Today, I’m cooking for my first big(ish) crowd, my daughter’s aftercare program. They started a new tradition this year of having dinners every couple months for the families of the children. What I thought was going to be 20 or so folks when I agreed turned out to be more like 60+, which is cool. I love a challenge.
- Leek and potato soup, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day
- Spring mix salad with choice of ranch or homemade orange vinaigrette dressing (see below)
- Spaghetti with meat sauce (loosely based on marinara recipe posted here earlier, just the tomato products, herbs and garlic)
- Italian bread with parsley garlic butter (It hurt me to not bake the bread, but we gotta draw the line somewhere. I made the garlic butter, though.)
- Cupcakes with homemade chocolate buttercream (see below)
- Tea (sugar syrup on service table)
The challenges for this event included figuring quantities and portions (already using that culinary math they taught a couple weeks ago in school), figuring out where to buy stuff (some from Sam’s Club, some from the grocery store, and some from Ben E. Keith), and remaining mindful that about half of the audience is children, who will usually eat less and often not the same stuff as the adults.
I must say that I felt pretty cool buying from Ben E. Keith, our local large-quantity foodservice supplier. They are letting me start small on some things, since I’ll probably be a customer from now on, either for catering events, doing classes or whatever I decide to do when I grow up. My daughter and I went to their customer service dock on Saturday to pick up a big box of leeks, two boxes of salad, the dairy products (cheaper there than elsewhere) and some other random things.
Saturday, the director of the aftercare program helped me make the sauce and the base for the soup (everything but the dairy products), and put it all in the fridge. I also cooked all the spaghetti to al dente, rinsed with cool water in a colander and tossed with olive oil, zip-bagged it and put it in the fridge. Not the optimal way to treat pasta, but great for cooking for a crowd — we’ll just hit it with hot water tonight to revive it for service. (My Food Production I instructor told me that trick. Thanks, Chef!)
Today, I’ll brown meat for the sauce (forgot that part Saturday), bake off the cupcakes, make the buttercream, warm the bread, make the vinaigrette (also from my Food Production I instructor), make the sugar syrup (it blends better than anything granulated), and generally freak out. But I’m sure it will be fine.
While planning the last details, we remembered that it’s Lent. So we’ll hold out some of the sauce to be without meat for anyone abstaining. The soup will also be a good option. (I would have had a lentil and mushroom dish available if we had any true vegetarians coming, which we don’t.)
So. All this to say, this is my first big crowd, and I’m a little nervous. But it’s for kids and their parents, so it’s a low-risk proposition. It all boils down to a great practice opportunity for me, as well as a good time for a great bunch of folks.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Please comment below and let me know if you’ve ever cooked for a crowd of, over, let’s say 30. How did you figure out portions and ingredients? How did things turn out? Where did you get your product? Any war stories, tips or suggestions? I look forward to your input.
Orange Vinaigrette Dressing
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 2 T. balsamic vinegar
- 1 T. Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp. honey
- 1/8 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
Whisk ingredients together in a bowl. Or, place ingredients in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid, cover and shake until combined.
Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
- 1/4 lb. (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/4 lb. (1/2 cup) shortening
Note: May use 2 sticks butter and eliminate shortening. Frosting will have a better mouth feel but will be less stable.
- 1 lb. powdered sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 3 tsp. cocoa powder
- 2 T. cool water
Cream butter and shortening (if using) together in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment. Add sugar in several installments, scraping down the bowl occasionally. In a cup, mix cocoa and water together; add to fat/sugar mixture along with vanilla. Beat until smooth and lightened.
Simple Sugar Syrup
- 1 cup granulated sugar (may substitute all or half with turbinado sugar for a more natural, deeper-flavored product)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 small sprig of any type of mint, optional
Simmer all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. When all sugar is dissolved, cool for a few minutes off the heat, then pour through a sieve (if mint was used) into a squeeze bottle or other container. Perfect for use in cold drinks.