Last Thursday, Steve and I decided to celebrate his birthday by hosting a game night with some of our new-found Moses Lake friends. A games night just sounded like so much fun that I invited everyone before I remembered that we don’t actually have any games! Oops. Luckily, our friend Alex came to our rescue by bringing his own Apples to Apples game.
With Alex on game duty, I at least was able to focus on preparing for the party. I thought we should probably provide some snacks, to keep our guests fortified for a night full of the inevitable silliness that comes along with any good game night. Of course, we would also need a birthday cake for Steve. So, I thought, what a wonderful opportunity to try out some new recipes from the early anniversary present I bought myself…I mean that my husband bought for me, the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. I also thought this would be a chance to try a dish I’ve been eyeing in the Best Places to Kiss Northwest Cookbook, a book we got for our wedding that I had yet to use.
As is my habit when picking out recipes, I got very excited and a little overambitious in the brainstorming stage. As a result, I unintentionally turned what was supposed to be a few simple snacks into kind of an appetizer buffet. Luckily, spending an entire afternoon cooking is my idea of fun, so I jumped right in to see how it would all go. Amazingly, I pretty much pulled it off, except for a minor panic attack concerning the frosting for the cake (more on that later). The best part about the menu was that it didn’t require a lot of fancy ingredients, so it ended up being a satisfying yet inexpensive spread!
Here is how the menu ended up looking:
Old Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake
Classic Deviled Eggs
Sweet Pepper Tapenade Toasts
Pulled Pork Sliders on Homemade Rolls
Sliced Veggies with Hummus
Smoked Salmon with Crackers and Cream Cheese
Mexican Chocolate-Covered Strawberries (though I wish I could take credit for these, they were brought by our friend Kayalyn, a fellow Domestic Diva. Absolutely fabulous – I must have the recipe)
Red and white wine from our recent wine tasting in Walla Walla: Woodward Canyon Non-Vintage Red Table Wine & Waterbrook Reserve Chardonnay 2009
Other wines brought by guests
Sparkling Lemonade (Safeway brand – very classy indeed)
After spending many hours selecting recipes, shopping for ingredients, and cooking with abandon, here are the results and reflections on my Game Night Appetizer Extravaganza:
Dish #1 – Old Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake – Page 674 in the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook
Why I Chose It: I was looking for a chocolate cake to make from scratch that was just a plain old cake. Don’t get me wrong, I love a fancy chocolate dessert, but this is a birthday cake. I wanted something chock-full of chocolate flavor, but moist and fluffy, a perfect medium for gobs of buttery chocolate frosting. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe looked like a perfect fit. What was interesting about the process in this recipe was that, in order to get that really fluffy texture, they chose to beat the eggs and sugar together to get foamy before adding the butter. I certainly stand by their technique – the cake layers got sky-high after 30 minutes in the oven and the texture was lovely.
The Verdict: I was going for a light and fluffy cake, and fluffy it certainly became. I suppose you could also call this cake “light” in the sense that it was delicate and moist. However, with the cake’s 12 tablespoons of butter and six eggs, I am not sure if “light” is the most accurate description for this dessert, especially when you take the frosting into account! One thing this cake certainly is, though: delicious! The frosting was of course the wonderful finishing touch – how can you go wrong when the recipe calls for a full pound of chocolate?
One little issue I had: I made the frosting ahead of time and stuck it in the fridge..and forgot about it. Of course when I remembered to take it out 45 minutes prior to guests arriving, it was solid as a delicious, chocolate rock. Luckily Kayalyn arrived early, as I was cussing to myself and unsuccessfully trying to spread pebble-sized bits of frosting.. Kayalyn, an experienced and talented baker and cook, had the presence-of-mind to take my spreading knife away and kindly suggest I put the bowl back on the stand mixer to whip it up again. Duh. Clearly, a Domestic Goddess I am not…yet. Of course Kayalyn’s tip did the trick, and I ended up spreading the rest of the frosting with such abandon that I got it all over my hands, arm and my forehead.
Dish #2 – Classic Deviled Eggs – page 4 in the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook
Why I Chose It: Deviled eggs are a go-to party food standby for me. The ingredients are about as cheap as you can find (and are likely already in your fridge and pantry!), they are easy to whip up, and people go absolutely ga-ga over them! I think where people often go wrong with deviled eggs, however, is that they often are too bland. When I am mashing the egg yolks, I try to add some flavor with a liberal dose of white vinegar (Cook’s Illustrated suggests Apple Cider Vinegar, which I tried this time around, and it was also delicious). The vinegar gives the egg yolks a zip to go along with the standard mustard and mayo. Some other tips I got from CI: a little Worcestershire gives some additional “zing” to the egg salad. Also, using a pastry bag or Ziploc with one corner cut off is a great way to fill the egg whites evenly and without too much mess. Why did I not think of that before?! I used to spend just as much time trying to clean up my eggs with a damp paper towel as I did making the filling. Using the pastry bag technique, the filling looked gorgeous! Despite the frosting issue from earlier, this revelation made me feel I was one step closer to Domestic Divahood.
The Verdict: As usual, the eggs were a hit and were gone within 15 minutes of the guests arriving. One thing I have still not managed to figure out, though, is how to cook and peel eggs in such a way that half the egg does not come off on the shell. It drives me crazy to try to peel eggs and have them look all lumpy and bumpy and ripped before I’ve managed to do anything with them! Can someone direct me to a website with a step-by-step guide, or better yet, a video? I know someone has figured out how to make pretty egg whites for their deviled eggs!
Dish #3: Sweet Pepper Tapenade Toasts – page 36 in The Best Places to Kiss Cookbook
Why I Chose It: This is one of the dishes that intrigued me while casually flipping through The Best Places to Kiss Cookbook. It was attractive because all the main ingredients are things I try to keep on hand at all times: garlic (a must for almost any dish, whether called for or not), basil (same rule as garlic), capers (you never know when they will come in handy, and they keep forever!), feta cheese (I love it on salads), and those tiny sweet peppers (one of my fave veggies – great plain and they go in almost any dish). Ok, full disclosure: the recipe actually called for Peppadew peppers, sweet little pickled red peppers. However, I did not have the budget, time or, frankly, the interest in tracking these down in Moses Lake, so I just used the sweet peppers I had on hand. Luckily, they proved to be a fine substitute, so the only thing I had to buy for this dish was the baguette to make the garlic toasts!
The Verdict: Unsurprisingly, given its tasty main ingredients, this dish was also a hit, and really it’s quite easy! I had about twice the number of toast rounds for the amount of tapenade the recipe makes, so I think next time I will just double it. Something that really came in handy for this recipe is a recent grocery store discovery: freeze-dried basil in a jar. It’s a little pricey, but the flavor is nearly as good as having fresh when it’s too cold to grow your own. The added benefit to this as opposed to buying fresh basil is that you can keep the amount you don’t use almost indefinitely, so there’s no worry about waste. All in all, the tapenade was a snap to put together. The garlic toasts were not difficult, but were a little more time consuming, given the effort required to brush the toast rounds with olive oil and then rubbing each round with raw garlic once toasted. A note about the raw garlic: avoid getting the garlic juice on any cuts or scratches you may have on your hands, however tiny they may be. It really smarts!
Dish #4: Marinated Mushrooms – page 4 in the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook
Why I Chose It: Like the deviled eggs, this dish looked like a pretty inexpensive crowd pleaser, and the recipe I used (from the CI cookbook, of course), looked like a refreshing update from deli marinated mushrooms that are often kind of rubbery and slimy, with sauce that’s more vinegar than anything else. I also had most of the marinade ingredients at home (shallots are another essential that I just love having on hand). As an added plus, this recipe could be made 1 day ahead, and a good thing too, since I ended up cooking right up to the wire on Thursday night!
The Verdict: These were not quite as slimy as the deli mushrooms, but still a little slimy. They were also not as flavorful as I had anticipated. People tried them, but there were still quite a few leftover at the end of the night. All in all, these wouldn’t be my first pick to make again for a party, but a worthy experiment nonetheless.
Dish #5: Pulled Pork Sliders on Homemade Rolls – rolls page 602-603 in the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook
Why I Chose It: Before you call me an overachiever, I will beat you to the punch and tell you that I did not specifically make pulled pork just for this party. I made it earlier in the week at Steve’s request, since pulled pork is one of his favorite foods of all time. I had never made this dish before, but I decided to attempt it for the benefit of my husband. I ended up using a 7-pound pork shoulder roast, cooking it according to the excellent step-by-step instructions on the Hungry Mouse blog. Of course the result it was delicious, but I ended up with way too much for just the two of us. So, it was natural to serve it to our guests the following night. I thought I’d try to make the rolls myself in an attempt to get over my fear of making yeast breads.
The Verdict: The pork was tasty, actually even tastier the next day. The rolls, however, were a humbling lesson. Despite my success with the Cinnamon Swirl Bread (page 589 in CI) a couple weeks ago, the dinner rolls showed I need some more practice with the yeast breads. They actually tasted ok (I mean how could they not, with all that butter in them!) but they were, well, dense. However, they are called the American Best Ever Dinner Rolls, so I think they’re worth another shot. If I have any breakthroughs I’ll be sure to post about it.
Dishes # 6-8 – Gotta Love Costco!
For the last three dishes I served (Sliced Veggies with Hummus, Smoked Salmon with Crackers and Cream Cheese, Olives) I just have one thing to say: Costco is my best friend! The salmon was from a box of Costco smoked salmon we actually had leftover from the Super Bowl, the hummus was another Costco purchase and staple in our household, and the olives I had bought at Costco months ago and was waiting for the perfect occasion to serve them!
Dish # 9 – Mexican Chocolate Covered Strawberries
I’ve got to get this recipe from Kayalyn – they were absolutely heaven!
So there you have it –one successful party down! And party down we did – 2 games of Apples to Apples on a weeknight AND birthday cake. Yes, despite frosting mishaps, etc. I would call Operation Game Night a success!