My trick to throwing a great party — and I love throwing a great party — is to keep my stress level as low as possible. Because an at-ease host makes for at-ease guests.
For me, keeping party stress to a minimum means prepping as much food as possible in advance. That way when people are arriving, all I need to do is heat, plate and eat. This also lets you focus more energy on how the food is presented, which — especially for a party — can be nearly as important as taste.
One of my favorite party tricks is to use cedar wood planks for both cooking and serving. I love the look of the ruff hewn wood plank piled with food. And if the edges are a little charred, so much the better! One of my tried and true party appetizers that works with this technique is a grilled glazed brie with fresh fruit.
This recipe is a streamlined version of the baked brie I used to make. Back in the day, I would cut open the wheel of cheese, stuff it with fruit and nuts, then close it back up and bake it. But I like this glazed version better. It's simpler to prepare and looks more appetizing with all the delicious hot "filling" toppling over the side. I serve it with assorted fruit and water crackers, but baguette or your favorite crackers would be just as good.
I make the fruit and nut mixture in advance and keep it in a jar in my refrigerator so I can throw it together when friends drop by unexpectedly, or just when I am feeling like a treat. It works best on a small 8-ounce wheel of brie because the rind will contain the oozing cheese as it heats up.
You can use a slice of brie instead, but make sure that you don't heat it too long or all of the cheese in the center will melt and puddle out. You want the cheese and toppings to be just warmed.
The cedar plank adds a kiss of flavor, makes it easy to bake in the oven or pop onto the grill, and becomes your serving platter as well. I also use these planks as serving trays for lots of my little dishes. In fact, we use them in my restaurant as trays for passed hors d'oeuvres when we host special events.
One of my favorite uses is for chili con queso and chips. I heat the spicy cheese dip, pour it into a hollowed-out red pepper and serve it with chips on a wooden plank. Even a simple cheese platter is dressed up by the rustic slab of wood and makes an impromptu wine and cheese party feel more special.
cedar-planked pecan, bourbon and brown sugar glazed brie
You shouldn't have any trouble finding food grade cedar planks. Most grocers sell them near the seafood and meats. If you buy them from a hardware store, be certain that they are untreated.
Start to finish: 30 minutes (plus soaking time for the cedar plank)
Cedar grilling plank (about 6-by-8 inches)
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons dried cherries and/or chopped dried apricots
1 tablespoon bourbon
8-ounce round brie
1 tablespoon no-sugar raspberry jam
1 Granny Smith apple, cored and thinly sliced
1 pear, cored and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Small bunch of grapes
Water crackers, to serve
Soak the cedar plank in water for at least 30 minutes. If necessary, weigh it down to keep it submerged.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl stir together the brown sugar, pecans, dried cherries and bourbon. This step can be done up to a week ahead. If so, cover and refrigerate until needed.
Heat the grill to indirect medium heat. The cheese also can be prepared in the oven. For the latter, heat it to 400 F.
Place the Brie on the wet cedar plank. Spread the jam over the top of the cheese. Spoon the fruit and nut mixture over the jam. You may not need all of the nut mixture.
Place the plank with the brie either on the grill grates or on a cookie sheet in the oven. Either way, cook for 10 minutes, or until the brie is slightly softened and the sugar melts.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, toss the apple and pear slices with the lemon juice. Arrange the slices and grapes around the side of the brie. Serve on the plank with a cheese knife.
Nutrition information per serving: 300 calories; 130 calories from fat (43 percent of total calories); 14 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 40 mg cholesterol; 36 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 31 g sugar; 9 g protein; 240 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."