How to Plan a Decadent Dinner Party: Creating the Menu

Sometimes, you just want to put together a big dinner party. Maybe there’s an occasion: a reunion of your foodie friends, a big anniversary. Maybe there’s not. Maybe it’s just Because You’re Worth It. And thus, L’oreal Day was born.

An occasion we celebrate once a year that goes big and/or goes home with a luxurious dinner. I’m talking if this were fantasy, this would be the King’s Feast of the Hunt. From the Hunger Games, this is taking a District 13 villager to a Capitol Feast. Each year, I try and learn a little something new, and impress myself (and whoever else bears witness) just a little bit more.

Entering 2015, this year’s L’oreal is going to fall on February 14: Valentine’s Day. With it just around a month away, I’m going to take you with me as I put together a dinner from conception through service, so that people at every experience level can take and adapt to their own comfort zone.

As the night’s festivities center around lavish and hedonistic consumption of food and drink, figuring out what to serve is the first order of business. Planning a menu is a balancing act of desires and logistics.

As an example, I’d love to be able to serve the 11-course-dinner from the Titanic. However, I’ll be the only one cooking in an apartment kitchen on a decidedly un-aristocratic budget. Desires, logistics: that’s right out.

What questions do you need to answer to set up a menu? I’ll answer with mine for L’oreal Day as we go along

How many people are you having?

Perhaps an obvious question, perhaps not. Is this an open invite event? Just a few of you?

I’m setting mine up as a 4-6 person event, since that’s about the limit of what I think my apartment will hold.

At this size, start thinking about catering technique.

At this size, start thinking about catering technique.

Who are you having?

I’m mostly referring to allergies and dietary restrictions, which you should factor into the menu if possible instead of singling them out with the dreaded “exception dish”.

I dodged the bullet on this one. I’m inviting known adventurous omnivores. They’ll eat anything I make for them. However, I’m developing a mild lactose intolerance, which while manageable means I’m scratching the cheese course this year. Too expensive for much potential waste and not a great payoff.

What are you willing to spend (per person)?

8.5 times out of 10 according to made up statistics, this is the first and foremost consideration. Note you can make dinners and entertainment work on just about any budget, in fact to have a cheap and active social life you can do Friday night meatballs on the cheap.

If you’re committed  having a serious number of people over or a big budget/person event, consider having them contribute ingredients, courses, or if they offer to reimburse groceries, consider (don’t let your pride get in the way if you’re being stupid).

In my case, I set aside money all year for this, so I’m going to set this aside as a “money isn’t the biggest concern, just execute to your standards”.

Where are you hosting?

Your location informs a lot about what’s even possible for your meal, based on how many burners, ovens, and appliances you have, how much fridge and freezer space you’ve got, even how many guests you can max out at.

Like I mentioned before, I’m doing this at my apartment, so it’s going to be one 4-burner gas range with an oven, a microwave, a top-freezer combo fridge, and various appliances.

What skills are available?

What are you comfortable doing, and what do you not know how to do but are willing to learn? If you have assistance available, what can they help you with? Specialty skills like deep frying, pastry, mixing drinks, grilling should obviously be addressed before you start cooking something that calls for them.

I’m solo, but I’m willing to try many an impossible thing.

Just know what you're getting yourself into.

Is there a theme? Kitschy holiday parties need apply. Someone’s favorite foods, maybe color schemes, any other fairly arbitrary recipe restrictions.

For L’oreal Day, all I want to do is go bigger and better than the year before, so either add a dish or add a guest. I’m adding more guests this year.

How long is the meal? Following from that, low much dinner is your dinner party? For some it’s a salad, then a main with a side dish. If you want to do more, depending on the cuisine (French, Italian, Japanese etc) you base off of there’s plenty of resources online for banquets and specific course order.

I’ve been building up year by year to increasingly formal American-style full course dinners, so this year I’m going with appetizers, soup, seafood, palate cleanser, main+starch+side, salad, dessert.

Once you have the general parameters set, you can actually start building the theoretical dishes of the menu

Research what’s in season.

Unless you have a good reason not to, produce-wise it’s best to work with produce naturally in season. Otherwise, at best it’s only coming from a greenhouse at premium, at worst it’s not available at all. If you’re interested in specialty protein (game meat, unusual fowl birds, or seafood like some shellfish) that’s seasonal as well, now’s the time to check.

Approve the use of color, but not great for dead of freezing winter.

Look into what’s easily accessible in your area: as a Californian I check the lists from the Ferry Building, as well as that of my nearest local farm. Eat the Seasons is also very helpful.I paid special attention to broccolini, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, potatoes, kale, fennel, grapefruit, orange, pomegranate, duck, rabbit, venison, oysters, and scallops as options to incorporate. Just personal preference.

Decide on a main

If it pleases you, figure out that major course that serves as the focal point of the meal. Pick something that will leave an impression as it feeds them. If it’s just a few of you, maybe doing individual cooking (steaks, chops, burgers, etc) with fancy things.

With more people, at some point it makes more sense to do a banquet style dish. Maybe a big pan of paella, a hearty pot of pasta and meatballs, or an attractive roast.

*Note that taste still trumps visuals, so be conscientious when prepping a turkey or a crown roast of lambI’ve been meaning to try out an all-belly porchetta, an Italian spiced pork roast. Theoretically it should be, and I quote, “an aromatic, crispy, salty slab of awesome seasoned with He-Man“. Here’s hoping.

Figure out the finish

Even Gordon Ramsey, the Michelin-starred chef/Simon Cowell of cooking shows knows dessert should be a big deal. To him, dessert is too often “left as an afterthought”. It shouldn’t be.

As the last things to pass your guests’ lips, it should be a strong finish, not just a sweet throwaway. In the past I’ve done simple layered panna cotta, all the way up to lavender cream puffs, and ordered chocolates from Cocoa Bella in addition.

However, I think it’s high time I got my chocolatier credentials up to par, so I’ll be trying to do truffles and molded candies this year. These will go onto a dessert tray. I’m also hoping to do something as a centerpiece for the tray. I’ll try for a molded cake and petit-fours too, but we’ll see what’s practical and realistic.

I’m expecting as I run out of time this is where I’ll have to make sacrifices (I spent weeks before last year’s event trying to get macaron to work reliably, and switched at the end after too many misfires).

Yes...overboard decadence...

Yes…overboard decadence…

Fill in the blanks and vary the menu

Once you have a main and dessert set, everything else should just sort of slot in balancing a) making a varied menu and b) all of the criteria you locked down. Search cookbooks and blogs for your fancy.

What makes a varied menu?

  • Vary temperature: Serve things both hot and cold.
  • Vary weight: Keep some dishes light if others are really heavy/filling
  • Vary cooking method: Don’t throw everything in the oven or in a soup pot. Compare cooking methods and mix it up.
  • Vary color: An all whitish-brown meal is sad. Incorporate produce to keep things brightly colored, be sure to use dry heat sometime to create Maillard effects.

Bring like flavors together

Of course, step four could very easily bring together a very random hodgepodge of dishes. How do you make dishes deeper and more complex in flavor? Use complementary flavors that harmonize.

The most famous text on this is of course the Flavor Bible, which will help you find which dishes/herbs/spices go together and can tie foods together from one course to the next. This may require time and thinking and tweaking. It takes me a few months of perfectionism before I’m willing to call it ready to move on.

Without further ado, my (current, working, hopefully final) menu:

Hors d’oeuvre (Cocktail hour)

  • Salmon Cornet with Red Onion Creme Fraiche
  • Smoked Paprika Chorizo Deviled Eggs

Soup

  • Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Seafood

  • Oysters on the half shell with mignonette and cocktail sauce

Palate Cleanser

  • Punch Romaine

Main

  • Porchetta and Applejack Sauce with Potatoes and Greens

Salad

  • Broccolini and Burrata Salad

Dessert Platter

  • Joconde Imprime with Mousse
  • Molded Truffles

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