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There was a lot of sugar at the party…

 Andouille with Apple Compote on Baguette

 … so we had to ensure that the mature grownups had something to eat too. Here is our recipe for Baguettes with Andouille and Apple compote, inspired by the tapas at one of our favorite local restaurants. Because, as everyone knows, real food makes the dessert way healthier.

 

A Better Beignet

It doesn’t take more than a trip to a carnival (or really an imagination) to know how great fried dough is, but a really great beignet can take one of the world’s best street foods to a whole new level. Last year we went to New Orleans and visited Café du Monde, the French Quarter’s premier beignet shop, but we found it to be a bit over-hyped. Like, no question they were worth every Calorie, but fried dough generally is.

 

This beignet could model, couldn't it?

 

When we began to formulate our version of Tiana’s “man-catching beignets” for Francesca’s birthday party, we knew we had to take it to the next level. Our recipe is inspired by a Buttermilk Beignet recipe we found on epicurious.

 

 

This one particularly struck our fancy because buttermilk gives so many Southern treats moisture with just a touch of tanginess. They’re quite easy to make (much much much easier than we expected) so we should warn you:  it will take a lot of willpower not to make this sometimes food every day.

 


Dreams Do Come True in New Orleans

Before we begin, I should probably warn you that this is one of our most disgraceful posts yet. It is full of scandalous Barbie cakes…

 

Tiana, courtesy of the Moulin Rouge? Yikes....

 

Underage gingerale…

 

Oh dearie me...

 

And about 12 6-year-olds on sugar highs.

 

 

It’s just shameful. They’ll probably kick us off the internet. But seriously, when you’re throwing a Mardi Gras birthday party, what else can you expect?

 

 

 

If you haven’t noticed by now, we tend to try a little too hard when it comes to Francesca’s birthday parties And I swear, we promised ourselves we’d be good this year, and we wouldn’t go overboard. But she told us she wanted a Princess and the Frog party a year ago, and since a) we had a year to plan it, b) New Orleans is one of our favorite cities of all time, and c) Princess and the Frog is the most food-centric Disney Princess movie (and, by extension, our absolute favorite), we were really left with no choice.

 

 

 

 

For those of you who haven’t seen this awesome movie, Tiana is a waitress who dreams of one day opening her own restaurant. Her beignets can only be described as “man-catching,” and she can make gumbo using only the greenery of a swamp. Suffice it to say she could win any episode of Extreme Chef with her hands tied behind her back. Powerful voodoo turns her into a frog and she travels all over New Orleans and the Bayou with her slightly dysfunctional Prince Charming (also frog), all in the span of a single Mardi Gras. It’s a wonderful movie because it displays all the many faces of New Orleans: it begins with her cooking with her daddy in her modest childhood home, then follows her through a fancy party in the Garden District and a journey through the surrounding swamp before culminating on Bourbon Street. We wanted all this to come through at our party.

 

 

When the children arrived, they first sat down to make Mardi Gras masks to get everyone in a festive mood. Like all of the activities we prepared, this one is cheap and easy to assemble. All it takes are blank masks (paper ones work much better than plastic, if you can find them) and then sequins, feathers, markers, glitter glue, or whatever else you can think of to add to the mix. And kids around this age tend to get wonderfully creative. That or we just had a group of budding fashion designers. Which I suppose is possible.

 

 

 

 

While we got the next activity ready, the kids played the one game that truly every party must have – pin-the-[something]-on-the-[something else]. Children have a wonderful way of improving on this game. Who knew pin-the-tail-on-the-easel, or pin-Cinderella’s-slipper-on-the-wall could be so entertaining? In the spirit of the story we set up pin-the-kiss-on-the-frog. We couldn’t turn him back into a prince, but the majority of them got pretty close – and they didn’t even cheat this year! We had Isabella draw our frog, but you don’t need an Isabella to try this at home… any oversized amphibian will do.

 

 

 

Next we brought everyone back to the table to make their own gumbo, just like our favorite chef, Tiana. We simply baked little puff pastry shells, and set out a variety of “ingredients” for the kids to put inside. Some of the ingredients were a bit atypical (for example, hot dogs stood in for traditional andouille), but like any stew, gumbo is flexible, even when kids are not. Before the party we made a gumbo sauce to pour over the top, for any kids who wanted it. The kids felt so grown up “cooking” their own snack, and some even requested seconds!

 

 

Mom read a beautiful rendition of The Frog Prince while we set up candy for the Edible Swamps, our final culinary activity. Inspired by those “cups of dirt” that were probably the highlight of everyone’s childhood, we gave each kid a mini tray of pudding, and an assortment of candies ranging from gummy frogs and gators to Cadbury Flake (for logs) and green sprinkles (for algae).

 

 

 

 

Before the party began, Francesca told us that “nutrients” (healthy things) were against the rules. So naturally we moved straight from chocolate pudding to the Tiana-shaped chocolate fudge cake. We blew out the candles…

 

 

 

Toasted the worlds greatest six-year-old (objectively speaking)…

 

 

And cut the cake.

 

 

The kids clearly hadn’t had enough sugar, so we sent everyone home with a box full of sweets from the green, gold and purple candy table.

 

 

 

For the grownups we made a Cajun Crab Dip, Andouille Sausage with Apple Compote on Baguette, and of course Buttermilk Beignets… because we can’t have anybody, grownup or child, leaving our house if they’re not over fed (we’re Mediterranean, we can’t help it).

 

 

When you have a year to plan a party and you have all of New Orleans to live up to, the expectations are pretty high… at least Francesca’s were. But it’s worth noting that, even a week later, all but two of her presents are still sitting, blissfully wrapped, in the living room, waiting for the day when her satisfaction wears off and she realizes what she’s missing. Mission accomplished? I think so.

 

Ps- We have, of course, about a million recipes to share with you, which we’ll post over the next week or so. Stay tuned!

Almost There

We’ve been a little AWOL over the past few days, but don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about you! We’ve just been incredibly busy getting ready for Francesca’s Princess and the Frog/New Orleans-themed birthday party! Over the past few days we’ve been perfecting our gumbo and our beignets, so that we have the perfect recipes to share with you come next week, and Isabella has been drawing some unbelievable portraits of the Princess and the Frog characters, while we’ve begun to put together a green, purple and gold candy table. We’ll have plenty of pictures, recipes, party planning tips and other surprises coming soon. Meanwhile, get yourself in the New Orleans mood by taking a look at some of our preview pictures, and checking out this awesome jazz band we found in the French Quarter last March.

 

 

Prelim for "Pin the Kiss on the Frog Prince"

Reese's Cups Get Fancy

Prince Naveen is a work in progress

Hershey's gets a Blissful makeover

 

 

 

Strawberry Flats Forever

One of the challenging things about cooking for large crowds is learning to order the right amount of food to feed, say, 300 people, a talent you’d certainly learn quickly in any restaurant kitchen or you’d go out of business.

 

There used to be a lot more where these came from... but my daughters ate them all.

 

But since my joy in life comes from teaching others to cook and I don’t own a restaurant (although I think about opening one all the time), I haven’t quite gotten that skill down. Even if I had it down, it’s really unlikely I would manage to order just the right amount. It’s in my genes to make too much food. It’s the Mediterranean in me – watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding and you’ll understand my views on feeding a crowd. The Romanians on my father’s side were just the same: there was never such thing as too much. If anyone left a family gathering growing up without being totally stuffed, that meant the mothers, aunts and grandmothers in the kitchen didn’t do their job. I’m the same way.

 

Try this at home.

 

So as per usual when I was planning for a cooking demonstration at New Haven’s Wooster Square Market last week, our hands-down favorite open air farmer’s market in our area, I ordered way too many organic strawberries to accompany the amazing vanilla-almond custard Gabrielle adeptly made before the crowd.

 

Strawberries in water - our accidental art piece. People tried very hard to steal these.

 

When the day was over, we had a flat and a half of extra just-picked, perfectly ripe, sweet, bright-red, wonderfully imperfect organic strawberries. Mark brought the girls down to the market to make an emergency extension cord run (long story) and stayed until we were done with our demo. And when I wondered out loud what we should with so many strawberries that wouldn’t last for days the way supermarket strawberries do, my husband just said two wonderful words: Strawberry Margaritas.

 

Perfect.  Mark never uses many words, but what he says always matters. And that was certainly true on Saturday.

 

I always tell the girls – and they’ve heard it so many times growing up it’s practically in their DNA – that most things in life worth experiencing – having children, a great career, friendships – require hard work and dedication. But on rare occasion that isn’t really true. Sometimes miniscule effort can bring pure joy in a ridiculously short period of time. Strawberry margaritas are like that. And the amazing thing is that you don’t have to buy Tezon Añejo to get that joy, unless of course you want to be beyond overjoyed in which case, go ahead, buy the top shelf stuff. But for us it was a warm lazy Saturday afternoon and I didn’t feel like buying great tequila, so I used what we had in the house, which was entry-level.

 

Jose Cuervo... cheap, but seriously sufficient.

 

I’ll give you the specific recipe, but it is really better to remember the simple ratio for margaritas. You’ll want to be able to do this at the drop of a hat. Think thirds: one third a cup each of tequila, triple sec, and lime juice* in the blender. It’s that simple.

 

 

This is almost everything that goes into them.

 

Add a tablespoon or two of sugar if you have a really sweet tooth (otherwise leave it out) and ½ cup of ice if you want them to be slightly less strong… so you don’t get too too lazy afterwards.

 

Just seconds away...

 

Blend well and add a cup or so of ice, and voila! the perfect, simple margarita.

 

So pretty... and it tastes so much better.

 

So sit back and relax. Enjoy the fruits of your minor labor the way Mark did on Father’s day as he sipped perfection in a glass. Cheers!

 

Colander of Strawberries

 

 

*It’s summer, a time to relax, so I won’t tell you why fresh lime juice is better. I’m sure you know. But if your choice in margarita-making is between the horrible mix that comes in a eerie green jug, or making fresh margaritas following this recipe using lime juice from a bottle instead of fresh-squeezed, we’ll look the other way because these margaritas will still be so much better than using ready-made brew and really not much more effort.  Don’t worry, we do it too.

 

Strawberry Margaritas

1/3 cup triple sec
1/3 cup tequila
1/3 cup lime juice
1 ½ cups fresh, preferably fresh picked organic strawberries
½ cup ice (optional)

Place all ingredients in a blender and mix on high for 30 seconds, or until thoroughly blended. Serve straight or on the rocks, depending on whether you added ice to the blender.  Feel free to double or triple the recipe depending on your thirst and size of the crowd!

Behind the Scenes

The slate hides behind the scenes while we wait to shoot.

It would be very pretentious for me to call myself a film buff, since that would imply I actually know something, but at the very least I’m a bit of a film junkie. I was blessed to grow up minutes from the most amazing video store in the whole world (seriously) so my childhood summers were full of movies. Before I realized how bad I am at acting (which took frighteningly long), I dreamed of being in one. I know every little girl dreams of putting on sparkly costumes, being on a red carpet and feigning surprise when she wins an Oscar, but I always thought being behind the scenes looked like more fun than all those things. When I was eight or so, my parents got me The Santa Clause on VHS, and a featurette at the end described how tough it is to make movies because, just like Santa’s Elves, filmmakers do so much work behind the scenes. It looked wonderful. And it is.

Sofia, our Cinematographer, sets up the camera

In this featurette, Bernard the Elf says filmmaking is full of waiting around. To a degree he’s right, but that’s a bit misleading. There may be a lot of time when the camera’s not rolling, but from what I can tell, it’s never dull. So much happens between takes:

Alex B. and Sofia (Camera) tinker with the 5D

This camera is a work of art in and of itself

Cyrus (Actor) stretches and warms up

Cyrus, or "Left Hand"

Isabel (2nd Assistant Director) plays Jenga, so the actors have a perfect half-completed game every time

Our actors were brilliant jenga players. Brilliant. In one take, Cyrus turned the whole thing around, when it was almost entirely stacked up. It blew my mind.

Alex L. (Director) takes a break…

This was not typical

(just kidding)

… and I get to do my dishes! Ok, I know it sounds like I’m starstruck and trying to make this sound like more fun than it is, but from mistakes and mishaps – broken microphones and rogue ringtones – to last minute requests (I was the only person on set in possession of nail polish remover), to the quiet, exhausted thrill of finding the best takes at the end of the day, the process is full of awesome, exciting extremes.

It's just like in the movies...

But you didn’t come here to learn about film, you came to learn about food, and I’ve hijacked your time (sorry) (it’s for your own good, you know), so on to more important things. Cooking for the Cast and Crew was the most rewarding adventure I’ve had had since beginning college. Cooking for 15 people, no matter who they are, teaches the arts of efficiency and flexibility like nothing else, except perhaps making a movie. One actor turned out to be lactose intolerant, so I coordinated Banana Pancakes against dairy-free scrambled eggs, Cream of Broccoli Soup against dairy-free scrambled eggs, Bread and Butter against dairy-free scrambled eggs… you get the picture. Then, I needed to have dinner ready an hour early, and my puff pastry was still frozen, so I rearranged the recipe for  Caramelized Onion Squares with Blue Cheese so that the onions would be ready just as the puff pastry finished defrosting. Then, when I didn’t make nearly enough Caramelized Onion Squares I tossed an emergency salad to stretch dinner farther. As I cooked, I realized that these challenges weren’t unique to this job, or even to catering. Cooking nearly always comes with setbacks. This was just like throwing a dinner party.

––

I remember a party where mom and I planned shrimp for dinner, only to find out, upon their arrival, that our guests kept kosher. Another time, on Thanksgiving no less, somebody (certainly nobody writing this post) pureed the mashed potatoes beyond recognition. But we found Salmon for our friends, and the mashed potatoes still tasted fine. And luckily, behind-the-scenes mishaps make great stories. Most importantly, they make the end – meal, party or film –  so much more satisfying. A lot goes into a finished product, just like Bernard the Elf said. But now I know, as I always suspected, that’s part of the fun.

See how much they're enjoying that soup? That's because I made it.

Of course, it never hurts when people thank you profusely and ask you for your recipes afterwards. Below is the recipe for Caramelized Onion Squares with Blue Cheese, my favorite of the day. It can be used as an appetizer, or as a main course aside a nice tossed salad (plan on 5-6 squares per person). Either way they’re addictive.

Below that you’ll find some final pictures of the shoot. And here is a link to the film itself [Rated PG for brief tobacco references], appropriately titled The End.

––

Also, a big Thank You to Alex for inviting me on set, and to the entire cast and crew of The End for letting me join you on this project! You were all so much fun to work and talk with, and such a joy to cook for.

Blue Cheese and Caramelized Onion Squares
Adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2006

1 ready made puff pastry sheet (i.e. Pepperidge Farm)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large onions
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon of salt
1 ½ cups crumbled blue cheese

1. Preheat oven to 375º.
2. Roll out puff pastry into a 10 x 13 in rectangle.
3. Prebake until just slightly browned, about 7-10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, melt butter with oil in a large skillet over high heat and add onions.
5. Sautee onions over medium-high heat until they are soft and beginning to brown, 10-15 minutes. Stir frequently, especially if not using a nonstick surface.
6. Add sugar and salt and season to taste with pepper.
7. Continue to cook over medium heat until onions are soft and brown, about 15-20 minutes longer.
8. Spread onion mixture evenly over dough, and sprinkle blue cheese on top.
9. Bake until crust is golden and cheese starts to bubble, about 20 minutes.
10. Let cool and cut into squares. Serve at room temperature.

Yoni, producer, works out technical issues over lunch.

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We’re All Mad Here

We take parties way too seriously at our house, so when Francesca came to us and said she wanted her fifth birthday to be an Alice in Wonderland party it was almost too much excitement for us to take. We wasted no time in beginning plans for desserts and decorations. And this was in January.

Alice in Wonderland happens to be my second favorite book, and so (since I don’t see a Huckleberry Finn party on the horizon anytime soon) I knew the Mad Tea Party had to be absolutely perfect. Making that happen meant handing off all decorating responsibilities to Mom and Isabella, who in recent weeks has blossomed into quite the artist. Isabella painted white roses red, Mom ordered 24 pink flamingos and a dozen hedgehogs for croquet, and together they set up a tea table that would have made the Mad Hatter and March Hare very proud. They tied ribbons to the (unlit) candles, and Bella made a beautiful runner out of butcher paper, featuring 20 or so quotes from the books. And, of course, they gave every kid got his or her own little tea cup for their iced tea.

But of course, if we’re being honest with ourselves, really what is a tea birthday party if not just an excellent opportunity to eat dessert?

To celebrate the black, white and red color scheme we made a red velvet trifle with the Lee Brothers’ perfect red velvet cake (but without the orange zest), cut into cubes and layered with a white chocolate mascarpone mousse (without the pear brandy for the kids) from Bon Appétit, vanilla bean whipped cream (2 cups heavy cream, 3 tbsp sugar and seeds from one vanilla bean, beaten until stiff peaks form) and chocolate chips.

We found the Lee Brothers’ red velvet cake completely by luck. It’s the most flavorful red velvet cake we’d ever tried, with a vanilla-cocoa flavor that’s deepened by lots of buttermilk. It’s light, tender, moist and completely perfect. We liked it so much, we remade it in the form of “Eat Me” cupcakes. We wrote “Eat Me” on everything – in icing on the cupcakes, and in chocolate chip cookies on the trifle and oversized brown sugar cookies.

For drinks we took the labels off of Izze bottles and glass Coca-Cola bottles and tied “Drink Me” tags on them…

…and we rounded off the desserts with a candy table inspired by the graduation.

We played croquet, had a freeze dance “caucus race,” and finished with a white rabbit-inspired bunny hop red light-green light. And of course, everybody won everything and they all got prizes!

Francesca felt so special in her Alice costume and that night over her celebratory “Chicken Terinaki” she said she had “the best day ever.” And seriously, with trifle, croquet and pink flamingos, what day could possibly be more frabjous?

Beginning of Summer and Graduation

It’s been almost three weeks since I graduated and it’s still barely sunk in. It’s so foreign to me, taking a day trip to New York without feeling guilty for putting off a paper, or going in the car without bringing flashcards. But it’s been an amazing few weeks. Now that I have no obligations, I get to spend as much time as I want playing with my sisters, taking pictures, playing the guitar, manning the cooking school booth at the farmers market and of course, cooking up a storm. In fact, cooking up a storm is the first thing I did when I got home, Sunday, June 6th. The moment my diploma was safely out of reach from any sisters or cousins who might want to color it in, I put on my apron and went to work on final preparations for my grad party.

The highlights of the party were the cheese table (above), and a cookie-candy bar (below) that was as much of a hit with the grown ups as with the kids. Doing tables like these isn’t hard. After the jump are some tips for doing one at your own party.

And for dinner, mom really outdid herself. Among the things she made were Salmon en Croute with dill, lemon and black pepper cream, Beef Tenderloin with Stilton Sauce and assorted grilled vegetables with herbs de provence. But perhaps the highlight was this fabulous, and foolproof, bacon-arugula quiche. It’s one of our absolute favorite things to make here at the test kitchen, and we’re very excited to share it with you. Click for the recipe!

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Summertime

Summer, with sunny days and fresh peaches, has always been my favorite season, but I’m especially excited for this summer because in four days I graduate from high school! I can’t wait for what will be the first summer I can remember with almost no obligations, before I head off to New York City for college in the fall! This past week has been a blur of bittersweet moments – graduation from the choir that has been my second family for eight years, going out for one last lunch before my boarding student friends fly home, and handing over the senior class to the juniors at “garden party,” one of my school’s many spring traditions. But in general my mood has been dominated by excitement for graduation and (much more importantly) my grad party.

It seemed only natural that my party would center around food, so besides cleaning and decorating the house, we’ve been busy whipping up bacon-arugula quiches, salmon-puff pastry packets, gallons of sweet tea, and millions of mocha-chip cookies and brownies. Meanwhile, we’re assembling a whimsical candy and cookie bar because, while I may be 18, I’m still very much a kid.
Enjoy a few teaser pictures for now as we prepare… Pictures of the party itself, as well as recipes, will follow soon!

 

 

 

 

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