Cooking For Others: Retro Birthday Barbecue

EVENT: Cara’s Quarter Century
VENUE: Cara’s Mother’s House, Bronx
TYPE: Birthday Party
Retro BBQ: Peanut M&Ms, Pretzels, and Cape Cod Potato Chips; Homemade Onion Dip; Caprese Sandwiches; Hot Dogs and Chicken Sausages; Simple Salad; Vanilla and Chocolate Birthday Cake

Phoebe mentioned the Birthday Barbecue I was having in her ode to me, which was disguised as a post about baking. I couldn’t have been more surprised by the customized Rice Krispie Treats she gave me at lunch on September 30th, the day before my birthday, or by the fact that, unbeknownst to me, she had thought strange, shy middle-school Cara was cool.

It was also a surprise to me that it rained just at 3pm, the time I’d invited guests up to Riverdale for my birthday barbecue. The weather really shouldn’t have been, though. I had been checking for the likelihood of precipitation every hour since Wednesday, and from early Saturday morning on, all weather vanes were pointed pretty resolutely towards rain. Nonetheless, I plugged on, hauling and cleaning lawn furniture, searching the cluttered basement for an old wiffle ball. And then at 1:30 the sky cleared. And then, at 2:15, it started pouring.

Though in the end my guests and I got about an hour of meek yellow sunshine in just before sunset, the party was festive and perfectly cozy indoors. Besides my friends and besides me, the main event at the BBQ, was, as you might expect, the food. My sister and I determined that the best tone to take was of old-fashioned, not overly gourmet picnic fare, the kind of cuisine you might have eaten in the early 90s or so, back when I was a strange, shy middle-schooler. And the two triumphs, I think, were the onion dip, which I would never have made if we weren’t aiming to be a little retro, and the birthday cake, for which I made two perfect layers of yellow cake from Nick Malgieri’s new cookbook, The Modern Baker, frosted with the Rich Chocolate Icing recycled from childhood birthday cakes. Between the food, the guests, and my overly bright purple shirt, by the time the last party-goers had funneled out, and we’d cleaned up and done our best to drain the keg, I was pretty sure I’d out-celebrated any expectations I’d had for my birthday, and was ready to hike on towards 26.

Just kidding. I’ll never be ready to turn 26.

From my kitchen, albeit small, to yours,


Lawn furniture occupied during a brief moment of sunshine.


A few notes on the menu: the only recipe I’ve featured here is the onion dip, which I made up the night before the barbecue. I’d figured that the bulk of the food would come from the grill, and I simplified so we’d only be making hot dogs and sausages. No burgers, since they’re messy and require a second type of bun. The caprese sandwiches were simply sliced fresh mozzeralla, sliced tomatoes, basil leaves, and balsamic vinaigrette, and I made them ahead of time so people, especially vegetarians, could nibble independent of the grill. At the last minute, I was pressured into making a salad, though originally I’d decided people would fill up on chips, pretzels, M&Ms, and baby carrots if the sausages didn’t sustain them.

As for the cake, it was a wonderful recipe from Nick Malgieri, though you might not have noticed, since I used almost as much icing as cake. To make sure everyone had dessert (how was I supposed to know Sarah, Jack, and Evan were bringing a strawberry layer cake?), I also put out a plate of brownies and apple cake.

Three Onion Dip
Serves 30

1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
2 large yellow onions, diced
1 large red onion, diced
2 large leeks, split in half vertically and cut into half moons
5 garlic cloves, pressed
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
4 cups sour cream
fresh pepper

chips for serving

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over very low heat. Add the onions, and when they’re just beginning to soften, add the leeks. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about an hour, until all the vegetables are fragrant and quite soft. Stir in the pressed garlic, cook for another minute or two, then add the garlic and cool to room temperature.

Combine the cooled sauteed onions with the mayonnaise, sour cream, and several grinds of black pepper.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours and preferable overnight. Before serving, taste for salt and flavor, adding a little more sour cream if the onions are too strong. Serve with chips or crudite.

Posted in: Cooking for Others
  • Kate

    I love this idea, it seems so obvious, and yet I had never thought to modernize onion dip by making it entirely of fresh ingredients! Thanks for all the great ideas.

  • Jessie

    That is a fancy onion dip! Dips (made with Greek yogurt) are a favorite in our house, so I think I'll mix this in the rotation and see how it goes.

    26 is old. Take it from a 26-year-old.

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