Smaller Dinners

Although I am known for grand dinner parties like the one I blogged about a few weeks ago (, I also love more intimate dinners. Six or eight people around a table is a nice number, because most recipes are given in quantities for six, and a bottle of wine pours six to nine glasses (depending on the size of your glass). However, there are times when you're hankering for something a little more relaxed, or maybe you need to have a serious or more sensitive conversation, or you just want a quieter night. These are the times when dinner for two or four is wonderful.

There are a number of recipes I can always rely on. These are things I've been cooking for years, recipes I know by heart and can easily play variations on when I'm entertaining. They're brilliant when I'm cooking for ten, as I often do, because I know they can be done in advance, and the recipes are easily scaled-up without loss of quality. When I have few guests, though, I can afford to be a bit more experimental. I can splash out on ingredients that are new to me and try out unfamiliar styles or processes. A few years ago, I challenged myself to improve my understanding of French pâtisserie. Over the course of a year, I learnt how to make joconde sponge, génoise, different types of pastry and crèmes bavarois, chiboust, and mousseline. My smaller dinners that year were finished with all manner of cakes and pastries. I would never claim to be anything more than basically competent, but all that practice allowed me to confidently serve a multi-layered gâteau at a dinner for ten at the end of the year.

Layers of joconde sponge, crème bavarois and crème chiboust, topped with candied fruit and coffee beans

Caneton à la presse
There are some very "cheffy" dishes that you simply couldn't serve to a large table unless you were confining yourself to the kitchen for the night. Anything that takes a lot of last-minute processing is difficult to produce for large numbers. For an intimate dinner with the Beloved, I was able to produce the (in)famous pressed duck dish that is the calling-card of the Tour d'Argent restaurant in Paris. It simply wouldn't have been possible for larger numbers, but was perfect for the two of us. You can read about it in this article I wrote in The Yorkshire Times:

On another occasion, more recently, I was able to serve pommes dauphines, not the similarly-named baked dish we all love, but little clouds of puffed mashed potato that have to be fried on the last minute. To make them, you have to work choux pastry batter through finely puréed potato, then drop small balls of the mix into hot fat to fry. I don't have a mechanical mixer, and working a large quantity of the mix by hand would be too much for my weak arms. Making dinner for four was a perfect opportunity to show off a little and delight my guests with something they had never had before.

On a very practical level, feeding smaller numbers gives me a chance to play with expensive ingredients. The night I made the pressed duck for the Beloved, I was also able to open a grand cru Burgundy to go with it. One bottle is a rare treat; more would risk bankruptcy!

A generous friend was coming to dinner not so long ago. He presented me with 50g of caviar when he arrived, so the menu was immediately adjusted to incorporate the delicacy, with a glass of chilled Lakes Distillery vodka on the side. What luxury it was to be able to eat a decent quantity of caviar, split between the four of us!

That same evening, I served a walnut mousse for dessert. The recipe called for fromage blanc. This is higher in fat than fromage frais, and I could not get hold of it. Even the online French grocery had run out. Time to experiment. I used live buttermilk for lactic culture and rennet to separate the curds. If this didn't work, I could always run out to the shops for ricotta. The following morning revealed the curds and whey nicely separated, with the curds just sharp enough for my mousse. All I had to do now was hang the curds in cheesecloth to drain, leaving a lovely, rich cream cheese behind.

I don't think I'll ever stop hosting dinner parties for larger numbers, but more intimate dinners can be both a special treat and a necessary chance to practice. Who knows what might come out of the next one?

Pommes dauphines

Next time: simple, delicious soups


  1. Mmm. Those potatoes sound lovely. Another brilliant blog. Thank you so much.

    1. Thank you. The potatoes aren't even that difficult, just more of a faff than you'd want to attempt for 8 or 10 guests.


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