I’m hosting a small Christmas get-together soon, which means I have spent way too long scanning holiday party recipes on just about every site on the internet. It’s made me realize what an interesting food category this is, with trends so embedded that neither time nor source seem interested in bucking them.
First, when it comes to North American Christmas, no party is complete without a warm dip. A carbless casserole, it’s a somewhat strange concoction, but boy it’s good: topped with gilded cheese, made for scooping (think of that concept for a second), the definition of comforting.
At the heart of every warm dip is cream cheese, the silent workhorse of the Christmas party menu. No spin-art is complete without her, and she invariably brings along her friends mayo and sour cream to get our hearts racing. If we had to identify the mirepoix of Christmas, that trifecta is probably it, as popular as Barbie in her convertible on Christmas morning.
Another star of the holiday party table? Baked brie. I don’t know how she does it, but somehow brie manages to stay relevant year after year. Top that flat white round with a splat of cranberry sauce, pop ’er in the oven for 10 minutes, slice her till she oozes and watch people’s eyes roll back in their heads. The interesting thing is brie doesn’t actually taste like much, but that ooze factor massively compensates, always making her seem incredibly luscious.
Another staple? Bacon-wrapped things. The other day I saw a poor asparagus spear spiraled in a slice and decided right then and there that nothing is safe from being choked in pork when it comes to a Christmas spread.
Of course, the most classic is dates wrapped in bacon, known in England as “devils on horseback,” which is a super cool name. Yes, these first became popular in the 1970s (specifically March 1972 when the combo premiered at the Hotel Huerto del Cura in Spain) but that doesn’t seem to stop us from cooing, “Ooooh, fancy!” year after year.
Sausage-stuffed stuff is another holiday treat (that’s what she said), with mushroom boats the frequent vessels for receiving a wurst shipment. In this department, people have gotten a little creative. An hour ago, I saw a recipe for sausage-stuffed olives, which was given an immediate pass in my book. Making appetizers can be finicky enough, never mind trying to push anything inside the eye of an olive.
One thing I can never pass on though is the cheesy cracker or biscuit or, really, anything combining cheese and bread. For a while, my menu involved four different cheese-and-carbs combos, which actually would be kind of impressive, except either my guests would fall blissfully asleep or I would.
My mom makes these buttery cheese biscuits with Rice Krispies and cayenne every year and, oh my friends, they are a delight. I’m going to serve them for the party, along with ham and cheese hand pies. Can we agree that just about anything called a hand pie immediately needs to be tried? I just love the idea of them, can immediately imagine myself walking the drizzly streets of London with one wrapped in crinkly bakery paper.
This recipe uses puffed pastry, which is another Christmas table dynamo. I’m always amazed that frozen puffed pastry is so easy to use and so dependable, given that it puffs up into something magic with little-to-no effort.
Not necessarily so with wreath-shaped food, which, unfortunately, still seems to be a popular contender when it comes to party recipes. To me, unless you’re baking a dessert, “shaping” food is almost always a mistake, because the shaping comes at the expense of flavor. It’s like that poor wreath-shaped cheese ball, dotted with parsley for greenery and pimentos to mimic ornaments. Sure it’s fun to look at, but let’s face it, that thing doesn’t taste like anything.
In the midst of my search, I started to feel like I should serve my guests something green and healthy. I’ll tell you what, the only Christmas party recipe that involves veggies (other than spin-art dip) is crudités, which is just a pretentious word for “raw vegetables.” And even then, you are required to serve them with a dip. So I went on a hunt for a healthy dip and came up with either yogurt-based ones or hummus. You know what? Fuck hummus, already. Have you noticed it takes up nearly an entire aisle at the grocery store these days? For bloody chickpeas! Guess what? None of them taste like a party.
So, it’s back to bread and cheese. And that’s, really, the final thing I’ll say about the holiday party table. It is the carbiest, cheesiest, sweetest, porkiest and dippiest table of them all, a spread that says to your guests, “Listen, my little gingerbread men and women, you are my dearest and I love you. Let’s not think about tomorrow, let’s not think about our waistlines. Let’s think about sinking into this moment and savoring each second. “
When you think about it, it’s kind of perfect. Because that’s really what the holidays are about.