I’m in Paris, where the city’s lights are sparkling and Joyeux Noël signs are everywhere. Bûches de Noël and colorful sweets in every pastry shop, too. But I’m saving those for another edition of xoxoDorie. This week, I’m thinking about having friends in for drinks and nibbles, or drinks and nibbles and dinner, or any combination that will bring the people I love together after being apart for so long.
I’m also thinking about how to make everyone feel comfortable and happy. And how not to make myself crazy in the process. Guests can never be comfy if the host is in the kitchen cursing the canapés. I know – I’ve been on both sides of the dilemma. And I keep promising myself that I’ll follow my own advice and keep everything as simple as possible. And that I’ll remember the two golden rules for parties:
Start strong: Give your friends something tasty early on and good cheer will prevail.
Finish strong: Dessert is the last memory of the evening, so make it fun.
We’ll never stop talking about dessert here, but for today, I want to help us all figure out how to get the party started.
The French are masters of the aperitif, or apéro – a great word that can refer to that time before dinner when you might have a drink (think cocktail hour) or, somewhat confusingly, it can also refer to the drink itself or even what you might nibble with the drink.
If you’re having an aperitif at home before you’ll be serving dinner, you’ll want to keep it light. Ideally, the apéro should be just enough to whet your guests’ appetites, but never so much that it dampens the prospect of dinner. I’ve never understood the French affection for serving cherry tomatoes (no matter the season) as an offering with drinks. For sure tomatoes will never spoil anyone’s appetite, but it’s doubtful that they’ll excite any appetites either. Other French favorites include nuts (love them), savory crackers, almost always store-bought (fine), and olives (love them).
I’ll often serve nuts and olives and a little something else, something homemade. Starting with something homemade is like declaring: Tonight is special and I’m glad we’re together. Scroll down – I’ve got a few ideas and recipes for simple homemade nibbles, any one of which would be perfect to kick off a dinner.
Stay tuned, I’ll be back with a great recipe for holiday brunch.
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I’m happy to go along with the French habit of setting out small bowls of nuts to munch on with drinks before dinner, but I like to gussy up the nuts a bit and make them a surprise. Nuts take easily to spices and herbs, to sweetness and heat, to a sprinkle of imagination: There are a million mixtures that will make a million tasty nuts. This one from EVERYDAY DORIE has fresh thyme, salt, cinnamon and chile powder (piment d’Espelette or cayenne, for example) as well as butter, brown sugar and maple syrup. They’re fun to make and fun to play around with – switch up the herbs, the spices, the sweeteners and you’ll have your own house blend.
See the name rillettes (rhee-yet) and you’re usually looking at pork, goose or duck meat cooked in its own fat, shredded, chilled and ready to be spread on rounds of baguette. But rillettes can be many other things as well. There are vegetable rillettes – I fell in love with this carrot and mustard rillettes (MEG: there’s a recipe in EvD for this) when I had it at The Modern in New York City a few years ago – tuna rillettes, sardines rillettes and my favorite, salmon rillettes, which mixes poached fresh salmon and chopped smoked salmon. Like all of my most favorite recipes, this one lends itself to being played around with. The version I often make is bound with mayo and flavored with honey, mustard, cilantro and dill, and so it’s almost French. Sometimes I pack it into canning jars, sometimes into a small terrine. Sometimes I serve it on slices of baguette (think French crostini), sometimes on crackers and sometimes, if I’m feeling a little fancy, I’ll spoon the rillettes into the curve of an endive leaf and top it with salmon roe. A great nibble for the holidays – one that’s good with Champagne.
As many of you know, I love greeting friends at the door with wine and hot-from-the-oven gougères. It’s become a tradition, but it remains a delight. Last week, my first in Paris, I did what I always do, I made a double batch of dough for gougères, scooped them out onto a parchment-lined tray and froze them. I made 100 and have already baked 40 this week! I love knowing that they’re tucked away and at the ready.
A perfect little surprise nibble made from ingredients you can always have on hand: frozen puff pastry and Dijon mustard. When I was first told about this French classic, I loved the idea but thought it was too simple to include as a recipe in AROUND MY FRENCH TABLE. I was right about it being simple and wrong about it being too simple to be written: It turned out to be a crowd pleaser! Basically nothing more than mustard sandwiched inside puff pastry and cut into slender rectangles – bâtons – you can see how they’d be delicious and how the mustard could be swapped for tapenade or something with anchovies or cheese or chutney or more and more and more. Oh, and once you’ve constructed the little rectangles, you can freeze them and bake them whenever you need them. Have fun with this one!
Makes about 40 bâtons
2 sheets frozen puff pastry (each about 8½ ounces), thawed
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
1 large egg
Poppy seeds, for topping (optional)
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Have a ruler and a pizza cutter (or sharp knife) at hand.
Working with 1 sheet of pastry at a time, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until you have a rectangle that’s about 12 x 16 inches. With a short side of the rectangle parallel to you, measure the length, so that you can find the middle. Spread 1/4 cup of the mustard over the lower half of the dough, stopping about 1/8 inch from the side and bottom edges. Fold the top portion of the dough over the bottom and, with your ruler as a guide, use the pizza cutter (or knife) to cut the pastry from top to bottom into strips about 1 inch wide (I use the width of the ruler itself as my guide), then cut the strips crosswise in half. If you’d like, leave the strips long.
Carefully transfer the bâtons to one of the baking sheets and chill or freeze them while you work on the second batch. (You can make all the strips to this point, place them close together on a baking sheet or cutting board, freeze them and then pack them airtight – see below.)
Lightly beat the egg with a splash of cold water and brush just the tops of the strips with this glaze. If you’d like, sprinkle them with poppy seeds.
Bake the bâtons for 8 minutes. Rotate the sheets from front to back and top to bottom and bake for another 7 or 8 minutes, or until the strips are puffed and golden brown. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let the bâtons rest for a couple of minutes before serving.
Serving: These are especially good with Champagne, white wine or Kir, the official aperitif of Dijon.
Storing: Unbaked bâtons can be kept in the freezer for up to 2 months and baked while still frozen. Brush them with the egg wash and sprinkle them with the poppy seeds, if using them, just before baking.