Set the table for summer

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It’s summer!  Which means it’s time for alfresco dining. During this glorious weather we’re experiencing, we’ve been heading outdoors in the evening to soak up every last ray of sunshine while we can.  Balmy summer evenings are the perfect time for slowing down, being with friends and family, celebrating togetherness and good food, and spending as much time as possible outdoors before the nights begin to draw in and the mercury plummets.

Preparing a meal for even the smallest crowd outdoors is no easy feat. I like to keep the food simple and prepare as much as I can ahead of time, partly so I can concentrate on prettifying the table, which is my favourite bit.  

Creating an atmosphere that’s cosy and a little bit magical is always my main mission, whether eating indoors or out. The trick when dining outside in the evening is to keep the colours of your linens and accessories light and bright. 

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That way, once dusk falls, you can see what you’re doing more easily as any available light bounces off them.  I’ve recently added these rather lovely rattan Bloomingville placemats to my ever growing tableware collection (I think I’m a bit obsessed) and, since I love them so much, I decided to make them the starting point for the casual but pretty look I wanted to achieve here.

I don’t think themes are always necessary when putting together a table setting, in part because I always think a relaxed look is the way to go, and I think choosing a theme can look and feel a bit forced.  But I do like to start with a colour palette in mind, and for this table the new mats informed the decision on which route to follow. I decided to keep the overall tones neutral and natural with pops of subtle colour that would be provided by the flowers and the summery fruit that decorates the cake and is served alongside it.

 
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Flowers are non-negotiable on any dining table as far as I’m concerned. The searing heat followed by sudden torrential torrents of rain have left my garden looking a bit overgrown. But, although we’re going through a bit of a “green” phase - where the delphiniums and roses are over and the cosmos and sweet peas are yet to burst into bloom - my lovely dahlias (if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m a recent convert to the wonder of dahlias) are providing some much needed colour at the moment. 

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I really don’t like spending money on flowers in the summer when they’re so abundant in the garden and the surrounding fields and try to utilise what I have at my fingertips. But my husband did bring home some beautiful pale pink peonies that provided a perfect starting point for my jam jar arrangements.

Being careful to pick out colours that compliment and don’t overpower each other, I mixed some of these with some apricot, off-white and pale pink dahlia varieties from my garden, along with fronds of my trusty pampas and feather grasses (and some others picked from the hedgerows), hydrangeas, flowering thyme and white nigella flowers.  The cake is decorated with tiny individual purple hydrangea petals and the salad and tart with borage and viola flower heads.

By the time the warm weather finally arrives, I want to be out of the kitchen as much as possible. During this long, hot summer of ours, I’m all about keeping the food fresh and light. An outdoor summer feast should feel carefree and effortless and I like to opt for simple, seasonal dishes that can be easily put together, mostly ahead of time.

Roasted asparagus and spring onion tart, new potato and paprika frittata and a simple but delicious fresh Greek-style salad served with a zingy garlic and lemon dressing were the simple dishes on the menu; with fresh papaya, strawberries, apricots and cantaloupe and a towering four tier Victoria sponge and Chantilly cream cake laden with berries for dessert. 

Here’s how I made them:


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Asparagus and spring onion tart

Ingredients

320g ready rolled puff pastry

Small bunch of asparagus (hard stalks removed)

Bunch of trimmed spring onions

The zest and juice of half a lemon

150g cream cheese

80g goats cheese

Pea shoots

Edible flowers (optional)

One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil

20g parmesan or grana padano


Method

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C (180 for fan)

Cut a disc of the pastry approx 30cm diameter, then score a line 2-3 cm inside the edge.  Put the goats and cream cheese in a bowl.  Add the lemon zest and juice and beat together.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Spread the cheese mixture over the pastry up to the scored line. Place in a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Slice the asparagus and spring onions diagonally to make slivers around 3 cm wide and arrange over the cream cheese base. Drizzle the olive oil over the top and put into the middle of the oven to bake for around 25 minutes (check it regularly to make sure the vegetables aren’t burning and turn down the heat slightly and move to a lower shelf in the oven if they are).  Once ready and cooled slightly, scatter with pea shoots, parmesan shavings and edible flowers (I used violas).


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Potato and paprika Frittata

Ingredients

400g boiled new potatoes

One small onion

2 tablespoons cream cheese

1 tsp dijon mustard

4 eggs

2 heaped tsps smoked paprika

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tbs chopped parsley

2 tbs olive oil


Method

Fry the onions in a tablespoon of the oil in a non-stick frying pan for 2-3 minutes.  Add the potatoes and continue to fry for about 6-8 minutes.  In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, mustard, parsley, garlic and cream cheese.  Add the paprika to the onion and potato mixture and cook for one minute. Tip the egg mixture into the  pan, mix quickly, then lower the heat. After about 10 minutes, once the top side has almost set, put the frittata under the grill for 2-3 mins until firm and golden.


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Tiered strawberry and Chantilly cream cake

Ingredients

800g self raising flour

800g unsalted butter

800g caster sugar

600ml double cream

4 eggs

400g fresh strawberries

30g icing sugar

1 tsp Vanilla paste

Strawberry jam (I used Bonne Maman strawberry conserve)


Method

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C (170 for fan). Cream together the butter and sugar, then add the sieved flour and eggs gradually (or put the butter, flour, eggs and sugar into a mixer together and beat). Grease and line two 25 cm cake trays and divide half the mixture between the two trays (to make four tiers, you will need to make two tiers at a time of you only have one oven and two trays, like me!).  Bake in the middle of the oven for around 25 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean when you poke it in the middle of the cake.  Set to one side on a cooling tray.  Wash and re-line the cake tins and repeat with the rest of the mixture. Add the vanilla paste and sieved icing sugar to the cream and then beat the cream in a mixer (or by hand) until it forms stiff peaks. Once the cakes are cool and ready to assemble, cut any domes off the tops of the cake layers and turn them upside down.  Place the first layer on a plate and spread with jam and then a layer of cream.  Repeat with the rest of the layers. Spread cream on the top and then arrange sliced strawberries over the top (and around the cream on the side if you like), dust with sieved icing sugar and decorate with flower heads and/or petals (I used hydrangea petals, which are not edible!).

 

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