A Fall Birthday Part for the Apple of Your Eye
BY LEIGH BELANGER
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Say you have a young child. Now add six to 10 of their closest friends, maybe a few siblings, too. Throw in some birthday-related anticipation; a handful of gifts, favors and games; now top it off with an overabundance of sugar. What you have is decidedly not a recipe for a party at home.
Especially our small home, located above our long-suffering downstairs neighbors who already absorb our family’s noise on a daily basis. For the sake of their eardrums—and mine—when it comes to birthday parties, I like to bring the kids, their noise, their sticky fingers and their sugary energy to the nearest playground and let them go wild. No walls to bounce off or be contained by, no thundering hooves overhead for the neighbors and cleanup that requires little more than bringing home the recycling. Bonus: It’s free.
And it’s freeing. Pick a good playground, one with benches and an adjacent park for games of catch or kickball, and you don’t really need to think of a theme or do much in the way of decoration (not to mention you don’t need to clean your house before or after). Instead, you can plan an easygoing menu, grab some balloons and a few balls and go outside and play.
Packing up a party and bringing it somewhere else—to the park, on a boat, to a campsite—is a little like catering for your favorite clients. Like any other meal for a crowd, especially one you’re not serving from your own kitchen, it pays to think things through in advance. Make a checklist for things like paper goods, bags for trash and recycling, cups, drinks, utensils and party favors.
And even though the summer sun is behind us, you still want to pull together a spread of unfussy, seasonal food that can survive hanging outside for a few hours. Regardless of how warm or cool it is, you don’t want your dishes to wilt. The recipes below all meet that requirement while featuring our favorite local fall flavors, especially apples, a fruit I like to overdo at this time of year when they’re at their crispy-juicy peak.
A big sandwich is great party fodder—it can be made ahead and gets better as it sits. Carve it up into easy-to-grab pieces for guests and serve alongside apple-carrot slaw and crudité with hummus, both sturdy dishes that just need a stir or toss every half-hour or so to refresh them.
Then there are homemade caramel apples—coated in candy and served on sticks. I like to think these are one of those seasonal treats the kids will remember down the road.
And let’s talk about sheet cake. I’m convinced it’s the Platonic ideal of a child’s birthday cake. Is it the most beautiful, elegant or light-and-fluffy cake you’ll ever eat? Nope. Does it still taste really good while being the easiest to make, decorate (with so much surface area, you could pipe out a haiku), transport and serve? The answer is a resounding yes—while delivering the expected amount of sugary joy to the guest of honor and a large number of friends and family.
Now: Did you remember the mulled apple cider in a Thermos? Good. How about a wee flask of bourbon to splash into the parents’ cider, if they’re into that? Either way it’ll warm up chilly guests. Fill another Thermos with hot black coffee, cross your fingers for dry weather and hit the playground. For me, that’s a recipe for a solid birthday party.
LEIGH BELANGER is the food editor at Culture magazine. Her second book, My Kitchen Chalkboard, about streamlining dinnertime for busy families, will be released this coming fall. She lives in Jamaica Plain.