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Dec 13, 2008 10:44 AM

Help! Surprise Party Cooking Advice...

Hi Home Cooks!

I have been asked by a group of friends to prepare food for a surprise party next weekend for 25 people. The catch is that the guest of honor is my sister and house mate. If geography helps set the menu, the party takes place in Florida so we don't have crazy cold weather to consider.

Here are the parameters that are FREAKING me out:

1. I can not really cook all the dishes in my own kitchen (she would notice) so I will cook at the host's home in an unfamiliar kitchen. I can do prep and storage at his home in the days before the event so dishes that improve with a day or two head start are ideal.

2. The party is a few days before Christmas so the crowd will be expecting upscale seasonal food. The guests are not impossible foodies but definitely will smell panic if I can't do this with a good deal of style. I am thinking simple, hearty, classics.

3. I have to leave the party site at LEAST an hour before the "surprise" to go home, act natural and dress for the FAKE plan I have with the birthday girl before ZERO hour. I have to deliver her back to the party or she will definitely know something is up. The host can bartend but does not cook...

I need help with the logistics of a buffet-style dinner party that has to be tasty and hot without the cook on site during that last crucial hour of power. I'd also like to be AT the party and not feel like the wanna-be-caterer-Cinderella-sister melting down in some guy's kitchen.

My game plan so far is a buffet of ambient temp antipasti like toasts with bruschetta and caponata, shrimp cocktail on ice and an imported cheese/ cured meat platter for guests to nibble during that hour of cocktails while we bring over the birthday girl. THEN I can roll out a lasagne, a sliced pork tenderloin and/or a beef tenderloin and a turkey breast to set up and carve buffet style once I am back on the scene. Roasted meats seemed "holiday" to me and could be timed to serve after I get back. A good side dish veggie idea would be helpful.

I thought to do a big buffet that sort of grows as the night progresses.

Anyone got some insight for me - besides "ARE YOU NUTS?!"

Thanks for your thoughts (and prayers)!


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  1. That is very sweet of you to have a suprise party for you housemate!

    However, this is just my opinion, so you can take it or leave it, but your menu is really a bit ambitious for one person cooking in a kitchen that is not your own. For example, carving stations are for people with staff, which it doesn't appear that you won't necessarily have.

    Here are my thoughts:
    1.) Pare down your entree menu to lasagne (maybe a red sauce meat one and a white sauce veggie one). I would make *at least* two lasagnes - use great ingredients and make it your best recipe. You can make these a couple days ahead of time and stored them in the fridge. When it's time to warm up for the party, put some bechamel sauce, or shredded cheese (or both) on top and leave them to the oven with no worries. Plus these dished retain their heat.
    2. If you want, add 1 meat entree, but make it something that doesn't have to be monitored for dryness or carved on site. No one should expect you to be that fancy. Off the top of my head I'm thinking something like sausage and peppers (this eliminates the need for a carving station because it is already "cut up"), or a braised dish (something that could be done in a slow cooker, maybe)? Again, this could be made earlier in the day and left to cook until you're ready for it.
    3. For cocktail hour, try to come up with things that can be made ahead of time and just plated up. The caponata is a perfect idea (again, can be made a couple days ahead of time, just put it in a pretty serving dish with crackers and crostini so people can help themselves). You could make a gourmet cheese and fruit/veggie tray by placing some wedges of great cheese on a big platter and then mounding large grouping of fruits and veggies around it,and a cured meat plate with some dijon, capers, and cornichons. Add a big bowl of roasted rosemary cashews (Ina Garten's recipe) - and you'll have a perfect variation of things without a whole lot of work. For this, buy as much possible and concentrate on pretty serving vessels and lots of color in the food. Also, ask one of your friends to watch the buffet and replenish while your gone.
    4. Not sure what you're doing for the sweet stuff, but I recommend buying an assortment of cookies/pastries, if possible. If it's her birthday, order a cake. The key here is, unless baking/pastry is your specialty, then order it. This way, you won't have to worry if "x" will burn or release from the pan correctly - you know what I mean.

    When I'm doing parties like this on my own, I like to buy as much as possible and make one or two really awesome things. Trying to make everything without a lot of help will send you straight to an asylum - plus you want to enjoy the party.... In any case, be organized, which means make a list of each day including what needs to be completed on each day and do a walk through of your friends kitchen ahead of time to see what she/he does/doesn't have. Plus, make another list of all the things that you need to do on the day of the party, in chronological order. You have no idea how much this helps.

    1. Call me crazy, but maybe fondue? All my friends seem to have unused fondue pots stashed in the backs of their cupboards, and I don't think they're expensive. You could do cheese, hot oil/broth, chocolate for dessert, plenty of opportunities to please plenty of palates. It's not a traditional holiday dish, but it strikes me as appropriate for winter. People seem to enjoy the communal activity aspect of it. There is something enjoyably retro-chic about it. It adapts to casual or more formal. It involves a bunch of prep, but then you just say to the non-cooking host, "Light those flames at x-hour," and be on your way to conduct your other business.

      3 Replies
      1. re: weem


        I posted this and continued dwelling on it and thought - they might not reply because it's just such a cluster#@#k

        I think your advice is helping me focus.

        To Weem, I like the retro vibe of the fondue but I have no personal history with it so I am uncertain I can debut an entire cooking concept at an important party. Also, 5 days before Christmas in someone else's really lovely home with 25 drinking revelers... pots of boiling oil and stuff sounds a little daunting. I may buy a fondue set at my next garage sale crawl and experiment in the safety of my FAR more modest digs.

        Jazzy - I totally agree I am in over my head but I have done a few BIG Thanksgivings so I thought of this as a - uh - BIGGER one. That's where the carving idea came from, I always make something big and roasted and people seem to think my leaving animal parts in the oven for a set time is a big cooking WOW!

        I am up to my eyeballs in lists at this point. I could invade a small country with my game plans and diagrams.

        I was thinking about your post and I totally get the idea of "too ambitious." There is another thread near this one with a Batali lasagne recipe that has a bechamel sauce and while I will not make my own noodles, I see that keeping it moist is the key note here...

        So for a meat... I will have to continue my quest for something that stays juicy. I did think sliced tenderloin would still look and taste good on a buffet even after it's peak heat but I guess I see your point about a person standing there and cutting and serving it. This was my stopping point on a veggie too. Nothing appealing about a room temperature plate of cooked veg.

        I just paused at the imagined appearance of a table of half-scooped casseroles. I do think a grand presentation of tapas-style antipati is the way to start but I have to refine my mains.

        And I ABSOLUTELY have spoken to a professional baker man who is doing a kick-ass cake and pastries and also cookies to make little takeaway boxes at the end. I am a "little bit of this and a little bit of that home cook" and my baking adventures (antics) are not for public consumption... they're for YouTube! ::blushing::

        Thanks again!


        1. re: advisor_Girl

          I've been in yer shoes before and it is rough...some ideas i'm gonna toss at ya:

          1. The Roast: you could do mini tenderloin sandwhiches with horseradish cream on the side...Roast can be done ahead of time, chilled and sliced by yer non-cooking host. If you wanna get REALLY insane, you could make yer own rolls, or do them on purchased buns.

          2. I am a fan of the BRAISE...It's always enjoyed, you can do it 2 days ahead of time and it's even better...Beef Bourgognioun (sp?) is a no-fail hit, as is coq au vin. Your host only needs to stick it in the oven an hour or so before service to warm it through.

          3. Appetizers: i'm a big fan of the tapas idea, as most of them should be served @ room temp. Some ideas:
          Shrimp with romesco sauce: grill and chill shrimp, serve with room temp sauce
          Tortilla de espangna: room temp
          Blue cheese stuffed dates
          Serrano ham and cheese platter

          good luck

          1. re: advisor_Girl

            Yeah, I wrote the post on Mario Batali's lasagne. I've used no-boil noodles in a pinch and actually think they mimic the texture of the fresh noodles better than those you have to boil. It is an awesome dish.

            You might think about trying this recipe for Mushroom Pasta with Thyme, which is still like a casserole, but you could serve it up on a platter and have people spoon it on their plates (that way, it can be replenished and you won't have an "empty" table). This recipe was designed for big crowds (notice it's for 16?).


            I believe in the show, she served this with ham (which would be a great option for you as well), but you could easily serve it with herbed pork loin or chicken/turkey, if you have oven room (otherwise, try to find something that can be braised and borrow some friends' slow cookers).

            For the veg, give them lots of veg options in the antipasti and you won't need to worry about it for the entree as well.

        2. I'm a Personal Chef, and do cookings like this all the time. Given you can cook ahead, make a red lasagna and a white baked ziti a couple days ahead. Also your 'carving' - turkey breast or whatever - can be done a day or more ahead. Day of the event, get over there 2-3 hours early, make your antipasti plates, and get the made-ahead stuff in the oven warming. Leave things in the oven warming, go home, do what you need, then bring her to the party. After SURPRISE! go to the kitchen and set out the antipasti and temp the other items. When they are up to temp, setup the buffet and serve.

          Me personally, without having to leave and come back, I would show up 2-3 hours early, depending on the kind and size of roast 'carving'. For a turkey breast I would prep the carving (20 minutes) and get it roasting (2 hours). Make the pastas dishes (1 hour) and get them baking (1 hour). (The oven is full of roast and pasta together for 1 hour) Make the antipasti plates (45 minutes while everything is roasting) and finish just as people are beginnning to arrive.

          3 Replies
          1. re: KiltedCook

            You guys want to send me some Xanax?

            One of the guests "misunderstood" the invitation and forwarded the e-mail to a bunch of his friends with a note that said, "This party sounds fun!"

            Note to self - translate Do Not Forward into six languages next time...


            1. The tenderloin sammies sound good. I could serve them after apps (open face) as sort of a rolling tapas party.

            2. When you say BRAISE - are you suggesting a slow food of like a short-rib dish or maybe a pork shoulder? All the restaurants in Miami that used to serve short-ribs are doing shoulders now. My hesitation is - will that be kind of a mess to serve on a buffet?

            3. I like the appetizer list and am considering for the sake of sanity going out to BUY a few appetizers. We have free standing empanada places everywhere and a Spanish style potato omelette could be a day-before dish...


            The Batali lasagna looks great. THANKS! I do my own but his seems more juicy so the standing time can extend a while. I would mos-def do the noodles from an imported box brand. I also found a recipe for pasta with sausage and broccoli that might be a sub for the mushroom and thyme but I want to marinate over that food network recipe a while. I was also thinking of a pre-cooked broccoli florette bowl with garlic, lemon and EVOO as a stand alone dish.


            You don't live in Miami do you? HA!

            I am going to stage the antipasti early and let the guests graze and drink from 730-8 when we arrive. The rest of your game plan seems very wise indeed. I was thinking there had to be one designated "guy guy" in the crowd who would carve a turkey breast or a roast if I asked nicely...


            1. re: advisor_Girl

              OMG ...So do you even know how many are coming now?

              Reallythe part that the wheels are going to fall of the wagon is the leaving, is there no other way to get her there?

              1. re: advisor_Girl

                Yer right about the messy braise situation...short ribs are THE BOMB, though would be hard to eat whillst balancing a cocktail with the other hand...much more for sit down eats....

                Btw: yer cracking me up.

            2. In lieu of a roast you might consider a poached salmon. It would be served cold and much easier for the guests to help themselves.

              1 Reply
              1. re: masha

                Yes, a whole poached salmon (or two) can be done ahead, served at ambient temp and looks really festive -- great idea! You can garnish beautifully in a way that fits in with the rest of your theme (antipasti, tapas or whatever).

                One thing to consider is hiring someone to help serve and clean up. In the Boston area there are several agencies that provide people to do this (about $30/hour, 4 hour minimum, plus tip) and it is a lifesaver when you are serving this many people. I am sure that Miami has similar agencies.

                Good luck and we really, really want a report when you have recovered!

              2. JungMann had a fairly recent post seeking out transportable, easy to assemble yet impressive starters and many CH'ers responded with some great ideas. Most can be pre-made or assembled with minimal time on-site. Follow his OP and responses at . Best!