Or: How to Plan a Huge Meal and Not Lose Your Mind
It's the first day of November, which means that, if you're a food-lover, your thoughts are turning to turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pies.
If you're a cook, you've probably had those things on your mind for several days already.
But if you're a food blogger, you've been planning Thanksgiving dinner for weeks. And you've probably already served most of it.
That's why, two weekends ago, we held the Super Bowl of Bitten Word dinner parties: Fakesgiving.
This was our second annual Fakesgiving -- an occasion to invite our friends over and cook as many of November's Thanksgiving recipes as we can manage. (Oh, and credit where it's due: We owe the name to our friend Whitney, who cooked a pre-Turkey Day "Fakesgiving" with some of her friends a few years ago.)
In our case, Fakesgiving isn't a dry-run for the real Thanksgiving. (Or at least it hasn't been so far. Last year, we were so sick of Thanksgiving by the time it arrived that we ordered in that night [whoops!]. And this year, we'll actually be in Argentina for the big day [steak for Thanksgiving? Okay!]). So though it's Fakesgiving for our friends, it's actually Thanksgiving for us.
So here's how it works. There are 14 guests (an easy number to determine because we have exactly 14 seats). We pore over the November issues and pick a mix of traditional and new recipes, a mix of easy and challenging.
This year we ended up making 15 dishes (although it's a total of 17 separate recipes). There's at least one from every magazine that we receive. Some of them are great! And some of them are, well, not so great.
Anyway, here's the plan for what's coming up on The Bitten Word.
Tomorrow, we're going to publish our annual round-up of all the Thanksgiving recommendations from this year's issues.
Then, starting Wednesday, we'll be featuring a new dish every day leading up to Thanksgiving. Hopefully you'll find some inspiration for your own Thanksgiving -- or in some cases, some solid advice on what to avoid.
For today, we're sharing our tips for planning and executing a big meal like this without losing your head, your friends or ability to celebrate Thanksgiving without having PTSD about what happened last year.
We've previously written about how to plan a successful brunch. We encourage you to check out that list as well, but there are two items on it that we found very useful for Fakesgiving: Plan Your Serving Dishes (knowing which items will be served in which dishes well in advance) and Set the Table the Night Before.
Building on these, here are tips we used to keep Fakesgiving in check:
Pick a menu early. Duh, right? But menu selection really is the most important step. You want to pick dishes well enough in advance that you can get your shopping done in plenty of time. But picking a menu early will also give you plenty of time to plan. More on that below.
Take people up on offers to help. When someone offers to come and help cook, let them do it. Zach's mom hinted that she might be willing to come up from Tennessee and cook with us, and we gladly took her up on her offer. Then his sister offered to come in early to help with day-of prep before guests arrived. In truth, we couldn't have pulled off this meal without their help. If people want to do things, let them!
Delegate. We have no qualms about assigning friends to bring things when we invite them over for dinner like this. We won't ask them to bring actual prepared dishes, but we don't mind asking for things like ice, wine or snacks. For this year's Fakesgiving, we asked our friend Ed to bring some things to nibble on while we finished cooking. He brought the greatest snacks: a tray of assorted olives, along with little olive-and-cream-cheese finger sandwiches. Absolutely perfect.
And then our friends Scott and Charlie brought something amazing:
That's right. They're Thanksgiving Jello shots. Scott (of Porch Crawlers fame) made them and they're shaped like leaves and turkeys. They're made with cranberry juice, fresh orange juice, vodka, a splash of cherry liquor, nutmeg and allspice, and then they're dusted more allspice that Scott had ground with sugar in a mortar and pestle. They were a huge hit!
Find a way to get the guests out of the kitchen. When we have friends over for dinner, we all typically tend to stand in our kitchen while the meal is finishing cooking. But when we're doing this many dishes for this many guests, we needed to keep our friends busy. For Fakesgiving, the weather was beautiful, which was a great excuse to have them mill around in the backyard while we got everything in order.
Have a plan. Know which dishes can be made in advance and make them. Here's an excerpt of our by day plan:
-- Make casserole
-- Assemble cake
-- Make dressing #2
And while we're letting all our crazy planning hang out, here's an excerpt from our day-of plan:
-- remove turkey from oven OVEN TEMP: 425. ITEMS in OVEN: 2
-- put casserole in oven to warm OVEN TEMP: 425. ITEMS in OVEN: 3
-- put gratin back in oven, uncovered OVEN TEMP: 425. ITEMS in OVEN: 4
-- assemble salad
-- make gravy
-- remove gratin from oven OVEN TEMP: 425. ITEMS in OVEN: 3
-- remove casserole (if warm) OVEN TEMP: 425. ITEMS in OVEN: 2
Okay, maybe you don't need to be that organized, perhaps, but you do need a plan.
Know your kitchen's limitations. We have a pretty good handle on how much we're able to cook in our kitchen, and we know exactly where we have issues. For instance, we lack counter space, which means that some staging for dishes for a big meal like this needs to be done in the adjacent room (which happens to be our bedroom -- casseroles on the nightstand!). We also know that our oven is small, and there are only so many things that can fit into it, hence the "items in oven" notes above.
Find some downtime. We knew that we had three intense days of cooking ahead of us and that we needed to get out of the kitchen. So we took Saturday afternoon off and took a drive out to a winery in Virginia, to sample their wares and see some fall foliage. It was relaxing and kept us from climbing the walls.
Don't sweat it. If something doesn't work out the way you had planned, shrug it off. Even with massive amounts of planning for this meal, we still made errors. We burned one dish this year and undercooked another. At one point, we found that we hadn't prepped a main component of another dish and it was nearly time to eat. And you know what? Nothing was ruined because of the errors.
So that's our advice.
How do you keep your head when throwing a big dinner party? Any secrets you care to share?