The Best Laid Plans…

Thanks to all of your votes and support, I officially advanced to Project Food Blog challenge #3! This meant, though, that I needed to cook a "luxury dinner party" for family or friends. I began planning almost immediately after I finished Challenge #2, and also almost immediately encountered my first obstacle: finding guests!

Most of my family and friends live between 30 and 45 minutes away, so getting anyone to commit to coming over more than 24 hours in advance was just not happening. On Tuesday, I finally had 2 other guests confirmed, and another on Wednesday. I was going to resort to putting our dog and cats in hats and seating them at the table so I could participate in the challenge, so it was great to have human guests confirmed.

I had a couple of menu ideas milling around in my head, but I couldn't quite nail anything down yet.

Which brings me to...

Step One for any dinner party planning: consider guests' likes, dislikes, allergies, and aversions before solidifying a menu. I have friends and family with aversions to things like garlic, goat cheese, mixing fruit and savory foods, peppers, mushrooms... my menu would greatly change depending on who was coming over. Once our guests were confirmed, I began solidifying my menu.


Since this was a blogging challenge, I wanted to highlight three distinct phases of my cooking thus far: The Before in which I celebrate my inherent knowledge to combine a variety of flavors to create something delicious. The During in which I take a variety of flavors and combine them into an adventurous and challenging dish. And finally, The After in which I learned to go outside my comfort zone of cooking and take a foray into baking. I usually do keep a theme of some sort, and the theme of this party was not only "Mara's Cooking Adventures" but also "Simple Italian Elegance".

Step Two is one of my favorites: ASK FOR HELP! I emailed my friend Amy for help with a ravioli dough recipe. I asked coworkers for tools, I incessantly asked other bloggers and friends for opinions on menus (a HUGE thank you to miss VeggieGirl for being my sounding board!) I looked to my favorite bloggers for recipes and techniques.

Step Three of my dinner party planning is to make a list. I'm not a list maker by nature, but when it comes to cooking for a group whether its 4 or 14 people, making lists help me organize my thoughts. I also find, oddly enough, that writing said list by hand in a fun color helps me think.


From the left, I listed out my shopping list by course, then by section in the grocery store. Then, I have a two- day schedule of cooking, organizing, and cleaning. The bottom features extra errands or things to pick up. After work Friday, I went to my favorite grocery store, got everything I still needed, and headed home. I'd shopped the night before for new table settings because, well, I wanted an excuse for new table settings!

Dinner prep began immediately when I got home on Friday. Beans got soaking, spinach got thawing, rustic bread dough was mixed and set to rise in the refrigerator, and the ravioli dough was made. Then, I cooked the beans, made the ravioli filling, and assembled the ravioli. (A mixture of 3 cups cooked white beans; 1 small box of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained; 3 cloves garlic, crushed; 1/4 c. shredded parmesan; 6 large leaves of basil, chopped).



I used the same recipe for the ravioli as I did for the orechiette here.

A key point to party prepping, at least for me, is to keep my schedule flexible. Pre-preparing a lot of the dishes allowed my schedule on Saturday to be open enough to allow for cleaning, table-setting, and letting the oven repair guy in. That's right, after two more weeks of waiting, our oven was finally getting fixed! Within an hour of arriving, the oven was in working order! It was such a relief!

Step Four, my truly favorite part: COOK!!!! I wanted to get the rustic bread baked so that I could have the oven free for the cupcakes, roasted pears, and roasted tomatoes closer to the time we were going to eat. I set the oven for 400, and set my dutch oven full of bread dough in the oven. Soon, the table was set with little Italian touches: bottles of S. Pellegrino, Italian wine, and even the pattern on the tablecloth was called "Tuscan" something.



I made the buttercream for my cupcakes. I started the cake batter.

And then I noticed something odd.

It didn't smell like bread in the house. It definitely smelled weird, and not like baking bread.

And then it happened.

There was a loud POP, then the smell of fireworks, and then smoke.

The oven was dead. DEAD. The digital display wasn't working, which meant something was really wrong.

I was one dish into cooking my dinner party and the oven AND stove were dead. What's a blogger to do? Well, panic, cry, scream, throw things, cry some more, scream some more, and call the oven repair people. Then do some more of the same while on the phone with them. The repair guy came back and looked at the oven. Apparently the new ignitor was too much for the old oven and it melted the wires underneath it. Awesome.

Adam thought quickly and called his friends that were supposed to be coming over and asked if we could instead, bring the food to them and allow me to use their kitchen and oven. Of course they agreed, so we packed up everything, and I threw my plans to the wind.




Three trips to the car, a stop at Starbucks, and 45 minutes later, we arrived at Steve and Carol's house and I started baking. Luxury, instead of being new flavors, techniques, and food experiences became something completely different. I had the luxury of a working kitchen, and tolerant friends who let me mess up their space. Sometimes luxury means expensive ingredients and sometimes it just means being able to do what you truly love to do.

While the bread baked, I put together the goat cheese and pear appetizer. (OMG a picture of me cooking!) I used 3 bartlett pears, hollowed out in the center; 1/2 c. goat cheese mixed with fresh chopped chives, fresh thyme, and black pepper; 3 thin slices of pancetta wrapped around each one. They were baked at 375* for about 30 minutes.



I had lots of company while cooking too

steve and carol

Soon, the bread was done


Cupcakes were baked,


tomatoes were roasted, and the ravioli were cooked. And while it wasn't what I'd originally envisioned, dinner was served.


Roasted pears filled with herbed goat cheese (chevre) and wrapped in pancetta:



White bean, spinach, garlic and basil ravioli atop roasted tomatoes with balsamic reduction, olive oil, and pecorino cheese:


Glasses of pinot grigio from a lovely blue bottle... and then

Cannoli cupcakes: orange-spiked cake, ricotta pistachio filling, and a vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream




The cake recipe was this one, with the addition of 2 Tbsp. orange zest and 2 Tbsp. orange juice.

The frosting was this Swiss meringue buttercream, and the filling was 2 c. whole milk ricotta, chopped pistachio nuts, 1/4 c. sugar, and 1 tsp. vanilla.

I was spent, exhausted, beat... as if cooking a challenging meal wasn't enough, I was emotionally exhausted from the "oven exploding incident." Before I could blink, Steve and Carol were busy doing all the dishes. That's the part of throwing dinner parties that I loathe: THE DISHES.

I've been known to leave dishes for days and just cook around them after a party. I was beyond appreciative to Steve and Carol for letting us use their kitchen, and just as grateful that they did the dishes. I was planning on cleaning up after myself, but they insisted. We of course left them the leftovers of the savory food, and as many cupcakes as they wanted.

I nearly fell asleep in the car on the way home, truly satisfied that I'd pulled off a great meal. Everyone was happy with the food, and as usual with our friends, we had a blast just talking and goofing around.

It was wonderful to be the person responsible for introducing my guests everyone to new flavors, ingredients, and flavor combinations. Steve and Carol had never had goat cheese, let alone a pear stuffed with goat cheese. Everything went off without a hitch...except of course the whole oven-exploding-bringing-the-party-to-a-different-house thing.

For a dinner party, my advice is simple: PLAN, PREPARE, and PRE-COOK! PLAN: Make lists, make more lists, shop at places that you know will have your ingredients. PREPARE: Lay out your ingredients and cooking utensils, clean your cooking space, get all your recipes together. PRE-COOK: Prepare anything in advance that you can so the day of your party isn't completely overwhelming.

And the most important thing: Be flexible so that when even your best laid plans fall through for one reason or another, you can still make your party happen. Oh, and have fun!

I know this isn't the most traditional of dinner parties, but I did my best to roll with the punches and still pull off a great dinner. Voting on Challenge 3 begins tomorrow at 8 a.m. CDT!



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57 Responses to The Best Laid Plans…

  1. BethT says:

    You did a great job regardless of the circumstances!
    BethT´s last blog post ..My Temporary Normal

  2. Mara, this looks wonderful! Nice job on the impromptu “fix”! What timing for your oven to break!! lol Great recovery, girl! You got my vote!
    Nikki (Pennies on a Platter)´s last blog post ..Pumpkin Scones

  3. Mads says:

    This story is insane! It reminds me of those dramatic scenes on Food Network’s Challenge haha
    You pulled through, though! Those cupcakes look marvelous
    Mads´s last blog post ..This post may shock and horrify

  4. You handled it like an absolute pro Mara!!!!!! I’m so very proud of you!!

    Not only did you pull off spectacular dishes but you did it through some horrible circumstances.

    You my friend, are exactly what this contest is about!!!!

    You absolutely have my vote! 
    Toronto Girl West´s last blog post ..Vij’s – a restaurant review

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  6. I’ve got to ask what kind of oven you have because the exact same thing happened to our oven about a year ago WHILE we were baking bread! That’s a weird coincidence-glad everything turned out well and your menu looks delicious!
    Heather Lynne´s last blog post ..Meat and Veggie Meatballs

  7. Mara, you did amazing job- especially under the given circumstances! Everything looked delicious!!

  8. Runeatrepeat says:

    Love it! The table setting is amazing 🙂 You did a great job and I hope you get through to the next round <3
    Runeatrepeat´s last blog post ..Half Way Point

  9. Liz Barrett says:

    Oh my God, this is SUCH a winning post! The entire tale of the oven break-down MAKES it – and you bounced back with hilarity and grace. You’ve got it nailed, my friend. Plus – your photographs are STUPENDOUSLY BEAUTIFUL!! Hope you are resting today!
    Liz Barrett´s last blog post ..Kings &amp Queens of Pastry

  10. M.J. Jacobsen says:

    I would have thrown in the dish towel!!! That’s why you made it this far though, you know how to just go on and get it done! It all looks and sounds fantastic, I know you will make it the next challenge….. challenge being the operative word!!

  11. Well done!!! In my opinion, dinner parties rarely turn out exactly how you planned, but that’s what makes them special!! This party looks amazing- those pears are gorgeous!!! It’ll be my pleasure to vote for you!!! 🙂 Best of luck!

  12. I can’t believe that your oven stopped working!?!?! I would have FREAKED out. Having to pack everything up right in the begining…?? Oh man! What a crazy story. And as far as your food… You get my vote Mara!! Everything looks so amazing (… and I don’t use that word often.)!! I would have loved to be a guest at dinner 😀
    Mary (What’s Cookin’ with Mary)´s last blog post ..Maple Walnut Granola

  13. Wow I can’t believe all that happened! You deserve a medal for persevering!! Great job as always 🙂

  14. Biz says:

    Great job Mara!! Everything looks wonderful – and had that oven incident happened to me, I quite literally would have cried and crawled back into bed – way to roll with the punches!!

  15. AWESOME!! Girl I am so glad that you were still able to have your party and keep going. Amazing and I’m totally in awe!

    Also? I would have had to have a whole bottle of wine to myself because I would have been stressed the heck out!

  16. sophia says:

    HOly cow, Mara. This is quite the spread. My head is spinning just looking at your list. And that oven incident…wow, way to handle that! I think I would have broken down and made a wailing spectacle of myself. Though…this made QUITE the story, and it just shows how awesome you are to overcome the great feat!

  17. mom says:

    what a story!!! so great that you were so flexible… i think many people would have just given up…

    …and everything looks so great!

  18. MarathonVal says:

    You are amazing Mara!!! That menu (as always) look so professional and I’m sure it was beyond delicious.

    And thanks for your sweet and supportive comment on my blog the other day. Hope you are having a great school year! 🙂

  19. Eileen says:

    You have my vote just for your determination. Great job!
    Eileen´s last blog post ..Dinner Is Served…

  20. WOW!! What an ordeal!! You totally pulled it off though, calm and collected Great job! I may have sweet dreams of those cannoli cupcakes. GENIUS! You’ve got my vote, of course!
    themilkmanswife´s last blog post ..Project Food Blog Challenge 3- A Luxury Dinner Party

  21. Christina says:

    I am so proud of you Mara! This all looks great to begin w/, much less w/ all the hardships you had to endure to make it happen! You definitely have my vote! Love ya!
    Christina´s last blog post ..You were cordially invited

  22. oh my gosh, sign my up for this. seriously though…i NEED this! you have my vote 🙂
    Heather (Heather’s Dish)´s last blog post ..Project Food Blog Challenge 3- A Brewery-Inspired Feast

  23. Ashley says:

    This was awesome!! Great job! Especially with the oven snafu. Your menu sounds completely delicious. Those cupcakes are stunning and the ravioli sounds like it would melt in your mouth. Yummm, you’ve got my vote! [duh!]

  24. Way to go, chica! You totally rolled with the punches and the result was stellar! I love the pears with goat cheese and pancetta, but you know you can always guarantee a good drool from me when there are cupcakes involved. 😉 Love the company you had at the party as well. You know you’ve got my vote, lady! Bring on #4!
    Jenn (eating bender)´s last blog post ..Mama’s Song

  25. You rolled with the punches, sucked it up and cooed some beautiful food. Many would have caved under the pressure. The sign of a true cook – just make it work!
    Not to mention the menu sounds delish!
    Cheryl@BlackGirlChefsWhites´s last blog post ..PFB 3 – The “Only Slightly Fancy” Family Dinner Party

  26. WOW… great on-the-spot thinking !! I *LOVE* the photo of your table… which was probably left at your house, unused? 🙁

    This all looks fabulously delicious, and you have an open invite to do this at MY house anytime… I’ll do the dishes!! 😀

    you totally have my vote!
    Kristina @ spabettie´s last blog post ..maple donut french toast

  27. Amazing girl!!
    Jessica @ How Sweet It Is´s last blog post ..Applesauce Take 2

  28. Becky says:

    I have had entertaining catastrophes before, but nothing like what you had. What a marvelous recovery. You made the very best out of a terrible situation. I loved the cupcakes, spectacular. I’m in the Chicago area, too. You can come to my house any time.
    Becky´s last blog post ..My Last Post for Awhile-Oatmeal Apple Raisin Muffins

  29. Shannon says:

    Fabulous feast!! Wish I was there 😉
    Shannon´s last blog post ..Chilled Apple Soup

  30. You won my vote with this one, Mara! Hands down.
    Also, I love that you acknowledge the other strong entries. You are one classy girl. Good luck!
    Lara (Thinspired)´s last blog post ..How I Cook Spaghetti Squash

  31. Gillian says:

    I love that you were met a challenge on top of your challenge, and still pulled it off in grace and style!! Congrats and beautiful dinner!

  32. Sounds like you had quite the adventure! I hope you get a working stove/oven again soon! Good luck!
    Crystal’s Cozy Kitchen´s last blog post ..Menu- Sept 27 – Oct 3

  33. You’ve got my vote! Great job…I especially like seeing the list planning of step #3.
    Brandie @ Home Cooking Memories´s last blog post ..An Autumn Apple Dinner Party

  34. Excellent dinner! Everything looks great, love the pictures! You got my vote, thanks!
    Debbi Does Dinner Healthy´s last blog post ..Menu Plan Monday

  35. Erica says:

    oh my amazing! Totally voted for you. Now can I have a Cannoli cupcakes? 😉
    Erica´s last blog post ..Oatmeal Chocolate- Chocolate Chip Bars- PR

  36. Hi Mara- so happy I found your blog.your dinner is dicing. I love the cannoli cupcakes! You did a great job and congrats.Will vote for you on next round too.:)

  37. You are amazing and so talented Mara! I wish I could have been there, yum 🙂
    Amanda (Two Boos Who Eat)´s last blog post ..Weight loss Saturday-a day late!

  38. Mara, may I please be on the next dinner party invite list? I promise to commit more than 24 hours in advance! Wow you dinner looks amazing! You got my vote.

    Julie Anne Rhodes´s last blog post ..The Lesson in Patience and Letting Go

  39. Jessica says:

    This all looks great! Love your menu! Hope we both make it to the next round! 🙂 You have my vote!

  40. can i get some of those pears??? prosciutto wrapped anything is right up my alley 🙂 voted for you!
    eataduckimust´s last blog post ..Jared’s Luxurious Fall Menu – Project Food Blog Challenge 3

  41. Bravo! Well done for pulling off your feast so well even after that scary oven incident. Everything sounds fabulous, but the cupcakes clinched it. Cherry on the cake so to speak.´s last blog post ..Foodbuzz 24×24- The Mini-critics cook the alphabet

  42. you have a dog named wrigley, are you a chicagoan? congrats on an awesome dinner, it looks amazing!!


  43. This was my favorite post I read so far. You did an awesome job salvaging a tough situation! You’ve definitely got my vote 🙂
    megan @ whatmegansmaking´s last blog post ..Poached Salmon dont be like me

  44. Beautiful! Good writing, good photos, engaging. You got my vote.

  45. Ed says:

    Lovely pictures and you have my vote
    Ed´s last blog post ..Luxury Dinner Party – Project Food Blog 3

  46. Jenni says:

    Would love some of that ravioli please, and I have no problem driving for hours for good food:) Voting!
    Jenni´s last blog post ..Dear Mattel- Ambien Is No Excuse–You People Are Just Wrong Love- Jenni

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  49. jen cheung says:

    passion4food.caCongrats Congrats going onto challenge #4!!! Must be exciting for you! Good luck and all the best. Happy Thanksgiving to you! You’ll be getting the next vote from me 🙂 Your awesome!

    Have a happy thanksgiving!
    jen @

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