A “Better” Approach to the Cocktail Party

Cupcakes, Crostinis, and Cocktails- Oh my!

It’s that time of year, when Holiday parties are filling up your iCal left and right. You might even be thinking of throwing one yourself! Putting together the perfect cocktail party might sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. As the host or hostess, you get to set the ground-rules for a festive evening of fabulous food and dazzling drinks. I’ve got a few tips and tricks up my sleeve to get you started, all of which I’ve demonstrated for Better TV. Check your local listings and watch us December 16th! Here’s what you need to put together a fabulously delicious evening…

1. Prepare No-Cook Hors D’oeuvres

Delicious food doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, I much prefer to keep it simple and focus on high-quality ingredients. Start your evening with a couple of no-cook appetizers like my Avocado Bruschetta and my Smoked Salmon Crostini.

They’re easy to assemble and absolutely delicious! The key is to get the highest quality ingredients for each: burrata mozzarella, smoked salmon, and fresh avocados. Just arrange them on a couple of trays and let your guests graze.

2. Create the Ultimate Cheese Platter

Everyone loves a meat and cheese platter, and it takes minimal effort from the host or hostess. Here are some tips to get started:

First thing’s first: befriend your cheese monger! Taste samples before buying and ask which cheeses and meats compliment each other.

Plan on 1 to 2 ounces of each cheese per person, and choose a variety of cheeses with a common theme. I always choose Italy, for obvious reasons, and look for cow, sheep, goat, hard, semi-soft, and soft.

Make sure to put out a mild cheese like Manchego or for shy eaters and a stinky blue cheese for the more adventurous folks.

Some of my favorites are truffled goat cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, asiago, Peppercorn cheddar, gorgonzola, and taleggio.

When it comes to meats, you also want a variety: spicy soppresata, everyone’s favorite Prosciutto, Mortadella, and salami are always popular.

Compliment your platter with artisanal honeys, jams and spreads-both sweet and salty. I love to put out Lavender Honey and Rosemary Honey with my charcuterie. Nuts and olives are also great accompaniments!

Offer a variety of crackers or sliced bread and be sure to put out individual knives for each cheese.

Presentation matters! Use a wood, slate, or marble platter and labels or markers to showcase each cheese, so you’re not explaining them to your guests all night.

Prepare the cheese platter and set out 1/2 hour before guests arrive, so that the cheese comes to room temperature.

3. Fake it if You Can’t Make it

Even if you’re not the most skilled chef, you can still throw a fabulous cocktail party. Just fake it ’til you make it! Purchasing quality pre-made snacks are totally fine and just as impressive as making them yourself. I love putting out a high-quality hummus like Tribe, which comes in unique flavors like Rosemary Focaccia (my fave!) and Carrot Ginger.

You can also present a semi-homemade version by purchasing the original flavor and jazzing it up with fresh herbs like chopped dill or a sprinkle of paprika. A drizzle of high-quality extra virgin olive oil and some roughly chopped chick peas are also a nice touch. Serve it with some fancy pita chips or crudité (raw vegetables).

4. Create Interesting Presentation

Speaking of “faking it,” why should you slave away in the kitchen if you’ve got a perfectly good bakery or sweets shop in your home town? Make them your own by purchasing a variety of flavors, and present them on beautiful cake-stands and trays of varying heights. Don’t over crowd the stands or over-think the presentation. Just create little clusters of treats in a perfectly imperfect manner.

5. Serve Interesting & Unique Cocktails

What’s a cocktail party without interesting cocktails? Instead of playing bartender all night with too many bottles and sticky mixers, opt for creating 2-3 signature drinks.

If the party is small, start your guests off with a Prosecco Float, made from lemon sorbet and Martini Sparkling Prosecco. For a touch of glam- rim the glass with edible gold dust or sparkly sprinkles. Another option is to purchase individual Prosecco bottles and serve them with a pretty straw! #ChefTip: Paper straws stay put better than plastic. I like using white and red striped straws around Christmas as they look like candy canes!

For a larger party, Allan always makes his Signature Sangria. He switches up the fruit based on the seasons (peaches and orange for summer or apples and cinnamon for winter) and serves it in a self-serve vessel for easy-access. This one from Frontgate.com is great- it keeps the sangria cool for hours!

Tired of Sangria? Give my beloved Negroni Campari a try. You can make this ahead of time, so it also becomes self-serve. It’s a very popular drink in Italy and one of my favorites! There are few ingredients in the Negroni, so makes sure to buy the best brands you can afford.

Jello shots are always a hit at parties. Think elegant and playful instead of “frat party,” by using ice wine and frozen grapes as garnish. Make these in advance and serve them in individual shot glasses or cut them into squares. Here’s my recipe!

Finally, offer 1 red wine option, 1 white wine, and 1 or 2 types of beer. Just like the cheese tray, I like to stick to one region and have a common theme. Salute!

Donatella Arpaia

Donatella Arpaia is a chef, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and mother. She has built an empire of successful restaurants drawing on the skills, passion, methods, and love for food she learned from her family.