Story and photos by Brandon Matzek
Rule #1: Don't make everything from scratch.
Choose two or three recipes that you feel comfortable making, and accent these special dishes with high-quality, store-bought accompaniments. During the appetizer course, set out a bowl of homemade spiced nuts next to an array of purchased artisan cheeses, fresh fruit and charcuterie. For the main course, purchase a spiral ham or roast turkey, and make one or two gourmet side dishes. Sides like roasted garlic mashed potatoes and fresh cranberry sauce are simple to put together yet have an elevated feel.
Rule #2: Never experiment with new recipes.
Unless you're a seasoned home cook, always entertain with recipes that you've made before. The extra worry of dabbling in uncharted territories isn't needed and should be avoided.
Rule #3: Start with good drinks.
Greet your guests with a specialty cocktail or a good glass of wine, and the rest of the evening is guaranteed to be successful. After a few drinks, no one will even notice that your stuffing turned out a bit crispier than you had anticipated. If you are serving cocktails, make a large pitcher in advance or set up a DIY station where you guests can make their own drinks. You don't want to be shaking up individual cocktails all night long!
Rule #4: End with the perfect dessert.
If you're serving a light dinner, finish the meal with a decadent, show-stopper dessert. Ice cream, pie or cake are all good options. If you're serving a heavy dinner, finish the meal with a light dessert: ripe fruit with freshly whipped cream or a small, yet flavorful cookie. These spiced molasses cookies with vanilla frosting are the perfect finish to a rich, multi-course meal. Cinnamon, clove, ginger and allspice will enliven your taste buds, while the creamy vanilla frosting provides a silky, sweet counter.
Follow these four rules and you'll enjoy the party as much as your guests will.
Spiced molasses cookies with vanilla frosting
For the cookies:
2 1/3 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup dark unsulphured molasses
Turbinado sugar (natural, granulated brown sugar), for rolling
Vanilla frosting, for serving (store bought or homemade)
Prepare the dry ingredients. Sift together flour, baking soda, sea salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and allspice in a medium bowl.
Prepare the wet ingredients. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter, dark brown sugar and white sugar (beat on medium for several minutes until fluffy). Add egg and vanilla extract, beating until well incorporated. Add molasses and beat until combined.
Combine wet and dry. To the wet ingredients, add the dry ingredients (flour and spice mixture) in three additions. With each addition, beat only until just incorporated - over-mixing can result in tough cookies. Cover dough in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Scoop and bake. Preheat oven to 325°F and place a rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat (flexible, non-stick baking mat). Using a spoon, scoop approximately 1 teaspoon of dough, then roll the dough in your hands to form a ball. Roll each dough ball in the turbinado (natural brown) sugar (coating evenly), then place on the lined baking sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake for 12 - 14 minutes. For a softer, chewier cookie, pulling them out of the oven at around the 12-minute mark. For a crispier, crunchier cookie, remove them at minute 13 or 14. Let cookies cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack.
Serve. To serve at a holiday party, set up a cookie station with plates of spiced molasses cookies and a small bowl of the vanilla frosting. Guests can enjoy the cookies unadorned or spoon frosting over the top.
COOL GIFT: A 12x8" Silpat flexible baking mat, under $20 at Great News! in Pacific Beach (great-news.com)