Thanksgiving Prep Series, Part 3

This will be the last installment in the Thanksgiving prep series since next week is the big week, and we’ll all be in the midst of prepping, cleaning, etc.  My last bit of planning involves making a detailed timeline for Thanksgiving day itself.  Any time I host an event with multiple dishes needing to be prepped, assembled, cooked or baked, etc. and get everything finished at the same time, such a timeline is essential.  Even if things get a bit off track or if you get ahead of schedule as I did last year, the timeline helps keep me focused and prevents me from forgetting things.  Especially when guests are in the kitchen talking with you as you prepare the meal, you can get distracted but a quick glance at the list gets you back on course quickly.

I always create my timelines in the same way.  In general, I work backward from the time I want to serve the meal and go from there.  For Thanksgiving, I start out my plan with the two key times of the day on the list: the we sit down to eat, and the time guests arrive.  (Side note: This is my favorite pen and I use it for writing all my lists.  I hate when I can’t find it.  Thankfully it is a freebie from my hair salon so I grab one every time I am there.  Does this make me crazy?  Never mind, don’t answer that.)

With the arrival time in mind, I plan times to have various appetizers ready and list those accordingly with times they should go into the oven, come out of the oven, etc.  You want appetizers to be warm for guests as they arrive, and also not so close to the meal time that people are full.

I use the same principle when planning the various side dishes that need to be on the table when the turkey is ready to be served.  Thankfully the turkey roasts at 350˚ F, which works for all of the sides I have planned.  Even if a recipe indicates a temperature of 375˚, you can certainly bake it at 350˚ without issue, maybe adding a few minutes to the baking time if necessary.  So, once the arrival and meal times have been established, all the side dishes can be filled in around that timeline.  There are still some big gaps which I will surely fill in later as I think of additional small details, but this is the basic framework I use for planning.

Finally, the last list I make for such an event (which I haven’t made just yet) is a list of what bowl or platter each dish will be served in.  You don’t want to be rushing around at the last minute trying to find more platters or bowls, or realize that the dish you just spooned the mashed potatoes into would have been better used for another purpose.  Planning this in advance leaves little to be decided at the last minute, so all you really need to do is stick to the lists and execute the meal plan.

And that’s it.  That’s how I plan my Thanksgiving.  Now it’s almost time to make it all happen.  Don’t forget, the most important thing is to enjoy the day with your loved ones.  If something goes wrong, it will be okay so don’t stress, just have fun!

Other Thanksgiving-related posts:
Thanksgiving Prep Series, Part 2
Thanksgiving Prep Series, Part 1
Roast Turkey
Our First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Prep Series, Part 2

I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving plans are coming along nicely.  This was a slow week for me as far as prep tasks are concerned.  With the menu already planned, I just did a couple of minor organizational tasks.  Now is a good time to take stock of what sort of containers you have available for guests to take home leftovers, and replenish the supply if needed.  Everyone knows one of the best parts about Thanksgiving is the leftovers, and guests shouldn’t be left out just because they aren’t hosting.  I have a variety of containers from Garnish which should do nicely.

It is a good idea to give your fridge, pantry and freezer a thorough cleaning and reorganization sooner than later.  If you are hosting a large meal, you will need somewhere for all the ingredients to go and you don’t want to have to worry about reorganizing once you get home and your counters are covered in groceries.  I took the time to do that this past weekend and I am so glad that I did.  It really doesn’t take very long to give each area some attention, and when you are finished there is so much more space and order to things.

Now that all the home and kitchen-related tasks are mostly taken care of, it’s time to focus on the food.  Namely, the timeline.  I make two separate timelines for each and every event or party I host.  One is a general timeline, planning out the specific tasks that can be done in advance to spread the work out over several days, or nights in my case.  The other is the specific day-of timeline, but I’ll discuss that more next week.

The first thing I do to get the advance prep timeline together is analyze my menu and figure out what can be made in advance (fully or at least partially).

The things I can do in advance are:
Make puff pastry, apple compote for baked brie
Make snack mix
Make, freeze spinach artichoke dip
Make, refrigerate stuffing
Chop broccoli, shred cheese for gratin
Cut butternut squash and brussels sprouts
Make, freeze multigrain rolls
Make honey butter, compound herb butter
Make cranberry sauce
Make most desserts (3 pies, 2 cookie varieties)
Make, decorate favor sugar cookies

Then, starting up to one week before Thanksgiving, I divvy up these tasks so that I can do a few things each day and not be too overwhelmed or busy on one day.  Here is how my breakdown ended up:

I will definitely end up entering this into my Google calendar because it keeps me on task, and I love checking off the boxes.

Stay tuned for next week when I’ll share my strategies on creating my day-of timeline.  Thanksgiving will be here before we know it!

Other Thanksgiving-related posts:
Thanksgiving Prep Series, Part 1
Roast Turkey
Our First Thanksgiving

Roast Turkey

Without a doubt the thing that most intimidated me about hosting my first Thanksgiving was cooking the turkey.  I mean sure, I’ve roasted chickens before, but no chicken is as large as the 23 pound bird we brought home from the butcher.  To be honest, before last year I never even liked Thanksgiving turkey.  In my experience it always seemed dried out and bland, but somehow it was still the centerpiece of the meal.  Drowning it in gravy didn’t seem a good solution either – I mean, why even eat it at all if it doesn’t taste good?

Thankfully good old Alton Brown gave me all the confidence I needed in tackling the task.  Have you seen the episode of Good Eats about roast turkey?  If not, you need to.  It is always played numerous times throughout the month of November, but in case you don’t catch it, check it out here.  According to Food Network, this has been their most popular recipe for six years running and it is obvious why.  Thanksgiving is a big holiday, and the turkey is a big deal.  Let’s do it right!  As Alton explains in the episode, brining makes for a wonderful turkey by locking in moisture and flavor.

For me I think the biggest issue of making the turkey was logistics.  Namely, what sort of container is large enough to hold the bird and all the brine without making the level of brine so shallow that it doesn’t come close to covering the turkey.  This is harder than it may sound.  My best advice from last year is to figure out what container this will be early on.  Everything we had available – cooler, various large storage containers, etc. were either way too big or a few too small.   Ben ended up running out to the hardware store the day before Thanksgiving and found a perfect size galvanized metal cooler that was exactly what we needed.  Also consider where you will be able to store the bird once it is in the brine.  If your fridge is full of various side dishes for the following day, you’ll need a plan B.  I fully intend to purchase a second refrigerator for our garage some day but for now, the chilly Indiana nighttime works just fine.

One final entertaining tip is to plan some sort of garnish to go around your finished turkey.  Last year I happened to have some leftover green and purple kale from another recipe, so it worked well.  I think a combination of greens and fruit looks great, but whatever you do, at least use something.  After you spend all that time making a lovely, perfectly browned bird you want to present it well.

Roast Turkey
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1 (14-16 lb.) fresh turkey*

For the brine:
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup light brown sugar
1 gallon vegetable stock
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
1½ tsp. allspice berries
1½ tsp. choppe candied ginger (I omitted)
1 gallon heavily iced water

For the aromatics:
1 red apple, sliced
½ onion, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
4 sprigs rosemary
6 leaves sage
Canola oil

To prepare the brine, combine the salt, brown sugar, vegetable stock, peppercorns, allspice and ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the solids.  Remove from the heat, cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate until ready to use.

The night before you plan to serve the turkey, combine the brine and ice water in a 5 gallon bucket (or larger for a bigger bird).  Place the thawed turkey (innards removed) breast side down in the brine.  If necessary, weigh down the bird so it is fully immersed.  Cover and refrigerate or set in a cool area for 8-16 hours, turning once halfway through brining.

Preheat the oven to 500˚ F.  Remove the bird from the brine and rinse inside and out with cold water.  Discard the brine.  (Be sure to clean out your sink well after this step!)

Place the bird on the wire rack inside a roasting pan.  Pat dry with paper towels.

Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick and  1 cup water in a microwave safe bowl.  Microwave on high for 5 minutes.  Add the steeped aromatics to the cavity of the turkey along with the rosemary and sage.  Tuck the wings underneath the bird and brush the skin liberally with canola oil.

Roast the turkey on the lowest rack of the oven at 500˚ F for 30 minutes.  Insert a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and lower the oven temperature to 350˚ F.  Set the thermometer alarm, if available, for 161˚ F.  (A 14-16 lb. bird will take about 2-2½ hours.)  Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil for 15 minutes before carving and serving.

*You can certainly make a larger turkey with this recipe.  I made a 23-pounder last year.  It will obviously take longer to cook through, and an instant-read thermometer is absolutely essential for knowing when the bird is properly cooked.  You also could use a frozen turkey, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  For one thing, many frozen turkeys are injected with a salt-laden preservative that will cause your bird to be overly salted after brining.  And plus, it’s Thanksgiving!  Go for the best quality ingredients available – fresh tastes better.  If using frozen, thaw in the refrigerator 2-3 days before roasting.

Source: Alton Brown via Food Network

Thanksgiving Prep Series, Part 1

Halloween is over and suddenly, it’s November and Thanksgiving is just weeks away.  Last year was my first year ever hosting turkey day and I had an absolute blast.  For me, hosting has given this holiday new life.  I used to not really look forward to it much, but having family in our home and cooking the meal myself makes it so much more enjoyable.  Keep in mind I work full time right up to the day before Thanksgiving (as well as the day after – booo) so planning and working ahead is what makes this manageable.  I thought I would share a few posts about my strategies and timelines.  I’m going to do this as a three part series over three weeks.  This week I have focused on general planning and home/kitchen preparations.

First things first – make a guest list.  Depending on how formal you want your event to be, you could even mail out invitations.  Our family is definitely not that formal so I just called or spoke to everyone and made sure they were planning on coming.  If possible get RSVPs within the week or so, that way you can have a head count in mind when making all your preparations.

When planning your guest list, be sure to keep in mind how much seating you have available.  If you don’t have enough seats, make arrangements to accommodate everyone.  (Throwing together a couple of card tables with a tablecloth over them never hurt 🙂 )

Make sure you have enough serveware available for all guests to have plates, glasses, silverware, etc.  Now is the time to figure out what is missing so you have plenty of time to obtain extras.  Also think about tablecloths or table runners, place mats, napkins, etc.  Finally, be sure you have enough serving platters, large bowls, bakeware and such for all the dishes you plan to serve.  If you don’t want to purchase new items, borrow what you need from family members.

Table decor can really help set the tone of the meal and pull an event together.  Start thinking about what sort of table decor you might want – vases of flowers, candles, small pumpkins and gourds, greenery, etc.  Place cards are also a really nice touch.

Also consider any other sorts of home preparations that might be necessary.  If any of your guests will be staying overnight, be sure guest bedrooms and bathrooms are clean and put together.  I just had our kitchen tile and grout as well as our carpets professionally cleaned.  This is yearly maintenance that should be done anyway, and just before hosting Thanksgiving is a perfect time to do it.

And of course, since this is a holiday that centers around food, start planning your menu.  If possible finalize it, though that may only be possible after you have a firm head count on guests.

Finally, order your turkey.  I always try to cook with quality ingredients but in the case of a turkey where it is the main course and centerpiece, this is essential.  A fresh turkey that has not been frozen is best – I’ll discuss the turkey in more depth later this week.  I order our turkey from our local butcher shop and we pick it up the day before Thanksgiving.  One perk of speaking with a butcher is that they can recommend the right size bird for your needs (including how much you want for leftovers!)

Here is my menu as of now:

Thanksgiving 2010
Baked Brie en Croûte with Apple Compote
Homemade Party Snack Mix
Baked Spinach Artichoke Dip
Roasted Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce

Main Course:
Roasted Turkey with Cider Shallot Gravy

Side Dishes:
Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes with Sage Butter Crumb Topping
Broccoli Gratin
Brussels Sprouts and Butternut Squash with Bacon Vinaigrette
Honey Yeast Rolls and Multigrain Rolls
Honey Butter and Compound Herb Butter
Cranberry Sauce

Caramel Apple Cheesecake Pie
Pecan Pie
Pumpkin Pie
Cookie Platter with Chocolate Turtle Cookies, Cinnamon Stars and Cranberry Crumb Bars

*I only post recipes that I have tried before and would recommend, so any of the recipes on the menu that are new to me will not be shared prior to Thanksgiving.  I will be sharing some of the recipes from last Thanksgiving in the upcoming weeks.

Finally, you might want to make some plans for post-turkey day relaxation.  I scheduled myself a massage for the Saturday after Thanksgiving 🙂

Foodbuzz 24 x 24: Ice Cream Social

We may have felt the first few wisps of fall air but as much as I love it, I’m trying to enjoy summer while it lasts.  For me, a perfect way to spend part of my Labor Day weekend was hosting an ice cream social party for our friends.  Though I’m most definitely one to enjoy ice cream even in the dead of winter, this seemed the perfect end of summer gathering.  Lots of friends attended and I can say with confidence that this party was a huge hit with adults and kids alike!  Also, an awesome added bonus of this party was that in addition to receiving a stipend from Foodbuzz to make it all happen, Foodbuzz partnered with Electrolux made a $250 donation to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund for mine and each of the other 24 x 24 parties that was hosted this weekend.  Not only that, but Electrolux has committed $750,000 to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, and Foodbuzz is getting involved not only by sponsoring all the 24 x 24 events, but also by donating a matching amount to the OCRF. Being a physician and seeing cases of ovarian cancer far too often, I was thrilled to be able to host a party and have it benefit a good cause as well.

When thinking about this party, I wanted it to be all about ice cream.  I thought for a while about serving some other foods to help balance the sweets, but I thought my friends would be able to handle the ice cream extravaganza so I just went with it.  I served each course one at a time so they could be savored individually, and also so we could pace ourselves – we’re talking seven courses of ice cream, after all!  I made sure to keep the serving sizes small so that everyone would have room for sampling all the treats.

Hosting an ice cream party with all homemade goodies definitely required planning and foresight, as the ice cream maker had to refreeze between each batch.  I basically made one batch of ice cream every day the week leading up to the party.  One of the best things about throwing an ice cream party was that because everything needed to be frozen, all the treats were finished well in advance of party time.  No real last minute prep was required here, which I loved.  My vision was to create a variety of homemade ice cream treats that are all variations on classic ice cream favorites.  I had so very many ideas that I could probably host four more ice cream social parties and not do the same thing twice.  Eventually, the menu was pared down to include:

Strawberry milkshakes
Tartufi (ice cream truffles)
Orange creamsicles
Brownie and coffee ice cream cupcakes
Blueberry pie a la mode cupcakes
Chocolate and vanilla ice cream sandwiches
Banana split sundae bar

Milkshakes are such a classic ice cream treat, I just had to include them in the menu.  These strawberry milkshakes greeted guests as they came in to the party.  I was a little disappointed because I really wanted to serve these in cute shot glasses, but apparently no store in my immediate area sold shot glasses – how weird!  Guess I’m just used to growing up in a college town.  Thankfully some fun straws and napkins helped with the presentation.

The next course was tartufi, or ice cream truffles.  Including chocolate ice cream as part of the menu was an absolute must, but I thought this was a fun and unique way to present it.  I used chocolate ganache ice cream as the center of these, since ganache is the traditional truffle filling.  Everyone at the party seemed to have different favorite treats, but I think I heard the most people say these claimed their top spot.

Most people remember the classic orange-vanilla ice cream pops as a childhood favorite.  These pops had a flavor reminiscent of the store bought variety, but these are much tastier.  The fresh orange zest and orange juice give these a really bright, refreshing flavor.  These were almost like a palate cleanser.

Oh, and they were a big hit with the kiddos, including my little cutie pie.

Next up were these brownie coffee ice cream cupcakes.  Cake and ice cream are always a winning combination, so ice cream cupcakes are a neat little package of deliciousness.  I’ve made ice cream cupcakes before, and it’s fun to play around with the flavor combinations.  Since coffee ice cream is my absolute favorite flavor and brownies are awesome (duh), these were a no brainer.  I topped each one with a chocolate covered espresso bean for a finishing touch.

Some of the kids weren’t excited about these because of the coffee, but Ethan sure seemed to enjoy his!

Certainly one of the most common ways to serve ice cream is alongside a slice of pie or a serving of crisp, cobbler, etc.  These blueberry pie a la mode cupcakes were my spin on the classic combo to make it mini and portable.  Blueberry is my favorite variety of fruit pie, so this was one of my favorite treats of the night.

I think Gavin liked it too.

Ice cream sandwiches are a quintessential ice cream treat, so I had to include them.  I was thrilled with how they turned out.  I’m sure any flavor combo would be great and I will definitely be playing around with many variations, but for this occasion I wanted to stick with the classic chocolate cookie-vanilla ice cream combo.

The sundae bar was the last treat of the night.  I used roasted banana ice cream as the base for the sundaes, as a fun twist on the usual banana splits.   I think this was actually my favorite of all the courses because make-your-own sundae bars are just so fun!  It makes me feel like a kid again to see how many toppings I can get on my sundae.

The sundae bar was a happenin’ place to be!

And of course, I had to send guests home with some additional sweetness.  I packaged up the leftover ice cream in these cute pint containers.  I was already planning on doing this, but now I’m really glad I did or I would have had ice cream in my freezer to last for a few months.  And we all know I need to be trying new flavors instead 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this peek into our party!  Recipes will be forthcoming for the strawberry milkshakes, tartufi, orange creamsicles, blueberry pie a la mode cupcakes and ice cream sandwiches.

Vendors and Resources:
Paper Source – ice cream cone stamp, pink and white polka dot paper
Garnish – pint containers
Bake It Pretty – gelato spoons, gray striped straws
Target – black and white damask napkins, green and white striped napkins
Ruffled – free printable alphabet bunting

Soft Pretzels

This is not the first time these soft pretzels have appeared on the blog.  Almost exactly one year ago, I hosted a summer fun and games night for my friends, and I served these pretzels.  They were a huge hit!  At that time, I mentioned that it might be a good idea to experimenting with freezing the pretzels at some point in the process to avoid having to make them fresh just before a party, therefore making them more party-friendly.  In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to keep myself fairly busy in the kitchen, and I never got around to the pretzel experiments, but I also never forgot.  Finally I decided to just buckle down and make it happen.

So, recently I tried three different methods of making the pretzels.  First, I made them the usual way – shaping the dough, boiling, baking and serving all at once (pretzel A).  I also tried freezing some that had been freshly boiled and baked (pretzel B).  I thawed these in the microwave on defrost and then rewarmed in the oven.  Finally, I tried freezing some of the shaped pretzels after shaping (pretzel C).  I boiled these directly from the freezer, adding about 15 seconds to the boiling time, and baking for a minute or two longer than normal.

The verdict?  All three methods work wonderfully.  Ben and I agreed that of the two pretzels that had been frozen, those that were boiled directly from the freezer and then baked (pretzel C) were just ever so slightly better in texture than those that had been frozen after baking. That said, all of the options were fantastic and I would not hesitate to serve any of them at the party.  That is fantastic news, so you can choose whatever option is most convenient for your schedule.  I have left the recipe below as is, but just know that you have several prep choices available.

Soft Pretzels
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For the dough:
1½ cups warm water (110-115° F)
1 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. kosher salt
2¼ tsp. instant yeast
22 oz. all-purpose flour (about 4½ cups)
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for greasing the bowl

For finishing:
Cooking spray
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp. water
Pretzel (or kosher) salt

To make the dough, combine the water, sugar, salt and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Mix on low speed to dissolve the yeast.  Add in the flour and melted butter and mix just until the dough comes together.  Switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed until the dough is smooth and clears the sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes.  Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly greased with vegetable oil, turning once to coat.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place, about 50-55 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

Preheat the oven to 450° F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and spray lightly with cooking spray.  Bring the water and baking soda to a boil in a large saucepan or stockpot.

In the meantime, divide the dough into 8 equal pieces.

Working with one piece at a time, roll a segment out into a 24-inch long rope.

Make a U-shape with the rope and holding the ends of the rope…

cross them over each other and onto the bottom of the U-shape in order to form the shape of a pretzel.  Place onto the parchment lined baking sheet.  Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 or 2 at a time, for 30 seconds.  Remove from the water with a slotted skimmer and return to the baking sheet.  Once all the pretzels have been boiled, brush the tops with the egg wash and sprinkle lightly with salt.  Bake in the preheated oven until dark golden brown, about 12-14 minutes.  Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Source: Alton Brown via Food Network

Andrew’s Second Birthday Party

Andrew turned two a couple of weeks ago.  Um, what?  How is that possible?  It’s truly amazing how time has flown since we were blessed with our little man.  It’s also mind boggling to see how much he has changed in that short time, and how quickly he is learning.  It’s impossible to describe what a lively boy he is and what a huge personality he has, but I’ll just say we feel unbelievably lucky to have him as our son.

Of course, being the planner and party thrower I am, I was very excited to plan this event.  This year I went with a Dr. Seuss theme because Andrew really likes a lot of the Seuss books and he loves the movie “Horton Hears a Who!”  Here are some pictures from our very fun day!

As always, I feel the invitations really set the tone for an event.  These were easy to make and I loved how they turned out!

I printed out some of my favorite quotes from Dr. Seuss books and hung them in the entryway with red and blue streamers to help set the fun atmosphere of the party as soon as guests walked in.

I couldn’t get a good shot with all of the quotes in the same picture, but there were seven of them.  It was tough to narrow it down!

I’ve seen this birthday banner idea popping up all over the place.  I just couldn’t resist making one myself!  It was fun and easy to make and guests loved looking at it.  So did Andrew!

So, I’ve been positively dying to create a sweet table or dessert buffet, and I thought the red and blue colors would really pop.  Boy, did they!  It was difficult to get a good shot of the whole table so I took a few different pictures.   Here is what was included on the sweet table:
Red velvet whoopie pies
Oreo truffles with blue candy coating
Marshmallow pops with blue candy coating
Sour cherry candies and berry blue Jelly Bellys
Pretzel rods dipped in red and blue candy melts with sprinkles
Red and blue rock candy
Strawberry pops
Caramel corn (you know I can’t resist it)
Coke in glass bottles with red and blue striped straws (I love Coke in glass bottles – it’s an obsession)

I made this little banner to hang above the sweet table.

Instead of making a birthday cake large enough to feed our 30-some guests, I opted for cupcakes with a small 6-inch cake at the top of the tower.  Turns out, making a cupcake tower is easy as can be and it makes for a really nice presentation.

I made “Thing 2” cupcakes using red velvet cupcakes, cream cheese frosting, and blue cotton candy for the “hair”.  I thought these looked really cute and everyone seemed to get a kick out of them.  One thing to watch out for with the cotton candy topping is, as you probably know, cotton candy dissolves in contact with liquid – and frosting.  Thank goodness I did a test run early in the day and found that it dissolved after 30-60 minutes, so the topping was the very last thing I did before guests arrived.

Of course I just could not resist doing green eggs and ham for the food, so I went with green deviled eggs and ham and cheese sliders.  People loved it!

Wow!  These sliders were so awesome.  I loved them and I’m not usually much of a ham person.  They were devoured quickly.  I’ll be sure to share this recipe in the future!

I kept the non-sweet food table pretty simple.  Other than the green eggs and ham, we did a veggie tray, fruit skewers, and potato salad (not pictured).

The birthday boy had a fantastic time, and really loved the cake (can you tell?)  I had ordered him a cute “Thing 2” t-shirt to wear but the Etsy seller I ordered from shipped it the day before the party (despite assuring me she had shipped it one week prior.)  Fail.  This shirt seemed to work though!

Our living room was positively covered in toys, wrapping paper, boxes, etc.  Andrew dove right in.

Of course I had to make some favor cookies for the guests.  I made the little “thank you” tags with a stamp and red embossing power – cute and easy!

Oh, how I love this boy.

Vendor Information
Bake It Pretty – red cupcake wrappers, red and blue striped straws
Paper Source – thank you stamp, red and blue polka dot papers
Oh! Nuts – red and blue rock candy, blue cotton candy

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: There’s No Place Like ONE Home Celebration Dinner

I have some very happy news to report – we have finally sold our old house!  Those who have been reading a while may remember that we moved into our wonderful new home back in the fall, but unfortunately it took us a bit longer to get rid of the old one.  Initially I had planned to make a celebratory meal when we moved into the new house, but paying two mortgages did not make me feel like celebrating at all.  I decided to push the meal back until we could truly celebrate both our new house and having only one house payment!  I also thought this would be a great opportunity to share the occasion with some of our closest friends who have been so supportive during the last few months when times were tough.  I’m thrilled that Foodbuzz sponsored this meal.   I always enjoy being a part of their 24, 24, 24 event.

Selling the house has felt like a huge weight has been lifted off of us, and I wanted this meal to be a truly elegant and decadent celebration.  There were several special recipes that I had mentally bookmarked months ago for this occasion, and I have been waiting and waiting for this delicious day to finally arrive.  I always have so much fun hosting these events, but this time was even more fun because my wonderful friend Shanon helped me design the menu and prepare all the food!  Our menu was as follows:

Champagne cocktails
Beer and wine

Steamed Artichokes with Dipping Sauces
Tomato Mozzarella Basil Tarts

Summer Strawberry Salad with Poppy Seed Viniagrette

Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon
Seafood Gratin

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Green Beans Parmesan
Herbed Dinner Rolls

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake

With all the fresh flowers on the table and the menu we selected, my friends declared this a “very Ina Garten meal”.  I love Ina to pieces, so I thought that was a wonderful compliment.  It definitely seemed fitting since so many of my “very dear friends” were in attendance!

Champagne cocktails were a must since this was a true celebration.  I had some strawberry puree in the freezer so I added a shot of that and a shot of apple juice to the flutes, and then poured champagne over the top.  They had a cool tri-level look that isn’t really obvious from these pictures, and they tasted great.  Strawberry and champagne were just made to be together.

I’ve previously been totally intimidated by fresh artichokes, but knowing they are in season and how much my mom used to love them, I was determined to include them in the menu.  Shanon taught me how to prepare them.  We steamed them and served them with melted butter as well as a pesto mayo.  They may not be the most elegant food for eating, but that didn’t seem to deter anyone.

I have posted about these tarts as a full-size version before, but I have found that made mini-size, they make perfect appetizers.  People go nuts for them (myself included).  The basil-garlic crust really takes them to another level of awesome.

The salad – oh, the salad.  How I loved it.  I have never been much of one for fruit in my salads, though I’m apparently coming around on that.  Since lovely ripe strawberries are every where these days, I thought this would make a great starter.  This was actually inspired by a selection from Panera’s menu last year.  I never tried it but always thought it looked great, so this was my attempt to recreate it at home.  The poppy seed vinaigrette was very nicely balanced with acidity and creaminess, and the dish in general was just gorgeous with the colorful fresh fruit.

It was fun to give guests entree choices in advance of the party.  For the meat eaters, I knew bacon-wrapped filet mignon was bound to be a hit.  Since it was raining we had to move our grill to the front porch underneath the overhang (classy, right?) but it worked out fine.  Meat and more meat is always a popular choice!

Okay, this seafood gratin is unbelievably good.  This is the dish I have been most looking forward to making since we moved in October.  With lobster, shrimp and cod pieces in a tomato cream sauce and a buttery bread crumb topping, how could this be anything but wonderful?  Chicken gyros may be my favorite any-night dinner, but I think this has definitely taken the title of my favorite special occasion dinner.

I forgot a photo of the roasted garlic mashed potatoes, but hey, we’ve all seen mashed potatoes before.  Mashed potatoes + roasted garlic = delicious.  Period.

I’ve seen gorgeous green beans a lot lately when I go to the store, so I really wanted to include them in the menu.   The tomato, shallot, and Parmesan-bread crumb topping were wonderful additions and I think this is my new favorite way to make green beans.

Typically I serve some sort of bread with a compound herb butter, but this time I switched it up and made a roll with herbs already included.  These were very tasty and the individual herb leaves pressed into the tops made for an impressive presentation.  I always pipe butter into individual dishes.  It’s a nice, simple touch that takes next to no time but makes for a very elegant look.

Holy dessert.  This was a true show-stopper.  My friends were all hovering while this was being served, just dying for a slice.  I can’t blame them – it’s like dream food.  I’ve said before that I love triple chocolate anything, so triple chocolate mousse cake was bound to be heaven for me.

Andrew provided quite a bit of our entertainment for the evening, sitting at the table like a big boy and telling us lots of things in toddler babble.  He also took his pants off multiple times throughout the meal.  We’re still working on manners 😉

As an added bonus for all those readers who have begged for a party-planning tutorial, here you go.  This is how I make it happen, and take all the stress out of hosting a get together.

First, plan your menu.  Things to take into consideration:

  • The general tone of your event – casual, elegant, or somewhere in between.
  • What ingredients are in season – feature them!
  • Keep the meal well-rounded – carb, protein, veggies, etc.  Try to choose dishes that compliment each other.
  • Difficulty level and time requirements of the various dishes – you don’t want to be spending too much time in the kitchen instead of spending time with your guests.
  • Plan some items that can be made at least partially made in advance so you don’t have too much going on at once.
  • Any dietary restrictions, likes or dislikes of your guests.

Get all of your recipe resources together in one spot.  You need to carefully look through all the recipes in advance so there are no surprises when it’s crunch time.

Make a shopping list.  Be sure to include trips to specialty stores as well, such as the butcher shop, liquor store or florist so you remember everything you need to do.

Write out a timeline for the day of the event.  This is the most important step in planning, because it takes all the guesswork and stress out of entertaining.  You think out everything in advance so that when the actual time comes, all you have to do is what is on the list.  I usually start by writing the time guests arrive at the bottom of the sheet, and then work backwards in figuring out what needs to be done when so appetizers are ready on time, when dinner should be served, etc.  Even if you get behind and don’t stick to the timeline exactly, you’ll still have the general guideline of what to do when and it is hugely helpful.  I also like to leave some blank spaces because inevitably I think of something I forgot to add initially.

Recipes will be posted individually as future posts.  Those that will be posted include: artichokes, strawberry salad, seafood gratin, green beans Parmesan, herbed dinner rolls, and triple chocolate mousse cake.

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Girls’ Night/Guys’ Night

I’m always thrilled to have an opportunity to participate in the 24, 24, 24 monthly event sponsored by Foodbuzz.  Our group of friends often coordinates girls’ night/guys’ night get-togethers where the guys all stay in to play poker, watch movies, etc. while the girls all go out for dinner, drinks, and girl talk.  However, sometimes it is fun to hold both events under the same roof.  We’re still able to spend some time with everyone as a group, but have our separate get togethers as well, not to mention this option is easier on the pocketbook and much more kid-friendly.

This time I decided to really go all out with the two separate themes to make a spread of more elegant “girl food” and a spread of more typical poker fare or “man food” for the guys.  Of course, we all sampled all of the food, but it was fun to have the two different set-ups and it was a great excuse to make some of the foods I’ve been wanting to try.

I decorated with flowers and candles in the dining room and living room.  I also made a playlist including Britney Spears and Lady Gaga to act as boy repellent 🙂

The menu for the ladies included the following:
Salmon Mousse Bites
California Rolls
Creamy Cucumber Canapés
Phyllo Mushroom Bundles
Chocolate-Covered Strawberries
Dulce de Leche Sandwich Cookies
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles
Pitchers of Sex on the Beach Cocktails

I’ve been making this salmon mousse for a long time, and I absolutely love it.  It’s a nice elegant appetizer.

California rolls – yum!  These were very popular with the guests.  (And for any sushi traditionalists – yes, I know this is not a correct California roll, this is just how I like to make them.)

These cucumber canapés with herb and cheese filling were light and refreshing.

I forgot to get a photo of the phyllo mushroom bundles, but they were very tasty as well.  I have to say though, I am going to try to remember not to put phyllo on party menus from now on.  It needs to be made at the last minute, and I much prefer to have most things done in advance.

Chocolate-covered strawberries seem like a quintessential girl food, and they are always a hit.  I think they are a great addition to any dessert spread because the fruit helps balance out heavier items.

Dulce de leche sandwich cookies – wow.  Definitely one of the more decadent cookies I’ve had.  These have the wonderful warm flavor of the dulce de leche in the cookies themselves, and the filling is dulce de leche with a sprinkling of fleur de sel.

These chocolate chip cookie dough truffles have been a favorite amongst my friends for a long time.  I served them at a holiday party a couple years ago, and they have not been forgotten.  These were definitely the most popular dessert.

And my personal favorite part of the night – a big pitcher of “sex on the beach”.  This has long been one of my favorite cocktails.  I used to order it all the time in college and I am beyond thrilled to finally know how to make it at home.  We made our way through one pitcher, and started on a second.  Love it!

Best friends since kindergarten 🙂

Alright, now, on to the man food!  Their spread included:
Spicy Sausage Dip
Ham and Cheese Pretzel Bites
Pepperoni Pizza Bites
Chicken Enchilada Roll-Ups
Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes
Football Rice Krispie Treats
Assorted Beers

First up is this spicy sausage dip.  Holy heck, it is awesome!  I like most things with sausage, but this is really fantastic.  I just wish we didn’t have any leftover because it keeps calling to me from the fridge.   I think this would be a huge hit at a Super Bowl party.

These ham and cheese pretzel bites seemed to be quite a hit.  I put out a large number, but they were almost completely gone at the end of the evening.  I made these the night before and rewarmed them just before the party to make things easier that day.  They really weren’t difficult to make though, and depending on the menu, I think they could be made just before the party as well.

Oh, the magnificent pizza bites.  I made these babies a few months ago and we devoured them in no time flat, so  I knew they had to make an appearance at the party.  I filled them with mozzarella cheese and pepperoni, but I’m sure they would be wonderful with any number of fillings.  They didn’t last long!

These chicken enchilada roll-ups are a great party food.  They taste fantastic and are served cold, which makes them really convenient since they can be prepared in advance.  I found them irresistible, and others must have to because there were none left over.

Guinness chocolate cupcakes topped with playing card suit sprinkles seemed fitting for the poker game.  The Guinness cake has long been a favorite with this group, so it’s a no-brainer.  I purchased these sugar decorations, but I think you could easily make your own using candy melts or royal icing.

I had a hard time thinking of another “manly” dessert, but Rice Krispie treats seemed perfect because they are so low maintenance.  Of course, I didn’t think plain old Rice Krispie treats was quite special enough though, so I cut out football shapes, dipped in chocolate and drew on some laces.  Easy, cute, and perfect to get us pumped for the Colts game today!

The guys seemed to enjoy their food just as much as we girls enjoyed ours, and they also enjoyed their poker game.

We had a really wonderful night!  It was fun to have so many friends all together, and be able to have our girl time and guy time in one place.  If you are looking for recipes, I decided not to include them in this post just because it gets too long that way.  But don’t worry!  They will be posted in the next few weeks.  I’ll probably start with the guy food first, because it will be perfect for all the Super Bowl parties that are coming up.  Hopefully we’ll be watching a Colts victory!!!

Want to see my past 24, 24, 24 events?  Check them out here:
We’re Almost Doctors Celebratory Dinner
Smirnoff Summer Fun & Games Night

Our First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a holiday that has not traditionally been a favorite of mine.  However, that has all changed because this year we hosted our first Thanksgiving!  It took this holiday to a whole new level for me since feeding other people is just about my favorite thing to do, and we had a fantastic time.  We hosted 14 adults and a couple of babies.  It was wonderful to have so many loved ones in our home, all enjoying a delicious meal and quality time together.

Since this was my first time hosting, I was happy to have free reign over menu planning without preconceptions or expectations.  I wanted to serve mainly traditional Thanksgiving fare, but slightly more elegant variations on the old favorites.  Our complete menu was as follows:

Caramelized Onion Dip with Crudités
Red Pepper Pesto Crostini
Caramel Corn
Stuffed Mushrooms

Side Dishes
Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Sage Butter Crumb Topping
Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Green Bean Casserole
Sausage and Cranberry Stuffing
Butternut Squash Cheddar Bread Pudding
Blackberry Cranberry Sauce
Herb and Cheese Rolls
Honey Yeast Rolls
Garlic Herb and Honey Butters

Main Course
Roast Turkey with Cider Shallot Gravy

Pumpkin Pie
Pecan Pie
Caramel Apple Cheesecake Pie
Cranberry Almond Caramel Tart

For me, appetizers are a very important part of Thanksgiving.  I think time spent mingling and snacking before the meal is really enjoyable.  Of course they are also very helpful in the event that your meal takes longer than expected to bake.   These red pepper pesto crostini are a favorite appetizer of mine.  They are simple, elegant, and tasty!

You know I just couldn’t resist an opportunity to include my caramel corn 🙂   Even better, I have a ton left over!  Not for long…

This caramelized onion dip was fantastic.  I kind of didn’t want to share it with anyone – but I did.  And of course, the stuffed mushrooms didn’t last long – everyone’s favorite!

I made these glittered votive holders to double as both table decor and place cards.  I didn’t want the meal to seem too formal though, so I left the candles out on the appetizer table.  Then when we were ready to eat, I lit all the candles and told guests to take their candle and put it where they wanted to sit.

The sweet potatoes were a huge hit.  Even though I am starting to like sweet potatoes in some forms, I wasn’t a big fan of this dish, but everyone else seemed to love it.  I had several people tell me it was their favorite side and we had almost no leftovers.

The roasted garlic mashed potatoes on the other hand, were my favorite dish of the whole meal.  I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to make mashed potatoes without adding the roasted garlic.  It put them into a whole new category of awesomeness!  (I’m sure the use of cream instead of milk didn’t hurt either 😉 )

The butternut squash and cheddar bread pudding was certainly the most unexpected dish in the spread.  I think some people may have been a bit hesitant to try it, but I had several guests comment that they really liked it.  I thought the flavor of the sharp cheddar was an interesting and winning combination with the squash and kale.

I tried my hand at making a homemade, non-processed version of green bean casserole.  Overall it went over very well and people seemed to enjoy it.  I liked it, but there are a few adjustments and tweaks I would like to make before I make it again.

This blackberry cranberry sauce has been on my mind ever since I heard about it last year, and I knew I would make it for my Thanksgiving.  It was delicious as expected, and flavorful without being too sweet.   And thankfully fresh blackberries just happened to be $1 per container, so inexpensive as well!

I made these herb and cheese rolls well in advance of Thanksgiving, and just kept them in the freezer until the holiday.  They were fun and simple to make, and had great flavor from all the herbs.  I also made a double batch of my honey yeast rolls since they are my favorite.  Both varieties went over very well and we had maybe two rolls leftover.

Maybe my favorite thing about the whole meal (a tie with the garlic mashed potatoes) was the garlic herb and honey butters that I made to go with the bread.  The herb butter was truly unbelievable.  I could truly have been content eating just rolls and the herb butter all day – it was that good.  I often tell Ben that I wish I could make the delicious butters we get in fancy restaurants to go with bread, and I think this actually has those beat.  I will be making it again soon!

And now, on to the main course – the turkey!  This was my first time making a turkey and since it is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, I was fairly nervous about messing it up.  However, it was just as easy as roasting a chicken, and turned out fantastic!  We brined it overnight, and then added aromatics to the cavity before roasting.  The only difficulty I had was lifting and moving it, since ours was a 24-pounder!   It had great flavor and stayed nice and moist.  I love how beautifully it browned.  I forgot to get a photo of the gravy, but it was delicious as well.  I used mostly the pan juices from the turkey as well as a bit of chicken stock, some cider and sautéed shallots with a roux to thicken the mixture.  In the past I have skipped the gravy on my plate, but I may be a convert now.

After the meal I ended up with six people sleeping in my living room in no time, so I’d say it was a success 🙂  Some people were too full to even consider dessert, but of course I had saved room since it is always my favorite part.

We had a classic pumpkin pie, and though I have made it many years now, I think this was the best one yet.  I tried a new recipe for the filling and it was fantastic.  I also loved the addition of the cute little pie crust leaves on top of the pies.  Normally I try not to buy such unitasker items for my kitchen, but I’ve wanted these forever and think they were totally worth the money.  I love the festive touch they add!

I also did pecan pie, which was the original recipe that inspired the variation of the double chocolate pecan pie.  This version was great as well, though I think I personally prefer the chocolate.  Everything is better with chocolate, right?

Though not pictured again, I also made the caramel apple cheesecake pie.  I think that was the favorite dessert of the night – unsurprising to me, as it is just plain awesome.

The cranberry caramel almond tart was a nice way to round out the dessert spread.  I loved the contrast of the semi-tart berries against the sweet caramel.   Next time I think I would increase the amount of cranberries because I think they didn’t quite play the starring role I had hoped for.

I made sure to stock up on disposable containers for guests to take home leftovers because I did not want to be loaded down with the whole meal at the end of the day.  And of course, you know I couldn’t resist some Thanksgiving themed sugar cookies as favors for guests to take home.  I decorated them like maple leaves and acorns, and thought they added a nice touch at the end of the evening.

Of course I couldn’t resist a picture of me with my little turkey.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

(For those interested in recipes, I will probably post most of them next year, just prior to Thanksgiving.  I think most people are moving on to holiday baking endeavors for now, but these recipes will be shared eventually!)