A holiday cocktail party

    A cocktail party is supposed to be fun, right? So how come the host usually gets stuck shuttling between the kitchen, the dining room and greeting guests, instead of having fun with their guests?

    Churning out warm finger foods and fresh cocktails simultaneously is challenging.

    A seasoned party professional will tell you that the secret is doing everything possible ahead of time. Surprisingly, less effort, paired with a little planning, can yield seamlessly easy results.

    Take a few hours either the afternoon of the party, or even the day before, and stock the fridge so all that’s left to be done are the final steps. Your snacks and drinks will be a breeze and there will be plenty of time to relax. Give yourself 2.5 hours to prepare this full menu.

    Invest in some small roasting pans that can go from the cooler to the oven and then out to be eaten. They retain heat well, keeping the food warm for about 20 minutes, and look good too.

    These ingredients are not expensive, and you don’t need to do all of them, either. Think about how many guests will be coming and how hungry they will be, depending on the time of day. This complete menu will serve 10-12 fairly ravenous guests.

    When to start cooking? Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees before things get rolling. All recipes require the same temperature and more than one item can go in the oven at a time. Put one item in the oven when the party is supposed to begin and stagger with increasing frequency when more people arrive. All these items will re-heat well with a few minutes in the oven, another reason to use a small baking dish.


The drinks:

Pomegranate gimlet

1 lime, juiced

1 ounce vodka, the best you can afford

1 tablespoon pomegranate syrup (Make in advance – simmer pomegranate juice in open pan until it has concentrated to 25 percent of original volume, then chill. Keeps for 10 days in fridge and tastes great with sparkling wine.)


    Shake or stir vodka and lime juice with lots of ice. Pour pomegranate reduction into bottom of chilled martini glass. Strain vodka mixture into martini glass, garnish with a lime wedge. Multiply by six for a pitcher.


Cranberry orange champagne cocktail

    Pour chilled cranberry juice to fill a champagne flute halfway. Top with chilled champagne. Zest an orange atop the glass, allowing the strips to fall across the rim of the glass and the citrus oils to spray inside.


Hot mulled cider with cream

2 quarts Fresh cider

3 cinnamon sticks

1/2 orange, pierced with 12 whole cloves

1 cup light rum (optional)

Whipped cream – an aerosol can works great!

Ground cinnamon or whole sticks for garnish


    Simmer cider with orange and spices for at least one hour before serving, and as long as four hours. Will make the house smell great! Pour one cup cider into each mug, adding the rum. Serve topped with a generous amount of whipped cream and top with more cinnamon.


The nibbles:

Stuffed mushrooms

1 pound button mushrooms – choose ones with caps that are big enough to stuff, about 1 1/2 inches across

1/3 pound loose sausage, any kind you like

3 tablespoons sweet onion, chopped fine

3 tablespoons red or yellow bell pepper, chopped fine

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

3 ounces cream cheese

1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon (divided) Parmesan cheese, shredded

2 tablespoons butter, softened

Lemon wedge for squeezing


    Cook sausage over medium heat together with onion, bell pepper, salt and pepper, stirring often. Break sausage up into small bits while cooking. Cook 4-5 minutes, until meat is cooked through. Remove from heat and transfer to a paper towel to blot grease and cool. Prepare mushrooms, removing the stem by gently rocking it back and forth inside the cap. Set into baking dish. Put sausage mixture into a bowl and stir in cream cheese and Parmesan cheese. While still soft, use a teaspoon to fill mushrooms with filling. Dab each mushroom with a tiny bit of butter, sprinkle with the one tablespoon Parmesan. Cover and reserve in fridge until ready to cook. Will hold 1-2 days. Bake in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes until bubbly and browned. Squeeze with lemon before serving.


Baked brie

1/2 pound wedge of brie

1/3 cup chopped nuts like walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts

Dash cinnamon

1 tablespoon brown sugar

3 tablespoons Marsala wine, can be omitted


    Cut rind from cheese and place in a small baking dish. Top with the remaining ingredients, sprinkling over top of cheese. Cover with foil and reserve in fridge until ready to bake. Bake in a 400-degree oven, removing foil for the last few minutes, for about 10 minutes until cheese is melted and starting to bubble.


Cheesy artichoke dip with crab, smoked salmon or shrimp

1 cup mayo

1 12-ounce can artichokes in water, whole or quartered, water squeezed out and chopped

1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese, shredded or grated

1/4 sweet onion, sliced paper thin

6 ounces canned crab meat, smoked salmon or tiny shrimp, any liquid squeezed out (optional)

3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs – basil, Italian parsley, chives, sage, any mixture

1/4 lemon, for squeezing


    Mix first four ingredients (except one tablespoon Parmesan) together in a bowl and transfer to a baking dish, or separate between two dishes. Cover and reserve in fridge until ready to cook. Bake in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes until bubbly and browned, garnish with chopped fresh herbs and squeeze with lemon before serving.


Pita chips

1 package pita

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 tablespoon fresh cracked pepper

1 tablespoon sea salt


    Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut each pita round into quarters then open each piece in half and cut into 2 pieces. In a large bowl, combine oil, salt and pepper. Add pita and toss gently to coat with oil and seasonings. You may add more oil, salt and pepper depending on how large the pita is. Most important is that each piece is lightly coated. Spread out on baking pan in single layer and bake 8-10 minutes until brown and crisp. Make these a few hours before the party – they keep well at room temperature. Put in a bowl when completely cool.



Quick focaccia

    Make this when the guests begin to arrive, and save the second piece for later. Have all the ingredients ready on the counter and it can be assembled in less than five minutes. Don’t forget to set a timer while it is baking, especially once the party has begun! Tastes great at room temperature, too.


1 loaf ciabatta bread, cut in half to open like a book

1/2 stick butter, softened

4 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper

Fresh mozzarella


    This is a relaxed recipe that you can make with whatever cheese and toppings you like. Cut the bread into two large, flat pieces. Combine butter with garlic and spread onto both pieces. Sprinkle the bread with salt and pepper. Top with any cheese and vegetable or meats. Bake in a 400-degree oven until cheese is melted and lightly browned – about 10 minutes.


Some topping suggestions:

Roasted red peppers, sliced

Gorgonzola cheese

Sliced sun-dried tomato

Feta cheese

Pine nuts

Fresh mozzarella

Garnish with green onions

Fresh basil


Cut into 12 pieces – crossways first.