I like to cook (ok fine, I love it) and people come over to eat at our house all the time. Mostly, these people are such dear friends they feel like family. They act like family too. Forks and napkins are laid around the table by the kids. Someone that is not me washes the salad. Someone else that is not Martin might make the salad dressing. Martin rolls out the pasta, I make some sauce. They bring a wine to try. We all put the food on the table. The last time my friend Liz and her family came over, I decided to make mayonnaise to serve with the asparagus. I have been making mayonnaise my entire life. And I forgot the egg. Twice. If you’ve ever made mayonnaise or hollandaise, you know it’s all about the egg. Nothing happens without it. What I made was glopp. (I’m going to have to blame the glass of wine for that one) Anyway we all laughed, added some lemon juice to the jarred mayonnaise from the fridge, and carried on with dinner. The children sat at one end of the table and the adults at the other. Afterwards the kids piled into the living room to watch Miyazaki and the grownups laughed and talked around the dinner table. I really like this kind of dinner party.
So when I offered a “Swedish Dinner” at the school auction last year, I didn’t think too much about it. Like I said, I have people over for dinner all the time. It hit me afterwards. There would be no kids setting the table…in fact, if the table looked like my kids and their friends had set it, that might be a bit of a problem. Also, probably it would not be the best idea to ask our guests to bring a bottle of wine. Or mix up some salad dressing. (“I don’t mind what you make! Make what you make at home!”) I don’t think so. The family that bought our dinner turned out to be a family I didn’t know…and they were going to live in Sweden for six months before we made dinner for them and 6 of their friends. This seemed a little scary.
Here’s what I found out: Fear turns me into a demon planner. And that I really really like it. Planning. Walking the line of being supremely prepared (we made three versions of the main course in the weeks before the dinner) and being nearly positive that a last minute riff on a classic dessert would be fabulous (adding elderflower cordial to panna cotta, and tweaking the recipe on the fly the night before) and being absolutely right, well, it was like walking on a tight rope for the first time and not falling. In fact, that dessert was so ethereal, so utterly delicious, I felt like I had not only NOT fallen off the tightrope, but that I had actually managed a leap and a twirl!
I have to say, I could never have pulled this off without making extensive to-do lists. God, I love to make a list. It totally pays. I mapped out each day for the entire week before the dinner. We made three kinds of bread, one on each day. Then the cookies. The rhubarb-strawberry, cardamom-scented compote happened on Thursday. Six bunches of white tulips bought and arranged on Friday. The last two days were measured and carefully calm. You could’ve set a clock by that to-do list. You should have seen the matrix of work for the night of the dinner! Västerbotten/fennel seed frico on table in living room: 6:45 pm. Check. Parsley garnish on Toast Skagen. Check. Creme fraiche and minced onion on Löjrom. Check. Don’t forget the individual sauce boats! The candles! Check. Check.
If I were reading this, I would wonder, is this actually fun for her?! Writing those lists all the time? Cooking is fun, but cleaning it up isn’t. Why is she doing this? I guess it comes down to what I love about cooking. I can control everything. (Just ask my family – they will tell you I’m so bossy – but I see myself as more of a…visionary?) I love compiling a menu of all my favorite dishes and then throwing half of them out because you can’t have all that cream for god’s-sake! (for example) in one menu. I love scattering the table with candles. Examining fonts, debating color for the text, and in this case translating all the Swedish into English. Dreaming up a dessert and jiggering a couple of recipes to get to it – that’s thrilling. And then there’s completing a fairly complex project in a relatively short amount of time. You can make it work if you make a list. Wouldn’t anyone want to dream up something beautiful and then share it?
Midnight. The candles are still glowing. ABBA is playing softly in the living room. We are standing with this very nice couple and their friends in the front hall, laughing. The kitchen is in order; the dishwasher purring. Stacked in the refrigerator are boxes with just the right amount of leftovers – beckoning and not too overwhelmingly large for tomorrow. After our guests went home, there were two perfect panna cotta left to eat in the living room by the fire.
Next time I will tell you what I made with the leftovers. Here is a picture:
And just so you know, that is the mayonnaise that I made, very successfully, in the lower right hand corner!