Comforting, traditional holiday food is nice and all, but when you have guests during the holidays (especially if they’re your in-laws), you want to impress them with some dramatic dish. Sometimes it takes a lot of work, time, and patience to create that final crowd-pleaser. Other times—our favorite times—it’s deceptively easy.
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The trick can be a simple combination of ingredients not typically paired together. Or it can be a knife skill on display. For your main meat, wrap it in bacon or prosciutto. Hell, wrap anything in prosciutto. If something is ho-hum, sprinkle pomegranate seeds on it. Fry any fresh herbs in oil and place the crispy result on top of a dish. Slice your fruit and vegetables into the shape of flowers, particularly roses, or simple yet artistic shavings and you’ve found yet another great way to get some oohs and ahhs from your holiday guests.
These helpful hacks and other party tricks are outlined below by each course, so you can pick and choose, or build your whole menu around crowd-wowing tweaks.
We’re guessing your chosen main course—whether that’s roast turkey, prime rib, glazed ham, beef Wellington, or perfect pernil—is already impressive enough as-is. But these scene-stealing starters, sides, drinks, and desserts just might become the stars of the whole show.
Get the party started with a little something special.
Holiday cheese appetizers come in many festive forms, but a mini Christmas tree is obviously one of the best. And it’s easier than you might think! If you can roll a ball of cheese, you can roll a cone of cheese. Then all you have to do is stick parsley onto the surface, and press in some sliced almonds and halved cherry tomatoes for garnish. Get the Christmas Tree Cheese Ball recipe.
Are cheese trees too…well, cheesy for you? (Or do you have lactose-intolerant in-laws?) Guacamole is always a crowd-pleasing starter—but who knew it could be this fancy? Studded with sweet, briny crab meat and mellow roasted garlic and jalapeño, this would impress simply scooped from a bowl. But go the extra mile and mound it in endive leaves for an individually portioned stunner that’s also great at cocktail parties. Get our Dungeness Crab Guacamole in Endive Cups recipe.
Along the same lines but shellfish-free, this is another easy appetizer that looks impressive and tastes great. That’s about all you need in your hors d’ oeuvres, right? Oh, and there aren’t any expensive ingredients either, nor is there any cooking involved. You could include red endive leaves for more color, and swap out the toppings for goat cheese and figs with a balsamic or honey drizzle. You get the idea. So get our Pear and Feta Bites recipe.
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Fig and goat cheese really are a wonderful pair. Spread both on some toasted slices of French bread, and you’ve got something good. But fry up some seasonal sage leaves, and crown each toast with the green garland and you’ve got something special. It truly is the little things, isn’t it? Get our Fig and Goat Cheese Crostini recipe.
First, they’re French. So there’s that. They’re also cheesey, peppery, crisp outside, and airy heaven within. In French cooking, these puffs are a type of baked savory choux pastry made of choux dough mixed with cheese. And they’re really easy to make: heat and stir some of the first ingredients, dump in flour all at once, stir, take off heat and stir in eggs, then stir in cheese and herbs. Scoop with a cookie-dough or ice cream scooper on a pan. Bake. Devour. The end. Get our Black Pepper Manchego Cheese Puffs recipe.
Deviled eggs are a mainstay—and with the right garnishes, they can actually be quite elegant—but for something that breaks the mold, pickle dainty quail eggs with a bit of shredded beet to give them a jolly jolt of color. That bejewled hue and miniature size will win everyone over before they even have a taste. A sprinkle of fancy finishing salt is all these one-bite apps need. And you can find quail eggs at most Asian grocery stores in case you were wondering where you might get them. Get our Pickled Quail Egg recipe.
Remember what we said about wrapping stuff in prosciutto (or other cured pork products)? This is but one example of the magic that is thus wrought (see also: prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and bacon-wrapped dates). You can prep these skewers in advance so all you have to do when guests arrive is pop them under the broiler for a few minutes. Get our Prosciutto-Wrapped Shrimp with Smoked Paprika recipe.
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Easy ways to make humble side dishes extra impressive too.
Edible wreaths come in all sorts of sweet and savory guises, from cookies to cheese plates; see our edible wreath roundup for more recipes. But if you want something that really stands out on your holiday table, this herbed potato bread wreath is perfect.
If you don’t consider homemade bread easy, we have good news: You can simply adapt this recipe to use store-bought pizza dough or even crescent roll dough; just roll small balls of dough, brush them all over in melted (salted) butter and herbs, and arrange them inside a Bundt pan or tube pan, then bake your wreath. If you’re a pro bread baker, get the Herbed Potato Bread Wreath recipe. Either way, prepare to wow. If you can’t find fresh bay leaves, a few sprigs of rosemary make an equally pretty garnish.
Roasted Brussels sprouts don’t need bacon to be special—here are two new tricks to employ instead: Mix the roasted sprouts with some thinly shaved raw sprouts for textural contrast, then top them with juicy, crunchy pomegranate seeds. Oh, and some shaved pecorino too. Instant elevation. Get the Roasted and Raw Brussels Sprouts Salad with Pomegranate recipe (from “Modern Potluck” by Kristin Donnelly.)
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How to make scalloped potatoes really pop? Make them in individually portioned stacks with the help of your muffin pan. They look impressive even if you don’t use two colors of potato, and most importantly, everyone gets enough crispy edges (so one less source of holiday strife). Get our Scalloped Sweet Potato Stacks recipe.
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This dish from Il Fiorista looks (and sounds) impossibly fancy, but really, its a simple roasted carrot dish—the key is finding the smallest carrots you can and simply halving them lengthwise for an elegant presentation. The carrot tops are blended into a pesto-esque sauce (so find a way to work that into the conversation and score bonus points for fighting food waste). And the carrot ribbons are a breeze to make with a vegetable peeler, so there’s no excuse to skip the garnish! Get the Baby Carrots with Carrot-Top Pipián, Pistachio, and Coriander recipe.
Instead of regular creamed spinach, spinach salad or, God forbid, green bean casserole, put a whole new twist on the creamy greens category. This is a coconut-y dish, so haters of the milky fruit won’t like it. But then it gets umami from the mushrooms and a crunchy, salty-savory touch on top that makes this a swoon-worthy side dish. Crispy shallots can do similar wonders for literally any other veggie you decide to make. Get the Coconut Cream Spinach with Crispy Shallots and Shiitake Mushrooms recipe.
Desserts & Drinks
Finesse those finishing touches and really stick the landing when it comes to the close of the meal.
Some apple rose tarts can take hours upon hours. But there’s no need to make a custard which requires constant surveillance and stirring. Don’t bother with seemingly endless amounts of apples to slice paper-thin and then shape into rose petals. To make six apple roses, you need only two large red apples, a package of puff pastry, apricot preserve, cinnamon, lemon juice, a sprinkling of flour for the counter, and a sprinkling of powdered sugar to dust the tops of the flowers. It’ll look almost like they’ve been blooming in a morning mist or faint snowfall. Get the Apple Roses recipe.
Dessert Cocktail (Champagne and Sorbet Float)
Technically, it’s barely even a cocktail, but let’s call it that. This is a drink that’s especially good for a holiday party, whether it be for Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s Day. It works for brunch too—it will feel so much fancier than mimosas, yet it’s just as easy. And it works as a nice, light dessert after a heavy holiday meal. Get our Champagne and Sorbet Float recipe and watch our quick Dessert Cocktail video for a pro tip.
This is most decidedly a cocktail, and a winning one at that. In this seasonal spin on sangria, fresh cranberries and Granny Smith apples are macerated in a spiced simple syrup with cinnamon, allspice, star anise, and cloves. Then all that is mixed with ruby port, Tempranillo rosé, cranberry juice, and Cointreau. Who needs eggnog? Get our Spiced Cranberry Sangria recipe.
Prunes are simply dried plums, and (sugar)plums are a Christmas icon. Ergo, this dessert is a perfect option, and definitely impressive with layers of tender, buttery cake (which—shh—you can purchase ready-made); warmly spiced, port-soaked fruit; and luscious mascarpone cream. Making the amaretto loaf cake from scratch is honestly not much more difficult, but even if you use store-bought bakery pound cake, this is a beauty. Get our Drunken Prune Mascarpone Trifle recipe. And try similar, easy layered desserts that show off their stripes in clear glasses, like brownie parfaits with seasonal peppermint ice cream.
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One final, easy way to take any dessert to the next level? Sprinkle it with a little edible gold leaf. It even makes cupcakes worthy of holiday dessert stardom—the fact that these also contain Champagne in the batter and in the vanilla custard filling doesn’t hurt. They’re topped with simple whipped cream instead of frosting, so you’ll want to wait to add that until the last minute, along with that bling. Get our Champagne Cupcakes with Edible Gold Leaf recipe.