Saturday, November 28, 2009

That's the Spirit! The 10 (Unbreakable) Commandments of the Holiday Cocktail Party

Attention all you cosmo swilling hipsters: The chic cocktail party is back in a big way! While it’s true there are a few modern twists to consider, the cocktail party seems to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts. And what better time to throw one than with the festive holiday season upon us?

The cocktail party is a great way to entertain a large group without breaking a sweat. They’re much easier to pull off than a dinner party and so much more fun! While cocktail parties are meant to be more loose and casual than a sit down affair, there are a few key things to remember that will guarantee your soiree is a smash.

Commandment #1: Send invites early!

At least 3 weeks before your party if possible. It’s a busy season for everyone and you want to give your friends (and yourself) time to plan. Cocktail parties, unlike those wild college keggers, have a beginning and ending point, usually about 2 hours in length between 6PM and 10PM. Be sure to specify times on your invitations.

Commandment #2: Invited guests: pay attention!

If you have been invited to a holiday party and have been asked to RSVP, DO IT! The sooner the better. As a host there is nothing more maddening than not knowing how many people are actually coming to your party and having unexpected last minute arrivals. While the old adage “the more the merrier” is always true, be a gracious guest and let the host know in advance that you’re coming. That way there will be enough food and drinks for you and your entourage.

Commandment #3: Use some decorating cents!

You don’t have to spend a fortune or 3 days decorating for a party, but you want it to look like you put some effort into it. Start by clearing away the clutter (that’s what closets are for!) to make way for guests. Decide on a place to stash coats and bags as guests arrive. Fresh flowers are always a good idea. Create a festive mood by choosing a lively color scheme for table tops, plates and napkins. Streamlined strands of inexpensive white lights add a beautiful touch to a room. Don’t forget the bathroom! Scented candles, an elegant bottle of hand soap, extra toilet paper and a basket of high-quality napkins or paper towels make guests feel pampered.

Commandment #4: Lighting is everything!

You’d be surprised how many people forget about this all important detail. There are a few simple things you can do to transform your living room into party central: Invest in inexpensive dimmers for your lamps. If that’s not an option, try pink light bulbs. Don’t laugh! You’ll look hotter, trust me. Man discovered fire so take advantage of it! Candles are a quick way to lend a warm glow to a party. Try placing loose clusters of votives around the room. Remember, there’s a reason why bars are dark and swanky lounges have so many candles everywhere. It’s sexy, makes everyone look better and no one wants to feel like they’re partying in a supermarket!

Commandment #5: Music moves your party!

So do put some serious thought into your soundtrack. A few days ahead put together your iPod playlist or make mix cds. Keep the energy up and don’t be afraid to mix genres, but make sure the mood of the songs blend well together. See to it that the music isn’t too loud or too soft. You don’t want guests screaming to talk to each other. On the other hand, make sure they’re not straining to hear “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” either. Which reminds me: Christmas music is fine, but please don’t play it all night long. We’ve all been forced to listen to it in every retail store since late October, so give your guests a break.

Commandment #6: Break the ice!

Make sure your guests have a drink in their hand no more than five minutes after they arrive. For many, socializing with a room full of strangers can be more stressful than being Sarah Palin in that recent Oprah interview! The simple act of holding a drink gives them a “prop” and something to do with their hands. As the host it’s your job to ease them in by introducing them around to those they haven’t met and point out an interest or a hobby they may have in common.

Commandment #7: Keep ‘em moving!

The entire point of a cocktail party is to mingle. To encourage that behavior, set up your bar and your buffet table on opposite ends of the room (or in a different one all together). That way you don’t end up with traffic jams and a huge cluster of people in one spot. Also, sitting down is a “no no!” To keep the energy up and the party moving only provide half as many seats as you have guests. Besides, we all look thinner and more elongated when we stand.

Commandment #8: No more than a mouthful!

This may sound obvious, but since it’s a cocktail party (which implies: drink in hand at all times) you only have one hand free for noshing. To that end, make sure that the food you choose to serve can be eaten accordingly. You’d be shocked at how many would-be-hosts never consider this detail. I actually went to a cocktail party once where the host served a spiral cut ham! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all about a good Honeybaked, but there weren’t even eating utensils provided. Hello! Think it through, people. The rule is simple: One-handed, bite size (okay, maybe two bites!) morsels that can be handled gracefully while sipping a festive Pomtini (see recipe below).

Commandment #9: Make your party DIY!

Have bottles of wine at the ready, along with beer and sodas (for the designated drivers) chilling on ice. Set up the bar with pre-made pitchers of your party’s signature drinks (I always choose 2 and keep more on standby), along with a big bucket of ice, cocktail shakers and drink garnishes. This is a great way to get guests involved in the party and not get stuck playing mixologist all night. Just be sure to replenish pitchers and ice as they dwindle. Multiply number of guests times 3 to determine how many glasses you’ll need.

Commandment #10: Be a guest at your own party!

This is perhaps the most important commandment of all. It’s show time so no more stressing about the little details! You’ve invited people you love. You’ve taken care of every detail. Everything looks amazing. Take a deep breath before you open the door to your first guest. Pour them (and you) a well-deserved cocktail and go mingle. Happy Holidays!

Sugared & Spiced Nuts

Serves a party

1 ½ pounds whole, unsalted almonds (or your favorite nut)
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
½ tablespoon dried grated orange peel (available on spice aisle)
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Pinch of nutmeg

In a large, heavy skillet over high heat, combine the sugar, water, orange zest, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg. Bring to the boil and stir until sugar dissolves. Add the nuts to the pan and stir to coat evenly. Continue to stir until all the liquid has evaporated. Spread nuts on a parchment lined sheet pan and allow to cool.

Cheeseburger Sliders

Makes 24

2 (11 ounce) packages refrigerated crusty French bread dough (Pillsbury brand)
1 large egg yolk plus one tablespoon water lightly beaten, for egg wash
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

2 to 3 tablespoons good olive oil, for pan searing
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons steak sauce
1 ½ tablespoons Montreal Steak Seasoning
1 ½ pounds ground sirloin
6 slices deli-style sharp cheddar cheese, each cut into 4 equal squares
4 small plum tomatoes, thinly sliced
Green leaf lettuce, torn to fit the burgers

¼ cup good quality mayonnaise
¼ cup ketchup
Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside. Cut each package of bread dough into 12 equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball about the size of a “golf ball.” The elasticity of the dough makes it a bit of a struggle to keep it round. You may have to beat it into submission. Don’t be afraid to show it who’s boss. Place the newly subservient dough on prepared sheet pan and brush with the egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake in the center of the oven for 22 to 24 minutes until golden brown. Remove to a rack and cool completely.

Preheat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until hot.

Meanwhile, to make the burgers, whisk together the egg yolks, steak sauce and grill seasoning in a medium bowl and add the ground sirloin. Gently combine with your fingertips being careful not to overwork the meat. Using approximately 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture, carefully roll into meatballs and press between your palms to flatten into a small patty. Pan sear until cooked through to desired doneness, about 3 minutes on each side. Place a piece of cheese on each patty and tent loosely with a piece of foil to melt cheese.

To assemble the burgers, cut each bun in half crosswise and place a teaspoon sized dollop of the special sauce on the bottom of each. Top with the hamburger patty, tomato slice, a piece of lettuce and the bun top. Skewer each mini cheeseburger with a festive toothpick to hold together and serve immediately.

Ham & Fontina Mini Frittatas

Makes 24

Nonstick (butter flavored) cooking spray, for muffin pans
¼ pound smoked deli ham, finely chopped
¼ cup Fontina cheese, finely grated
3 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
8 large eggs
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray the muffin pan(s) lightly with nonstick spray. In a small bowl lightly toss together the ham, cheese and chives. Fill each muffin cup with the ham and cheese mixture dividing evenly. In a 4 cup glass measuring cup, whisk together the eggs and the cream and season with salt and pepper. Pour the egg mixture into each cup until just even with the rim. Bake until frittatas are set, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Chicken Satay with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce

Serves 4

½ cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc nam, available on Asian aisle of grocery store)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 teaspoons sambal (hot chili paste, available on Asian aisle of grocery store)
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely grated
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound chicken tenders
Bamboo skewers, soaked in water

1 cup smooth natural peanut butter, well stirred
½ cup chicken stock
1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
2 teaspoons sambal (hot chili paste)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon dry roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped, for garnish

In a medium bowl combine the coconut milk, fish sauce, lime juice, sambal, brown sugar, cilantro, ginger, turmeric and season with salt and pepper. Pour marinade over the chicken tenders in a heavy gallon sized Ziplock bag, which in my opinion is the easiest and best way to marinate meat. Marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, or even better for several hours in the refrigerator. The longer the meat swims in the marinade the more flavorful it will be.

Meanwhile, in a small bow, whisk together the peanut butter, chicken stock, rice vinegar, brown sugar, tamari, ginger, sambal and turmeric. Garnish with chopped peanuts.

Preheat an indoor grill pan or outdoor grill to high.

Thread the chicken tenders onto the bamboo skewers and grill until chicken is cooked through, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Serve immediately with spicy peanut dipping sauce.

Salt-Roasted Shrimp with Scampi Dip

Serves 8

1 (4-pound) box rock salt
16 uncooked, unpeeled large shrimp
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled, diced
Kosher salt & Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Spread salt in 13x9x2-inch baking dish. Arrange shrimp in single layer on top of salt. Roast shrimp on salt until just opaque in center and shells are pink, 6 to 7 minutes. If you're unsure of the shrimps doneness, simply cut into one and be sure that it's lost its glassy middle.

Bring the wine, lemon juice, and garlic to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until liquid is reduced to 1 tablespoon, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Add a few pieces of butter; whisk until creamy. Return pan to low heat. Add a few more pieces of butter; whisk until smooth (do not let mixture boil). Continue whisking in butter, a few pieces at a time. Stir in parsley; season with plenty of salt and pepper. Let stand while shrimp finish cooking.

Transfer sauce to bowl and serve shirmp on a fresh bed of rock salt for presentation.

Smoked Salmon Blinis

Serves 8

1 package of good quality smoked salmon, thinly sliced
1 package frozen blinis (available at gourmet markets and in SoCal, Gelson’s)
½ cup crème fraiche or sour cream
Fresh dill or chives, chopped, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Arrange the blinis in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake according to package directions for 4 minutes. Allow the blinis to cool slightly and top each one with a small dollop of crème fraiche, a piece of smoked salmon and garnish with a sprig of fresh dill. Serve immediately.


Serves 1

3 ounces good vodka
3 ounces pure pomegranate juice
1 ½ ounces triple sec
1 ½ ounces freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons simple syrup*

Pour vodka, pomegranate juice, triple sec and lime juice into a cocktail shaker. Tumble in a handful of ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass and let the party begin!

*Simple syrup is incredibly, well, simple to make. Combine 1 cup of granulated sugar with 1 cup water. Bring to the boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Allow to cool and store in the refrigerator.

Green Apple Martini

Serves 1

3 ounces good vodka
3 ounces Apple Pucker
1 ½ ounces sweet & sour mix
1 ½ ounces 7-Up
Green apple, thinly sliced, for garnish

Pour vodka, Apple Pucker, sweet & sour and 7-Up into a cocktail shaker. Tumble in a handful of ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass and float a thin slice of green apple on the top. Cheers!

Caramel Apple Martini: Add 1 ½ ounces of caramel flavored syrup to the mix before shaking.

For a little extra color add a splash of grenadine syrup after straining into the glass, but don’t stir! Otherwise, you’ll just end up with a mottled mess. The syrup will settle to the bottom and add an extra layer of color and flavor. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Mini Cookies & Milk Shots

Serves 12

1½ cups cold milk
Assorted mini cookies (Oreo, Nutter Butters, Milano, Chocolate Chip, etc.)

Fill 2 ounce shot glasses with milk and place on a tray next to mini cookies. The perfect sweet ending to a holiday cocktail party.


  1. Wow - thanks for all of the tips! I love the idea of the mini cookies with milk shots - too cute! Trying the sugar & spiced nuts for my Christmas party later this month :)

  2. Regarding the Ham & Fontina Mini Frittatas, would one use a mini muffin pan? I need something for a brunch next week, and these would do beautifully.
    Thanks in advance.

  3. Hi Patty, Yes a mini muffin pan is exactly what I used. I guess I forgot to include that in the text. The recipe makes 24 mini Frittatas. Enjoy!