Perfection is usually impossible to attain, but a perfect New Year's Eve party is actually pretty easy to have.
First, you need a critical mass of people, so your guests can freely circulate among themselves without any one of them having to spend too much time stuck talking to the guy whose only interest is antique telephones.
If you drink, you need to have enough champagne for everyone to have a medium-sized glass of it at midnight. It doesn't even have to be good champagne. If it has bubbles, it will feel festive.
And most important, of course, you need good food, and plenty of it. New Year's Eve is not a time for popcorn and Dr. Pepper (though that is what my brother and I traditionally ate to ring in the New Year when we were teens).
As it happens, I used to be locally famous for my New Year's Eve parties. People would come from far and wide -- which is to say both the city and the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia -- to partake in the convivial conversation, the nearly decent champagne and the better-than-average food.
We served hors d'oeuvres, but enough of them that our guests could make a full meal out of it. It was a huge spread: my world-famous carrot cake, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, slices of grilled standing rib roast, bacon-wrapped dates, black and white cookies, homemade hummus and much, much more.
We started cooking four or five days before the party, working on a schedule that depended upon how long the different items would stay fresh. By the night of the actual party, we were utterly exhausted. But everyone else had a good time, and that's all that mattered, mostly.
I don't necessarily recommend working that hard on your party (then again, ours really were quite successful). But I definitely recommend making as much of your own food as you can. Your guests will appreciate the effort, the flavor and the quality.
To get you started, I made six party-friendly dishes, both savory and sweet, to help count down the new year.
To begin, I made Best-Ever Marinated Shrimp (not my name), a dish I made every year for our parties. This irresistible appetizer takes more time and effort than you would probably guess, but it is worth it. It truly is the Best-Ever Marinated Shrimp.
It's a two-step process devised by the great culinarian Shirley O. Corriher. You begin by making her Salty-Sea Perfect Tender Shrimp, a great and intensely flavored recipe. Actually, you could just serve those shrimp by themselves, but the extra step of marinating them overnight elevates them from merely superb to mind-blowingly momentous.
Another dish I made for each year's party was Home-Cured Salmon, which is much easier than the shrimp but delivers almost as much flavor and satisfaction. Every year, my friend Susan, a singer of local renown, would park herself in front of it and almost fight anyone who wanted to sample it.
And it's so simple. You just mix together sugar and salt, throw in some chopped dill, spread it on top of some salmon and wait 24-36 hours. That's all it takes to make salmon good enough to fight for.
Next came a classic, Potatoes, Sour Cream and Caviar. This is a dish, not surprisingly, consisting of potatoes with sour cream and caviar. But what may actually be a surprise, if you haven't had it, is just how brilliantly the three ingredients go together.
The key is to use small potatoes -- you want this to be finger food. Boil them just a few minutes until they're completely cooked, then scoop out a hollow on top and fill it with a dollop of sour cream and just a few eggs of salty caviar. It's heavenly, and caviar makes any occasion feel special.
As a bonus, caviar and champagne were made for one another.
My last savory dish was Mac and Cheese Canapés. It isn't just macaroni and cheese eaten out of a Parmesan-cheese cup, it is what my editor called the best macaroni and cheese she has ever had eaten out of a Parmesan-cheese cup. And she's had a lot of macaroni and cheese.
The mac-and-cheese part is easy: You just reduce heavy cream by half and stir in a mixture of Parmesan, Cotswold and sharp cheddar cheeses. In other words, it is creamy calories with cheesy calories mixed in.
And when you put all of that in a cup made of melted Parmesan cheese, it becomes the epitome of canapés. Just be sure to make the Parmesan cups the day of the party. All of the other dishes can be made, if not assembled, the day before, but don't try that with these cups. Trust me on this.
For sweet dishes, I began with Peanut Butter and Chocolate Marble Brownies. These are guaranteed to be a hit at your party. Who doesn't like peanut butter? Who doesn't like brownies?
People have tried to mix the two together before, often without success. The secret to this version, from the indispensable cookbook "The Art and Soul of Baking," is that it swirls together two different batters, one chocolate and one peanut butter.
It's brilliant and it's delicious. It's brilliantly delicious.
Lemon Curd Cups, on the other hand, are deliciously brilliant. They begin with lemon curd, which is a mixture of lemon juice, sugar, egg yolks, whole eggs and butter. In other words, it is sweet, tart, rich and pure. There is nothing better.
All this dish does is put the lemon curd into phyllo cups. You don't have to add a dollop of sweetened whipped cream on top to make it extra special, but it helps.
For that matter, you don't even have to make your own sweetened whipped cream (whip one cup of cold heavy cream; when it starts to thicken, add two tablespoons of powdered sugar and one-half teaspoon of vanilla extract, then continue whipping until it forms stiff peaks). But it's better if you do.
And you can serve the whipped cream on top of coffee for your guests who want a cup before they leave. It is the perfect, elegant ending to a perfect, elegant party.
PEANUT BUTTER AND CHOCOLATE MARBLE BROWNIES
Yield: 24 servings
5 ounces semisweet chocolate (no more than 56% cacao), finely chopped
1 stick butter, softened
2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup (6 3/4 ounces) creamy salted peanut butter, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup (6 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (2 3/4 ounces) unsalted peanuts, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position an oven rack in the center. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper or foil across the bottom and up the two long sides, then lightly coat with melted butter, oil or nonstick spray.
2. Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in the bottom of a double boiler. Place the chopped chocolate in the top of the double boiler (off the heat). Turn off the heat, then set the chocolate over the steaming water. While you are preparing the rest of the recipe, occasionally stir the chocolate until it is smooth and melted. Let it sit over the warm water until needed.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar on medium-high speed for 5 minutes or until much lighter in color (the mixture will look clumpy and sandy even when fully creamed). You can also use a hand mixer and a medium bowl, but you might need to beat the mixture a little longer to achieve the same results. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a clean rubber spatula.
4. Add the peanut butter and beat well on medium-high for 30 seconds. Scrape down the bowl again. Crack the eggs into a small bowl and beat with a fork to blend. With the mixer running on medium, add the eggs, about a tablespoon at a time, incorporating each addition fully before adding the next. Beat in the vanilla. Scrape down the bowl.
5. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the peanut-butter mixture all at once, then blend on the lowest speed just until you no longer see any streaks of flour and the batter is smooth. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure that any patches of flour or butter are blended into the batter.
6. Stir half of the batter into the melted chocolate (it may look slightly grainy, but this is fine). Stir the chopped peanuts into the remaining half of the batter.
7. Use a small offset spatula, if you have one, to spread a little more than half of the plain peanut batter in the bottom of the prepared pan. This layer will be very thin and it will seem like there is not enough batter, but it will be fine. Top with all of the chocolate batter, spreading it into an even layer (this is easiest to do by dropping big dollops of batter around the pan, then merging them with the spatula).
8. Drop the remaining peanut batter by level tablespoon in three evenly spaced rows of five dollops each. If you have any batter left, drop it in wherever you like. Drag a toothpick or the tip of a paring knife through each dollop a couple of times, swirling it into the chocolate batter around it. The batter will look very rough and ragged -- don't worry, it will smooth out as it bakes, and the slightly rugged look that remains is very appealing.
9. Bake the brownies for 30-40 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Transfer to a rack to cool for 15-20 minutes. To remove the brownies from the pan, run a thin knife or flexible spatula along the two short edges to loosen them from the pan. Grasp the parchment paper or foil along the long edges and pull gently upward. Cut as desired. Serve warm.
Per serving: 235 calories; 12 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 33 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 30 g carbohydrate; 22 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 99 mg sodium; 64 mg calcium
Recipe from "The Art & Soul of Baking," by Cindy Mushet
POTATOES, SOUR CREAM AND CAVIAR
Yield: 16 servings
16 new potatoes or very small potatoes
3 tablespoons sour cream
2 teaspoons caviar
In a large pot of water, boil the potatoes until they are easily pierced with a fork or sharp knife. Drain. Cut a thin slice off the bottom of each potato so it can stand upright, and scoop out a small hollow out of the top. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Fill each hollow with 1 teaspoon of sour cream and top with 1/8 teaspoon of caviar.
Per serving: 70 calories; 1 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 26 mg sodium; 13 mg calcium
Recipe by Daniel Neman
BEST-EVER MARINATED SHRIMP
Note: This dish should be started the day before serving.
Yield: 24 servings
12 cups water (3 quarts) divided
2 tablespoons Old Bay (or similar) seafood seasoning
2 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 onion, quartered
1 lemon, quartered
30 ice cubes
1 1/2 pounds medium to large shrimp in shells
1 large onion, thinly sliced
7 bay leaves
1 cup good olive oil
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 tablespoons caper juice
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
4 dashes hot pepper sauce, optional
1. In a large pot, combine 6 cups of the water, seafood seasoning, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, quartered onion and lemon; bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat for about 4 minutes. Scoop out 2 cups of this flavored liquid and place in a large mixing bowl. Add ice cubes to the bowl, stir, and let cool.
2. Add 6 more cups of water to the pot with the hot liquid and seasonings and bring back to a full boil. Add the shrimp. When the water comes back to a simmer, immediately turn heat down to medium-low. Simmer the shrimp until pink and starting to curl, 2-4 1/2 minutes, depending on the size of the shrimp. Scoop out shrimp and place instantly in the prepared bowl of flavored water with the ice cubes. Stir to cool evenly and add more ice cubes if all melt.
3. Let shrimp stand in the flavored water about 5 minutes. Drain, peel and devein.
4. In a large mixing bowl, alternate layers of shrimp, thin onion slices and bay leaves. In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, capers, caper juice, Worcestershire sauce, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and optional hot sauce. Pour over shrimp, cover and refrigerate overnight. Drain the vinaigrette, remove some of the onions (for aesthetics) and serve cold.
Per serving: 103 calories; 10 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 31 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 1 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 439 mg sodium; 23 mg calcium
Recipe from "CookWise," by Shirley O. Corriher
LEMON CURD CUPS
Yield: 30 servings
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1 cup minus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3/4 cup strained freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
30 mini phyllo dough cups
Whipped cream, optional
1. Fill a large bowl halfway with ice and water and set it aside. Fill the bottom of a double boiler with 2 inches of water and bring to a rolling boil. Check to see that the water is at least 2 inches below the top portion of the double boiler.
2. Place the eggs, egg yolks and sugar into the top of the double boiler (off the heat) and whisk until blended. Add the lemon juice and mix well. Reduce the heat until the water is at a gentle boil. Place the egg mixture over the water and cook, whisking constantly but leisurely, and scraping the edges frequently so the eggs don't scramble there, until the curd is very thick, about 7-15 minutes. A finished curd should hold its shape; when the whisk is lifted and a bit of curd falls back into the mixture, it should remain distinct on the surface rather than blending back into the mixture. Do not allow to boil.
3. Immediately strain the curd through a strainer set over a medium bowl. Use a rubber spatula to push the curd through the strainer, leaving any bits of scrambled egg. Add the cold butter pieces to the curd, burying them so they melt quickly. Wait 1 minute, then whisk until the butter is completely melted and blended with the curd.
4. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd, then set the medium bowl in the large bowl of ice water. Once the curd has completely cooked, use or store in the refrigerator (with the plastic wrap still on the surface) for up to 1 week.
5. Fill the mini phyllo cups with the curd. If desired, top with whipped cream.
Per cup: 74 calories; 4 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 43 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; no fiber; 18 mg sodium; 6 mg calcium
Nutrition analysis did not include whipping cream.
Lemon curd recipe from "The Art & Soul of Baking," by Cindy Mushet
MAC AND CHEESE CANAPÉS
Yield: 24 servings
2 1/4 cups finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup elbow macaroni (uncooked)
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup grated extra-sharp white cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Cotswold cheese
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1. Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Lightly coat it with nonstick spray and then add 1 tablespoon of the grated Parmesan, using the back of the spoon to spread the cheese mound into a thin circle. Repeat twice, so you have three cheese rounds cooking at once. Once the cheese is golden, after about 2 minutes, use a small spatula to carefully flip it over. Cook the other side until golden, about 20-30 seconds, and then immediately transfer the rounds to mini tart pans or other small molds, such as small glass ramekins.
2. Press a second tart pan or small ramekin on top of the first to mold the cheese rounds into a cup shape. Cool for a few minutes, then lift off the top pan, remove the Parmesan cup, and set aside. Repeat making cheese cups until you have 24 (this will take about 1 cup to 1 ¼ cups of the Parmesan cheese. Be sure to reserve 1 cup of the grated Parmesan for the macaroni and cheese).
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt and macaroni and return to a boil. Cook, following the package instructions, until the pasta is al dente. Drain and set aside.
4. While the macaroni is cooking, make the cheese sauce. Pour the cream into a large heavy-bottomed saucepan and simmer gently over medium to medium-low heat (be careful so the cream doesn't bubble up and out of the pan) until it is reduced by half, 20-30 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the cheddar, Cotswold and the remaining 1 cup of Parmesan cheeses; whisk until the sauce is completely smooth. Stir in the cooked macaroni and remove from heat.
5. To serve, fill each Parmesan cup with the macaroni and cheese, and sprinkle with parsley.
Per piece: 125 calories; 9 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 27 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 5 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; no fiber; 294 mg sodium; 175 mg calcium
Recipe by Peter Callahan from the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership cookbook published by the U.S. Department of State
HOME-CURED SALMON (GRAVLAX)
Yield: 16 servings
1 pound salmon fillet
1 cup salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup fresh dill, coarsely chopped
1. Rinse salmon and pat dry. Place on a rack in a baking pan. In a bowl, mix together salt, sugar and dill. Add plenty of pepper. Spoon the mixture heavily on top of the fillet; it should rise at least 1 inch above the surface of the fish. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and place a cutting board or another baking pan on top. Add a few canned goods to weigh it down slightly and refrigerate 24-36 hours.
2. Scrape off all of the salt and sugar under a running faucet. Slice thin on the bias and serve on slices of pumpernickel cocktail bread with dollops of sour cream, if desired. The cured salmon should keep, refrigerated, at least 1 week.
Per serving: 43 calories; 1 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 15 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 2 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; no fiber; 906 mg sodium; 3 mg calcium
Adapted from "The Frog and the Redneck" cookbook, by Jimmy Sneed