With the holiday season in full swing, there are parties happening every day of the week. I absolutely love to host parties during the holidays, but it can be challenging because we’re all so busy.  In this post, I’m going to share my tricks for hosting a fancy cocktail party, the easy way!

In my….hmmm…gosh 10+ years (holy cow) of party throwing, I‘ve learned a few tricks that have made hosting a much simpler affair.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fancy…but I‘ve learned that I CANNOT cook every single item from scratch for parties. It just doesn’t work for me anymore with a busy life and a little one.

Instead, I’ve tried to hone my presentation skills and combine fresh foods and good flavors so the love and care is still in my food, but I’ve removed the insanity of cooking for hours and hours pre-party.

Below is a “blueprint” of sorts, outlining the most recent party I hosted for 12 people.  This menu can easily be adjusted to your party needs. I didn’t take pictures as I was preparing each food, but since most of the appetizers are assembly only, the end result is really what’s important!  Ok…here we go!  Let’s dive right in…AND please leave any questions in the comments below.

The Cheese Board

The cheese board…in my mind, and for my “generation”…seems to be the MAIN event. For smaller parties, sometimes I just make one of these babies and call it a day.  Here are my cheese board tips:

  • Build your cheese display on one large platter – this is my favorite wood board to use! 
  • Soft cheese: I typically have 2-4 types on the board.  Trader Joe’s and Costco are my go to spots for cheese lately. Some of my favorites include: triple cream brie, goat cheese, seasonal goat cheese (like fig, cranberry or blueberry encrusted) and a cambazola (a french style triple cream gorgonzola).  **Tip – if you’re preparing for a smaller gathering, cut the soft cheese in 1/2 so it does’t go to waste.  Then you can use the other 1/2 half on another night!
  • Hard Cheese: I aim for 3-5 different types. This board pictured has cheddar, manchego, gouda and a cranberry stilton. ***One tip with hard cheese…CUT the wedge up into thin slices.  When you’re displaying a large cheese board with lots of food piled on and around the cheese, there’s nothing more awkward than making your guests try to cut a piece of cheese on the board.  It usually results in a messy looking board, flying food and mangled cheese. And most people just don’t want to attempt to cut the cheese and will avoid it altogether.
  • Meats – 2-3 types – My favorites to add are pepperoni, hard salami and prosciutto.  ***Again, make sure you aren’t putting entire logs of salami (OMG – WOW that sounds terrible but it is what it is) onto your board.  Slice everything up so it’s simple for your guests to eat.
  • A few other things to add: small pickles, grapes, honey, fig jam or sweet pepper jelly, nuts (I love almonds, candied walnuts or pecans), dried fruit and a touch of chocolate.
  • Crackers and bread: I use a few different types of crackers…plain water crackers, funky Trader Joe’s crisps (with raisins or figs or olives) and freshly baked bread. I don’t have a great bakery close to me, so I like to use the half-baked baguettes from Trader Joe’s.  I cook and slice those about 2 hours before the party.

Antipasto

I am (very) half Italian and I grew up eating Italian meat and cheese as soon as I could chew. It’s a defintiely a holiday staple for me.  It’s hearty and homey and so darn delicious! Here are a few ideas to create your own antipasto platter.

  • Meats – IMPORTED is the best! Prosciutto, genoa salami, soppressata and capicola
  • Cheese – sharp provolone, fresh mozzarella and pecorino romano (very thinly sliced)
  • Veggies – Marinated artichoke hearts and a mixed olive salad (from Trader Joe’s) help to balance out the platter. Oh and don’t forget some roasted peppers. (A piece of baguette with roasted pepper, provolone and prosciutto….FORGETTA BOUT IT!)
  • Bread…if you’re making the cheese board I chatted about above, you can just do one large bowl of sliced baguette and that will be enough for both platters!

Shrimp Cocktail

This is a true cheat for me! I buy a pre-made frozen shrimp ring from Costco and thaw it in the fridge overnight. Then I carefully transfer the shrimp onto one of my plates (because it’s must prettier than the shrimp ring).  I pat the shrimp dry with a paper towel as I go because they are usually a little soggy from defrosting.  I re-plate the entire ring on a smaller dish so the platter looks more full and appetizing!

Bruschetta

This is a total Trader Joe’s hack!  Simple, delicious and they’re always gone!

  • Slice a baguette into 1/2″ thick slices.
  • Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the slices in a single layer.
  • Brush both sides of the baguette with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and crack fresh salt & pepper over top to lightly coat.
  • Bake at 375 degrees for 6-8 minutes, checking every 2-3 minutes so they don’t over cook. You want toasted slices…not burnt.
  • After the slices are cool to the touch, take one peeled clove of garlic and lightly rub the garlic right on the baguette to transfer the flavor (this works like a charm!).
  • Using the Trader Joe’s bruschetta (I use the one in the jar not the refrigerated section), top each baguette slice with a spoon full of the mixture.
  • Top with shaved pecorino romano (also from TJ’s).
  • Throw them on a pretty plate and voila!

Blue Cheese Endive Dippers

This is ALWAYS a party favorite and I posted this recipe many moons ago on the blog!  Click HERE for a link to that earlier post. This is definitely one to add to your party appetizer list. OH and to make this size platter, I used three containers of dip and 2.5 packages of the endive.

Caprese Skewers

I just love these because they are so quick, fresh and add a nice pop of color!  You will need 2 pints of cherry tomatoes, 2 containers of small mozzarella balls, fresh basil and reduced balsamic glaze.

  • Wash the tomatoes and drain the mozzarella – pat dry to remove excess liquid.
  • Taking a small skewer, add one cherry tomato and one mozzarella ball.
  • Continue until you run out of one of these two ingredients.
  • Slice fresh basil into very thin ribbons and sprinkle on top.
  • Just before serving, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, crack fresh salt and pepper and drizzle balsamic glaze (also from Trader Joe’s) lightly on top.

Flatbread Style Pizza

I’ve gotten in the habit of serving various pizzas or flatbreads. They are simple, require little prep and they are easy to eat at a party. I vary my pizzas seasonally and try to play to my crowd. When I don’t know my guests preferences as well…I tend to stick to the classics.  As always, Trader Joe’s was my source for this!  I use their plain pizza dough as my base.

  • Let the dough sit on the counter for a good 30 minutes before rolling.
  • Roll the dough onto your pan of choice.  I like to use cookie sheets that have slight ridges because it creates a crispier crust.   Here is a link to my favorite.
  • After rolling, brush the dough with a light coat of EVOO and prick with a fork to prevent bubbles.
  • Cook for 6 minutes at 475 degrees.

For this pizza, I went the traditional route. I added tomato sauce and cheese and left it as simple as that! For my tomato sauce:

  • 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
  • 3 cloves of minced garlic
  • Salt, pepper (4-5 turns on my fresh crackers for each)
  • 1 tbsp of dried oregano and crush the flakes in your hand as you add it to the sauce (it brings out the oils in the dried herb for more flavor)
  • Add the uncooked sauce to the pizza
  • Cook for another 5-6 minutes at the same temp.
  • Add shredded mozzarella cheese and put it back in the oven (for 5-6 minutes) directly on the rack using a pizza peel.  This  is definitely a must have when making pizzas! Cooking directly on the rack really helps to get the crust crispy.
  • Remove from the oven and allow the pizza a few minutes to cool before cutting to serve.

Pizza number 2 I went a little nutty!

 

  • Take one pint of cherry tomatoes, coat them in EVOO, 2 cloves of minced garlic and salt/pepper.  I like to use a large ziplock bag and throw all the ingredients together in there and shake to coat.
  • Put the tomatoes (whole) on a baking sheet and into the oven set on broil.
  • Cook 5-6 minutes until the tomatoes start to blacken and pop open.  Set them aside to cool.
  • On the pre-baked dough – spread pesto sauce (which I buy from TJ’s as well)
  • Put the dough back in the over for 5 minutes
  • Then remove the pizza from the baking sheet and cook the dough directly on the rack for another 3-4 minutes.
  • After removing from the oven, promptly add ripped or cut pieces of buratta cheese (I used three balls for one pizza) on top of the hot pizza.
  • Then add the tomatoes.
  • Drizzle with EVOO and fresh cracked salt and pepper.

Dessert

I keep this simple because after the rich food and wine….people most likely won’t eat hunks of cake! I decided to do fancy brownies and Christmas crack!

BROWNIES!

My favorite are Ghirardelli Triple Chocolate Brownies.

  • Prepare the brownies according to your package directions **One tip: I undercook my brownie by 4-5 minutes to ensure they stay super gooey!
  • Then follow THIS recipe for Salted Caramel Frosting. I cut this recipe in half for one batch of brownies.
  • Using a piping bag fitted with a decorative tip of your choice (I used a large star tip), pipe the frosting onto the cooled and cut brownies.
  • Just before serving, sprinkle a pinch more kosher salt on top!

CHRISTMAS CRACK! 

The crack…well this stuff is SO simple and seriously ridiculously! Click HERE for my favorite recipe. I like to add toffee chips on top of mine but you can really go nuts with this and add anything you like.

Hope this helps provide some simple ways to have a fun party without feeling like a crazy person trying to cook for hours and hours on end! Trader Joe’s has really become my right hand man in the kitchen! Their amazing foods have helped me prepare fun dishes in half the time!  Here are a few more images of how I set the table and displayed the food.

If you have questions on any of these dishes please comment below.  I’m  happy to share more details!

Happy Party Hosting Fancy Friends!

xoxo

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