How to pull off a fancy, adult winter cocktail party

Filled with holiday cheer? You're in good company.

All those twinkling lights and plates of sugary, sparkly treats tend to bring out the party animal in even us shy types, prompting us to eat, drink and make more merry than we know is good for us -- usually on multiple occasions. I, for one, have never met a Christmas cut-out cookie or frou-frou holiday drink that wasn't worth sampling, and neither has my darling husband.

Doesn't it seem, though, that the same people end up hosting neighborhood or family parties year after year?

This holiday season, if you're among the perennial attendees, why not consider giving those tireless, generous souls a much-needed break (and overdue thank you) by hosting your own winter get-together?

I'll be perfectly honest here: throwing a good cocktail party requires more than a little thought and even more of your hard-earned dollars, depending on the size of the guest list. That said -- and I speak from experience, having thrown countless Halloween, birthday, Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations over the years -- it doesn't have to be the event-planning headache so many of us imagine it to be.

All it takes to turn a cold winter evening into one that warms the body and soul are a few good appetizer recipes that can largely be made ahead, and a couple of classic cocktails that lend themselves to sharing.

Last week, I test-drove the recipes that follow for an impromptu gathering of the Food & Flavor team. And by "impromptu," I mean I had two days to plan, shop for and cook everything on the menu, and then prettily plate it for photographer Larry Roberts, who arrived at my house a half-hour early, when I was still in the shower.

If I can pull it off without having a nervous breakdown, well, so can you.

Kids are great -- I've got five -- but sometimes, we grown-ups need a little alone time with our grown-up friends in an adult setting in order to recharge. (Translation: Hire a babysitter and ditch the sweatpants for a sparkly dress and sexy pair of heels.)

This party was designed with that in mind, with food that appeals more to an adult palate and drinks that require a trip to a liquor store instead of a six-pack shop.

No time between now and New Year's to get your act together? No problem. Everything on the menu will taste great going down in January, too.

Tom & Jerry

PG tested

Old-school Tom & Jerry drinks recently were written about in The New York Times. These were delicious.

For Tom & Jerry Batter

  • 3 large eggs, divided

  • 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

  • 1/2 ounce aged rum

  • 1 cup superfine sugar

  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mace

  • 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

  • Pinch ground cloves

For cocktail

  • 4 ounces Cognac

  • 4 ounces aged rum

  • 8 ounces hot whole milk

  • Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish

In a medium bowl, beat 3 egg whites with cream of tartar until soft peaks form. In another bowl, beat 3 egg yolks with rum. Gradually beat in superfine sugar, cinnamon, mace, allspice and cloves. Gently fold in the beaten egg whites. The batter can be refrigerated overnight. Makes about 20 ounces.

Pour the Tom & Jerry Batter into a large heatproof measuring cup. Gently fold in the Cognac and rum, then gently stir in the hot milk. Pour the drink into 4 small warmed mugs or heatproof glasses. Garnish with nutmeg. Makes 4 drinks.

-- Food & Wine

Ruby Grapefruit Champagne Cocktail

PG tested

A little bubbly -- Italian prosecco is my favorite -- always is appropriate during the holidays.

  • 2 Ruby Red grapefruits

  • 1/4 cup sugar

  • 750-ml bottle brut Champagne, well chilled

Using vegetable peeler, remove peel from 1 grapefruit; place in bowl. Cut both grapefruits in half; squeeze enough juice to measure 3/4 cup. Mix juice and sugar in bowl with peel. Let stand 5 minutes. Strain into small bowl, pressing on solids.

Pour 2 tablespoons syrup into each of four 6-ounce flutes. Fill each with 2/3 cup Champagne. Serves 4.

-- Bon Appetit

Pineapple-Gin Punch

PG tested

  • 1 cup water

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lime peel

  • 2 cups pineapple juice

  • 2 cups (or more) gin

  • 2 cups club soda

  • 3 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

  • 1/8 teaspoon orange bitters or angostura bitters

  • 1 large pineapple, peeled, cored, cut into 1/3-inch cubes

  • 1 ice block

Bring 1 cup water and sugar to boil in small saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Mix in lime peel; cool syrup.

Combine pineapple juice, gin, club soda, lime juice and bitters in punch bowl. Mix in pineapple cubes and enough syrup to sweeten to taste. Add more gin, if desired. Add ice block to bowl. Serves 12.

-- PA Wine & Spirits

Hot Buttered Apple Cider with Rum

PG tested

Teetotalers on the guest list? This is delicious with or without the added alcohol.

For Spiced Butter

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature

  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

For drink

  • Half-gallon (64 ounces) all natural apple cider

  • Spiced Butter (recipe above)

  • Cinnamon sticks (optional)

  • Rum or apple brandy (optional)

Make spiced butter by combining butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt in a small bowl. Use a plastic spatula to transfer butter mixture to the middle of a 12-by-12 inch piece of plastic wrap. Fold plastic wrap over butter mixture and shape into a log, twisting ends to seal closed. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Bring apple cider to a simmer over medium heat in a large pot, then turn heat to low. Remove spiced butter from plastic wrap and cut into 1-inch pieces. Add to hot cider and stir continuously until all butter is melted.

Ladle buttered cider into mug, garnish with cinnamon stick and top with a shot of rum or apple brandy if desired. Serve hot.

Makes 8 servings.


Pate de Hongos (Mushroom pate with Roasted Garlic and Sherry)

PG tested

I served this with homemade tortilla chips, but you also could pair it with crackers. I tossed the leftovers with pasta.

  • 1/2 cup olive oil

  • 15 cloves garlic

  • 1 yellow onion, diced

  • 1 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced

  • 1 pound button mushrooms, sliced

  • Salt and black pepper to taste

  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

  • 2 tablespoons parsley

  • 1 tablespoon sage

  • 1/4 cup sherry

  • 4 green onions, chopped

Heat oil in a small skillet on medium heat. Add garlic cloves and cook for 8 minutes, until light golden brown and cooked through; set pan aside to cool. Remove garlic with a slotted spoon.

Transfer garlic-flavored oil to a larger saute pan. Turn up heat to high and saute onion until soft, about 4 minutes. Add all mushrooms, salt and pepper and saute for about 10 minutes, until soft. Add mustard, parsley, sage, fried garlic and sherry and cook for 10 minutes more. Turn off heat and allow mixture to cool. Puree well in food processor and cool in refrigerator for at least 1 hour. When ready to serve, garnish with a small amount of chopped green onion.

Serves 10 to 12.

-- "Espana: Exploring the Flavors of Spain" by James Campbell Caruso (Gibbs Smith, May 2012, $40)

Pinchos de cangrejo (crab salad toasts)

PG tested

For the best taste, be sure to use lump crabmeat.

  • 1 pound cooked crabmeat

  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise

  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

  • Salt

  • 1 teaspoon Spanish paprika

  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 1 baguette, sliced thin

  • 2 ripe avocados, cut into slices

Mix first 6 ingredients in a bowl. Adjust seasonings according to taste. Heat the oil in a skillet. Place baguette slices in hot oil and toast on both sides. Top each slice with 1 tablespoon crab salad and 1 slice avocado.

Makes 2 dozen appetizers.

-- "Espana: Exploring the Flavors of Spain" by James Campbell Caruso (Gibbs Smith, May 2012, $40)

Escalivada (Roasted vegetables)

PG tested

  • 2 red bell peppers

  • 1 green chile (anaheim or poblano)

  • 1 medium eggplant, sliced

  • 1 zucchini, halved lengthwise

  • 2 small red onions, sliced

  • 4 Roma tomatoes, halved

  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

  • 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

  • Salt and ground black pepper

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Toss all ingredients together in a large bowl and then transfer to a baking sheet. Roast for about 30 minutes, until vegetables are well cooked and tender. Allow to cool.

Peel eggplant and peppers and remove stems and seeds. Cut all cooked vegetables into 2-inch strips and arrange in a colorful pattern on a platter. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and serve at room temperature.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- "Espana: Exploring the Flavors of Spain" by James Campbell Caruso (Gibbs Smith, May 2012, $40)

Pepperoni and Asiago Pinwheels

PG tested

Simple but oh-so-tasty, these pinwheels are the perfect grown-up appetizer. You can serve them room temperature but they're better warm -- make the morning of your party, then pop in the oven after the first cocktails have been served.

  • 1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese

  • 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

  • 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 1 sheet frozen puff pasty (half of 17.3-ounce package), thawed

  • 2 tablespoons honey-Dijon mustard

  • 2 ounces packaged sliced pepperoni (about 24 1 1/2-inch-diameter slices)

  • 1 large egg, beaten to blend

Mix first 4 ingredients in medium bowl. Cut puff pastry crosswise in half to form 2 rectangles. Spread 1 tablespoon mustard over 1 puff pastry rectangle, leaving 1-inch plain border at 1 long edge. Place half of pepperoni in single layer atop mustard. Top pepperoni with half of cheese mixture. Brush plain border with egg. Starting at side opposite plain border, roll up pastry, sealing at egg-coated edge. Transfer pastry roll, seam side down, to medium baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pastry rectangle, mustard, pepperoni, cheese mixture, and egg. Chill rolls until firm, about 30 minutes, or wrap and chill up to 1 day.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with foil. Lightly spray with vegetable oil spray. Cut each pastry roll into about 30 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Transfer pinwheels to prepared sheets. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer to platter; serve.

Makes about 40 pinwheels.


Caramelized onion and shallot dip

PG tested

This is a grown up version of the popular onion soup mix dip. Serve with crackers, sliced veggies or pieces of crusty bread.

  • 2 pounds large yellow or white onions, thinly sliced

  • 2 large shallots, thinly sliced (about 6 ounces)

  • 4 sprigs thyme

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 cup dry white wine

  • 2 cups sour cream

  • 1/4 cup minced fresh chives

  • 1/4 cup Greek-style yogurt

  • 2 teaspoons onion powder

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix onion, shallots, thyme sprigs and oil in a large roasting pan. Season with salt and pepper. Roast onion mixture, stirring and scraping down dies of pan every 10 minutes, until mixture starts to break down and turn golden brown, 45 to 55 minutes.

Discard thyme sprigs. Add wine and vinegar; stir to scrape up any browned bits from bottom of pan. Return onion mixture to oven. Continue roasting, stirring occasionally, until deep golden brown and completely caramelized, about 15 minutes longer. Spread onion mixture out on a rimmed baking sheet to cool.

Transfer onion mixture to a work surface and mince. Transfer to medium bowl. Stir in sour cream, chives, yogurt and onion powder. Season with salt and pepper. Dip can be made 3 days ahead; cover and chill.

Makes 16 to 20 servings.


Israeli meatballs

PG tested

Studded with dried cherries and salty pistachios, these cocktail-sized meatballs have a slight crunch. They're great served on a platter with Yogurt Sauce; any leftovers can be spooned with pickled onions into a meatball sandwich.

  • 2 pounds ground beef

  • 1/2 cup pistachios

  • 1/2 cup dried cherries

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1/2 cinnamon stick

  • 4 whole allspice berries

  • 1 arbol chile

  • 1 small onion, minced

  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten

  • Kosher salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • Extra-virgin olive oil

  • Yogurt sauce (recipe below)

Place ground beef in a large bowl.

Chop pistachios and cherries well and add to bowl with beef. Pound or grind cumin, cinnamon, allspice and chile in a pestle or spice grinder to a fine powder and add to bowl, along with onion, parsley, cilantro and eggs. Season generously with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mix well.

Drizzle a little oil into a cast-iron skillet and heat. Make one small meatball and place in hot oil. Cook, turning as needed, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Taste the tester meatball and correct seasonings as necessary, then roll all of the meat mixture into golf-ball-sized balls.

Wipe any burned bits from skillet, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and return to medium-high heat. Working in batches, add some of the meatballs, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook, turning as needed to brown meatballs evenly, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain as they are finished. Can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Serve with yogurt sauce.

Makes 2 dozen meatballs.

-- "Saltie: A Cookbook" by Caroline Fidanza (Chronicle, Oct. 2012, $25)

Yogurt Sauce

PG tested

  • 1 pint whole-milk plain yogurt

  • 6 scallions, thinly sliced

  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  • Sea salt

  • White wine vinegar

In a large bowl, whisk together yogurt, scallions and dill. Whisk in olive oil, then season with salt and a splash of vinegar. This sauce should taste savory, with the tanginess of the yogurt mellowed.

Serve right away, or transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Chinese chews

PG tested

Every party needs a sweet ending. This combination of flavors is irresistible, and the preparation is so easy.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar

For topping

  • 1 1/2 cups packed light or dark brown sugar

  • 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 2 large eggs

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix flour, butter and brown sugar in a bowl until crumbly, and spread in a buttered shallow 13-by 9-inch baking pan. Bake in a preheated 300 degree oven for 10 minutes, until edges are set, then remove from oven.

Beat all the topping ingredients together in a bowl with an electric mixer and spread mixture evenly over the prepared crumb crust. Return to oven and bake until liightly browned, 30 to 40 minutes. Cool. Cut into fingers.

Makes about 30 cookies.

-- "The Essential James Beard Cookbook: 450 Recipes that Shaped the Tradition of American Cooking" by James Beard (St. Martin's, Oct. 2012, $35)

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published December 20, 2012 5:00 AM


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