Cooking For Others: 24 Candles, 48 Meatballs

EVENT: A 24th Birthday Din-arty
VENUE: Phoebe’s Parents’ Apartment, Upper West Side
TYPE: Large Buffet Dinner Party
MENU: Mini Meatball Subs; Wild Mushroom Mac ‘n Cheese; Pesto Mac ‘n Cheese; Butternut Squash Mac ‘n Cheese; Arugula Salad with Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette; Big Kid Hot Chocolate (Adam); Red Velvet Cupcakes (Salima)

Birthdays are always kind of stressful. Every year I face the approaching day with a super laid-back attitude. And then the day arrives, and I realize I have to grate 6 pounds of cheese. The rational way out of this is, of course, that since I love to cook for people, why wouldn’t I want to do so for forty of my closest friends on my day of birth–and since I am a control freak, why wouldn’t I want to do so all by myself? Then, sometime during the afternoon of, when I am running two hours behind schedule, lugging grocery bags home, hungover, I curse myself for not doing shots at a bar at midnight and calling it a birthday. But the occasional beer tear aside, I always have fun doing things this way. I love stressing about feeding people. And on my birthday, I love it even more, because it distracts me from stressing about getting old.

This year’s planning and hair pulling was pretty tame, all things told. I decided to take a page out of Cara’s book and go with a retro theme: Mac ‘n Cheese three ways, Big Kid Hot Chocolate (a recent b-day fave) on tap, and the potential for a round or two of Jenga!. As the guest list grew, and the day grew nearer, I began to shiver like a Jewish mother with worry that 6 pounds of pasta (combined with over 6 pounds of cheese) might not be enough food.

In my time of crisis, I of course turned to Cara. For at least an hour, part of it on a crowded, uptown subway, I obsessed over the perfect combination of cheese type and pasta shape, and whether they would work with the butternut squash and pesto accents I had in mind. It wasn’t intentional torture, though it might have been for the other subway riders, but I did feel less guilty about my persistent menu pestering since Cara wouldn’t actually be able to attend the party. This news initially led to more stress over what I would do for dessert, since I draw the line at baking my own birthday cake (luckily, birthday goddess Salima came to the rescue with 50 homemade red velvet cupcakes).

But I also wanted to do something for the carnivores in the crowd, something that would cut the cheese (te he…) with something straight-up savory, meaty, and delicious. I landed on Mini Meatballs Subs—spicy, saucy, and just small enough to be self-served inside a dinner roll. Cara gave me her seal of approval, followed by a few text messages of encouragement from Pittsburgh the day of.
The meatballs fulfilled all my greatest birthday hopes and fears, especially by the first few guys who walked in the door, tasted a sub, exhaled a mumbled expression of glee, and proceeded to inhale the rest. Forty-eight meatballs later, the pot was empty, and the first 20 guests were congratulating themselves on being the luckiest diners at the party. Oh well, I’ll just have to make 75 more for next year.

From my kitchen, where I aim to eat my age in meatballs, to yours,


luckily, there was plenty of Big Kid Hot Chocolate to go around


Mini Meatball Subs
Makes 50 balls


For the meatballs:

1 large onion, grated
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus 1/4 cup
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, plus 1/4 cup
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/2 cup Italian-style bread crumbs
3 large eggs
¼ cup ketchup
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
1 ½ lb ground beef
1 ½ lb ground veal

For the sauce:

2 large onion
6 garlic cloves minced
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, chopped
1 15oz can diced tomatoes
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients for the meatballs and fold them together thoroughly with your hands.

Roll the meat mixture into 1 ½ inch balls and place them next to each other on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or tin foil. They can be fairly close together, as they will not expand like cookies.
Bake them in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until tops have browned and the meatballs are cooked through.

Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven or saucepan, sauté the onions until translucent and soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional two minutes. Carefully pour in the tomatoes, salt, red pepper flakes, and stir to combine. Simmer over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, until the mixture has thickened and the flavors have incorporated.

Puree the sauce in a food processor or using an immersion blender until smooth. Stir in the chopped parsley use the remaining leaves for garnish. Gently fold the meatballs into the sauce and cook for five minutes more.

To serve, place the meatballs in a shallow bowl and set along side a bowl of small diner rolls (sliced halfway down the middle like hot dog buns). If you cannot find these in the bakery department of your grocery store, you can use mini hot dog buns, or cut some buns in half. Allow guests to serve themselves, and place toothpicks on the side for those modern ladies who want to skip the bread.

Pesto Mac n’ Cheese

Makes 12 servings

This recipe is a play on the Conchiglie with Five Cheeses I served for Matt’s baked pasta bash back in April. Instead of the tomato base, I used pesto. And to make the texture slightly more mac-like and cheesy, I bulked up on the Fontina and left out the Gorgonzola.


2 lb conchiglie rigate
4 cups heavy cream
2 cups pesto
1/2 lb shredded mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan (reserve some for garnish)
1 1/2 cup fontina cheese, coarsely grated
½ cup ricotta cheese
2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 500 degrees

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt well, and cook the pasta for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside.

Meanwhile, combine cream, pesto, cheeses, and salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add the pasta and toss to coat.

Spread pasta mixture evenly in a casserole or baking dish. Bake uncovered for 7 to 10 minutes, until the top is browned and the bottom layer of pasta is tender.

Sprinkle with Parmesan and torn basil leaves and serve immediately.

pesto Mac n’ Cheese, along side a stray Miley cup (back left)

Butternut Squash Mac n’ Cheese

Makes 12 Servings

The base for this mac is very similar to that of the mixed mushroom version I borrowed from Barefoot Contessa. I used two types of cheddar, one creamy and orange, one white and sharp, and I added some spices when roasting the squash to offset its sweetness.


For the Squash:

1 large butternut squash (about 2lb), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper

For the Mac:

2 lb elbow macaroni
1 stick of butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 quarts whole milk, scalded
24 oz extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
16 oz mild orange Cheddar, grated
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp salt
4 garlic cloves, chopped
¼ cup chopped sage leaves
3 cups fresh white bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

On a cookie sheet, toss the squash with nutmeg, cayenne, salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, until the squash is tender and beginning to brown, but not falling apart.

In the meantime, make the white sauce. In a large pot, heat the butter over a medium flame until melted. Whisk in the flour until fully incorporated. Add the milk, turn the heat down to low, and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon until the sauce is thick, creamy, and coats the back of the spoon. Off the heat, mix in the cheese.

Cook the pasta according to package direction until 1 minute shy of al dente. Drain and add to the cheese mixture along with the squash.

Fold everything together carefully, and pour into one or two large baking dishes.

Pulse the garlic, sage, and bread crumbs in a food processor and sprinkle over the top of the pasta.

Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes until the top is browned and the cheese is bubbling.

Posted in: Cooking for Others
  • Jenny

    How do I get invited? Or can I hire you to cater my birthday?

  • shayma

    the first photo of the meatballs is amazing, cara. am at work so havent had a chance to read the whole post- but the photos look lovely. x

  • Jessie

    I see mini-meatball subs as the new mini-burgers. Except more delicious.

    Pesto Mac + Cheese sounds delightful, too!

  • Jessica

    So sad I missed the party phoebs, but your always the best hostess and I will daydream about meatballs and mac and cheese all day now. xoxox

  • experimentalculinarypursuits

    Yum! I love the butternut squash recipe! I wonder if I can adapt this to a sweet potato recipe (I have a full bag at home waiting to be used!)

    Also, good luck this Sunday at the Chili takedown! I'm sure you will blow them away! I have out of town plans, but hopefully one day we can meet at these foodie events!

  • MrsWheelbarrow

    What a wonderful way to celebrate a birthday. And what's the secret to that Hot Chocolate?

  • Phoebe and Cara, The Quarter-Life Cooks

    Jenny, we could totally cater your birthday :)

    Experimental–the recipe would be delicious with sweet potato. I would just make sure to cube them rather small. And thanks for the luck!!

    MrsWheelbarrow–the secret to the big kid hot chocolate is vodka and bailey's, though you wouldn't know by the taste of it, so keep away from the real kids! You can find the original recipe here:

  • Sarah L

    um did i not slave over fudgey and delicious brownies all day for a special someone? if i'm not mistaken they were also a success with the masses…

  • Caitlyn

    So delicious! I want more!!

  • Kelsey B.

    Happy Birthday! (you have almost the same bday as my daughter). Don't stress about getting old – that it not the case at all!! The food looks awesome, especially the hot chocolate. Also, to grate 6lbs of cheese I would use the disk on my cuisinart… just a thought.

  • preventionrd

    I want to make that pesto mac so badly. What is "conchiglie rigate"? — I've never heard of it :(

    Your recipes all look great, I look forward to following!

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