Bringing it all together.
When you have a whole lot of recipe ideas that sound interesting, you sometimes have to say “No, I just don’t see how hamburgers can possibly be served with Duck a l’Orange”. But then you remember that mini gourmet burgers are popping up everywhere (I’ll keep my opinion to myself on that one), so perhaps homemade ground beef patties with caramelized onions and gruyère paired with Pulled Duck a l’Orange? Both fit nicely on lightly toasted buns or ciabatta. Dress up the hamburgers, dress down the duck. My point is, there’s usually a way to find a connection or a theme, which can make a party more interesting and attractive.
I first thought I’d make one enormous cake as a centrepiece. Five layers, lots of height, but layer cake is hard to serve in snack-size pieces…so I reconsidered. The more I tried to come up with an idea (knowing that I did want to make at least one layer cake), the more I got stuck on “layers”. Okay, fine, I gave in, but then how to make the rest of the food fit the theme? Appetizers would be stack-able, or come pre-stacked (baguette topped with cooked Moroccan salsa, topped with cilantro, or arugula topped with grilled fennel and asparagus, topped with shrimp). Then desserts could follow suit with the make-your-own frozen mousse cookie sandwiches.
Then all you need to do is explain and rationalize. The party guests need to know what’s going on if they’re to enjoy the theme as well. What’s the point of going to all the work of following your own theme rules if the concept is lost on the invitees? So you need to make it as blatantly obvious as possible.
I did this by physically arranging the food presentation area into 3 vertical and horizontal levels. Low on the left were cooked savoury dishes like the brisket and the salad. Low in the middle were dips, and low on the right were cookies and petite sweets. Then on a slightly higher platform in the middle was the current pièce de résistance, which changed from the Buche de Noel to the lemon mousse over the course of the party. Higher to the right and further back were placed the sinfully decadent blackbottom cupcakes (again, layers in themselves, with a chocolate cake base and cream cheese topping, garnished with chocolate chips).
Then to really drive in the layer theme, I made an introductory cue card, hand-written, and placed it at the entry to the dining area. More cue cards identified dishes and informed if the food was safe for lactose-intolerant or vegan people. So even if people stopped caring about the layer theme once they got past the entrance-way, they at least had at one point known about it, and maybe, just maybe, they appreciated it.
Then there’s the wine. Again, what’s the point in carefully choosing wines for the event if bottles are opened haphazardly, drank too quickly, and forgotten about? It’s dangerous to leave a corkscrew on the table, but as long as someone is there to monitor who comes into the room, and introduces the concept or wine pairings to them, it all works out. The trick is to welcome them to the room, start talking about the wines and then “suggest” they start with one of the whites, “which pairs nicely with the…” The wines I chose were a Henry of Pelham Reisling, two Alsatians (a Gewurztraminer and a Muscat), two cabernet sauvignon organics (One French, one South American) a Henry of Pelham Baco Noir, and 3 Quebec dessert wines (a blueberry hydromiel, a blackcurrent cassis hydromiel and a strawberry mistelle). These last 3 are incredibly sweet, but worked well with the chocolate because there wasn’t any other fruit on the menu, so it added flavour instead of just sweetness. The pairing suggestions were general and if guests wanted to talk about specifics they could come to me and I’d be more than happy to discuss the winery, the wine and the pairing choice. In general I suggested the Riesling and Muscat for the salad and smoked trout spreads, the Gewurztraminer with the lemon mousse cake, wild mushroom bruschetta (because of the sweeter cheese) and risotto balls (usually a dry white is better with risotto but these tasted hollow and woods-y, and needed something to give them a kick. The sweeter acid worked well, but the dryer whites would have been a good alternative, if the guest had perhaps taken more than enough muscat to get through their salad and spread). The Baco Noir was wonderfully dry and spicy enough for the moroccan cooked salsa and certainly for the vegan chocolate mousse, which was not as sweet as the non-vegan chocolate mousse. It also worked very well with the complex flavours of the hot Indian koftas. The cabernets worked better with the non-vegan mousse and with the southwestern brisket because of the sweetness of the sauce.
As I mentioned on the wine-pairing cue card, my dad’s apple cider goes with everything, and if you put out a selection of aperitifs (Dubonnet), liquors (whisky, scotch, port, and rum because it’s Newfoundland) and even if nobody drinks them, it makes for an elaborate presentation.
The party was…amazing and fun, like a party should be. Once it got started there was no stress. Inviting so many people into your home and presenting something of which you can be so proud, should be a great experience. From polenta to brisket to Buche de Noel, good food, wine and company made this a beautiful afternoon.