Anatomy of a Dinner Party (A Timeline of Caesar Salad, Spaghetti and Meatballs, and Flourless Chocolate Cake All Cooked And Served in A Single Day)

My friend Ryan O’Connell is one of my favorite people. If you don’t know who he is, hop on to Amazon now and check out his book, I’m Special, and come back here once you’ve bought it and read it. Not only did he write that book, but now he’s writing for fall’s most anticipated TV show: the reboot of Will & Grace. So Ryan’s a talented guy who has great taste in wine and even better taste in dinner parties: he loves my cooking. For his birthday, I told him I’d make him a dinner and he could choose the menu. He thought on it and came back with “spaghetti and meatballs, because I know you’ll do it really, really well.” His boyfriend Jonathan loves my Caesar salad, so we added that to the menu. Later I e-mailed to query about his favorite desserts and he wrote back: “My fave desserts are chocolate cake, chocolate pudding, and strawberry shortcake.” I combined a little from Column A and a little from Column B and chose my favorite dinner party staple, this flourless chocolate cake.

Everyone (Ryan, Jonathan, and our mutual friends Lara, Graydon, and Kyle) were all set to come over on Saturday night at 7:30 PM. So on Saturday morning, I set out for Gelson’s to get started on my food shopping when I had an idea: what if I documented the whole thing, from the food shopping in the morning to the moment everyone leaves at the end of the night? Sort of a timeline of how I pull off a dinner party? Wouldn’t that be an epic, potentially useful post for people who want to pull off similar dinner parties? Well, either way, I did it, so without further ado, I present: a timeline of how I pulled off Ryan’s Birthday Dinner.

8:46 AM I wake up (was at another birthday in Pasadena the night before, too many of my friends have birthdays, so was feeling a little groggy) and finalize my shopping list, consulting the various recipes I plan to make that day. I do my shopping list in the notes app. Here it is in all its glory:

(I realize the timestamp doesn’t match the time I said I made the list, but I didn’t think to take a screenshot until later.)

(Also: the first three items aren’t dinner-party related: they were for my cat and my oatmeal respectively. Everything else, though, was for the dinner.)

(Also: I bought the orange but never used it. It was in case I decided to make Negronis, but we ended up having lots and lots of wine.)

9:36 AM Stumble out of my apartment, get in my car, and drive to Proof bakery for an iced coffee (cold brew, so extra battery-charging) and a financier, which is like the top of a muffin.

10:14 AM Arrive at Gelson’s and begin the shop. I start with produce, generally grabbing everything that I remember I need to grab without consulting the list… usually I get most of what I need off the top of my head, and then I check to see if I missed anything. Then I go aisle by aisle until I’m standing in the Jello aisle and taking a picture of my cart.

11 AM Back home, I carry three heavy bags of groceries in (I had to park around the block because Craig’s in New York and he left his car in our one parking spot), unpack them, and then put a tablespoon of butter in the springform pan to come to room temperature so I can butter the pan with it later.

11:25 AM Put a Joni Mitchell album on and hang out, reading a book (by which I mean, scrolling through Instagram stories) until it’s time to make the cake.

12 PM Make the cake! This is such an easy cake to make. (Again, here’s the recipe.) You basically just chop chocolate, put it in a bowl with butter, put the bowl on top of a pot of simmering water until everything melts, then stir in sugar, eggs, and, finally cocoa powder. I used the good stuff, some Valrhona I bought in Echo Park.

I also added a little ground coffee I had lying around because Ina Garten says that’s a good idea, and you should always trust Ina.

Oh, also: I added a teaspoon of salt (the recipe doesn’t call for it, but salt always makes dessert better) and a teaspoon of vanilla (same).

12:45 PM Cake goes into the oven.

12:46 PM While the cake’s baking, I make lunch for myself. I had some chickpeas and some fancy Soom Tahini I also bought at Cookbook in Echo Park, so I mashed those up together with lots of lemon juice, salt, and olive oil. I toasted rye bread, put the chickpea mash on top, and added a sliced cucumber with more lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and Aleppo pepper. A good light lunch for a big cooking day!

1 PM Read on the couch again, listening to more music (Craig bought this album I made fun of him for buying, Saint Etienne, because it seemed too cool for school, but it’s actually pretty great).

1:45 PM Cake comes out of the oven.

Here’s how I like to test if it’s done: I use a piece of spaghetti.

If it comes out clean, you’re good. This cake’s tricky because the center stays pretty wet while the outsides dry up much faster. So I take it out after about an hour when the spaghetti comes out 90% clean.

2 PM Clean up the cake and lunch mess. This is probably the most important thing I can teach you about hosting a dinner party: clean EVERYTHING as you go along, or you will have a disaster of epic proportions by the time the real cooking rolls around.

3:30 PM Shower. (Ended up doing a deep cleaning of my kitchen, but that’s not something you need to do at EVERY dinner party. It just needed to be done.)

4:30 PM Make the Caesar dressing. This is one of my most popular things I make, and my strategy is just to use a lot of garlic (about 5 cloves), a lot of anchovies (about 6 packed in oil), a lot of mustard (a tablespoon), an egg yolk…

Then lots of lemon juice (from two lemons) squeezed through a strainer straight into the blender:

Then a big pinch of salt, some pepper, the lid goes on, the blender goes on, and I slowly pour in about 3/4ths a cup of olive oil, until thick:

That’s a pretty killer dressing, though I made a mistake this time around: usually I grind a bunch of Parmesan in the blender before making the dressing so the remnant Parm helps it thicken sooner (this took a lot more oil). Plus, grinding Parmesan in the blender is one of my favorite things to do when hosting a dinner party (another Ina trick) because you end up using a lot more when it’s that easy to prepare and it makes everything taste so good.

So I cleaned the blender, after making the dressing, and then cut three wedges of really good Parmesan (it makes a big difference, God I’m so Ina-influenced) into cubes and, in little groups, popped them into the blender to be pulverized.

[Note: see the picture above? When buying Parmesan, make sure to buy the wedges that only have the rind at the top. Sometimes you’ll get screwed if the rind goes around in an L-shape, you get less usable Parmesan that way. I hope that made sense.]

5:06 PM Start sauce. So the meatball recipe I used (a pretty irrefutable one from Serious Eats) said you can make any kind of tomato sauce. So I got out my stockpot and made a sauce with lots of olive oil, lots of chopped onion, lots of garlic, tomato paste, and chile flakes that I cooked a bit together to infuse the oil and to get a little toasty:

Then I added three cans of San Marzano tomatoes (crushed by hand) and a big pinch of salt:

Brought that to a boil and then, once again, CLEANED THE KITCHEN. I’m telling you, it’s the most important thing.

Also, at this point, I refrigerated the plates for the salad. A nice, easy touch that makes a subtle but noticeable difference.

5:44 PM Roast cherry tomatoes for the Caesar salad. This is an easy trick (OK, another Ina trick) where you roast cherry tomatoes on a cookie sheet in a hot oven with olive oil, salt, and pepper until they burst and get a little charred:

5:47 PM While those were roasting, I set the table. This is probably my favorite pre-dinner party moment, when the excitement starts to kick in… ooh, people are coming over soon and I haven’t even started making the meatballs yet!

6 PM Start making the meatballs. This recipe is pretty epic (again, here’s the link); I skipped the whole thing where you gelatinize chicken stock and chop that for your meatballs. But I did buy good bread, cut the crusts off, cut the insides into cubes, soak the cubes in whole milk, etc, etc.

I actually had too much bread so when the tomatoes came out of the oven, I decided to use the extra cubes to make croutons. It was this easy: tossed the cubes with olive oil, salt, and pepper and popped into the 400 degree oven until they were golden all over.

6:28 PM At this point, the sauce was done, and I set two ladlefuls of it aside for our vegetarian friend Jonathan who wouldn’t want sauce that co-habitated with balls of meat. Doesn’t the sauce look good?

OK, now the meatball-making began in earnest, with only an hour to go before guests arrived. I cut it a little close.

The recipe’s really cool in that you use a stand mixer to whip together the milk-soaked bread, onion, garlic, oregano, parsley, ground fennel seed, egg yolks, and minced pancetta.

To that mixture, you add 1/3rd of your meat (I used a mixture of pork and ground beef from McCall’s) so that it really gets worked in, then you add the rest with your hands to keep the meatballs light.

7 PM Make a test meatball. This was a trick Sara Moulton taught me when I wrote my cookbook and I never forgot it: when making a meat mixture that you can’t taste raw, fry up a little bit so you can taste for seasoning. So that’s exactly what I did in a little pan with some olive oil:

Man, did that taste good. Like perfect. So we were ready to roll.

7:07 PM Roll the meatballs! I really cut this close. But this was fast work:

Under the broiler they went (that’s the other ingenious part of the recipe, so they don’t fall apart in a frying pan):

7:16 PM Light candles, fill water glasses. We’re down to the wire…

7:21 PM Meatballs out of the broiler and into the sauce.

They only need ten minutes to cook at a simmer, so I lowered the heat to like the ULTIMATE low and kept them in there for the first hour of the party and it was totally fine.

And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s…

7:30 PM and the guests are here with LOTS and LOTS of wine.

If there’s one thing that Craig taught me about hosting diner parties (since we’ve been doing them together for over eleven years) is that the cocktail portion shouldn’t be rushed. So I put out olives and Marcona almonds and made sure everyone had some time to sit, snack, and chat before moving to the table.

[That picture wasn’t posed at all!]

8:18 PM Time to make/eat the salad. In a giant bowl I tore up lots of romaine lettuce and added the croutons. Then I drizzled in LOTS of that dressing (more is better than less when it comes to Caesar as far as I’m concerned), lots of the grated Parmesan, and then Jonathan volunteered to place the cherry tomatoes.

Here they are on those oh-so-chilled plates:

Look at these happy diners:

8:34 PM While everyone was enjoying their salad, I snuck into the kitchen to bring a big pot of water to a boil and to taste a meatball to make sure it didn’t get too dried out.

Oh, not at all, these meatballs are amazing. It’s such a smart recipe.

8:55 PM Cleared the salad plates and when the water was boiling, I salted it aggressively, and then dropped in two pounds of spaghetti.

Meanwhile, I scooped all the meatballs out of the sauce into a baking dish.

So Jonathan wouldn’t be jealous of all of us meat-eaters, I added a pat of butter to his just-plain sauce which made a big diff. Oh: everything was simmering at this point and I added a ladleful of pasta water to both the not-meat sauce and the meat-sauce to help the spaghetti stick.

Then, when the spaghetti was just al dente, I added it to the sauces to finish cooking on high heat.

(That I learned from watching Mario Batali, not Ina Garten, so take that Ina!)

Once the sauce and spaghetti were married, I used tongs to twirl it all on to white plates, topped with the meatballs, lots of that Parmesan we so carefully blended earlier, and lots of chopped parsley. (You can see the finished plate at the top of this post.)

Look at the happy birthday boy:

Everyone seemed to really dig their spaghetti and meatballs, made with love:

10:11 PM Finally it was time to serve the birthday cake. If you read my shopping list carefully above, you saw I bought birthday candles. And so I did! Pink ones:

(Oh, I dusted the cake with powdered sugar first.)

Happy birthday, Ryan!

I also bought McConnell’s vanilla ice cream and Jonathan was put in charge of scooping. Let’s just say he’s better at placing tomatoes (just kidding Jonathan, love you!)

10:33 PM This is when the after dinner drinks came out. Craig and I have built up quite a collection of Amaros and Fernets:

Around this time, Lara really wanted to pet Mr. Lolita, who’s now eighteen and senile and really, really mean to anyone who’s not me. I said it maybe wasn’t a good idea so we worked out a system where Mr. Lolita sat on my lap and I pretended to be petting him while Lara was really petting him. This plan immediately backfired when Mr. Lolita leapt in the air, hissed, bit Lara, scratched me, and did a backflip on to the ground. It was very entertaining but also quite alarming.

11:48 PM And after all that, this was when the Ubers arrived and everyone said goodnight.

I could end the post here, but I think it’s important, if you’re going to host a dinner party like this, to know what to expect at the end. #1: you’re going to feel high as a kite because you just fed a bunch of people really good food and had a grand old time, cat scratch notwithstanding, and this is what life’s all about! #2: dishes.

(Imagine if you hadn’t cleaned up the cake mess and the tomato sauce mess earlier…)

You know what? Don’t worry about it. Leave them and get to them tomorrow morning.

8:57 AM (Next morning). Do the dishes while listening to Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside (it’s really good Sunday morning dish music). You know, on Alec Baldwin’s podcast he was once interviewing Sandra Bernhard and they were both talking about how much they love to do dishes, how satisfying it is. And you know what? I agree. Because when you’re done, your kitchen is sparkling and ready for the whole thing to happen again:

Call me cheesy, but I think that’s a pretty beautiful thing.