With the holiday season fast approaching (much too quickly), I have been reflecting on holiday entertaining last Christmas, and what I may want to do differently this year.

In November last year, after 3 years of living in a small apartment (with limited room for entertaining), I moved to a house which much more room both inside and out. So instead of only being able to invite a few friends over for dinner, suddenly we could invite a larger group. So of course I decided to host a Christmas dinner with friends about a week before Christmas (we were flying out to Paris a few days later for Christmas with my boyfriend’s family).

Being my first large dinner party (about 8 all up I think after years of only a few friends over for dinner), I may (ok I did) have gotten a bit carried away with the dinner planning. I knew that some of my guests had different food preferences (loving or hating seafood for example), so I fixed on tapas as my menu of choice. Sounds good in theory, but the reality is instead of cooking one main dish and a few sides, you are cooking several individual mains. At least with the ones I picked. While some were good and could be prepared in advance (asparagus with brie wrapped in prosciutto and dates stuffed in goats cheese also wrapped in prosciutto, prepared in the morning and in the oven just prior to serving, dips that could either be bought or made ahead), others were quite involved and were being cooked up til serving.  I may have also gone overboard with two different kinds of deserts, but they at least were mostly prepared ahead and when catering for a larger group I still tend to go for two differing desserts, but more on that in a minute.

What my chosen menu meant was my whole day (and the evening before) was spent shopping, preparing, cooking and serving, with less time to spend with my friends and a more stressed and frazzled me on the night. Once the main meal was served, I was able to relax and enjoy the company, but isn’t the point of a dinner party to also spend time with your friends.

In contrast, the family Christmas lunch (again, first time at my place) was much more relaxing. Given Christmas in Perth is in the middle of summer and you are generally looking at temperatures at least in the mid 30Cs or hotter, for as long as I can remember our family Christmas celebration has always been a cold lunch. That’s not to say it’s boring or only cold meats and salad. We do go a bit over the top with the variety of food, but most of it can be made in advance so that on the day it’s presents and nibbles, then help yourself to the large choice of food. Dessert is usually my Mum’s frozen Christmas pudding (I’ll see if I can get that recipe for you before Christmas for something different). As well as the normal, last year we also had any leftovers from the dinner the night before, and having just bought a new bbq we also cooked a few meats/seafood on the bbq. It really was a lovely relaxing Christmas, everyone contributed and I really enjoyed being able to give my Mum a break and have it at my house (especially as she was going to have another lunch actually on the day when we were in France).

So after those two very different cooking experiences within the same weekend, I have since rethought my entertaining at home. Now I look for dishes with wow factor (as I do like it when my friends enjoy my cooking) but where most of it can be prepared earlier and the oven does most of the work for me. Rather than a formal entrée, an array of nibbles, dips, drinks and dishes you can easily prepare in advance are great.For the main dish now one of my favourites is a slow cooked pork belly with apple and sage, with an apple cider sauce. It does take about 3 hours all up with resting and cooking, but most of that is in the oven. If you decide to try it, add a little water to the bottom of the pan when you first put the pork in the oven (keeping the skin dry), it helps stop the bottom from burning and assists in making the sauce later). Sides I have served with this include a potato dauphinoise, which can be prepared ahead up to going into the oven, and then just put in when needed, and some basic greens (what ever you prefer) steamed then with a bit of lemon juice and oil stirred through. I don’t have any photos from when I last made this, put I’ll put them up next time I cook this.

Desserts are something I love to cook and for a larger group I usually still go for two different desserts. But I choose desserts that can be made in advance and then just assembled or served when needed, or placed straight in the oven for that final cook. Some examples are:

  • Lemon and lime baked cheesecake – best cooked either the morning or day before so it has time to cool and set in the fridge. I’ve included the link to the recipe I use; however I always add extra citrus with the added zest and juice of one lemon as well as the two limes. But I do like my desserts with a lot of citrus. As always, I taste as I go.
  • Crème brulee – has to be done either the night or morning before so it has time to set. Then just a quick sprinkle with sugar and the ever impressive blowtorch (which you can do in front of your guests, or I have actually bought an extra blow torch so they can do it themselves if they want). Recipe link provided. This is one recipe that I don’t change. Well not yet anyway.
  • One of my favourites is a lemon curd mousse with gingernut crumble (From the book Comfort Food by Gary Mehigan (2010)). It has a few steps but none of them are too difficult or time consuming and they can all be done in advance. Plus you can take a short-cut and buy the biscuits to crumble if you don’t want to make them. I will post it next time I make it – it has the added bonus of leftover lemon curd which I love).
  • I have even done chocolate fondants (or lava cakes) partially in advance. For these, I prepare the cake batter in advance to the point of going into the oven, then freeze until needed. The cooking time might be slightly longer from frozen, but it’s a great tip/cheat to ensure you get the oozy centre that you want (and thanks Sarah at Baby Cakes for the tip). And if you also want to serve a chocolate sauce (great just in case if you get distracted and cook them a bit too long), this can be in the fridge and just heated when needed. Leftovers can also be cooked from the freezer the next day if you are lucky enough to have any!

I’m not currently sure how much holiday entertaining I will be doing this year (aside from family Christmas again). However, I am certainly planning to take what I have learnt over the past year and apply it in my planning for any future dinner parties. Then I can enjoy the meal as well and actually spend time with my friends, rather than being just the cook in the kitchen. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the point of it?

So tell me, how do you entertain at home? Do you have any tips/tricks you can share or favourite recipes?