Entertaining in summer is so different from winter. As soon as it’s nice out, we eat en terrasse for every meal, and the same applies for dinner parties. While winter dinners are cozy and intimate around a candlelit table, they can only be so big. That also is nice–the conversations are deeper with a smaller group.
But a big party is fun, too. We got in the groove of cooking hamburgers, partly to redeem them from the bad rep of McDonald’s (people here complain about McDonald’s but France is MacDo’s most profitable market outside the U.S., cough, cough). Fan or foe, anybody would admit that a homemade burger cooked on a real grill is a step above.
Burgers are a good option because they offer mass customization: you prepare and cook a ton of them the same way, and everybody can dress theirs up as they like. We learned our lesson and made them rather small and thin, for quicker cooking and because some people eat just one small one and others eat five. (In earlier years, we threw away an awful lot of half-eaten big burgers.)
One friend brought appetizers, so that was taken care of.
We had two salads on the side: a pasta salad with an Italian vibe (lots of fresh basil, olive oil, red wine vinegar) and an Asian-inflected cabbage slaw–no creamy dressings in this heat. They were made one day ahead.
The carrot cake has a history. One of our early such cookouts coincided with July 4. I decorated the carrot cake with blueberries and raspberries to make an American flag. One of our friends thought this was so pretty, it had to be shown to everybody before we cut it to eat. As she walked around with it, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I answered “Carrot,” she stopped as if she’d gotten an electric shock, and nearly dropped the cake. She recovered and then, as if to save me from the horror of the idea of a cake made with carrots, asked about the frosting. “A kind of cheese,” I explained. At that time, Philadelphia cream cheese was found only in expat groceries (where I had paid a small fortune) and I didn’t yet know that Saint-Môret is pretty much the same thing.
That was it. Nobody touched the carrot cake. Finally, somebody who was out of earshot for this came around and took a piece. Biting into it, she exclaimed, “Wow, this pain d’épice is delicious”–pain d’epice (spice bread) being familiar, but usually much drier and without a tangy cream cheese frosting. That gave the others an excuse to satisfy their curiosity and the carrot cake was quickly devoured.
By now, even here in France profonde, trendy tea salons serve carrot cake and cheesecake.
Here are some recipes for feeding a crowd (we had about three dozen people):Asian-influenced cabbage slaw
1 head of red cabbage (green is OK but not as pretty), grated or sliced as finely as you can
1-2 red bell peppers, chopped
4-5 carrots, grated
1 onion, finely chopped
fresh ginger about the size of a thumb, peeled and finely minced
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp soy sauce
Put the liquids in a jar and shake to make the vinaigrette. Toss with the vegetables. If you do it a day earlier, it’s even better, because the vinegar will soften the cabbage. This is a refreshing alternative to traditional coleslaw.Pasta salad
500 g (1 lb.) pasta of your choice, cooked al dente (don’t overcook, so it holds up)
1 red bell pepper
1 green or yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup basil leaves
1 large onion
Chop all the vegetables and toss with the pasta. Because of braces, we chop pretty finely and grate carrots. I peel nothing, just wash–keep those vitamins! The basil I scrunch into a bunch and cut into ribbons, but you also can tear it. Other possible additions: olives (black or green), sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, even fruit like peaches. There is no right or wrong here.
In a jar, combine 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 3/4 cup olive oil, a clove of garlic (minced very finely) and a big spoonful of capers. Shake to mix and toss into the salad.
The carrot cake recipe is from Epicurious–BA’s Best Carrot Cake, from Bon Appétit, May 2016. We didn’t include the rum (actually our kid made all the desserts except for the frostings). For some reason, I didn’t use the frosting recipe there and instead used the Epicurious “Classic Cream Cheese Frosting,” which came out way too runny, perhaps because of the heat here, and I ended up adding a lot of powdered sugar.
The chocolate cake was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Moist, rich, not cloyingly sweet. It’s from the Violet Bakery, and I found the recipe on the excellent blog 101 Cookbooks. I did the marshmallow frosting, too, which was just like a marshmallow cloud. Didn’t manage to pipe it, though, possible again because of the heat. This one is my new go-to recipe for chocolate cake.
The nut bars are a tried-and-true success from “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” which is an oldie but goodie. Page 256. This cookbook gets constant use, even after decades. A few things seem very ’80s, but the vast majority is classic. And classy.
Here are the nut bars, called Pecan Squares, but, not wanting to take out a second mortgage to buy exotic pecans, I used walnuts, which are delicious.
The Silver Palate’s Pecan (or walnut) Squares
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
1/2 pound butter, softened
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease a 9×12 sheet pan (or grease and use parchment paper). Sift the sugar and flour together. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until you get fine crumbs. Press into the pan and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and set aside.
2/3 cup melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 1/2 cups coarsely chopped nuts
Mix all the ingredients together and drop in dollops onto the crust, spreading it out evenly.
Return to the oven and bake for an additional 20-25 minutes (better to set your timer for less and pull it out when it’s brown and bubbly and not when it’s burned!).
I cut everything into bite-sized squares because plenty of people wanted one of everything, and they could always come back for seconds. Or thirds.
This was not a hugely expensive party to throw, considering how many people we had. Nor was it hugely complicated. The hamburgers themselves involved 9 kilograms (almost 20 pounds) of ground beef, with about 20 eggs, a cup of soy sauce, a cup of Worcestershire sauce and 2 cups of bread crumbs (the eggs and bread crumbs keep them from breaking up). This made about 85 hamburgers.
The best bet is to make the burgers a day or two ahead, and to have three dozen or so in a big container and then to have the rest in a couple of smaller containers. The big container gets cooked first, because everybody will fall on them as fast as they come off the grill as if they hadn’t eaten for a week. The others can stay in the fridge until needed, and, if there are leftovers, you can put them in freezer bags, all ready for a future cookout.
We had everything ready the day before, and the day of, we just had put out the paper “tablecloths” and cushions and the plates (real china dessert plates that have been well-amortized over 20-some years) and silverware (Ikea, again, well worth the investment from 20 years ago). Then we all put our feet up and relaxed for about an hour before guests arrived. Which is as it should be.
Do you throw big parties? Tell all! If not, what’s holding you back?