Casual Holiday Hosting 

Tasty treats and drinks you can whip up in minutes for your guests.

Sometimes the holidays are too much work and not enough fun. Luckily, not every holiday gathering requires you to be trapped in the kitchen for eighteen hours, bathed in your own sweat. The best gatherings are usually the ones you don't plan for: when everyone comes back to your place after a movie, or when you make last-minute plans to catch up with an old friend one afternoon. Once you have a guest or two in your home, it's nice to have something edible to offer. The best strategy is to stock the kitchen with a few specific drinks and snacks in mind. Since you're laying out only nibbles, make them elegant.

Below are a few recipes that you can make in minutes after you've feathered your nest with the right foodstuffs. Most of the required ingredients will keep for several weeks unopened. If you have some fruit or vegetables in the house, you can slice them up to accompany these appetizers.

Dates with Blue Cheese

1 pound large dried dates (medjools make a fine show)

1 five-to-six-ounce wedge Point Reyes blue cheese

Preheat oven (even a toaster oven will do) to three hundred degrees.

Remove the pits from the dates by making lengthwise incisions with a small paring knife. Stuff a tiny dab of blue cheese into each date and squeeze them closed again.

Bake seam side up in a small baking dish for fifteen to twenty minutes or until bubbly.

Place hot dates on a platter, seam side down. Skewer each one with a toothpick. Serve promptly.

Smoked Salmon Bites

Half loaf plain challah bread

4 tablespoons butter

6 ounces smoked salmon, thinly sliced

Half cup sour cream

Half bunch chives

Wash, dry, and mince the chives. Set aside.

Cut the challah bread into half-inch slices.

Heat two tablespoons of the butter in a large frying pan till bubbly. Toast the challah slices in the butter. Brown both sides. Add the next two tablespoons of butter when the pan runs dry and continue browning slices of bread.

Drape a piece of salmon over each slice and cut into two or three bites using a sharp knife. Garnish each with a small dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of chives.

This appetizer goes nicely with the champagne drinks.

Deviled Eggs with California Caviar

1 dozen high-quality eggs

1 small jar California caviar

Half cup sour cream

Half cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon salt

California caviar is a great way to enjoy a holiday treat without further endangering the sturgeon of the Caspian Sea. The white sturgeon that bring you California caviar are native to the American Northwest, but live in the Sacramento Valley on fish farms. Their shimmering roe rivals the Russian stuff. Look for small jars at Whole Foods Markets and other nice food stores.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over a high heat. Reduce the heat slightly and gently lower the eggs to the bottom of the pot using a slotted spoon.

Cook the eggs for ten minutes. (Set a timer.) While the eggs are cooking, combine ice cubes and cold water in a large bowl. Once the eggs are cooked, transfer them to the ice bath and let them cool completely.

Peel the eggs and slice them in half lengthwise. Drop the yolks into a bowl while being careful not to tear the whites.

Mash the yolks and add the sour cream, mayonnaise, mustard, and salt. Use a hand mixer, potato masher, food processor, or a fork to cream this mixture till smooth.

Scoop yolk mixture into a large plastic bag. Snip off one corner of the bag and pipe the mixture into the egg whites, topping each half with a few grains of California caviar.

Serve at once or chill up to eight hours. If chilled, let the eggs warm up for ten minutes or so before serving.

Candied Spiced Nuts

1 cup walnuts

1 cup almonds

1 cup cashews

1 cup macadamia nuts

1 cup pecans

2 egg whites

Half cup sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. ground cumin

2 tsp. cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Look for the nuts in the bulk section at the grocery store, or buy small packages of each. Don't forget to buy kosher salt; it really makes a difference in this recipe.

Beat the egg whites with a hand mixer or whisk until they form soft peaks. Whisk the sugar, salt, and spices into the egg whites and toss the mixture with all the nuts in a large bowl.

Scatter the nuts in a single layer on ungreased cookie sheets and bake for fifteen minutes.

Stir the nuts around and reduce the oven heat to 250 degrees. Bake the nuts an additional ten minutes or until deep golden brown.

Cool the nuts completely before breaking them apart and putting them in an airtight tin.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

Serves up to eight

1 box Ibarra Mexican chocolate

Half gallon Straus organic milk

Shake the milk jug vigorously. Straus milk is not homogenized, so the fat in the low-fat or full-fat versions sits at the top of the bottle like a cork.

Measure out one cup of milk per person into a saucepan. Heat over a medium-low flame and whisk until the milk is hot but not boiling.

Assemble blender and drop in two wedges of chocolate per cup of milk. The Ibarra chocolate comes in round disks darted with wedges. Note: Most blenders can only hold four cups of milk at a time, so it's best to make the cocoa in shifts for a crowd. Three cups on milk and six wedges of chocolate at a time is perfect.

Pour the hot milk over the chocolate and blend for several seconds till chocolate is incorporated. Pour into bowls and serve immediately.

Hot Buttered Rum

Serves four

1 1/4 cup dark rum (such as Myers')

4 cups apple cider (noncarbonated)

1 lemon

4 cinnamon sticks

8 cloves

Quarter tsp. ground nutmeg

Half stick butter, cubed

1 tablespoon honey

Use a vegetable peeler or small knife to skin off four long shreds of lemon zest. Place the zest in a small bowl with the cinnamon sticks, cloves, and nutmeg.

Place a heatproof pitcher and four mugs in a low oven (200 degrees or less) to warm.

Put the apple cider in a saucepan and heat till boiling.

Pull the pitcher out of the oven (using an oven mitt if needed) and pour the bowl of seasonings into it, followed by the rum.

Next, pour the hot cider over the rum and seasonings and stir in the cubes of butter and honey. Serve right away in the warmed mugs, giving each a cinnamon stick.

Benedictine Beauties

Serves five

1 bottle champagne, chilled

1 box white sugar cubes

1 small bottle Benedictine

(herbal liqueur)

1 small bottle crme de cacao

(chocolate liqueur)

1 lemon

Divide ten sugar cubes evenly between two shallow bowls. Drench one bowl with Benedictine, the other with crème de cacao.

Place one cube from each bowl in the bottom of the champagne glasses. Fill each glass with champagne. Garnish with lemon peel and serve at once.

Whiskey Sour Punch

Serves sixteen

2 cups whiskey

1 twelve-ounce can frozen orange juice concentrate

1 twelve-ounce can frozen lemonade concentrate

1 two-liter bottle club soda

One-third cup lime juice

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 oranges

1 jar maraschino cherries

Ice

Combine the frozen juice concentrates with the whiskey and a little more than half the bottle of club soda.

Squeeze several limes to get a third of a cup of juice, or use bottled, unsweetened lime juice. Pour the juice and the sugar into the punch and stir till sugar is dissolved.

Wash and dry the oranges. Slice them into rounds about a third of an inch thick, picking out any seeds.

Garnish punch with the orange slices and maraschino cherries. Serve punch on the rocks or add ice to the punch bowl.

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