Note: Half a year ago I posted an article about how to plan meals large and small called Le Plan de repas. The article generated many fine comments and a number of questions. It contained a description of how a hastily assembled meal for four was planned and executed. Based on a couple of the questions, I decided that it would be helpful to post a detailed plan and narrative for a more complicated event. Thus the following...
In the middle of January, I was asked to put together a party for a group of friends to celebrate my wife’s birthday. The intention was for the party to be held on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of February. If everyone on the invitation list came, there would be thirty-seven adults and seven children in attendance. From the beginning, I assumed that at least of a couple of the invitees would not be able to attend.
I immediately decided that based on the time of day—late afternoon—and the small size of the venue—my living room—that most of the guests would eat while standing. Consequently, the food would consist of small servings that could be eaten with fingers. Most of the food would be for adult tastes except for a couple of dishes more suitable for the children. Two-thirds of the dishes would be savory and the remainder would be sweet. The accompanying drinks would be limited to red and white wine, sparkling water, and coffee.
Upon consulting a local caterer about the typical consumption of finger food at parties, I learned that I should plan on each person eating six pieces per hour. In my planning, I assumed that the average adult would stay two hours and therefore eat 12 pieces. I assumed that the children would eat less and mainly consume the raw vegetables and the fruit.
As soon as I started to plan the menu, I decided that the cold dishes should be on the buffet table by the time the first guests arrived and that the hot dishes would be passed around the room as soon as they were available from the kitchen. From this I decided that it would be impractical to serve more than five or six different hot dishes during the party. One, I needed to do the final cooking and plating for each dish after the party had started, and, two, someone had to pass the plate around the room. Over the next week or so I put together the menu along with a plan as to how each dish would be served.
From the menu I could see that I would have sufficient platters and bowls to serve everything assuming that one large, round, white platter that was used early on could be washed and then reused for the chicken. I also had access to two standard-size rectangular chafers. I purchased some half-width disposable pans for these so I could put two preparations in each, one pair over ice water and one pair over hot water. In the end, the cold chafer was used for the raw vegetables as planned and the stuffed salmon, which wasn’t planned. Doing so freed up a platter for the chicken. During the party, after each hot dish was passed around, whatever remained to be served was transferred to the hot chafer for the guests to serve themselves.
It was obvious from the beginning that some items of service, namely small plates, demitasses, forks, wine glasses, water glasses, and a coffee urn, would need to be rented. This is very convenient since they don’t need to be washed before returning to the rental company. Ten days before the party, the rental was arranged with a local supplier. At about the same time, I arranged with a local university student to help with plating, serving, and clean-up. She would come a half hour before the party and stay until all the hot dishes were served.
Since my recipes are usually written for smaller proportions than would be required for the party, I transcribed each into a separate file with the proportions scaled up. I also indicated on the recipes steps, that could be completed ahead of time. (Clicking a recipe title above will pop-up a window with the scaled up recipe. To access the same recipes with standard-sized portions, search for the recipe by name in the site recipe index.)
Knowing the menu, I was able to prepare a work schedule for the party. The goal was to do as much as possible before the day of the party. The preliminary plan looked similar to the following:
• Finalize shopping list
• Shop for Friday ingredients
• petits pains au lait: prepare dough; proof; bake; store at room temperature
• tuiles aux amandes: bake; store at room temperature
• gâteau aux noix: bake cake; cool; unmold; chill overnight
• truffes au chocolat: prepare ganache; form ganache into balls; chill overnight
• pâté campagne: grind meat; season & mix; form in molds; chill overnight
• Shop for remainder of ingredients
• Pick-up rental items, flowers, and paper goods
• saucisse de Montbéliard: thaw sausage
• petits pains au lait: thaw ham
• ailes de poulet à la cannelle et à la citronnelle: thaw chicken wings
• gambas au vinaigre d’estragon: thaw shrimp
• dodines de saumon farcies: form salmon rolls; cook; chill overnight
• pâté campagne: bake; chill overnight
• gâteau aux noix: frost; chill overnight
• truffes au chocolat: prepare couverture; coat balls with couverture & cocoa; chill overnight
• tartare de tilapia au endive: prepare tartar; chill overnight
• crudités au sauce paprika: cut vegetables; chill in water overnight; steam artichokes; chill
• petits pains au lait: cut ham; assemble sandwiches; chill until serving
• gâteau aux noix: cut; plate
• dodines de saumon farcies: prepare sauce
• pâté campagne: cut; assemble with cornichons; plate; chill until serving
• crudités au sauce paprika: make dip
• gougère au lard: cut & cook bacon; grate cheese; prepare dough
• crème de gouda: grate cheese; prep other ingredients
• saucisse de Montbéliard: prepare sauce
• ailes de poulet à la cannelle et à la citronnelle: prep ingredients
• gambas au vinaigre d’estragon: peel & devein shrimp; prep shallots & tomatoes
• crudités au sauce paprika: plate & serve
• Pick-up coffee
• gougère au lard: pipe dough; bake; hold in oven for serving; plate & serve
• tartare de tilapia au endive: prepare endive; assemble; plate & serve
• dodines de saumon farcies: cut; plate & serve
• petits pains au lait: plate & serve
• tuiles aux amandes: plate & serve
• gâteau aux noix: plate & serve
• truffes au chocolat: plate & serve
• crème de gouda: cook; plate & serve
• saucisse de Montbéliard: heat in water; drain; cut; grill; plate & serve
• ailes de poulet à la cannelle et à la citronnelle: cook; plate & serve
• gambas au vinaigre d’estragon: cook; plate & serve
On Monday, I had the final guest count—thirty-three adults and seven children—so I prepared the shopping list. In all, I would have to go to seven markets to complete my food purchases. My wife would make two trips to the rental company, a trip to purchase the paper goods, a trip to the florist, a trip to the coffee bar, and a last minute trip to a nearby market for some fruit.
In reality, since I had some spare time and the ingredients already on hand, I wound up baking the petits pains au lait on Monday and freezing them until the morning of the party. On Tuesday, I baked the two gâteaux aux noix. After they cooled, I wrapped them tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerated them until Saturday, when they were frosted.
The remaining Friday activities were completed on Thursday and many of Saturday’s were completed on Friday. The shopping was mostly completed on Thursday and just a couple of fruit items were purchased Sunday morning. Not shown on the shopping list is the wine, which was all purchased in advance, and the sparkling water, which was purchased at one of the stores while the other shopping was being done. The coffee was ordered from a local coffee bar and picked up just before the party. Paper goods were purchased at various times in advance of the party as part of other non-related trips.
On Sunday morning, I rolled out of bed a bit early, exercised, and ate my breakfast. At about nine-thirty, I started the day’s preparations. My wife completed the set-up in the main room, did some last minute shopping for fresh fruit, and helped with a couple of the preparations in the kitchen. Everything proceeded on schedule, without rushing, until about three. At this point, we were slightly behind in plating, but it all worked out fine since the first guests didn’t arrive until about three-twenty. Their late arrival did push the preparation of the hot dishes back a little since I didn’t want these to all be done before most of the guests had arrived. It turned out there was nothing to worry about since all but a few arrived in the next twenty minutes.
What became a bigger problem was that a couple of guests insisted on staying in the kitchen for the entire time I was cooking. So in addition to the guests that came to the kitchen to say hello, which I had expected, at any time I had two to six additional people in my small kitchen to work around. I was fairly successful at keeping these kibitzers out of my path and concentrating on whatever I was cooking or plating. I avoided participating in the conversation going on around me as much as I could. My assistant had a harder time since she needed to get them to move so she could get to the supplies and to the trash.
At about five-thirty, the last dish was cooked and passed, and I left the kitchen to join the guests. The last guests left a few minutes before seven. Clean-up started immediately. By nine-thirty, when the house looked like it normally looked and the car was packed with all the equipment to be returned to the rental company the next day, my wife and I sat down for a little nightcap. It was then I realized that I hadn’t sat since I started working twelve hours earlier.
By all accounts the party was a success, and within a few nights, the leftovers were all gone. It was about a week before my wife would stop talking about how much she liked her party.