The Perfect Holiday Dinner

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've been extremely lucky to have a very venerable cooking mentor over the years: Ina Garten. My dad met Ina back in junior high school in Stamford, Connecticut, and they have been friends, save for a ten year gap somewhere in mid-life, ever since.

I'm not sure when exactly they reconnected after so many years. But one of my most vivid cooking memories is of helping Ina make German Chocolate Cake for my dad's 50th birthday when I was 13. This was pre-Food Network superstardom, and I remember how she swept through my childhood kitchen in Westchester with expert catering prowess, assessing the platters, grabbing small silver serving bowls that hadn't see the light of day since my parents unpacked them with the rest of their wedding china, and whipping out a large tin of caviar from her supply bag which we ate with potato chips and champagne (or, at least, the adults did).

Everything we made that night was simple, elegant, and perfect for the occasion, from the pumpernickel smoked salmon tartines with herb butter to the cake, which stood tall and proud on its stand, flaunting three dense chocolate-y layers and decadent icing. But more importantly, the items were perfectly attuned to the tastes of her audience. Though there were probably more colorful, impressive-looking desserts for the celebration (like, say, Red Berry Trifle), she chose this cake because she knew it was my father's favorite; the caviar was served with rustic, golden brown kettle potato chips instead of atop a fancy blini, because, well, potato chips are absolutely delicious, regardless of their position as humble snack food. And though the meal still exhibited the special quality worthy of such a milestone birthday, it also retained the manner of comfort that would make hosts and guests alike want to eat the meal again and again.

From this cooking experience with Ina, I realized that comfort cravings--for Meatloaf, Pot Roast, Perfect Mac 'n Cheese--are shared by every crowd. And from her cookbooks, which were among my first, and still to this day most treasured, I learned that an elegant platter of Spaghetti and Meatballs can elevate the quality of a meal to something warm, satisfying, and unexpectedly special for the 20-somethings at my table and adults alike. This holiday season, I had the honor of actually cooking a festive meal with Ina on her show, and afterward, I couldn't wait to get home and make this perfect holiday dinner for Cara and some of our other close friends.

Since our dinner happened to fall on the first night of Hanukkah, our friend Leora brought festive decorations that attempted to make this non-denominational holiday meal as denominational as possible. Like the children we sometimes are, we embraced her Hanukkah rubber duckies and numerous dreidels in place of Ina's beautiful votives and glowing branches. The dinner itself hit all the perfect comfort notes--creamy pasta; cheesy, perfectly roasted chicken; bright, beautiful berries and cream--but, like the 50th birthday dinner 12 years ago, it was simultaneously elevated above the everyday classics to create something truly special for the occasion.

Since we, like Ina, are true believers that brownies in boxes are the most genuine expression of appreciation, we sent Ina a tin of treats containing Cara's M&M Blondies to thank her for her endless generosity, friendship, and the best gift of all: a perfect holiday dinner.

--Phoebe Lapine of Big Girls, Small Kitchen


**Quarter-Life Tips and Tricks**

As Ina promised, this dinner was budget friendly. For the savory part of the meal, I spent $60 dollars, averaging out to less than $10 per person, which is my usual measure for whether or not a meal is affordable to make a larger group (I'd invited 8 people).

Some ways to save: instead of using a dried handmade pasta, I went to my favorite mom 'n pop Italian grocer, Rafetto's on Houston, and had them cut me two pounds of fresh pasta into the size of tagliarelle for only $5. The truffle butter is relatively affordable, strangely enough, much more affordable than actual truffles.

I'm always impressed by how elegant and beautiful Ina's tablescapes look on her show (and in person). As quarter-life cooks, we don't usually think about the table first and foremost because we hardly ever use our dining room tables (if we have one at all). My "dining room" fabric collection is a rather sorry sight: mismatched cloth napkins (about 3 of one kind, 3 of another), and a few bright pink place mats that don't match any of these napkins. I've inherited all of these elements from my parents who, no doubt, passed them down to me because they had no use for them without the missing members of the original set. I'm not about to invest in any myself, but the one thing I have bought since moving into my apartment is a tablecloth.

It's worth having one simple, cheap tablecloth to present a more refined, clean aesthetic when entertaining for special occasions. I have two, both of which I spent less than $20 dollars on and use all the time. They are good for big parties and dinners alike. When I set up the bar on my table, I always put the tablecloth down so I know I won't have to deal with sticky tonic water on my wood the next day, and then I just toss it in the laundry bin for next time. For dinners, you only really have to wash it if there are stains, unlike napkins which people wipe their grubby mouths with, and should definitely not be reused without a good trip through a rinse cycle.

The point: I think my table looks rather adult, even with paper napkins, and it didn't cost that much to make it this way. Buy a tablecloth.