“Are you having the Winter Solstice Party this year?” Yes, and I’m at the end of the three-month party preparation marathon! Ack!!
In September of 1994 I became the proud owner of a house that predates the Great Chicago Fire. I proceeded to gut it and create an 1,100 sq. ft. space where I can entertain and live comfortably. Since so many of my friends assisted with this project, I wanted to thank them with a party. This also gave Joan and me a forum to test recipes and hone our entertaining skills. December 21, 1995 I hosted the first of my annual Winter Solstice parties.
What to serve, what to serve…. That first year I over-reached, serving too many hot appetizers. I spent much of the evening running up and down between my kitchen oven and second oven in the basement. My guests never saw me! I learned lessons about menu planning slowly, but a pattern emerged of what works for me and what my friends enjoy.
Cheese. A varied cheese plate adds some ease for the host. I carefully included Neal’s Yard Dairy selections on mine. Introducing my friends to this London distributor that restored the farm-made cheese industry in Great Britain, was great fun. (Visiting and getting a tour was even more fun, thanks Shelley!) Now that most friends know and appreciate Neal’s Yard, the individual farms where their cheeses originate are distinguished on flags stuck in each cheese. Since I do make much of the menu myself, there are always queries about whether the cheese is homemade (yes, this is a tough crowd to entertain). So last year, I added homemade Bonhaus mozzarella, thanks to the teachings of the Cheese Queen. It disappeared very quickly!
After years of comments about the crackers not being handmade (again, tough crowd), I began making crackers a few years ago to accompany the cheese. It really is not difficult to make the dough ahead and keep it in the freezer until ready to bake a few days prior. Inverary Oatcakes, a recipe from a Nova Scotia trip, go especially well with creamy goat cheese. I also include crisp flatbread now since, it too is easy to roll out and bake.
Cold items. A vegetable tray adds color to the table and some freshness to the palate. Moroccan Spiced Olives from Barbara Kafke’s Party Food are well received, though in recent years I’ve had a hard time finding plain oil-cured olives. The Marinated Goat Cheese and Sun-dried Tomato and Pesto Torta are clamored for each year (yes, more cheese) and a Paulina Market smoked turkey holds court.
Hot items. The mini-quiches from Barbara Kafka’s Party Food cookbook continue to disappear off the serving trays. A bit tedious to make, they are fully prepared ahead and stored in the freezer until baked during the party as needed. This year I am confident enough to create a new one with caramelized fennel, cumin and coriander…we’ll see how they turn out. A few years ago, I created a corn empanada that became a huge hit with demand reappearances from my diverse crowd.
Cookies. An essential for me. I usually present a number of Cookies of Good Fortune along with Alice’s Sugar cookies, and chocolaty Special Florentines out of the Bon Appetit, December 1985 issue. There are also Shortbread and Orange Snowballs from Betty Crocker recipes which I learned to make with Mom and my sister, Ginger, while growing up.
While it is a marathon to get this party off the ground each year, the traditions we create for and with our family and friends bring us joy. To gather together and see friends from different parts of my life, happily greet each other and launch into “catching up” is a real delight. Every year I ask myself if I really want to do this again. But I imagine the setting, and the people, and know that this joy and delight is what makes my house a home.
- Party Food, Small & Savory by Barbara Kafka (1992) is a party planning inspiration.
- My mother has (and I covet) the binder version of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. I found the hard cover version (second edition, 1956) at a book fair enough years ago that it is now binding challenged. I see a copy is being sold used on the Internet for $59.98, yikes!