50th Birthday Celebration

by Laura on September 13, 2009

in Traditions

This past June, Greg was readying to hit a milestone and I couldn’t let it slip by without some sort of celebration. Actually, he has informed me, on many occasions, that when he turned 50, he wanted a big bash, complete with a rented beach house and friends and family from throughout his life in attendance. He never asked for it, but I’m sure he would have enjoyed a Greg Everage parade down the center of Mill Valley.

Months before the big day, I sat down to figure out how I was to accomplish this feat – limited budget, limited resources in helping plan a party, and limited time to plan between taking care of the kids and writing.

All I knew was that I was planning a party, and would have to do the majority of it all by myself. What was I to feed the guests? How would I decorate? How could I make the party memorable without breaking the bank?

Due to restrictions, the beach house venue would have to be traded in for our house. But, since we recently moved, and gained a big backyard in the move, this option was a viable one.

Venue – checked off the list.

Now to the menu. What could I have that would feed people throughout a 4 hour party, without having a huge spread of unrelated appetizers, dips, and store-bought vegetable and sandwich trays.

I recently had a discussion with one of the mom’s at school, and she attended a 50th where there was a dedicated sushi chef for the entire party (which was held at a beach house, BTW).  Aside from the fact that I’m not a sushi fan, I wasn’t up for the on-site chef idea.

Not knowing how big the party would become, I wondered what I could offer that could expand and contract easily according to the final head count. I ended up on a Mexican theme, which would give guests with varying tastes, the ability to make their own creation. I thought, instead of cooking myself, I would order some pulled pork and other fixin’s form a local Mexican place, and keep it warm on the grill.

Menu – checked off the list.

Or, was it?

By this time, Greg knew that there definitely was a party (the only secret was who was coming). He agreed with the Mexican idea, but I could sense there was a lack of total enthusiasm on his part. Truth is, as the days wore on, the decision just didn’t sit right with me either. It wasn’t the Mexican food that caused us to pause, but rather it was how I was going about serving our guests, and ordering food to serve isn’t the path I usually take.

One of things I like most about having parties is that I have the opportunity to serve my guests some great food. I enjoy the feeling of knowing that I have invited friends over and can offer them a bit of our home, and cooking is the way to do it. I quickly scratched the catered menu (Greg quickly agreed that it just didn’t seem like something I’d do), and started to create my own party menu. I perused cookbooks, Googled recipes, until I found just what I was looking for. Oddly enough, all my collected recipes came from one Tyler Florence’s cookbooks (Dinner at My Place) that I picked up during a reception at his Mill Valley store earlier in the year (before the fork was stolen – and replaced;-)

The week of the party arrived and the guest list hovered near 40. I could feel the tension setting in. Not only did I have to bring together the house (which we recently moved into), but welcome family arriving in the days before the party, shop, make sure tables were picked up, the bagpiper would show up on time (yes, a bagpiper – long story, but Greg’s request to have one at our wedding didn’t pan out – so, he gets a surprise on his 50th), logistics figured out, etc., etc. etc.

When it comes too entertaining, I follow two main rules: Keep it Simple and Plan the Attack.

As for keeping it simple, I have found more often than not, that when I include every dish imaginable for guest, I work extremely hard at getting it on the table only to find out that guests have too many options– and a good majority of it goes untouched.

The second rule is to Plan the Attack. To do this, I have to create a weekly task list. This helps me stay focused and on track to getting food on the table, welcoming guests, and most importantly, finding time to enjoy myself without spending the entire party in the kitchen.

Oh, glitches happen and unexpected things occur, but your guests truly appreciate your efforts. So if something doesn’t goes just as planned, they will understand.

This party, everything went as planned – with one small, teeny-weeny exception. As the singing of Happy Birthday was coming to the end, I turned the corner to come outside with the cake and it’s 50 lit candles. Then, one of our little friends got so excited to see the cake that he blew out the candles!

Argh, a beautiful cheesecake with 50 smoking candles arrives at Greg’s lap. Quick, someone get the lighter!!!

As we set out to once again light the 50 candles, the bagpiper filled the quiet moments with a screeching Happy Birthday – all turned out perfectly and everyone enjoyed a good laugh.

Months later, I still have friends thanking me for the great party – and for all the great food. “How do you do it?” they always ask.

My answer, “It’s all in the way you approach it.” Because, everyone appreciates homemade food, a little bit of effort goes along way in making the gathering even more special. Next time you’re planning for an event, take the time to plan, create a menu, and set out to find a way to make it happen. Whether it is a 50th birthday celebration, or a Sunday afternoon gathering of friends, great food is essential for life’s celebrations.


50th Birthday Menu

  • Mexican Pot Roast Tacos – Make day of
  • San Marzano “Quick” Salsa – Make day before
  • The Ultimate Guacamole – Make morning of
  • Roasted Tomatillo Salsa – make day before
  • Rice and Beans – make day of
  • Birthday Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Cointreau Carrots – Make day ahead

(All recipes from Dinner at My Place, Tyler Florence, Meredith Books)

Mexican Pot Roast Tacos

  • Pot Roast
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 lbs shoulder of beef
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large onion, ct into wedges
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 28-ounce can while San Marzano tomatoes
  • 3 dried red chilies
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ancho chili powder
  • ½ bunch fresh cilantro (about 8 sprigs)
  • water
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar

For serving

  • 8 fresh medium corn tortillas
  • 3 cups finely shredded romaine lettuce
  • ½ bunch fresh cilantro
  • 1/3 pound Cojita cheese, crumbled
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges for garnish

1.  Drizzle beef shoulder with oil then season with plenty of salt and black pepper. Set a large, heavy-based pot over medium-high heat. Sear on all sides until you have a nice brown curst, adding additional oil to the pan as necessary to prevent sticking. Add onion and garlic to the pot and stir until they caramelize a little and have contact with the bottom of the pot. Add tomatoes with juice, chiles, cumin, chili powder and the ½ bunch of cilantro. Add 2 inches of water to the pot. Crush tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. Cover and simmer about 2 hours, until the meat is fork-tender and comes apart with little resistance. Once cooked, use a wooden spoon to break apart the meat. Season with slat and black pepper to taste; add the vinegar.

2.  If you like, warm the tortillas over an open flame on a gas stove, about 10 seconds per side. Serve the meat in tortillas with romaine, cilantro, cheese, and lime wedges.

Serves 6-8


San Marzano “Quick” Salsa

  • 1 28-ounce can while San Marzano tomatoes, drained with liquid reserved.
  • 1 small red onion, roughly chopped
  • ½ Serrano chili, or to taste
  • 2 limes, juice only
  • ¼ bunch fresh cilantro (about 4 sprigs)
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Fresh cilantro, for garnish
  • 1 lime wedge, for garnish

1.  Combine drained tomatoes, onion, chili, lime juice, the ¼ bunch cilantro, and oil in a food processor and pulse until well combined. Season with plenty of salt and black pepper. Use reserved tomato liquid to adjust consistency as desired. Garnish with cilantro and lime wedge.  Serves 4-6

The Ultimate Guacamole

  • 6 ripe avocados
  • 3 limes, juice only
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 Serrano chilies, thinly sliced
  • ¼ bunch fresh cilantro (about 4 sprigs), finely chopped
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1.  Halve and pit the avocados using a knife. With a tablespoon, scoop the flesh into a large bowl. Add lime juice, onion, garlic, chilies, cilantro, and oil to the bowl. Season with salt and black pepper. Use a potato masher to break up the avocados and mix everything together. Continue until just combined so you still have plenty of texture. Give it a taste and season once more with salt and black pepper, if necessary.

2.  Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the bowl and press onto the surface of the guacamole, squeezing out air bubbles (this prevents the guacamole from turning brown). Before serving, refrigerate about 1 hour to allow the flavors to come together.

Serves 4-6

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

  • 1 lb tomatillos, husked and rinsed
  • 1 jalapeno, split down the middle
  • 1 small Spanish onion, sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ bunch fresh cilantro
  • 2 limes, juice only
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1.  Preheat the oven to 375°F. On a roasting tray, arrange tomatillos, jalapeno, onion and garlic. Drizzle with a 3-count of oil (about 3 tbsp) and season with salt. Roast for 10 to 12 minutes, until tomatillos are tender and slightly blistered.

2.  Put the cooked vegetables in a blender with the cilantro and lime juice. Pour in oil and process until you have a smooth puree (be careful when you process hot vegetables in the blender; hold down the lid with a kitchen towel over the top). Taste and, if desired, adjust seasoning with extra lime juice or salt according to preference.

Serves 6-8


Birthday Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Cointreau Carrots

  • 1 ½ cps finely minced carrot
  • ½ cup crushed pineapple, drained
  • ¾ cup finely chopped walnuts
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground allspice
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¼ cup molasses
  • 4 large eggs
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ cups packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 recipe Cream Cheese frosting (recipe below)

1.  Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease jelly-roll pan (15x10x1-inch) and line with parchment paper. Set aside.

2.  Combine carrot, pineapple, and walnuts in a medium bowl. Set aside. Mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a large mixing bowl. Mix together buttermilk, molasses, eggs, oil and dark brown sugar in a separate medium bowl.

3.  Now add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to make a batter, then fold I the carrot mixture. Pour the prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cake is set and springs back when gently pressed in the middle. Remove the pan from the oven and allow cake to cool on a rack while you prepare the Cream Cheese Frosting and Cointreau Carrots.

4.  Once the cake has cooled, carefully remove cake from pan. Cut into three equal size rectangles by cutting the cake crosswise twice. Stack the cake into three tiers with Cream Cheese Frosting in between each layer. Frost the outside of the entire finished cake, smoothing off the edges and corners (an offset spatula works well). Top with Cointreau Carrots and drizzle a little of their syrup on top.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 2 lbs cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp lemon zest


1.  Using a standing mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in a large mixing bowl until it is blended and has a smooth, light texture. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla and lemon zest and beat until combined. Continue to beat until smooth and glossy, about 7 minutes.

Cointreau Carrots

  • 1 medium carrot
  • ½ stick unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • ¼ cup Cointreau
  • Pinch kosher salt


1.  Slice carrot into thin rounds. Put carrot, butter, sugar, Cointreau and salt in a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and reduce until carrots are tender and mixture is syrupy, about 5 minutes.

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