tips for a successful holiday party

‘Tis the season to invite friends, family, and coworkers into your home to celebrate the season.  I did just that this past Saturday and thought it might be helpful for those of you who will be doing the same in the coming weeks to learn from my mistakes via a few helpful tips…

1. You are not Martha Stewart and any attempts to recreate the beautiful and festive scenes that grace the pages of her magazine would be pure folly.  She has teams of people who make it look perfect.  You have a full-time job and limited time and resources.  Furthermore, no one is expecting you to be Martha Stewart so stop expecting it of yourself.

I did well to get the holiday table set early in the day before all of the food was done and long before guests arrived.  Granted, I wasn’t able to buy the adorable vintage Christmas tablecloth I had seen at an antique store before Thanksgiving because by the time I went back someone else with (clearly) impeccable taste had already snagged it.  (Note: when you see something you love in an antique/secondhand/thrift store, buy it right away.  Even if you think $30 is a little steep for an adorable vintage Christmas tablecloth with matching napkins, but are later reminded that even at Target or TJMaxx you will be charged $30 for a cheaply-constructed new tablecloth with an inferior design and then kick yourself for being a cheapskate in the first place.)  So I had to settle for my second favorite antique store tablecloth with giant gaudy poinsettias and pom pom fringe.  It worked.  I also planned to make cute little placecards for all of the food and beverages so guests would know what they were partaking in.  Ran out of time.  It happens to the best of us.

2. If people offer to bring food, let them.

I have a tendency to want to do everything myself.  Bad idea.  Let people bring something!  It’s great because it means less dishes for you to make and also might expose you and your guests to a wonderful type of food you’ve never had before.  Or it just might make your food seem even better in comparison. 🙂

3. Pick places to take shortcuts.  Rather than making all dishes from scratch why not buy a few ready-to-serve options like nice olives, a variety of cheeses for a simple cheese plate, and crackers?  Yes.  Totally do that.

I had visions of making six different appetizers and three desserts.  I realized that wasn’t so much going to happen when it was 1pm and guests were arriving in six hours and I had just gotten home with groceries.  So I wound up making the three desserts, made four of the appetizers, sent my trusty helper out to buy pre-made (gasp!) vegetable dip rather than the carmelized onion variety I had planned to make, and when three guests arrived exactly on time (who does that?) and offered to help I put them to work.  There’s no shame in it!  People like to help!

4.  Have great beverage options, preferably of the booze-variety.

Even my non-alcoholic beverage of the evening (spiced cider) got spiked by the end of the night.  It was a great time for all.

I am sharing the four appetizer recipes I made– bonus post today!  The irony is that three of the four recipes came from Martha Stewart publications… Maybe I was a little closer to channeling her for my party than I thought…

Rosemary Roasted Nuts (recipe found at www.marthastewart.com)

  • 2 cups mixed nuts, such as cashews, walnuts, and pecans
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1/3 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • Coarse salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a rimmed baking sheet, roast nuts until golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Line another baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.

In a large skillet, heat butter, sugar, and rosemary over medium-high. Add nuts; stir until butter mixture is golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.

Spread nuts on prepared baking sheet; season with salt. Cool to room temperature, tossing occasionally, about 15 minutes.

Herbed Flatbread (recipe found at www.marthastewart.com)

  • 1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast (from one 1/4-ounce envelope)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface and hands
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for bowl
  • Coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 large egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
  • Sea salt, for sprinkling
  • 1/4 cup fresh rosemary or thyme (or a combination)

Place water in a medium bowl; sprinkle with yeast. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour, oil, 2 teaspoons coarse salt, and the sugar. Stir until dough forms.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface; knead with floured hands until smooth, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough stand in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in volume, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Divide dough into 16 equal pieces; cover with plastic wrap. Roll out 1 piece to roughly 4 by 10 inches on a lightly floured surface; transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with egg wash; sprinkle with sea salt and herbs. Repeat with remaining dough, arranging 4 pieces per sheet.

Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until crisp and golden, 18 to 22 minutes. Let cool on sheets on a wire rack.

Cook’s Note: Crackers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Baked Brie

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, cut into fourths and thinly sliced
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • 1 round (15 oz) Brie cheese
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped pistachio nuts, slivered almonds, or walnuts
  • Crackers

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt butter in 10 inch skillet over medium heat.  Cook onion in butter 10 minutes, stirring frequently.  Stir in cranberries, brown sugar, and vinegar.  Cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until mixture is thickened and caramelized.  Lightly brush ovenproof plate with oil.  Place cheese on center of plate.  Bake uncovered 8 to 10 minutes or until cheese is soft and partially melted.  Spoon onion topping over cheese.  Sprinkle with nuts.  Serve with crackers.

Pancetta Wrapped Figs (recipe found at www.marthastewart.com)

  • 1/2 cup red-wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon light-brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon juniper berries
  • 10 whole black peppercorns
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1 cup dried Black Mission figs, stemmed
  • 12 ounces pancetta, sliced into 1/8-inch-thick rounds and cut into      1/2-inch-thick strips

Bring vinegar, water, sugar, juniper berries, peppercorns, and cloves to a boil in a small saucepan. Add figs, and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Let stand, covered, to bring to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Transfer figs to a cutting board using a slotted spoon; cut in half. Wrap a pancetta strip around each half. Transfer, seam side down, to a wire rack set on a baking sheet. Bake until pancetta is browned, about 30 minutes. Secure each with a toothpick. Serve warm.

cranberry brie pie

I had a request for the recipe for the Cranberry Brie Pie I made for Thanksgiving so am posting it now.  Unfortunately I could not find the origin of the recipe online as I clipped it from a magazine years ago, which is a shame because a) I’d like to give proper credit where credit is due, and b) people need to know about this recipe and then go out and make it!  Updated 12.15.11: recipe came from Fresh Home magazine.

Like any cranberry recipe (at least any cranberry recipe I’ve tried) you have to first cook the cranberries down to soften them up a bit.  Then you pair them with a little bit of creamy, slightly salty Brie cheese in the shell of a pie and top with a butter/brown sugar/flour combination for a nice crispy finish.  The combination of flavors was awesome– the tart from the cranberries with the savory, salty bite of the Brie, and the sweet of the brown sugar topping.  Awesome.  It was my favorite dessert at Thanksgiving this year but could certainly make a great finish to any meal this holiday season since cranberries are still abundant in grocery stores.  Take advantage!

Last night I had a small Christmas party and spent oh, about 7 hours preparing for it yesterday so am a little bit beat this afternoon.  This week I will be posting some images from the party with tips on how to survive your own holiday shindigs this time of year.  I definitely learned a few lessons myself and am happy to share them so that you do not make the same mistakes I did..

Cranberry Brie Pie (recipe by John McMillan published in Fresh Home magazine)

  • 3 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 4 oz. Brie cheese, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoon butter
  • 1 sheet refrigerated pastry dough (or use One Crust Pie Pastry recipe to make your own below)

Topping:

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup packed brown sugar
  • ¼ cup cold butter, cubed

In a small saucepan, combine the cranberries, brown sugar, orange juice, flour and vinegar.  Cook over medium heat until berries pop, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, unroll pastry into a 9-in. pie plate; flute edges.  Sprinkle with cheese and bake at 450 degrees for 8 minutes.

Remove cranberry mixture from the heat; stir in vanilla.  Pour into crust.  Dot with butter.

For topping, in a small bowl, combine flour and brown sugar; cut in butter until crumbly.  Sprinkle over filling.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and filling is bubbly (cover edges with foil during the last 20 minutes to prevent overbrowning if necessary).  Serve warm or at room temperature.  Refrigerate leftovers.

One Crust Pie Pastry (from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook)

  • 1 cup all-purpose or unbleached flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon shortening
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons cold water

Mix flour and salt in medium bowl.  Cut in shortening, using pastry blender or crisscrossing 2 knives, until particles are size of small peas.  Sprinkle with cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with fork until all flour is moistened and pastry almost leaves side of bowl (1 to 2 teaspoons more water can be added if necessary).

Gather pastry into a ball.  Shape into flattened round.  If desired, wrap flattened round of pastry in plastic wrap and refrigerate about 30 minutes to firm up the shortening slightly, which helps make the baked pastry more flaky and lets the water absorb evenly throughout the dough.

Roll pastry on lightly floured surface, using floured rolling pin, into circle 2 inches larger than upside-down pie plate.  Fold pastry into fourths and place in pie plate; or roll pastry loosely around rolling pin and transfer to pie plate.  Unfold or unroll pastry and ease into plate, pressing firmly against bottom and side and being careful not to stretch pastry, which will cause it to shrink when baked.