I wish I could be one of those hosts who opens the door to reveal an oasis of tasteful tranquillity, flowers arranged, children tucked away out of sight reading something improving and kitchen surfaces clean as a whistle.
Tragically, this never happens. A dinner party will almost always involve a major uplift of clutter from the dining-room table, for starters. School bags will be shoved swearingly into cupboards. It will suddenly be discovered, five minutes before the guests arrive, that there is no ice. And the three elegant courses I prepared never flow as smoothly as I pictured.
I've come to terms with being an imperfect host. Dinner parties are great, but they are largely governed by a dreadful rule. In general, the better the time the host is having, the higher the likelihood that militaristic order in the kitchen will break down.
But you don't have to stage a three-course full catastrophe to achieve the real point of hospitality, which is to have a nice time and be generous to your friends. Throw together a last-minute lunch or dinner when they just drop in and fail to leave again.
Or maybe do one thing – like a cake – and make it incredibly fancy or very generous, like a big slab cake. Ask your friends around for a cup of tea and surprise them. Ask them around for a meal that isn't usually an entertainment proposition, such as breakfast or a late supper. Ask friends who genuinely don't care that your house is a mess. And if they're vegan or gluten-free or Muslim, cook something that works for them but isn't obviously an afterthought.
Cooking for people at home isn't about showing off. It's about delighting people you love while remembering to actually spend time with them, not weeping in the kitchen as you espalier a dozen quail or whatever. (And yes, I know that's not even the right verb.)
Cooking for people in your home isn't about showing off. It's about delighting the people you love.
So don't be menaced by expectations of multiple courses and pressed linen and children who waft off to bed at 7.25pm. Look after your friends, be generous, and trim the sails of your culinary ambition.
Cooking for others is an act of generosity. And that means knowing their needs, and being able to cater for them in a way that doesn't feel like you're making a great effort; that's the ancient principle of hospitality.
Pistachio Louise cake
The Louise cake is an old-fashioned delight: it has elements of cake, but also elements of slice, regally inhabiting a broad shallow tin and incorporating a sponge layer, a raspberry jam layer and a top layer of crowd-pleasing coconut meringue. This variation has a pistachio sponge, which can easily be made gluten-free and adds a pleasingly festive green tinge to the whole affair. Pistachio paste can be found in fancy food shops: look for the sweet kind, not the pistachio-pesto sort. It's expensive but transcendentally delicious and you will immediately want to spread it on everything you own. If you can't find it, though, just leave it out – your cake will still be delicious.
125g unsalted butter, softened
50g castor sugar
30g pistachio paste (optional)
110g (¾ cup) plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
125g unsalted pistachios, finely ground
4 egg whites
220g (1 cup) castor sugar
90g (1 cup) desiccated coconut
300g good-quality, deep-red raspberry jam
1. Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan-forced). Grease and line a 30cm x 20cm slice tray. For the pistachio cake, using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well each time. Add the marzipan and pistachio paste, if using, and beat well.
2. Combine the flour, baking powder and ground pistachios (use gluten-free flour and baking powder if desired) then fold into the batter until thoroughly incorporated.
3. Spread the batter evenly over the base of the tin. Bake for 15 minutes or until firm and slightly golden. Leave to cool in the tin while you make the coconut meringue.
4. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add the castor sugar and keep whisking until the sugar has dissolved. Fold the coconut through gently and evenly, being careful not to lose too much air out of the meringue.
5. Now, spread the jam in an even layer over the cake, taking it right to the edges. Top with the meringue, spreading it out evenly and smoothing the surface. Return to the oven and bake for another 30 minutes or until the meringue is nicely golden. Allow to cool in the tin, then cut into squares for serving.
Photo: Rob Palmer
Salmon and fennel pie
Hot-smoked salmon – available from most supermarkets – provides the backbone for a tremendously easy pie, which can be prepared in advance, kept in the fridge for up to 24 hours and then slid into the oven half an hour before you're planning to eat. Cut it up at the table and serve with green beans and a salad of baby spinach or rocket.
500g (about 6 medium) potatoes, dutch cream or similar
300g hot-smoked salmon
200g creme fraiche or sour cream
1 tsp horseradish cream sauce
1 tsp fennel seeds, toasted in a dry pan, then crushed
finely grated zest of lemon
2 sheets all-butter puff pastry
1 spring onion, thinly sliced into rounds
large handful of dill fronds, finely chopped
1 egg yolk, whisked with 1 tsp water
1. Boil the whole, unpeeled potatoes until they're cooked, about 25 minutes. Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, whizz the salmon, creme fraiche, eggs, horseradish, fennel seed and lemon zest to a thick paste.
2. On a baking tray lined with baking paper, lay out a sheet of puff pastry and spread half of the salmon mixture over it, leaving a 1.5cm border. Season, then sprinkle over the spring onion and dill. Slice the potatoes into 1cm-thick rounds and lay them on top, overlapping like fish scales.
3. Spread the rest of the salmon mix over the potatoes. Brush the pastry border with egg wash and lay the second sheet of pastry over the top, tucking it around the filling and pressing down on the edges to seal. Now, if you're the sort who loves a fancy decorated lid to your pie, then go for it. I tend to just use the tip of a knife to make small diagonal slits in a pleasing pattern. Don't forget to brush with egg wash before baking.
4. To cook, preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced). Bake for about 25 minutes or until puffed up and deep golden. Check that the bottom is crisp – if it's soggy, use the baking paper to help you slide the pie off the baking tray and sit the pie (still on its baking paper) directly on the oven rack to crisp for a few minutes.
Photo: Rob Palmer
Punched cucumber salad
Cucumber: always a side option. But here it is honoured as the principal ingredient. This needs to be eaten within an hour of making or it will lose its crunch. Luckily, there isn't much to its construction. With a fillet of baked salmon or a grilled chicken breast, and maybe steamed rice, you are in refreshing summer-food heaven; and thin strips of tempeh sizzled under the grill for 3 to 5 minutes will keep your vegetarian guests happy.
½ garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tsp tamari sauce (or light soy sauce)
1 tsp castor sugar
generous pinch of chilli flakes (or ground black pepper)
2 long cucumbers
2 tsp sesame oil
1½ tbsp olive oil
100g asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off
100g raw cashews
1 large ripe avocado (or 2 small ones)
juice of ½ lime
20g chopped coriander, leaves and stalks
chilli oil, to serve (optional)
1. First, get your garlic into a vinegar bath to calm down its flavour. Put it into a large bowl with the vinegar, tamari sauce, sugar and chilli flakes. Mix together and set aside until sugar has dissolved. This is your dressing.
2. Here comes the fun part! Wash the cucumbers and place them on a board or bench. Now whack seven bells out of them with a wooden rolling pin. Well, actually, just whack once in each spot, working your way along the length of the cucumbers: you will see the flesh visibly soften and sag.
3. Carefully cut the battered cucumbers in half lengthways and use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds. (Here I offer my usual suggestion to get those seeds straight into a pitcher of cold water for the table – or quick smart into your gin and tonic.) Give the cucumbers a pat and a squeeze dry with paper towels. Slice on the diagonal, to get some sharp shapes, then transfer to the bowl with the dressing. Drizzle with the sesame and olive oils.
4. Let the cucumber sit in the dressing for 15 minutes to an hour, so it has time to pickle. Cut the asparagus into very thin, diagonal slices and add to the cucumber while it's pickling. (If your asparagus is on the gnarly side you could blanch it first, but otherwise it's fine to go in raw.)
5. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced). Tip the cashews onto a baking tray and toast in the oven for about 10 minutes. You're after a deep brown colour – but watch them carefully so they don't burn. When they are done, spill them out onto a plate to cool.
6. Just before serving, cut the avocado into chunks and arrange over the cucumber and asparagus. Squeeze over the lime juice, aiming, as best you can, for the avocado. Sprinkle with coriander and cashews, then toss together. If you like things fiery, add a stripe of chilli oil.
Edited extract from Special Guest by Annabel Crabb and Wendy Sharpe (Murdoch Books), RRP $39.99.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 28.