We recently asked Food Network fans on Twitter to send their party-themed questions to an entertaining pro, Giada de Laurentiis. Just in time for New Year’s Eve, Giada shares tips to ensure you enjoy your own party, as much as your guests do. Click the play button above to watch Giada answer fan questions and get some of her party recipes below.
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When I was younger the thing I loved most about the holiday season was the dizzying array of cookies, candies and breakfast cakes that would suddenly appear in the our house. A practiced food sneak, I’d spirit away frosted sugar cookies and waxed paper-wrapped caramels and eat them in the luxurious privacy of my bedroom closet.
My parents were on to my sugar-seeking ways and would do their best to conceal the best of the treats from me so that I didn’t eat them all in a single day (I’ve since learned much about moderation). The one thing they never needed to tuck behind the cereal boxes on top of the refrigerator was the gingerbread. A yearly gift from our next-door neighbor, it was dense, heavy and smelled just slightly of bourbon. It was clearly not a cake for kids.
But as so often happens in life, my tastes have evolved over the years. The cookies I once craved now seem disgustingly sweet and that gingerbread I scorned appeals to me more than ever. That original recipe is long since gone (our neighbor died when I was 13), but I’ve spent the last few years searching out a similarly solid, barely sweetened cake to make and give out during the holiday season.
Though winter isn’t officially here according to the calendar, early sunsets and chilly nights mean that it’s fast approaching. As someone who loves daylight and loses steam once the sky goes dark, it’s around this time each year that I put my antihibernation plan into action.
During these darker months, my natural inclination is to burrow down — to stay close to home and not surface again until the warmer days return. While this might have been an appropriate survival strategy during another era, in my current life, it initiates a most unpleasant spiral of isolation. This is no good for anyone.
And so I fight back against this tendency to hole up using food. I throw dinner parties and invite friends over for spur-of-the-moment potlucks. I organize brunch outings. I make extra large batches of soup and carry it to harried neighbors. And at least once a weekend, I make an extra large casserole, just in case.
These days, one of my favorite recipes is Giada’s Greek Noodle Casserole. It’s essentially a slightly simplified version of Pastitsio and ends up tasting like an exotic, homemade version of Hamburger Helper. For those of us who grew up on the stuff (it is what my dad would make on nights when he was in charge), that makes this endlessly comforting and familiar. Perfect for combating short days and cooking as your Weekender.
I suspect that many basic round white plates or sets of plates adorn many tables around the country for the holidays and for everyday use. Square plates and even triangular dishes have also made a splash on many a table top store display and Web site. But what’s the solution if you have a few of one and some of another shape? How do you know if your table needs a little seasonal shape-shifting?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Layer two square-shaped plates on top of a round shape to create a bit of holiday panache. Most round plates have a rim around the edge to contain sauces or meat juices. These will serve as a great base.
2. Square plates without lips or borders look great atop round plates. Instead of nesting them atop the round plate to form a square, try fanning both plates in a diamond pattern (see photo above), the way bartenders always fan out the cocktail napkins. It’s a little fancy and a bit unexpected.
My Grandma Bunny was known for her spinach salad. It was one of her most regularly requested recipes by friends and made an appearance on her table at nearly every family gathering. She would search out adolescent leaves, wanting greens that would relax upon dressing and tossing, but not wilt immediately. Palm-sized leaves were avoided, as they were too old to be eaten without the application of heat.
Once the right spinach was chosen, it was washed carefully (I think this was in part to give an eager grandchild an opportunity to help). I’d climb up on a stool next to the kitchen sink and swish the leaves around until Bunny was certain they’d released all their grit. Once they were clean, she’d shake off the big droplets and heap them into a large pillowcase that was fitted with a drawstring. She’d take the pillowcase outside and twirl it around over her head. More efficient than a salad spinner and far more entertaining for small children.
Then it was time to make the dressing. It started with a few slices of minced bacon and ended with slices of mushrooms, cooked until tender but not rubbery. That, along with slivered red onions, a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper finished the salad. It was warm, savory and still wonderfully crisp.
On Sunday night, a day before Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the mid-Atlantic, my husband and I had some friends over for dinner. We went back and forth, debating whether it was a good idea to encourage people to come out in what we were told was going to be ever-worsening weather.
After a brief consultation with the weather oracles and our invite list, we pushed on with our little gathering. I made two pots of soup. Friends brought bread, cheese, meatballs and wine. We sat around our living room for hours, munching our way through nearly all the food and appreciating the feeling of being part of a community.
When all that was left were empty bowls, a few crumbs and a cheese rind or two, I brought out dessert. Often, when faced with the challenge of choosing a dessert to serve to guests, I flounder. I waffle between making some ridiculously complicated confection that ends up tasting good but looking terrible or I choke entirely and dash out for cookies and ice cream.
With Halloween just hours away, you’re likely feeling prepared for this spooky-sweet holiday by now. Candy and costumes? Check, check. Trick-or-treat plans? Made them. Extra candy? Of course. But then your child comes home from school and announces that he’s volunteered to bring in treats for his classroom Halloween party tomorrow. What do you do? Instead of relying on your secret stash of candy bars to save the day, try preparing easy, kid-friendly sweet treats that will wow your child and surely be the talk of the elementary school.
To start, follow Sandra Lee’s lead and embrace the magic that is Semi-Homemade Cooking. Her Monster Cupcakes come together in just 20 quick minutes, thanks to pre-made unfrosted cupcakes. The secret to working with store-bought goodies is putting your own signature spin on them. These cupcakes, for example, become extra special and look downright homemade once you — or your kids — decorate them. Sandra opts for green-tinted frosting and colorful candies to create simple, silly monsters.
Each year around Halloween I find myself feeling nostalgic for elementary school — for class parties, costume parades on the playground and a plastic pumpkin bursting with candy. I also find myself craving my mom’s honeyed popcorn. It was her signature treat to give to friends and neighbors for the holiday.
After dinner when all the dishes were cleaned and put away, she’d fire up our yellow-and-white air popper and keep it running until she had filled a clean brown paper grocery bag with the popped corn. Once that task was finished, she’d melt butter and honey together into a thick syrup and pour it over the popped corn, using her longest-handled wooden spoon to help stir it all up.
The sweetened corn would then get spread across rimmed cookie sheets and would go into the oven for 10 or 15 minutes, to help set and crisp the kernels. The next day when it was cool, she’d package it up in plastic bags, secured with orange and black twist ties. My sister and I always got small bags in our lunch the day after she made it.
There has always been something deliciously spooky about wire baskets. Even the quaintest Victorian type conjures up memories of my Connecticut childhood when small groups of us ventured out on Halloween, letting the owls guide our way down seemingly endless and dark winding drives to the trick-or-treat prize.
Now I love placing something orange (but not too bright) or a dulled red fruit in a wire basket as a nod to the Halloween palette. Something with an irregular shape, a root vegetable perhaps, also looks great in a black wire basket, especially when it’s sticking out through the wire.
I’ve seen black wire baskets in stores and on many websites this season, and am quite fond of the vintage pieces from any century or style: Victorian, art deco, midcentury or shabby chic. Any of these will do.
Since they have a common denominator of black wire, the styles mix well. With their various shapes and sizes, they create a wonderful focal point, either in a row or clumped together on a coffee table, or by the entrance or front steps, where trick-or-treaters or party guests will be sure to spot them.
Even the most delicious cuisine is enhanced by presentation. Think of it as a backdrop, a stage set that brings your feast to life. What I bring to the party is everything but the food itself. I’ve always been fascinated by how food is presented on tables and settings of all types. In this new weekly column, I’ll be sharing my favorite design snippets and scenarios, based on my adventures as a Food Network designer and an avid connoisseur of style and design. So feel free to indulge here, but with your eyes only.
Think of these as essential presentation elements. The collectible trivet, from the most basic to the highly embellished, protects your counter and table surfaces from heat damage.