The 70s was the era of the dinner party. Never more so than in foreign lands where expatriates clung together, socialising amongst themselves by circulating around each other’s houses, consuming pineapple cubes on sticks, platters of coronation chicken and boeuf Wellington – all washed down with enough alcohol to drown a liver or two. At eighteen I started my married life as an expatriate wife, set to travel the world, with postings in Ghana, Zambia, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Bahrain, and Haiti.
At first glance this life might seem glamorous: free accommodation, servants galore, pools to lie by, coffee mornings to go to, cocktail parties to dress up for. The positives, as seen by friends stuck in drab grey England, were endless. The negatives were less obvious but, nevertheless, were there. Accompanying partners, for the most part, weren’t allowed to work unless you could manage to hook one of the highly desired jobs in a consulate. As a twenty-something, occupying my time was therefore a challenge.
It is difficult now to imagine that a life without internet, tv, cinemas, newspapers, or even English speaking radio could be possible. The only thing that kept me sane was the British Council library. Coffee mornings were sometimes obligatory, but I was a good ten years younger than the other wives and had little in common with these kind and capable women. To start with I couldn’t cook or drive. I will always be grateful to a couple of cook boys who helped me not poison my husband in those early days – especially important as he was my sole driving instructor!
It didn’t take me long to realise that entertaining in each other’s homes, was an important duty for a good expat wife, but, boy, was it competitive! You were evaluated by your house – very junior staff weren’t allowed fitted carpets, so in one location a foot was cut off the carpet in the bungalow we were allotted so as to be suitable for our residence. Personal soft furnishings were an indicator of your taste and ability to ‘decorate’, and how good your servants were, was a judgement on your capabilities as a manager.
I survived my first couple of years of entertaining by flaunting my youth and mini-skirted legs – more popular with the men, I realise now, than the other wives. But it finally sunk in that to succeed and be ‘the perfect hostess’ I would have to learn to cook. Dinner parties in the 70s were of the formal variety. You were judged on your ‘napery’, glassware, cutlery, flower arrangements, and seating plans. And then there was the food.
Canapés – served with cocktails – were followed by a three course meal accompanied by appropriate wines. A cheese platter was never an option as cheese was rarely imported, but chocolates of the After Eight variety were served with coffee and liqueurs. If you were higher up the food chain, you could employ professional cooks already trained by previous expat families. But for most expats, the day-to-day cooking was done by the cook boy/girl and any entertaining was supervised by the wife. Not all were brilliant cooks. I remember once not being able to eat a starter of oeuf en gelée because I was completely overwhelmed by the look of a soft-boiled egg wobbling in brown jelly. But those occasions were rare.
By the time I arrived in Bahrain, I was reaching peak boredom. Small son was at school. I had time on my hands, so my project became ‘I’m going to do better than any Joneses’ zenith of hostessing. I made everything by hand – tiny blinis to balance caviar and sour cream on, beef Wellington encased in homemade paté, and homemade pastry. I even rolled my own chocolate truffles.
One of my favourite desserts – or the one that received the most ‘Ooohs’ as I carried it to the candlelit table – was a Baked Alaska. These were the days before the advent of a cook’s blow torch, so it was a dish greatly reliant on a last minute dash into the kitchen, pulling the ice cream covered sponge out of the freezer drawer, covering it with meringue (made earlier, but it would need a bit of an extra whip), and getting it into the truly hot oven before the Bahrain heat had a chance to melt it. A relaxing meal it was not. Of course, it was a show stopper.
Nowadays, like everybody else when we have people around for supper, the table is just a hop away from the kitchen, and I have been known to shove a pan of soup and a ladle on the table and ask people to help themselves. My kind of entertaining now, though I like to be as prepared as possible so that I can spend more time talking with my guests than stirring things in saucepans. However, it’s still fun to put something on the table that has the oooh factor. As it is coming up for Christmas and I have multiple jars of mincemeat in the fridge marinating in an extra dose of rum, I thought I would have a go at creating my own version of Baked Alaska, especially for Christmas.
Christmas Individual Baked Alaskas – 4 portions and 30mins preparation – although time to cool needs to be added to this.
A packet of your preferred brand of Puff pastry.
Vanilla Ice cream – it must be a brand that sets hard. I used Marks & Spencer’s Madagascan Vanilla
1 egg white
100 gm of caster sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar.
Make the mincemeat tarts first. Heat the oven to 200C. Roll out the pastry, about 5mm or so thick and cut out 4 large bases to fit a shallow individual cup baking tray. Fill them with mincemeat so that the tart case is slightly heaped. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove immediately from the tray and cool completely on a rack.
While the pastry is cooling, using an ice cream scoop, hollow out 4 semi-circular balls of ice cream, place in a china bowl and put in the freezer for at least 15 minutes.
Place the cold mince tarts on a baking tray, press the semi balls of ice cream, flat side down on top of the tarts and then replace in freezer.
Heat the oven to 240C – It may take a good 15 minutes to reach the required temperature. Make the meringue by whipping up the egg white to soft peak stage. Add half of the castor sugar with a pinch of cream of tartar. Continue whipping to glossy and hard peak stage. Be careful not to over whip.
When the oven has reached the right temperature, take the tray of pies out of the freezer. Cover the pies and ice cream with the meringue using a teaspoon, ensuring that all of the ice cream is covered. I like to make peaks with the back of a spoon. You could, if you are good with an icing nozzle, do something more elaborate. Place the tray in the oven for 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.
NB: You can also cover the tarts with meringue and then put the desserts back in the freezer for up to an hour but they will require an extra 3-4 minutes in the oven.
This is a great alternative to Christmas pudding, especially for children.