Preparing complicated holiday meals can be a stressful task that may send you fleeing to the liquor cabinet. So why not make it easy on yourself by starting there and opt for a cocktail party instead?
Whether hosting an open house for Christmas Eve or throwing together a casual get-together between Christmas and New Year’s, try this: Come up with two appetizers, two cocktails and two desserts. Skip the entree and fill in as needed with store-bought items (you can always hit the bakery if baking isn’t your forte).
To get you started, here are a few ideas and some of the recipes that have proven popular for me over the holidays. My chocolate chip cookies, in particular, disappear like crack left on a Detroit street corner when I make them for social or work gatherings. And they can be made a day ahead to save you time to make a drink before everyone else arrives.
From the store
Have a decent selection of beer, red and white wine and non-alcoholic beverages on hand for those who don’t like mixed drinks. For a refreshing break between drinks, I offer a pitcher of ice water infused with a few slices of cucumber and lemon slices.
This may be the most popular drink I have ever served at a holiday gathering. Make it at your own risk — they go down fast and furious, and I spent the good portion of my evening mixing these up. Next time, I’ll mix a big batch in a pitcher then shake with ice right before serving.
1.5 oz. Stoli Vanil or other vanilla-flavored vodka
1 oz. Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
1 oz. half-and-half (can use milk or cream if you prefer them lighter or richer)
Splash of peppermint syrup or peppermint schnapps
-Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. You can rim the glass with powdered sugar if you wish. For a very festive touch, serve with peppermint whipped cream. To make it, whip your cream in a very cold metal bowl till medium peaks appear. Add powdered sugar and vanilla to taste. Crush peppermint candies inside a plastic bag using a kitchen mallet. Fold the candies into the whipped cream and dollop on top of the cocktail.
Try pairing this dessert cocktail with a more straight-forward martini (I like mine with Hendrick’s gin and a lemon twist), a cosmopolitan (see my recipe here) or a crisp pear martini (shake 2 oz. pear vodka with 1/2 oz. each simple syrup, lemon juice and amaretto and serve up in a martini glass with a lemon twist or pear slice).
From the store
Hit the olive bar at your favorite high-end grocery store for Kalamatas and other tiny bites. A bowl of Marcona almonds (I like the ones from Trader Joe’s with rosemary) also goes great with cocktails. You can’t go wrong with chips and dip, of course.
Good smoked turkey
Baby lettuce or arugula
Sun-dried tomato pesto mayo (simply mix store-bought mayonnaise with sun-dried tomato pesto).
-Cut your baguette or baguettes. Spread the sun-dried tomato pesto mayo on both sides. Add a generous helping of sprouts onto the bottom of the bread. Add thin slices of cucumber, then the arugula or baby lettuce, the turkey and the Swiss. Cut into small servings of 2-3 inches.
Make bruschetta with some day-old bread, chopped garlic, tomatoes and basil. Tortilla rolls filled with cream cheese, green chilies and spices (sea salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, Mexican oregano) is another favorite.
From the store
Supplement your homemade offerings with some little treats from the store — I like Ghiradelli chocolates in festive wrappers (with caramel, raspberry and mint fillings) as well as Amaretti del Chiostoro, Italian cookies made from apricot kernels. They come individually wrapped in decorative paper. Don’t forget the candy canes.
This is adapted from an old Toll House cookie recipe that used shortening. The new recipe uses all butter. I find the key to good cookies is a balance of both — the butter adds flavor while the shortening helps the texture. I like to add splashes of extract such as coffee and almond and a bit of cinnamon and coffee powder (coffee goes well with anything with chocolate in it). These all add subtle touches of flavor, but they can be left out if you don’t have them on hand. Just replace the extracts with water to achieve the same amount of liquid.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 c. butter, softened
1 c. shortening
1.5 c. granulated sugar*
1.5 c. brown sugar (I use half light, half dark)
2 tsp. vanilla extract (the real thing)
1/2 tsp. almond extract (again, no fakes)
1/2 tsp. coffee extract (can substitute water)
1 tsp. Italian instant espresso powder (optional)
1 tsp. cinnamon (optional)
3 extra-large eggs
4 2/3 c. flour
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. baking soda
Chocolate chips, anywhere from half a bag to a full bag depending on taste (can mix with white chocolate or other flavored chips; can add chopped nuts, if you like, or substitute M&Ms.)
1. Preheat oven to 375.
2. Beat together butter, shortening and sugar till very creamy, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Really beat some air in there; it will improve the texture.
3. Add vanilla, almond and coffee extracts, along with cinnamon and espresso powder. Mix briefly, then add eggs one at a time, making sure to fully incorporate each one before continuing.
4. Sift together dry ingredients.
5. Add dry ingredients slowly to the wet ingredients until combined. You don’t want to overmix the dough at this point.
6. Stir in chocolate chips.
7. Drop by the spoonful onto cookie sheets covered with parchment paper
Makes about six dozen cookies.
8. Bake in oven till lightly golden brown around edges (start checking after a few minutes).
9. Cool on cookie racks.
* I use vanilla sugar, which I make by dropping a used vanilla bean into a canister of sugar.
Cannoli are a great holiday treat that are made easier if you can find premade shells (many grocery stores sell them now in addition to Italian specialty shops). To make the filling, mix good ricotta (I sometimes use a mixture of cream cheese and mascarpone, as well) with powdered sugar, mini chocolate chips, lemon or orange zest, vanilla, cinnamon, almond extract and candied fruit (citron, candied orange peel or candied cherries). Pistachios can also be added. For a fluffier filling, fold in whipped cream.
I hope this gives you some ideas for throwing a festive holiday cocktail party. Cheers!