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Sycamore Smyth

Top Tips for a Drama-Free Dinner Party from Private Chef, Clare Heal

 

I think maybe dinner parties have developed a PR problem. The very words seem to conjure images of fuss and stress. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are just a few rules to follow for an uncomplicated evening enjoying time spent with friends and family.

1. Keep it simple

Now isn’t the time to experiment or go over the top with foams, gels and other tricks best left to restaurants with specialist equipment. Cook something you know will work – a tried and trusted favourite or a recipe from a reliable source.

2. Strike a balance

Remember making mix tapes? Putting a menu together is a similar skill. Each course should set up the next. Make sure they’re not all too samey (eg. three pastry-based dishes in a row or three rich and creamy things) but give the meal some coherence in terms of feel. Keep ingredients seasonal and limit yourself to one geographical region.

3. Plan Ahead

This is the biggie. There is no point in inviting people round and then disappearing into the kitchen. Take a cue from the Scouts/the hyenas in Disney’s Lion King (delete according to your preferred cultural touchstone) and Be Prepared. Plan a menu that can be mainly made in advance.

For starters this could mean a salad, soup or sharing mezze board. Anything that can either be served cold or easily heated through. For the main event go for something that cooks low and slow throughout the day. Something like Beef Bourguignon always goes down well at this time or year. Or a tagine takes the same hearty, comforting idea and adds exotic spice. Alternatively make something that can be prepped well in advance and popped in the oven whilst you eat your starter. Almost anything wrapped in Parma ham looks classy and is delicious – pork tenderloin, stuffed chicken breast, salmon fillets.

And dessert-wise, again advance preparation is your friend. People often want a little break to digest and chat so I’d go with something that can be served cold. A trifle or pavlova made with seasonal fruit. Profiteroles are surprisingly easy and can be made hours ahead. Or a tart is a good bet. Chocolate or citrus are my favourites.

4. Finishing touches

Fun is way more important than fanciness but you can do both with relative ease. Putting a little effort into presentation shows your guests you made an effort for them and is always appreciated. The right garnish not only looks beautiful but adds flavour too: a scatter of fresh herbs (chopped in advance, they’ll keep fresh in the fridge wrapped in damp kitchen paper) or sprinkle of pomegranate seeds. And for dessert, it’s easy to tart up your tart (or whatever you choose to serve). Sweetened crème fraîche makes a nice contrast and a few berries gives a pop of colour. Scatter on some orange zest, crumbled honeycomb or toasted nuts. Or use a tea strainer to dust over icing sugar or cocoa powder for a professional look.

5. Call in the professionals!

If you’d love to have some friends round but still hate the idea of cooking, visit https://www.sycamoresmyth.com/ for details of my Dinner Parties Delivered and Private Cheffing services!


Blood Orange Tart

This is a lovely dessert using seasonal blood oranges. Depending on your fruit, the finished result will be anywhere in colour from a pale, sunset orange to vibrant pink. It needs nothing but a dab of crème fraîche to serve. You’ll need a 24cm tart tin with removable base.

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200g plain flour

60g icing sugar

2 egg yolks

140g butter

 

5 blood oranges

200g of caster sugar

300g of unsalted butter, chilled

6 eggs

6 egg yolks

 

To make the pastry, put the flour, icing sugar and butter in the bowl of a food processor and whizz until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolks and whizz again briefly then turn out onto your worktop and bring together into a dough. Form it into a disc, wrap in clingfilm and put it in the fridge until firm (about half an hour).

Zest the oranges into a heatproof bowl. Then juice them and add 150ml to the zest (you can drink the rest – chef’s perk!).

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface and line the tart tin. Put it back in the fridge for another 30 mins and preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4.

Line the pastry with a piece of baking paper and fill with baking beans/dried beans or rice. Blind bake for 15–20 mins until pale gold. Remove the paper and baking beans and give it another five mins – the base should be dry and “sandy” to the touch.

Meanwhile make the filling. Add the sugar and butter to the orange juice and zest and place the bowl aver a pan of boiling water. Heat until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved. Beat the eggs and yolks in a separate bowl then add to the orange mixture. Heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens and comes together into a custard. This can take up to 20 mins so don’t be disheartened if nothing seems to be happening initially.

Once the filling has thickened, pass it through a sieve into a jug (this removed the pieces of zest and any little eggy strands that make have formed). Pour into the tart case (you might not need it all) and jiggle gently so it settles evenly.

If you have a chef’s blow torch use it to lightly char the surface. If not, put the tart under a hot grill until brown spots begin to appear (be careful that the pastry doesn’t catch). Leave to cool (the filling will set as it does so) then serve with crème fraîche.

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Clare Heal is the owner and chef of private caterers Sycamore Smyth. Muswell Hill Mums Offer: Get 10% off your first catered dinner party. Sycamore Smyth also provides a Freezer Filling service. Get £75 off your first order and £50 discount thereafter (normal price £350). Quote MHM when you book.

 

Clare Heal
Chief Cook & Bottle Washer
07887 585957

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