A little-known secret about how someone in France prepares for a cocktail party: the more you can pick up at the boulangerie or the traiteur, a French deli, basically, where you can buy pate by the slice and salmon wrapped in all-butter puff pastry, the better.
Even when I’m not in Paris, I still like to capture that same spirit when it comes to what I make for a holiday party, and it’s easier to do than you might think.
First, give people things to eat that are just one or two bites, because more than that will require utensils and larger plates, and before you know it, everyone’s having to sit down and the party flow has come to a screeching halt. So keep whatever it is you’re making small.
Also, go light. It’s OK to feature a little cheese if it’s baked into something, like I’ve done with the recipe here, but you won’t see a block of cheese on a platter as part of an apero spread in France, ever. Cheese is the last course, not the first. Plus, it’s filling — and you don’t want to serve something that’s going to be too heavy.
Simple, rather than fancy, is the way to go. Instead of making tiny quiches with crusts like you’d find in any boulangerie in Paris, I made one large one and sliced it into small squares. The vegan butternut squash tapenade sounds far more complicated than it is — a roast in the oven and a fork smash and you’re done.
Keep the flavors subtle. This isn’t the time to try out your new ghost pepper salsa recipe — save that for your margarita party on New Year’s Day — and instead, dial back the heat, and keep an eye on the garlic and onion or any other super-strong flavors, too.
The point of a cocktail party isn’t the food, but the gathering of friends over a glass of bubbly or two and having something easy to nibble on along with it. Cheers, everyone!
Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press). Read her blog (www.cowgirlchef.com), and follow her on Twitter (@cowgirlchef) and Instagram (cowgirlchef)
Fig, walnut and blue cheese biscotti
Makes about 3 dozen
1/2 cup dried figs
1/2 cup walnuts
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons water
1/3 cup blue cheese crumbles
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Roughly chop the figs and walnuts. Set aside.
3. Put the flour, sugar, and sea salt in a mixer bowl and pulse a time or two.
4. Add the olive oil and eggs and mix well, along with just enough water to bring the dough together.
5. Now add the figs, walnuts, blue cheese crumbles, and chopped rosemary, and make sure it’s all evenly distributed throughout the dough.
6. Divide the dough in half and roll each piece into a log 1 inch in diameter. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until firm to the touch. Remove from the oven, let cool for 15 minutes and slice 1/2-inch pieces on the diagonal. Lay out the slices on the baking sheet and return to the oven. Bake an additional 15 minutes on each side or until lightly browned. Let cool completely before eating. These are perfect with Champagne.
Makes about 3 dozen
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
A pinch sea salt
2/3 cup flour
3/4 cup grated Gruyere or Swiss
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Heat the water, butter and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. When the butter melts, add the flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. When the mixture pulls away from the sides and becomes a ball, keep stirring until you see a floury crust on the bottom — it’ll only take about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let this cool for a minute or two.
3. Put the dough into a mixer and add one of the eggs, mix well, then add the other. Add the cheese. The dough should be soft and somewhat tacky to the touch but not too thin or wet.
4. Transfer the dough to a pastry bag or heavy-duty plastic zip bag if you want to pipe them onto your baking sheets, or you may use a couple of spoons. Leave 2 inches between each one.
5. Bake for 8 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 15 additional minutes, or until they’re completely brown. Serve right away.
Makes about 5 dozen
2 tablespoons butter, for greasing baking dish
1/2 cup chopped ham
1/2 cup chopped Swiss cheese
1 cup whole milk, half-and-half or a mixture
Pinch grated nutmeg
Sea salt and cracked pepper
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Generously grease a 7 inch-by-10 1/2 inch glass dish or similar size oven-proof dish with the 2 tablespoons butter.
3. Scatter the ham and cheese in the baking dish.
4. Whisk together the eggs, milk, nutmeg, and sea salt and pepper to taste. Pour this over the ham and cheese. Bake for 45 minutes or until set. Slice into bite-size pieces. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Butternut squash tapenade
Makes about 2 cups
1 small butternut squash
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
Sea salt and pepper
2 tablespoons almond butter
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon cumin
6 Kalamata olives
1 tablespoon pepitas for serving
Cilantro for serving
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Peel the butternut squash and scoop out the seeds. Cut into 1-inch cubes and toss onto the baking sheet with olive oil, and sea salt and pepper. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes or until light brown, tossing once or twice as needed. Let cool.
Save time: Bake the butternut squash in advance and keep in the fridge until you’re ready to make the tapenade.
3. With your fork, smash the butternut squash in a bowl. Mix in the rest of the ingredients and taste for seasonings. Serve in a shallow bowl or on a plate with a little olive oil, pepitas, and chopped cilantro.