It’s (almost) here! It’s started and I’m counting down. I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I didn’t love Christmas and all things festive: the parties, the food, that warm tingly feeling you get for everything and everyone (often fuelled by a few glasses of mulled wine).
Even the most “bah humbug” of people can’t ruin it for me. It’s the perfect time to spread the love, spend time with family and friends and show how much you care. I never feel quite as sociable and eager to please as I do at Christmas.
Of course, party planning does take time and a bit of money, but it needn’t break the bank or mean you spend hours slaving away over dishes that are devoured in seconds. With a bit of thought and prep it’s easy to be the host or hostess with the mostess, so these are my top tips for a thrifty, super-easy party:
MULLED WINE AND CIDER
They may be obvious choices for a Christmas party beverage, but hear me out. Mulled wine and cider are always big hits – they’re quaffable, festive and warming and – importantly – fuss-free and cheap. All you need to do is make a tasty mulled syrup base in advance and when your guests ask, “What should I bring?”, simply ask for bottles of inexpensive red wine that you then gently heat and add the syrup to.
For mulled cider, pour as many bottles as you can into a large saucepan and sweeten with a few tablespoons of golden caster sugar. Add slices of apple, star anise, cinnamon and a few scrapings of nutmeg and simmer for around 10 minutes to infuse. Taste, adding a touch more sugar if it needs sweetening, and serve. You could also try adding a little sliced red chilli for a kick – my sister’s favourite mulled cider tip!
I know what you are thinking: chai isn’t just for Christmas, chai is for life! True, chai is one of my all time favourite drinks, however the combination of spices definitely has a festive feel and makes a great alternative to eggnog (I love eggnog, but not many do!).
So how does chai work for a party? Easy. Before the party, make the tea base in advance by infusing a large vat of milk with chai spices (or teabags) over a low heat. Heat until the milk almost reaches the boil, then leave to one side to infuse for around 10 minutes, or until you have a lovely deep chai flavour.
Discard the spices or teabags then sweeten with golden caster sugar. When you’re ready to serve, place in a pan on the hob to warm through at the last minute. Or try this alcoholic version with lots of cognac or your choice of brandy or spiced rum. Perfection!
The trick here is to keep an eye out for online supermarket bargains as you can get fantastic offers on Champagne, Prosecco and Cava if you buy by the case or order your shopping online. Serve your fizz as is, or make a flavoured base and pour it into the glasses before your guests arrive, then simply top with bubbly as and when needed. Try something seasonal, such as freshly squeezed clementine juice for a twist on Buck’s fizz.
If you want something a little more fancy, poach peeled and chopped quince in sugar and a little orange juice until tender. Or, use tinned peach slices for an inexpensive and quick alternative – simply blitz until you have a smooth, pourable purée, then add a few spoonfuls to your Champagne glasses before you top them up.
But what’s a glass of fizz without a canapé to go with it? Try these super-simple and effective DIY party combos.
SLOW-COOKED PORK IS PERFECT FOR PARTIES…
For one of my first-ever Christmas parties I went all out, or so it seemed to my guests. I bought a shoulder of pork from my butcher, rubbed it with salt, pepper and fennel seeds and slowly cooked it in the oven the morning of the party (this involved very little work on my part). Then I made a simple apple sauce and bought lots of small bread buns. When the guests arrived the kitchen was a haven – there was a pot of mulled wine warming on one side and a large hunk of slow-cooked pork on the other. I left the warm pork on a large wooden board, next to a platter of buns and bowls of apple sauce so everyone could just tuck in! Perfect party food, and you’ll have insanely happy guests. Also, it really doesn’t cost that much at all – pork shoulder is an inexpensive cut and you’ll save on all those fiddly little dips and nibbles.
… AND SO IS DOING IT SWISS-STYLE
For another simple yet still effective party spread, go for an Alpine theme. Buy boxes of cheese such as brie and camembert that come in wooden containers and make fondues. Remove the plastic coating, then pop the cheese back in the box. You can simply bake them as is in their boxes, or pimp them a little. I like to pierce little holes into the top of the cheese and poke in slithers of garlic, seasoning, and a few sprigs of thyme. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the size of your cheese) at around 180ºC/350ºF/gas 4, or until gooey in the middle. Serve with bowls of cornichons, radishes and par-boiled new potatoes for a Swiss raclette feel, or with a few fresh baguettes for dipping. Delicious!
So there you have it. Some of my top Christmas party tips, hopefully making life a little simpler, and you more popular! Please share your own great ideas in the comments box below or tweet us @JamieOliverCom.