Sunday, May 31, 2015

The perfect potato cake

For this weekend I wanted a new potato recipe - something different to go with the salmon fillet I planned to cook for Sunday lunch. Gratin seemed a bit too rich and heavy, mashed potato a bit ordinary. Potato cakes or fritters would be nice, but tricky to make on time for six.
           So I started hunting through my cookbooks, beginning with Lois Daish's Dinner at Home and A Good Year. And straight away, I found exactly what I was looking for: Baked Grated Potato Cake.
"This Russian recipe makes a potato cake which is lighter than most, and is crisp on the outside and moist and tender inside."
            It looked quite easy, but as the lunch was for a special occasion and I didn't want to mess it up, I thought I'd better do a test run first. Of course I forgot to take its picture before we ate it (having a very tall, hungry son waiting for dinner to appear does tend to make me forget these things). So I waited to post this until I'd made it again for lunch today, doubling the original quantities.
            It turned out extremely well (thank goodness, because Lois herself was one of the guests). It was a bit too fiddly to make on the day itself, so I made it on Saturday and it warmed up very nicely for Sunday. It's a sort of giant latke, perfect for a tableful of people; but unlike many other grated potato cakes I've eaten and sometimes made, there's no risk of the potato being a bit undercooked.

Baked grated potato cake
From Lois Daish, Dinner at Home (1993)

2 Tbsp butter
1 medium-sized onion
750g potato (Agria work very well)
1/2 cup milk or cream (I used 1/4 cup of each)
2 eggs
salt and pepper
another 1 Tbsp butter

Butter a baking tin about 20 cm in diameter. Preheat the oven to 180C.
Finely chop the onion, melt the butter in a frying pan, and gently fry the onion for at least 10 minutes until it is golden brown.
While the onion is frying, peel the potatoes and grate them coarsely in a food processor or by hand.
Tip the potatoes into a large bowl and fill with cold water. Use your hands to swoosh the potato around and wash off excess starch. Drain the potato and wring dry in a cloth.
Rinse and dry the bowl, put the potato back into it and tip in the cooked onion and butter. Mix gently.
Separate the eggs and add the yolks to the potato mixture, together with the milk and/or cream. Season well with salt and pepper and mix gently.
Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them in.
Pile the mixture into the buttered baking tin and dot the top with the remaining 1 Tbsp butter.
Bake at 180C for about 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the potatoes are tender.

This photo is of the double-quantity version, which would easily serve eight - the original serves four.

So what else did we have? We started with crepes filled with creamed mushrooms and bacon. With the grilled salmon and potato we had a cos lettuce and avocado salad with lime dressing. For dessert, what's probably my favourite cake: Claudia Roden's orange and almond dessert cake, with pureed NZ dried apricots and cream with saffron syrup.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Birthday drinks party food

My neighbour, distinguished historian Frances Porter, turned 90 recently, so I thought we should have a few drinks with friends to celebrate - especially as my birthday is coming up as well. So on Saturday Frances supplied the bubbly and cheese, and I made the rest of the party food (except for the birthday cake, which two of her longstanding friends had insisted on bringing).
        I'm not very good at nibbles - when Ruth Pretty's DomPost column is about elegant party food, my eyes tend to glaze over.  But this time I knew I needed to Make an Effort. I wanted to come up with a good variety of finger food that was easy to make, easy to eat and had distinctive flavours that were not too strong (Frances doesn't like chili, for example).
        So down to Moore Wilson's I went. If you were so minded, you could just cruise round the frozen food shelves in their big grocery section and collect various packets of ready-made morsels, from samosas to stuffed mushrooms. But as scores of end-of-day downtown events over the years have taught me, most of them are not really very nice to eat. And Frances would definitely not be impressed - as I explained in my memoir, she has a most discerning palate. On the other hand, I didn't want to make everything from scratch, and a few judiciously chosen short-cuts can be a big help.
        What I took home worked very well: frozen blinis, pumpernickel bread, and small filo tart cases, along with an on-special tub of pesto, small-party-sized packs of salami and smoked salmon pieces, sour cream, horse-radish, small tomatoes and mushrooms.
         The day before, I made the filo case fillings: creamed mushroom (Frances loves mushrooms) and egg with parsley and chives, with a recipe from one of Lois Daish's classics, A Good Year (see below).  On Saturday all I had to do, not long before the party,  was:
- lay out the cheese and crackers;
- lay out the pumpernickel and top it with pesto, salami and sliced tomato;
- defrost the blini, mix horseradish into the sour cream, and put neat blobs of it on them, topped with the salmon (I made more of these because they're so popular);
- fill half the filo cases with the warmed mushroom mix, and the rest with the egg mix (cold, but taken out of the fridge a bit earlier). This has to be done just before people arrive, so they don't go soggy.

Doesn't sound like much, but it did all take a while. I timed it quite well - I was just finishing the egg cases when Frances arrived.  It all tasted good, nearly everything got eaten - including the deliciously retro sultana birthday cake - and we all had a very good time.

Chopped egg filling with parsley and chives
Lois Daish's recipe puts this into little cheese pastry cases, rather than filo, and I will make those properly another time. Any leftover egg makes excellent sandwiches next day. This amount fills 12 pastry tart cases or 30 small filo cases.

3 eggs, hard-boiled and peeled
squeeze of lemon juice
1/2 (half) c cream
salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste
finely chopped parsley and chives

Put the hard-boiled eggs on a board and chop into little pieces. Put the cream in a bowl, add a squeeze of lemon juice and whisk briefly until it is still soft and floppy. Add the chopped eggs and season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Stir in the parsley and chives.
This will keep, covered, in the fridge overnight - just give it a good stir next day before using.

I forgot to take a photo of my filo cases, so these are the tarts from Lois's book. And I should have cut the pumpernickel in half again, to match the size of everything else. Next time...