How to time cooking for a dinner party (in an afternoon)

It has been said many times before, you only need one really impressive and/or complicated dish for any dinner party. The idea is that people will be impressed by one amazing dish, and, with less to do, you can properly work on making sure that it really is amazing. If you set yourself too much to do, then chances are that something will go wrong, or things won’t turn out as good as they could be. I sin against this rule a lot – I’m always biting off more than I can chew when it comes to the amount of cooking that I commit myself to. The flaw in my over-ambitious meals is always timing – my guests often have to wait for some time before their food is ready, and there is a tendency for me to be cooking when they arrive, and to talk to them from the kitchen (luckily we have an open kitchen-dining room area) for some time before we sit down to dinner or lunch. I made one poor friend wait for over an hour and a half once, due to poor timing. (The trick in such situations – ply them with alcohol!)

If you want to be a bit extravagant by cooking several courses from scratch, the best thing to do is to make whatever you can in advance. However, it can be done in one day. And along with a number of tips to make the extravagant dinner party easier to handle (which I shall save for a later post), I have the simplest advice for how to make sure it all works out: it is all about timing. The other week I made the following dinner (for four with left-overs – recipes to follow):

Dinner for four

Nice (store bought) crisps (for when guests arrive)

Salad with rocket (arugula), roasted cherry tomatos and toasted pine nuts

Mushroom lasagne

Pear and almond tart with (store bought) ice cream

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Step 1: Work out what you are going to make and read the recipes. If you are cutting things fine on time, then you may not have time to run to the shops and buy missing ingredients. Actually, often it is not ingredients that you haven’t thought of, but other things like baking paper, or a food processor which you don’t have.

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Step 2: Once you have decided what you want to make, write down how long everything will take to cook for each recipe you are making. You will need to do some estimating of how long you think it will take you to chop ingredients, or roll out pastry – it is always best to over-estimate a little, rather than finding yourself running out of time later. For my last dinner party one of the things I made was a mushroom lasagne. Here is how I wrote out the timing:

Soak dried mushrooms -> 45 mins

Cook mushrooms -> 1 hour

Make béchamel sauce -> 45 mins

Assemble lasagne -> 25 mins

*Bake for 40 mins*

Mushroom lasagne with a 40 minute baking time actually took 3 hours and 35 minutes to make from start to finish.

The aim of this step is to work out the minimum amount of time it would take you to make a particular dish. If all those times added up is longer than you have, then choose something else. (The lasagne was going to take 3 hours and 35 mins from start to finish – something you would not be able to get just by looking at the baking time). A few notes on how I did this: the time that the dried mushrooms I was using needed to soak was 30 minutes, but I also had to boil water and get out a bowl to soak them – not a great deal of extra work, but I made sure to leave myself 45 minutes for the whole thing. Of course, I could do other things while they were soaking.

Similarly, when I calculated cooking the mushrooms, I knew that this was something that could not be done until the dried mushrooms were soaked, so I could only begin 45 minutes after I had started prepping for the meal. I factored in the time it would take me to chop onions and garlic as well as cooking time, in case I did not get round to doing this while the dried mushrooms were soaking. If I got it done more quickly, all the better. When factoring in cooking times, do not just factor in the time a recipe say something needs to cook – you still have to do prep, and you may have to wait for particular components to cool before you can use them – write these all into your time plan.

One thing here that I did not do well was calculate the time to assemble the lasagne. Because I needed to pre-boil the lasagne sheets (even if only for a very short time) it ended up taking longer than expected, but this was ok because I had done some of the other steps quicker than planned, so I had extra time to spare.

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Step 3: Make a timetable. This is the most complicated step, because you have to work out how to time making several different components of several different dishes all at the same time – but once again, if you don’t have time to do everything according to a timetable, you won’t have time to do it in real life, and maybe you should buy some ice cream and berries for dessert and really focus on your main course.

If you are worried about possibly being a little short of time, buy some crisps for guests to eat when they first arrive

The first step was to write down how long each component was going to take to cook (I broke down the tart into three components – the pastry shell, the pears and the almond filling). I also marked the time where my attention was not required (so when something was in the oven, or chilling in the fridge) differently, so I knew this was time where I could focus on something else. Then I just went through, starting with the thing that would need the longest (the tart pastry) and wrote out a timetable based on my time plan, then went through with the thing that would take the next longest (the lasagne) and added in prep time for that in the spaces where I wouldn’t be working on the pastry (when it was in the fridge) and so on until all the components were covered. It ended up looking something like this:

2pm – Make pastry and place in fridge
2:45 – Make filling and place in fridge
3:20 – Preheat oven to 315º (for tomatos)
3:25-3:55 – Soak dried mushrooms
3:35-3:55 – Prepare cherry tomatos and place in oven (for 30 mins)
3:55 – Cook mushrooms
4:30 – Roll out pastry and freeze (30 mins)
5:45 – Make béchamel
6:05 – Preheat oven to 375º
6:15 – Place pastry in oven and bake for 45 mins (reduce oven to 350º)
6:20 – Boil pears
6:30 – Assemble lasagne
7:00 – Bake lasagne at 350º for 30 mins
7:20 – Assemble tart

7:30 – Guests arrive – place finished tart in the oven and bake for 55 mins

*In spare time: Wash salad, toast pine nuts, assemble salad, clean up kitchen (at least a bit), put out crisps, have a drink etc.
Pastry takes a long time, because it needs to be placed in the fridge before being rolled out, so the almond and pear tart took the longest time to prepare

As you can see – this was cutting it fine, even though I left 5 and a half hours for cooking. I did get little breaks along the way (which was made easier by the fact that my fiance, Nick, did the shopping, and took over certain sous-chef tasks like making the béchamel sauce). But when I envisioned what I was going to be cooking for dinner, I had not imagined it would take anything like as long. If I had not started really early and made such a complicated plan, our guests would once again have been left waiting for ages for their food.

So – there you have the most complicated explanation of the simplest kitchen tip.
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