When your birthday is three days before Christmas and you grow up in the United States, there is very little you can do to separate the day from the ever-eclipsing holiday mayhem. There is the inevitable dual gifting you’ve heard about, I’m sure, coupled with an incessant round of holiday parties that tend to fall on your birthday itself, negating any possibility of a romantic birthday dinner sans red and green cheer. I’ve always been ok with this though, preferring to look at it as merely a challenge to make my party the party of the season- the one people still feel the hungover effects of come Christmas morning. When I was in my more “free-spirited” phase, the parties would be laced with glow sticks and body paints with all manner of eclectic music punctuating the reverberating cacophony. The problem with those parties lie in the fact that no one would really remember anything about them either during or afterward, much less the fact that it was my birthday. Now that I’ve got a burgeoning reputation as a social maven to uphold, a bit more organization and thought goes into planning each fete, and this year was no exception.
I went with a Mad Men theme, if you haven’t seen the show you ought to. It’s set in the early 1960’s and filled with a cast of advertising execs on Madison Avenue and their wives/mistresses. I chose the period for the attire and cuisine, thinking it would be easy and fun to transport ourselves into that world. I didn’t bargain on the fact that everyone would really get into the attitude as well, which is what made it a resounding success. As many of you remember and some of you can imagine, a major focus is on the cocktails- drinking on the job from morning ‘til night is de rigueur a la Mad Men. I so wanted to find a seven or eight year old to bartend, since kids back then would frequently mix drinks for their parents, but I couldn’t get anyone to volunteer their child, despite the major résumé-building potential! Instead my dear husband Jonas transformed himself into a downright dandy bartender adopting the persona of a confident boss mixing up a bourbon concoction for a coworker before a “meeting.”
I wanted my food and drink to match what likely would have been served back in the day so I went the class and sophistication route (ha ha) with homemade cheese balls, bonbons, rumaki, Swedish meatballs, a Roquefort molded salad mousse, deviled duck eggs, and Waldorf salad.
We served cocktails using drinks from clever product placements from the show, such as Stolichnaya vodka, Tanqueray gin, RC cola and Heineken beer.
The biggest stretch for me in terms of flexing my culinary chops was wrapping my mind (and my homemade bacon) around rumaki. Ever had it? It’s a funky little appetizer of mock-Polynesian origin that involves a marinated chicken or duck liver, a touch of water chestnut, and a bacon-wrapped exterior. When I saw an episode of Mad Men in which the stunning protagonista Betty Draper serves rumaki at a dinner party, I knew I had to add it to the list.
I used duck livers because I thought they’d be slightly less mushy than those of chicken, but in the end I think either would provide a similar texture. Next time I think I’d go all out and just use fois gras, dispensing with duck and chicken altogether and upping the ante with some lovingly lavishly prepared goose goodness. The water chestnuts I used were fresh not canned, and wow does that make a difference! I will not soon return to canned water chestnuts for anything. They provided a welcome crunch to the otherwise dubiously gooey little package. I was surprised when I put them out and they disappeared within minutes to the sound of much oohing and aaahing- I even fully disclosed their contents on a written menu for guests information. Guess liver doesn’t have the stigma it did when I was a child any longer- cheers to the resurgence of organ meats- wait, really?
When we have winter parties we cannot utilize our exterior deck spaces as much, so we kept the number to around 45 guests so that it wouldn’t be too crowded, and put the word out that there would be a bouncer policing attire at the door. Everyone dressed to the nines, and copped sassy attitudes to boot, so it made for some fab photos.
I made the mistake of picking up several dresses that would have worked stylistically in the weeks before the party, so the only solution for me was multiple outfit changes. I started in a vintage Lilly Ann cream silk brocade mod little number that I’ve had in my closet for years, with a midriff-tied apron sheathing up my hostess package. I went to the salon earlier in the day for a beehive straight out of the “Rome” episode- they literally really set me up, as it lasted for days!
Mid-soiree I changed into a floor-length cascading Kelly green gown and ditched the apron- time to get down to partying post-aperitivo hour. I found a brand new bullet bra from the 1960’s that was deadstock on ebay, and the green dress was cut exactly so that the conical pointiness of the bra underneath showed through. I’ve always loved the clothes from the early 60’s, but never understood that pointy bra thing, though it was pretty fun to rock one for the evening.
The peanut butter cream cheese bonbons came out about this time- this is one simple recipe I’m simply smitten with, and I came up with it in a super jiffy too. I’ll sign off with it if you’re interested- what can be more romantic that bonbons, anyway? There is a bonbon mention in Mad Men when smokin’ head secretary Joan mentions to her beau that she is happy doing some extra work around the office and he tells her instead that she should be at home eating bonbons; oh the days of the early sexual revolution!
As the night progressed I decided to get back into office mode and do a silk-wool skirt suit, but the evening twist came with wearing it sans camisole, so the bullet bra really peaked through. The fuchsia skirt suit is by the new and amazing sister design team Rodarte, but cut so period perfect I couldn’t resist.
Candy cigarettes were the perfect snack to complement this look, since everyone smokes up a storm in Mad Men, but of course I wasn’t going to go so far as to allow it in the house for the evening. I found an amazing box of 20 packs of old-school candy cigarettes on ebay, and they worked perfectly to alleviate the need for the real deal, I only wish they would work so well to assuage the needs of the few remaining actual smokers I know.
There may have been a couple of outfit changes after that, and they may have taken on a bit of a naughty tone, but a lady never discusses these things in public, right? Wasn’t the credo du jour back in the day deny deny deny? Let’s just say the party was such a success some folks spent the night rather than drive home and I don’t think many of us fell into bed until the break of day approached. Happy bonbon-making, ciao!
Peanut butter cream cheese bonbons
- 1 7 oz pkg Philadelphia cream cheese, softened
- ½ cup creamy peanut butter
- ¼ c confectioners’ sugar
- 8 oz semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
- Whip the cream cheese and peanut butter in bowl of a standing mixer until well-combined. Add the sugar, and whip until soft peaks form. Freeze the mixture for 20 minutes. Using moistened hands, form teaspoon-sized balls from the cream cheese mixture, refreezing as necessary to keep from being to tacky to form. Freeze the formed balls on a sheetpan for at least a half hour.
- Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Slide a handle into each ball using coffee straws or toothpics. Lifting from the straw, dip each ball into melted chocolate, place on sheetpan lined with wax paper, and once you’ve dipped all the balls, refreeze. 20 minutes prior to serving, remove the bonbons from the freezer. Set on serving platter and serve cold.