vegan cupcake

Last night Mike and I threw our very first dinner party! Liz and her date, Dustin, gamely made the trek out to Ditmas Park via the Q.

And they were perfect guests: loud, cheerful, full of compliments, and loaded down with after-dinner games and a bottle of wine.

One dinner party does not an expert make, but I learned a few things along the way:

1. Choose recipes that are deceptively healthy. On one side of the spectrum you could serve a thick, meaty lasagna with chocolate cake to satisfy the all-American male. Or you could serve aggressively healthy, vegan, and gluten-free foods with a clementine for dessert to satisfy your yoga-teacher friend. But not all guests would be happy with either of these options. Instead I chose recipes that looked indulgent, but had a healthy side. That way Liz and I could enjoy without feeling guilty, and the boys enjoyed everything too!

From Yoga Journal I mixed up a red pepper and walnut dip to serve with pita chips that Liz and Dustin could nosh on while we got our act together in the kitchen. If that’s too much to handle, you can set out hummus with pita chips and crudites, or a bowl of mixed nuts.

I followed with healthy chicken fingers from Natural Health Magazine. Instead of just white flour, the crispy shell included flax seeds, garbanzo bean flour, whole wheat breadcrumbs, and chopped pecans. Unfortunately, I can’t find the recipe at their website, and I don’t have permission to reproduce it. You’ll have to buy a copy of Natural Health Magazine, which I highly recommend. I present, as proof of how delicious the chicken fingers were, this evidence: Every chicken finger was gobbled up. For a side I made green beans with walnuts and shallots with a delicious dijon glaze.

Finally, after dinner was over and we were setting up Rockband, I emerged from the kitchen with four Glazed Chocolate-Avocado Cupcakes. “I’ll tell you what is in them when you’re done eating!” I said. The avocado replaced the eggs and most of the oil or butter, making them much healthier. The recipe is intended to be vegetarian, but I substituted in milk for the soy milk. The tofu and maple syrup glaze side-stepped the pitfalls of refined sugar and heavy cream. Be aware that the batter tastes like avocado, but once you bake they emerge moist and very yummy.

2. Make a schedule. Now add two hours. I sat down the day before we planned to have the dinner party and wrote down a schedule with time for grocery shopping, showering, prepping, and cooking. But I still ran out of time! Between burning the shallots and starting over, Mike’s emergency run to the grocery store to get cupcake pans, and underestimating cook times, by the time Liz and Dustin showed up (45 minutes late, thankfully) I was still scurrying around the kitchen. I never did get to putting on my makeup. And Mike had to duck into the bathroom and hide my lacy hand-washables, which I had forgotten to put away. Luckily Liz found Mancala in the living room, and she and Dustin started their own game while Mike and I sauteed and blended in the kitchen.

3. Read the recipes very carefully and write down all the ingredients you’re going to need. Read them again and double check that you have more than enough of all the ingredients you happen to have in the cabinet. I almost had a disaster when I had barely enough white chocolate chips for the cupcake icing. Luckily it turned out yummy, if a little thin. Read it out loud one more time just to be sure.

4. Double check that you have all the tools you need. The four recipes I used required a food processor, a whisk, a shallow pan, a muffin tray, a sharp knife and several cutting boards, a mixing bowl, measuring cups and spoons, tongs, a wooden spoon, a mesh strainer, a flour sifter, a saucepan, a skillet, toothpicks, and a large pot. We also realized another tray of ice for drinks would have helped. Do you have all these things in your cabinet?

5. Alcohol! It’s a no-brainer. Wine, the liquor basics of gin and vodka, beer, cranberry juice, tonic and ginger ale will ensure that every guest gets what they want for a libation. You could come up with a fancy cocktail, but for our first dinner party, Mike and I went very simple.

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6. Tape all your recipes to the cabinets when you’re ready to start cooking. Things will get crazy, oil will fly, and your greasy hands will make it hard to shuffle through the pages. If it’s a cookbook you’re pulling from, you might want to get a cookbook stand. If you’re working from the internet, it’s worth it to print it out (on recycled paper or the back of something else of course). It will make everything go smoother.

7. Say it with me: mise-en-place. (Pronounced mees on plaas) It’s a French term which means having all of your ingredients and tools ready to go on your workspace. Before I did anything, I already had my ingredients lined up on the counter, grouped by recipe, already chopped up when possible. But I could have done better: I should have had the pots on the stove and the cooking utensils out as well. Anything that makes the process go smoother.

8. Do as much as you can early on. I made the dip in the morning and put it in the fridge. I learned the hard way that I should have made the cupcakes in the morning as well, so they could be slathered in icing and ready to go when I wanted them.

9. Have something to send your guest home with. With 16 cupcakes baked, I could send Liz and Dustin home with a container of sweets they could enjoy later.

10. Boardgames! You don’t need Rockband or Guitar Hero to get the giggles. After dinner have Taboo, Scattergories and Apples to Apples ready to make the time fly.

Bonus: Encourage your guests to drink a little too much. It’s much more entertaining for everyone if at least one person guest schnockered.

Voila, a successful dinner party at your fingertips. I’m not sure I’m ready for more than four people yet. But I know that Liz and Dustin had a great time last night!