The other day, our friend Jonathan celebrated his 29th birthday and took it upon himself to cater and bartend his own party. Yes, smile to yourself. You may have taken on such an ambitious adventure at some point, and then, like me and like Jonathan, you’ve probably concluded that you should cater out the party next time. Or ask friends to help you cater it. Despite the sweating and ambition, Jonathan’s party was a smash hit! Quite a few friends jumped in and helped, too. And the food was fun!
He baked this incredible three full layered cake, teeming with chocolate and candied ginger. Now, you might wonder why I say “full layered.” If you’ve baked layered cakes much, you’ll probably notice that the more layers the cake has, the shorter each layer is, if that makes sense. Generally, the layers are sliced thinly and evenly to make stacking them easier. Jonathan didn’t trim as much off each layer, so the cake measured about a foot high, and he had (wisely) decided not to stack the remaining two layers of cake atop the precarious but fabulous tower.
He also made an almond meal and buckwheat tart in which I piled my thick, lightly sweet vanilla pastry cream. We topped that with a freshly made cherry compote and julienned candied ginger. Yum! As one guest, Rebecca, pointed out, the tart wasn’t the overly sweet incident that can sometimes be passed as a tart. Okay, I paraphrased, but we’ve all had those delicious-looking-sugar-rush tarts that leave you pining for black coffee. Straight. No cream. No sugar.
He also provided a wonderful cheese platter, fresh sourdough baguettes, gluten-free crisps, and a fusilli with vodka sauce. I don’t know if he ever escaped the kitchen, but the party was great.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand, which was “don’t cater your own birthday parties.” If you insist on cooking for your own party, I recommend just a few things.
First, choose a menu with items that can be prepared well in advance and simply plated or set on the table at the start of the party. Cheese platters, charcuterie meats, and prebaked, room temperature tarts all fit that bill nicely.
Second, enlist the help of friends who are efficient, attentive, and able. You don’t want them to feel like catering staff, but it will help you socialize with your guests and look radiant rather than ragged. Make sure they’re comfortable with the menu and with your kitchen. Discuss pinch-hit options as well, like if the punch bowl is AWOL or if you run out of ice.
Third, cook items with which you are familiar, and don’t try a new recipe that might challenge your culinary expertise. Or if mini souffles are really what you insist on serving all 15 of your guests, then do at least one – and maybe three – test-runs prior to party day.
Fourth, get into your party attire at least one hour before start time, so if something takes longer to prepare or plate, you’ll be all dressed for the party. It’s really awkward when I get caught in the kitchen with my shower towel on.
Finally, at some point, just give up the fancy party menu and pretentious doilies and just enjoy yourself. Make sure you have enough beverage supplies and simple snacks available to entertain guests. They won’t remember that the homemade croissants with freshly made frangipan never made it out of the refrigerator.