From now until January 2nd, you'll be invited to many parties of the house, cocktail, and dinner variety. If you love to cook, making and bringing something won't be a problem, but if you have the baking skills of a young Cher Horowitz, you may need to lie. By "lie" I mean "buy some food you did not make and pretend you did." This isn't honest, or righteous, or even very easy, but it can be done.
Illustration by Sam Woolley, photos by Claire Lower.
Choose Your Deception Wisely
You need to be real with yourself. If you have been vocal about how much you "suck at baking," don't show up to the company potluck with a croquembouche. Similarly, if you are hosting a dinner party, don't buy eight different Thai curries and try to pass them off as your own (unless you are a Thai person, in which case that is a perfect plan).
Choose something that is believably in your wheelhouse. If you're bringing a side dish, pick something that doesn't have a definite "form." Think things that are meant to be served from bowls, like potato salad or macaroni and cheese from the deli. If you're bringing a baked good, pick something up from a local bakery or your farmer's market instead of the grocery store. Cakes, cookies, and pies that are massed produced look mass produced; goods from a smaller operation will have a much homier, wabi-sabi appearance.
Deceiving your friends and family with one item isn't that hard, but making an entire meal of lies takes a bit more work. To pull off a whole dinner party, keep the menu small. Get one main, one side, one salad, and one dessert. Some ideas for each category:
- Frozen lasagna: try to get a brand that won't be recognisable to a lot of mouths. (This might involve spending a bit more.)
- Pasta from any take-out place. Maybe one from the next town over?
- Hearty soups and stews: Just throw 'em in a pot!
- Pre-cooked BBQ ribs: Wrap them in foil and heat them up in the oven.
- Frozen entrees such as rice dishes, couscous, quinoa, and pasta, or refrigerated options like pulled pork, soups, or cooked chicken with some sort of sauce.
- Mac and cheese from any deli.
- Deviled eggs, but only if you scrape out the filling, mix it up a bit, and spoon it back in there in a messier manner.
- Deli counter salads, such as potato or broccoli.
- Partially baked breads: These half-baked rolls, loaves, and baguettes are available at most grocery store bakeries. All you have to do is pop them in the oven for fifteen minutes and — BAM — fresh baked bread.
- Pre-roasted vegetables from the deli: Potatoes are a great option.
- Simple Bundt cakes: Go for frosted, not ganache.
- Pre-made cookie dough: Make sure it the kind you scoop; stay away from slice and bake.
- Simple cupcakes: Don't pick anything filled and stick to basic flavours.
Stay away from:
- Recognisable or "signature" items. If you're going to buy your dessert from a franchise, don't buy something that your guests will likely have seen before.
- Frozen pizza. Everyone can spot a frozen pizza and no one is going to believe it's homemade. I wouldn't try to pass any pizza off as homemade, actually. There is always that one guy who is super into pizza making and he's gonna want to talk if you say you made this pizza.
- Kraft macaroni and cheese. The Dayglo orange sauce is a dead giveaway. Actually, let's just avoid any macaroni and cheese that isn't from a deli. They're too easy to spot.
- Pies: The crusts are almost always too perfect, and the fillings and decorations are too neat.
- Fancy cakes: A Bundt or loaf is okay, especially if you can mess up the frosting a bit, but you're not going to fool anyone with perfect fondant and chocolate swans. (I would even stay away from most layer cakes, as the layers are likely to be too perfect and evenly spaced.)
Pass It Off
This is the most important step of your evil plan, and your potential downfall. There are three main ways to avoid being found out at this stage.
Cook and Contain It
You're obviously not going to serve these dishes in the plastic containers they came in, but transferring frozen entrees to a dish before heating them is just as important (it will sit in the dish more naturally). Pop frozen lasagnas out of their trays and transfer to a glass baking dish. Cover with foil and bake a little longer than the box instructions recommend, as a thicker baking dish may slow down the process.
For single serve frozen rice dishes, pop them into a big metal bowl and heat over a pot of boiling water to make one big batch. Add a tablespoon or two of butter in there for extra "homemade" flavour; people associate butter with home cooking.
For salads, just dump them in a bowl and mix it around. For roasted vegetables, reheat on a baking sheet at 200 degrees for ten minutes (throw a few sprigs of rosemary in there with it for a convincing "I've been cooking" aroma), or until everything is hot. Serve in a pretty dish.
Put Stuff On Top
Herbs, cheese, and citrus zest are your friends here. Top your pastas with grated Parmesan and chopped basil, your vegetables with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon zest, and any creamy rice or potato dishes with fresh chives. Put extra cheese on anything with cheese. If your dessert didn't come with a frosting, just spread some whipped cream on there and top with a raspberries or chocolate covered anything.
Mess It Up a Little
Perfection is your enemy, especially with baked goods. If you buy a cake from a bakery, tear little pieces off the bottom and the sides to make it look like some stuck in the pan, and smear that frosting around in a haphazard way (do this to cupcakes too). If your bread looks a little too pro, tear it up into haphazard pieces and throw it in a basket, and don't be afraid to burn the edges of your lasagna.
Mislead Your Friends and Destroy the Evidence
This isn't so crucial if you're bringing a single deceitful cake to a friend's house, but if you're hosting a party, you need to treat this whole thing like an elaborate play, complete with props and effects. Right before anyone arrives, saute a little garlic in a pan (provided you're serving something with garlic in it) for the sake of the aroma. Greet your guests with a drink to put them at ease and make them slightly less alert, and then dash back into the kitchen, which shouldn't be too clean.
To set a convincing scene, throw a couple of dishes in the sink. Have a couple of things "still cooking" in the oven (this will also create some convincing aromas). Just make sure to get rid of any boxes and packaging that would give you away. And I mean get rid of them completely. Bin them outside (in your neighbour's bin, preferably). Or burn them.
For credibility, have at least one thing that you admit to being store bought. Apologise profusely for that thing. Lying about 75-80% of the meal is so weird, no one will even think to accuse you of doing it. Also, if you go the lasagna route, don't say you made the noodles. You bought the noodles, because you haven't quite mastered pasta making, but the sauce is an old family secret your Nonna scrawled down on a napkin and kept hidden in her petticoat on her voyage to Ellis Island. (Don't use this exact story though, as there are many holes, historically speaking.)
Finally, have a story prepared. If you bring a cake, know a little something about how it would be baked, hypothetically. If you opt to bring herbed potatoes from the deli, ask the guy at the counter what herbs are on them. Do just a little bit of research so that you don't get caught. A simple slip up like "This risotto took me no time at all!" can bring your whole charade crashing to the ground. If you panic, though, and can't think of anything to say, just claim it's a "secret family recipe" and hope that shuts them up.
Then, when the party is over and everyone is going home, pour yourself a glass of something and cackle to yourself. You fooled them. You fooled them all, and it was totally worth it.
Lifehacker's Evil Week highlights the dark side of life hacking. How you use that knowledge is up to you.