I like to cook. For as long as I’ve been allowed to fire-up a burner I have enjoyed the process of taking a pile of disparate ingredients and turning them into something both healthful and delicious. In my 20’s I cooked for myself. When I got married I cooked for two and then three, four, five and six. I have cooked dinner parties of ten to twelve and Thanksgiving for twenty.
However, when my wife approached me to cook for her holiday work party it sounded like fun – until she told me it would be for 120 people.
First off I questioned if we could even fit 120 people in our house. Furthermore, if we could fit them I questioned if the house could handle more than 10.6 tons of people (do the math).
So, after some back and forth I agreed to do it. The ask was for heavy appetizers, mostly hot, served throughout the evening. Based on the numbers from previous parties, I was asked to make twelve appetizers per person. That is nearly 1,500 appetizers if you go a little over for good measure. I put together a creole-inspired menu that included the following:
I was able to do a little preliminary work the day before, like making the rolls and prepping the beef tenderloin for the sliders, but the majority of the work needed to be done on the day of the event.
I awoke at 5:00 am and was cooking by 5:30. It took me 90 minutes alone just to peel the shrimp so I knew I was in for a long day. My neighbor Jen came over and helped me by making gallons of rémoulade, but as morning turned to afternoon, I realized that I might run out of time before I ran out of things to prepare.
When I was in college, I developed a process for writing 3-5 page papers, which are the stock & trade of the English major. I would make sure that I had finished all the reading to be done for the paper at least 2 days before it was due. I would sit down for 15 minutes, outline the paper and arrive at a thesis statement and then put all the work away. The night before the paper was due I would sit down at the computer and out it would come. My subconscious, it turns out, is pretty good at writing English papers.
The morning I got up to make 1,500 appetizers I knew that the mushroom puffs were going to be the trickiest, so being human I left them for last. I had to make more 300 of them since they were universal due to being both not spicy and meat free.
The mushroom puffs are made by sandwiching blobs of mushroom filling between two layers of puff pastry that are crimped together. Each one is small, a little less than an inch square, like mini ravioli. So, the trick is to accurately portion the filling and do it in a way that keeps each blob in neat rows. When they come out of the oven, they have puffed up about 8 times their uncooked height all buttery and flaky with mushroomy deliciousness oozing out of the sides. Yes, they are as good as they sound.
As I was peeling shrimp and performing other tasks that used less than my whole brain, I was trying to figure out how to make the puff-pastry-production less of a mess than I expected it to be. I was just about to the point where I needed to get started on them – and then it clicked.
If you go to the Home Depot website and look up “White Egg Crate Lighting Panel” you will see a two foot by four foot white plastic grid. I just happened to have one of these down in my workshop from an invention project that never quite got off the ground. I dashed down into the basement and brought it up.
As luck would have it, the sheets of puff pastry I was using were exactly 14 squares wide, but the squares were way too small. So, back down to the basement I went to clip out every other cross piece with a tin snip.
The result is what you see in the picture. A 7×7 grid that is exactly what I needed.
I used the grid on the lower piece of pastry to guide the deposition of the filling. As I was double-spooning filling into each square, my daughter walked into the kitchen and says “why don’t you put the filing in a gallon ziplock bag, snip the corner and squeeze it in like a pastry bag?” Despite her scant thirteen years, my daughter Charlotte is an accomplished baker and knows her way around a pastry bag, but since we don’t own any, this is what she does. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
You can see the results of the makeshift pastry bag and the grid. Neat, complete and ready for the next layer. The next step was to remove the grid, place the upper layer of puff pastry on top and use the grid again to squeeze the edges together. Once that is done, remove the grid for the last time and a few quick swipes with a pizza cutter and you’re done.
Once I figured all this out, I was able to make 49 (7×7) puffs in about 4 minutes, making the 300 take less than half an hour. The party was a huge success, though I didn’t once sit down until 10:30 that night.
I now know I can feed 120 people if I want to. The question is…do I?
Successful problem solving comes in many forms and sometimes you’re faced with a puzzle that just takes time to solve. I knew there had to be a way to make those mushroom puffs quickly, accurately and efficiently, but until I had the perspective of time (and mindless activities), I didn’t realize that the answer was right downstairs in my workshop.
So, try this: keep a list of puzzles/challenges/persistent problems in your life. Every time you’re about to do something that does not use your whole brain (mowing the lawn, driving alone somewhere, attending a school concert that is 97% not-your kid, going for a run) pick something from your list and mentally chew on it as you go. The answers you seek might be hiding somewhere in your noggin. I bet they are.
Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.