We finally finished birthday month around here. Seventy-five percent of our four person family celebrates turning another year old in the weeks after Christmas, so we move from one type of celebration to another pretty quickly. This past weekend our extended family came over for Jackson's birthday celebration. He's eleven now, and if you can't tell from the photo above I'm thinking it's probably going to be a very silly year.
Let me pause here before getting into the cheesy details of making lasagna for 20, to use this as a segue way to introduce a fun new series my friend Julie and I have been scheming. Although there is no shortage of recipes or party ideas available at the click of our fingertips, what we love most about food is its ability to bring people together; not just families at mealtimes, but extended families - relatives and friends and neighbours and strangers connecting around food, for special celebrations, impromptu gatherings, and lots of memory making. Food is social, it's comforting, and it connects us. The concept of "entertaining", though, makes gathering friends around your dinner table seem daunting. The good news is, it doesn't have to be.
So. This year Julie and I are bringing back the casual gathering - which means taking the pressure off! - and having as many dinner parties and other gatherings as possible. On the last Wednesday of each month we'll post about one or more of them here, which will allow us to get a running start on a new blog - called Gatherings - where we'll share recipes, ideas, techniques and tools that we hope will inspire (and help!) anyone putting together a party, or just looking for new ways to bring friends together around the table. Gatherings will (hopefully!) launch on April 1, and we're even in talks about turning it into a book... although those details haven't been figured out yet. For now, we'll start here.
With Jackson's menu. He chose a quirky assortment of foods that nicely tallied up to an American-Italian feast. There was piggies in a blanket, veggies and dip, meat lasagna, garlickly garlic bread, Caesar salad, ice cream sodas, and a Kit Kat Candy cake. He was thrilled, the food quickly disappeared, and it was the perfect menu for feeding a crowd.
I always like to include a little festive décor at my gatherings, but nothing too over the top or costly. I found a red and white checked shower curtain on sale at Ikea for $8, and took some pinking shears to them to make a sqaure topper for my standard white linen. It was much cheaper than purchasing something cloth, and the material means it's washable and reusable - an essential for the kids. The centrepieces were made by carefully washing my tins of tomatoes, filling them with dried pasta and sticking in a few balloons I found in my basement storage.
The candy cake was definitely the hit of the party, as it should be at any good birthday celebration. I failed to take photos of the making and assembling process, but I promise you it involves nothing more than adhering sticks of Kit Kat to the sides of an iced 2-layer cake ,and covering the top with colourful M&Ms. It's perfect for anyone feeling strapped for time, or less than confident about their cake decorating skills, which perfectly sums up how I felt last Saturday. It delighted my nieces and nephews, and was the very first cake to completely disappear, minus the piece I saved for Ben who away in Michigan for hockey last weekend.
Don't forget...hurry on over to Julie's blog to see how her family also (coincidentally) celebrated a lot of birthday gatherings this month. There's chocolate and spun sugar and sprinkles and lots of decadence, and I'm certain you don't want to miss it!
This is the longest recipe you’ll ever find here, and while there is a lengthy list of ingredients with a lot of steps the meat sauce can be made up to three days in advance, making the assembly of the casserole a rather speedy affair.
For the meat sauce:
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 lbs. ground beef
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 28oz. tin crushed tomatoes
- 1 small bunch parsley, chopped
For the béchamel:
- ½ cup butter
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups warm milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Fresh grated nutmeg
For the lasagna:
- 1 package lasagna noodles
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
- 1 teaspoon oregano
1. To make the meat sauce heat the oil in a medium saucepan over med-high heat and cook the onions until they are translucent and slightly browned. Stir in the garlic and add the meat, cinnamon sticks, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, oregano and basil. Sauté for 8-10 minutes or until the meat is browned. Add the wine and cook for five minutes or until it begins to evaporate. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes longer. Add 1/3 cup of water, stir it in completely, and allow to simmer for 60 minutes or so until the sauce has thickened. Toss in the freshly parsley and stir.
2. To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Add the warm milk, slowly whisking it into the butter and flour mixture. Whisk with one hand while ladling the hot milk in with the other. When the sauce is smooth and not too thick, add the salt and a few gratings of fresh nutmeg. Bring the sauce to a boil and cook for another minute or so until slightly thickened.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and butter a 9” x 13” baking pan. Drizzle some béchamel over the bottom of the pan spreading it evenly over the bottom and top with a layer of lasagna noodles. Ladle a layer of sauce over the noodles, add a layer of béchamel and top with 1/4 cup of each of the cheeses.
4. Add another layer of noodles, more meat sauce, more béchamel and another 1/4 cup each of the cheeses. Repeat this layering one more time, using up the remainder of the meat sauce in the last layer. Top with the last of the noodles, cover with the remaining béchamel and any remaining cheeses. Sprinkle the oregano over the lasagna and bake on a large cookie sheet for 45 minutes, or until crispy, golden brown and bubbling.
Kit Kat Candy Bar Birthday Cake
Makes 1 - 8" round cake
This will delight any birthday boy or girl and the M&Ms can easily be replaced with another favourite candy.
- Your favourite 2-layer 8” vanilla or chocolate cake recipe
- Your favourite chocolate frosting recipe
- 10 – 12 Kit Kat bars
- 2 cups plain M&Ms
- Optional: Ribbon and candles
1. Make and ice your cake according to the recipe directions.
2. Unwrap the packages of Kit Kat, and gently separate the wafers. Press one wafer into the side of the cake, and repeat with the remaining candy bar pieces, nestling the wafers close together.
3. There will be a ½” gap between the top of the cake and the Kit Kat pieces, which can be filled with the M&Ms. Be sure to evenly distribute the candy pieces completely covering the frosting.
4. Tie some ribbon around the middle of the cake and decorate with candles, if desired.
Garlicky Garlic Bread
Makes 1 baguette
This garlic bread is potent and bursting with flavour. Feel free to dial back the cloves to 3 or 4 if you prefer a more subtle taste.
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Fresh ground pepper
- ¼ cup fresh chopped parsley
- 2-3 tablespoons butter
- 1 French baguette
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In the bowl of a small food processor, blitz the garlic, salt, olive oil, parsley, and five or six grinds of fresh ground pepper.
3. Slice the baguette in half lengthwise and butter both sides. Spread the garlic mixture over the butter and place the baguette halves back together. Wrap the loaf tightly in foil (feel free to cut in half if desired) and bake for 10 – 15 minutes or until the edges are crisp and the interior is soft and heated through.