I was determined to cook something I was familiar with since I simply don't have the nerve to try something for the first time for a crowd. I had visions of a cozy Italian winter meal, with hearty fare and lots of great red wine. So I did a test run of baked ziti with spicy pork and sausage ragu. Sounds totally scrumptious, right?
Alas my test run was unimpressive. Not bad, but not blow your mind good either. At this point the big day was getting close, and I didn't have much time to work something new out. So I tried one more test run on a dish I'd pulled off successfully once before ages ago - Tacos de Carnitas. I have to admit that once again I wasn't blown away, but time was short, and I thought it was pretty good party fare, so I decided to go with it. A Mexican themed birthday dinner seemed like a reasonable stand in for my original Italian concept.
My birthday menu:
First course: Queso Fundido with chorizo, guacamole (thanks to little sis and her hubby for contributing!)
Main course: Pork carnitas
Side: Grilled corn salad with cotija,
Dessert: Spiced molten chocolate cakes - I added cinnamon and a pinch of chile pepper to make it more like Mexican chocolate.
Cocktails: Mr. AT whipped up some incredible margartias with fresh squeeze orange juice and what seemed like gallons of Patron and Grand Marnier.
Being the bschool dork that I am, I made a spreadsheet to keep my timing for the night straight. There were a lot of moving parts! Of course, next thing I knew, people were showing up, I still had no makeup on, and the food was definitely not done. Thanks a lot Excel!
Despite the fact that none of my dishes were knock your socks off good, except for maybe the fondue, it was all still pretty darn good, especially for a first major dinner party effort. Biggest failure of the night was oddly enough the dish I've made the most times, the molten cakes, which typically wow everyone. This was the first time I made them in my new oven though, so perhaps that's to blame for why they were not so molten despite cooking for the same amount of time as always. The cinnamon and chile gave the cakes a pleasant kick, but they were way too dense and dry. Blurg! I was pretty bummed by those, but fortunately after a couple margaritas, some great wine, and even port brought back from our honeymoon, I'm not sure anyone's taste buds were in top form by that point!
The remnants of of an enjoyable evening
So what did I get right? Keeping the drinks flowing is key - it makes everything taste better! And be thoughtful - I had a pregnant guest so we got blood orange Italian soda for her so she wouldn't feel left out while we guzzled margaritas, and my chocolate-hating guest got creme caramel ice cream for dessert.
What did I get wrong? The main thing was that next time I will definitely seek out some dishes that can be made in advance. I had wayyyyy too much to do at the last minute, and I'd prefer to be hanging with my guests rather than slaving in the kitchen. I'm looking forward to summer cook outs because I know we can make some damn fine burgers without hours of slaving, and the onus isn't all on me since Mr. AT is the resident grill master! And never again will I do so much work on my birthday!
That said, I had a great time, and hope my guests did too. In the end, dinner parties are mostly about a comfortable atmosphere and great conversation, and on that front, I think we did alright. Practice makes perfect, so even though I am somewhat daunted after this venture, I'll definitely have to try again soon if I have any hope of becoming the confident, glamorous hostess I long to be!