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Laura A. Oda | Bay Area News Group A luxurious display of a rustic dinner party themed around the Partridge in a Pear Tree.
3 fabulous holiday party plans to wow your guests
First Published Dec 17 2013 09:28 am • Last Updated Dec 17 2013 08:44 pm

It’s holiday party season, and you’re looking to dazzle your guests without breaking the bank — or your back. Whether you’re envisioning a family holiday movie night with gourmet popcorn and handmade candy bars, a midweek cocktail party for busy couples or a luxurious dinner inspired by "The Twelve Days of Christmas," you’ll find just what you’re looking for in this holiday party guide.

Blood Orange Negroni

2 ounces Charbay Blood Orange Vodka

1 ounce Carpano Antica

1 ounce Campari

Combine all the ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake, then strain into a martini glass and garnish with a blood orange slice, or serve it over ice in a tumbler.

Serves » 1

Note » This cocktail can be made ahead in batches and served over ice or straight up. Taste Catering pairs this with an appetizer of citrus-cured gravlax, avocado mousse and pickled radish on olive biscotti.

Exotic Manhattan

2 ounces Templeton Rye Whiskey

1 ounce Punt e Mes (Italian vermouth)

1 ounce fresh strained orange juice

Cardamom bitters

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice, using just a drop or two of bitters to give the cocktail its unique spin, but not upset the integrity of the drink. Shake, then strain the cocktail into a martini glass and garnish with a strip of orange zest.

Serves » 1

Note » This smoky, spiced holiday cocktail can be made ahead in batches. Punt e Mes is an Italian vermouth. Both it and the bitters can be found at BevMo and other liquor stores. Taste Catering pairs this cocktail with a smoked chicken salad, served in red endive leaves, and topped with a green apple-black cardamom compote, puffed rye berries and hazelnut oil.

Source: Taste Catering

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Holiday Movie Night

There’s a reason you invested in that 50-inch LCD flat screen. You’re a family of movie buffs, and your annual Oscar party is widely recognized as the neighborhood party of the year. So, why not light the fireplace, don your favorite Christmas sweater and transform your living room into a cozy festival of your favorite holiday movies (starting with "It’s a Wonderful Life," natch) complete with comfort food?

If you don’t love your TV set, caterer Barbara Llewellyn suggests hanging a large white sheet on the wall to create a DIY projection screen where you can watch movies via laptop and rentable projector. Hang wreaths and string popcorn garlands around the house and make your own festive table runner from burlap and a few craft supplies.

Run strips of painters tape down the length of the burlap to form stripes of varying widths. Daub craft paint between the strips, let it dry, then remove the tape. The resulting rustic runner makes a festive backdrop for Llewellyn’s menu, which includes grilled Gruyère and sage sandwiches dunked into personal-sized terrines of French onion soup.

Afterward, let your guests graze at the gourmet popcorn station, where they can fill small red bags with freshly popped kernels and a selection of spice mixes, including a kicky Southwest version. Add a homemade candy bar station, with a Snickers-style recipe filled with milk chocolate, caramel and peanuts.

If you’re looking for an activity, create a movie trivia game that guests can play for prizes. Make it foodie-driven for added fun. Trick question: Who "carves the roast beast" in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"?

The Cocktail Party


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You’re looking for an excuse to wear that little black dress and bust out your favorite martini glasses. For busy couples who have mixology on their minds and not a lot of time, Taste Catering president Margaret Teskey, an Irish native with a love for classic drinks, recommends an early-in-the-week, adults-only cocktail party with passed appetizers and a few festive cocktails.

It’s a party trend she’s seeing a lot. "Most people are booked with corporate parties and formal family dinners from Thursday into the weekend," she says. "But they still want to do something at home and see their friends, so a cocktail party on a Monday or Tuesday night is actually going to get a big audience."

Entertain early in the week? It’s far easier than you think, especially with a holiday play list queued up on Spotify, beautiful platters on the table, and seasonal cocktails that can be pre-batched and chilled in the fridge until the minute your guests arrive. A few wooden bowls brimming with pomegranates, persimmons and pine cones elevate your tablescape with little effort. So do tapered candles and a variety of fresh wreaths.

To pay homage to the holiday season, Teskey builds her cocktails and her delightful eats around citrus and apples. Her exotic Manhattan is made with whiskey, the spirit of the moment, plus cardamom bitters and fresh orange juice. She pairs it with a smoked chicken salad served in red endive leaves with a green apple and black cardamom compote. Her play on the classic Negroni features blood orange vodka, Carpano Antica, Campari and blood orange juice, which she serves with a citrus-cured salmon and avocado mousse on olive biscotti.

Not up to making your own gravlax? Substitute smoked salmon and avocado on crostini, made from slices of Acme herb slab. Or go for the brioche "boxes" with a chanterelle topping, an impressive appetizer that takes less than half an hour to throw together.

Ultimately, this is a relaxed, saunter-and-smile affair. An excuse to mingle with your friends over a few killer appetizers and drinks. If cocktails aren’t your thing, Teskey suggests simply uncorking Champagne.

"Keep it simple," she says. "You’re not committing to the big dinner. This is more doable."

"Partridge in a Pear Tree" Dinner Party

If you long to host a dinner party, look no further than this elegant gathering envisioned by Paula LeDuc catering art director Dyan Garza and chef du cuisine David Hurt. A visual and gastronomic interpretation of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the menu is designed around pears, butternut squash and other seasonal goodies. Readily available quail stands in for the partridge.

Armed with a can of gold spray paint, you can make your table sparkle by turning miniature pears and pine cones into golden works of art. Head to the flower market for pieces that evoke winter, like whimsical, frosty air plants, small Champagne-colored woodland trees, fresh wreaths and laurel.

Tuck them between copper or silver platters holding Hurt’s pancetta-wrapped quail stuffed with wild rice brioche bread pudding, and a velvety brown butter pear soup that’s finished with bright green fennel oil and pomegranate seeds. Show off a gorgeous deconstructed salad, a carpaccio of persimmon, beets and pears dotted with Stilton cheese and pistachio butter, on a modern glass platter.

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Homemade popcorn

1/4 cup popcorn kernels

Place popcorn kernels in a lunch-sized paper bag. Fold bag over tightly a few times, and tie a piece of kitchen twine around the bag to hold the fold down.

Microwave on high for about 2 minutes, or until the popping slows. Time may vary depending on the microwave.

Southwest Spice Mix

1/2 cup kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground New Mexico chile

Toss ingredients together. Use 1 tablespoon of mix, or to taste, for every quart of fresh popcorn.

Curry Spice Mix

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon turmeric

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon chile powder

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Toss ingredients together. Use 1 tablespoon of mix for every quart of fresh popcorn.

Servings » Yields 2 quarts

Source: Recipe courtesy Barbara Llewellyn Catering & Event Planning

Homemade Snickers bars

Bottom chocolate layer

1 1/4 cup milk chocolate chips

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

Nougat layer

2 ounces unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup evaporated milk

1 1/2 cups marshmallows, melted

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

1 1/2 cups salted peanuts, roughly chopped

Caramel layer

14 ounces firm caramels

1/4 cup heavy cream

Top chocolate layer

1 1/4 cups milk chocolate chips

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

Grease a quarter-sheet pan or 9-by-13-inch pan; line with parchment.

Bottom layer: Melt the chocolate and peanut butter in the microwave on 50 percent heat, stirring every 30 seconds until melted. Spread into bottom of pan; chill for 30 minutes.

Nougat: In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add sugar and evaporated milk, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; add marshmallow, peanut butter and vanilla, stirring until smooth. Fold in peanuts, then pour over chocolate layer. Refrigerate for another 30 minutes, until set.

Caramel layer: Combine caramel and cream in a saucepan over medium heat; cook for about 4 minutes. Pour over nougat layer; refrigerate another 30 minutes.

Top layer: Melt the chocolate and peanut butter in the microwave on 50 percent heat, stirring every 30 seconds. Spread over caramel, creating swirl marks with a spatula for a textured look. Chill for a final 30 to 60 minutes, then cut into bars. Serve immediately.

Yields » 36 bars

Source: Barbara Llewellyn Catering & Event Planning

Brown buttered pear soup with fennel oil and pomegranates

1 stick unsalted butter, divided

4 unpeeled Comice or D’Anjou pears, cored and sliced

1 small white onion, thinly sliced

2 cups vegetable stock

Salt, pepper

Fennel oil (recipe below)

4 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter, allowing it to bubble and foam. When brown bits form in the butter, add the pears and sliced onion. Reduce heat, cover pan and sweat the onions and pears until semi soft.

Add the vegetable stock and bring to a slight boil. Cook until pears and onions are very soft.

Transfer to a blender and carefully start to puree the mixture. With the blender running, add the remaining 6 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until incorporated.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with fennel oil, garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve

Serves » 6

Fennel Oil

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

6 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1/4 bunch Italian parsley

Combine ingredients in a blender and puree. Let rest for 20 minutes, then strain through a coffee filter.

Source: David Hurt, chef de cuisine, Paula LeDuc Fine Catering



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