At past New Year’s Eve parties, we’ve mixed cocktails to order, and we never draw such a crowd that that’s a problem. However, I did find the Bon Appetit Foodist article about punch that would be less fizzy –spiked-pineapple-juice and more cocktail-in-a-bowl pretty compelling, both for ease of serving and because it enables you to make a drink that benefits from muddling and sitting and melding and chilling, all of which are either annoying or impossible to do on demand and to order. Also, I thought the recipe that called for little more than cognac, lemon juice, sugar, and sherry with a little nutmeg grated in sounded pretty delicious.
And it was. If I’d mixed three batches, it might…might have lasted until midnight. Of course, then we might all have been in too bad of shape to have any champagne.
As for sweets, I could have just relied on the candies I’d made for Christmas. Candies are useful for catering because they’re, by nature, practically non-perishable, sugar being a preservative and all. Additionally, they’re generally best served at room temperature, can be made weeks in advance, and rarely require flatware or cutlery. But candy just never seems totally satisfying as a dessert to me.
So the challenge was to find sweet fingerfoods that were elegant—most cookies don’t quite say “cocktail party” to me—but wouldn’t degrade too much sitting out for hours. I decided on a flourless chocolate-orange cake, cut into two-bite squares, and shortbread fingers filled with three different flavors of preserves. As a bonus for party-planning, both are best eaten the day after they’re made, so you can make them in advance, albeit not as far in advance as candy.
Flourless Chocolate-Orange Cake
Recipes and more pictures below.
Recipe: Admiral Russell’s Christmas Punch (from the BA Foodist)
- 5 lemons
- 1 cup raw sugar
- 1 750-ml bottle Cognac, VSOP-grade
- 1 cup amontillado Sherry (apparently “lightly sweet oloroso” also works)
- Nutmeg, freshly grated
1. Fill a 4-cup metal bowl with water and freeze overnight. That will keep the punch cold without diluting it too much.
2. Peel 4 of the lemons with a vegetable peeler and muddle with the sugar. Let sit 30 minutes and then muddle again.
3. Microwave the peeled lemons, individually, for about 45 seconds each. Juice them—you need about 1 cup.
4. Bring 1 cup water to a boil, pour it over the lemon peels and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Strain into a pitcher and discard the peels. Mix in the sugar, cognac, sherry, and 4 cups cold water.
5. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 6 hours before serving. To serve, run the ice mold under hot water to release and place in a punch bowl. Pour the punch over and grate nutmeg over the surface. Slice the last lemon into thin slices to float in the punch
Recipe: Flourless Chocolate-Orange Cake (from Epicurious)
- 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, plus extra to grease the pan
- flour for dusting the pan (~2 T.)
- 6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
- 1 cup plus 2 T. sugar
- zest of one large orange
- 4 eggs plus 2 yolks
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- powdered sugar, for dusting (~4 T.)
- candied orange zest, for serving (recipe below)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 10” round cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and butter and flour the pan—including the parchment.
2. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler. Stir the butter into the chocolate until it melts, and stir until smooth.
3. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar and orange zest. Add the eggs and egg yolks and stir well.
4. Sift the cocoa powder over the batter to remove any lumps, and whisk batter until totally smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until the top has developed a smooth, cracked crust.
5. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Then, invert the cake onto a serving plate. Wrap and refrigerate overnight. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.
Candied Orange Zest
- 2 oranges
- 1/3 cup sugar, plus more for dredging strips
- 1/3 cup water, plus more for poaching
1. Wash the oranges and peel the into long, wide strips with a vegetable peeler, and scrape any white pith away with a knife. Cut the strips into long, thin pieces.
2. Put the orange zest in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer and simmer at least five minutes, then drain.
3. Return the strips to the saucepan and add the 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook 10-15 min or until the strips are translucent and the sugar and water have become a thick syrup.
4. Remove the strips to a sheet of wax paper and spread them out. When slightly cooled, roll in sugar to coat and shape, if desired.
If you’re really crafty and patient, you can cut shapes in the zest with a knife or special hole punch. They’re still pretty if you just let them dry how they will, but if you want to curl them, you have to shape them while they’re still warm and pliable.
I started off by wrapping them around chopsticks, but those tended to unravel too much before they could cool and stiffen. Also, I don’t have nearly enough chopsticks to shape a whole batch before they’re cool. So toothpicks are the way to go.
Recipe: Austrian Shortbread (from Smitten Kitchen)
The peculiar thing about this recipe is that you make the shortbread dough, and then grate it like cheese, and layer the gratings over and under preserves. I’m not sure precisely what difference the grating makes—perhaps it’s less dense? The only other shortbread I’ve made has been quite thin, so I’m not sure how a traditional recipe compares to this—which produces bars almost as tall as my 9×13 pan will hold.
In fact, this recipe makes so much (obviously, right? 1 lb butter, 4 cups flour, 2 cups sugar) that if you’re not trying to feed a crowd, you should probably halve the recipe. You could either use a 9×13 pan and just make thinner bars or use an 8×8 pan.
One benefit to using a 9×13 pan is that you can make several varieties in the same pan, using different kinds of preserves, like so:
- 1 lb. butter, softened (4 sticks)
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 cups flour
- 2 t. baking powder
- 1/2 t. salt
- 1 t. vanilla or 1 t. lemon zest (I opted for the latter, as I’m fond of the perkiness citrus adds to fruit desserts)
- 1 cup preserves—raspberry is the classic, but I’m crazy about Harry & David’s Oregold Peach preserves and just about anything would be great here
- 1/4 cup. powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Cream the butter in a stand mixer until soft and slightly aerated (should be smooth, and is often described in recipes at this point as “fluffy” though I’ve never quite gotten that). Add the egg yolks and mix until fully combined.
2. Whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together and then add to the butter-egg mixture and mix just until incorporated. You don’t want gluten to develop—treat this like a biscuit or pie crust. You want the dough to just begin to come together.
3. Spread two large pieces of plastic wrap on a table or counter and dump the contents of the mixing bowl out onto it. Separate the crumbs into two roughly equal piles. Press them into two balls or disks, using the plastic wrap to help gather and compress the dough. Freeze at least 2 hrs, or up to a month.
4. Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove one ball of dough and grate it with a medium cheese grater (a food processor makes this so much easier, but if you’re grating by hand you can grate directly into the pan). Spread the shreds of dough evenly in a 9×13 pan.
5. Put the preserves in a piping back or a zip-top bag with the corner snipped off, and squeeze it over the surface in thin strips. Spread gently to cover the surface evenly, leaving a 1/2” border around the edges.
6. Remove the remaining dough from the freezer, grate, and sprinkle evenly over the top.
7. Bake 50-60 minutes, or until the center no longer wiggles and the surface is turning a pale golden brown. Dust with powdered sugar as soon as it comes out of the oven.
8. Cool on a wire rack and cut in the pan. If you chill it before cutting, the cuts will be cleaner. Dust again with powdered sugar before serving.