For the fashion issue, Merrily—just back from the fashion and food capital of the world—discusses the art (and science) of making party food look its prettiest
Bon jour, mes amis! I am fresh from a vacay in Paris and the South of France with our friend and former Spaces columnist, David Jimenez, now an American in Paris (he even has swanky calling cards that say that). While in le Sud, our base of operations was Cannes, a town known for the quality and variety of its eateries. Yet we found a restaurant so irresistible we dined there three nights in a row, an Italian place called Da Laura. The food was simply mind-blowing. Part of its magic was, of course, the way it looked: fresh, simple, homemade, with no more garnishment that a sprinkling of cracked pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
In fact, unfussiness in food presentation is a strong trend, one we time-crunched party-givers find liberating, non? But still. Although you may not have time to fashion a lime camellia for each plate, you want your guests—like those at Da Laura—to look at the food served them and feel cherished … and hungry! Here are some tips for tricking out the food you serve your guests.
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Cocktails first, natch
The garnish on the first cocktail you serve your dinner guests is an important matter to tend to. Put a little effort and attention into this detail, and it tells your guests you’ve put effort and attention into everything else.
When having a crowd over (say, four or more), I recommend offering a cocktail before dinner that can be mixed in quantity before people arrive. A pitcher of freshly made mojitos or white sangria looks glorious garnished with citrus slices and a few elegant wisps of lemon zest. You could doll up each glass (hurricanes are perfect, but a water goblet or rocks glass will do) with whisper-thin wheels of lime and lemon, and a sprig of mint or basil.
If you’re simply serving drinks from your bar, have freshly sliced wedges of lemon and lime in supply, along with pimento-less green olives, and, depending on the crowd, pearl onions and maraschino cherries (with stems, please). If you know one of your guests is very fond of a particular potable, it’s thoughtful to have all the ingredients, and the proper garnish in supply.
A great-looking appetizer platter is all about scale and drama. If you think a platter is too big, it’s probably not. A tray does not need to be covered with food—it looks overwhelming if it is.
A garnish for a platter of hors d’oeuvres should have color, texture and dimension. The imaginative caterer Steve Chick, who passed away in 2015, liked to shop the Chinatown Asian Market in the City Market area for unusual-looking fruits and vegetables, such as finger bananas and miniature pears. He also took frequent advantage of the “happy hour specials” offered by many florists at the end of the day to get a deal on magnolia and lemon leaves, citrus blossoms, nasturtiums and other botanical flourishes.
When putting together an antipasto platter (email for instructions), aim for a nice balance of color, contrasting light and dark shades. Keep it simple and let the ingredients be the stars.
I was inspired by two beautiful, uncomplicated appetizers we enjoyed in France. At Da Laura, we were served a first course that would be easy to recreate: a “pouch” of burrata cheese (available at Better Cheddar), served on a bed of lightly dressed arugula. At Cafe Marly in Paris, we experienced some of the chicest people-watching in the world, while drinking a dry rosé and eating a simple dish of prosciutto ham and sliced ripe melon.
How food is arranged on a plate figures deeply in how we think it will taste. When you plan your dinner menu, imagine how the food will look together. Will there be a variety of colors, shapes and textures?
When I have a group over for a seated, homecooked dinner, I prefer to plate the food rather than serve it buffet style. I enroll a guest or two to help. We’ve got the tunes going in the kitchen, we’ve got our cocktails (at this point not as carefully garnished), and it’s the best part of the evening for me (although perhaps not for my guests). I usually have an idea of how I want the food to look on the plate, and will assemble a “demo plate.” Invaryingly, my bossyboots kitchen help has a few artistic tweaks, and we collaborate on the final presentation.
Timing is important, obviously. It helps to heat the plates in the oven or warming drawer so dinner doesn’t get cold. Not every food needs a garnish, but I always try to add one last thing that gives the plate that fresh-out-of-the-kitchen look—a grating of Parmesan cheese or lemon zest, a sprinkling of freshly chopped chives, a drizzle of olive oil.
Don’t overload the plate—it’s best to leave about a third of it empty—and make sure the rim is wiped clean with a paper towel.
When I go to the trouble of making a dessert, I want it to look homemade. I don’t want anyone to think it came from the bakery, not that there’s anything wrong with serving a store-bought dessert.
Most desserts, store-bought or otherwise, are so pretty in themselves they don’t need a lot of embellishment. But if you want to dazzle your guests, you can always do the trick with the sauce (crème anglaise and chocolate or strawberry) in the plastic squeeze bottles. You make concentric circles on the plate, and then you drag a toothpick through them and plop a little cake or cheesecake on top. Your guests will feel loved, even if they’ve seen it on the Food Network.
I’m always impressed by a layered dessert in a footed glass, because they look so labor-intensive, but they are pretty easy to put together, especially if you have a lot of dessert “odds and ends” on hand. You can do layers of whipped cream and frostings; berries and other fruits; caramel and chocolate sauces; mini cupcakes, cheesecakes, brownies and lemon bars; crushed candies, sprinkles, toffee, and chocolate chips. You can virtually put anything in a stemmed glass and it will look elegant. Just make sure everything is bite-size.
Or you can make my very favorite dessert to serve my guests: my Buenavista coconut cake. It looks beautiful (but homemade) and tastes dreamy. And the best part is, it’s a doctored-up cake mix. Email me and I’ll send you the recipe.
A CHOCOLATIER’S TRUFFLE CAKE
8 ounces semi-sweet pure chocolate
1 cup sugar
1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup brewed coffee
In a double boiler or microwave, melt chocolate, sugar and butter; let mixture cool. Add coffee and beat in eggs. Butter and line with foil an 8.-inch springform pan. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate overnight. Remove from pan.
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Whip cream with sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Pile whipping cream on top of cake. Decorate with fresh strawberries or shaved chocolate. Keep refrigerated.