Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Middle Eastern Birthday Banquet

I had a low-key but lovely birthday last Wednesday. After so many days cooped up at home sick, I'd decided that I'd prefer to spend my birthday surrounded by people rather than face yet another day lying on the couch, so although I still felt pretty wonky I dosed myself up on meds and went in for my first day back at work. The day was nice and quiet (stayed in the office for lunch, nibbling on a piece of smoked trout frittata from the Auction Rooms care package that A had very gorgeously delivered to my sickbed the evening before) and at 5:30pm the lads took me down to the Derro for a quick birthday beer, before I left to join my family at Attica for my birthday dinner (review coming very soon... here's a sneak preview: it was AMAZING!).

Cous cous salad

I'd taken it very easy for the rest of the week so by Saturday I was feeling much improved. Because I'd known for a few weeks that I'd be dog/housesitting on the weekend for Mum and Dad back at the family ranch, I'd decided to take advantage of the well-appointed location, invite my close friends over there and host a birthday gourmet dinner party. When I'd tallied up the RSVPs I'd realised that I had 19 guests coming (!!) - happily, many offered to bring something, so it wasn't too overwhelming. Given my infatuation over the last few months with various forms of Middle Eastern cuisine following great meals at Maha and Mama Ganoush, I decided that the dinner would be a Middle Eastern banquet. Much to DJ's disappointment, the theme did not extend to fancy dress! :)

Birthday banquet

And now to the food! Given the large number of guests, the banquet was served buffet style. I set out a bowl of EVOO and a bowl of Egyptian dukkah.

Egyptian dukkah

I also set out a bowl of marinated olives and some seriously good labne balls marinated in chilli, garlic and rosemary. Best-friend-K had toasted some pita bread and we served it with dips brought by P.

Olives and labneDips

Miss C also brought dips and Turkish bread. Before she'd gone down the coast for the weekend, my Mum had very generously offered to supply me with a couscous salad for the dinner party.

DipsCous cous salad

As you can see, the couscous salad was studded with small pieces of green beans and red capsicum, pine nuts and juicy currants. The dressing consisted of lemon juice, olive oil and generous sprinklings of sumac.

Cous cous salad

Best-friend-K brought a sensational-looking fattoush, with wings of toasted pita soaring dramatically out of it like the sails of the Sydney Opera House. B-f-K had also gone to the extra trouble of including pomegranate seeds because she knows how much I love them. :)


Miss T was unable to source tabbouleh at late notice so brought an equally yummy variation which featured lentils.

Tashie's salad

Schatzi and O both brought chickpea salads - Schatzi warmed hers slightly. It was based on a chickpea salad she recently fell in love with at Cafe Zum Zum (which, completely coincidentally, was where I first met O).

Schatzi's saladOli's salad

L brought along some completely scrumptious lady fingers - filo wrapped cigars of meat, onion and pine nuts. Her boyfriend D graciously agreed to barbecue the chicken thigh fillets I'd had marinating for a few hours.

Lydia's lady fingers

I'd marinated them in a harissa, lime and coriander marinade I'd pinched from a Donna Hay recipe book. The fillets were barbecued to perfection!

BBQ chicken marinated in lime and harissa

My chief contribution was the lamb and date tagine I'd spent the afternoon preparing. I must say, in my opinion it was the best dish I've cooked in months! Everyone seemed to love it, it was polished off very quickly.

Birthday banquetLamb and date tagine

Mum had suggested the recipe upon hearing the dinner party would have a Middle Eastern theme - she'd seen Nigella preparing it on one of her Christmas specials, and had decided it looked so good she'd scribbled down the recipe. It may not look especially picturesque, but the effort:taste ratio is excellent, because it simply requires hours simmering away in the oven to get the right texture. The sauce is sweet and sticky and the meat simply falls apart in one's mouth... you MUST try this recipe!


3-4 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground allspice
1kg boneless leg of lamb, chopped into cubes
250g soft dried or Medjool dates, stones removed
250ml pomegranate juice
250ml water
2 tsp Maldon sea salt
(I made double quantities)

Warm the oil in a wide heavy-based pan with a lid (ideally a big old Le Creuset). Add the onions and cook gently over a low heat for ten minutes, or until softened.
Add the ground cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin and allspice and mix well.
Turn up the heat and add the lamb, stirring often, until browned all over.
Add the dates, pomegranate juice, water and salt and bring to the boil. Cover with the lid and turn down the heat to very low to cook for two hours. (You can cook in the oven if you prefer, for two hours at 150C. This is what I did. I also covered the top of the mixture with a circle of baking paper that I pressed down into the liquid before replacing the lid - kept the contents eevn moister.)

Dates from BamDates from Bam

I used fancy pants dates imported from Bam that I'd picked up a few days earlier at the Prahran Market. In addition to the five spices mentioned above, I also added some Ras el Hanout - look how pretty all the spices looked mixed up together!

Spices for tagine

To accompany the tagine I also prepared some of Nigella's red onion and pomegranate relish. This was another winner - although the red onion was raw, the fact that it had been steeped in lime juice and pomegranate juice meant that the onion didn't have that punch in the face. It tasted great with the tagine but also great on its own...

Red onion and pomegranate relish


1 red onion
60ml fresh lime juice
juice and seeds of 1 large pomegranate (or 60ml pure pomegranate juice from a bottle and 40g pomegranate seeds from a tub or packet)
2 tablespoons chopped coriander
salt, to taste

Peel and cut the onion in half, then slice into very thin half moons. Put the onions into a bowl with the lime juice and pomegranate juice and let them steep for at least half an hour.
Drain the steeped onion into a bowl, discarding the oniony juice, and add the pomegranate seeds.
Toss with the coriander and season with salt.

Red onion and pomegranate relish

If all of that wasn't enough, we then had a plethora of desserts to choose from! DJ had obtained absurd amounts of Turkish delight for me from Pearl Cafe, given my fondness for their version. A and his wife G brought more yummy fresh dates.

Turkish delightDates

As well as dates, A and G brought an assortment of goodies from Sydney Road, including some fabulous baklava.

Baklava and other pastries

More baklava and sugared almonds.

Baklava and other pastriesCandied almonds

My recent obsession with Fritz Gelato had inspired me to purchase one of their ridiculous big tins of ice cream - half pistachio, half caramelised fig with roasted almonds. Sensational!

Pistachio and caramelised fig gelati

I'd asked Miss G to make a Middle Eastern dessert - she came up with an interesting semolina pudding, sprinkled with pistachios and slivered almonds and drizzled with rosewater syrup.

Pistachio and caramelised fig gelatiGeorgie's pudding

And speaking of rosewater, we also made delicious rosewater lemonade, using a recipe that CK had kindly emailed me as soon as she'd read on facebook that I was looking for Middle Eastern recipes. Thanks CK!


5 tablespoons sugar
1 litre cold water
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon rosewater

It was very aromatic and refreshing - of course, being the Pimms addict that I am I promptly made up some Pimms and (rosewater) lemonade! :)

And as for the actual birthday cake? Well, see for yourselves!

Bunny rabbit cake

Is it not WONDERFUL? The lovely CJ had promised to make me a cake of my choice from the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book, just as she did two years ago. Two years ago I chose the piano cake (which I wrote up here) and this year after much browsing of the book I decided I wanted the bunny rabbit, probably because as a child I used to have an imaginary white rabbit called Alice.

I love how in the photo below he looks like a rabbit in the headlights. We had lots of fun playing with his eyebrows to change his expression as the evening wore on.

Rabbit in the headlights

CJ is so awesome that she spent the day making the cake for me even though she couldn't come along to the party (because it was her last night in Australia before moving overseas and she needed to say goodbye to her family). She brought it round in the afternoon and arrived at the front door holding the cake, wearing bunny ears and grinning. What a gal!

Birthday banquet

You want to know the best part about the bunny cake? Not only did it look good it tasted absolutely delicious - it consisted of two hummingbird and poppyseed cakes with cream cheese frosting.

Oh, and by some freaky coincidence, my birthday was the day when the facebook group I created dedicated to the Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Book finally reached 5000 members!

Bunny rabbit cake

All in all it was a fabulous evening: we ate extremely well and everyone seemed to have a great time, yay!

PS I took the severed head of the bunny in to morning tea at work on Monday. Needless to say, I got a few funny looks on the train... :)

Severed head


cathy said...

That sounds like a pretty awesome birthday! I especially like the sounds of the tagine and the couscous salad.
Glad to hear you're feeling better :)

Johanna said...

Happy birthday claire - what a great middle eastern feast - that cake looks so cute and sounds like it tasted as good as it looked - I just would have loved to have seen you on the train with it the next morning!

Maria said...


It feast looks amazing, I'm sure everyone had a great time, and from the photos they all ate extremely well too.

I'm looking forward to your post about Attica. I'm taking my partner there next weekend for his birthday.

Sarah said...

Happy Birthday!

Lovely feast... hehe I recognised that rabbit cake as soon as I saw it! Love that book. :D

xox Sarah

claire said...

Hi Cathy! You gotta try those recipes. Alas I had to go back to the doctor for a THIRD time today... so frustrating!

Thanks Johanna. It's funny, some people on the train clearly recognised the cake from the Women's Weekly book and were giving me goofy smiles! :)

Thanks Maria! I've got an essay for my masters due on Monday so I've promised myself I'm not allowed to write any more melbourne gastronome reviews until it's finished... but I'll then do my best to get the Attica review written before your visit next weekend! :)

Aw, thanks Sarah! Looking forward to catching up again at the BBQ - it's been ages!

Agnes said...

Happy birthday, Claire! What a great feast. :) Hope you had a great day.

Bruce said...

I wish I could have been there. I have to make the lamb and date tagine for myself and will think of you when I do. I am so glad you are feeling better.

claire said...

Belated thanks for the birthday wishes Agnes!

And thank you also to you Bruce. It was lovely to hear from you on my birthday, and hope you like the tagine!

Quail said...

Such an exotic've given me some ideas for my Christmas party--thank you!