Annabel Crabb understands the whole idea of entertaining at home can freak some people out. She’s one of them.
“I'm good at cooking and I love cooking but my personal Achilles' heel is I hate tidying up,” says the journalist-cum-cookbook author.
“I'm really messy and the reason I don't invite people around more often is because I think do I have to tidy the table so we can eat off it, instead of having it covered in kids' homework and bits and bobs and books I'm looking forward to reading but haven't quite got to yet, bills I haven't been courageous enough to open.
“Everyone has their own little panic point about cooking for friends.”
Crabb and her friend Wendy Sharpe are back in the kitchen with their latest book Special Guest. 2015’s Special Delivery was all about how to look after your friends, friends who may be unwell, or celebrating a new baby, by taking them food.
“There's heaps of reasons to take food around to someone else's house when you're trying to show them you're thinking of them,” says Crabb.
“But equally it’s lovely to entertain people in your own house as well, especially if you can think of some ways to moderate the stress of that event.
“There’s a bunch of different ideas in the book that slightly change or play around with that classic idea of inviting a bunch of people around to your house for dinner, the classic way of entertaining.
“Maybe it says something about me and my stage of life because I've got little kids, you invite six friends around and suddenly they're bringing 13 children with them, a small function suddenly turns into a palaver.
“Wendy has this brilliant idea she calls pudding club. She says I want you to come around to my house for dinner but I'm not going to be responsible for making sure your children get their seven serves of vegetables. What I'll do, she says, is ask you around at grown-up dinner time and bring your children but feed them dinner beforehand and then when you get there I'll have a spectacular dessert ready for the kids to get stuck into and then we'll line them up in front of a movie and us adults can eat.”
Crabb says to think about inviting people around for breakfast, or afternoon tea.
“We grew up in the CWA generation where our mothers always had some delicious thing for afternoon tea going in case people dropped around,” she says.
“It’s a really lovely thing to do, you don't have the headaches of having to provide different courses, and dishes, and options, don't even put on a high tea kind of thing, just make one thing, one big lovely tray cake or one cake you've put a bit of effort into or a slice and just serve that with cups of tea or a glass of fizzy if you feel like it.
“That way you've put a lot of effort into something, you've created something lovely, you've kind of uncluttered, you get out your nice china and you make this one thing but do it really well.”
Special Guest, by Annabel Crabb and Wendy Sharpe. Murdoch Books. $39.99.
A mascarpone layer cake with citrus. Photo: Rob Palmer
Citrus mascarpone layer cake
225g unsalted butter, softened
150g caster sugar
50g soft brown sugar
4 large eggs
finely grated zest of 2 citrus fruit (lemon and/or orange)
225g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
50ml citrus syrup (I use the syrup from tinned mandarins) or reduced sweetened orange juice – optional
Lemon mascarpone filling
150-200 ml thickened cream
1 tbsp icing sugar
2 tbsp lemon curd, plus
2-3 tbsp extra for spreading
Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan). Grease and line two 20cm cake tins.
Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well each time, then mix in the citrus zest. Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt, then fold into the batter until thoroughly incorporated.
Divide the batter evenly between the two tins (not usually one for precision, I do use an electronic scale here to help me get the same amount in each tin). Smooth the surface and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cakes have a golden hue and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.
When the cakes are cool enough to handle, carefully turn them out onto a wire rack to cool. As this is a slightly sticky sponge, be careful that the cakes don’t stick to the rack: the trick is to move them once or twice on the rack before they are completely cool. (If you are splitting the work of making the sponges and constructing the cake, you can wrap and refrigerate or freeze them at this point: they’ll keep for a few days in the fridge and up to a month in the freezer.)
A sponge cake that has been refrigerated will be much easier to cut than one that is straight out of the oven, so this is a good time to decide whether you want to cut each sponge in half horizontally for a four-layer cake, or stick with two layers.
To make the lemon mascarpone filling, whip 150 ml of the cream with the icing sugar until it has thickened slightly, stopping well short of soft peaks. Then fold in the mascarpone and the 2 tablespoons of lemon curd until smooth – thin out with a little extra cream if it seems too stiff – you’re after an an easily spreadable consistency so you won’t plough up the surface of the cakes.
To assemble the cake, use a pastry brush to dab some of the citrus syrup on the first layer of cake, concentrating on the edges (which may have dried out if you made the sponge in advance). Next use a spatula or offset palette knife to spread a very thin layer of the extra lemon curd over the sponge, followed by a generous layer of the lemon mascarpone cream, making sure to get it all the way to the cake edges. Gently sit the next layer of cake on top and spread it with syrup, curd and lemon mascarpone cream. Keep going until all your layers of cake are used up.
Spread a final layer of lemon mascarpone cream over the top of the cake and decorate. Or don’t decorate. It’s your party.
Spaghetti with cubed haloumi. Photo: Rob Palmer
Haloumi, lime & rocket spaghetti
250g haloumi, cut into 1.5 cm dice
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp small salted capers, rinsed then drained well
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 medium or 2 small red chillies, thinly sliced
1 juicy lime
100g wild rocket leaves
500g dried spaghetti
First step: tip the haloumi, olive oil, capers, garlic and the chilli into a bowl and stir about. Using one of those zesters that takes off the zest in long thin strips, add the zest of the lime. (If you don’t have such a contraption, use a potato peeler to take the zest off and then cut it into thin strips, or alternatively you could do whatever you please and ignore my excessively controlling views on the subject).
Squeeze the lime and reserve the juice. Arrange your rocket in a large serving bowl.
Cook the pasta according to its packet instructions. Now you’re ready for the final assault.
While the pasta is cooking, heat a heavy frying pan over medium heat and tip in the contents of your bowl: the haloumi will become golden, so turn the bits over regularly and keep a sharp eye on it. It’s done when all your haloumi is nicely browned. This should take about 5 minutes, so when it’s done you’ll be ready to drain your pasta. Dump the spaghetti into the pan and swirl it about to mop up every little bit of sauce. Working quickly, dress the rocket with the lime juice, then add the pasta to the bowl and give the whole lot a toss.
Serve straight away!
Crispy potato skins
Don’t throw out the potato skins. They will make a crispy treat that will enhance your household standing enormously. Just slice the skins into wedges and toss them with a little olive oil, lemon zest, black pepper and salt. Or a flavoured butter! Crisp them up on a baking paper-lined tray in a 220°C (200°C fan) oven. If you can’t be bothered making these crispy potato skins right away, stash them in the freezer until the moment arises. As it surely will.