Day #9 of Holiday Appetizers: Making A Party-Perfect Cheese Platter

Don't have time to make appetizers from scratch? No problem! It's really easy to doctor up some store-bought goodies and make them fantastic in just a few minutes. A staple at any great cocktail party is a gourmet cheese plate. It can be as simple or as elaborate as you want it to be. At our party, I got four cheeses: a Double Creme French Brie, a sharp white Cheddar from New Zealand, aged blue cheese, and a log of goat cheese. 

DIY Gourmet Cheese Plate!

They were great as they were, but I went one step further and rolled the goat cheese log in a homemade mixture of crushed pistachios and dried cranberries. It took about five minutes and the green and red mixture was a great for the holidays. I put some pita crackers and flatbread crackers from Trader Joe's on a cute platter right next to the cheeses, then stuck little signs in each cheese letting guests know which one was which. Then I walked away and enjoyed my party. Done and done. 

Gourmet Cheese Plate
All ingredients bought from Trader Joe's

  • Double-creme French Brie
  • Wedge of Blue Cheese
  • Sharp White Cheddar Cheese (Best from Ireland or New Zealand)
  • Plain goat cheese log
  • 1/2 cup shelled pistachio nutmeats, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
  • One box pita crackers
  • One sleeve flatbread crackers with mixed seeds (get plain if you prefer)
To make goat cheese log: Pulse dried cranberries  in a food processor until coarsely chopped. Follow with the pistachios nutmeats, sifting any dust out afterwards. Mix pistachios and cranberries together. Lay goat cheese log on a piece of Syran Wrap topped with nut and berry mixtures. Using your hands, press handfuls of the mixture onto the goat cheese log until it is completed coated. Wrap in Syran Wrap and tightly twist ends to secure. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Goat Cheese log rolled in crushed pistachios and cranberries

Arrange cheeses on a platter
 When ready to serve, arrange cheeses on the platter. Make sure to unwrap goat cheese. For an extra touch, stick little signs in each cheese with the name and origin. Add crackers or baguette slices and serve!


Day #8 of Holiday Appetizers: Molasses Gingerbread with Mascarpone Cream & Orange Confit

Gingerbread. It's polarizing. Some people love it, some people hate it. I happen to fall in the first camp, where the smell of gingerbread reminds me of baking in my grandma's kitchen as a child. For a recent cocktail party, I decided to go for an adult version of the classic holiday bread, making a gingerbread cake topped with mascarpone cream and a slice of orange confit (it's basically candied orange peel). While the cake was baking our house smelled like Christmas, a little spicy from cinnamon and ginger and a little sweet from the rich aroma of molasses. Heaven, if you ask me. 

Molasses Gingerbread Bites with Mascarpone Cream and Orange Confit

I made the cake one day ahead and kept it wrapped in an airtight container, then simply sliced it into bite-sized pieces, piped on the whipped topping an added a mini slice of orange confit. You could certainly do without the cream and the orange, instead topping it with a glaze or eating it warm with some cinnamon ice cream. Either way, it's delicious. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Molasses Gingerbread Cake with Mascarpone Cream
Recipe from Food & Wine Magazine

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 3/4 cup boiling water
  • 1 orange, zest peeled with a vegetable peeler and sliced lengthwise into 1/8-inch strips
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup Mascarpone, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3/4 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
  • Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 9-inch square baking pan with vegetable cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the ground ginger, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk the canola oil with the brown sugar, molasses, honey, eggs and lemon zest until smooth. Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until combined. Whisk in the boiling water. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Set the pan on a rack and let the cake cool completely, about 2 hours.

Combine dry ingredients

Whisk wet ingredients until combined

Bake gingerbread batter until golden brown and light and fluffy

Cut cooled gingerbread into bite-sized pieces

In a medium saucepan, combine the strips of orange zest with the water and sugar. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat until syrupy and the orange zest is soft, about 30 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the orange confit to a plate; discard the syrup.

To make Orange Confit: Boil orange peel, sugar and water for 30 minutes or until tender and syrupy

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, beat the mascarpone with the cream, orange zest, confectioners' sugar and salt until soft peaks form. Cut the molasses-gingerbread cake into squares and transfer to plates. Dollop the mascarpone cream on top, garnish with the orange confit and serve.

Top with small dollop or piping of Mascarpone cream

Add small slice of Orange Confit to whipped cream. 

Serve and enjoy!
MAKE AHEAD: The cake can be wrapped in plastic and kept at room temperature for up to 2 days. The orange confit can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.


Day #7 of Holiday Appetizers: Spinach Artichoke Dip

If there is one ubiquitous appetizer, it's got to be spinach artichoke dip. It's at every party and everyone seems to love it. It's cheesy, creamy, oozy and gooey but with chunks of cooked spinach and artichoke that make you feel a little less guilty. Whatever; it's holiday season, indulge a little (or a lot)! A little cream and cheese won't hurt you! 

Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip with Fresh Baguette

A word of advice about making the dip: When I decided to make it from scratch, I thought it would be one of the easier appetizer recipes to follow. Turns out draining the liquid from the cooked spinach was a real task. I tried a few different ways and found the best method was to let the spinach cool and then squeeze out the liquid with my hands. Once you get past that, you're golden! Add in the cream and cheeses and bake it in the oven until it's golden brown bubbling. Slice a fresh baguette and serve!

Spinach Artichoke Dip
Recipe adapted from Food and Wine Magazine
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil, plus more for baking dish
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 pounds spinach, cleaned, trimmed, and coarsely chopped
  • 2 cans artichokes, drained and chopped
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 6 ounces reduced-fat bar cream cheese
  • 3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 dashes hot sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 3/4 cup shredded mozzarella
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper
  • Baguette slices, breadsticks, or crackers, for serving
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat oil over medium. Add onion and garlic; cook until lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Add spinach in two additions, letting the first batch wilt before adding the next; cook until completely wilted, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a colander; drain, pressing to release all excess liquid.

Saute onion and garlic until translucent

Add spinach in batches, waiting for one to wilt before adding the next

Stir wilted spinach with onion and garlic. Transfer spinach from pot to a colander to drain. Press and squeeze to until water is removed.
In the same pot, warm milk over high heat. Whisk in cream cheese until melted, about 3 minutes. Add spinach, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and 1/4 cup mozzarella; stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Pour into a lightly oiled 1 1/2-quart shallow baking dish; sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella. Bake until bubbly and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot with accompaniments, as desired.

Place spinach back into pot. Add cream cheese, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and Mozzarella and stir to combine

Transfer to a serving dish, surround with baguette slices and serve!


Day #6 of Holiday Appetizers: Classic Deviled Eggs

Can there possibly be a more perfect appetizer than a deviled egg? There are so many variations you can make of the deviled egg  -- spicy, sweet, seafood-filled -- but I'm a fan of the classic. Hard boiled eggs, Dijon and yellow mustard, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and a pinch of salt. Done and done. Putting the filling in a food processor gives it the a flawlessly smooth consistency, and taking the extra step to pipe the filling into each egg really kicks the presentation up a notch. The only downside to these beauties is that the cooking process makes your house smell like egg, so definitely do it the morning of your dinner party. Otherwise, they're guaranteed to disappear!
The Perfect Appetizer: Classic Deviled Eggs

Classic Deviled Eggs
  •  1 dozen large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons yellow mustard
  •  3 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt
  • Sweet paprika or pure ancho chile powder, for garnish
  • Minced chives, for garnish
In a medium saucepan, cover the eggs with cold water and bring to a rolling boil. Cover, remove from the heat and let stand for 12 minutes. Immediately drain the eggs and gently shake the pan to lightly crack the shells. Fill the pan with cold water and shake lightly to loosen the eggshells. Let stand until the eggs are cool. Drain and peel the eggs; pat dry. 

Cook eggs and let cool; remove shells

Cut eggs in half and remove yolks

Continue to remove yolks until all are removed

Cut the eggs in half lengthwise. Carefully transfer the yolks to a mini processor. Add the mayonnaise, Dijon and yellow mustards and Worcestershire sauce and pulse until smooth and creamy; season with salt. Using a pastry bag fitted with a star tip or a teaspoon, fill the egg whites with the yolk mixture. Arrange the eggs on a platter, garnish with paprika and serve.
Put egg yolks in a food processor with Dijon and yellow mustards, Worcestershire and salt. Blend until smooth.

Transfer egg yolk mixture to a piping bag fitted with a medium-sized star-shaped tip

Pipe yolk mixture into each egg white

Top each egg with a pinch of cayenne, ancho chile or paprika

Top each egg with a tiny sliver of chive (Hint: Use tweezers for best placement of chives)

Arrange on a serving platter and serve!


Day #5 of Holiday Appetizers: Parmesan, Gruyère & Thyme Cheese Straws

Savory, bite-sized snacks are probably my favorite things to munch on at cocktail parties. They're easy to grab, don't fill you up too much, pair fantastically with red wine or champagne (my drinks of choice), and are general crowd-pleasers. Case in point, my mini mac and cheese cups and Parmesan, Gruyère and thyme puff pastry twists. In the past, I've gone with store-bought versions of the twists from Trader Joe's but always found them to be too dry or have already broken into pieces in the box. So for our cocktail party I decided to make them from scratch. Looking back, I'm so glad I did. 

Parmesan, Gruyere and Thyme Puff Pastry Twists
Photo Courtesy of Food.com
The hardest part about this recipe is taking the time to defrost the puff pastry in the fridge. Aside from that, you grate some cheese, chop some thyme, throw some egg wash on the pastry, add the toppings, cut it into strips, twist onto a baking sheet and cook for 15 minutes. While the twists are baking, they fill your house with most delectable aroma of bubbling cheese and buttery pastry. It's absolutely fantastic and can be made one day ahead, just make sure to store them in an air-tight container.

Cheese Straws 
Recipe makes 22-24 long or 44-48 short straws
  • 2 sheets (1 box) frozen puff pastry (such as Pepperidge Farm), defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
  • Flour, for dusting
  • 1 extra-large egg
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1 cup finely grated Gruyère cheese
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
Directions: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Roll out each sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured board until it is 10- by 12-inches. Beat the egg with 1 tablespoon of water and brush the surface of the pastry. Sprinkle each sheet evenly with 1⁄4 cup of the Parmesan, 1⁄2 cup of the Gruyère, 1⁄2 teaspoon of the thyme, 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt, and some pepper. With the rolling pin, lightly press the flavorings into the puff pastry. Cut each sheet crosswise with a floured knife or pizza wheel into 11 or 12 strips. Twist each strip and lay on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

Clockwise from top left: Gruyere cheese, Parmesan cheese, thyme, egg

Place thawed puff pastry on cutting board

Roll out puff pastry dough to approximately 10" by 12"

Brush puff pastry with egg wash

Sprinkle cheeses and thyme on puff pastry sheet, gently pressing down with rolling pin to make sure toppings stay put

Cut into thin strips of desired length with a pizza cutter (hint: longer strips are easier to twist and keep their "twist" shape better while baking)

Twist strips and place on parchment-lined baking sheet
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly browned and puffed. Turn each straw and bake for another 2 minutes. Don't over bake or the cheese will burn. Cool and serve at room temperature.

Bake twists until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes

Place in your favorite serving bowl and enjoy!


Day #4 of Holiday Appetizers: Turkey & Basil Tea Sandwiches

Need a quick, easy and light appetizer for a crowd? These turkey and basil tea sandwiches will take you about 30 minutes to throw together and they're both darling and delicious. Get some cinnamon swirl bread, turkey, basil, make a scallion cream cheese and you're good to go. Okay, maybe it's a bit more involved than that, but I've got step-by-step directions and photos below. Enjoy!

Turkey Tea Sandwiches

Turkey Tea Sandwiches 
Recipe adapted from Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten

Scallion Cream Cheese:
  • 3/4 pound (12 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup minced scallions (white and green parts)
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 loaf dense raisin-nut or raisin cinnamon swirl bread, sliced
  • 8 thin slices peppered or smoked turkey breast
  • Fresh basil leaves

Directions: For the scallion cream cheese, combine the cream cheese, scallions and the salt and pepper in an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Do not whip.

For the sandwiches, have the store slice the bread lengthwise on a meat slicer into 1/4-inch-thick slices. (If that isn't possible, you can slice it crosswise with a very sharp knife.) Lay out 8 slices of bread and spread them all with a thin layer of scallion cream cheese. Place a single layer of turkey on half the slices, cutting the edges to fit the bread. Place the basil leaves randomly on top of the turkey. Top with the other 4 slices of bread, cream cheese side down. 

Combine cream cheese, scallions, salt and pepper in electric mixer 

Cinnamon Swirl Bread

Spread the scallion cream cheese on one side of the bread

Spread scallion cream cheese on the other slice of bread

Spread a layer of turkey and basil on one side of the bread

Lay the sandwiches on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, cover with damp paper towels and wrap the sheet with plastic. Refrigerate until the cream cheese is cold and firm. Place the sandwiches on a cutting board and, with a very sharp knife, cut off the crusts. Cut each large sandwich in half crosswise, and then cut each half diagonally, twice, to make a total of 8 small triangles. (If the bread was cut crosswise, follow the assembly directions, then cut off the crusts and cut diagonally, twice, to make 4 small triangles.) Serve chilled.

Close the sandwich, cut off the crusts and cut into quarters

Place quarters on a parchment-lined baking sheet

Turkey Tea Sandwiches


Day #3 of Holiday Appetizers: Wild Mushroom Cups

I'm not going to lie, these appetizers aren't the prettiest on the plate. I like to call them the Little Miss Sunshines of Appetizers because they might not be beauty queens, but my goodness are they great for entertaining. These little gems are perhaps some of the most delicious party appetizers I've ever had. My mom found the recipe in Bon Appetit Magazine about 15 years ago and has been making them at her cocktail parties ever since. As a kid, I used to sneak them off the baking sheets before being shipped off to grandma's house, hoping that there would be one (one!!) left for me after the party. Suffice to say I was always disappointed when I came back home; it didn't take me long to realize that if there's one appetizer guaranteed to be gone, these mushroom cups are it. And our party was no exception.

Mushrooms Cups: The Little Miss Sunshine of Appetizers

Forget the fact that they're slightly unattractive, the mushroom cups are so good that at our party I literally couldn't get them from the baking sheet to the platter. The minute the cups started baking friends would swarm the kitchen from the savory aroma, grabbing the steaming little cups and popping them in their mouths before I could even get them off the baking sheet. This time, however, I made sure to save a few for myself. :)

Here's how you make them: 

Mushroom Cups
Recipe from Bon Appetit Magazine, circa 1993
Makes 36 mushroom cups
  • 36 slices white bread
  • 5 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup minced onion
  • 1/2 pound mushrooms, minced (I use a mixture of Button, Cremini & Shiitake)
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tbsp finely chopped chives
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley leaves
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

DIRECTIONS: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut out a 3-inch round with a round cutter from each bread slice, press the rounds into 1/8-cup muffin tins, forming cups, and bake the cups in batches in the middle of the oven 12-15 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Transfer the cups to racks and let them cool. 
Use a cookie cutter to remove the cups from the pieces of bread

Continue until all pieces of bread have been cut out 

Press the rounds into 1/8" muffin rounds and bake until golden brown 

In a skillet melt the butter over moderately high heat and in it sauté the onion, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté the mixture, stirring, for 15 minutes, or until the liquid from the mushrooms is evaporated. Remove the skillet from the heat, sprinkle the flour over the mixture, and stir the mixture until it is combined well. Add the half and half, return the skillet to the heat, and cook the mixture over moderately high heat, stirring, until it is very thick. Remove the skillet from the heat, stir in the salt, the cayenne, the black pepper, and the chives, the parsley, and the lemon juice, and let the mixture cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F. 

Saute the butter and onion until soft

Add mushrooms and cook until the liquid has evaporated

Remove from heat and add flour. Stir to combine.

Add cream, seasonings and herbs and cook until mixture is very thick

Transfer the cups to a baking sheet, divide the mushroom mixture among them (I use a piping bag with a large round tip), and sprinkle the parmesan cheese on top. (The mushroom cups may be made up to this point and kept frozen, wrapped tightly. Reheat the mushrooms cups on a baking sheet in the middle of a preheated 350°F oven for 20 minutes, or until they are heated through). Bake the cups in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. Enjoy!

Pipe the mushroom mixture into the cups

Sprinkle Parmesan cheese on each mushroom cup and bake at 350 degrees until cheese is melted. Serve immediately and enjoy!

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