The Birthday Lunch


I was too ill (only with a bad cold) to visit Nicola and Rachael as planned last weekend, so Nicola changed her plans for her birthday weekend a bit so they could come to my house for lunch today. And because it was her birthday yesterday, it turned into a birthday lunch. And Jonathan and Lyndsey came too, which meant of course Freddie as well. And because he’s now 9 months and wants to join in the mealtimes, it required a visit to a local Mothercare to buy a high chair – so we’ll have to have plenty more family meals now!

The big thing about entertaining on your own is that the priority is to have time for your guests; to look after them and enjoy their company, not to be busy in the kitchen with last-minute cooking. My kitchen is small and doesn’t accommodate onlookers; it’s not one of those big commodious kitchens where guests can stand around talking to you while you cook, with a glass of wine in hand and maybe helping out with the odd little job. It’s a be-in-the-kitchen-on-your-own type of kitchen. So it’s even more important not to need to be in it once guests have arrived!

With this in mind, all the food were things I could prepare in advance. I had a bottle of champagne to open when everyone arrived but bought just simple things to eat as snacks with it: some olive fougasse bread from Paul bakery, salted almonds, olives, taralli, hummus (that I actually bought rather than made as usual).


The main course would be Ottolenghi’s recipe for chicken with clementines and fennel, which is such a brilliant recipe (click here). I prepared it first thing in the morning and left it in the fridge in the marinade. It’s all the better for a few hours marinating and we were having a late lunch. All I had to do about an hour before we planned to eat was transfer it to a hot oven. Due to Freddie having a longer afternoon nap than usual, we were a bit later eating than planned, but the dish was very accommodating: I turned the oven down very low and it kept warm until we were ready to begin.


I served it with a brown basmati and wild rice pilaf and a green salad.


The course that I spent most time on was dessert. I made our usual family celebration cake –  Torta Caprese – but decided to add to the usual recipe by  making a chocolate ganache icing. It’s basically the same recipe as for chocolate truffles but the ratio of chocolate to cream differs according to how you intend to use the mixture. For truffles you want more chocolate – a 2:1 ratio of 2 parts chocolate to 1 part double cream. For a thick icing – as I wanted – you use a 1:1 ratio. You want the same weight cream – which isn’t the same as volume. Thus, my 170ml carton of double cream weighed 160g, so I used 160g dark chocolate with it. You also need really good chocolate of at least 70% cocoa solids.


Chocolate ganache icing: Warm 170ml (160g) double cream in a small saucepan gently until you just begin to see little bubbles round the edge. Don’t let it boil. When you can still put a finger in without burning yourself, but wouldn’t want to leave it in too long, then it’s hot enough. Remove from the heat and add 160g finely chopped dark chocolate. Stir a bit and leave for a couple of minutes for the chocolate to start melting in the warm cream. Then gently mix it altogether with a spatula, turning as you stir it in. Stop as soon as it all comes together and leave to cool. Don’t, however, let it get very cold; you need it to be spreadable, not hard, for icing the cake. The cake, of course, should be completely cold – baked earlier. Spoon the ganache onto the top of the cake and spread evenly across the top. I didn’t want to go down the sides but just follow the line of the heart-shaped cake.


When the icing had almost set, I sprinkled over some pretty dried and edible rose petals (which my friend Linda bought me earlier in the year when she was visiting and I’d been waiting for a good opportunity to use them!). I also added two candles for the birthday girl.


Nicola blew the candles out and cut slices for us – making a birthday wish too, of course! There was crème fraîche to go with it – more suitable than cream, I think, for its tangy sourness contrasts better with the rich cake.


Freddie wasn’t old enough for chocolate cake but seemed happy enough with the healthier option of cubes of fresh pear and other fruit Lyndsey offered him. As for us adults, well there’s really nothing we like better than Torta Caprese. We never seem to tire of it. And the addition of the ganache icing made it even more gorgeous than usual – and the pretty rose petals made it more special for the beautiful birthday girl!


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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

11 thoughts on “The Birthday Lunch

  1. I make something so similar but with oranges, a few pitted black olives and a slug of Pastis to accentuate the fennel flavour. At the end as we are ‘wet’ people I remove everything to a hot dish in the oven while I make a quick gravy with the addition of a little chicken stock to the wonderfully tasty juice left in the pan.
    I agree with you – this dish or any small variations on the same theme – makes a real winner of a dinner.

    1. Thanks, Di. Ottolenghi does in fact suggest Pernod (which I say in the original post that’s linked to this one) and the juices are made into a sauce at the end, as you describe. The addition of black olives sounds good too 🙂

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