Sunday, June 23, 2013

Forever 31

And here I am, already a year past the big milestone of thirty....

With a summer birthday, I have held many a party on a rooftop deck, outdoor patio and beer garden over the years. Always with, knock on wood, perfect weather to accompany the festivities. We knew we wanted to have a party at our house at some point this summer, so scheduling it over my birthday week seemed like a great fit.

As our evite promised, we have no outdoor space available, but do have three large windows that look out onto an alley. What more could one ask for on a June evening?

Per usual, our friends make our parties come to life - do you ever just look around at your group and think, "what a lovely bunch of people we hang out with?" I sure did last night as folks cheered on a Blackhawks win from the couch, lounged in the library playing tic tac toe (more on that later) and swarmed the food table to grab a plate.

Onto the menu! The original theme idea for the party was "fancy snacks." Inspired by a box of chocolate covered potato chips our friend brought us from Japan, we scheduled the party with visions of truffle salt popcorn and mini hot dogs with classy sauces dancing in our heads. 

Around the same time as we were devouring the sweet 'n salty chips, I attended a work reception that featured a macaroni and cheese station. Bowls of toppings to choose from followed a giant crock of cheesy goodness on the buffet table. I knew I had to recreate it.

With fancy snacks on the menu, our grocery list was just a little different than usual this time around. 
My cheat sheet for the cardstock labels I would later make for the table. I didn't leave myself with enough time to make the cards too fancy, settling for one purple marker to get the job done...

Truffle Salt Popcorn
We don't own a popcorn popper, so settled for lightly buttered microwave popcorn I doused with a bit of olive oil and a dose of truffle salt. I used about 1/2 teaspoon of salt per bag which seemed to flavor the snack without overdoing it. You can buy truffle salt at Whole Foods, but we picked ours up at The Chopping Block, our local cooking class workshop and store. We have enjoyed many handfuls of truffle salt popcorn at those classes!
Chocolate Covered Potato Chips
I thought I would save prep time and sanity by buying bags of ready made chips from Trader Joe's. However, after arriving home from the store, we were less than impressed with our purchase. Call us snobs after having enjoyed Royce's snack, but Bob and I weren't feeling the thick layer of chocolate on the Trader Joe's brand. 
We went back to the original idea of making our own. I picked up 2 bags of Ruffles and a 12 oz bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Our double boiler got some use (once I googled how to properly use it) and in no time at all had melted chocolate all ready for painting. Yes, I said painting. After a few searches on best methods, I decided against "dipping" and went for the basting brush method to lightly coat the chips with chocolate as opposed to going heavy and just recreating the Trader Joe's type.
The chips were laid out on wax paper and put on cookie sheets to harden in the fridge for 10 minutes or so - making sure not to leave them in too long for fear of soggy Ruffles. 
Once they were all hardened, they went in the serving bowl ready for consumption. On a warm summer evening like we had, I'm sure guests appreciated not getting their fingers all melty with overdone chocolate coating and you could definitely tell they were potato chips, unlike the fully coated versions.
Hot Dogs
Okay, over-analyzation of chocolate covered potato chip creation aside, what's next? We scoured the stores for mini hot dogs and mini buns to no avail. The best we could come up with was King's Hawaiian mini sub buns but even those were in short supply and had to be supplemented with regular length hot dog buns from their brand. I spent what seemed like hours in various meat aisles comparing lengths of pre-packaged dogs (I'm sure there's a joke somewhere in there) before settling on a brand of smallish franks.

Instead of ketchup and yellow mustard alongside the buffet, we picked up Wasabi horseradish, thick Dijon mustard and duck liver pate as spreadable options for the hot dogs. A couple hours into the party, Bob grabbed cohorts to head down to our alleyway to start grilling. If you don't know the story of why we grill in our alley, read all about it here.
Moving down the table, we featured grazable snacks like nuts and cheeses, chips and guac before hitting our trifecta of mac 'n cheese.

A Mac 'n Cheese Trio
My parents bought us this trio of crock pots for Christmas and it saw its first use at this shindig. Keeping the Macs warming all night long while leftovers stayed in their original pans in the oven, it certainly did the trick. It took me just a couple searches before finding three recipes with slightly different themes, none of which looked too difficult to create. For the sake of space, I'm linking to the recipes instead of typing them up.
First up, Crab Mac 'n Cheese. I have never made this before, but it was pretty by the book outside of the chopped up crab. Admittedly, the crab of choice was the packaged imitation stuff from the grocery store - I wasn't shipping in Dungeness from Washington State or anything like that.

Chipotle Mac 'n Cheese was added to the mix to fill the "spicy" niche I know some folks will flock to. Rather than spend time finding actual Chipotle chiles, I settled for the spice aisle and substituted 1/2 teaspoon per needed chile. This cheese sauce was a particularly lovely shade of red orange.
Finally, Creamy Mac 'n Cheese was from a recipe I first made a few holidays ago while hosting family. This Martha Stewart recipe was decadent indeed and found a place in my recipe hall of fame. Yum.

I made all three in tandem in the morning and stored them in the fridge until 2 hours out from the party. All three went in the oven at once, splitting the difference with the requested baking time and temperature from each of the recipes.
Toppings included crumbled bacon (I learned my sister is an expert bacon maker earlier that day when they came over to visit and help get us ready!), scallions, chives, blue cheese, croutons and ham pieces I sautéed in a skillet before setting out.

Homemade Ice Cream and Waffle Cones
So what about dessert? We wanted to get some use out of our KitchenAid ice cream maker attachment so Bob took on efforts to make homemade ice cream while I made mini waffle cones with our waffle cone maker. And yes, we do have one of those! Apologizing for the blurriness of the photo below as the machine was in mid-spin!
Bob chose Salted Caramel and Toasted Almond/Candied Cherry for his first forays, a bit ambitious to be sure. We were both a little confused during the prep process as our assumption was it would churn into a frozen treat while being mixed. It stayed pretty soupy, but once we transferred into a container and threw it in the freezer for a few hours it tasted pretty great. I still am not sure if we were using the attachment correctly, or if we were just misinformed with what the outcome would be, but no complaints in the end!
I got about 12 mini cones out of a batch of waffle cone batter, usually reserved for about 6 full size cones. Secretly, I'm glad I have extras left over - love the taste of waffle cone! 
The maker comes with a cone form to create the shape. Rather than explain, you can see how in this quick youtube video
We used a cookie scoop instead of a regular ice cream scoop to fit with the cone size of four inches.
With the Blackhawks on, we had some built in entertainment for the evening, but for those who happened to grab our library chairs, I decided to set out a little Pottery Barn tic tac toe stamp set received last year as a gift. I pre-stamped a few sheets with the grid and was pleased to see that a few folks had taken advantage of it when I was cleaning up the next day.
Thanks to all who came over to help us celebrate summer and my 31st! Until next party!

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