Well, there’s no stopping it, we’re right into the festive season now, and I can sit back smugly knowing all my shopping is done, the presents wrapped, and the decorations up. Don’t you just hate me?
I know for some, the bustle is what makes Christmas what it is, but this certainly isn’t a view I hold. I like to get my shopping done way before the rush begins.
Quite what the appeal of a busy shopping centre at this time of year is, I’m sure I’ve no idea.
Hot, packed and irritable? Those long wet walks across vast car parks, burdened with huge bags of heavy, awkward gifts? Not for me.
So yes, personally, when it comes to this time of year, planning is everything. I like to know who’s coming when, how many of them there’ll be, and what we’re eating and drinking. That way I can enjoy things as much as my guests, but still put on a bit of a spread.
Ask any chef, and they’ll say it’s all in the mise-en-place, those hours of fiddly, often boring preparation that go on before the meal can be cooked. But this is what can often save a dinner party.
If you’re making sauces right at the last minute, or baking a temperamental dessert, you end up frazzled, and you’re not in there with the rest of the guests talking about Aunt Edna’s mysterious new gentleman friend, or how cousin James broke his leg waterskiing.
Minimising your kitchen time is vital, so think about making sauces the day before, and gently reheating them (pop them into a thermos jug if hob space is an issue) – all that messy veg trimming and potato peeling should be over with long before your guests arrive.
Cooked new potatoes will come back in seconds in the microwave, ready to be buttered and served without anyone knowing your little secret. Same for par-boiled sprouts, cauli, broccoli and carrots. Just cook them an hour or so before, and blanch in ice-cold water, then drain and set aside.
I make my Christmas Day gravy a few days before using a turkey leg or two (butchers usually like to get shut of these quite cheaply) and then use the carcass for a rich stock to be used in the New Year.
However, this week’s recipe is one of those for when you absent-mindedly gaze at the wall planner and see that you have guests tomorrow for whom you haven’t done a thing.
We’ve all been there – the forgotten dinner party. So go for something easy – let’s say some charcuterie to start with, then a one-pot main, and this incredibly easy but satisfying pud – a swirled chocolate mousse. White and dark combine to make a fancy-looking dessert that will impress and taste brilliant.
We’re adding an extra touch here by making a little peanut brittle. The texture and taste complement the mousse so well – you can make the brittle with any nuts you fancy, choosing from hazelnuts, almonds, macadamias etc, but I like peanuts with chocolate, and it really works.
Set out your station, and you can have all this done and dusted in an hour, which is ideal when the doorbell rings and you wonder who on Earth it could be…
For the dark chocolate mousse:
4 medium eggs
120g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
4 tsp unrefined golden caster sugar
For the white chocolate mousse:
225g white chocolate
90ml double cream
2 egg whites
225ml whipping cream
For the peanut brittle:
550g refined white caster sugar
120ml corn syrup or golden syrup
120ml boiling water
40g unsalted butter
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
250g unsalted peanuts
Silicone baking sheet or baking parchment
A little shaved chocolate, for garnish
First, let’s make the peanut brittle; set out your diced butter, bicarb and peanuts as you’ll need them in a hurry when the caramel is ready. Set out a wide expanse of baking parchment or your silicone sheet.
Put the sugar, water and syrup in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Place the pan over medium heat and allow the sugar to dissolve. Don’t stir it, but gently swoosh the pan around if needs be. When the liquid is clear, turn up the heat and take the syrup to 150ºC. It should be a very pale amber colour.
Remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the butter and bicarb, then the peanuts, and beat it all together quickly. Pour the mixture onto the parchment and spread it with a spatula to your desired thickness, or, as I did, place another sheet of parchment on top, and roll it out with a rolling pin.
Let the brittle cool completely, then cut or hack it into pieces and store in an airtight container.
Now for the mousses. For the white mousse, warm the double cream in a pan, and when just about to boil, remove from the heat and whisk in the white chocolate. When smooth, set aside to cool. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and glossy, then fold carefully into the cooled chocolate.
In a clean bowl, whisk the whipping cream to a firm peak, and then fold this into the white chocolate mixture until completely mixed.
To make the dark chocolate mousse, chop the chocolate into pieces and place in a bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, making sure it doesn’t touch the water. Separate the eggs. When the chocolate is melted, remove from the heat and cool a little. Whisk the egg whites until they form a soft peak, then add the sugar and beat until glossy and smooth.
Quickly beat the egg yolks into the chocolate, followed by a third of the egg white. When smooth, begin folding in the remaining egg white until you have a smooth, lump-free mousse. To assemble, pipe or spoon the two mousses into a suitable bowl, or individual pots, and garnish with chocolate shavings.
Serve the brittle separately.