For as long as I can remember I have liked Birthdays - the presents, the lovely messages, the catching up with friends and family, the legitimate excuse to have lots of yummy (and often bad for you) food and drink PLUS being The Centre of Attention; what's not to like?!?!? As part of my annual Birthday Celebrations, I generally have a Family catch-up (traditionally a backyard BBQ) and a Friends catch up at whatever new or cool restaurant I've unearthed that I want to try out. Last year my birthday fell on a Wednesday which was most annoying and very tricky to organise - do you celebrate the weekend before or after?? And I work on Wednesdays and thus I was unable to cook up any type of storm, so Friends and Family all decamped to my local pub for a rowdy and raucous dinner in the bistro. Lots of fun (and no cooking or cleaning up for me) but no new Cooking Endeavors.
So this year I was looking forward to trying out at least one or two recipes from my never-ending collection of Yummy Thing to Cook. I invited some friends over for dinner on the night of my birthday; we could have gone out somewhere but my Restaurant of the Moment is The Black Toro which makes divine Mexican food but is not always a cheap option. So I decided to have a dinner party at home. Which to most people is the antithesis of Birthday Celebrations: "Why are you doing the cooking on your birthday?" Because I Like To. Because I enjoy it. Because I love trying new recipes and sharing them with friends. Because its My Birthday and I can do whatever I want!! And Cook whatever I want (taking into account guests likes and dislikes, of course). So this led to several lovely hours flipping through cookbooks, and mixing and matching various meal ideas; something relaxed and fun like tacos? Or themed like a Moroccan feast? Or go all out and try some molecular gastronomy?? I did decide that cooking fresh doughnuts for dessert was probably not a good choice as deep frying after a few glasses of wine would not amuse the Health and Safety guys (i.e Husband).
So after much deliberating I settled on pork belly for mains as roast pork was always one of my favorite dishes growing up, and I hadn't been brave enough to tackle pork belly yet. I had a recipe from the Vineyard Cookbook ("Max's Tuscan Stuffed Pork" from Max's at Red Hill Estate - one of my favorite wineries) that I had earmarked the first time I looked through the book, but had never had the appropriate occasion. I also hadn't had a good look around for where to buy pork belly, but that gave me a good research project. The recipe suggested serving it with mashed potato (meaning it was probably better suited to a mid-winter feast rather than a late summer birthday. Oh well!) so I decided to make 'Paris Mash' by Guillaume Brahimi; as The Frenchman and his wife were dinner guests it seemed appropriate! And then to add a bit of color (and something cholesterol free!) with some green beans. I was tossing up between a few versions of some sort of chocolate flan/tart thing for dessert, until I came across a Baci Gelato recipe in the Delicious Summer Special. Having already had one Epic Fail at Baci ice cream (read this to be reminded) you may wonder why I chose to revisit such a Disaster. Well, this recipe looked a lot more like other ice cream recipes I had been making (and Delicious magazine haven't really steered me wrong yet), and I was not going to a let a recipe (let alone a chocolate related dessert one) beat me! Plus it would hopefully appease my not-a-fan-of-dessert-Husband.
Birthday Day arrived and after a lovely day at work with text messages and cookies and cupcakes, I headed home early, because well, hey! It's my birthday! I picked some herbs from my garden (because I can and I love it) and proceeded to Prepare The Pork. Knowing full well that The Crackling will either make or break a pork roast, I followed the anecdotal advice to dry it out as much as possible before cooking. I also knew that Salt was an Important part, which was not a problem in this recipe as roughly 1/3 cup salt was used for 1.2kg of pork! So lots of lovely pink Murray River Salt Flakes were rubbed all over the skin, plus inside with the herb and fennel mix before the whole thing was rolled and tied. Into a lovely hot over it went for an hour, then lowered the temperature for the next hour or so. It smelled divine while cooking which is always a good sign, but I was more interested in how it crunched! I churned the ice cream while the pork was cooking, and it was going so far so good with Baci Mark II - it was already way ahead of the other recipe in that the custard had actually thickened on the stove! I also prepared The Mash, which had an interesting twist in that you cooked the potatoes whole with the skin on and THEN peeled them. I'm not sure how this contributed to the end product but I won't argue with a Frenchman. After peeling them and passing through a potato ricer, the mash is then put back in the saucepan for a few minutes to remove excess moisture. THEN you mixed in hot milk and a LOT of butter - the recipe had 600g of potato to 250g of butter! I think its safe to say that it won't get the Heart Foundation tick anytime soon, and no wonder is supposedly tasted divine! I cooked just under 500g of potato for the 4 of us and had out about 120g of butter, but it was getting to quite a liquid consistency before I added it all so I stopped (and I think I heard my arteries cheer as I did).
Guests arrived, champagne was popped, presents were given (Hooray!) and then it was The Moment of Truth - Crackling Time. And it did (double hooray!). It was so crispy and crunchy, but the meat inside was still tender and just about falling apart as I carved - yummmmmm. In fact it was so yum that there was hardly any leftovers! I will definitely make more nexy time as cold roast pork sandwiches are delcious.
The ice cream set beautifully and was also delcious, with the white chocolate-hazelnut slab on the side. So obviously the culinary angels were smiling at me on my birthday. Success!
Now onto the Family Gathering. Mindful of keeping things easy and relaxed, summer family get-togethers are generally BBQ related - everyone can bring a salad or dessert and it all works well. In previous years I have served various kebabs/shaslicks combinations, slow roasted and marinated meats and even Beer Butt Chicken (Google it if you are unfamiliar with this quirky cooking style). This year I expanded on an regular family dinner idea - mini hot dogs. Grab some small chipolata sausages and a packet of Bake-at-Home dinner rolls and it makes a nice change from sausages-in-bread. To make it a bit more Grown Up for my party, I cooked onions and had out shredded cheeses, tomato and barbeque sauce as well as American Mustard, so you could have your 'Dog with whatever 'fixins' you liked. Easy to prepare, easy to serve and yum and fun to eat.
|"Whad'll it be??"|
And then there was The Cake. For what is a birthday without a Birthday Cake?!?!
I found this recipe in the January Delicious: "Indulgent Chocolate Cake with Dulce de Leche".
You had me at Indulgent. You had me even more at Indulgent Chocolate Cake!
And they weren't kidding - four layers of cake with chocolate filling and caramel in between . Probably a bit too much for my usual dinner part desserts (it served 8-10 and I don't think it could have been easily adapted for a half or quarter version!), but it sounded perfect for a Birthday Cake.
Well, not only was it Indulgent, it was also Involved. For the cake batter, you had to cream the butter and sugar, then gradually add flour and alternate it with buttermilk, THEN add whipped egg whites!
The Filling was whipped butter and sugar mixed with melted chocolate, and to assemble, it was a layer of cake, then chocolate filling, then dulce de leche (which I couldn't source so I used Caramel Top n' Fill - sneaky!), repeated 3 times, then topped with melted chocolate. Obviously a Weight Watchers - Diabetic Australia Approved recipe!
It was the first time I'd made a multi-level cake and a I managed to avoid some of the rookie mistakes such as cutting uneven layers. The only issues I has was the Stability of the Cake! It was warm day and the filling was very soft which meant there was a bit of sliding when putting on the top layers! Eeek!
|('T' being my girlfriend who had her birthday on the day of my party)|
And good lord it was Delicious. Thankfully not too intensely chocolate as some cakes can be, just very sweet and yummy. Everyone was very happy with a small slice (which was no mean feat trying to keep all four layers together during the slicing!) which did mean I had about a quarter left over. Thankfully its all gone now; I managed to "share the calories" with my work mates and also deliver a piece to my cousin who had missed the party. I think my blood sugar is just starting to go back to normal....
However, I have already had a request to make this magnificent cake again for one of my Ladies Lunches I have regularly with some girlfriends. I felt a little like the guy in MacArthur Park (no, my cake didn't get left out in the Rain) "cause it took so long to bake it! Oh noooooo!!!" But its not the difficulty of the cake, more that there would be only three of us to share The Cake, which not be good for any of our waistlines. Maybe I can save it for one of their birthdays....
In the meantime, I have 360 odd days to work out what I can cook for my birthday Next Year! Might just go flick through a recipe book now......