Big start to the year indeed.
As we all know cooking is certainly a learning experience. No matter how much you’ve done something before it still is different every time. What’s even more interesting is when you’ve never done something before and it’s all one big lesson. I had this experience this week when I decided to make pumpkin gnocchi to accompany the pork fillet that I was going to cook. After checking out a few recipes the concept seemed possible, though I had my doubts as to whether or not it was going to work; I had no mouli to push my pumpkin through, and no steamer to cook the pumpkin with. It wasn’t going to be easy. Feeling relaxed and curious however I plunged on with the dinner. I chopped up some sage and thyme and rolled the pork fillets in it before wrapping the whole fillet in prosciutto (pork on pork – why not). I put my pumpkin on to cook (boiled it, this was my first error) then prepared my leeks by caramelizing them in sugar and butter and laying them out in a dish and drizzled cream, chicken stock and chilli over them. These went in the oven. The recipe I was using for the gnocchi instructed me to push the pumpkin through a sieve before adding egg yolks, flour and butter. I placed a few of the pieces into the sieve and soon realised if this was going to happen I would be there for hours. So I ditched the sieve and put it all into the processor to puree (second error). By the time I added the flour and eggs I was working with a big bowl of pumpkin soup, not a dough that would absorb the flour and make beautiful little dumplings. My main accompaniment was a thick stodgy goo. And was completely inedible. The best part of all this was that it was occurring around 6.30pm when everyone was supposed to be arriving at 7pm. Praying that no one would turn up early I jumped in the car, raced up to the supermarket and bought a second supply of pumpkin as well as some potatoes. It would have to be mash instead.
I returned to find no one waiting at the front door, a miracle, and got on with it. The pork got browned in a pan before going in the oven to finish and I was pleased to see that the prosciutto held tight around the meat. As that was finishing I put together a spinach, pine nut and avocado salad to accompany and finished off the mash. I added a heaped tablespoon of hot English mustard to the pumpkin which gave it a bit of oomph and a nice flavour. My pumpkin ‘plan B’ turned out pretty good and the main came together well in the end.
The best thing about dessert in summer is the fruit. Flick through any magazine or walk down any market aisle and your eyes catch sights of peaches, cherries, mangoes, figs. It’s pretty exciting. This does however make the possibilities for summer dessert pretty lengthy; I have been eager to make a passion fruit crème brulee for some time now, and of course produce a classic pavlova. But this week I opted for an upside-down cake with peaches.
There are a few things that I still hesitate with when it comes to cooking, and sugar work would be one of them. Whenever I read ‘make a caramel’ in a recipe my mouth makes a funny movement and I almost wince a little. I don’t know what it is but I just never seem to get it right. The sugar either burns, crystallises, or sets before I can even use it for its purpose. So when I saw I had to make a caramel/toffee for the peach cake I was a little tentative. It bubbled away slowly (very slowly in fact, I was wondering if I managed to screw up the sugar and water bit) but eventually turned a golden colour. I managed to get just enough of it out of the pot into the cake tin before it set, but there were a few hard bits floating around. So it was ok. Not great, but ok. Do I feel confident now? Not really. It seems the elements of this meal were certainly testing me. The rest of the cake worked out fine. The batter all came together nicely and the peaches were tasty. And when I flipped it over the colour of the peaches inside the baked caramel looked pretty good. The cake definitely needed something wet with it so I served it with a reduced poaching syrup that I had in the fridge and some cream. Not too bad.
It was certainly a dinner that could have been done better, but I did manage to avoid total disaster. I guess it can be hard sometimes to actually know what you’re doing, even though you think you might know and even with recipes to help you. So as expected, a learning experience. And I will have to try and dismiss the urge of avoiding anything sugar or pumpkin based in the future.