Holiday entertaining success is less about fancy food and more about a memorable experience

It's less about fancy food and more about the holiday experience

swthompson@herald-leader.comNovember 27, 2013 

Impromptu parties are how many of us entertain, except during the holidays.

This is the time of year when most of us want to spend time preparing a guest list, selecting a menu and decorating the house because we want it to be the special occasion that the holiday season warrants.

A few months ago, a friend sent me a copy of An Invitation to Entertain, Recipes for Gracious Parties (Bright Sky Press, $34.95) by Elizabeth Stone of Houston. It is a book that will provide you with the background you need to plan your gracious party.

Stone has been catering and running an event planning company, Stone Kitchen, for 25 years, and recently rebranded her business as silverStone. She believes entertaining should be pleasurable and create a memorable experience for guests.

Party giving is all about hospitality and each host or hostess has a different comfort zone. Some want to create everything from scratch; some want to have it all coordinated, and most fall somewhere in between.

"I have found that when entertaining incorporates elegance and excellence, the results are always successful," Stone writes in the book's introduction. "The taste and quality of your food are — of course — important, but the experience is what your guests remember most."

A memorable event begins with a warm, inviting environment. Welcome your guests in a loving way, use your special plates and perhaps some hand-me down linen tablecloths and napkins, share stories about your personal Christmas decorations, but most of all make every guest feel like the guest of honor.

To some hosts and hostesses, planning a perfect party means hiring a professional party planner, caterer and decorator. But many of us do everything ourselves, and that means looking for ideas, inspirations and recipes in a book or online.

We can turn to Susan Spungen for help. She takes the guesswork out of party planning in What's a Hostess to Do? (Artisan Books, $17.95). Spungen is the author of Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook and co-author of Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook. She has served as culinary consultant and food stylist on several feature films including Julie & Julia, and Eat, Pray, Love.

In her newest book, Spungen covers all kinds or parties, from cocktail hour, seated dinner and holiday events. Her time-saving and money-saving tips might be all you need to hold a successful party.

Once the date and type of party (formal or casual) have been chosen, you can send engraved or email invitations which will dictate the formality, or dress code, of the occasion.

Decorations and centerpieces are already taken care of once you put up the Christmas tree, tuck a few pieces of greenery on the mantle, and get out the holiday china.

Spungen explains how to arrange your space to get people to spread out and keep moving as much as possible. People tend to hang around the food table, so place little dishes and drinks around spaces where you want your guests to linger. Food stations should be self-sufficient, with all the accoutrements and utensils at hand.

If you're planning a sit-down dinner party, all you need are a few foolproof dishes, wine to match, and an easy dessert.

"The whole idea is to cook good, simple food and present it in an appetizing way," Spungen said.

Delegate tasks to family members, or close friends, and let them know upfront what you're expecting of them.

"An efficient friend in the final hour before a party — crunch time — can be a lifesaver and a calming presence," Spungen said.

"The reason we go to all this trouble to host a party is because we love it. The good times and good feelings that come from throwing a successful bash linger long after it's over, and this is why we return to hosting again and again," she said.

"Even if you don't have awesome cooking skills, a beautiful home, and lovely tableware, you can still throw an outstanding party if you remember that the essence of it is the feeling of connectedness that everyone comes away with, and the feeling of pure satisfaction that you, the hostess, feel from being the one who created it all."

Sometimes we do want to bring out our grandmother's china and silver, and holiday entertaining is the perfect opportunity to opt for elegance. We can casually entertain during any season, but Christmas deserves our best.

Recipes

No matter what style of event you have, a cheese ball is usually an appetizer staple. This recipe makes five cheese ball flavors and yields 125 small appetizers. You can easily make these cheese balls ahead of time.

Stir each of the flavor stir-ins into the base, and refrigerate up to three days or freeze for up to a month. Thaw the cheese balls, and roll in the coating the day of the party.

Basic cheese ball

2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened

1 package (10 to 11 ounces) chèvre (goat) cheese, softened

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

¼ teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

French flavor stir-ins and coating:

1 cup crumbled Roquefort cheese (4 ounces)

2 teaspoons honey

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped Marcona almonds

Toasted baguette slices, if desired for serving

Mexican flavor stir-ins and coating:

1 cup crumbled queso fresco cheese

¾ teaspoon ancho chile powder

2 teaspoons chopped chipotle chilies in adobo sauce (from 7-ounce can)

2 tablespoons chopped green onions (2 medium)

¾ cup finely chopped pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

Tortilla chips, if desired for serving

Middle Eastern flavor stir-ins and coating:

1 cup crumbled feta cheese (4 ounces)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves

11/2 teaspoons za'atar seasoning blend

3/4 cup finely chopped pistachio nuts

Pita crackers, if desired for serving

Indian flavor stir-ins and coating:

1 cup finely shredded paneer cheese (4 ounces)

2 teaspoons fresh grated lime peel

11/2 teaspoons curry powder

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 cup finely chopped roasted salted cashews

Naan bread, if desired for serving

Korean flavor stir-ins and coating:

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (4 ounces)

1 teaspoon Korean chili paste

1⁄3 cup finely chopped mild kimchi

2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions (2 medium)

1 teaspoon fresh grated lime peel

3/4 cup black sesame seed

Rice crackers, if desired for serving

To make basic cheese ball: In large bowl, beat basic cheese ball ingredients with electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment on medium speed until combined. Divide mixture into 5 medium bowls; use 1 bowl to make each of the flavors.

To make mini French cheese balls: In one of the 5 bowls, stir in Roquefort cheese, 2 teaspoons honey and the shallot. Drop mixture by teaspoonfuls on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Refrigerate about 30 minutes or until set. Shape each into 3/4-inch ball. In small bowl, stir together parsley and almonds. Roll balls in mixture to coat before serving. Serve with baguette slices.

To make mini Mexican cheese balls: In one of the 5 bowls, stir in queso fresco cheese, ancho chile powder, chipotle chilies and green onions. Drop mixture by teaspoonfuls on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Refrigerate about 30 minutes or until set. Shape each into 3/4-inch ball. Roll balls in chopped pepitas to coat before serving. Serve with tortilla chips.

To make mini Middle Eastern cheese balls: In one of the 5 bowls, stir in feta cheese, mint leaves and 3/4 teaspoon za'atar blend. With moistened hands, shape into 3/4-inch balls; refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. In small bowl, stir together remaining 3/4 teaspoon za'atar blend and pistachio nuts. Roll balls in mixture to coat before serving. Serve with pita crackers.

To make mini Indian cheese balls: In one of the 5 bowls, stir in paneer cheese, 2 teaspoons lime peel, curry powder and 1 tablespoon cilantro. With moistened hands, shape into 3/4-inch balls; refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. In small bowl, stir together remaining 1/4 cup cilantro and cashews. Roll balls in mixture to coat before serving. Serve with naan bread.

To make mini Korean cheese balls: In one of the 5 bowls, stir in cheese, chili paste, kimchi, green onions and lime peel. Drop mixture by teaspoonfuls on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Refrigerate about 30 minutes or until set. Shape each into 3/4-inch ball. Roll balls in sesame seed to coat before serving. Serve with rice crackers.

Sharon Thompson: (859) 231-3321. Twitter: @FlavorsofKY. Blog: Flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com.

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