Weeknight Entertaining with Olga Morawski

Cacio e Pepe

Having friends over for dinner isn't always about putting on an impressive feast. Of course it's nice to impress, but it also should not be forgotten that the art of putting on a great evening and being a truly great host is in fact about the time spent with your guests. Here’s a three-course meal that will not only be enjoyed by your guests, but by you too.

Taking inspiration from the Italians, renowned for their drawn out meals over mouth-watering yet uncomplicated food, the advance preparation of two out of the three courses means that you will be freed up to spend some quality time with those around you. Not only will they be wowed by the food that's placed before them, but also by the calm with which you are able to pass the evening.

To start, welcome guests into your home with the delicious scent of freshly baked bread, presenting them with homemade rosemary focaccia ready to tear and share whilst catching up on recent news. The joy of making this loaf is in how easy it is to get a fabulously light, aerated texture without any call for kneading. Simply leave the mix to prove for 24 hours, tip into a tin, pop in the oven and you’re done!

For the main course add the wow factor to a comforting dish of peppery pasta by serving it in Parmesan baskets. Devoting a small amount of time to this presentation technique will transform a simple meal into a gourmet treat.

And to wind down, mull the rest of the evening away over crunchy little pieces of nutty brittle that are perfectly accompanied by clementines or frozen red grapes and an after dinner digestif such as grappa or brandy

So look forward to an evening of unpretentious dining, with a Weeknight Entertaining menu that will allow for you and your guests to cosy up to some great food, and even better conversation. And in addition to all this, you'll please the vegetarians amongst you (and those feeling the overload of turkey and pigs in blankets) with not a scrap of meat in sight all night!

Focaccia
(makes one loaf)

240ml warm water 
7g active dry yeast (1 standard sachet)
1 tsp sugar
240g strong white flour, sifted
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
3 stalks fresh rosemary, cut into 1 – 2 inch lengths
Sea salt

-        In a large mixing bowl add yeast and sugar to the warm water, stir briefly to combine and leave yeast to activate. This will take approx 5 minutes.
-        Once the ‘small explosions’ beneath the water’s surface have subsided, tip in the flour, salt and 2 tbsp olive oil. Gently mix until just combined.
-        Cover the bowl with clingfilm and store in a cool place for approx 24 hours. Be extremely careful not to jiggle the bowl any more than absolutely necessary. Following it’s resting time the dough mix will appear risen and aerated.
-        Pre-heat oven to 180C.
-        Slowly tip the mixture into a baking tin - about 20cm in diameter - evenly oiled with 2 tbsp olive oil. Take care to knock out as few air holes as possible.
-        Insert the rosemary pieces evenly spaced vertically into the dough. Drizzle the top with 1 – 2 tbsps of olive oil and sprinkle generously with sea salt.
-        Place in the oven and bake for 30 – 40 minutes, until the top has hardened slightly and is lightly golden in colour. A skewer should come out clean when inserted and removed from the bread.
-        Allow to cool a little before removing from the tin. Leave to cool a little longer (if desired, cool completely) before serving with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a seasoning of freshly ground black pepper to dip in.

Cacio e Pepe
(serves 4)

300g dried spaghetti (allow approx 75g per person)
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp olive oil
200g finely grated pecorino (or parmesan), plus extra for serving
Fresh basil
Salt, to taste

-        Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and cook spaghetti as per packet instructions so that it is al dente. Drain pasta, reserving the water.
-        Meanwhile, heat the oil in a non-stick shallow pan that will be large enough to hold the pasta. Add the black pepper and cook until fragrant, approximately 2 minutes.
-        Add a couple of ladles of reserved pasta water to the pan and bring to the boil.
-        Place the spaghetti in the pan, spread out, and sprinkle over half of the grated cheese. Mix together with tongs until thoroughly combined, then add the rest of the cheese and mix until the sauce is smooth and creamy. Add extra pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce.
-        Season with salt to taste if needed.
-        Serve inside parmesan baskets with a sprinkling of cheese, more pepper, and a garnish of fresh basil leaves.

Parmesan Baskets

75g finely grated parmesan (per basket) 

-        Pre-heat oven to 180C.
-        Select a medium, fairly deep bowl approximately the size of which you would like your serving of pasta to be for each person.
-        Line a baking tray with non-stick baking parchment.
-        Thinly spread the grated parmesan in a circular disk on the parchment. Adjust the amount of parmesan / size of disk if you feel it necessary, so that when melted it will roughly fit over the outside of your chosen bowl.
-        Place the tray in the oven and bake for 4 – 5 minutes, until the parmesan has melted, is golden and bubbling slightly.
-        Remove tray from oven and work quickly to gently remove the parmesan from the parchment with a spatula. Upturn the bowl and lay the parmesan disk over the top, creasing it where necessary to fit the shape of the bowl.
-        Allow parmesan to cool before removing from bowl.
-        Repeat above process until enough parmesan baskets as needed have been made.
-        Bear in mind that – as when making pancakes – the first parmesan basket may not turn out perfectly and so should be treated as a test for timings / amount of cheese needed.
-        Baskets can be made a day in advance and kept in an airtight container.

Salted Almond Brittle

225g sugar
60ml water
55g butter
2 tbsp golden syrup
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
160g almonds, toasted and chopped (pistachios or hazelnuts can also be used)
Sea salt
Dried rose petals (optional)

-        Line a tray with non-stick baking parchment.
-        Combine sugar, water, butter and golden syrup in a saucepan and bring to the boil.
-        Over a moderately high heat cook until the mixture has turned a deep amber colour. Stir occasionally, taking care for it not to burn. This can take anywhere between 10 – 20 minutes depending on how dark you like your caramel.
-        Once you detect the first hints of a lightly burnt aroma removed the pan from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda. Mix well whilst the caramel bubbles.
-        Stir in the nuts and spread the mixture evenly over the lined tray, working quickly as the sugar sets fast. Try to distribute it as thinly as possible (0.5 cm minimum).
-        Whilst the caramel is still soft, sprinkle over sea salt to taste, and decorate with rose petals if using.
-        Allow to cool completely, approx 30 minutes, then break up into shards.
-        This can be prepared many days in advance if necessary, simply store in an airtight container. Serve after dinner with coffee, or a digestif.

Olga Morawski