The dinner party of the damned, or how not to throw a “dîner” in France

Preparations for the dinner party of the damned continue. I decided to invite some French friends for a greco-american dinner tonight, and, well, it’s been challenging.

First there was translating french recipes into US units, and trying to guess what, say, 10 tablespoons of corn starch looks like by sight, or 2 cups of grated cheese, because we of course don’t have those measuring devices in France, and finding the french equivalent of sour cream (I went for light creme fraiche at 15% fat), then realizing that the eggs are bigger here, so the recipes I’m making are turning out wetter.

Costco-sized cheesecake.

Then realizing that mom’s cheesecake recipe, which is for an American spring form pan (8.5 inches diameter), is far too little for a French spring form pan (10.2 inches diameter), so I had to run out and get more cream cheese and could only find “light” (considering the guests don’t know NY cheesecake, it’s rare in france, I’m hoping they don’t notice that there’s a layer of light cheesecake on top of the full-fat cheesecake).

Sauteing the eggplant, bechamel
for the moussaka in the middle.

Then I go to make the moussaka, and of course, can’t find a 9×13 pan, have to go much bigger, so double the recipe (which is great fun when you’re pan sautéing a gazillion slices of eggplant (now times two) a few at a time). Surprisingly, the moussaka did not spill out of the pan all over the oven, as expected.

But I write too soon. After spending about 5 hours on the moussaka, the oven almost catches fire from the butter that dripped from the spring form pan when I was baking the cheesecake crust (because I probably used too much butter in the crust – why? – because there are no graham crackers here so I have to improvise with speculoos, a wonderful regional cookie (who knew you needed to put a spring form pan on another pan in case it drips?) Smoke is pouring out everywhere, I put the fan by the window to blow the smoke out, but of course the fan is oscillating, so it’s only blowing out the window part-time (I got the fan last week, and quelle surprise, it was missing the part that stops the fan from oscillating – almost returned it, but then figured, when will I seriously need to stop the fan from oscillating?).

So, at 1030 at night, moussaka still unbaked, I wait for the oven to cool down, clean the butter from the inside, start the oven again, more smoke.  This time I crank the oven up to 250 celsius, 500 F give or take, and let it cook a while. Smoke goes away.  Moussaka is done by 1230am, let it cool a bit, throw it in the fridge warm (better than leaving it out to cool all night and risk poisoning the guests (a distinct possibility, the way things are going).

Oh, fun fact about some French ovens.  The temperature can only be set in 25 degree celsius increments, or about a 45 degree F increment – so there’s no setting the oven to 325. It’s either 300, 350 or 400.  Adjust cooking times accordingly, which is fun to calculate when you’ve doubled recipes that you have never doubled before.

Shut-off valve conveniently
hidden behind the wall.

Then this morning the toilet begins to leak like niagara, and who knew the cut off valve was in the cupboard, BEHIND a board in the wall? Run to the neighbor across the hall, not home. Run to the neighbors upstairs, no home.  Run downstairs, get the concierge, and frantically explain in utterly incorrect French: “It’s urgent, the water is sticking to the toilet.”

In my panic, I mixed up the French words “coller” (to stick) and “couler” (to flow). Couldn’t help but think of David Sedaris, another neurotic gay Greek-American francophile, who once famously told his French landlord, “the toilet, she cry much of the time.”

So I go to take a shower, drenching wet from sweat. And what do I discover? My good friend, Pierre the French mosquito, who’s been camping out in the bedroom for the past month or so, decided last night to bite my nose four times. And like Chris, I for some reason have a reaction to European mosquitos (at least the ones in france and greece), where the bite looks like a rather huge pimple (actually a pimple would look smaller).

So that’s the last 24 hours so far.

Dinner is tonight. Invited 8 people, me making 9, which of course is too many for this place, but oh well (France is all about making room for extra friends at the dinner table, which is something I very much like about this place). According to the weather, depending when you check, it’s either going to pour or be a lovely 79 degrees. I’m counting on the former.

Finished moussaka.

Hopefully most of the possible shoes have dropped already, so tonight’s dinner will go off without a hitch (still have to make the strawberry coulis for the cheesecake, mom’s crab/artichoke dip, the strips of melon with prosciutto that Chris recommended, and the Greek peasant salad).

It’s amazing how hard it is throwing a dinner party in a foreign country when you’re a foreigner. It also doesn’t help that folks here tend to (but not always) throw rather fancy dinner parties with lots of courses and far too much wine (I was told to plan on buying one bottle per person). I’ve decided to ditch the cheese course and serve the salad with the moussaka (it’s good to push their horizons).

Wish me luck. Photos to follow.  Oh, and we may not have a ton of posts today, as Chris is on vacation and I’m clearly losing my mind.

PS Right on schedule, it’s raining.

And it’s sunny again.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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