Short Cocktails & Small Bites takes the guesswork out of planning the perfect cocktail party with recipes for small-serve cocktails and mouthwatering hors d'oeuvres. Here are some of author Julia Charles' top tips for entertaining, plus her recipes for Bramble cocktails with Peppered Beef canapés - a match made in culinary heaven!
What are some of your canapé and cocktail go-tos?
What I make most often are little crostini toasts. I take a part-baked baguette, slice it into rounds as thinly as I can (that's where the part-baked comes in as it makes it much easier to cut), spray them with olive oil and bake them in the oven for about 10 mins until golden and crunchy. Once they are cool, you can them top them with anything you like. I am rather keen on a pea and white wine purée that's a cinch to whip up (and it's made with frozen petit pois which I always have to hand) topped with shavings of Parmesan. In lieu of an appetizer, I sometimes make (or buy if time is short) a variety of dips from beetroot humous and baba ganoush to guacamole and tomato salsa and create a large colourful platter of topped toasts. Garnishes are what make all the difference here so have toasted sesame seeds, smoked paprika, crumbled feta, fresh coriander/cilantro or pickled hot pepper slices on hand just to add a little seasoning and a final visual flourish to each one. When it comes to making aperitifs at home, more often than not I will serve a classic French 75 (or a variation on that theme) so shaken gin, sugar syrup and lemon juice topped up in the flute with fizz.
How do you make sure your guests keep mingling throughout the evening?
Well, a cocktail or two always helps! But I have found it's also helpful if there is a fun ice breaker. One evening we hosted a 'Cheese and Vinyl' party at home for a small group of people – some old friends, some newer to the group. Everyone was asked to bring an interesting cheese along with a vinyl album of their choosing. I created a large cheese display directly on the kitchen table, adding fresh and dried fruits, nuts, bread and crackers and then as each record was played, the person who had brought it along was invited to talk about it and say why they had chosen it. It's was quite revealing, started plenty of heated conversation and turned into quite a memorable evening! Most people instinctively brought a very decent red wine with them too, so that was the drink well taken care of.
What's the perfect party playlist?
Music is so important for setting a mood. If I am theming an evening, I will find a specially curated playlist to stream for at least the early part of the night - whether that's Charles Trenet singing 'La Mer' or some banging Mariachi classics! If it's a relaxed cocktail party or dinner, I'd normally put on one of my go-to albums like Goldfrapp's Tales of Us, Air's Moon Safari or a bit of Nouvelle Vague, a French band who cover Joy Division and The Cure in a Bossa Nova style... You can't go far wrong with that... it's something strangely familiar yet soothing in the background but it doesn't take over.
What are your décor essentials?
Generally speaking, I do love indoor festoon lighting – it's so easy to string the bulbs around mirrors and windows and it adds instant ambience. I also love table linens, real fabric napkins in particular and have quite the collection. My favourites are little white linen cocktail napkins. They are each hand embroidered in the corner with a tiny drink. One has a glass of pink fizz with the sparkles created in gold thread, and there are also little Martinis complete with green olives too. I'd use them every day if I could! When it comes to table decor, rather than buy things in especially, I've found you can usually gather together what you need at home. If you dig deep into your kitchen cupboards or even improvise with pieces borrowed from bedrooms or the bathroom, you can usually bring a few decorative touches to the table to help set the tone. For example, brightly coloured red and blue glassware for a Mexican event; pastel crockery and vintage white lace for French (I have one random Café de Flore plate that lives in a bathroom cabinet but always comes to the table as a candle plate when it's an omelette and frites night) and I've temporarily hung a fuschia pink sequinned scarf on the wall behind a table for an Indian-inspired buffet.
Who would be on your dream cocktail party guest-list?
Basically anyone who turns up at my home ready to eat, drink, relax and have fun! But if pressed I'd have to say, Hugh Grant, specifically as the villainous has-been actor in Paddington Two. I think he'd be a 'party in a box', as the saying goes...
The Short Cocktail
50 ml/2 oz. gin
25 ml/3⁄4 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
10 ml/2 teaspoons sugar syrup
Ice cubes, to shake
Crushed ice, to serve
15 ml/1 tablespoon Crème de Mûre (blackberry liqueur)
1 lemon slice and a fresh blackberry, to garnish
2 small tumblers/rocks glasses
Makes 2 drinks (each 50 ml/2 oz.)
Add some crushed ice to each of the serving glasses. Shake the gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup in an ice-ﬁlled cocktail shaker and strain into the prepared glasses. Drizzle half of the Crème de Mûre over the top of each drink so that it bleeds into the pale mixture. (Do not stir.) Garnish with a lemon slice and a blackberry to serve.
The Small Bite
1 ciabatta loaf
400 g/14 oz. peppered roast beef slices
1 tablespoon olive oil
A handful of watercress
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
150 ml/2⁄3 cup beef or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons redcurrant jelly
1 small garlic clove, crushed
85 g/3 oz. frozen blackberries
Makes about 20
Preheat the oven to 200ºC (400ºF) Gas 6.
To make the blackberry sauce, add the vinegar to a pan, pour in the stock and add the redcurrant jelly and garlic. Stir over a high heat to mix then add the blackberries and cook until softened. Mash them with a fork and stir. Set the sauce aside to cool.
Cut the ciabatta loaf in half lengthways and toast under a hot grill/broiler for about 10 minutes until lighted toasted. Using a serrated bread knife, cut the bread on a diagonal into 5-cm/2-inch diamonds.
Tear the beef into bite-size slices and place a few on each toast. Drizzle with the cooled blackberry sauce. Finish each one with a few sprigs of watercress.
Find more small-serve drink and canapé pairings, check out Short Cocktails & Small Bites by Julia Charles. To get more great blog posts like this one - direct to your inbox – be sure to sign up to our mailing list here.