Picture us at age twelve or thirteen.
Growing up in New York City, every weekend played host to at least one bar or bat mitzvah. And where would you have found the young quarter-life cooks at these weekly events? Not on the dance floor, getting down. Not by the photographer, grabbing attention from the bar mitzvah boy. No, we were hovering by the door to the kitchen, waiting to accost the poor cater waiter each time he emerged with a new tray of crab cakes, or chicken skewers, or bite-sized pizza.
Jump to today. We still find that finger food trumps main courses at most parties we go to. But it also translates extremely well to the parties we host at home. Portions are small and price tags are correspondingly affordable. Prep work can usually be done completely ahead of time. Since no one’s stuck eating a three-course meal, mingling can occur. If someone doesn’t like something you serve, they don’t have to push it around their plate, pretending to eat it.
Above and beyond all the practical reasons for hosting finger food parties—and we could go on and on—the fact is, they’re fun. They work well in small urban spaces, and they’re good for young people with busy lives, whether they’re the hosts or the guests.
During holiday season especially, when party invitations are in abundance, we like to get by on the minimum—though a classy minimum it is! By reducing our holiday party menus from ambitious dinner courses to small bites and little sweets, we get to focus our time and space on the most perfect dishes in our repertoire.
Read on for some of our tips for hosting a successful finger food or cocktail party.
From our kitchen, host to many finger food parties, to yours,
Cara and Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOKS
Think Ahead. Especially if you’re hosting, you don’t want to do any cooking or prepping once the party starts. A lot of food is good room temperature, so focus on that. Plus, take into consideration whether food will get soggy. Tea sandwiches, crackers and cheese, and wonton crisps are all durable finger food. If you must have one dish that requires last-minute attention, you can keep it on the menu. Just don’t have two.
Neatness Counts. Avoid all dishes that have sticky sauces, and minimize the number of dishes that have sauces at all. Don’t overstuff sandwiches—the filling will fall out—and don’t use caramel for any reason. Skewers and toothpicks can help you contain any items that might cause a mess. And bread is your friend—it acts as a neat vessel and a sponge.
Plate Prettily. Most of the time, plan to do all your plating before your guests arrive. You’ll want nice-looking platters—if you’re investing in your first set, make them white—and make sure they hold at least 15-20 bites. Much smaller and you’ll have to replenish all the time. It’s possible to find pretty disposable platters as well—we like Verreterra in particular. Limit each plate to one item, unless you’ve made two kinds of one thing—like crostini with various toppings—in which case you can arrange the different kinds in patterns.
Pass or Station. If it’s a big fancy holiday party, you might consider hiring servers (or enlisting friends) to pass the hors d’oeuvres. Short of anything formal, though, you’ll want to place platters of finger food around your apartment. You can choose to have one central area if that works best, but it’s also nice to scatter food here and there—a small bowl of nuts on a side table, a large dip on the coffee table, and two big cheese and cracker platters on the dining room table. No matter what, have extra trays of prepped food in the kitchen so that you can replenish platters occasionally.
Size Matters. If you want your guests to leave full, you’ll have to figure that each guest will eat five to seven things. That will give you an accounting of how much food to make. If your party is going to occur earlier in the evening, you can figure that guests will be eating dinner elsewhere and serve only three to four bites per person.
Variety Counts. We make one type of finger food for about every ten guests. For a party of twenty, you really only need two different kinds of bites.
Dip. Bite. Crostini. When in doubt, revert to this formula. For every three hors d’oeuvres you’re serving, make one of them a dip, one of them a bite, and one of them a crostini. That will give you good variety and amount as well as reduce your stress and indecision.
Consider the Vegetarians. And the red meat-ophobes. And the kosher guests, the vegan guests, and the pescatarians. If a majority of guests adhere to any of these dietary restrictions, you’ll want to tweak your menu to suit them unless you’d like to be eating leftever Pigs in a Blanket for weeks. If you don’t know (or don’t care to find out), just make one-third of your dishes vegetarian. It’s cheaper anyway.
Taste the Rainbow. Of course you want your food to look pretty individually, but you also want the whole menu to span a variety of colors and appearances. Too much bread will mean a rather white menu. Garnishing with green herbs goes a long way.
Serve Dessert. If your party extends long enough, or it’s meant to celebrate a birthday or other important event, it’s fun to add dessert to your finger food menu. Choose bite-size delicacies: cookies, mini brownies, or tiny scones. Plate them in overflowing piles on small plates and set them around the room.