Tips for hosting a holiday dinner party

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Entertainment,Andrea Farnum

Many of us revel in the custom of having the "usual suspects" such as turkey, ham, pumpkin pie and eggnog at our end-of-year festivities, but has the repetitive nature of our celebratory meals gone beyond convention to become boring?

Experts have mixed opinions on whether to play the tradition card or not.

"The first year I moved back to Baltimore from California, I prepared an elaborate holiday meal with all the latest nouvelle cuisine recipes," says John Shields, Baltimore-born and -raised author, television personality and restaurateur. "They almost ran me out of town on a rail. Baltimore likes its tradition."

Daniel Raffel, principal of A La Carte Catering and Brasserie Tatin Events, has a different take on it. "When doing a holiday party, I really like the balance between old and new. Some parties are exclusively traditional, but I believe that most parties yearn to be shaken up a bit. Even if it?s just a simple difference, like adding a new ingredient to shake up the eggnog."

Whether your style is old-world or cutting edge, most ofthe tried and true entertaining tips apply.

"To me, holiday entertaining is about being as festive as possible," says Kerry Dunnington, author of "This Book Cooks" and a private home caterer. "It?s important to make your guests feel special and show that you have gone the extra mile."

Shields agrees. "It?s the little things that make the difference. I always like to make a Christmas stollen, a traditional German bread-like cake, for my events, and I even make extra to give as gifts."

Attention to detail is key when it comes to successful parties. "At my most recent get-together, which had an elaborate hors d?oeuvre display, I made sure that there were decorative place cards in front of each food item explaining what it was," Dunnington says.

It?s always good to remember that entertaining should be enjoyable not only for the guests but for the host too. "Hosts need time to relax, take a deep breath and enjoy," says Raffel.

If you?re still on the fence about whether to veer away from the traditional, don?t despair. There?s no need to throw the turkey out with the eggnog.

There?s plenty of room on your dining room sideboard for something new to shine alongside Aunt Mary?s fruitcake.

To help design your table of plenty, we?ve compiled our top 10 lists of inspiring suggestions filled with some new twists on old friends and family favorites. Plus, we?ve even thrown in some essential entertaining tips to save you in a pinch.

So shake off that old tinsel and think about adding some new twists to your party repertoire. How do you think traditions get started, anyway?

Top ten favorites

TEN BEST HOLIDAY COCKTAILS

A special seasonal cocktail or beverage is the ultimate festive detail. Keep in mind that many of these can be made without alcohol for children or nondrinking guests.

1. Pomegranate Martini

The cosmopolitan is so last year. Keep that festive red color, but add some healthy antitoxins from the pomegranate juice. Buy the juice in the produce section of the grocery store and garnish with a toothpick of gorgeous dried cranberries.

2. Cappuccino Eggnog

Nothing like a little caffeine to jump-start a tired recipe. Add coffee liqueur and a cup of fresh espresso coffee into your traditional recipe, and you have a delicious new twist on an old classic.

3. Champagne plus ?

Champagne or sparkling wine alone is usually festive enough, but add a half ounce of Crème de Cassis or Chambord and a garnish of fresh berries and we?re talking elegance and style.

4. Snowball

Even if the weather outside isn?t frightful, this icy concoction of gin, anisette and cream will keep old man winter off your mind.

5. Candy Cane Martini

Destined to be a holiday classic, this vodka and peppermint schnapps mixture should be garnished with a small candy cane or rimmed with gorgeous crushed candy cane bits.

6. Complementary Wine

Good advice is good advice; choose wines to complement the food you?re serving. The perfect combination of food and wine enhances all of the flavors.

7. Poinsettia Margarita

This twist on the Mexican favorite is made with clear white tequila and clear sweet and sour mix. Rim with pink Hawaiian coral salt and garnish with a few pomegranate seeds, and you have a tradition in the making.

8. Hot Toddy

This delightful mix of brandy, tea and honey or sugar garnished with a cinnamon stick will warm up even the most ardent Scrooge.

9. Hot Chocolate

Whether it?s supermarket bought or made from scratch, this wintertime regular is loved by children of all ages. The bigger kids can always addsome instant coffee, cinnamon and chocolate liqueur for the grown-up version.

10. Ice Cold Beer

An icy-cold pint glass filled with some golden lager or pale ale always goes well with any entertaining, no matter the party theme. Put the beer mugs into the freezer for a few minutes so they?re frosty.

TEN BEST APPETIZERS

The hors d?oeuves set the stage at any party. Think of it as your opening act.

1. Shrimp Cocktail

The ultimate appetizer: easy to make, low in calories and pretty to boot.

Steam fresh for the best taste and texture and offer with a tangy horseradish cocktail sauce.

2. Hot Crab Dip

What would a party in Maryland be without crab dip? Serve with crackers or fresh baguette slices and watch it disappear.

3. Pigs in a Blanket

A perennial favorite, these little hotdogs wrapped in flaky pastry bring out the kid in all of us. Who says we can?t be immature with our palates once in a while?

4. Pesto Torte

Luscious layers of garlic cream cheese with basil pesto and roasted red and yellow peppers should be served with toasted crostinis. The only thing better than the kudos is that you can make it days ahead of time.

5. Stuffed Mushrooms

Go traditional and keep the breadcrumbs, or go crazy and stuff them with crabmeat, sautéed sausage or feta cheese and pesto.

6. Frico/Parmesan Chips

These delightful crisp, silver-dollar sized chips made from Parmesan cheese will have them begging for more. Serve alone or topped with (more) cheese or veggies.

7. Fruited Brie

Take a small wheel of brie ? that?s right, the whole wheel ? and top with seasonal fruit glazed with some melted apricot preserves. Expect, and get, raves.

8. Smoked Salmon

Nothing is more elegant than a smoked salmon appetizer display. Serve with the appropriate accouterments of chopped red onion, caviar, capers, chopped hard-boiled egg, crème fraiche and cocktail pumpernickel bread.

9. Oysters on the Half Shell

Don?t let an "R" month like December pass without serving some of these fresh tasty bivalves. Whether local or flown in from exotic locales, offer with cocktail sauce, horseradish and fresh lemon wedges.

10. Hummus and Pita Bread

Easy to make and even easier to buy, a nice garlicky hummus served with toasted pita bread triangles is always welcome. The perfect offering for vegetarian guests as well.

TEN BEST ENTREES

The main course is the foundation of your menu. Make sure it?s solid, tasty and a show stopper.

1. Lemon Cranberry Chicken

OK, you?re thinking "Chicken again, Mom?" But this is no ordinary bird. Sautéed breasts with a lemon beurre blanc, dotted with ruby red cranberries, will have them asking for seconds before they?ve finished their firsts.

2. Baked Ham with Bourbon Honey Glaze

Zest up that tired old ham with a sweet and spicy glaze that will not only work for dinner but with sandwiches the next day.

3. Beef Tenderloin with Blue Cheese Stuffing

This classical taste treat is a perfect accompaniment to your fine china and silver. Throw in some candlelight for good measure.

4. Lasagna

Open your mind ? whether it?s the classic Italian style lasagna or a fabulous butternut squash or spinach rendition, no one will leave the table hungry.

5. Apricot-glazed Turkey

What?s a holiday celebration without turkey? Differentiate yours from the regular Thanksgiving fare with a sweet apricot glaze. Garnish the platter with whole or dried apricots for extra pizzazz.

6. Rack of Lamb

Rack of lamb is synonymous with elegance. And you can?t beat the little frilled white-paper boots for an added fancy touch.

7. Lobster

It couldn?t be simpler. Whole lobsters, steamed or boiled, with ponds of melted butter. The ultimate holiday extravagance.

8. Crab Cakes

Maryland?s official state entrée is a winner for "Hometown Hons" and a extra special local treat for out-of-town guests.

9. Shrimp

It?s America?s favorite seafood for a very good reason. Whether the shrimp are cooked scampi, steamed, stuffed or fried, guests will clean their plates.

10. Stuffed Crown Roast of Pork

Considered by some to be the "king" of all holiday entrees, try this as an impressive alternative to turkey or ham.

TEN BEST DESSERTS

Not to put pressure on you, but this is last thing guests will remember from your soiree ? so make it fabulous!

1. Yule Log/Buche Noel

This French treat is as tasty as they come. Forgo the meringue mushrooms and garnish with fresh holly.

2. Cheesecake

Rich, creamy and velvety cheesecake is THE holiday comfort food. Top with fresh fruit or chocolate to send them over the edge.

3. Holiday Rum Balls

Do you dare to try to eat just one of these sweet, rum-soaked pieces of heaven? Didn?t think so ...

4. Trifle

One of England?s finest contributions to the culinary world, trifle can be made in its customary style of pound cake, jam and cream or morphed into a peanut butter and chocolate interpretation among others. Talk about delicious versatility.

5. Christmas Sugar Cookies

Whether it?s a bell, candle, sleigh or reindeer cookie shape, these end-of-the-year mainstays can satisfy even the most demanding sweet teeth.

6. Chocolate Fondue

Fondue is the perfect group activity. Warm melted chocolate with fresh fruit or pound cake cubes is a great getting-to-know-you food. Just watch the elbows.

7. Poached Pears

This exquisite fresh fruit option is easy to make ? just simmer in sugary cinnamon-scented wine. You?re sure to garner extra points for presentation.

8. Crème Brulee

This creamy custard with a burnt sugar topping is served in posh restaurants all over the world. Torching the individual ramekins will raise (and maybe scorch) your guests? eyebrows.

9. Pumpkin Pie

The quintessential cold-weather celebratory dessert is tradition at its finest. Add a dollop of whipped cream to make sure you get enough calories.

10. Pecan Pie

Second only to its pumpkin cousin, this rich, gooey Southern treasure is thankfully not just limited to the warmer states.

TEN THINGS TO HAVE ON HAND FOR ENTERTAINING EMERGENCIES

No need to get your feathers ruffled. When unexpected guests arrive, just dip into your magic bag of entertaining tricks. Your hospitality and grace will not go unnoticed.

1. Cheese and Crackers

Whether it?s Jarlsburg, imported gouda or good ol? cheddar, this mainstay still saves the day every time.

2. Champagne

Keep a bottle or two on hand for those impromptu celebrations. Offer as is, or stretch what you have with some orange juice for some tasty mimosas. No need to be fancy either ? a nice sparkling wine will do just as well.

3. Can of Jumbo Lump Crab

A can of pasteurized crab will last over six months in your refrigerator. Use for last-minute dips or crab balls, or serve bareback with just some cocktail sauce.

4. Cream Cheese

Probably themost versatile item you can have on hand. This wonder food is easily made into a dip, an herbed or nutted cheese log or melted with herbs to make a yummy sauce for chicken or pasta.

5. Olives

Now that supermarkets have self-serve olive bars, it?s easy to have a nice variety of these salty and savory tidbits on hand.

6. Chocolate Chips and Cream

Just heat together and you have the perfect dip for fresh or dried fruit and cut-up cake cubes. And don?t throw out that fruitcake yet ? add a little rum and this decadent sauce will make even a doorstop palatable.

7. Pasta

Inexpensive with a never ending shelf-life, you?re always ready for the army to drop by with this favorite Italian staple in your pantry.

8. Frozen Shrimp

Easily and quickly defrosted in your kitchen sink, these wonders of the sea can stretch to serve a crowd when offered with pasta, rice or couscous.

9. Cookie Dough

Ready made dough is a gift from the heavens. Just heat the oven, slice and bake and wait for the oohs and ahs to come as soon as that familiar scent hits their olfactory senses and evokes memories of holidays past.

10. Chinese Delivery on Speed Dial

When all else fails, there is no crime in seeking outside help. Order a sampling of this and that and make sure to ask for chopsticks and extra fortune cookies.

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