“I hate chocolate chip cookies!” she bellowed from the corner of the kitchen island as I pulled a freshly baked batch out of the oven. A few other guests gasped at her confession but kept it to themselves. She (let’s call her Granny) was well into her third glass of wine and had taken up residence on a kitchen stool to watch me cater in her son and daughter-in-law’s home.
She intercepted her granddaughter running instinctively at full force toward the cookie smell.
“Give these a few minutes to cool down,” I said.
I’m not a winker, but if I were, I would have winked at the kid who was struggling to understand why a stranger was cooking in her kitchen. She hung in her grandmother’s embrace and peeked at me through her blonde bangs. Then she shrugged and ran off to play with a friend upstairs.
The party was a 70th birthday celebration for Granny’s daughter’s father-in-law. It was a small affair with passed appetizers for 18 guests. Granny had not hired me, the other grandmother had. Granny was just a guest, but this was her daughter’s home and she kept an eye on me from the moment she walked in. She loomed over the oven when I heated the chicken chorizo empanadas, nodded eagerly as I plated the mini crab cakes.
Protective? Curious? Scrutinizing? All of the above.
I get it. I was an interloper in her daughter’s home.
“So what kind of cookies do you like?” I asked, sliding the warm chocolate chip cookies onto a white platter for Wendy, my server for the night, to pass to guests in the living room.
*Yes, we offer warm chocolate chip cookies as a dessert option. You should hire us immediately.*
I set two cookies aside for the granddaughter’s next kitchen invasion.
“I just can’t stand chocolate! The smell! The taste! Yuck. I like other desserts instead of cookies. Cherry pies. Lemon cakes. Oh! I do like snowball cookies though.” Her eyes twinkled with a sparkly peach shadow that matched her cashmere sweater.
“Do you mean Mexican wedding cookies?” And I started to say that I had baked those cookies two days earlier when another kitchen loomer burst into our conversation.
“No chocolate!!! How do you survive?!?”
The two of them broke off into an intense cocoa debate and I shook my head in disbelief. Here it is again! I hadn’t thought about Mexican wedding cookies in years, but I had just baked them for a Mexican dinner party some friends threw.
This wasn’t the first concurrent food thought I’d had with a stranger and I was considering calling the psychic friend’s network.
Here’s how it started…
I think of the hors-d’oeuvres in my repertoire as my children, and just as my parents do, I pretend to love them equally. The problem is that I’ve been kind of trampy and I have over 80 appetizer children. Hrm. That felt strange to write. I think it’s time to hop out of this metaphor for a bit.
Cocktail party catering with A Wonderland of Food (my catering company) works like this: a client finds me through a search online or happy party host referral. The new customer gives me the basic rundown of their event: We’re expecting 55 guests for a party at our home. We would like to keep it casual but have great food and drinks.
I commend them on deciding to throw a cocktail party because they are always more enjoyable than formal, multi-coursed dinner parties. It’s way more fun for me, and after almost 30 years in this business, I know it will be much less stressful for them. Who wants to have 55 people over for a sit-down dinner anyway?
“What’s the next step?”, they ask, and I present them with a document containing all the appetizers I have created over the years.
It’s three pages of small food options arranged by regional cuisine. For example: French: Bacon, Corn, and White Cheddar Gougeres (cheese puffs) Italian: Fresh Tortellini Skewers with Fresh Pesto Dip (vegetarian) Indian: Fried Cauliflower with Sweet Tomato Chutney (vegan)
This can be a slightly overwhelming moment for clients who were expecting to choose between the white cheese cubes or the yellow ones, the green or red grapes.
I present the flummoxed client with a sample menu from a recently successful party. And on that menu are my star children – my reliable thrillers, the apps I see more frequently and know I can trust. My baked brie tartlets with honey garlic sauce, for example, produce such a positive response that they always get pushed to the front of the line when clients ask for recommendations.
But there are other choices on my long list that people never order and I kind of forget about. I love them just the same as the others, I swear, but time passes and the relationships grow distant. Then suddenly, a client will ask about those rarely ordered apps and I’ll go into a panic. This past holiday season, my chicken chorizo empanadas with sultanas sent me into paranoid hysterics. When the client requested them, my first thought was I should say they weren’t available anymore because I hadn’t made them in years and I didn’t think they would be any good. But then I spent a little time reacquainting myself with the process of slow-cooking chicken thighs with spicy chicken chorizo, onions, garlic, paprika, sherry vinegar, white raisins, and bay and they came alive to me again. The practice of cutting the butter into the flour, forming into a ball to rest a bit, and then rolling out sheets of the pastry, stamping into circles, and folding around the piquant chorizo filling thrilled me every step of the way.
On that requested menu was also the lemongrass marinated flat iron steak crostini topped with rice vinegar and bird’s eye chili creme that I hadn’t made in eons.
“Where have you been, my progeny? You’re delicious!” I thought, as I grilled the marinated beef and whisked the chilis into the crème fraiche. We were reconnected, these long-lost children and me.
Then a few days later, another client requested the empanadas and the lemongrass steak crostini. They weren’t in contact with the first party people. The second party was in a different part of town with a very different demographic. It was purely coincidental, but it was so odd. Then after another week, both apps were put on the menu for Granny’s party without any prompting! Had I somehow telepathically communicated my rekindled fondness for these apps with prospective clients? It felt like that black magic moment of humming a song you haven’t heard in years and then turning on your car and that song is playing on the radio. You sit and stare at the dashboard and think, “I am omnipotent. I have untapped powers no one knows about.”
When I saw that third coincidental menu request, I declared, “I AM THE EMPANADA MESSIAH!”
I’m of two minds about coincidences. Sometimes I think they’re a message from life about fate and listening and being open, and sometimes I think they are purely happenstancial. It doesn’t matter at all which side of the coin you land on. It’s just cool to be shaken out of normality for a second.
I shouldn’t have felt surprised about Granny mentioning the snowball cookies. It was more of a confirmation than a shock. And a nice way of mingling our families.
The party was a tremendous success. Wendy and I were at the final stages of washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen. I started to run equipment out to my car and then thought I should go to the bathroom before I hit the road. I wasn’t thinking, forgot to lock the door, and someone barged in after I’d been in the loo for a minute.
I said, “Someone’s in here!” but it was too late. The door opened and then closed quickly with a yelp. I didn’t see who it was, but the yelp sounded like a familiar tone.
I shook my head, chuckled, and flushed. It happens. No biggie.
I continued the process of loading my car and was making a final sweep through the kitchen when Granny walked up very close to me and slipped something into my hand. Her surreptitiousness made me wary but then I looked down and it was a $20 bill folded into a teensy weeny square.
“I’m so sorry about that,” Granny whispered into my ear. I shrieked too loud, like I do when I am genuinely surprised, and startled the remaining guests. I told her that was not necessary and gave her a hug. She was not, after all, the party host. This was not a tip for good service.
This was a gratui-pee.
But then I thought, hey, I have a tiny bladder. If I can make $20 per pee per party, I can add a nice chunk of change to my monthly income. I’ll just never lock the door!
With thanks to my Granny friend, without whom I wouldn’t have thought of this business expansion, I give you Portland snowball cookies. Portland because I use local hazelnuts instead of the traditional walnut/ pecan combo. Snowballs just seem appropriate for this time of year. (Or they did a few days ago when Portland was preparing for a snowpocalypse. I can’t very well call these rainballs, but that would be more appropriate.)
Makes 4 dozen balls
- 2 cups roasted skinned hazelnuts, separated*
- 1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter, cut into squares
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups flour
- 1 cup confectioners sugar
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Grind 1 cup of hazelnuts in a food processor for 30 seconds. Run a spoon around the inside of the food processor bowl to loosen any blended nuts. Add the second cup of hazelnuts into the food processor and grind for another 20 seconds. This will give you some very finely chopped nuts mixed with some moderately chopped nuts.
- Dump nuts into a bowl.
- Into the food processor, add the butter and the sugar. Pulse 10 times for the two to blend. Add the vanilla and the salt. Then pulse the flour in until it’s blended.
- Add the nuts and pulse until the mixture comes together (you might need to scrape the corners of the food processor bowl again as the nuts tend to stick in there.) Pulse another second or two until the dough becomes uniform.
- Place that dough in the bowl and then scoop out tablespoonfulls (I use a #70 cookie scoop which is one tablespoon measure) onto a parchment or Silpat covered sheet pan. These cookies won’t spread at all so you can put them close together to bake.
- Bake for 15 minutes.
- Let cool for 5-10 minutes.
- Put the confectioners sugar into a clean bowl and roll the cookies in the sugar until they are well covered.
*Skinning whole hazelnuts can be done easily by putting them on a sheet pan and roasting at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes. The skins will release easily (and it’s ok if some of the skins stay on.)
Here’s how it went when I baked these on KATU’s Afternoon Live.