Big Girls, Test Kitchen: The Perfect Holiday Dinner

Posted by on Saturday Dec 12th, 2009 | Print

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.

Tagliarelle with Truffle Butter

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

**Tips and Tricks**

Budget

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.


Quarter-Life Table Settings

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.

**Recipes**

You can find the recipes Ina and I made on the show on foodnetwork.com:

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.

Ingredients

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
olive oil

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.

Cara’s Olive Oil Pound Cake Trifle with Raspberries and Cream
Serves 8

Ingredients
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.

Cara’s individual trifles, keeping cool on the windowsill
Orange Olive Oil Poundcake
Makes 1 loaf
Ingredients
1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
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.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt.
Using a stand or hand-held mixer, beat the sugar, oil, and orange zest on high speed until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, then beat until the mixture is thick and pale, 3 to 5 minutes. Turning the mixer to low, add 1/3 of the dry ingredients, mix for a moment, then add half of the sherry, beating until just blended. Repeat with another third of the flour, followed by the remaining sherry, and then the remaining flour.
Scrape the batter into the pan(s). Bake until the cake tester comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan(s) on a rack for about 15 minutes before unmolding.

You can make this cake 2-3 days ahead for the trifle; in fact it’s great if it’s a tiny bit stale.

my roommate Caitlyn’s beautiful handiwork: a swan doggy bag for Alex
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  • Kate

    Everything looks great! I love that this meal is so elegant, yet I could actually afford it on my student budget. I can't wait to watch the show's rerun today.

  • Jessie

    I am emailing my fiancé to DVR the re run right now! I love how you made Ina's table scape quarter life friendly – as a member of the mis matched linens club, I think a table cloth would be a great investment.

  • shayma

    phoebe congrats, first of all. i loved this write-up i adore reading about how food related to our families. reading about your father's 50th was wonderful. why not have caviar with potato crisps? one of the best meals i ever had was an impromptu one at my friend's in London where we had crisps as an appetiser with champagne before she prepared an ace meal. i look forward to seeing the re-run of your show this weekend.

    like cara's boyfriend, i dont like butter either (in cakes it's ok, but hate the taste, i know, awful for a foodie to admit…) may i ask where you got those lovely little glasses for the trifles? i hv been looking everywhere for smthg similar.

    congrats again, and best wishes, shayma

  • Leora

    This dinner was awesome! I'm going to watch the episode now. Thanks again, it was super yummy!

  • homecookedem

    I saw the episode!! You are a very lucky girl!! :) Ina is quite simply amazing.

  • Sara Bennett

    Wow!

  • Carrie

    I discovered your blog after seeing you on Barefoot Contessa. Love reading about your cooking adventures, keep up the good work!

  • Angie

    I found your blog as well after watching Barefoot Contessa. I'm so jealous – she's my absolute favorite on Food Network and I always DVR her show. Looking forward to following your blog as well.

  • Jennifer

    i happened to be watching barefoot contessa (my absolute favorite show on the food network) when i saw the episode you were in! imagine my surprise when she mentioned a food blog that i actually follow. and then once i read your writeup of it, i realized that i had seen you on her show once before, back before i followed you. i just wanted to let you know that i love your blog, and i'm so jealous that you know ina!

  • Jenny

    I loved the episode! I am so jealous, I am obsessed with Ina…amazing!

  • {lovely little things}

    I just watched this episode on the Food Network and looked up your blog. Love it! How cool you know Ina Garten, I would love to be in her inner circle. I'll visit your blog again, great food recommendations, I couldn't believe how easy that truffle butter pasta was to make!

  • Chef Barbie

    I just watched this show on Food Network, I love Ina and often wish she were a friend of my family.

  • Maria at Fresh Eats

    Was a fun surprise to see you on the show and, now, to hear the backstory. I also remember the 2006episode.

    I love Ina's recipes and entertaining tips — she makes it look so pleasurable and almost effortless.

    Great blog!

  • Giovanna

    mmmmm, i'm making this tagliarelle with truffle butter asap.

  • christie, honoring health

    I found your blog by watching Barefoot Contessa yesterday and just wanted to pop in and say hi. Everything you guys made looks delicious!

  • susanne

    Just found your blog by watching Ina today and have added you to my "favorites"! This will be fun!

  • Kat

    Oh how coincidental I was looking at this right as I saw the episode… I was like "Wait… I recognize that photo…" Nice Job! And congrats!

  • Melissa

    I always watch Ina on the Food Network and when she mentioned you blog, I immediately looked for it being a fellow Small Kitchen Quarter Life girl obsessed with making food. This is great! Everything that you and Ina made is spectacular – I can't wait to make the Truffle Butter Pasta!

    By the way, I loved your dress on Barefoot Contessa. Please oh please tell me where you got it…

  • asliceofretailheaven

    Hi Phoebe,

    My name is Vanessa and I first heard of your blog from watching this Barefoot Contessa episode. Ina Garten is one of my favorite Food Network personalities. I've prepared her Chocolate Espresso Cheesecake and Buttermilk Chedder Biscuits that were HUGE hits. Ina's table decorations are always so elegant and pretty.

    I'm glad that Ina mentioned the name of your blog because I love checking out more cooking blogs from girls my age. Although this entry is among the first few that I've only read, I can tell that I'll be coming back to read more and hopefully provide my own insight when I try your delicious recipes! I also love how you included a piece to talk about your table decorations. Great tip on the tablecloth!

    Peace and joy,
    Vanessa of Chic and Charming

  • Erin

    I'm here via watching Barefoot Contessa, and I couldn't be more pleased to find you! Ina is somewhat of a mentor to me too (although I only have her cookbooks and her show). But still! It's funny how you feel like you know someone when you cook "with" them.

    Congrats on your appearance!

  • Unplanned Cooking

    What a great story!

  • Alex

    I can't wait to see the show! I would just like to mention that the contents of the swan were still delicious the next day. :-)

  • Morgan

    I got the link to your blog through Ina's show this past weekend. I have a question for you girls! I live in a tiny NYC apt, not even big enough for a table to eat at. I love to have people over, especially for food. Do you have any suggestions for serving on and dressing up a coffee table?? Thanks!

  • Rebeccah

    Wow. I'm impressed! I am a big fan of Ina and have steadily been working my way through her cookbooks( i still have a long way to go). I love that her style of cooking shows the people she loves how special they are to her. What I sometimes don't love is that I can't always fit the delicious ingredients into my mid-twenties budget. Clearly you share the same passion as Ina. I look forward to your future posts with suggestions on keeping the good food coming without breaking the bank.

  • Phoebe and Cara, The Quarter-Life Cooks

    shayma–the glasses actually came with my punch bowl as part of a set. A really great deal ($25 for 10 glasses and the bowl!). You can find it at Bed, Bath, & Beyond–but I don't know if that will help you in Italy :)

    morgan–we actually serve most of our meals on coffee tables! Since they are so low to the ground, coffee tables look rather silly when dressed up too much, and a tablecloth probably wouldn't be the best here. Place mats are similarly overwhelming for the small space, so if you were to invest in any fabric, I would definitely say buy napkins. As I mentioned in the post, cloth napkins aren't the easiest since you have to clean them after every meal. So I wouldn't discount the power of a properly set table with paper napkins, forks, knives, and wine glasses, to make the overall dining experience seem more formal. Another thing to keep in mind: serve family style. The food is what makes the meal special, and it always makes the tablescape look spectacular when served on one big platter. Since you are sitting close together, it really is an easy way to serve your guests and requires very little passing :)

    To everyone else–so glad you caught the show! We are absolutely thrilled that so many of you have found the blog thanks to Ina, and we hope you enjoy reading about our quarter life tales. Please come back any time!

    Happy Holidays,
    Phoebe

  • Wendy

    Hi Pheobe – so great to see you on Barefoot Contessa episode! Love your blog – what a great idea!!

  • Julie

    Hi!

    I too discovered your blog after seeing the episode with Ina.

    I'm a 23 year old newly wed and can't wait to try all your treats for my husband and friends!

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Cindy

    Hello! I just discovered your blog after watching Ina's episode in my DVR and my mouth is absolutely watering from all of your recipes that I can't wait to try! Congrats to you on your blog and you have now found another fan (who is sadly past the quarter life mark but loves to make and enjoy a great meal with friends and family)! :)