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On our recent cruise to Alaska on Holland America’s Westerdam, I was able to gather many good entertaining, floral design, and food preparation tips. We got to experience a tour of the galley, a demo on making chocolate martinis, a talk on chocolate, a talk on flower arranging, and a cooking class with one of the head chef’s on board.

I’m pondering if there would be a way to deduct some of the cost of the cruise as a business expense since I learned so much that will be useful, either in things I can share with my guests at my Entertaining At Home parties, or in blog posts!  Probably not!

First of all, let me highly recommend Holland America as a cruise line choice if you do enjoy cooking or entertaining. They have a whole stage dedicated to their Culinary Arts Center. Recipes we got to observe being prepared were provided to us on nice recipe cards. When we did the cooking class, we each got an apron bearing the ship’s logo and name of the Culinary Arts Center. And to top it all off, anything we got to see demonstrated, we got to eat! The highlight of that was from the cooking class, where we were served Grilled Prawn Bruschetta with Primavera Salsa, Salmon with Lemon Glaze and Rosemary Crumbs, and Grand Marnier Chocolate Volcano Cake!

So to begin, I’ll share with you the easiest tip of all: making a chocolate martini. The trick to this is taking chocolate syrup, pouring a tablespoon or so into the bottom of a martini glass, and then taking a wooden stick and dragging some of the syrup up the side of the glass in a spoke-like fashion. To make it more decorative, take the stick and make circles around the glass, dragging the stick through the spokes of the chocolate that have been pulled up the sides of the glass. This will make a spider-web design.

That’s all there is to it. Mix your favorite martini drink and strain it into the chocolate decorated glass. Here are a couple of the martini recipes they gave us. Thanks to Holland America for sharing these recipes.

Lightning Fast Chocolate Martini

3 oz Premium Vodka

1.5 oz. Chocolate Liqueur or Crème de Cacao

Double Chocolate Chocolate Martini

3 oz. Premium Vodka

1.5 oz. Chocolate Liqueur or Crème de Cacao

2 tsp. Chocolate Syrup

Chocolate Orange Martini

3 oz. Premium Vodka

2.5 oz. Chocolate Liqueur or Crème de Cacao

1 oz. Grand Marnier

Chocolate Hazelnut Martini

3 oz. Premium Vodka

2.5 oz. Chocolate Liqueur or Crème de  Cacao

1 oz. Frangelico Hazelnut Liqueur

Chocolate Espresso Martini

0.5 oz. Cold Espresso

2.5 oz. Premium Vodka

1.5 oz. Kahlua or Sabrosa coffee liqueur

1.5 oz. chocolate liqueur or Crème de Cacao.

For all of these recipes, pour all listed ingredients into a cocktail shaker packed with ice. Shake vigorously for 8-10 seconds. Strain into an ice chilled martini glass and enjoy.

Since I’m a tea-totaller, I’m looking for suggestions as to how to use this  presentation idea with a non-alcoholic drink. Any ideas? Let me know in a comment below. Thanks!

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I do home parties for my company, Entertaining At Home. Some parties are better than others. Some can be less than desirable from a financial standpoint. The party where I experienced this recipe was one of the latter but I swear the recipe I took away from that party made up for the low sales.

My hostess was from Poland. I tried a  minute ago to Google Polish gorgonzola bread to see if this recipe is unique to Poland. It doesn’t seem to be.

It is however, a very unique and unexpected combination of flavors, which if I hadn’t tried myself, I’m not sure I would believe how good it is.

Gorgonzola-cheese

Here is the ingredient list:

Ciabatta bread

Whole garlic cloves

Gorgonzola cheese

Honey

Olive oil

Technique:

1) Slice the ciabatta bread in half, lay the two halves on a baking sheet and brush them with olive oil lightly.

2) Toast the bread lightly in a 450 degree oven.

3) While the bread is warm, rub a peeled garlic clove or two all over the hot bread. This imparts the lightest touch of garlic flavor to the bread.

4) Crumble the gorgonzola cheese over the bread. I had never had gorgonzola cheese before (and I don’t like bleu cheese). I was pleased to find that gorgonzola is much milder than bleu cheese.

5) Put the bread back into the oven to melt the cheese into the bread.

6) When melted, remove the bread from the oven and slice it into small pieces, a little larger than bite-size.

7) Here’s the magic to the recipe and the stunning finale to the recipe: drizzle honey over the bread. Who would have expected that!

The combination of the pungent cheese, the subtle garlic flavor, and the sweet honey is a taste that must be experienced.

So please try this recipe sometime.  And if you happen to know whether or not this is a Polish recipe, I would love to know. Thanks.

pokerAnother idea presented by Melissa Evans at Entertaining At Home’s 2009 National Conference to save money on entertaining was all of the various ways to divide the cost of the party among more than one family.  Variations include (1) potlucks; (2) block parties; and (3) progressive dinners.

Potlucks are so old school and still so enjoyable, especially it you have some friends from different ethnic heritages. Ask them to bring some food from their backgrounds.

Block parties take more planning, including making sure you don’t run into conflicts with city ordinances or laws or community restrictions.

A progressive dinner is where each course of the dinner is held at a different person’s home: appetizers at one, soup and salad at another; main course at still another; and dessert and coffee or drinks at the last. You can expand the number of hosts to 5 by making the very last home be for entertainment, such as a movie or card or board games.  Another variation (which increases the costs) is to go to a different restaurant for each course.

A progressive dinner is most suited to an assortment of friends who live in the same or close-by neighborhoods. It can also work for an extended family whose members  live within reasonable driving distance of each other.

The progressive dinner can be organized around a theme, such as an Hawaiaan Luau, a location, such as Dinner on the Deck, or an ethnic choice, such as Italian food.

My son Nathan gave me an idea for a twist on the progressive dinner that most likely would increase the men’s enjoyment of the event: Make it a Poker Progressive Dinner. The inspiration for this idea was the Poker Bike Ride Nathan told me about. In this event, the participants ride their bicycles from one restaurant to another, enjoying part of a dinner at each restaurant and retrieving a playing card at each restaurant. At the last restaurant, the person with the best poker hand wins a prize. There was also a prize for the first person to arrive, but that would not be a feature of the Poker Progressive Dinner.

So why not try the same thing with the progressive dinner: at each home, each guest gets another playing card and at the last home, a prize will be awarded to the best poker hand. Since a poker hand needs at least 5 cards, you’ll need 5 homes with different courses for the meal so either add a beverages course to the start of the progressive dinner or plan to go to the last home for continuing entertainment.

I’m curious as to whether anyone has ever experienced a poker progressive dinner? If so, any special tips to make it successful that you can share?

One of the best training sessions I attended last week at the 2009 Entertaining At Home E-Fest (National Conference) was Melissa Evan’s presentation on “Entertaining On a Budget.”  I’m going to share with you the ideas she presented, with my “take” on the subject.

We all know that people are entertaining more in their homes, which in itself saves money over going out. Home entertaining can still be expensive, but with these suggestions it doesn’t have to be. Following these suggestions will save money and increase the quality of the experience. That’s a good value proposition!

The first suggestion Melissa had was to not use disposables for the party. Skip the paper plates, cups, napkins, utensils, etc. Go green. This will give you the satisfaction of being good for the environment while elevating the quality of the experience. No one ever commented on the elegance or style of paper plates. If you have ever entertained using disposables, you probably experienced the price shock. They may be disposable, but they are not cheap. So instead of spending that money which will be thrown away in the trash at the end of the event, use “the good stuff.”

You may already own enough place settings for your party, but if you don’t, there are alternatives. Do you have a couple of dinnerware patterns that can be mixed and matched?  If you need to make purchases to have a sufficient number of place settings, think about where you could find inexpensive dinnerware. You could go so far as shop at yard sales, flea markets, and on e-Bay. Consider mixing and matching based on a color, such as Delft blue, or a pattern, such as polka dots, or a theme such as floral. Another approach is to go with a neutral, such as white, for your basic stock and then add smaller pieces in the more colorful or patterned pieces.

Even more neutral than white is clear. Stock up on clear glass plates over time and you’ll have dinnerware that can be used any season, any party. This idea came from a blog put out by Real Simple magazine. http://simplystated.realsimple.com/celebrations/2008/11/decorating-on-a.html.

For glassware, if you don’t own enough nice stems yourself, one solution is to make it part of the fun–ask each guest to bring their own ____ glass, whether a martini, wine goblet, etc. But if you are considering investing in stemware, let me recommend you consider silver goblets. They are beautiful and don’t break when dropped. My set of 12 has lasted 32 years of marriage so far.

For your napkins and tablecloths, instead of buying paper, at least consider making your own napkins if you don’t already have cloth napkins. Home made napkins would probably be limited to a less than formal occasion, but if you were having a dinner on the deck, there’s no reason you couldn’t cut out squares of fabric, stitch around the edge, and “fray” the edge threads. Suggestions for fabric sources include the dollar bins at the fabric store, old sheets, or even new sheets.

When making any purchases to complete your needed number of place settings, always keep in mind the “cost per use” of the item. If you only use an item once or twice a year, that’s a high per use cost, even if the item is relatively cheap. If it is a higher priced item, but you use it every day, the cost per use goes way down. So how can you justify purchasing nice dinnerware or serving pieces? Think about other ways you can use the item. For example, beautiful dinner plates can be used to decorate the walls of the kitchen or dining room, or displayed atop the kitchen cabinets, or at the very least illuminated in the china cabinet.  Pretty glassware can double as dessert bowls. Imagine an individual trifle served in a wine goblet, or a serving of mousse piped into a martini glass garnished with chocolate shavings, raspberries, and mint leaves.

If you need any other convincing to ditch the disposables, just remember how easy they are to spill or knock over and the ensuing messes that could be avoided using good dinnerware and glassware.

During this session at our National Conference, I got several other ideas for budget entertaining, wchich I will be sharing with you over the next few weeks. I hope you find them helpful and inspirational. Here’s to making every day an occasion!

Authors’s note: This blog is being reissued to include a tip submitted by my neice, a tip that is just too good to not share with you. Read on for an alternative way to color the playdough. Thanks Megan for your wonderful comment.

It’s hot, summer is dragging on,  the younger children are so bored.  Invite a few of your children’s friends over for a playdough party. Their moms will be grateful and your kids will enjoy an afternoon making their very own playdouh, as well as the fun associated with playing with playdough after it’s made.

Homemade playdough has several different recipe variations. Some not cooked, and others like this one that are cooked. The cooked variety has more of the feel of the commercial playdough, but not the chemicals. There is nothing in the ingredients that would harm your child if ingested. To top it off, the ingredients are very inexpensive.

The recipe itself is very simple and requires no ingredients not commonly stocked in most kitchens. The most exotic ingredient is cream of tartar. Here is the ingredient list:

Ingredients:

1 cup flour

1/2 cup salt

2 teaspoons cream of tartar  (if you’ve never heard of it, you’ll find it in the spice section of the grocery store. It is a white powder. Another use for it is in home-made meringue for pies.)

1 tablespoon salad oil (like Crisco, not canola)

1 cup water

Food color or koolaid package

Procedure:

This playdough is cooked, so depending on the age of the children, you will probably be doing the cooking yourself, but consider which parts of the measuring and assembling of the ingredients that you can engage the children in. When my boys were young, we had a children’s cooking set that included color coded measuring spoons as well as a cookbook that used pictures of the color coded measuring spoons as well as the words. Consequently, they could cook before they could read well.  My sons have turned out to be awesome cooks. Mentioning meringue, my oldest son can make a mean lemon meringue pie, completely from scratch, including the crust. So don’t shortchange your boys in the kitchen. Encourage them to learn to cook too.

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan. A single batch would probably be best cooked in a 2 quart pan, not much bigger or smaller. Mix the ingredients and then cook over medium high heat for about 10 minutes. Stir constantly. You will be amazed at how easy it is to cook this playdough, and I warn you: it will be done instantaneously. As soon as it is the consistency we know so well for playdough, take the pan off the heat and turn the cooked mixture out onto some waxed paper. Temporarily it’s going to be pretty hot, so keep the children back from it for a bit.

Divide it into equal portions according to how many colors of playdough you want to create.

Now we are going to color the playdough. Of course, you could let the children do the next step with bare hands. There might be some staining from the food color you’ll be using to color the playdough. If you are concerned about this, put each portion of playdough into a ZipLoc  bag. Ask each child to pick his favorite color of food coloring and let him or her squeeze a few drops onto the playdough in the ZipLoc bag. Close up the bag, squeezing out most of the air right before you complete the seal. Hand each child the bag with their color and show them how to knead the dough inside the bag.

If you are not concerned about them coming into contact with the food coloring, give each child a square of wax paper, help him or her squeeze the food coloring onto the playdough and let him knead the dough on the wax paper. This can be a lesson in kneading bread dough. The technique is the same.

An alternate way to color to playdough is to mix in a package of koolaid, the dry mix, of course. We’re talking about the inexpensive $.10 packages that you have to add sugar to when making the koolaid. Not only will the powder color the playdough, it will also give it a nice fragrance.

When the dough is ready, continue the cooking lesson by teaching the children how to use a rolling pin to roll out the dough and to use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. When the kids have exhausted their imagination as to ways to play with the playdough, collect up each color, put it in the ZipLoc bag and send it home with the child who mixed that color.

Panini Parties

panini party 003When you have people over for dinner, don’t they always congregate in the kitchen? Why not make the entertainment for your party be the food preparation itself? A panini party is an easy way to get the guests involved in making their own food.

Panini is the plural of “panino”,which means “small bread roll”  in Italian. Panini has come to refer to the sandwich made from the small roll. It is a hot sandwich prepared with a panini pan. The typical panini pan is cast iron, has parallel ridges in both the the pan and the press. The idea is to preheat both the pan and the press. That way, when you place the sandwich in the pan and put the press on top of the sandwich, you cleverly cook the sandwich  twice as fast and produce enticing grill marks on both sides of the sandwich at once.

panini party 004A panini sandwich’s ingredients can really be anything that sounds appetizing to you. There would probably be cheeses, sliced meats, vegetables, maybe even some fruit. For the party, set out a nice assortment of meats, cheeses, greens, vegetables, along with a couple of choices of breads. You could have thickly sliced Italian or French bread, ciabatta bread,  or rolls.  Normally, there are no condiments on a panini sandwich. Rather, you take a pastry brush and brush the bread with a good quality olive oil. Allow your guests to assemble their sandwiches to their own tastes.

While your guests have been putting together their sandwiches, preheat the panini pan with the press inserted into the bottom of the pan. Using a silicone basting brush, coat the press with olive oil and spread olive oil over the bottom of the pan. You don’t want it too oily, nor do you want it too light on the oil.

Once the pan is preheated, invite the guests to place their sandwiches in the bottom of the pan and place the press on top of the sandwiches. Depending on the size of the bread or rolls, you will probably be able to do 2-4 sandwiches at a time.

panini servedFor this party, the fun is in the preparation and the eating. Don’t worry about everyone sitting down to eat at the same time. Serve your beverages at the stove top and let everyone eat their sandwiches as they are prepared. Trust me, they’ll be back to make a second sandwich after everyone has made their first.

If you want some recipe inspiration, check out the blog http://paninihappy.com. I predict you’ll be very hungry after you look at those pictures of great panini sandwiches. There are even dessert panini sandwiches. Got to love that! It will no doubt have you planning a panini party for your friends soon.

And lest you think a panini pan too limited in use to warrant purchase of one, did you realize it makes a great way to cook bacon? Cook the bacon with the press on top; it cooks quickly and can’t curl up.  A panini pan is also good for indoor “grilling” of hamburgers and steaks.

So next time you want to have some folks over for dinner, put them to work making their own  sandwiches. I think you will find they have a great time.

In Persia, an ancient tradition for the first day of Spring involved growing a platter of grass. Let me show you how adapting a cultural practice from a country half way around the world can provide you a versatile centerpiece that can be used with any number of theme parties and can even be used as a series of educational lessons for your kids.

Persian Grass with Farah Robinson

The plate of grass is called “sabzeh.” It represents one of the symbols of spring. Families in Persia begin 2-3 weeks before Naw Ruz to grow the grass. When the grass is tall enough, a ribbon is wrapped around the grass and the sabzeh joins six other items on the “haft’sin” table, each of the 7 items start with the letter “s” and each symbolizes the themes of light, abundance, happiness, and health.

I asked a Persian friend of mine to tell me how to grow the grass. She did more than that, she grew the grass for me. These are her instructions on how to grow the grass. First, use either wheat seeds or lentils.She said wheat seeds can be found in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Soak the seeds in water for a couple of days, rinsing the seeds a couple of times a day.

Prepare a plate for the seeds, something flat and round, like a pie plate.  Place some paper towels in the bottom of the plate. Generously spread the seeds over the paper, several layers of seeds thick. Water the seeds and the paper. It is not necessary to place the plate in bright sunshine, though some light is preferable.

Rinse the seeds a couple of times a day. This is to keep everything fresh and not decaying. Eventually you will have a stand of grass. Persian tradition is to wrap a colorful ribbon around the grass.

I suggest that this stand of grass could be used as a centerpiece for several theme parties.

Obviously, it would be appropriate for a party with a spring theme. I show it here was butterflies. If the grass were transferred to a lovely piece of china with an English Garden motif, that would enhance the theme.

Persian grass springPersian grass golf 2

Again, with a spring theme, the grass would work perfectly for an Easter party.  Lay some Easter eggs on the grass. That would be much more appealing than the fake Easter grass.

Another theme party where you could use the grass would be a golf party. Stick a tee in the grass and scatter about some golf balls.

An especially appealing thing about this project is that it is one that the kids can easily help you with. Let them help rinse the seeds, watch the growth of the seeds, and tie the ribbon around the final growth. And you could easily turn it into a science lesson (germination), a geography lesson (where is Persia and what is it called today), and a comparative religions lesson (which religion does this tradition stem from–Zoroastrianism!).

Do you have some other suggestions for either theme parties where we could use the grass or educational lessons that could be taught around the growing of the grass? Please add them as a comment at the end of this post. Thank you.