Despite her status as the ultimate lifestyle guru, Ina Garten is not immune from the stress of holiday entertaining. “I’m really horrified to say this, but I never have a party that I’m not incredibly anxious over,” she tells PEOPLE.
To ease her nerves, Garten suggests keeping the guest list small and the atmosphere casual. “I like dinner parties more than I like cocktail parties,” she says. “Six people around the kitchen table is ideal. Everybody serves their own wine, and I ask somebody to help me clear the dishes. It’s just like a family meal.”
One of the keys to achieving that relaxed vibe is a no-fuss, accessible menu. “Food is not about impressing people; it’s about making everyone feel comfortable,” Garten says. “It’s about doing very simple things in a special way.”
It’s a party plan that gets the stamp of approval from her husband, Jeffrey — the subject of her new cookbook Cooking for Jeffrey. “I always make the menu with him in mind,” she says. “He’s so appreciative about the casual way the I entertain. He wouldn’t like it if it was fancy.”
Ultimately for Garten what matters most is how her guests feel at the end of the night. “I like when people go home physically satisfied by the meal but also soul satisfied by the conversation,” she says. “Sometimes they leave feeling like they’ve eaten too much, but that just means it was really good.”
Of course, part of leaving your guests happy means having a sweet ending. “It’s important that dessert is a real showstopper,” she says. “You want people to leave saying, ‘Wow, that’s the best thing I ever ate!’” Below, Garten gives her recipe for Devil’s Food Cake with Coffee Meringue Buttercream — a showstopper, indeed.
Ina Garten’s Devil’s Food Cake Recipe
Serves: 12 to 16
Vegetable shortening, for greasing pan
2¼ cups granulated sugar
1½ cups (12 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
4 tsp. vanilla extract
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa
¾ cup hot brewed coffee or espresso
3 cups (about 12¾ oz.) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pan
1½ tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 cup sour cream
Coffee Meringue Buttercream (recipe follows)
Chocolate-covered espresso beans, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 2 (9- x 2-inch) round cake pans with shortening. Line pans with parchment paper; grease paper with vegetable shortening, and lightly dust with flour. Set aside.
2. Beat together sugar and butter on medium speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating on low speed just until combined after each addition. Add vanilla, and beat until well mixed, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Whisk together cocoa and coffee in a small bowl. With mixer running on low speed, gradually add cocoa mixture to batter until combined.
3. Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a medium bowl. With mixer running on low speed, gradually add half of the flour mixture to batter until combined. Beat in sour cream until combined. Gradually add remaining half of the flour mixture, and beat until combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold batter until well mixed.
4. Divide batter between 2 prepared pans; smooth tops. Bake in preheated oven until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool in pans on a wire rack 30 minutes. Turn cakes out onto rack, and cool completely.
5. Using a long, thin life, cut each cake in half horizontally to create 4 cake layers. Place the bottom half of 1 cake, cut side up, on a flat serving plate. Using a palette knife, spread a thin layer of Coffee Meringue Buttercream on top of cake. Place top half of first cake on buttercream, cut side down. Spread a layer of buttercream on top. Place top half of second cake on buttercream, cut side up. Spread a layer of buttercream on top. Cover with bottom half of second cake, bottom side up (so top of cake is flat). Frost top and sides of cake.
6. Dip a palette knife or frosting spatula in hot water to warm knife. Shake off excess water, and use knife to smooth buttercream on sides and top of cake. (Reheat knife in hot water if necessary.) Decorate cake with extra buttercream, if desired. Garnish with chocolate-covered espresso beans.
Active time: 40 min.
Total time: 2 hours, 40 min.
Coffee Meringue Buttercream
2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup water
6 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ tsp. cream of tartar
Pinch of kosher salt
3 cups (1½ lb.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup coffee liqueur
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1. Combine sugar and water in a medium-size heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high. When sugar dissolves, uncover and place a candy thermometer in mixture. Cook over high until thermometer registers 240°F. (Do not stir.)
2. Beat egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt on high speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until stiff peaks form.
3. Carefully pour syrup into a 2-cup glass measuring cup. With mixer running on high speed, very slowly add syrup to egg white mixture in a thin, steady stream. Beat on high speed 1 hour (trust me!) until mixture is at room temperature. (If mixture isn’t room temperature, the butter will melt and deflate egg whites.)
4. With mixer running on medium speed, add butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until combined after each addition. If butter begins to melt, stop beating, and wait for mixture to cool to room temperature before continuing. With mixer running on medium speed, beat in coffee liqueur and vanilla. Do not refrigerate; frost cake while buttercream is at room temperature.