A party is surely the one occasion when children can be allowed to eat what they want, not what they ought. And children prefer sweet to savory. Harking back to the annual Christmas parties we gave for our children, now teen-agers, I remember the vacuum cleaner speed with which chocolate cookies, candies, ice cream, any form of cake were consumed. Sandwiches, even peanuts, languished until adults, exhausted by the decibel and energy level of 20 under-tens would absent-mindedly snack between rounds of blind man's bluff.
So this menu caters openly to children's tastes. The chocolate brownies, marbled with a cream cheese mixture, are chewy and slightly less sweet than usual. Honey stars, golden and frosted, add a festive touch. Meringue mice and snails charm all ages and keep well too. Sometimes I tint half the mice with pink food coloring and some of the snails with a teaspoon of powdered coffee dissolved in hot water.
The party centerpiece is a wonderfully sticky cake filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with hot chocolate fudge sauce. Set a few meringue mice to nibble at the base of the cake, with a procession of snails across the shiny brown top. Illuminated with candles, it has become the standard birthday cake in our family.
As a contrast of taste, the fruit punch is tart, based on orange and grapefruit juice and effervescent with carbonated lemonade. The bill of fare can be varied with cocktail sausages, miniature pizzas, meatballs or cubes of cheese on sticks but I wouldn't go to any trouble. Let's face it, potato chips and popcorn will be appreciated just as much as the finest homemade cheese straws. Timetable
A gentle schedule that leaves plenty of time to organize the party.
Two to three weeks ahead: Make meringue mice and snails and store in airtight container.
One week ahead: Make marbled brownies and store in airtight container. Make honey stars and store in airtight container.
Up to 2 days ahead: Make chocolate cake and sauce; refrigerate sauce and store cake in airtight container. Chill juices and lemon drink.
Up to 2 hours ahead: Arrange brownies, honey stars and meringues on platters for serving. Set the table.
30 minutes before serving: Transfer ice cream to refrigerator to soften. Mix punch without adding lemon drink.
Just before serving: Reheat chocolate sauce, sandwich cake with ice cream and pour over sauce. Finish punch. MARBLED BROWNIES (Makes 30 2-inch brownies)
Like all good brownies, these have a crusty top and a rich, crumbly center.
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla
FOR CREAM CHEESE MIXTURE:
4 tablespoons butter
2 3-ounce packages cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
Grease an 11-by-11-inch cake pan, line base with waxed paper and grease it also.
For the chocolate mixture: melt chocolate with butter over low heat, stirring until smooth. Let cool. Beat eggs until mixed, add sugar and continue beating until light and thick, 4 to 5 minutes. Sift 1 cup flour and all of the baking powder and fold into egg mixture in 3 batches, adding chocolate and 1 teaspoon vanilla with the last batch.
For the cheese mixture: cream butter, add cream cheese and beat again until creamy. Beat in an egg with half the sugar, then beat in remaining egg and sugar. Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla and remaining 2 tablespoons flour.
Pour half the chocolate mixture into the prepared pan and cover with spoonfuls of cheese mixture. Add remaining chocolate mixture and with a spoon handle swirl batter until marbled.
Bake brownies in a 350-degree oven until crusty, 30 to 35 minutes. While still warm cut in 2-inch squares. Brownies can be baked up to a week ahead and stored in an airtight container. HONEY STARS (Makes 40 2-inch stars)
Tie ribbons around these stars and hang them on the Christmas tree as decoration (if using a round cutter, poke a hole in the center for hanging).
3/4 cup honey
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups flour, more if necessary
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 cup confectioners' sugar
3 to 4 tablespoons water
Warm honey until syrupy and stir into sugar. Add egg and beat until thick and light, 4 to 5 minutes. Sift flour with baking powder, soda, cinnamon and ginger. Stir into mixture, then work to a smooth, slightly sticky dough, adding more flour if necessary.
Grease an 11-by-15-inch jelly roll pan. Press dough into pan in a flat layer with your fist and chill 15 minutes.
Bake dough in a 350-degree oven until golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. While dough is still hot, stamp out stars or rounds with a 2-inch cookie cutter and transfer them to a rack to cool. If cookies become too difficult to cut, reheat in oven for a few minutes.
For decoration, sift confectioners' sugar into a bowl and stir in enough water to make a pourable glaze. Brush cookies with glaze, scatter with sprinkles and leave to dry. Note: The flavor of honey stars improves if they are baked up to 1 week ahead and stored in an airtight container. MERINGUE MICE AND SNAILS (Makes 40 to 50 animals)
For shaping mice and snails, a piping bag and 1/4-inch plain tube are essential.
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup water
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup currants
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
Line 2 to 3 baking sheets with nonstick silicone paper, or thoroughly butter and flour them.
To make the meringue: in a heavy-based pan gently heat granulated sugar with water until dissolved. Bring to a boil and boil syrup until it forms a soft ball when a little is lifted on a spoon and dipped in cold water (248 degrees on a candy thermometer). Meanwhile, stiffly whip egg whites in a large bowl. Beating constantly, add hot sugar syrup in a slow steady stream. Continue beating until meringue is cool, then beat in vanilla.
Fill meringue into piping bag fitted with plain tube. For mice: pipe about half the meringue onto baking sheets in teardrop shapes 2 1/2 inches long, trailing the end to form a tail. At rounded end set two almond slivers for ears and a small piece of currant for nose. For snails: pipe 20 to 25 2-inch sticks well apart on baking sheets. Pipe a spiral "shell" on each stick, leaving one end protruding as a snail head. Add 2 pieces currant for eyes.
Sprinkle meringues generously with confectioners' sugar and bake in a 275-degree oven until firm, 3/4 to 1 hour. If they start to brown, reduce heat to 250 degrees. Remove meringues from baking sheet by pulling off paper or lifting them carefully with a spatula. Meringues can be kept 2 to 3 weeks in an airtight container. HOT CHOCOLATE FUDGE ICE CREAM CAKE (12 servings)
Ring all sorts of changes on this recipe by substituting vanilla or coffee-flavored cake for the chocolate sponge, and use orange or strawberry sherbet instead of ice cream. Note: the recipe must be made twice (and not merely doubled) to serve 24.
FOR THE CHOCOLATE SPONGE CAKE:
3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
FOR THE CHOCOLATE SAUCE:
3/4 pound semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups strong black coffee
1 1/2 quarts vanilla ice cream
Butter two 12-inch cake pans or two 10-inch springform pans, lining the base with a round of buttered waxed paper. Sprinkle pans with flour, discarding excess.
Sift flour with cocoa. Break eggs in a large bowl and gradually beat in sugar. Set bowl over a pan of hot but not boiling water and beat until mixture is light and thick enough to leave a ribbon trail when the whisk is lifted, 8 to 10 minutes. Take bowl from heat, add vanilla and continue beating until cool. If using an electric beater, no heat is necessary.
Sift flour over batter in 3 batches, folding in each batch as lightly as possible. Pour into prepared pans and bake in a 350-degree oven until top of cake springs back when pressed with a fingertip, 30 to 35 minutes. Turn out on a rack to cool. Cakes can be baked up to 2 days ahead and stored in an airtight container, or frozen.
For chocolate sauce: in a heavy pan melt chocolate in coffee, stirring often. Simmer over medium heat until sauce coats back of the spoon, 3 to 5 minutes. Sauce can be made up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated.
To finish, leave ice cream in refrigerator 1/2 hour to soften slightly. Set one cake on a platter, spread ice cream on top and add remaining cake. Press top lightly to flatten. Reheat sauce on top of stove until very hot. Pour sauce over cake so it coats top completely and drips down sides. Add a few meringue mice around edge of cake and set a line of snails across the top. Serve cake at once. ORANGE PUNCH (20 to 25 servings)
Appreciated by adults, too!
1 quart orange juice
1 quart grapefruit juice
2 quarts carbonated lemon-lime drink
2 quarts ice cubes
1 orange, sliced
At least 6 hours ahead, chill juices and lemon drink. Up to 30 minutes ahead, mix juices in a large punch bowl and add ice cubes and orange slices. Chill if possible. Just before serving, stir in lemon drink.