Monday night was momentous – a rite of passage that marked my entry into adulthood. I hosted my first dinner party.
Admittedly it was only for four people (myself included), but for someone who has yet to wean herself off her university diet of cheesy nachos and Super Noodles, it was a big deal.
I have always hoped there is a domestic goddess within, and that I've just been waiting for the right occasion to release her. This was my chance, and I was leaving nothing to chance.
On Sunday morning I scoured the pages of my favorite (okay, only) cookbook: Nigella Express. If anyone can make food sexy and appealing, Nigella can. I met her once during my reporting days and she dripped sex appeal. She is the chocolate covered spoon of sex appeal. Her programmes are food porn, and so deliciously executed. A wink here, a lick of the spoon there... I digress.
I picked the three easiest recipes to execute, jotted down the ingredients in my pink Krug notebook and hoofed it to Sainsbury's. It's the first time in my life I've been to a supermarket with a purpose. I felt virtuous as I skipped down the aisles throwing all my desired ingredients into my basket. With each new ingredient, I came a step closer to the realisation of my goal. The pieces of the culinary puzzle were coming together.
Fortunately, my flatmate was away on Sunday night, giving me the chance to dig out the dining table (which we've never used), and set the scene. I thought I'd get ahead of myself by making the honeycomb for the ice cream a day early. It's deceptively simple, all you need is caster sugar, golden syrup and bicarbonate of soda. Nigella ordered me not to touch the sugar as it boiled, so I left it a little too long and it came out more brunette than blond, with a burnt toffee aftertaste. I made mountains of it – dental suicide.
Rushing back from work on Monday, I whacked on Paolo Nuttini and lit some candles, decorating the table with my pre-starters: giant olives, hunks of sourdough with olive and balsamic oil for dipping, and shreds of Parma ham. My first two guests arrived and began to dig in.
The host has a difficult role to play during a dinner party. Striking the right balance between the attention you pay to your guests and your food is a fine art. You are expected to be wildly entertaining and unruffled while you whip up a three course culinary extravaganza (unaided), cater to your guests' every caprice and match them glass for glass. It's a delicate tightrope that needs to be navigated with grace and humility.
My third guest was running late, which presented two dilemmas: to uncork or not to uncork, and when to start the starters. Timing is crucial to the smooth running of a dinner party. A late guest can cause the whole operation to unravel. I decided to take a risk and start cooking without him, in the hope that it would somehow speed up his arrival. I cracked open the bubbles in his absence, as my guests were parched and open-mouthed like hungry little birds.
Much to my delight, my final guest arrived in perfect time for the starters – eggs en cocotte with my secret ingredient: truffle oil. Annoyingly, I had let the yolks go hard whilst waiting for the soldiers to toast, but they went down a treat and disappeared quickly from their ramekins. I opened a Marques de la Murietta Capellania white Rioja to accompany the dish. It had an alluring waxy mouthfeel, with notes of fennel and honey wrapped around an oak core. Broad and creamy on the palate, the faint traces of oxidization only added to its charm.
No sooner had I pondered it's toffee-tinged depths, than I was back in the kitchen tackling the main course: duck breasts with pomegranate and mint on a bed of rocket. I have never cooked duck before, and to make matters worse, my cooker has no numbers on the dial. They have either been rubbed off by overzealous lodgers before me, or they never existed. I seared the breasts in a pan as suggested by Nigella and whacked them in the oven, taking them out a couple of minutes before the suggested time, having learnt the hard way with the eggs.
Amazingly, when I thrust my knife into the hot skin and began to sheer, the meat was as pink as a warm cheek. I made my bed of rocket and lay the slithers of duck in it, pouring the juice from the pan over the meat as I went. To finish, I added a sprinkling of mint and a handful of pomegranate seeds, that glinted like rubies in the light. Being an Art History graduate, I have to admit to picking the dish for its aesthetic beauty. It looked so pretty on the dish - the green of the mint bouncing off the red of the pomegranate. I matched the main with a 2005 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir from California. On the palate were raspberries, rose petals and cola bottles that mingled with earthy, meaty notes. Elegant and refined, it was a sensational match for the duck.
Finally it was time for a bit of fun: desert. This was the only dish of the trio I'd made before. It was a hit with my family last Easter, and has to be the most indulgent pudding on the planet. I lined up four ice cream sundae glasses along the counter and scooped a ball of chocolate, vanilla and toffee ice cream into each. Between each scoop I added a layer of honeycomb, and on top went my magic sauce - melted chocolate mixed with double cream, Skippy peanut butter and golden syrup. After sprinkling them with chopped peanuts, they were good to go. It reminded me of the knickerbocker glories you used to drool over as a kid when you went to TGIs. A calorie calamity, but worth every one.
The look of delight on my friends' faces as they tucked into the gloopy scoops made all the effort worthwhile. As I sat there having made it to the finish line, finally able to relax, I realized that the joy in cooking lies in other people's reactions. To watch people happily devouring food that you've made is seriously rewarding. It fires you up and motivates you to try harder and push the culinary boundaries as far as you can. I'll still have the odd guilt free packet of Super Noodles every now and then, but I've had a taste of the the joy you get from cooking for other people, and it's made me hungry for more.