In ‘real life’ I cook for others. Not usually for more than 20 at a time, but occasionally it will be a more heart-thumping 30, or even 50. By. My. Self.
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.
1. Steam the cauliflower for about eight minutes. 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.
4. In a small bowl mix together the breadcrumbs, extra oil, thyme and mustard.
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
50 thoughts on “Cooking for Crowds: 10 Tips for the Terrified + Cauliflower Cheese “Cake””
this is very cleverly made! great post.
Thanks so much, Madiha. And it is super easy. 🙂
OMG this looks amazing!! I love cauliflower.. never thought of cooking it this way.
Alesha, thank you. I put veg in sweet cakes, so I thought why not in a savoury one. 🙂
Love this recipe, Kellie.. and as for cooking for crowds… I don’t need to anymore, thankfully…
But I bet you loved it, Liz. But still, it is nice not to *have* to do it.
Omg!!! I have to cook it))
On #4, it’s so nice to be vegan. 😀
I’m beginning to love leeks, and am a bit disappointed that I didn’t put any in my garden this year.
I do love buffet style serving. Cheers, Kellie. Keep ’em coming, even if I have to pass this one because of the cheese and egg. Not sure the non-animal substitutes would do this dish justice. Any thoughts?
PS — Do you know that I JUST NOW got some brussels sprouts to make the last tasty dish I commented on? I had no idea there was such a run on them. I can’t wait…it’s on the lunch menu tomorrow.
Yeah, one of the few not-translatable recipes here. Sorry! But I do have other vegan cauli recipes here, and another one coming soon. 🙂 PS leeks rock.
I’m sure I told you this already, but if you put your leek bottoms (provided they have roots in tact) into fertile soil, another plant will grow. Then you can pull your own at another time. I do this with chives too! I believe they’re even more delicious when they come out of your own garden. Now, leeks and Brussels sprouts — my fav combo!
Yum, Yum. I love anything with cauliflower and this reminds me a delicious Persian recipe I make which is a sort of delicious cake…..omlette…..tart …….thing!! Anyway, this is sufficiently different to qualify for my weekly ‘Make something new every Saturday’ challenge! Happy Christmas!
I am honored. Oh, what is the name of the Persian dish, Helen?
Persian Cauliflower Kuku – it’s from BBC Good Food magazine originally but, can’t find the recipe on the website. This one looks similar http://www.foodforfriends.com/recipes/persian-cauliflower-kuku/
I will have to look that up. Anything tagged Persian gets my attention. Thanks for coming back and sharing this, Helen 🙂
What a fab recipe, but again, you knew I’d like it 🙂 and great tips! I love cooking for a crowd and all of your tips are spot on. For me, it’s all about the planning and the prep! xxx
Planning and prep are the key. And a calm head. I am sure you have that too, Elaine. 😉
Great tips, I can not imagine cooking for such large crowds! Fabulous way to serve cauliflower, looks so good!
I literally have nightmares of catering a party and running out of food! Thanks for a great list!
Thanks so much, Susan. I have nightmares about never finding my classroom on the first day of school! Classic anxiety dreams :-/
Kellie this looks gorgeous! Pinned! And I may make it as a late entry to our annual expats holiday potluck dinner tonight. It’s just too delicious looking to pass up! Love your tips for feeding a crowd and will be sharing this with friends who are terrified.
Thanks Katie. Sorry, I didn’t see this earlier. I hope your potluck went well 🙂
That looks sensational – a great ahead of time dish. Will be trying this soon!
Thank you Gilly. I’ve had good feedback so far. I’d love to think that you might make this. 🙂
I think this is what I’m cooking for veggie teen for Christmas (if she approves). Love it – a mixture of celebratory and easy to do ahead. I often cook for crowds – so much that I have a lot of plain white plates (from the catering supply shop) and enough glasses for a party. My tip would be to invest in big pots if cooking for a crowd regularly… and get a washer upper!!
Great tip, Sally. I have massive catering pans I keep in the garage and they have earned there keep many times over, although they take up a bit of room. I’ve got the white platters but I tend to borrow glasses from the supermarket. I imagine that might be a very British thing to do. Not a Dubai thing. ;-). Enjoy your preparations for Christmas.
I really like to make this dish! It’s very delicious and easy to make
I’m afraid I have the same problem- I usually cook like for the whole army!! Nothing can be done about! Lovely recipe and beautiful pictures- this is good for the after-Christmas period 🙂 xx
Reblogged this on Ngoiri Migwi.
Great tips! I can’t wait to try the cauliflower cheese cake!
This looks fantastic Kellie, I am a huge cauliflower fan, it is such an versatile, yet under appreciated vegetable.
Kale, beetroot and cauliflower are my mainstays most of the year. Everything fits around these guys. Lemons and avocados too. Not all together. But now that I mention it….
This “cheese cake” looks so scrumptious that I think it might be good for my next party. I also love all your tips even though I usually cook for 6. But if I have to cook for an army, now I know how to handle it. Thank youuuuu 🙂
OH, that is one yummy cake! I love cauliflowers but have never thought of turning them into gorgeous dish like this, I must try it out 🙂
I don’t often have good ideas but I think this might be one of them. ‘Dear diary’ and all that. 🙂
Oh WOW – this “cake” looks tremendously good! Definintely want to try it. I love your tips too – going to put no. 6 into practice in my house – will also help if you are delegating serving duties at the last minute!
I love sketching out lists but unless they are taped to a cupboard or pinned to the fridge I lose them and then spend half an hour panicking. 😉
Made this for dinner tonight and it was great! My 18 month old loved it especially! Just one thing though, I wasn’t sure when to add the mustard and tumeric. I added them to the cauliflower mix just before putting it in the pan.
Oh sorry! I see that I haven’t mentioned it in the method. I will go back later and change that (cooking for a zillion people right now!). Adding it to the cauliflower is fine. I whisk it into the eggs but really just as long as it is in there. I’m impressed with your young one’s palate. Kudos to you!
Really really good “cake” Kellie! Made it yesterday with a few modification (I am really not good at following a recipe). I added a few very hot chili peppers and zest from 1 lemon and it turned out perfect!
Can I pass on the recipe on my own blog (www.foodondemant.com), of cause with a reference to you?
Hi Ann. First of all, sorry about the delay in getting back to you. And second, of course post your own version. I would like it with chillies too. And are you using lemons instead of the preserved lemon? In any case, I am always flattered when people not only try the recipes but also play with them and make them their own. Have a wonderful Christmas and thank you so much for supporting food to glow. 🙂
I definately want to try it! looks delicious
Thank you Kelly, for the tips for cooking for crowds. I am going to try and make something ahead, the cauliflower cheese cake looks good!
I am not a recipe gal, but I have been bowled over by your delicious recipes and food inspiration. They are human friendly 🙂 I think you are a genius by the way, seriously!
Thank you so much for this uplifting and generous comment. I hope you have wonderful Christmas. All the best. Kellie 🙂
You’re brave, Kellie! Usually, I just cook for myself or my little family. When I hear visitors are coming over, I freak out – partially because they know I’m a food blogger and there is some pressure as to “perform”. Must say I’m really digging your cauliflower cake!
This looks delicious! I have pinned it and can’t wait to try it out 🙂