Last updated on December 30th, 2020
When planning a picnic menu for a big group, form follows function.
Sure, you can push the envelope and serve soup in mason jars or load a cooler with homemade pots de crème.
But when you’ve got 10 friends stretched over a flotilla of blankets, even a crazy party planner like myself must acknowledge the futility of trying to make an all-homemade, perfect presentation.
Inevitably, you must bow down to the necessities of finger foods and bags of chips.
Besides, when it comes to outdoor events, it’s fun to get your creativity on in other ways.
Like, say, when you’re visiting Los Angeles and seeing an outdoor screening of When Harry Met Sally in Griffith Park with a bunch of friends who love the movie as much as you do.
(It is, after all, the greatest food movie of all time.)
Because I was flying across the country and didn’t have access to my own kitchen or equipment, and because our LA sightseeing (and eating) schedule was already jam-packed, I forewent homemade dishes.
It’s a good strategy even if you do have a kitchen but are pressed for time or ability when pulling together a picnic party.
Instead, I created a menu inspired by some of our favorite lines and scenes in When Harry Met Sally.
Since every member of our group could recite the movie by heart and would be quoting it—loudly and gleefully—throughout the screening anyway, why not pepper the party with a few more in-jokes?
A picnic-friendly When Harry Met Sally menu:
- Baby Fish Mouth1 smoked salmon crostini
- grapes2 (for the sake of your movie-watching neighbors, eschew fidelity to the film and choose seedless ones)
- a good melon3—and prosciutto to go with it
- “wagon wheel”4 pretzel rounds
- “It had to be ewe“5 sheep’s milk cheese
- Mallomars6, if you can find them or if you have a box stashed in your pantry from the winter
- apple pie7, accompanied by real whipped cream if you’re fancy
- micheladas8, based on Sally’s airplane cocktail order
- and red (velvet) suede pump brownies
Yes, I made one exception and made brownies from scratch. And not just any brownies—red velvet brownies with a cream cheese swirl in honor of Carrie Fisher’s line, “Oh! I’ve been looking for a red suede pump.”
Brownies and bar cookies are perfect make-ahead options for outdoors events, since they can be cooled, sliced, and transported all in the container you baked them in.
The recipe follows below: these gooey, fudgy brownies disappear quickly at any gathering I bring them to.
You could even bring them on your Nora Ephron movie walking tour of New York, if you were so inclined.
And yes, you could also make a pesto quiche of the Eighties, small Coney Island hot dogs (get it?), pastrami sandwiches, or even get ambitious and do peppery paprikash in mason jars or bowls.
When Harry Met Sally is a feast in so, so many ways.
Cream Cheese Swirl
- 4 ounces (113 grams) cream cheese, softened
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup (90 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks; 170 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (80 grams) natural unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted if necessary to remove any lumps
- 1 1/4 cups (250 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon gel/paste red food coloring or 1 tablespoon liquid red food coloring (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving enough to overhang each side of the pan.
- In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla together with an electric hand mixer on low speed until combined. Set aside.
- Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Melt the butter, then pour into a large bowl.
- Gently stir the cocoa powder into the butter until combined.
- Stir in the sugar, followed by the eggs, one at a time, and finally the vinegar and food coloring (if using).
- Gently fold in the flour mixture just until combined and no large pockets of dry flour remain.
- Scrape the brownie base into the pan and spread it to the corners.
- Dollop the cream cheese mixture over the brownie base. Pull a knife through the cream cheese and brownie base to create a swirl effect.
- Bake for 28-30 minutes, just until the brownies are set and barely jiggly, and when a knife inserted into the center of the brownies comes out clean.
- Cool the brownies in the pan on a wire rack for at least 1 hour or until the bottom of the pan is no longer warm to the touch.
- Use the parchment paper to lift the brownies out of the pan and cut the brownies into 16 squares.
- Eat immediately, or store leftover brownies at room temperature in a sealed container for up to 5 days.
6. Harry, sitting alone on New Year’s Eve, eating Mallomars: “What so bad about this? You got Dick Clark, that’s tradition. You got Mallomars, the greatest cookies of all time. And you’re about to give the Knicks their first championship since 1973.”↩
7. Sally, ordering pie during her Chicago-to-New York drive with Harry: “But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it, if not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real, if it’s out of a can then nothing.”↩