As the days tick by until Santa''s big scene, our halls are getting decked and our calendars filled. Time spent with those we care about is always a huge part of the holidays. Whether getting together for a family Christmas movie night, or hosting a party for the neighborhood, festive food will add more "merry" to the gathering. We''ve compiled a few recipes to trigger some smiles. The children can even help with some.
The highlight of any holiday party is an appearance by the jolly old elf himself, and a Santa cheese ball appetizer is sure to garner compliments. Try mini rice cakes instead of cream cheese for a beard, or broccoli for ears. Before serving, bring to room temperature for the best flavor and consistency.
Festive chocolate bark is perfect for parties or gift-giving. Make extra batches of this confection, though, because you''ll want to fill your own candy dish rather than give it away. Enlist a young helper for swirling the white and semisweet chocolate.
Gift-wrapping extends to the holiday table with the recipe for a cleverly-decorated savory cream cheese spread. And what child wouldn''t love Crunchy the Snowman snacks, wrapped in colorful candy scarves and top hats? The recipes for all of these are included in today''s pages.
People are definitely in a mood to celebrate at this time of year, but throwing even a simple party takes time and preparation, so make yours as stress-free as possible by making your lists and checking them twice. Readers'' Digest and familyfun.go.com offer some tips.
- Create three master lists: guests, menu, shopping. These will help you keep track of everything for the party. Keep the lists in your wallet or date book so you''ll know exactly what you still need to purchase and how many guests have RSVP''d at all times.
- Consider a theme that''s easy to manage. A tree-trimming allows guests to help decorate using your own ornaments, or ask them to bring a special saying or memory to write on colored paper to add to the tree.
A fun idea for kids is a craft party. Make decorations or ornaments, or decorate cookies. Have a good supply of sugar cookies in Christmas shapes made in advance, and have on hand an assortment of icings, tubes of writing gel and holiday sprinkles. For adults, how about a cookie exchange party? Guests bring their favorite (along with the recipe) to share.
- If having a brunch, buffet or cocktail party, food and drink are your party''s most important ingredients. Jot down a list of recipes you''re confident you can cook well and are proven crowd pleasers. If serving something you''ve never prepared before, be sure to test the recipe at least one or twice before the party.
- n When it comes to beverages, it''s best to buy more than you think you''ll need. And buy lots of ice the day of the party so you won''t have to waste precious fridge space to chill bottles of soda.
If serving alcohol, don''t feel obligated to set up a full bar. Unless you''re having a cocktail party, it''s fine to limit your selections to wine and beer, and perhaps a special punch. Encourage moderation.
- When appropriate, get every family member involved with the party, from who to invite to how to decorate. Give everyone a job to do during the actual event. It doesn''t have to be an enormous responsibility, but it can be good to have older children in charge of taking guests'' coats, for instance. Children can also help set up the food table. It''s never too early to pass on lessons in hospitality, for the holidays and beyond.
SANTA CHEESE BALL
Makes eight to 10 servings
One 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon softened butter
1 tablespoon minced onion
One clove minced garlic (optional)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon tomato paste
Black pepper, to taste
Red bell pepper
1 to 2 cups whipped cream cheese
Radish slice, carrot stick, pretzel, black olives, crackers, and a cherry tomato
- Make Santa''s face by blending the first eight ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Spoon the mixture onto a large piece of plastic wrap, and shape it into a ball.
- Tightly wrap the cheese and chill it for one hour. Unwrap the cheese ball and place it on a large serving tray.
- Drape new plastic wrap over the cheese, then flatten and shape it into a face. Remove the wrap and turn the red pepper upside down for Santa''s hat.
- Spoon the whipped cream cheese into a sealable pint-size plastic bag. Seal the bag and make a small snip in a lower corner to create a pastry bag.
- Use piped-on whipped cream cheese to stick a radish-slice pom-pom to the hat. Pipe on more cream cheese for a hatband, eyebrows and a beard.
- Press on a carrot nose, a pretzel mouth, olive eyes and cracker ears. Add cherry tomato halves for rosy cheeks.
CREAM CHEESE PACKAGE
8 ounces of cream cheese (softened)
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
Red bell pepper
- Mix the dried dill, garlic powder and salt into the softened cream cheese.
- Pack the mixture into a rectangular container lined with plastic wrap (you can reuse the cream cheese box).
- Refrigerate for at least three hours. Before serving, set the unwrapped block of cheese on a platter and decorate it with a scallion bow and red pepper polka dots and gift tag.
FESTIVE CHOCOLATE BARK
Makes about 1 3/4 pounds
1 cup shelled pistachio nuts (about 1/2 pound in shell)
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
8 ounces white chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup dried, sweetened cranberries
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly toast the pistachio nuts on a baking sheet, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Let the nuts cool.
- Melt the semisweet chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water, stirring until smooth. Or microwave it, in a dry microwave-safe bowl, uncovered, on medium power for two to three minutes, stirring once. Remove chocolate from the microwave and stir until smooth. Melt the white chocolate separately, following the same directions.
- In a small bowl, combine nuts and cranberries, then stir half of them into the semisweet chocolate. Using a spatula, spread the mixture to about a 1/2-inch thickness on a large cookie sheet. Drop the white chocolate by tablespoonfuls over the dark. With the tip of a butter knife, swirl the chocolates together to create a marbled effect. Sprinkle on the rest of the nuts and berries.
- Refrigerate the bark for about one hour or until firm, then break it into pieces. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a month.
CRUNCHY THE SNOWMAN
Bag of 8-inch pretzel rods
1 cup white chocolate chips
Mini chocolate chips
Orange decorators'' gel
Fruit leather (various colors)
- To make a batch, melt 1 cup of white chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler.
- One at a time, dip one end of an 8-inch pretzel rod in the melted chocolate and use a plastic spoon or knife to spread the chocolate two thirds of the way down the rod.
- Set the pretzels on a sheet of waxed paper and press on mini chocolate chips for eyes and buttons. Use orange decorators'' gel to add a carrot nose.
- When the chocolate has hardened, stand the pretzels in a mug or glass and tie on strips of fruit leather for scarves. For each hat, stretch a gummy ring over the narrow end of a gumdrop and secure it on the pretzel rod with a dab of melted chocolate.
(Recipes courtesy of www.familyfun.go.com)