You know that panicky feeling when you rush in the door from work really late, with nothing organised and dinner guests due to arrive within the hour? I do! Before you pour yourself a glass of wine to settle your nerves, stop and take a breath. The strategy here is all about setting the scene. Arrange some flowers, set the table, check that the wine's chilling in the fridge, dim the lights and get the playlist sorted. Most important, in this scenario, is creating the vibe so people feel welcome and relaxed from the moment they arrive - it looks like you're organised and people immediately feel at ease and ready to have fun. You could serve them boiled eggs and they'd still feel special.
Dinner? Well dinner is going to be easy. No fancy techniques or tricky recipes on the menu tonight. Buy yourself time by putting out some nibbles to keep your friends busy while you figure out what to cook.
This is where you get to open packets and dispense things into small bowls - hummus from the deli gets a swirl with a spoon, a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of dukkah or smoked paprika. Olives get warmed through in a pot with garlic and chilli or rosemary. Some quality crackers or a loaf of rustic bread, maybe a slab of cheese, and you're done.
The dinner pretty much makes itself - flavour up a tray of fish or chicken and throw it in the oven, then put your preferred starch on to cook. One of your guests will help you get the salad ready (people love helping) and, just like that, with next to no effort, you're sitting down to a simple but delicious meal. The accolades start pouring in and you feel yourself relaxing in the warm glow of success. But then from the other end of the table comes ... "Wow that was delicious. But tell us, oh do tell us, what's for dessert? We can't wait." Your heart stops, your brain turns to tumbleweed. "Ah, yes," you say; mumbling, "it's a surprise" as you bolt for the kitchen.
The thing about dessert is that it's a little treat we often don't give ourselves, but we're ever so happy when someone puts it down on the table in front of us. It would be rude not to, wouldn't it? So here are some simple and delicious dessert ideas to help you out of a sticky situation.
With this one, you might want to think about it before your guests arrive, but it is easy. The most important thing is to ensure you cut off all the bitter white pith as it will make the syrup bitter. If you serve this as soon as it's made, the shards of toffee with still be crunchy and there won't be much juice. As it settles, the fruit macerates and the toffee breaks down and forms a rich, caramel sauce, so ideally prepare it at least half an hour before serving.
ready in 25 mins + standing. Serves 6
2 tbsp orange liqueur (optional)
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
Peel oranges, removing pith. Cut into slices or segments, place in a bowl and squeeze in the juices from any leftover bits of orange. Stir in liqueur, if using. To make toffee, heat sugar and water in a small pot over low heat, swirling from time to time, until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat and boil without stirring until golden (about 5 minutes). Run a wet pastry brush around the inside of the pot from time to time to stop crystals from forming. Remove from heat. Pour a quarter on to a tray lined with baking paper and leave to set. Pour the rest over the oranges. Allow to stand for 1-2 hours before serving. To serve, transfer oranges to a serving bowl or platter. Break toffee into shards and scatter over the oranges. Serve with whipped cream or icecream.
RASPBERRY RIPPLE AMBROSIA
My latest tactic when caught out without a dessert at hand is to create a jackson pollock like assembly on a big flat platter. Randomly scatter slices of cooked peaches and pears (any fresh or cooked fruit, really) on a platter. Add an artful, whirled dolloping of yoghurt around and between, a fling of sliced dried figs or some alcohol-soaked currants or cranberries, and rain handfuls of roasted hazelnuts, some crumbled sweet biscuits or meringues over all, finally drizzling a topping of honey or maple syrup. It is impressive and tastes delicious. Raspberry ripple ambrosia has a similar simplicity. Simply whip cream, then fold in yoghurt, berries, marshmallows and meringue chunks. Using half yoghurt and half cream gives a lighter result.
ready in 10 mins. Serves 8
1¼ cups cream, chilled
1¼ cups plain or berry yoghurt
8 large meringues, coarsely crumbled
12 white marshmallows, quartered
1 cup finely chopped nougat (optional)
2 cups fresh raspberries or thawed frozen berries
raspberry coulis (optional, see below)
2 cups thawed frozen raspberries
¼ cup icing sugar
Place the chilled cream in a big bowl and whip to soft peaks. Fold through yoghurt, meringues, marshmallows and nougat, if using, then gently fold in most of the raspberries without crushing. Spoon into parfait glasses or serve in one large glass bowl. If not serving at once, cover and refrigerate for up to 8 hours. To make raspberry coulis pass thawed berries through a coarse sieve to remove pips. Stir in icing sugar. It will keep for several days in the fridge. Serve ambrosia scattered with the remaining fresh raspberries. If using the coulis, drizzle a little over the top and serve the rest in a jug on the side.
Keeping a stash of good-quality vanilla icecream in the freezer means you always have an instant dessert at hand. Brew up some strong espresso, flavour it with a little liqueur and you're in business. Dessert doesn't get much simpler than this - there's something about the combo of hot coffee and icecream that really hits the spot. Or throw together a sundae with a good dollop of icecream, slices of fresh citrus or kiwifruit, chopped glace ginger, some juice from the ginger jar and a crunchy sprinkle of finely crumbed sweet biscuits.
ready in 5 mins. Serves 8
2½ cups strong, hot espresso coffee
¾ cup coffee liqueur or other liqueur
8 scoops vanilla icecream (about 1 litre)
Mix together hot coffee and liqueur. Place a generous scoop of icecream into each of 8 serving bowls or glasses. Serve immediately with the liqueur coffee in a jug or small shot glasses on the side. Pour hot coffee over cold icecream and enjoy.