Christmas lights on homes and trees, plastic reindeer in the yard, and Christmas carols in the supermarket mean that the holiday season is in full swing. December is time to shop - and time to party. Whether it's a Caroling Party, a Holiday Cookie Exchange, or a Solstice gathering, parties mean friends, music, pinecone-scented candles, tinsel, drinks, and food. Lots of food.
Lavish holiday spreads with cocktails, bowls of eggnog, platters full of cheese, fried goodies, hot meatballs, nuts, chips, cookies and other sweets are time to over-indulge. Balance hot appetizers with cold, meat dishes with vegetarian fare. Serve savory food as well as sweet. Include lighter fare, like fruit and veggies, for dieters or health-conscious guests.
Cookies shaped like stars, snowmen, Christmas trees and Santas, decorated with red and green sparkles or icing are special for seasonal celebrations. Many - like gingerbread - date back to medieval times when traders brought ginger and other spices to Europe from the East.
You don't need caviar to impress. Inexpensive ingredients like raw vegetables and fruit, crackers and cheese can make a big impact. They can be as simple as bowls of nuts and dried fruit; fresh sliced pineapple, kiwi, strawberries and melon; and crisp vegetables with dip. Vegetables and fruit can be cut into festive shapes, or left in simple wedges.
Spiced meats with olives and pickles are another easy choice. If you have time, place cubes of meat, cheese, and pickles on toothpicks for easy bites. If not, just serve them on nice dishes, provide toothpicks on the side and let your guests do their own mixing. Small bowls of dips, mustards, and sauces placed near the meat, veggies and chips are good for dipping.
No matter how you slice it, it's just not a party without cheese. Cheese and wine are elegant yet simple. Choose a variety to ensure contrast: mild and sharp, aged and fresh, goat, sheep and cow. To accompany the cheese, serve good wine, fresh crusty bread, crackers, fruit (for example, apples go well with cheddar), cured meat such as prosciutto, olives, nuts, fruit jams and chutneys.
Crostini - little Italian toasts -?topped with a variety of spreads like pate, Italian bruschetta or tapenade are another good choice. Keep them small, just one or two bites with a savory spread. Made this way they can be handled easily and require only a cocktail napkin. Or simply place warm baguette slices in a bread basket, put dishes of toppings near the bread and let the guests scoop out their own topping.
Mini-muffins can be simple to make ahead - and they don't need to be sweet. Make them with ham, onions and peppers, or Greek-style with olives, spinach and feta.
Individual quiches using muffin tins, or a crustless quiche baked in a square pan and cut into squares is another good choice. These can be plain or made with red and green bell peppers, bacon and spinach, or other veggies.
Tortilla roll ups are easy to make and may be prepared in advance. Spread tortillas with filling, roll, and chill until ready to serve. At party time, simply unwrap, slice diagonally into 1" sections and arrange on a serving platter.
You will also need liquid refreshments: eggnog, wine, mixed drinks, cider. Always include some non-alcoholic fare: sparkling cider or grape juice served in flutes are good choices. So is a bowl of punch - or two: one with alcohol, one without. Be sure to include hot drinks like hot cider, coffee and assorted teas, as well as soft drinks like ginger ale.
It's best to prepare as much as possible in advance of your party. Bake cookies. Wash and cut veggies. Prepare spreads and garnishes and refrigerate. Set tables the night before.
Appetizers can be served at a buffet or placed on small tables for guests to munch as they mingle. Remember that most guests will come dressed up for the occasion, so serve items that are easy to eat and not messy. Avoid appetizers with lots of drippy sauce, like Buffalo wings. And be sure to have stacks of cocktail napkins at each food station.
Holiday time is party time ... so go ahead and indulge.
3 Tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash black pepper
3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
4 large eggs
1 cup grated cheese, such as gruyere or parmesan
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place butter, milk, water, salt and pepper in saucepan and heat slowly until butter melts. Remove from heat. Combine flour with baking powder and whisk into the milk until smooth. Cool slightly. With an electric beater, beat in the eggs, one at a time. The dough should be smooth and silky. Fold in the grated cheese.
Drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto buttered baking sheets. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown and puffed up.
Holiday almond cookies
2/3 cup slivered almonds, divided
1 1/2 cups flour
1cup (2 sticks) butter
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs, separated
1/4 cup sugar or colored sugar sprinkles
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Separate eggs and set aside. With food processor blade, chop half the almonds. With processor running, add flour, baking powder and powdered sugar; cut butter into mixture. Add almond extract and egg yolks. Dough should form a ball around the blade. Remove dough, wrap, and chill in the refrigerator half hour or longer.
Remove from fridge and roll out on pastry cloth approximately one-fourth inch thick. Cut into shapes. Brush with egg whites, sprinkle with sugar and remaining slivered almonds. Place on cookie sheets and bake until golden, about 10 minutes.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.