I love to spend time with friends and family and more often than not that involves some sort of food and drink. Throughout my twenties I spent many evenings catching up with friends and trying out new restaurants but due to the quiet nature of the old market town I live in our options were limited. Although Ashford is fast becoming somewhere you would like to spend evenings out with lovely country pubs providing gastro cuisine and the development of the town centre opening up opportunity for new restaurants, I’m still one for a good old fashioned dinner party where friends and family often become my tasting panel. I recently hosted one to thank friends for house sitting and taking care of our beloved pooches Ozzie and Rufus!
I always lean on the side of an Italian menu as this is loved by so many and holds a special place in my heart after we spent a wonderful vacation in the beautiful town of Spoleto, where James and I invited 28 of our closest friends and family to join us for our wedding in the Umbrian mountains of Italy. It was such a magical moment in our lives, not just because of the setting but the people and of course the food creating such wonderful memories for us all to share.
The night before our wedding we hosted a rehearsal dinner for all of our guests, it was an unforgettable feast where we drunk many bottles of the delicious Sagrantino wine, which we had discovered days earlier at a wonderful vineyard known as Antonelli’s where they create beautiful wines and olive oil like no others we had tasted before.
Whilst we sat in the mountains drinking and eating far more than we should have, I remember through my Sagrantino haze the laughter and love at the table. It is this precious memory that I think of when I host a dinner party with the aim to create atmosphere, ambiance, wonderful food and most of all laughter and love!
Now, that evening I had a wonderful chef create a feast for us but at home in my cottage kitchen I have to think ahead of time how the night will run. I do not want to spend all of my time at the stove creating a dish, so making a menu that has little prep whilst your guests are at the table is a must, make life as easy for yourself as possible, you need to enjoy your evening too!
The Table – KEEP IT SIMPLE
I always lay the table before guests arrive; napkins are a must especially with hands on food such as bruschetta and pasta dishes. Lay out wine glasses, water glasses and a jug of iced water, with sliced lemons and limes for a little twist. Cutlery for each course you are offering and a simple vase of flowers will add a little extra to your table. Candles are a must; it makes the whole table feel a little extra special. When James and I designed our house, I had our electrician put dimmer switches in every room, including in the small dining area. Being able to dim the lights creates the ambiance you need for a dinner party.
Music is always playing and as someone that loves all genres of music I am sure not to have my old skool garage classics playing but something with a softer edge such as, Adele, Sam Smith, Emilie Sandae and yes the Buble makes an experience every now and then, usually around autumn, winter time and Christmas, James is often a little fed up of him come January!
To begin a Red Pepper and Sun blushed Tomato Bruschetta. I prepare the topping of the bruschetta ahead of time; it packs a real punch and has your guests wanting more!
120g Sun-blushed tomatoes (I get these from the deli counters in supermarkets)
1 Roasted red pepper from antipasti range (I use cooks&co roasted red peppers)
1 clove garlic (peeled and halved)
6 Large Basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons grated parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the sun-blushed tomatoes, roasted red pepper, garlic clove, basil and pine nuts into a food processor and process until resembles a paste now add Parmesan and olive oil and blitz.
1 Ciabatta loaf (sliced into 2cm thick pieces)
2 tablespoons Olive oil (I use a Tesco finest Sicilia olive oil)
1 garlic clove (peeled)
6 Tomatoes deseeded and diced
8 large basil leaves (I place each one on top of the other and role into a cigar and then thinly slice)
shavings of Parmesan to finish off
Now take each slice of ciabatta and brush with the olive oil, place each slice onto a griddle pan and toast over a high heat for one to two minutes each side (if you do not have a griddle pan use the grill on your oven to toast). Once toasted rub one side of the toasted ciabatta with sugar ledge of the garlic.
Spread over a generous layer of pesto and top with diced tomato, Parmesan shavings and basil.
To serve I drizzle over some olive oil.
Mushroom, Pecorino and Chilli Pappardelle
For the main… A luxurious creamy pasta that indulges your ‘comfort food’ desire but gives you an unexpected spicy kick.
2 garlic Cloves (Sliced)
½ Teaspoon Dried Chilli Flakes
300g Mixed mushrooms of your choice (I used Chestnut and Shiitake, quartered)
200mls Dry white wine
Mushroom stock (I used a knorr stock pot, no water needed)
250ml Whipping Cream
¾ Cup of pecorino Cheese (Grated)
2 Tablespoons Flat leaf Parsley (Freshly chopped)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Pappardelle fresh or dried. (I used a Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference)
Place the olive oil, garlic cloves, chilli flakes and mixed mushrooms in a large heavy based pan, this needs to be big enough so the mushrooms are not crowded as they need to sauté gently and not sweat and soften. Once mushrooms are slightly golden add the white wine and allow to simmer gently until reduced and alcohol has been cooked away. Now add the mushroom stock to the wine reduction, followed by the whipping cream, stir continuously to prevent the cream from splitting.
Prepare your pasta…
(THIS CAN BE DONE WHILST YOU’RE PREPARING YOUR SAUCE)
Once pasta is cooked drain, saving a small amount of pasta water (this is to add to sauce) now add pasta directly into mushroom sauce and mix coating the pasta, now add pecorino cheese and parsley (save a little parsley to garnish dish) mix throughly over a low heat allowing the cheese to melt into the creamy mushroom sauce. Now add a 2-3 Tablespoons of the pasta water helping the sauce to become silky.
Serve with your favourite bread or simply enjoy with a crisp rocket salad!
To finish, a fresh and delicious cheesecake hitting all the right spots, this recipe is adaptable and if chocolate orange is not your idea of heaven then switch out the Gran Marnier and orange for Baileys or Kailua and add a teaspoon of instant coffee powder, for a mocha inspired pud!
300g Triple Chocolate Cookies (you can use a cookie of your choice however I used Tesco Finest Triple Chocolate cookies)
60g unsalted butter (melted)
900mls Double Cream
560g Cream cheese (I use Philadelphia, this needs to be at room temperature)
1 Cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
3 tablespoons Grand Marnier
200g Dark chocolate (Melted and cooled) (70% cocoa solids, I use green & blacks)
1 orange (Zested and juiced)
To begin place cookies into a food processor and blitz until you have a fine crumb now add to the melted butter and mix until all crumbs are coated with the butter. Transfer the mixture into a 20cm springform cake tin. Lightly press the crumb base into the edge of the tin creating an even cover across the base. I use the back of a measuring cup, be careful not to compact the mixture as this will create a dense biscuit base rather than crumbly and won’t be as easy to slice and serve. Now place in the fridge whilst you prepare the cheesecake filling.
Place the cream, cream cheese, caster sugar, vanilla and Grand Marnier, into a food mixer. Mix on high speed until you have soft peeks, now fold in cooled, melted chocolate, orange zest and juice. Allow cheesecake filling to firm up, forming stiff peeks. Now place mixture onto the cookie base and smooth out. Place in the fridge for at least 6 hours to set.
Once set, remove from the tin, I run a sharp knife around the edge of the tin before I release the spring.
SWEETENED VANILLA CREAM
200mls Doubles cream
½ teaspoon Vanilla Extract
½ Tablespoon icing sugar
2 Tablespoons Grand Marnier (Optional)
Chocolate shavings to garnish
30g milk chocolate or Terry’s chocolate Orange (melted)
Transfer the melted chocolate into a disposable piping bag, snip a small whole in the end of the bag no bigger than 2mm in diameter and pipe the chocolate across the top of the cheesecake, moving back and forth turn the cheesecake and pipe in the other direction continue this until you have your desired pattern.
Place the cream, vanilla and icing sugar into a food mixer and whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks (Keep an eye on the cream as it turns very quickly for stiff peaks to a buttery consistency which you do not want! Transfer the cream into a piping bag and nozzle of your choice (I use a 2D). I pipe in circular motions around the top edge of the cheesecake then to finish I sprinkle some chocolate shavings over the cream.
If not wanting to pipe the cream simply serve the cheesecake with the cream on the side and drizzle the melted chocolate over the top of the cheesecake.
I hope this menu inspires you to invite your fabulous friends and family over to create some wonderful memories with much love and laughter!
As promised in my last blog here is a little insight into our time spent in the beautiful Cotswolds. We visit two or three times a year and have made many wonderful memories with the children. James and I have been visiting the Cotswolds as a couple for over 10 years, although he has spent many moments throughout his childhood running through the fields with his cousins and enjoying family Easter’s walking and creating memories, we now spend time there with our children, family and friends enjoying what the Cotswolds has to offer!
We stay in the wonderful Cotswolds village, Coln St Aldwyns around a 15 minute drive from the beautiful town of Cirencester. We visit the town each time we go, usually sorting our winter and summer wardrobe for the children and ourselves, there are lovely boutique shops and regular chain stores such as House of Fraser, Joules, Crew etc my favourite shop to visit is Octavia’s, 24 Black Jack Street, an enchanting children’s bookshop where James and I take Olivia and Toby each visit to choose a new book for their book shelf at home, it’s become a fond family tradition. There are some wonderful places to grab a bite to eat, one of my favourites is the King’s Head Hotel on the high-street with beautiful décor and a feeling of grandeur, they serve up tasty classics with a vibrant modern twist.
From the cottage we stay in you can take a 2 mile walk across the fields to the beautiful idyllic village of Bibury, popular with many walkers and their dogs. After your hike take a rest in The Swan Hotel for a delicious lunch out in the courtyard or enjoy some drinks in their luxurious country bar, although get in early otherwise finding somewhere to perch after your walk can be tricky. If that wasn’t enough you can now take a trip around the Bibury Trout Farm where the children can feed the trout and enjoy a delicious local ice cream.
We are fortunate enough to have The New Inn, a 5 minute walk from where we stay, so we often head up there for a breakfast or dinner if we’ve had a busy day exploring, they also offer takeaway fish and chips if you fancy a night in! Rooms here are often sought after so book early.
A great afternoon out for the children can be found at Bird world, in Bourton on the Water, offering a great array of birds to discover and even a dinosaur walk around, Toby spent a good 45 minutes digging for bones and discovering all species of dinosaurs throughout the charming forest. Earlier in the year we visited this bustling town with friends and enjoyed a sumptuous lunch in The Dial House, this is well worth a visit. Bourton on the Water is known as the Venice of the Cotswolds, bringing in many visiting tourists meaning the town car parks get full early in the day, make a day of it and get in early!
Finally one of our favourite spots in the Cotswolds is the picturesque town of Burford, a medieval town on the River Windrush, offering many shops and eateries. With charming Cotswolds Pubs but most importantly the delicatessen that is the Cotswolds Cheese Company found in other areas too but one of our main reasons for us visiting. James and I often enjoy a cheese and chutney dinner when in the Cotswolds, usually on our last night when we are exhausted and I don’t wish to cook. It’s delicious, they offer a Cotswolds Brie that is to die for! A visit to The Angel pub down one of the side streets of Burford is a perfect place to grab a bite to eat but book early as its very popular!
One last tip, the Cotswolds Wildlife Park is a must see with beautiful gardens and dog friendly grounds it’s a great family day out!
I hope this gives you some ideas of what to do if you are visiting the Cotswolds. I have only touched on a few of the places we enjoy but they are all wonderful so now all there is to do is visit and enjoy!
BEFORE I GO…
One last snippet I need to tell you, my next blog will be a Halloween recipe special. I am very fortunate to live in a wonderful farming town where we have great local produce and in the next village over from where I live the Pick Your Own Pumpkin fields can be explored in Sevington, Ashford, Kent. Please visit pickyourownpumpkin.farm for all details.
They have been up and running for 5 years and after they selected and supported our Twinkling Stars Project a few years ago raising a substantial amount of money for our project, I have continued to enjoy taking Olivia and Toby to pick their own pumpkins each year, however this year they will be more than a candle holder to spook trickle treaters as I will be discovering and creating new recipes using a variety of different pumpkins and will be sharing my creations with you all very soon.
This year the team at pick your own pumpkin have added a few more ‘P’s for you to enjoy, so come along and pick your pumpkin whilst enjoying a glass of Prosecco and a Pizza, so get those wellies on for a fun family day out!