The secret to a great dinner party is so much more than what’s on the plate, writes cookbook author Charlotte Ree.
My favourite activity has always been to eat – and talk to anyone who will listen about all the delicious things I have eaten. And then, most importantly, to think about what I want to eat next, which often occurs while I am actually eating.
But in the aftermath of my divorce, I have come to realise that my favourite activity is to feed. That is why I often find myself cooking and hosting extravagant three- or four-course dinner parties for some of my closest friends, and sometimes for complete strangers, too.
By inviting people into my home, I am inviting them into my heart. I am inviting them to see and experience me at my most raw, real and relatable. Because in throwing and attending a dinner party with the intention of connection, I believe you are making yourself vulnerable.
You are opening the heart space that is your home and revealing parts of yourself through food. I see it as the act (and art) of creating a meeting point where you have an opportunity to reveal yourself to another and nurture the surprise moments of joy that come with it.
You see, the distraction of being cooked for and then eating in somebody’s home acts as a kind of shortcut to intimacy. For me, it has been a means to forming lasting connections. I call it edible therapy.
When I host a dinner party, I begin planning weeks in advance. I adore the ceremony of hosting, from curating a guest list to planning the menu. I often choose to make dishes I have never made before from cookbooks I have only recently discovered. Lists are made for food that must be purchased from different supermarkets or niche grocers.
Most importantly, I create a running to-do list and check things off with a highlighter as I combine ingredients and construct courses.
I take the entire day to myself to cook slowly in the galley kitchen of my tiny apartment, which has such limited counter space that I often find myself spilling onto my dining table – a refurbished Johannes Andersen piece from the 1960s that extends to fit 14 comfortably.
I often start cooking first thing in the morning and dessert always comes first, perhaps subconsciously based on the unbridled joy from my childhood when my Mama would serve my brother and me “upside down dinners” – sweet before savoury.
Eating in somebody’s home acts as a kind of shortcut to intimacy.
Really, though, desserts are what I look forward to the most and in baking them, I know that my day is off to a delicious start.
My friends are ecstatic eaters and therefore I am a most fantastic feeder. Whenever anyone comes for dinner, they know to arrive with an empty stomach, to bring their own Tupperware for leftovers alongside a bottle or two of wine, and to settle in for a long and leisurely night.
My favourite moments at these dinner parties are those where the sound of knives and forks colliding with plates is interrupted only by the audible enjoyment of the first mouthful, a sound my grandmother distinctively made, indicating what every home cook wants to hear – that seconds will be demanded.
Lasagne with caprese salad. Photo: Christopher Pearce
- I often serve a caprese salad with freshly baked focaccia before the lasagne. To make the salad, combine 500g halved ripe cherry tomatoes with 500g stracciatella and a bunch of torn fresh basil leaves on a large serving platter. Season well with sea salt and black pepper, and drizzle with olive oil.
- My comforting lasagne (recipe here) – I love to make the pasta dough with my guests when they have arrived. It is something we can all do together, and they love to take part. I normally store my rolled sheets on a clothes drying rack, or over the backs of my dining chairs, but if I am making them with friends, I simply roll and add them to my baking dish and layer as I go.
Photo: Christopher Pearce
- For dessert: Affogato topped with chocolate amaretti (recipe here). For many of my dinner parties, I find myself making simple desserts that can be transported, just in case everyone is so full they have no room to eat them! Homemade amaretti to crumble on top of an affogato, or eat whole, are the perfect way to wrap up any dinner, particularly an Italian feast. But they are also wonderful for guests to take home as a parting gift instead.
Setting the scene
Styling the dinner party table is almost as important as cooking the food.
- I love styling my table with a neutral linen tablecloth. It saves your dishes clashing with any potential patterns, and ensures the food remains the hero. The pinch point always comes with ironing the tablecloth. I refuse to and it is the bane of my Mama’s existence. I mean, who has time when you are serving three courses?
- While I don’t iron my tablecloth, I do insist on washing it (and my napkins) immediately after dinner to avoid any pesky stains.
- Napkins! They must be linen. I refuse to iron these, too, but instead love that my friend taught me to tie them into a little knot before placing them on each plate. Fold your square napkin in half to form a triangle. Then from the bottom edge, fold over three times to form a long rectangle. Twist the napkin slightly to shrink it, making a knot in the middle. It is supposed to look organic and imperfect – just like life.
Photo: Christopher Pearce
- Glassware – I love multiple beverages at meal times. For breakfast, it’s a coffee, juice or smoothie and water. At dinner, it’s often a freshly sabred glass of champagne, a glass of red and sparkling water, so I love to set my table for each and every option.
- A centrepiece of a beautiful bunch of flowers makes a statement as your guests arrive, but I always remove it once everybody is seated to avoid any obstruction to the free-flowing banter – and I also need every bit of table space for food.
- Music (I love the classics, such as Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone) and lighting (never too bright; candles are a plus, but festoon lights are my favourite) are essential.
Charlotte Ree is the author of the cookbook Just Desserts, published by Plum, and available now. Her food memoir, Heartbake, will be published by Allen and Unwin in March 2023. You can follow Charlotte and her life through food on Instagram.