I still get a little nervous when I accept the challenge of cooking for more than my comfort zone of 20 – which is my usual gig of catering for two groups at the cancer centre where I work. I do this weekly, with other groups sometimes added in. This is especially so at this time of year when groups who normally suffice with a cup of tea want to pull out the stops with a Christmas lunch. It is usually three courses, and as I have done it so often, I am completely comfortable with it.
But, those larger numbers – the 30s and 50s – to be honest it is often down to good luck that I can pull it off. Seriously. My hands start shaking, and I need tick box lists taped on kitchen cupboards to keep me right. So, I am not an expert on cooking for crowds, but my 10 years of cooking regularly for around 20 at a time has made me confident about a few things. And I thought these just might be worth sharing at this time of year.
1. Cook what you know and feel happy serving. You will feel more comfortable scaling up the amounts if you have made it numerous times and know what to expect. Now is not the time to pick something from the Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking…
2. Employ cheat ingredients – bought pastry dough, tinned beans, spice mixes, a ready-made platter/heat-and-eat of something complicated or time-consuming to augment the homemade dish(es). Farmer’s markets and other local producers may be able to make you up something just for your event. If Delia says cheating is okay, it’s okay.
3. Delegate. Aunt Peggy’s famous pecan pie – let her bring one or two; teenagers in the house – pay them to help wash up or prep veggies. And give them credit for the work they have done.
4. Be mindful of food and kitchen hygiene. Boring, but necessary. Know cooling down, sitting out and storage advice for the ingredients you are using, especially if you are cooking ahead. Dairy and meats/poultry/fish/shellfish are particular ones to be aware of. Also, make sure you have a thermometer for your refrigerator and ensure it is always within the ‘safe’ zone of 35-38F / 1.7 and 3.3C. Here’s some advice on safe food preparation, and some on safe storage after cooking.
5. It sounds obvious, but prepare some make-ahead dishes to keep in your refrigerator or freezer. Sometimes it is an idea to have one course done and dusted in the freezer or fridge, one to prepare on the day and one that someone has brought or you have bought in. Your guests are there to see you and don’t want to you to see you stressed out on their account.
6. Sketch out a timing schedule and try to stick with it – order of preparation, order of cooking on the day, order for house cleaning and preparation. And don’t forget to make time to freshen up. Oh, a top tip: If I am using lots of different platters and bowls I make up Post-It notes labelling all of the (cleaned and dried) dishes with what is to go in them. This saves me scrabbling about finding the right size dishes at the last minute. In theory.
7. Cook enough food. I have a pathological fear of leaving people hungry. I once under-catered for a gathering, and the host was understandably miffed. I will never forget the wave of coldness that swept my body as she told me that she had to get more food in (it was a meeting not a party, btw!). I felt beyond-awful. Because of this I am now known for cooking more than enough. If there are leftovers – hooray! The worst thing you can do as a host – besides greeting your guests drunk – is to run out of food, so do have a look at this article on how much to cook for different gatherings. There are categories according to time of day (you usually serve more in the evening), the event (sit down, stand up buffet, cocktail party), and who you are cooking for (mainly older people, mainly younger, mixed). It’s in cups, which is kind of annoying to non-Americans, but you will get the gist.
8. The larger the gathering, the simpler the menu. If it is really big, consider a buffet meal. The good thing about a buffet meal is that you may feel more comfortable asking others to pitch in. If this is the case, do have a list of what you need, food-wise, and assign willing and competent people to each dish or category.
9. Serve food that is not ultra temperature sensitive. I love serving Middle Eastern food, mainly because of the flavours, but also because most dishes are absolutely delicious served warm rather than piping hot. Look at the recipes you are think of making and see whether they ‘mind’ waiting while people chat or are yet to arrive.
10. Know your crowd. If you have loads of teenagers, have foods that they will like as well as foods that older diners like yourself will enjoy. Remember that younger people eat a lot more than older people, and that older people will often want to take food away with them (especially the desserts). Have containers, wrap and closable bags for doggy bags.
What tips do you have for cooking for crowds?
And now for my own recipe that can be made ahead and whacked in the oven at short notice.
Cauliflower Cheese Cake
I have made this recipe to be cuttable and ‘eater-friendly’ (i.e. not falling off the fork), but if you wish it to be gooier and more like actual cauliflower cheese just add 100 grams more cheese and one more egg. And serve with one more napkin. Most images show it in the cheesier and gooier state!
This familiar dish served in a surprising way goes with all of the Christmas side dishes and veggies, as well as more salady type things. At my nutrition workshops I serve it with this salad and a tarted up green one too. My husband likes this with ketchup… I should be annoyed but actually, to give him credit, it is good with it. 😉
1 small-medium head of cauliflower, approximately 500g (1 lb) weight when trimmed and cut into small florets
2 tbsp olive oil + 1 tsp extra for topping
1 medium onion or large leek – white part only, chopped (I prefer leek)
2 tsp each of chopped rosemary, thyme, sage and parsley + 1 tsp extra of thyme for topping
200g (1 ½ cup + 2 tbsp) light spelt flour or unbleached plain flour (can go half wholemeal and half plain)**
2 tsp baking powder
130g (2 cups) mature Cheddar cheese or other tangy sharp cheese, grated
5 medium organic eggs, lightly beaten
1 heaped tbsp wholegrain mustard + 1 tsp for topping
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp salt (more to taste)
35g (¾ cup) fresh breadcrumbs – optional
3 tbsp seeds – optional
Special equipment needed: 1 loose-bottom round baking tin (about 23 cm diameter) OR 2 loaf tins; baking parchment
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Oil and baseline your chosen baking tin(s). Set aside.
2. While the cauliflower is steaming, heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a large sauté pan; add the chopped onion or leek and sauté gently until translucent and softened– about five minutes for the onion, less for the leek. Stir in the herbs and saute a further couple of minutes. Finally stir in the cauliflower until coated with the herbs and leeks. Set aside for the flavours to meld.
3. In a large mixing bowl, dry whisk or sift the flour and baking powder, stir in the cheese and fold in the eggs, mustard, turmeric and black pepper. Mix gently so as not to work the gluten and make it tough – some flour showing is fine. Now fold in the cauliflower mix and toss together with your hands, or with two large spoons/spatulas. It will be heavy to mix but try and get things evenly distributed. I like to use large metal serving spoons.
5. Pour the cauliflower mixture into the prepared tin(s) and sprinkle over the topping. Add some seeds too if you like. Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and the sides slightly pull away from the tin. Cook for 10 minutes less for a soft centre.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
** I imagine that gluten-free flour would work just fine but test it on yourself before making for a large crowd.
Getting ahead: prepare the cake as described and bake for half an hour. Cool quickly (an unheated room), cover the tin with thick foil and freeze until use. Bake from frozen at 180C/350F for about 25 minutes, uncovering the foil for the final 15 minutes.
Soft food diet: blend the cauliflower, onions and herbs before mixing with the remaining ingredients. Serve with plenty of gravy.
Another “Vegetable Cake” recipe – Festive Celeriac and Carrot Rosti Cake with Remoulade Sauce