Saturday, April 30, 2011
We had two families over last night for an outdoor cookout. It was another relaxing evening after another busy week! We served up grilled chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, cornbread, coleslaw, green and waxed beans, and corn-on-the-cob. For dessert, I made peach struesel tarletts and crème brulee. I’ll share the recipe for the tartletts in another post. Today, I thought I’d focus on the crème brulee.
The recipe I use comes from the book, Elegant Easy Crème Brulee (Renaissance Books, 1998) by Debbie Puente. A good friend recommended this book to me a couple months ago. She’s used the recipe on page 26 for Classic Crème Brulee and really liked it. Since then, I’ve made the same recipe about 4-5 times. I agree…it’s a wonderful recipe.
The only thing I do a little differently with Ms. Puente’s recipe is I make a 150% batch. Her recipe makes 6 crème brulees; I find that 9 is a better. That way there sure is enough to go around during a dinner party. Here’s the recipe:
12 egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar (I use “super-fine” or “Baker’s Sugar”)
3 cups heavy whipping cream
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
Sugar for carmelizing the tops
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until the sugar is dissolved (If you use super-fine sugar, this goes much better.). Add cream and vanilla, and blend until mixture is very smooth. Pour into a fine strainer, or ideally a “Chinois.” I got one from Williams Sonoma (http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/chinois-strainer-pestle-and-stand) and it works wonderfully. This will remove tiny, excess pieces of egg white that remained after you separated your eggs.
Here’s a photo of some of the main supplies you are going to need:
These pics show the mixture being strained through the chinois:
Once the mixture has been strained, divide it up between 9 ramekins or custard baking cups. These will be baked in a water bath. You will need to get out a large baking pan and put a couple layers of paper towel on the bottom (this will prevent the ramekins from moving around). Pour warm water to a depth of about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 40-60 minutes—until crème brulee is set. (Ms. Puente’s recipe says 40-50 minutes, but a full hour has worked better for me.) Remove from oven, cool to room temperature, and then chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours and up to two days. (One of the things I like about this dessert is that it can be made in advance.)
Here’s a photo of six of my crème brulees, in the water bath and ready to go in the oven:
When ready to serve, sprinkle about two teaspoons of granulated sugar over each custard. I actually use a special sugar for this, which I find works really well. King Arthur Flour (www.kingarthurflour.com) sells what they call “Sparkling White Sugar” in 4-ounce bags. It is ideal for topping crème brulee. It just seems to caramelize better than regular granulated sugar. Use a culinary torch to melt the sugar. Serve immediately. If desired, serve with fresh strawberries (which we’ve done lately, since we’ve had so many strawberries in our garden!), raspberries or other fruit.
Here’s one last pic--this one of the caramelizing process:
Alternatively, you can use an iron salamander for caramelizing your crème brulee. I have one of these too. To use it, you need to heat the iron over the stove until red-hot, and then sweep it over the crème brulees to melt the sugar. I’ve used this method years ago, but I prefer using the culinary torch.
Okay, that’s it for now. Happy hospitality!
Thursday, April 28, 2011
When I first started this blog, I talked about how there’s more to true hospitality than just having people over for a nice meal. In its broadest sense, hospitality is a matter of giving yourself to others, showing a genuine interest in them, and making them feel special. You can do that even if you live in a tiny apartment or don’t like to cook. Truly, there are ways to show hospitality, even if you don’t have people over to your home for a meal.
A wonderful way to show hospitality is by gift giving. When you give tokens of appreciation and kindness, you are showing others that you care about them. This is especially true if you are giving gifts for “no reason”—you’re not going to a birthday party or shower, and you don’t feel like you’re expected to buy someone a present. I think those are the best kinds of gifts.
This time of year, I like to give gifts to my sons’ teachers—to show our appreciation for everything they’ve done during the school year. Now if your kids are in elementary school, this may be a little easier done, since you probably just have one teacher per child. If your kids are in middle or high school, gift giving can be more of a challenge (more expensive!) since each child may have quite a number of teachers. In that case, you may only be able to give gifts to the teachers you think went above and beyond. For instance, if your daughter’s geometry teacher tutored her once a week after school, you may want to be sure to give that person a gift.
Each of my sons both have eight teachers. I also substitute teach fairly regularly at their high school, so I know a lot of the teachers and school administrators. What I did last week to show my thanks was drop a large tray with about six different kinds of bite-sized desserts (mousse cups, tarts, cannoli, petit fours, etc.) over to their teacher’s lounge at the start of the lunch period. I bought a large round plastic tray from a party store and a plastic lid, which made the platter look more professional than if I just used plastic wrap on a tray. It seemed to go over really well. The following day when I went to the school to sub, several teachers and administrators came up to me, letting me know what desserts they most liked. (Note: you do have to make sure your child’s school allows teachers to accept home-baked gifts; these days it’s not okay in every school district.)
There are many other ways to show appreciation (or “hospitality”) to your children’s teachers. I got the “inside scoop” from some teacher-friends re: what they especially like in the way of gifts from parents. Here are some ideas based on what they told me:
1.) A gift card for Border’s, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, or Amazon.com. Teachers generally like to read, and they’re sure to want to spend more time doing that during summer vacation. Put the gift card inside a thank-you card made by your child.
2.) A metal popcorn bucket filled with a bottle of popcorn oil, popcorn seasoning and a jar of gourmet popcorn (or alternatively, filled with boxes of microwave popcorn), bottles of soda and a gift card from the movie rental store.
3.) A gift bag filled with bubble bath, bath salts, fancy bath soap and bath gels.
4.) A personalized mug with a teacher’s design and the teacher’s name on it. There are many online companies that sell personalized mugs and other gifts at very affordable prices. My favorite website for these kinds of items is www.cafepress.com. Even if you don’t want to personalize the mug, they still have a lot of unique teacher mugs available (that you may not see in local stores).
5.) Something a male teacher in particular might really like: a grilling cookbook or barbecue tools. I know a lot of men who enjoy grilling, and during summer vacation, there’s a lot more time to do this.
6.) A gift card for Starbucks, Panera Bread, Saxby’s, Gloria Jeans, or other coffee shop in town. A lot of teachers tell me they enjoy the fru-fru drinks, but don’t always have the money in their budget to indulge in them.
7.) A themed gift basket. Buy a wicker basket from a store like World Market and fill it with items relating to one of the teacher’s favorite hobbies. If the teacher likes to garden, fill the basket with gardening gloves and hand tools like a trowel, transplanter and cultivator. If baking if her favorite past-time, fill the basket with items like a cookbook, whisk, wooden spoons, cookie cutters, tartlet molds, etc. If the teacher is going to be going to the beach a lot this summer or has a pool, you could fill a basket with items like tanning lotion, a bottle of after-sun spray, sun glasses and an inflatable air mattress.
8.) A potted plant. Buy a houseplant (one about the size for sitting on a desk, so that it’s easily transported) from your local nursery or plant store and tie it with a big, colorful ribbon and bow.
9.) A magazine subscription. Order this in advance, so that the magazine publisher can mail you a gift card (stating that the subscription has been purchased) before the end of the school year. Put the magazine subscription card inside a thank-you card addressed to the teacher. If you know the teacher’s interests (i.e., travel, interior design, electronics, music, pets, cooking, etc.), you’ll be able to choose a magazine related to one of these hobbies. You also can’t go wrong purchasing a general interest magazine like National Geographic or Good Housekeeping.
10.) A box of assorted chocolates from your local candy store.
11.) Personalized stationery, cards or note pads. Teachers write a lot of notes to parents, and most seem to like having stationery with their name at the top. There’s no end to the number of online sources of personalized stationery. Most printers are quite affordable these days.
12.) A weekly planner for the upcoming school year. Do a search on 2012 planners and you will be amazed at what all is available for next year already—and it’s just April.
Of course, it helps to know your child’s teacher when chooseing a gift. See if your children can pick up on some clues regarding what might be a well-received gift. For instance, if the teacher always walks into class with a Starbucks coffee in hand, that tells you that a Starbucks gift card would be appreciated.
When my oldest son was in the 6th grade, I got the nickname for being the “Pie and Cookie Lady” at the elementary school. The PTA used to organize monthly teacher luncheons, and I often made desserts for those—usually pies. My son’s 6th grade teacher used to send notes with him, asking for the recipe for the pies I just dropped off at the school. When I went to parent-teacher conferences, the teacher told me she loved to bake pies. So for her, an obvious end-of-the-year gift was a copy of my favorite pie cookbook—with many of the recipes I used during the school year.
Keep in mind though, that even if you don’t have any idea what a teacher might like, anything you give is sure to be appreciated. Even if your child’s teacher already has three coffee mugs that say “World’s Best Teacher” on them, if you give her a fourth mug with that phrase on it, it’ll surely go over well. The point is to let your children’s teachers know that you appreciate them. Everyone likes to know they are valued by others.
Monday, April 25, 2011
For the last few weekends, we’ve been having company over for an informal grilled dinner on Friday evening. This past weekend was no exception. We had some friends over for a rotisserie chicken dinner. There is just something totally wonderful about sitting outside with friends, eating “summer food” and listening to the waterfall and fountains in the pool—after an extremely busy and often very stressful workweek. The worries and pressures of the week just slip away! That’s especially true if you open up a bottle of wine for your guests while you veg-out in front of the grill while the chicken’s cooking!
Besides chicken, we served up a fresh garden salad (using the head and purple leaf lettuce and spinach from our garden), seasoned and cubed baby red potatoes in the oven, spiced corn on the cob cooked on the grill, and you guessed it...a strawberry dessert (because yes, we’re still picking strawberries from our garden!). So we had homemade strawberry shortcake, homemade vanilla ice cream and freshly-whipped cream for dessert.
We’ve served up this menu (with a different dessert) three weekends in a row now (to different people every time). Our guests always tell us they like it, and somehow we never get tired of this meal either. Here are the recipes for the meal:
1 T. paprika
1 T. salt
1 tsp. white pepper
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 T. garlic powder
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. cumin
1 T. oregano
1 T. thyme
Mix all the ingredients together and rub on a large (4-5 pound) roasting chicken—inside and out. Put chicken on chicken on rotisserie rack, and tie legs together. Cook 1 ½ hours over medium heat. For extra flavor (and calories—but who’s counting calories?!!) inject chicken with melted butter. To keep the chicken moist, put a shallow baking pan of water at the bottom of the grill during cooking.
SPICY GRILLED CORN-ON-THE-COB
6 ears sweetcorn, husked and rinsed
3 T. butter, softened
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. paprika
½ tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
Rub butter over each ear of corn. Mix the last five ingredients together, and rub this spice mixture over each ear of corn. Wrap in aluminum foil and place corn on grill, about 4-5 inches from heat source. Grill, turning once, about 10-15 minutes.
OVEN ROASTED RED POTATOES
4 pounds baby red potatoes, washed and cubed
½ cup olive oil
2 (1 ounce) envelopes dry onion soup and dip mix
Coat potato cubes with olive oil in 10 by 13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle potatoes with onion soup mix, and stir to evenly coat. Bake about 45 minutes in 375 degree oven, stirring occasionally.
HOMEMADE STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
7 egg yolks
10 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1 cup unbleached white flour, sifted
¼ tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour the cavities of a bundt pan or 3 6-cavity (1/2 cup each) shortcake pans. In large bowl, beat the egg yolks, vanilla and 1 cup of the powdered sugar until thickened; set aside. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until mixture forms soft peaks. Add the remaining ½ cup powdered sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Gently stir egg white mixture into egg yolk mixture. Then sprinkle flour and salt on top. Carefully fold mixture together until blended. Pour into prepared pan(s). Bake about an hour for a bundt cake; about 20-30 minutes for individual shortcakes. When done, cake should be slightly golden around edges, and a toothpick inserted into center will come out clean.
Top shortcakes with a spoonful of sliced and sugared fresh strawberries, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, more strawberries, and a dollop of whipped cream. Yum!
This is a relatively easy meal to prepare….yet is oh so tasty. No matter how often we make it, we always seem to enjoy it. There’s nothing like summertime food on the weekends!
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Want an idea for last-minute and fun entertaining, something that is sure to please everyone’s palate—especially during the warm, summer months? Make some homemade ice cream!
Now you if you have kids—with lots of excess energy to burn up—the good old-fashioned hand-crank ice cream maker might be the right one for you. But my personal preference is the 1 ½ and 2-quart automatic ice cream makers. I have had several brands, but my favorite by far is the automatic frozen yogurt and ice cream makers that Cuisinart makes. It’s so easy to make ice cream with these. You just mix up the ingredients and pour it into in the freezer bowl (which has been in the freezer for at least 24-hours) and turn on the machine. After 25-30 minutes, you have ice cream!
I have two freezer bowls. Each makes about 1 ½ quarts of delicious homemade ice cream. During the summer months, I have at least one freezer bowl in the freezer—ready to go and ready for last-minute entertaining opportunities—at all times. What I like about this ice cream maker (besides the fact that it’s automatic!) is the size; the freezer bowls are just the right size so that you don’t make too much of any one flavor. So with two different freezer bowls, I might use the first one to make cookies and cream or strawberry ice cream, and the other for mocha almond fudge or buttered pecan. That way, I can make plenty of ice cream for dessert, but there’ll be two different flavors to choose from.
Personally, I think homemade ice cream is the perfect warm-weather dessert, especially after a grilled outdoor meal. I also think it’s fun to do some impromptu entertaining and call up some of our friends, “Hey, we’re making homemade ice cream. Want some? Come on over!” We did that this weekend. With all the fresh strawberries we’re still picking from our garden, it only made sense to make some homemade strawberry ice cream. The recipe is below.
Homemade Strawberry Ice Cream
1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
3 T. lemon juice
1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla
Combine the strawberries, lemon juice and ½ cup sugar in a mixing bowl. Cover and set for 2 hours. When the time is up, put the mixture through a sieve. Save the juice. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the eggs until fluffy. Add in the strawberry juice, heavy whipping cream, milk and vanilla. Blend well. Turn on the ice cream maker. Pour in the mixture and let mix until thickened (about 25-30 minutes). During the last 5 minutes of the mixing process, add the sliced strawberries. (If you’d like smaller pieces of strawberry in your ice cream, mash the strawberries slightly before adding them to the ice cream). This will give you a light pink, very “natural” looking ice cream. If the ice cream is still soft after a half hour of churning in the ice cream maker, you can remove the freezer bowl and chill the ice cream in the freezer for a half hour or hour—until frozen enough to your liking.
Happy ice cream making!
Friday, April 22, 2011
I made two meat entrées for our recent formal dinner: a boneless chicken breast dish with a mushroom sauterne sauce, and boneless leg of lamb. The one that seemed to go over the best was the lamb. I actually made three boneless legs of lamb for the meal, and each was cooked in an oven cooking bag. The recipe is below. It’s actually a recipe that I "tweaked" from inside a Reynolds Oven Bag package. I don’t make a lot of lamb…it’s not exactly my family’s favorite…but this one usually goes over pretty well when I serve it.
Roast Leg of Lamb in Cooking Bag
1 large oven cooking bag
1 T. flour
1 4 to 5 lb. boneless leg of lamb
1 T. vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tsp. thyme leaves
2 tsp. marjorem leaves
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black peper
2 tsp. herbs de provence
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Shake flour in oven bag. Place in roasting pan. Trim fat from lamb, leaving thin layer. Brush both sides of lamb with oil. For meat rub, combine garlic, thyme, marjoram, salt and pepper. Rub lamb with herb and spice mixture. Place lamb in bag. Close bag with nylon tie; cut six ½ inch slits in top. Insert meat thermometer through slit in bag into thickest part of lamb. Bake until thermometer reads 140 degrees F for rare, 150 degrees F for medium, 1 ½ to 2 hours. Let lamb sit in bag for 15 minutes until slicing.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Formal dinner with the good china, crystal and sterling silverware--who does that anymore?!! Well, I do. Now, I don't do it that often. I probably do it once every month or two on average. In fact, as I noted in Tuesday's post, we just recently hosted a formal dinner party for 34 people. We had two adult tables with nine people at each of them, a long folding table on the patio with 12 teenagers sitting at that, and then a card table adjacent to one of the adult tables for four young children.
You may be thinking, "Wow! That's a lot of people!" Truly it was. Not all of our formal dinners are that large, but that one definitely was. Still, it wasn't a stressful evening for me. I actually relaxed and enjoyed myself during the meal. Hopefully our guests did too. There is just something really special about sitting at an elegantly-set table with candles, a fresh flower centerpiece, and pleasant music playing in the background. That's not something most of us get to do everyday. For many people, it only happens for business gatherings and on holidays, if then.
Probably one of the reasons people don't often host formal dinners anymore is for some of the reasons I already addressed in previous blog posts: everyone is just s-o-o-o-o-o busy nowadays. Entertaining can be time consuming enough just doing it casually with paper plates and disposable tablecloths. But when you're hosting a formal dinner, not only do you have all the food prep, there's also a lot of "extras" you need to set at the table--candles, placecards, cloth napkins and tablecloths, charger plates, cups and saucers, bread plates, and on and on. It can be a lot of work to get all these items out of the china cabinets, iron the table linens, and polish the silverware. Oh, and when the meal is over with, the china, crystal and silverware can't usually be put in the dishwasher; it all has to be hand-washed. So all the work alone can be a deterrent.
And then for other people, they may simply not have the "nice” china or crystal they think is necessary to host a formal dinner. Or, perhaps they're not sure exactly where everything needs to be placed at the table. I mean, there's a lot more to set down with a formal dinner than just a plate, glass, fork, knife, spoon and paper napkin. According to dinner etiquette, everything has a certain place it needs to be placed on the table. Of course, it may be many years or even decades since you've taken a Home Economics class and learned all this kind of "stuff." You may not remember where to put the wine goblet in relation to the dessert fork.
I just happen to have several good friends who teach Home Economics, either in high school or at the college level. I’ve gleaned a lot from them over the years. I've also got hundreds of books on entertaining and cooking, each of them with information in them on how to set a formal table. I've distilled a lot of the formal table setting basics below. I'm hoping that even if you haven't hosted a formal dinner time in a long time, or even in your lifetime, you might decide to try it. It's really doable, and you don't have "fancy" bone china table settings to create a very special dinner ambiance. You can have a beautiful table with inexpensive white Corelle dinnerware. However, you need to keep certain important steps in mind:
1. Start with a clean and ironed white linen tablecloth. You can also use a solid color table cloth, but I don’t think anything’s as elegant as a white tablecloth. White is especially nice if you have colorful china; that way your plates really stand out. But if you have plain white china or ceramic plates, a solid pastel or other colored tablecloth can be nice. Personally, my favorite tablecloths are those made from linen, damask and lace. Your tablecloth should hang 10 to 12 inches evenly around the table.
2. If you are using charger plates (which are used only for decorative purposes and food is not served on them), those are the first items to go on the table. The dinner plates would then be centered on top of the charger plates. But probably most people, like myself, don’t use charger plates. In that case, the dinner plates are the first thing on the table. Place them about 2 inches away from the edge of the table.
3. If you are serving a salad course before the main entrée, the salad plate goes directly on top of the dinner plate. If you are first serving a soup course—before the salad course—the soup bowl goes on top of the salad plate. This means you would have a stack of three—a dinner plate, salad plate and soup bowl—at each setting, with the first course on top. Now for my recent dinner, we didn’t have a soup course, so I skipped the bowl. (If your guests aren’t going to need certain plates, utensils, etc., there’s no reason to set them out.) Alternatively, if you have enough table space (which I don’t unfortunately) salad plates can be placed to the left of the dinner plates. Bread plates can be placed on the upper left of the dinner plate (above the salad plates)—again, if you have room at your table. You may place individual butter spreaders on top of each bread plate. (Since my dining room table is relatively small, I just have my guests put their bread directly on their dinner or salad plates.)
4. To the immediate left of the dinner plate (and below the bread plate), put the salad fork and dinner fork (in that order, from left to right). On the right side of the dinner plate, place the knife (with the blade turned towards the dinner plate), teaspoon, and soup spoon (if you’re serving soup; there’s no reason to set out soup spoons if soup isn’t on your menu.). Silverware should be set on each setting, in the order it will be used. This means the flatware needed for the first courses (i.e. soup and salad) will be farther away from the dinner plate than the dinner fork, knife and teaspoon (which will be used for the main entrée.)
5. Put stemware on the upper right of the dinner plate. The water goblet should be placed above and to the right of the dinner plate, just above the top of the knife. The wine glass should be placed just to the right of the water goblet. If your guests will have both red and white wine glasses, put the red wine glass directly next to the water goblet, and the white wine glass to the right of the red wine glass. If you’re also setting out champagne flutes, those should be placed just behind the wine glasses.
6. Place a folded cloth napkin across the top of the rim of the soup bowl (if you’re setting out soup bowls) or on top of the salad plate (if the salad plate is the top of the stack). Folded napkins always add a nice touch of elegance to your table setting. I have a favorite napkin fold which I like to do—which resembles a Saguaro cactus and is held together with a napkin ring. It takes me several minutes to iron and fold each napkin. What I really like about this fold is once it’s inside a napkin ring, it’s not going to become undone. These napkins can be folded several weeks in advance—which is a wonderful time saver. For this recent dinner party, I folded the napkins in mid-March (It was my computer break when I was in the midst of a big writing deadline!) and then just stored them in a box until I was ready to set the table.
7. For another touch of elegance, put a place card at each setting, next to the top of each dinner plate. I have a collection of various placecard holders which I’ve collected over the years (many of which I’ve purchased from wedding supply stores). I’ll write out each guest’s name in calligraphy with a calligraphy pen on a small rectangular-shaped piece of white card stock, and put that on each placecard holder. Not only is this an elegant touch, it’s also I good way to plan out who’s going to sit where. That way I can have guests sitting next to people who I think they’ll enjoy talking to. (Usually this is something I need to think through, so I’d rather figure out the seating ahead of time rather than wait until after all our guests arrive.)
8. Allow at least 24-28 inches of table space for each place setting. You want a cozy, intimate atmosphere, that’s for sure, but you don’t want your guests to literally be “rubbing elbows” with each other either.
9. Some hostesses like to include coffee/tea cups and saucers, and dessert forks and spoons in their formal dinner settings as well. Again, not everyone has the space to do this. I sure don’t. If you do, however, the cup and saucer would need to be placed just above the teaspoon and soup spoon, and below the wine goblets. The dessert fork and/or spoon would be placed horizontally above the dinner plate. Nowadays, though, what’s more typical is to clear the table after the main entrée is finished, and then bring out the coffee cups, dessert spoons and desserts on plates for everyone to enjoy at the dinner table. That’s what we do at my home. Or, sometimes we’ll serve up dessert, coffee and tea in the living room, on the coffee table, next to the fire place.
10. Don’t forget centerpieces. I have favorite vases I like to use for fresh flower centerpieces. Sometimes I’ll buy fresh flowers and make my own floral arrangements. Other times I’ll take my vases down to a florist and ask them to “fill it up” with particular colors to complement my china. That’s what I did this past week with our recent dinner party. I also like to have tapered candles out on the table. Sometimes, I’ll make floating candle centerpieces to use instead of floral centerpieces. Make sure whatever centerpieces you use do not block the faces of guests sitting at opposite sides of the table. Centerpieces should be relatively short. That is why I usually order floral centerpieces in advance (rather than just go down to a florist the day of a party and just hope I am going to find something I like). Typically the arrangements already made up at a floral shop are too tall for a dinner table.
These are all general steps to take to set a formal dinner table. Every etiquette book you read will include variations for how to set a formal table. I tried to include the basic steps though.
One other point: sometimes you may have families with young children coming over for a formal dinner. What I like to do—and this is what I did with the dinner we just hosted—is to have the parents at the main table and then set up a special kids’ table for the younger guests. After all, you want it to be a special evening for the children too. (Remember, if the children are enjoying themselves, the adults will be much more likely to be able to have a nice evening!) I have special plastic plates and salad plates with whimsical designs for kids to use. I also like to put small gift bags on the place setting for each child. I’ll find games, puzzles, etc., from the dollar store to put in these bags. This keeps the children occupied and happy during the meal! Here’s a photo of the children’s table I set for our recent dinner:
Here’s a pic of some happy teens at the teen table:
Here’s another photo of one of the adult tables:
One more point before I close: There’s still the issue of all the dinner clean up after the meal. Most of the time, my guests volunteer to help clean up. But sometimes it’s so late by the time the evening is over, and I hate to ask my guests to stay late to clean.
One solution that a friend brought up this past weekend is to hire a trustworthy high school or college student (ideally one in your neighborhood) to take care of cleanup for you. Most will be happy to help you out with washing dishes for $10 an hour. They can clean up your dishes for you and clear your dinner table while you’re sipping on coffee and eating dessert in the living room. I really like that idea! Paying someone else to do the cleanup for you may be money well-spent. To me, it makes an enjoyable evening even more enjoyable.
Okay….that’s it for tonight. Happy table setting!
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
We recently had 34 people over for a formal dinner. It was a wonderful evening! Apparently I am known more for my desserts than my main entrees. So in one sense, my guests couldn’t wait until the main meal was over with, so they could get to the grand final. I actually made five different desserts for the meal: Mocha Chocolate Chip Cheesecake, Chocolate Mousse Cups, Raspberry Mousse Cups, Cannoli and Fresh Fruit Tartletts.
I’ve already included recipes for most of these desserts in previous blog posts. But I haven’t posted the recipe yet for the Mocha Chocolate Chip Cheesecake. So….here it is:
Mocha Chocolate Chip Cheesecake
5 T. unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ tsp. vanilla
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¾ cup white flour
4 tsp. cocoa
Cream butter and sugar together. Blend in vanilla and egg. Add flour and cocoa and mix together until well combined. With greased hands, pat into a greased 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes, or until lightly browned around the edge. Remove from oven and let cool while preparing the filling. (Do ahead tip: once the crust is cooled, you can refrigerate or freeze until ready to fill.)
3 8-oz. packages cream cheese, softened
3 large eggs
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 12-oz. package mini chocolate chips, divided in half
1 T. espresso powder (available from online retailers like King Arthur Flour) or 2 T. instant coffee
2 tsp. vanilla
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Melt half of the chocolate chips in low heat in double boiler or microwave; set aside. Beat cream cheese until fluffy. Gradually beat in eggs, one at a time. Add sweetened condensed milk and melted chocolate chips and blend well. Add espresso powder and vanilla. Stir in the remaining half of mini chocolate chips (unmelted!). Pour into a greased 9-inch springform or cheesecake pan. Bake one hour and 15 minutes, until cheesecake is set and slightly golden around edges. Turn off oven and let cheesecake cool in oven for about an hour. Then put in the refrigerator and let chill for at least 8 hours or overnight. When ready to garnish, remove cheesecake from pan. Top with whipped cream and chocolate curls.
The cheesecake seemed to be the main hit of the evening. Still, the other desserts got gobbled up as well. Here’s a picture of my raspberry and chocolate mousse cordial cups:
Here’s a picture of one of the trays of cannoli that I served:
And here is a photo of the fresh fruit tartletts that I made. The fresh fruit is so colorful and pretty! My personal favorite was the strawberry tartletts…made with strawberries freshly picked from our garden.
When I get time, I will post some recipes from our main entrées as well. I just thought I’d post the dessert pics first. Somehow, that’s what people seem to look forward to the most. I know it isn’t just me who does that!
Sunday, April 17, 2011
One of the nicest ways to practice hospitality is with other members of our own families. My 17-year-old son, Danny, absolutely loves to cook. This morning, he and his brother prepared a Baked Vegetable Frittata. The picture above is a piece of this scrumptious frittata, which my sons presented to me this morning for brunch. What a wonderful surprise!
Danny has used this recipe before—the first time, a couple years ago for a Mother’s Day breakfast. This recipe is one that Danny found online, and then modified quite (and actually, I think he improved it a lot!). Danny never just prepares a recipe straight from a cookbook; he is either “tweaking” a recipe or coming up with one all on his own…and he’s been pretty successful at it! I asked him for the frittata recipe so I could post it to my blog. Here it is:
Baked Vegetable Frittata
1 cup chopped summer squash (zucchini and/or yellow neck)
8 oz. can mushrooms
1 large Spanish onion, chopped
2 bell peppers (red and /or green), chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 large eggs, beaten
¼ cup half and half
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, cubes
2 cups mild Cheddar cheese
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 1 ½ quart or 9 X 13-inch baking dish. In large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat. Add squash, onion, bell pepper and garlic, and sauté until tender. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. In large bowl, beat the eggs and half and half together. Stir in cream cheese, cheddar cheese and sautéed vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well and pour into prepared baking dish. Bake about 45 minutes to an hour—or until slightly golden around edges and set.
This is not only a wonderful dish for Mother’s Day breakfasts and surprise brunches, it’s also a wonderful entrée for company!
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
It’s strawberry season! Well, at least it is here in northern Texas. We’ve been harvesting lots of luscious, red strawberries from our garden. Two nights ago, my husband and I canned 16 jars of strawberry jam. That’ll taste delicious on homemade bread and biscuits.
We’ve still got more strawberries to harvest in the next few days. I thought of a really good use for them: strawberry cheesecake!!! We do have company coming over in a couple days and I was trying to think of a dessert to serve to them. I’ve found my answer.
The photo above is of one of my strawberry cheesecakes that I made last year. This is what I make when I make strawberry cheesecake. This recipe has a shortbread crust, so it gives you a little different taste than the standard graham cracker crust. It has a sour cream topping, and I garnish it with fresh strawberries that have been dipped and drizzled with chocolate.
The cheesecake can be baked 2-3 days before serving, so that’s a great time-saver—especially if you are busy right before a dinner party. Furthermore, you can make this crust up ahead of time and put it in the freezer until right before you fill it. Of course, if you’re going to dip strawberries in chocolate, that is one step you’d probably want to save until the day of your party.
Here’s my recipe, just in case you’d like to make this cheesecake yourself:
Fresh Strawberry Cheesecake
¾ cup unsalted butter, softened (Salted butter burns more easily during baking.)
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg yolk, beaten
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups white flour
Cream butter and sugar together. Stir in vanilla and egg yolk and mix well. Blend in flour. Grease your hands with butter and spread about half this dough onto the bottom of a greased 10-inch springform pan. (As an alternative, I use an actual cheesecake pan from a bakery supply store. This has a flat, round bottom and makes a nicer 90-degree angle side for the cheesecake, in my opinion, than springform pans.) Bake in a 400 degree oven about 8-10 minutes, or until the edges of the crust brown slightly. Remove from oven and cool. Then grease the sides of the cheesecake pan with unsalted butter. Spread the rest of the dough about 1-inch up the side of the cheesecake pan. Then refrigerate (or freeze) the crust until ready to fill.
3 8-ounce pkgs. cream cheese, softened
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In large bowl, beat the cream cheese and sugar together until there are no lumps. Add vanilla extract and eggs (one at a time) and blend until smooth. Add the sour cream and whipping cream and beat until smooth. Pour into crust and bake in preheated oven for about an hour and 15 minutes (cheesecake will be poofed up, and sides will be brown). Turn off oven and let the cake cool in the open oven for about an hour. Allow to cool at room temperature about an hour. Then add topping (below).
1 pint sour cream
¼ cup granulated sugar (I use Baker’s Sugar, which is extra fine)
1 tsp. vanilla
Stir these three ingredients together until smooth. Spread evenly over the top of the cheesecake and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes. Remove cake from oven and allow to cool on a wire rack. Then refrigerate until serving time.
The day you plan to serve the cheesecake, remove sides of cheesecake pan. Rinse strawberries with water and lightly pat dry with a paper towel. Dip strawberries in chocolate. I use the same chocolate discs that I use for making mousse cups. If desired, drizzle with the opposite color chocolate. Arrange strawberries on top of cheesecake. As an alternative, you can dip strawberries in strawberry glaze (available in the produce section of the grocery store) or melted courant jelly. Keep cheesecake refrigerated until serving time.
Happy Cheesecake Making!
Sunday, April 10, 2011
This morning, my husband brought in a bowl of fresh strawberries from our garden! We’ve also got a large formal dinner coming up soon. So what instantly came to mind when I saw the strawberries was STRAWBERRY MOUSSE! That will be one of our desserts for our upcoming dinner party. So that was my cooking project for today.
Usually, when I make mousse, I fill them in little candy cups. I use the meltable Candy Wafers or Candy Melts (available from retailers like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby) to make the candy cups. They’re fairly easy to make: just melt the discs for a minute or two in the microwave, and then using a small brush, “paint” the inside cavities of candy molds. Put the molds in the freezer for a minute or two and then pop out the candy cups. Once the cups are made, fill them with the mousse, using a pastry bag with a star tip.
I wrote about my chocolate and raspberry mousse cups in one of my first blog posts in January. Today, I wanted to share my strawberry mousse recipe with you. Like the other mousse recipes, this can be made in advance and frozen. Just pull the mousse cups out of the freezer about an hour before serving.
Now the mousse cups I wrote about in January were the full-size mousse cups. These that I made today are a lot smaller. Today I used cordial and mini flute molds. I like to have the smaller-sized mousse cups to serve when I’ve got lots of desserts to choose from (which I will in our upcoming formal dinner!). This way, everyone can have a taste of the mousse, without having to take a full-sized portion.
I hope you like this recipe too!
Do-Ahead Strawberry Mousse
1 quart fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and halved
1 package (1.4 ounces) strawberry gelatin
1/2 cup boiling water
1/3 cup extra-fine sugar
2 cups heavy whipping cream
In a large bowl, pour boiling water over gelatin and sugar. Stir until dissolved. Pour pureed strawberries into gelatin and stir until combined. Then put in the refrigerator to cool. While the gelatin is cooling, put the strawberries in a good food processor and puree until smooth. Then set it aside. Whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks. Then fold in the strawberry and gelatin mixture. Put into pastry bag and pipe into chocolate cups. Then put the strawberry mousse cups in the freezer until right before serving.
Of course, if you want to serve up the mousse right away, you can skip the freezer step. If you plan on eating the mousse the same day you make it, you could just keep it in the refrigerator until right before serving.
Friday, April 8, 2011
Recently I overheard a conversation between some of the moms at my sons’ high school, bemoaning how the only time their families eat dinner together anymore is during holidays like Thanksgiving. I have heard that a lot from friends over the years.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking is becoming the norm for American families. Today both parents often spend full days at the office, commute an hour or more each way, and spend their weeknights and weekends carting their kids from one extracurricular activity to another. Family members often eat meals in shifts. Mom and one child might microwave frozen dinners before heading to music lessons, while Dad and the other child might just get burgers from a drive through on the way to the soccer game.
“The stress and preoccupations of every day life can make it difficult for parents and children to find time for family dinners,” observes Tom Baranowski, Ph.D., a Baylor professor of pediatrics and psychologist with the Children’s Nutrition Research Center’s Behavioral Nutrition section. “Yet, family dinners, and the talk that can happen there, are extremely important.”
According to Baranowski, family meals provide parents with the opportunity to connect with their children—to show and express concern for them, hear their perspectives and ideas, and even share funny experiences and light-hearted conversation after a long day at work or school. This can help form stronger bonds between parents and children, and promote family unity.
Furthermore, by planning regular meals at home for the family, you can ensure that your children will be eating a well-balanced diet. Kids left to themselves to find something to eat are likely to choose a diet of toaster pastries, potato chips and frozen pizza.
Now you may not think the family meal isn’t part of “hospitality.” But it is. Your immediate family members are some of the most important people you should be showing hospitality to. Furthermore, if you aren’t eating meals together and you’re just throwing quick meals together ad hoc, you get even more out of the habit of cooking and meal planning. Throwing a dinner party becomes even less likely to happen. For these reasons, I thought I’d make a blog post about the family meal. What follows are some suggestions for restoring this endangered tradition and making mealtimes a positive family experience:
* Set your priorities. If you and your family rarely have meals together, try to cut out some of your kids’ extracurricular activities, optional night classes or meetings you might be involved with, overtime at the office, etc., to give you the time your family needs. “Strong family relationships are more important than chairing that fundraiser or having your child play on another team,” says Linda Brock, Ph.D., a Marriage and Family Therapist and assistant professor of Family Sciences at Texas Women’s University.
* Decide how many nights you’ll eat together, and do it. Aim for at least 3-4 family meals per week. “To make family meals a reality, schedule them on the calendar,” advises Anne VanBeber, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Texas Christian University. But don’t think family meals have to be dinner. “If breakfast is easier to plan than a dinner meal, make a commitment to gather in the morning several times a week,” VanBeber suggests. Figure out when most family members are available for a meal and adjust your schedules accordingly.
* Get everyone involved in meal preparation. Make mealtime as a family project–from preparation through clean up—rather than expect Mom to do it all (especially if she’s been at work all day!). The whole family can be in the kitchen together, one child setting the table, another child making a salad, Mom heating the dinner rolls, and Dad grilling the steaks. After the meal, everyone can help clean up. Even young children can have a part to play. One mom friend told me how her 5- and 7-year-old sons are great helpers. “They’ll pitch in by filling the water glasses, rinsing raw vegetables, washing lettuce for a salad, serving dessert, and clearing the table,” she relates. “It makes them feel needed, and it really does take some of the load off me.”
* Be creative. Try to come up with unique menus now and then—just to make mealtime more fun. Backyard cookouts, T.V. trays on the porch and picnics in the park are all enjoyable meal alternatives for the summer months. Try ethnic food themes. One night everything you serve might be German and another night might be Italian. Fondues, making mini pizzas together, and Mexican fiestas with plenty of chips and salsa are also fun, and they slow mealtime down, allowing for more time to talk.
* Eliminate Distractions. Turn off the television and radio during dinner, and let the answering machine pick up phone calls. If there is a favorite television show which comes on during the dinner hour, record it to watch later. The goal is for family members to focus their attention on each other.
* Keep conversation pleasant. Be ready with some good conversation starters. Ask your children how their own day went at school, get their thoughts about any interesting news stories you heard about today, talk about the family’s plans for the weekend, or elicit their ideas for family projects. If you heard a new joke or if something funny happened to you that day, share it. The family meal is not the time for discipline, power struggles, lectures, arguments, nagging, criticism or sulking. Discuss your son’s failing test grade with him at a time other than dinner. If your daughter tells you at dinner that she is upset about a problem, reassure her that you want to hear what she has to say, but suggest the two of you talk after the meal. Try to keep table conversation happy, positive and upbeat.
* Choose easy entrées. Even if you don’t have a lot of time to cook, you can still have some wonderful family meals at home. Put a roast and some veggies in your crock pot so that dinner is ready when you get home from work. Have a pizza delivered for dinner so all you have to do is make a salad. Take shortcuts, such as buying pre-washed lettuce for salad, brown ‘n serve dinner rolls, and pre-cooked rotisserie chickens. As I’ve said about entertaining in general, what matters most is that the family gets together—not that everything you serve has to be homemade.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
I love banana bread! It’s delicious with a cup of coffee on a cool morning, or as one of the foods in a poolside brunch on a summer morning. My all-time favorite banana bread recipe is below. It is super-moist, and like many of the recipes I’ve posted on this blog, you can make it in advance and freeze it, and pull it out of the freezer as needed. Whenever we’ve got over-ripe bananas in our fruit bowl, I’ll often make up some of this banana bread and freeze it. It’s wonderful to have on hand when you’ve got overnight guests coming and you are in need of do-ahead breakfast foods. I am sure you will like it!
Super-Moist Banana Nut Bread
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed banana (about 3 large)
1 ½ cups flour (I use ½ white flour, and ½ whole wheat)
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ cup sour cream
¾ cup chopped walnuts
Cream butter and sugar together. Add vanilla and eggs, and beat well. Stir in sour cream. Mix well. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt. Finally, stir in the nuts. Bake in 2 greased loaf pans or muffin tins. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes for loaf pans, or 25-30 minutes for muffins (or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean).
Monday, April 4, 2011
We’re having 35 people over in a couple weeks for a formal dinner party. I am doing a lot of advance prep work this week and next. Today I made mini mushroom quiches for one of our appetizers for the dinner. I bake up these quiches and freeze them, and then reheat them right before serving. It’s a great time-saver! You’d never know they’d been in the freezer when you serve them. These are great for breakfasts and bunches too!
Mini Mushroom Quiches
Pie crust—enough for a top and bottom pie
1 8-oz. can button mushrooms
1 8-oz. can Portabella mushrooms
2 T. butter
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 large eggs
½ tsp. salt
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups shredded Swiss cheese
Roll out pie crust and put into 24 tartlet or mini muffin pans (spray with vegetable oil first). Chop mushrooms with chef's knife, and sauté them in the butter and olive oil. Cook the mushrooms over medium heat until all liquid is evaporated and mushrooms are brown and tender.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Divide mushrooms evenly among tartlet pans. In small bowl, combine egg, cream, salt and cayenne pepper and beat well. Pour egg mixture evenly over mushrooms (about 4 t. in each tartlet pan). Sprinkle each with grated cheese. Bake until bubbly and golden—about 20 minutes. Serve immediately, or as a do-ahead tip, freeze between layers of waxed paper in a plastic freezer container. Then just bake to heat through—about 15 minutes—in a preheated 375 degree oven. They’ll taste like they were freshly baked!
Happy quiche making!
Sunday, April 3, 2011
Last night we had close to 60 people over for an “Old West” style murder mystery party. I chose to buy the plans for “Murder at the Deadwood Saloon,” which was designed by Night of Mystery Murder Mystery Parties (www.nightofmystery.com). We invited teens (our sons’ friends), their parents, and other singles and couples we knew. It was a wonderful evening and loads of fun!
One of the reasons we wanted to host a murder mystery party was so often lately, when we have families with teens over, the young people all go upstairs to play computer games while the parents hang out together. That’s fine some of the time (After all, how can parents tell stories about their kids if they’re around to listen and disagree with you?!! Tee-hee.), but not all the time. Personally, I like to see the generations interacting with each other; I think that’s beneficial for teens and parents alike.
I also like to see people interacting with each other who may not normally talk to each other, or know each other that well. When you’re in costume and either following a script or the objectives for your character, you have to interact with all kinds of people. You’re laughing and getting to see the “fun” side of people you might not normally get to see. It breaks down a lot of barriers.
If there’s people you might not normally think you have anything to talk about with, or maybe there are a lot “white-elephant-in-the-room” issues with certain other people you know, a murder mystery party is a good way to get your focus off that and onto something more fun and positive. Perhaps there are people you don’t know that well but you want to break the ice. These are all reasons why murder mystery parties are great for employee outings, neighborhood parties, school and church groups, and family reunions. You get to fill conversation voids with some entertaining interactions.
There are many options for hosting a murder mystery party. You can have as few as 8 people over for one, or you can go up to as high as 70 or 80 people. You can buy a murder mystery kit (either an actual game or a plan that you buy and download online; I opted for the latter) or write your own storyline. You can choose to have your guests read an actual murder mystery script, or have them act out their character roles improv-style (That’s what I did with our party last night; guests had roles and specific objectives they needed to accomplish during the party, but not specific lines.)
You can have just about any kind of setting for your murder mystery party. I opted for an Old West theme—Deadwood, South Dakota, in the 1870s—since costumes were fairly easy to come up with (especially here in Texas where I live!). After all, lots of people have cowboy hats, western boots, bandanas, etc. So guests didn’t have to spend a lot of money on outfits for the party if they didn’t want to. Of course, if guests wanted to rent or buy costumes (and many did), they can do that too.
If you do an online search for murder mystery games, you will see a huge variety of plans that you can buy. Night of Mystery Murder Mystery Parties (where we bought our plans) has created many different plans, from 1950s high school reunions and medieval themes, to luaus and wedding settings. For each plan, they have created a regular and “clean version” (which are good for teen and church groups).
Usually murder mystery parties also include a dinner during the evening. Choose a menu that relates to the setting for the party (e.g. gyros and baklava if the theme is a Greek Islands cruise). So while your guests are eating their meal, they can interact “in character” and play the game. Last night, we aimed for Old West food. My husband and I supplied barbecued beef brisket (using the recipe I posted in February), spicy “Cowboy-style” pinto beans in the crock pot, potato salad, cornbread muffins and whipped honey butter, cupcakes with cowboy toppers, western-shape cut-out sugar cookies, beer and wine for the adults, and a variety of nonalcoholic beverages for the teens. Our guests were asked to bring side dishes like tossed green salads, coleslaw, potato salad, veggies and dip trays, and desserts. Usually guests are happy to help out.
Decorations add a lot to the evening. I used many different items to try give an “Old West Saloon” feel to the first floor of our home: bandana pennant banners, wanted posters; fake gunshot hole stickers to put on mirrors, glass windows and appliances; fake gold bars; fake money bags; piles of chocolate coins covered in gold foil; brown glass beer bottles with homemade “Deadwood Brewing Company” labels on them; red gingham table cloths; saloon signs; red bandanas for doilies; metal pails with roasted in-shell peanuts in them; beer bottles with red silk wild flowers in them for table decorations; cowboy hats and spurs were on display; and on and on. I bought lots of red gingham ribbon and used that to tie around serving dishes, beverage tubs, and on the stems of wine glasses. To hold guests’ eating utensils, I put a set of forks, knives and spoons inside a bandana, folded it up, tied it with rope and put these in a large metal tub. I set up a poker table with Civil War era reproduction poker cards. And for background music, we played ragtime piano music. The atmosphere definitely Old West!
So are you ready to host your own murder mystery party? It’s really easier to pull off than you might think. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
1. Before you buy a murder mystery plan or script, survey at least a few of your potential guests to see which one they might be interested in. I emailed about a half dozen couples before I finalized which plan I wanted to do, to see if there was interest out there and to see which setting/theme people liked the most. I wanted to make sure there was the interest, before I started doing too much planning. Your murder mystery party will go much better if your guests are “in” to their characters and the storyline.
2. Start planning early—at least a month before the date of your party. Assign your guests their characters at least 3-4 weeks before the event, and send them basic character descriptions in advance. This will give them time to figure out what costumes they want to wear and to really understand their roles. Your guests may decide to order costumes online, or do a lot of running around to used clothing stores like Goodwill to look for costumes, or they might sew one of their own. They’re going to need time to do this. Some of my guests told me they read a little about late-19th century Western United States, just so they could better understand how people talked and lived, and what the culture was like at the time. The more advance prep your guests do, the better prepared they’re doing to be for the party and the more smoothly everything will run. As the host, you’re also going to need time to get together all your decorations. I ordered a lot online, and that takes time to all arrive. My costume alone—which was billed as a Civil War dressy gown—took 5 weeks to arrive from the U.K. of all places. It’s a good thing I ordered that in February!
3. Let your guests know how the party will run BEFORE they show up at your door. I sent out several emails explaining these kind of details to my guests in the 1-3 weeks before the party. I wanted them to know in advance what was going to happen at the party and what they were going to need to do. I told them how they were going to be given envelopes with their objectives at the party for before the murder and after the murder. They were told that they would have to be conducting their own personal investigations at the party to try to figure out the murderer, implicate others and prove their own innocence. They also knew they were going to get fake “Bank of Deadwood” money, which they would be using during the party. I told them that the party would last about 2-3 hours, and that the victim and murderer wouldn’t know who they were until they opened their “before the murder” and “after the murder” envelopes during the party. I wanted to explain all this ahead of time, rather than try to explain this to 60 people in a crowded family room.
4. Choose a simple menu. This is especially important during a murder mystery party. As the hostess, the hour before the party last night I was trying to make myself look like my character. In particular, I was trying to make the wig I ordered in the mail (which came in a compact envelope and the hairs were smashed together like a box of frozen spinach leaves) poof up and frame my face correctly. I was also dealing with a hoop skirt and dress that could have fit around our center island, and try to make it fit around my waist. All that took time. Usually I am spending the hour before company arrives by doing last-minute food prep. Last night, my costume was more important. I had made the cornbread muffins in advance and frozen them, I had put the briskets in the oven earlier that morning (and my husband was doing the last-minute carving), got the beans going in crock pots that morning, the desserts and potato salad I made was prepared the day before, and on and on. Several male guests were there early and they had fairly simple costumes, so when they volunteered to get beverage buckets ready and arrange buffet lines, I took them up on their offer. Having my guests bring side dishes also helped. There are too many details that need to be taken care of for a murder mystery party, to have too elaborate of a meal.
5. Give each of your guests a list of the other guests and what characters they’ll be playing—before the party. Have character nametags to hand out to them when they arrive. I made nametags out of red gingham fabric and cardstock, and then bought self-adhesive pin backs for the back of the name tags. The guests had specific people they need to talk to during the party, and the nametages made it much easier to know who was who.
6. Carefully assign characters. Look over the character description of characters, and try to really match up your guests with characters you think they’ll do well at. With the “Murder at the Deadwood Saloon” plan we used last night, there were 20 main characters (who were vital for the game), and another 14 general characters (who were optional, but still added a lot to the party because these people helped reveal more clues in their sleuthing and interactions during the party) that could be assigned as many times as I needed them. I assigned the first 20 roles to the first 20 people who RSVP’d to the party, and then the extra characters as others were added to the guest list. You also have to be ready for cancellations and changes to the guest list (There’s a good chance someone will have to back out last minute; it happened to a few of the roles for last night’s party.). Have a back-up person in mind who could fill in for one of the main roles (perhaps someone filling a general character role) if needed.
7. Anticipate ahead of time what supplies are going to be needed for the party and have them on hand. Also, have a plan for certain people to perform particular functions. I had a crate set out with the “before the murder” and “after the murder” envelopes for each of the guests (These envelopes had their money, nametags, objectives, etc. in them.). There were pens out for the voting at the end of the party (ballot voting for best costume, etc.). I also had masking tape to give to the person playing the marshal (since he was going to need that to outline the body after the murder). I had my son ready with his cap gun on the second floor, and our photographer who was going to flip the breaker to turn out all the lights when the “murder” was supposed to occur. They knew ahead of time what verbal cues to listen for so that they could get into position. I also had sealed envelopes placed in a hidden location (that only I knew) with the evidence and solution in it. Everything was organized so that all the materials were accessible and where they needed to be. You need to work out all these kind of details in advance. Once the party has started, it’s too late to think about these things.
8. Read over the script/scenario for the murder mystery party so that you know what needs to be happening and when during the party. I didn’t read over all the objectives for each individual character, but I did skim it enough so that I could have a good understanding of all the characters. I also wanted to know who the victim and murderer was. I didn’t let on what I knew to anyone else though. But I wanted to know myself just so I could have a good overall idea of what needed to be happening and would be able to step in if something wasn’t progressing as it should. Even though I knew the identity of the victim and killer, it was still fun for me. The enjoyment was seeing the interactions between characters and watching everyone’s performances.
9. Have awards for best costume, best acting and who figures out the murderer. We also had an award for who had the most money at the end of the party. I printed up certificates (and had duplicates on hand, just in case there were ties). In guests’ second envelopes, there were ballots for voting for best costume and acting, and also a place to guess who was the murderer and write down how much money they had collected (guests paid each other money for revealing/keeping secrets). Once I tallied up the results, I wrote the winning names in calligraphy on the appropriate certificates and presented them at the end of the party. That was a fun way to close the evening.
10. The last point: Go with the flow and remember you’re all there to enjoy yourself. I told myself before the party that even if nobody “got into” their characters and nobody figured out the murderer, that we were still going to have fun just dressing up and being together. Most our guests really DID seem to get into their characters. With some of the guests, I was surprised what good actors they were. That just added to the fun. Everything went as it was supposed to. There were several guests who were able to guess the murderer too. So that tells me we were successful at getting the guests to play their roles and follow through on their objectives. There was also a lot of laughing that night. It was truly a wonderful evening. Now I am just thinking about what type of murder mystery theme we could do next….