The lights are low. Holiday music is in the air and you are ready to welcome your guests. As you put a drink in their hand they coo over the bountiful display of hors d'oeuvres on the countertop — always a welcoming sight on a cold winter night.
The consummate host has food and drink ready when the first guest enters the door (of course, if they are obscenely early you put them to work in the kitchen) and with a little planning it can be done gracefully.
Liz Barbour, a teaching chef (thecreativechef.com), recommends getting dishes made ahead of time and freezing them if necessary. Also, she suggests, there’s no shame in purchasing ready-made items to flesh out the menu. But think a bit outside the box and offer twists on the usual suspects.
Instead of the typical cheese and crackers, offer a charcuterie tray with fine Italian deli meats, including proscuitto, hot calabrese, sopressata, hot capicolla and an asssortment of cooked patés. Round out the display with cornichons, a thinly sliced fresh-baked baguette and a coarsely-ground mustard. Open the conversation with food people may have not tried, like caviar. For the cheese element, use a log of soft goat cheese, a hard sheep’s milk cheese and drizzle the display with a good quality “first press” olive oil. Barbour also suggests the old stand-by, celery sticks, but this time sticking out of a clear glass bowl filled with herbed ice cubes. Make the cubes earlier in trays of water with a few surprising seasonal elements frozen inside, such as star anise, pink peppercorns or cranberries. Barbour offers recipes on her Web site, www.thecreativechef.com
To get you thinking more creatively, we have asked a few top chefs in the state to offer a few solid suggestions for a tasty holiday party.
Salmon Torte with Dill Crème Frâiche
Surely the Germans know how to celebrate the holidays. This Lachs Torte mit Dill Crème Frâiche from Robert Graf, chef/owner of the Inn at Danbury, is attractive and creative. The difficult part of this dish can be done ahead and frozen.
1/2 pound of smoked salmon
12 chives chopped
For Dill Crème Frâiche garnish:
1 tablespoon dill chopped
1/2 cup crème frâiche
For Cream Cheese Filling:
4 ounces cream cheese
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
1/2 lemon, juiced
Warm cream cheese to room temperature in your kitchen before assembly.
Add all the ingredients for filling and beat with hand held mixer and set aside.
For the Crêpes:
4 large eggs
2/3 cup milk
1/2 cup flour
Pinch of salt and pepper
Butter for frying
Beat eggs with a mixer and add the rest of the ingredients. Continue to mix well until all flour is absorbed. Batter should be a thin consistency. Heat a tablespoon of butter in an 8- or 9-inch non-stick pan until melted.
Pour 1/4 cup of mix in pan and swirl around to make an 8-inch round crêpe. Flip when crêpe is set and fry for another 90 seconds. Continue with the rest of the batter — you should make 4 crêpes.
Spread a thin layer of cream cheese mixture on 3 of the crêpes. Put a layer of the smoked salmon on just one crêpe, place the second one on top and add more salmon. Repeat with third crêpe and place plain crêpe on top. Place a flat bottom pan on top and press down to even out the torte. Wrap torte in plastic wrap and freeze for minimum one hour.
In the meantime mix the crème frâiche and the dill and chill in refrigerator.
When you are ready to serve it, remove the torte from the freezer and let sit for about 20 minutes. Before it is completely thawed, trim and even out the edges and press chopped chives around the edge. Cut into 16 - 20 small wedges. Put on a pretty platter and garnish with thin lemon slices under torte. Pipe or spoon a little of the crème frâiche mixture on top and serve.
Maple Laced Butternut Squash Bisque
Executive Chef Martin LeGay of the Crown Plaza in Nashua offers this rich savory soup to be served in espresso cups or in a hollowed out pumpkin.
1/2 cup medium white onion (medium dice)
1/4 cup celery (medium dice)
1/4 cup leek (white part only, medium dice)
1 ounce butter
28 ounces peeled and seeded butternut squash (large rough dice)
1 cup heavy cream
3 3/4 cups chicken stock/broth
1/2 cup pure New Hampshire maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
fine chopped chives and sliced toasted almonds
Sauté onions, celery, leeks and cinnamon in butter and season with salt and pepper. Add squash, broth and cream and simmer 30 minutes until squash is tender. Puree with hand blender or move to traditional blender and then pour back into the pot. Whisk in maple syrup and season with more salt and pepper to taste.
Serve in shot glasses or demitasse cups. Garnish with fine chopped chives and sliced toasted almonds.
Chilled Pear Soup
Food writer Hillary Davis loves to host holiday parties. This is one of her favorites. In small fruit juice glasses this serves 16.
8 ripe pears
3 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup heavy cream
Purée the pears in a blender. Add purée to a pot with water and sugar. Simmer for about 3 minutes.
Add ginger and simmer about 2 minutes. Cool mixture in fridge for up to 24 hours.
Just before serving, add chilled cream and mix well. Pour into shot glasses and garnish with candied ginger or a fresh slice of pear dipped in lemon juice.
Stuffed Grape Leaves
Chef Evan Mallot of the Black Trumpet Bistro in Portsmouth offered this holiday take on a Greek/Turkish meze. Makes about 20 stuffed leaves that can be made a day ahead.
1 jar of brined grape leaves (found in the international food section)
1 package of your favorite rice mixture (about 2 cups)
1/2 cup chopped nuts (pinenuts are nice)
1/2 cup chopped dried fruit, like apricots, figs or dates
Mix the cooked rice (cooled), nuts and fruits together and dab 2 tablespoons in the center of each opened grape leaf. Tuck in both sides of the leaf and roll up tightly.
Maple Glazed Shrimp and Butternut Squash With Gorgonzola Fondue
This savory and sweet seafood appetizer comes from Chef Justin Lyonnaise of the Commercial Street Fishery in Manchester. Skewers can be prepared ahead and roasted just before serving.
For the skewer:
12 wooden skewers soaked in apple cider
12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
24 pieces butternut squash largely diced — blanched (cooked until tender, not soft) and cooled
For the glaze:
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons minced rosemary
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/8 cup cider vinegar
Mix all glaze ingredients with a wire whisk until well combined. In separate bowls toss the shrimp and squash with the maple glaze and let sit for 1 hour. Alternate shrimp-squash on individual skewers and roast in a pre-heated 400 degree oven for 7-10 minutes until lightly browned and caramelized.
Arrange skewers around fondue in a small fondue pot or small slow cooker.
For the fondue:
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1 teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper
Simmer cream over medium heat until reduced by half. Slowly whip in Gorgonzola until melted, season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
Cranberry and Walnut Baked Brie with Cinnamon herb crostini
Chef Gerardo Tona of Intermezzo in Peterborough suggests this variation on warm brie. Filling can be made a day ahead and reheated.
14 ounce wheel of brie cheese
1/4 cup of walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup of dried cranberries
1/2 cup of brandy
1 tablespoon of brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg
pinch of salt and pepper
1 French baguette
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of granulated sugar
pinch salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Make sure the brie cheese is nice and cool before peeling off the wax rind. Cut in half horizontally with a chef’s knife and set aside.
In a small pot combine brandy, dried cranberries and brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook until cranberries hydrate. Pour mixture over one half of the brie cheese (save excess liquid) and spread evenly like a filling. Place the other half of brie on top and place in a pie dish. Sprinkle the walnuts, salt and pepper on top and pour excess liquid over it.
Bake for 20 minutes in oven at 375 degrees.
For the crostini:
Cut the french baguette on a angle into thin slices. Put slices on a sheet pan and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle on dry ingredients. Bake for approx- imately 4 minutes in oven at 375 degrees until lightly toasted.
Food for Thought
Building Sugar-Coated Memories
A gingerbread house can be a creative outlet or just a lot of fun for the family.
By Master Baker Stephen James
The holidays are all about family and friends and spending time with children. What better way than to make your own gingerbread house? It doesn’t matter if it looks more like the buildings at StoryLand (in Glen, N.H.) leaning from side to side with a crooked roof. It’s all about getting together and having fun and making your own gingerbread house, which can be hilarious. The biggest mistake made when building gingerbread houses is getting too serious. The process should be whimsical and fun, and the end result will be, too.
The dough used to make gingerbread houses is edible but not usually eaten. The dough needs to be stronger so it can hold the weight of all the goodies you decide to put on the top and sides of your creation. Just remember there are no rules to making gingerbread houses, just use your imagination and you’re off and running to having the most fun you can have without a barrel of monkeys.
Let me offer you some tips to help you get started:
Have the dough made and the pieces cut out and baked several days ahead so the pieces are well dried and all that’s left to do is assemble the house and decorate.
Don’t make the gingerbread house too big. All you need is six pieces of dough rolled out and cut. Two pieces for the roof (10" x 5.5"), two pieces for the front and back of the house (8.5" for the peak of the roof x 5.5") and two pieces for the sides of the house (8.5" x 5.5"). That’s all you need — the scraps can serve as the chimney, woodpile, shutters, fences, etc.
After rolling out the dough, refrigerate the dough again or freeze it slightly to allow for cleaner cutting of the pieces. The dough cuts straighter when cold.
Don’t be worried if the house is not perfect, it’s not supposed to be. If you need to straighten the sides of a baked and dried gingerbread piece, use a hand grater to grate the piece to the shape you want it.
Put the house on a base of thin plywood or thick cardboard wrapped in foil. The base I use is 14” x 14”. This allows for some landscaping.
You need to have your glue or icing made and ready to use. Also have your ingredients on hand such as marshmallows to create figures, candy canes, different colors of licorices, shredded coconut, candies such as M&Ms and gumdrops. I really like the small bite-size pretzels for the log pile. I also use a half-and-half mixture of powdered sugar and cornstarch for the snow.
Remember to take pictures of the houses — they look better with time.
Stephen James is the executive chef of the Galley Hatch Hospitality Group.
Gingerbread house Dough for Display
This is also fat-free.
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ginger
1/4 cup water
2 cups molasses
9 cups flour (2 lbs. 3 ounces)
Combine the sugar and water. Add the molasses. Sift the dry ingredients together.
Add the dry ingredients to the sugar mixture. Mix until dough forms.
Place dough onto a floured sheet pan and flatten slightly. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
The glue used to put house together is four eggs whites to as much powdered sugar needed (about 7 cups) to make a thick, smooth paste.
This article appears in the December 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine