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A six-course menu makes for dinner party magic

I usually tell people what I think of food that someone else prepares and then I eat. But sometimes the tables get turned.

At a charity auction for Walnut Hill Early Childhood Center, a group of people bought a special dinner. Walnut Hill is a day care center on the south side of Goshen where people who may not be able to afford childcare are able to get good care for their kids.

Ben and Susan Nelson, along with my wife Bethany and I, offered up a meal for six in the auction and it went for more than $1,200.

The pressure was on. But Susan has years of hosting experience, my wife is a great cook and makes things look pretty, and Ben is willing to help out and knows good food and wine. And I think about food a lot. We had a good team.

We came up with a five-course menu — six if you count the cheese and fruit course. It included foods we’d made before, because we weren’t going to be too risky. Making a meal this big was risk enough.

Larry and Kay Schrock, Doug and Janette Yoder, and Bruce and Barb Stahly came to the Nelson’s home for the meal Sunday, May 18.

The crab and artichoke dip easily came together. Alton Brown’s recipe for whole wheat crackers is easy, though tricky to make because you don’t want them to get tough. But making your own version of Wheat Thins is a bit of a rush.

Susan and Ben have a recipe that simply grills peeled shrimp after a baste of olive oil, garlic and lemon. Two minutes a side, and they’re perfect.

For the second course, Bethany made a stellar cold avocado soup with spiced bread crumbs for a bit of texture.

The Graber family, some of whom live in Elkhart County, came out with a great cookbook, “The Daily Feast,” in 2012. The family has excelled at cooking and hosting. A Mediterranean salad recipe from the book makes a huge, pretty salad. The vinaigrette is simply balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and blood orange olive oil (available at The Olive Branch, among other places). Susan made some great dinner rolls to go along with this course.

The main course was herb-encrusted beef tenderloin and roasted vegetables. Ben and Susan have this great recipe to roast a whole tenderloin for a bit and then add an herb topping and breadcrumb mixture. You continue roasting until the tenderloin is medium rare.

The roasted vegetables are a recipe we’ve made for several years. Basically, we take just about any type of sturdy vegetables, chop and mix them with salt, pepper, olive oil and an herb (such as thyme) before roasting on sheet pans for up to an hour.

Before we dove into dessert, plates of ripe pears and grapes went alongside several good cheeses, including Sartori Montamore, a Wisconsin-made Italian cheese that’s similar to fontinella.

For dessert, we put together three things we loved: chocolate cake, good ice cream and DiVine Black Walnut Creme.

The cake is a flourless chocolate recipe with a rich ganache that Emeril Lagasse included in a cookbook before he was a television chef. We’ve made it on a lot of special occasions over the years. The cake has half a pound of good chocolate and the ganache is simply another half-pound melted with half a cup of heavy creme.

The ice cream recipe came from Jeni Britton Bauer, whose Columbus, Ohio, shops are acclaimed, and her recipe book “Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home” lays out how she makes her ice creams. Her best-seller is salted caramel. Susan and Ben put it together.

DiVine Black Walnut Creme, made at Round Barn Winery, is a Midwestern take on Bailey’s Irish Creme, only it’s better because it has a more pronounced flavor.

The cake and ice cream went on a plate with a sprig of mint. The walnut creme went in a small glass alongside.

We ate appetizers with the guests and served them as their conversation rolled on for several hours. It was a lovely evening. I hope we can do it again.

Jay Fields of Indiana Wholesale Wine & Liquor Co. assisted with Fleur Rose and Mahoney Pinot Noir, a California winery we visited on the first Dining A La King wine tour.

So what did the guests say?

They raved about the meal. They said they loved the food. Mrs. Stahly said the cake and ice cream were perfect.

Here’s the cake recipe as I make it. Enjoy.

Chocolate Ganache Cake
Perfect for special occasions.
Adapted from Emeril Lagasse’s recipe in “Home Food: 44 Great American Chefs Cook 160 Recipes on their Night Off,” Copyright 1995.

Cake Ingredients

  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate (I use Equal Exchange or Divine 70 percent)
  • 4 ounces milk chocolate (I use Equal Exchange or Divine 35 or 40 percent)
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 5 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon liqueur – flavored vodka, Chambord or something along those lines
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Ganache Ingredients

  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate
  • 4 ounces milk chocolate
  • ½ cup heavy cream


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan, tapping out any excess.
  2. In a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water, melt the chocolate with the butter, stirring until smooth and creamy. Remove bowl and set aside. (You can also do this in a microwave in 1 minute increments, without the metal bowls of course.)
  3. With electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with sugar, vanilla, liqueur until thick, about three minutes. In another large bowl, whip the egg whites with salt until stiff but not dry. If you do this by hand, you should be able to mark the top with your whisk without forming a stiff peak.
  4. Fold chocolate into yolk mixture and then gently fold in whites until just combined.
  5. Pour into pan and bake until spongy when pressed in center, about 40 minutes. Don’t overbake, as the cake will dry out. The top should be dry.
  6. Remove cake and cool on rack for 10 minutes. Remove sides and cool completely.
  7. After several hours or next day, make the ganache the same way, over a double boiler or in microwave.
  8. Flip the cake onto a platter and use a long dull knife or plastic knife to remove bottom from cake. Fix imperfections and top with ganache, which covers a lot of them.
  9. Allow to set.
  10. When you’re ready to cut, use a sharp knife warmed with hot water and wiped dry. Plate with ice cream, whipped cream and/or fresh fruit.

Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805,, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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