With the dust of Thanksgiving settled, it’s open season for holiday entertaining.
Everywhere you turn there’s an office party, family brunch or ugly-sweater party to attend. But if you’re the one doing the hosting, the joy can turn to stress before the parties even start.
Don’t let the fear of imperfect Christmas cookies or a friend judging your party spread get you down. With these make-ahead appetizers, you can turn your holiday events into nearly effortless edible entertainment.
Pre-made puff pastry is a friend waiting for your embrace in the frozen section of any grocery store. Use puff pastry to make Mini English Sausage Rolls or pre-made phyllo cups for Vegan Phyllo Pumpkin Bites.
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You want delicious, elegant food without a day or two of cooking? Reach for a high-quality product like smoked salmon to top any number of small bites you might serve, like mini buckwheat blinis.
These aren’t cheats — they are complements to your other creative cooking and will integrate seamlessly into your party menu without a hitch.
From Hannukah to Christmas to New Year’s Eve, almost everyone has a different favorite holiday meal or treat.
There is no way to please everyone, but incorporating some classic ideas and giving them an elevated spin is a way to honor those traditions while giving guests something different. You don’t want to serve an entire braised brisket dinner with all the sides, but you can adapt those elements into a single canapé or small bite.
For instance, try a latke bar featuring an assortment of toppings that provide an interactive and fun evening for guests. Toppings can include a mix of a special homemade applesauce or locally sourced pickles paired with a good crème fraiche or store-bought jam.
Not much for themes?
When in doubt, a good cheese plate never fails to satisfy. Take the time to find a nice variety of cheeses, perhaps some local. Those are easily paired with a local bread or good crackers and maybe a mix of homemade specialties.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef and freelance restaurant critic: tfoxfood@gmail, @theshortandlong
Keep it simple
With a few tricks and a sound strategy, your holiday party can be as delectable and joyful to you as it is your guests.
▪ Pick a theme — or don’t: Have fun with your menu and mix things up. Is “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” a key lyric on your party playlist? Serve pre-roasted chestnuts on a cookie base for a delight to the senses of taste, smell and sound.
▪ Simplify your drink offerings: Sure, you’d love to have a craft cocktail spread that any vested bartender would admire, but a couple of flavorful options like mulled cider or creative punches will generate a similar, festive atmosphere with infinitely less work.
▪ Don’t be afraid to mix and match: A classic English Christmas appetizer like sausage rolls next to a canapé incorporating Indian or Middle Eastern flavors? Sure. Take traditional pairings and find ways to infuse fresh flavors by using ingredients that pack a lot of taste into smaller sizes.
It’s an opportunity to take your guests’ taste buds on a trip around the world. And within that variety, it is smart to mix in a dish or two for vegetarians or people with food allergies.
▪ Think good, simple food: Consider serving smaller versions of favorite dishes from childhood or holidays past. If Grandma’s macaroni and cheese is your family’s classic, make a tray of small serving spoons so each bite is an indulgent, edible venture down memory lane. Who knows, you might even get extra credit from that judgmental uncle who always complains about food.
▪ Serve with style: Don’t have five items served on toothpicks or everything on a cracker. Use fresh vegetables in lieu of crackers for healthier, gluten-free options. Let a variety of serving or cooking vessels be your best friend. Use that mini cupcake pan, chic bamboo skewers or elegant serving spoons to inspire and diversify.
▪ Use garnishes as a secret weapon: Even a small frond of dill or a drizzle of marmalade can make your party foods ignite and delight on the palate.
Mini English Sausage Rolls
These sausage rolls are like a smarter take on the many versions of pigs-in-a-blanket served during the holidays. They’re delightful served on their own, but they can also be paired with any number of sauces. Savory, slightly piquant HP Brown Sauce is a traditional English accompaniment served with sausage rolls and can be found in many supermarkets or specialty food stores.
Make-ahead tips: Sausage rolls can be assembled ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen, then baked shortly before serving. If cooking from frozen, add 5 minutes to the cooking time.
Makes 24 rolls
1 (17.3-ounce) package (2 sheets) of store-bought puff pastry, thawed
3 sprigs thyme, leaves stripped from stems
1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 pounds bulk breakfast sausage
1 egg, beaten for egg wash
Flaky sea salt to taste
Spread 2 sheets of store-bought pastry flat on a lightly floured work surface. Cut each lengthwise down the middle to give you four long rectangles of dough.
Mix thyme leaves, rosemary and black pepper into sausage and divide into four quarters. Roll each sausage quarter into a long roll the length of the pastry sheets.
Place sausage down the middle and fold the edges of the dough over the sausage, as snug as possible. Seal the edges by pressing together lightly, then turn over so the seam side is down.
Carefully cut larger sausage rolls into 6 bite-size pieces, then place on a parchment-lined baking sheet or two, depending on the size. Brush each piece with egg wash and slash each sausage roll across to create a vent (a cross hatch creates an attractive pattern). Top with some good flaky sea salt for a savory garnish with a hint of crunch.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place tray in middle of the oven and bake for around 25 minutes. The pastry will puff up and take on a shiny, golden hue.
Per roll: 275 calories (76 percent from fat), 23 grams total fat (8 grams saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 311 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Smoked Salmon With Sour Cream, Caviar and Dill on Buckwheat Blini
Buckwheat flour is available at many health food stores and the bulk item sections of grocery stores. You could substitute another whole-wheat flour as well, but buckwheat does give a nutty, rich flavor to complement the other ingredients.
Make-ahead tips: Blinis can be made ahead of time, refrigerated and served lightly chilled or room temperature.
Makes 24 blini
For the blini:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup whole milk
1 large egg
2 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral-flavored oil, plus more for cooking
8 ounces lox-style smoked salmon, cut into 1-by-1-inch pieces
1 (8-ounce) tub crème fraiche or sour cream
1 (3-ounce) jar salmon roe or other caviar
2 sprigs fresh dill
To make the blini: Combine the flours and baking powder in a large mixing bowl.
In another mixing bowl, combine milk, egg and 2 tablespoons of oil, whisking to thoroughly mix.
Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk or stir until it becomes a smooth, thick but spoon-able consistency. Let batter rest for 30 minutes to an hour.
Heat a large, nonstick sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add oil to pan, and without overcrowding, drop about a tablespoon of batter into hot oil and cook about 3 minutes on the first side. The goal is no bigger than a silver dollar-sized pancake.
As with cooking large pancakes, you will see air bubbles start to form and the first side should be golden brown. Flip the blinis and cook on the other side an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Cook in batches, replenishing oil as needed, until you have used up all the batter.
To serve: Top each buckwheat blini with a slice of salmon and a small dollop, about a teaspoon or less, of the crème fraiche or sour cream on top. Using the end of a spoon or a 1/4 teaspoon measure, garnish with the salmon roe or caviar and a small frond of fresh dill.
Per blini: 84 calories (59 percent from fat), 6 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 42 milligrams cholesterol, 5 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 150 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Take the time to drain and dry your potato-onion mixture as much as possible. This makes for crispier potato pancakes and lessens the chance of splashes when spooning the mix into hot oil.
Make-ahead tip: If making ahead of time, refrigerate latkes and reheat in a 400-degree oven until hot and crispy just before serving.
Makes 24 latkes
3 or 4 medium to large baking potatoes, such as Russett or Yukon Gold, peeled
1 large yellow onion, peeled
2 green onions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning after frying
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons crushed matzo or Japanese panko breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup chicken, duck or turkey fat
1/2 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a food processor or using a box grater, grate the potato into a bowl, followed by the yellow onion. Put both on a kitchen towel or multiple paper towels, gather ends at the top and twist and squeeze to remove as much liquid from potatoes and onion as possible. Do this twice, then set aside in a mixing bowl.
Add green onions, 2 teaspoons salt, flour, matzo meal or breadcrumbs and baking powder, followed by eggs. Mix to combine, and if mixture appears too wet, add another tablespoon of matzo or breadcrumbs.
In a heavy-bottomed skillet or large cast-iron pan, heat 1/4 cup each of the chicken fat and canola oil over medium high heat until nearly smoking.
Carefully drop about tablespoon-size portions of the latke mix into the pan in an even layer, making sure not to crowd them so the outside can become crispy. Fry the latkes about 3 minutes, until golden and crispy on the first side. Carefully turn over and fry an additional 2 to 3 minutes on the second side until cooked through and thoroughly crisp. Fry the latkes in batches, replenishing chicken fat and oil between batches. Put cooked latkes on a wire rack-lined baking sheet.
If serving immediately, keep latkes hot in a 200-degree oven. Serve with a spread of toppings that guests can assemble themselves.
Serving suggestions: Applesauce and sour cream are classic accompaniments, but you can get creative and serve any number of toppings, from pickled items like beets, onions and cucumbers, to meats like braised brisket, chicken or fish. Add some sweet flavors like jams or dips to mix with other savory flavors like nuts or fresh herbs.
Per latke: 111 calories (75 percent from fat), 9 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 21 milligrams cholesterol, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 142 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Vegan Pumpkin Pie Phyllo Bites
You can substitute a store-bought blend like pumpkin spice or a chai masala blend for the whole spices. These are created as vegan bites, but you can substitute cream for the coconut milk or top with whipped cream if you like.
Make-ahead tip: Vegan mini pumpkin pie filling can be made ahead of time and refrigerated. Fill cups and heat briefly in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes if desired, or serve at room temperature.
Makes 30 mini pumpkin pies
1 (15-ounce) can organic pumpkin puree, or 1 small pie pumpkin, roasted and pureed
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup maple syrup, plus more for drizzling at end
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 cup pecans, roasted and coarsely chopped
2 (15-count each) packages of prebaked, ready-made phyllo pastry cups
Mix the pumpkin puree, coconut milk, 1/4 cup maple syrup and spices together in a mixing bowl to incorporate. If the mix seems too dry, add a little more coconut milk, about a teaspoon at a time.
To assemble pies, fill each phyllo pastry cup with 1 tablespoon of the filling, or to the top of the cups. Garnish with a drizzle of the maple syrup on each and a small crumble of the roasted pecan. You could also grate fresh nutmeg over the top of all cups or serve with a dollop of whipped cream.
Per pie: 100 calories (35 percent from fat), 4 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 111 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.