Welcome to Innisfree, My Cottage by the Lake: Dinner by Candlelight

September is the perfect time of year for a long, languid dinner under the stars. The days are still warm, but in the evening, as the sun sinks down, the breeze cools, a hint of the coming of autumn. Please, join us for a quiet candlelight dinner with friends at Innisfree. 

An Al Fresco Dining Room

When Dan and I lived in Atchison, we loved to sit out on our porch and enjoy the evening. So when we began designing our little lake cottage, we knew outdoor living spaces would play a key role. The small front yard, sandwiched between a stone retaining wall and the house, seemed a perfect spot for a flagstone patio. The big concrete table that sat in the courtyard at my old house fit perfectly on the new patio and gave us a wonderful spot for entertaining.

In September, the garden is still lush, the roses, salvia, catmint and impatients providing colorful leafy wallpaper for our outdoor dining room. And the huge trees that tower over the house provide a leafy canopy, shading us from the afternoon sun.

In our little community, everyone walks their dogs in the evening, stopping as they go to chat with neighbors. Dan and I like to sit out on the front patio, relaxing after the long day at work, and wave hello. It just takes a few minutes before the neighbor dogs see Lyric splayed out on the patio and drag their owners down the stairs for a visit. Maybe it’s my small town roots, but I love living this way.


A Warm Welcome

We entertain much more causally these days, now that we live in the cottage. Our dinner parties are more spontaneous, those “What are you doing this Saturday? Do you want to drop by for dinner?” kinds of events. On this lovely evening, the forecast was for a full moon and cooler than normal temperatures. Perfect for a dinner under the stars, surrounded by candlelight.

When I entertain, I like to have the stage set so when guests walk in, they can drink in the entire scene and know they are in for a fun evening. With autumn just around the corner, I decided on an early fall theme for our table. I used this adorable hound and fox dishware as my inspiration, covering the concrete table with wood throw blankets in a simple plaid. I also rested wool blankets over each of the chairs so we could wrap up snug against the chilly night air.

I wanted a centerpiece that was striking, yet not big enough to hamper cross-table discussion because I knew this was going to be a lively group that had a lot to say. So I stole some gigantic books from Dan’s collection – the works of Charles Dickens – to use as risers to hold the faux antler candle aloft. To make sure we had enough light to eat by, we added an olive oil jar holding a pillar candle and petite oil lanterns at the top of each place setting.

When I entertain, my goal is to have everything done well ahead of time, so Dan and I can relax for a few minutes, enjoying a drink while waiting for our guests to arrive. I’ve done photo finishes way too many times – pulling curlers out of my hair and shoving them in the drawer of the entry table as I rush past to answer the door. It’s too stressful, so now I start early.

I’ve been waiting for an excuse to use these adorable lanterns for an outdoor event, so I couldn’t wait to dot them around my patio. The stairs leading down from the street were just screaming for a cool lighting display, so we played with fire until we found a look we loved. In addition to the oil lamp, we poked in a Mason jar filled with a few river rocks and a votive candle. Small urns topped with tea lights finished off the trifecta.  We then lined up white votives on some boards and pushed them way back on the step, out of harm’s way. Thankfully no one wore a long, flowing dress, or it could have gone bad in a hurry!


Simple, Satisfying Fare

Tracy, my friend who owns the French Bee Bakery in Parkville and Lenexa, and her fiancé John are renovating a house in our neighborhood, so they joined us. Tracy has learned that if she wants something delicious to eat at my home, she has to bring it herself, unless Dan is grilling.

Our first course was amazing – pumpkin curry soup garnished with pomegranate seeds, roasted pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. A tossed fresh green salad followed. Light and simple, but so satisfying.

You know how they say you should never discuss politics in polite company? We threw that out the window and dug into every topic under the sun, from the upcoming presidential election to health care reform. I love a lively table, full of passionate discourse, fueled by great wine.

As we relaxed after our second course, I smelled a campfire, the familiar scent of burning coals and food cooking over an open fire. Fire! A lightning bolt went through me as I remembered the food I’d put in the oven to warm! We rushed into the kitchen, threw open the oven …

…And saw the cardboard box holding our next course, up in flames! Check out this blurry action shot – we had to document this historic moment, when I had reached a new low in cooking.  I probably don’t need to tell you how much heat I got from my guests, who laughed until they cried over the fact that I can’t even warm up food without the risk of burning my house down. They decided that next time, my hostess gift would not be a bottle of wine, but a fire extinguisher! My kitchen still smells like Girl Scout camp.


The Perfect End to a Perfect Evening

With the Great Garrity Fire behind us, we settled in for a sweet end to a fun evening: cream filled pear tarts, resting on raspberry coulis, garnished with a dark chocolate G monogram, made by Tracy at the French Bee. In the craziness of the evening, we left one of the tarts unattended for a few minutes, and Lyric helped herself, partial to the raspberry coulis.

We toasted each other, and the fact that we had solved all the world’s problems over dinner, with a glass of cognac.

It was a perfect evening, fire fiasco and all. I’m so glad you could join us at Innisfree, my cottage by the lake.

Next Week … Autumn, with its cool, long evenings, is a wonderful time of year to turn in early, curled up with a good book, in the warm cocoon of a beautiful bed. I’ll share my favorites.