A Homey Budget Wedding Meal for 120: The Cooking Plan

Homemade Weddings

Yesterday I shared the menu for the family wedding I'm catering this weekend. Writing up the menu, though, is the easy part. Now — how to get it all done? How do you safely cook, transport, warm up, and serve a meal to 120 people without going crazy? This is the big scary piece, right? Here's a look at how I planned out what we'll do and when. Read on for my notes on each dish...

How do you pull all these dishes together and have them ready and hot when the meal is ready to be served? This is hard enough to do at home for six, let alone 120!

Here are a few questions I think through when planning out a big meal undertaking like this.

Questions to Ask

Where are the bottlenecks?
Where in the process of cooking this menu will there be bottlenecks and constraints? In my case, I have a reasonable amount of time and space in the kitchen at the venue, but when there I will only have one oven and a pretty poor stovetop. So heating the food will be the primary concern.

How much time do I have?
The previous question leads to this one. If I only have one oven in the venue kitchen, I need to make sure it can get everything done in time. It's always tricky to calculate time, especially when multiplying a recipe. Recipes that bake in 30 minutes with regular portion sizes may run long when multiplied. So I am being very conservative in estimating baking times.

What can I make ahead?
And again, since oven and stove space are my constraints, as well as time, I want to make as much ahead as possible. I chose the rolls, for instance, because they are extremely moist and dense, thanks to extra sugar and fat, so they will be just fine made a day or two ahead. The same goes for the pudding, cookies, and pre-dinner nibbles.

What can be served cold?
Again, save the oven and stove space. I switched from a cooked vegetable to a cold salad when I realized how constrained I would be.

How will I manage refrigerator and freezer space?
This is the hidden challenge of much self-catering. Since you need to prep food ahead, you need a lot of refrigerator space to hold it safely. I have an extra refrigerator in my basement, which I saved after our home renovation for exactly this purpose. If you don't have a lot of fridge space, think about taking your food to the venue ahead of time.

What kind of help will I have?
And last but not least, really look at the help you'll have. I try not to underestimate every part of the process. You don't realize how exhausting and time-consuming shopping for this kind of dinner can be — hauling 100 pounds of cabbage or 80 pounds of meat home is a whole different thing from shopping for a regular dinner party. I also tried to anticipate the help when planning the recipes; there are so many things that seem simple when doing a dozen, but get truly unwieldy when multiplied up. Try to enlist help at each stage, not only at the event itself.

Make sure at the event that people are prepped ahead of time for their job duties, too. I, for instance, am meeting the night before with some friends who are kindly helping out with serving the tables and food prep. This way they know what they'll be doing and it will cut down on the amount of direction I'll have to give on the day itself.

All right — on to the cooking plan!

A Homemade Wedding Dinner Menu for 120: The Cooking Plan

Pre-dinner snacks

Homemade White Cheddar & Rosemary Crackers (adapted from this recipe) - About 5 days before the wedding I made about 30 cups of homemade cheddar crackers (they're teeny-tiny!). They are in a giant airtight Rubbermaid container, and we'll just portion them out into bowls and set them on the tables.
Roasted Herbed Almonds (see recipe) - I also made the almonds ahead and have them stored in an airtight container. These and the cheese crackers will be set out on the tables before dinner.
Fresh vegetables - After yesterday's discussion, I decided to add a bowl of fresh vegetables to each table, too. I picked up big bags of sugar snap peas and mini sweet peppers. They're not terribly in season, but the tables needed something fresh and snappy. I'll put these out in bowls with a little (purchased) spinach dip. Very easy, with minimal prep and work.

To drink

Citrus & Rosemary Spritzer (see recipe) - The church doesn't allow alcohol, so I am making Emily's spritzer and serving it in 1-liter glass bottles, with a sprig of rosemary inside. I am making sure that the drink isn't too sweet — I want it to be a refreshing thing to sip with dinner. I made the syrup ahead of time, and we will mix the syrup with chilled soda water just before dinner. (The soda water will be left outside to chill, since it will be in the low 40s. This will save room in the refrigerator.)
Water with citrus slices - Just water, served in the plastic pitchers from the church. To dress it up a little I'll add orange and lemon slices to the water.

Dinner

Roasted Chicken Thighs with Bacon & Parsley - As the main dish, this was the most critical part. I decided that the chicken will be the one thing I actually cook at the venue itself. I will prep the chicken ahead by tossing it with olive oil, salt and pepper, chopped herbs, garlic, and bacon. I'll hold these overnight in large disposable foil pans in the refrigerator, and roast large pans of chicken in the hour before dinner.
Braised White Beans with Rosemary & Tomato - I will cook the beans the day before the wedding and hold them in the refrigerator in large disposable foil pans. A couple hours before the wedding, we will warm the beans on the stovetop in batches in large pots. Then we will transfer them to slow cookers to stay safely hot until service.
Potato Dough Rolls & Whipped Salted Butter (see recipe) - The rolls were made two days ahead of the wedding and sealed tightly in plastic zip-lock bags. If there is time, we will warm them briefly in batches in the oven or microwave before serving.
Lemon-Dijon Slaw - One reason I chose slaw vs. salad is that a crunchy slaw will hold up a little better in the refrigerator, as opposed to a more delicate salad. So we'll make the salad the afternoon before the wedding and keep it in large foil pans, well covered and packed down tight to minimize exposure to air.

Dessert

Butterscotch Pudding with Whipped Cream - I am making the pudding the day before the wedding as well, and portioning it immediately into little 3-ounce cups that I'll pack into a large foil pan and refrigerate. The day of the wedding, I'll add a dollop of whipped cream.
Cookie Platter of Butter Sablés & Chocolate Peanut Butter Chunkers (both from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours - I'm making all the cookies ahead of time and sealing in airtight containers.

That's the plan — a good mix of do-ahead and day-of. As you read this I'm probably busy working away on prep.

Have you ever done a big meal like this? Any suggestions for ways to improve or smooth out the process?

(Image: Faith Durand)