Big Girls, Test Kitchen: The Perfect Holiday Dinner
EVENT: The Ina-Inspired Perfect Holiday Dinner
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
PARTY SIZE: 8
TYPE: Festive, Fancy-ish Sit-Down Feast
MENU: Caramelized Onion Pizzettes with Smoked Mozzarella and Arugula; Tagliarelle with Truffle Butter; Chicken with Goat Cheese and Sun Dried Tomato; Roasted Root Vegetables; Individual Red Berry Parfaits with Olive Oil Pound Cake
BUDGET: $60 (not including dessert)
I’ve been extremely lucky to have a very venerable cooking mentor over the years: Ina Garten. My dad met Ina back in high school in Stamford, Connecticut, and they have been friends, save for a twenty year gap somewhere in mid-life, ever since.
I’m not sure when exactly they reconnected after so many years. But one of my most vivid cooking memories is of helping Ina make German Chocolate Cake for my dad’s 50th birthday when I was 13. This was pre-Food Network superstardom, and I remember how she swept through my childhood kitchen in Westchester with expert catering prowess, assessing the platters, grabbing small silver serving bowls that hadn’t see the light of day since my parents unpacked them with the rest of their wedding china, and whipping out a large tin of caviar from her supply bag which we ate with potato chips and champagne (or, at least, the adults did).
Everything we made that night was simple, elegant, and perfect for the occasion, from the pumpernickel smoked salmon tartines with herb butter to the cake, which stood tall and proud on its stand, flaunting three dense chocolate-y layers and decadent icing. But more importantly, the items were perfectly attuned to the tastes of her audience. Though there were probably more colorful, impressive-looking desserts for the celebration (like, say, Red Berry Trifle), she chose this cake because she knew it was my father’s favorite; the caviar was served with rustic, golden brown kettle potato chips instead of atop a fancy blini, because, well, potato chips are absolutely delicious, regardless of their position as humble snack food. And though the meal still exhibited the special quality worthy of such a milestone birthday, it also retained the manner of comfort that would make hosts and guests alike want to eat the meal again and again.
From this cooking experience with Ina, I realized that comfort cravings—for Meatloaf, Pot Roast, Perfect Mac ‘n Cheese—are shared by every crowd. And from her cookbooks, which were among my first, and still to this day most treasured, I learned that an elegant platter of Spaghetti and Meatballs can elevate the quality of a meal to something warm, satisfying, and unexpectedly special for the twenty-somethings at my table, and adults alike.
Back in 2006, Cara and I had the pleasure of being guests on Ina’s show, returning from college to be pampered by a huge platter of gravlox, fresh fruit, and a basket of sour cream blueberry muffins in the episode Good Home Cooking. This holiday season, I had the honor of actually cooking a festive meal with Ina on her show, and afterwards, I couldn’t wait to get home and make this perfect holiday dinner for Cara and some of our other close friends.
Since our dinner happened to fall on the first night of Hanukkah, Leora and her boyfriend, Adam, brought festive decorations that attempted to make this non-denominational holiday meal as denominational as possible. Like the children we sometimes are, we embraced her Hanukkah rubber duckies and star of David napkins in place of Ina’s beautiful votives and glowing branches. The dinner itself hit all the perfect comfort notes—creamy pasta; cheesy, perfectly roasted chicken; bright, beautiful berries and cream—but, like the 50th birthday dinner 12 years ago, it was simultaneously elevated above the everyday classics to create something truly special for the occasion.
Since we, like Ina, are true believers that brownies in boxes are the most genuine expression of appreciation, we sent Ina a tin of treats containing Cara’s M&M Blondies to thank her for her endless generosity, friendship, and the best gift of all: a perfect holiday dinner.
From my kitchen, where Ina knows best, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
As Ina promised, this dinner was budget friendly. For the savory part of the meal, I spent $60 dollars, averaging out to less than $10 per person, which is my usual measure for whether or not a meal is affordable to make a larger group (I’d invited 8 people).
Some ways to save: instead of using a dried handmade pasta, I went to my favorite mom n’ pop Italian grocer and had them cut me two pounds of fresh pasta into the size of tagliatelle for only $5. The truffle butter is relatively affordable, but if you order it from D’artagnan, the shipping can kill your wallet. Since I made Ina’s Truffle Mac ‘n Cheese for my birthday, I made a large order for the truffle butter so I would have it on hand in my freezer for the rest of the year. The shipping, amortized between 5 containers of truffle butter, only added $3 dollars to each container.
Since the tagliarelle needed to be served immediately, I knew I would be cooking while the guests were at my apartment. For my dinner with Ina, this worked out perfectly, since she let me cook with her! But because I have an open kitchen, I needed to give my guests another activity lest they all stand around and watch as I reduce heavy cream on the fire and receive a pasta facial as the tagliarelle drained. I always find the best distraction to be finger food. For this meal, I had some leftover caramelized onions from a savory tart we made for a catering gig (recipe to come!). I also had some leftover arugula, so I decided to pick up some pizza dough from my favorite pizza place (you can easily use frozen…or homemade) and make an appetizer around them. The fresh dough, enough for a large pie, only cost me $3.
One thing that I always do to stay on budget: make Cara bring dessert. When not involving fruit, nuts, or chocolate, this can be the cheapest part of the meal anyway—baking cookies or a cake can usually be managed with the flour and sugar in your pantry, and an add-in or two. But it really helps take the burden of the host to not have to share your oven rack(s) with too many dishes.
Since Cara’s boyfriend doesn’t eat butter, Cara made a slight variation on the original trifle by using Olive-Oil Pound Cake and making individual servings in punch glasses (the larger, composed version would have been a little difficult to bring from Brooklyn!). Though she also tweaked a few of the ingredients (omitting framboise and cognac in the whipped cream) that made Ina’s dish so particularly special, the result was a beautifully colorful dessert to round out the perfect, festive holiday meal.
I’m always impressed by how elegant and beautiful Ina’s tablescapes look on her show (and in person). As quarter-life cooks, we don’t usually think about the table first and foremost because we hardly ever use our dining room tables (if we have one at all). My “dining room” fabric collection is a rather sorry sight: mismatched cloth napkins (about 3 of one kind, 3 of another), and a few bright pink placemats that don’t match any of these napkins. I’ve inherited all of these elements from my parents who, no doubt, passed them down to me because they had no use for them without the missing members of the original set. I’m not about to invest in any myself, but the one thing I have bought since moving into my apartment is a tablecloth.
It’s worth having one simple, cheap tablecloth to present a more refined, clean aesthetic when entertaining for special occasions. I have two, both of which I spent less than $20 dollars on and use all the time. They are good for big parties and dinners alike. When I set up the bar on my table, I always put the tablecloth down so I know I won’t have to deal with sticky tonic water on my wood the next day, and then I just toss it in the laundry bin for next time. For dinners, you only really have to wash it if there are stains, unlike napkins which people wipe their grubby mouths with, and should definitely not be reused without a good trip through a rinse cycle.
The point: I think my table looks rather adult, even with paper napkins, and it didn’t cost that much to make it this way. Buy a tablecloth.
Caramelized Onion Pizzettes with Smoked Mozzarella and Arugula
Makes 16 Pizzettes
You can use a few different cheeses here—regular mozzarella, fontina, gouda, ricotta, or, most practical of all, some of the goat cheese you bought for the chicken. If using a soft cheese, make sure to put it down on the dough first, then follow with the onions.
1 ball pizza dough (if buying fresh, ask for enough for a large pie)
1 cup caramelized onions
1/2lb smoked mozzarella, shredded
2 cups loosely packed arugula leaves
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Roll the pizza dough out on a floured surface (if you don’t own a rolling pin, cover an empty wine bottle in plastic wrap). Cut the dough into small rounds with a cookie cutter, or by using the bottom of a water glass and a paring knife.
Oil a cookie sheet and arrange the rounds on it. Brush with olive oil, top with a spoonful of onions and a sprinkle of mozzarella. Bake in the oven for 7-10 minutes, until the crust is browned and crispy, and the cheese is fully melted. Top with a handful of arugula, and serve immediately.
1/2 recipe Orange-Olive Oil Pound Cake
1/3 cup apricot jam
1 1/2 cups frozen raspberries
3 tablespoons sugar
juice from 1 large orange
1 1/3 cup whipping cream
3 tablespoons confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup toasted almond slices for garnish (optional)
1 pint fresh raspberries for garnish (optional)
Cut the pound cake into 1/2-inch thick slices. Thinly cover one side of each slice with the jam. Set aside.
To make the raspberry compote: combine the raspberries with the sugar and the orange juice. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook, stirring nearly constantly, for about 10 minutes, until the raspberries have slightly melted and the liquid they produced has reduced by half. Turn off the heat, scrape into a bowl, and set aside.
Whip the cream: put the cream, confectioners sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl. With a mixer, handheld mixer, or a whisk, whip until the cream holds soft peaks. Refrigerate until ready to use.
To assemble, cut a slice of pound cake to fit the bottom of an individual serving dish or a pretty glass. Cover with a tablespoon or two of cream, then drizzle on some raspberry compote. Cut the remainder of the slice into 1/2-inch cubes and sprinkle them on top. Add more compote, then more cream, then finish with some toasted almonds, some cake crumbs, and/or some fresh raspberries.
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cups sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
zest from 1 medium orange (save the juice for the raspberry compote)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sherry, cognac, or Grand Marnier
Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Grease an 8 x 3 3/4″ loaf pan.