Friday, March 29, 2013

A Titanic Affair

It's a bit like setting yourself up for a disaster, really.  We had a Titanic themed party recently (a first for me), and I offered to look after the food.  Fortunately it was just a party, not a dinner party, so I only needed to provide finger food, rather than ten or so courses.

Actually, it turned out to be a perfect party theme. The Titanic was in the news just the other day. People had the opportunity to dress up, decorations were easy and impressive, and I didn't feel too pressured about the food, with the reasoning that if something turned out to be a failure, well, that's kind of "in theme" too.  So I dared to try new recipes I had not seen before, venture out with skills I had not previously practised, and basically have fun.  There were things that weren't perfect, of course, but overall, I was pleased with how they turned out.

Vegetarian Foie Gras ("Faux Gras")

Freshly shucked oysters, served in their shells on a bed of ice, would have been classy, simple and delicious all at the same time.  But after considering cost, ability to be prepared in advance, food safety and general appeal to the less adventurous, I opted to go for something that sounded equally extravagant, without actually being so.  I made a vegetarian foie gras, or "faux gras", if you like.

Faux gras, served with crostini and fruit preserve.
There are many variations of fake foie gras.  Some people substitute the fatty delicacy with other animal-based dishes, for instance chicken liver pâté (sometimes mixed with goose fat), black cod liver, or avocado wedges steamed in a seafood broth. More vegetarian-friendly ideas include a mushroom mousse (vegan), the chickpea-based recipe in the book Wine Bar Food*, and those from anti-foie-gras campaigners, which use ingredients ranging from tofu, seitan and lentils, to "chicken style wheat meat" with bechamel sauce.

* For some reason, many people refer to this as Oprah's recipe. However, hers looks more to me like the same recipe than one "adapted from" the book.  From what I can see, the changes (apart from rephrasing "1 onion, thinly sliced" to "1 thinly sliced onion") are simply notes to the reader that:
  • the butter should be slightly softened
  • vin santo or tawny port is dessert wine
  • allowing the mixture to cool takes about 1 hour
  • it can be served spread on a toasted brioche
I chose a recipe using caramelised onions and walnuts, similar to the popular faux gras made by The Regal Vegan company.  Rather than lentils, though, I made mine with tinned butter beans, which I happened to have on hand, and which I believed would give the end product a lighter and more authentic colour, to counter the darkness of the soy sauce and marmite (yes, the last scrapings of the original version rather than the new).  I even added a bit of butter to the pâté, after discovering how good those pale streaks looked when I removed it from its grease-lined mould.

Butter beans, toasted walnuts and caramelised onions.
The verdict?  Not bad, particularly if you are a fan of beans and walnuts, as long as you are not really comparing it to foie gras. The texture was a bit grainy and dry, but I imagine that could have been fixed by using a better blender than my cheap stick mixer, and throwing in copious amounts of butter. I also found that my well-toasted walnuts overpowered the flavour of the sweet onions—my guess for what was meant by "a bag of walnuts" was clearly incorrect.  I ate the reserve batch of my concoction in a sandwich with grilled portabello mushrooms a couple of days later though, and it was beautiful.

Fail Factor
People don't expect a vegetarian substitute to taste anything like real foie gras, so I was happy to make something that looked like it and was flavourful too.  Unfortunately, in my haste, I did not properly dry the fancy lettuce leaves I served it on, and some of the little toasts I placed on top went soggy.  Salty and wet completely hit the spot for Titanic influences though, right?

Scones and Seaside Sugar Biscuits

What is more iconic for the British upper class than tea with scones and biscuits?  While I have quickly thrown scones together many a time, I have never tried to ice biscuits before, and I wanted these ones to have a nautical note.  The closest I have come to icing, up till now, was when I "glued" a gingerbread house together for the first time ever at Christmas, just a few months ago.

Cake stand with scones and biscuits.
To be honest, I found using a piping bag fiddly and inconvenient, especially since I only had one tip for fine lines. I had plans for all sorts of elaborate designs, but in the end, I gave up, stuck to two colours only, and even resorted to using a small paint brush.

Fail Factor
I didn't mix the dough for the scones very well, and they turned out very crumbly, threatening to fall apart from mere buttering.  The biscuits couldn't really be classed as a failure, as everyone raved about them, but the moisture from the icing (that, or being left overnight in the cooled oven) did soften them slightly.

Fruit Custard Tart

A fruit custard tart not only looks impressively elaborate, it is also the perfect balance between something appealingly healthy and light, and something closer to a rich, decadent dessert.  Actually, I made this for the first time to take to a summer party earlier this month, but it would fit in just as well in a Titanic party, not least because you could use all those egg whites left over from the custard to create a giant iceberg-shaped pavlova!

Fruit custard tart (not yet glazed), with glazed mini tarts at the back.
I would recommend that you at least double the recipe, because it does take a long time to put this tart together (I divided the work over several days), and you might as well get more out of it at the end.  Also, you will find that one tart serves no more than 6 or 8 people, because no one is going to hold back on the size of their slices!

Orange wedges look juicier if you slice off the membrane covering each segment.
Fail factor
Apart from not making enough of the dessert, I tried to rush through the job too quickly.  I didn't wait for the chocolate lining to set in the refrigerator, resulting in dabs of molten chocolate on the fruit and on the pastry brush when I glazed the tart.  On the topic of glaze, mine was made using a delicate elderflower jam I'd bought in Germany.  First I tried to apply it while it was lukewarm, leaving thick lumps on my fruit (as seen in the mini tarts above).  I then heated the jam until it became runny, which meant it spilt onto the plate below, rather than staying where it was brushed on.  Oh well, the tart was delicious either way.

Iceberg Punch

As soon as I came across the idea of having a large block of ice in a punch bowl somewhere online, I just had to have it, even if it meant days clearing out food from the freezer to make space. I couldn't use an ice cream container to hold the water, because a rectangular iceberg would just have looked odd.  Instead, it took a bit of thinking, juggling and spillage in the freezer before I obtained the ideal home-made chunk of ice.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a large enough clear bowl for my punch.  Once the ice was in there, there was barely room for anything else, especially when you took into account the possibility of the lump melting and spilling liquid all over the place.  I needn't have worried.  Hours after it was brought out, and many refills on the punch later, the block was still nearly intact, despite the warm weather.

Fail factor
Obviously, I was over-zealous in the ice making.  People had real trouble trying to manoeuvre the ladle around the "iceberg" to reach the drink.  This was probably just as well, as the punch was really quite potent (I became tipsy just from breathing in the fumes in the cooking process).

Other Food

We did have other food at the party, which I didn't have to put any effort into.  This included bread and cheese (it was heart-shaped too!), served with fruit like grapes and slices of pear and apple, as well as a platter of nigiri sushi.  Totally agree that Asian food was out of place, but at least it tasted of the sea.

Heart-shaped cheese and fruit.
Apart from the oysters and iceberg-shaped pavlova that I gave up on, I would have liked to have had chocolate eclairs on the table.  Or perhaps something else from the last meal on the first-class menu, like Waldorf pudding, whatever that is.  I'll believe food blogger Paula Costa of Dragon's Kitchen, when she claimed this, or at least one interpretation of it, was not that nice.  After all, she went to the trouble (and expense!) of recreating every single course of the final first-class dinner on the Titanic pretty much by herself, after having tried out many variations of recipes for some of the dishes.


If you are thinking about hosting a Titanic party too, now is a good time to get into action!  On 14 April 2013, it will be 101 years after the Titanic sank.  Okay, the 100th anniversary makes for a rounder number, but there's no turning back time, and 101 is palindromic (I was hoping maybe long-short-long would mean SOS in Morse code, but no such luck).

Here are some ideas I have gleaned off the internet, stolen from friends, or come up with myself...

Design your tickets or invitation cards based on the boarding pass for the Titanic.

Lay a wooden plank on your doorstep, that people have to walk on to enter the party.  Decorate the room with portholes, deckchairs, life jackets/rings/boats, oars, netting, and other items of a nautical nature.  You can hire props to jazz up your event, such as a ship's wheel from First Scene (that place is amazing—it's worth having a party just for an excuse to check out their things, from suits of armour to giant statues to period telephones). Lay your table with fine china or silverware.  Because my event was not a formal dining one, I just bought silver-coloured plastic plates from New World (five for $2.50 on special).

If you have the budget for it, a live band would obviously add much to the occasion.  Otherwise, you could play music/clips from the Titanic movie.  Some party sites suggest dividing your event into two sections: a formal party for the first half, and a disaster in the sea for the second half.  I guess it  makes more sense if you are going to have party games along these lines.

The Titanic theme is great because it is easy to dress up for.  Guests could come in period costume or simply dress up for a black tie affair.  Others could some as sailors, and those who really can't be bothered can just swagger in as a drunkard.  We even had pirates turn up, though I don't remember hearing about any in connection with the Titanic.

Make references to the theme, such as starting off with "Welcome aboard".

Hope you have an epic party!

This post is part of Our Growing Edge, a monthly blogging event aimed at inspiring us to try new things.  This month, it is hosted by Danielle from Keeping Up with the Holsbys.


  1. Very impressive stuff, Panda! I think you're too harsh on yourself, they all look beautiful and delicious. :-)

    1. Thanks! It was certainly fun, if also a bit hectic, putting everything together.

  2. "Orange wedges look juicier if you slice off the membrane covering each segment." This is genius. I never thought about that before.

    Ambitious post and while I enjoyed reading your failures as tips, EasyFoodHacks is right, you are too hard on yourself. Love the iceberg punch.

    Great submission to Our Growing Edge too.

    1. Cheers, Genie. I learnt that about the oranges at a cooking class I did for a work team event. In the same session, we managed to botch up something as simple as a salad by tearing the leaves into shreds and putting on too much dressing (assuming everything was pre-measured out for us, despite having been told otherwise). The salad looked more like a very oily pesto by the time we were done, but there's nothing like total failure for team bonding.

      Thanks for the encouragement, and yes, failures are things to learn from and laugh over. :)


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