I have found, much to my satisfaction, that as I’ve gotten older I have become a much happier hostess. As my poor husband and best friends can attest, entertaining at my house used to be a very sad, stressful affair, where I anguished over every detail of the planning and would basically curl up into the fetal position about ten minutes before the event, terrified that either nobody would come or everybody would come. There was much cleaning and cooking and scurrying about the house muttering to myself about place settings. These days, I’ve (pretty much) learned to actually take the advice that moms throughout the ages have given to their daughters: if people are judging you on something stupid like how dirty your floor is, they aren’t your friends anyway. Especially now that entertaining involves hordes of small children coming over, I really don’t even bother cleaning or planning that much. I just want to hang out with my friends, not lie to them about what day to day life is like. Having said all that, I am still the weirdest half-assed overachiever ever, so a typical get together for me is as follows.
Yesterday I had a “happy hour playdate”, in which I provided some drinks and snacks and over the course of a few hours some lovely moms brought their hooligans over and we let them wrassle around in the backyard while we drank wine in the sun. It was pretty glorious, if I do say so myself. When I hatched this scheme I envisioned myself having basically all the preparation done by the middle of the week, because I knew that I’d have my little lady with me all day Thursday and Friday and I wanted to actually hang out with her rather than deposit her in front of the TV while I frantically finished up the food. Of course, that’s never how my life happens. I did manage to keep my stuff on the fairly simple side for once, instead of hollowing out grapes and filling them with blue cheese or something equally ridiculous (sorry to the person who had to help me with that in 2005.) I was planning to make a zucchini ricotta spread, to get rid of zucchini. Bake some no-knead bread to go with it. A big plate of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. And deviled eggs.
I have a cheese making set that my ever-supportive husband got me for Christmas and only used once and I have been really wanting to use again, so I thought I’d make the mozzarella and the ricotta, but in a rare show of common sense I decided to only make one and chose ricotta because last time I made mozz and it was not especially successful. I thought I’d have a relaxing Wednesday and make the cheese, but somehow it didn’t happen that way and I found myself at 9 pm on Wednesday night realizing that it was now or never. So, glass of wine in hand, I dumped a gallon of milk into my dutch oven and hoped for the best.
The directions made it seem like it would be pretty quick, the milk just had to come to 180 to 185 degrees and as soon as the curds separated from the why, I was to take it off the heat. I was supposed to make sure there was no “milky whey”. Curds started forming pretty quickly, but after the first few the whole process seemed to sort of stagnate. I was kind of hoping that at 180 it was just going to suddenly clump up and the endpoint would be obvious, but at 185 it looked…basically the same as it did at 85.
At this point it was probably 10 pm, and I was beginning to hate the cheese and my life. My husband had long since gone to bed and it was just me, my wine, some semi-clumpy milk and Facebook. (I did think to make the dough for my no-knead bread during this time, feeling all smug about my late-night tipsy multitasking.) I noted that the directions said to make sure not to let it scorch so I started stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan a little more vigorously, but still the clumps were starting to get a little brown. And still, the whey still appeared milky to me. I just thought there would be a clear distinction – clear liquid vs. clumps, but no. Eventually, knowing that it still had to sit for 15 to 30 minutes after I took it off the heat, I just gave up and dumped it into my cheesecloth. About 15 minutes later, it looked like this:
And it tasted like…solid, chewy milk. It had the right texture and everything, but it was just basically flavorless. I put it into the fridge and went to bed.
I had planned to make the zucchini spread the next day, and also to bake the bread. Neither of those things happened because it was the best day ever and it was NONSTOP FUN ALL DAY.
Friday morning we had plans, so at noon I had three hours to bake the bread, make the zucchini spread, the tomato salad, and the deviled eggs, plus try to make my house somewhat presentable.
The no-knead bread is supposed to sit for eighteen hours, then get punched and sit for another two. Eighteen hours after I made the dough, I was sitting under the stars at a farm with grilled corn, a beer, and some sweet friends. I eventually punched it roundabout 40 hours after I started it. I tasted it and it had a slightly tangy flavor, but other than that it seemed okay so I decided to go for it. I didn’t have time to let it sit for two hours and then bake for 45 minutes so it sat for an hour instead. This is why I love no-knead bread: the end result was just a kind of sourdough version of the regular bread with a more open crumb. Genius! Homemade bread = success!
The ricotta came out of the fridge to go into the zucchini spread and had a really weird gummy texture, but I zipped the whole thing up in the food processor and it was delicious! Homegrown zucchini + homemade ricotta = spread = success again!
Oh right, and somewhere in here during the week, I hardboiled a dozen eggs. I literally don’t even remember when. It was sometime during the day, and I didn’t have time to ice them down, so I just stuck them in a bowl of cold water into the fridge for, I don’t know at least three days? Where they were still waiting for me Friday afternoon. When I got chickens I had this great idea that deviled eggs was going to be my Signature Dish. I was going to collect deviled egg dishes and everything. Then I realized that hardboiling super fresh eggs actually kind of sucks. I still do it, but I’m a little less enthusiastic about it. I remember peeling Easter eggs when I was a kid and how it was really satisfying to see if you could get the whole shell off in just a couple pieces. Fresh hardboiled egg shells come off in thousands of pieces. It is so time-consuming and tedious, and the eggs always look like a fifteen year old’s acne-scarred face. They are not pretty. I thought I’d make them more appealing by at least piping the filling out of a pastry bag, but I didn’t mash the yolks enough and a big yolk clod clogged up the bag and I ended up with a yolk volcano out of the top of the bag and all over my hands. The first one was all twisty and lovely, but the rest were dumped in with a teaspoon as usual. But, hey they were delicious so whatev. And! This time I fancied ’em all up with some edible flowers. Backyard eggs + homegrown edible flowers = success!
Finally, there is pretty much no way you can screw up a giant plate of backyard tomatoes with mozzarella and basil. I mean…I ran out of the olive oil I was going to drizzle over it, but it still was pretty much heavenly. And purdy too! 4 variety tomato platter = total success!
So, overall, even a half-assed party can be a success. I invited some people I liked, made some food I was proud of, and allowed myself to relax once they got here. I never did get to pick up the house at all though, so there were literally peas and Joe’s O’s all over the floor, and one 4 year old was overhead exclaiming, “There are a lot of dead plants in the front yard.” True. So true. But the food was good, right?