P1090214The French have a fantastic take on the cocktail party. Called un apéritif dinatoire, it’s a dinner made of hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. Like tapas or mezze/meze or antipasti. More than nuts and chips—a meal.

Some beloved friends used to do this every year for the feast of Sainte Lucie, or la Fête de la Lumière, the festival of light. When they moved away, we missed not only them (shout-out to you!) but also their party, which was a chance to chat with people we rarely had opportunity to connect with as much as we’d like.

The Festival of Lights is more of a Scandinavian tradition than a French one, but Lyon does la Fête des Lumières in a big way.

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Store-bought pie crust, covered with spaghetti sauce, ham and cheese, then rolled up and cut (OK if they’re loose–the pastry will expand) and baked at 360 F (180 C).

For us, “in a big way” means inviting over 30-some friends for dinner. We usually do a big bash in the summer, around July 4, with hamburgers, but that’s outside, where we have room for plenty of people. Our house is modest, and we have seats for just 16 people. If not everybody can sit, it’s best to have such a crowd that at least as many people are standing as sitting, and no chairs are at the table. The food buffet should be where folks have to get up to get at it, liberating a seat, which gets taken immediately, and which results in people mingling.

We have a big stack of plain white dessert plates from Ikea, as well as real silverware and glasses. No plastic allowed, and only the napkins are paper. People who are standing don’t want to balance a glass, a dish and a knife and fork. Therefore, most of the offerings are finger food. The ante is raised in France, because while Americans are unfazed by dips and foods that require licking one’s fingers (buffalo wings, nachos), the French don’t really do that. To-go French fries are served with tiny forks (charmingly represented by the Belgian luxury leather company Delvaux’s Belgitude collection, which includes a handbag that looks like a sachet of fries, and the keychain has a little red fork, just like the real ones. Check out the surrealist and so-Belgian video). There are people here who eat fruit with a fork and knife. This of course reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George eats a candy bar with a fork and knife.

We want the menu to be varied and to be as satisfying as a dinner. Chips and dip with a cheese tray isn’t going to cut it. And as good as puff pastry baked with various fillings may be, one cannot live by puff pastry alone. This is a cocktail party plus.

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No recipe needed: store-bought pie crust cut into triangles and rolled up with Boursin cheese and smoked salmon, sprinkled with mustard seeds and baked.

Catering something like this just isn’t done around here. Maybe in big cities, like Paris, where socialites would not be in the kitchen themselves. Or for a milestone birthday or anniversary party, which, in any case, would take place at the community hall. But for a holiday drinks soirée at home, catering would be gauche. At least in our village.

Another option would be to hit a place like Picard or Thiriet, which have mind-boggling selections of frozen, heat-and-serve dishes, from simple to fancy. But as good as their stuff is, it’s still industrial. And kind of expensive. I’ll buy readymade pie crust but that’s the extent of it.

Other requirements for the food:

—Must be made in advance. It isn’t possible to mingle with guests and cook at the same time. By advance I mean two or three days to a couple of weeks. In looking for ideas, I found far too many for which “advance” meant two hours. That’s fine if you’re inviting four people, but not if you’re expecting three dozen. There are better things than cooking to do the day of party, like resting.

—Must be not just edible but delicious if it gets cold. Some items can be heated in the oven as guests arrive, but last time the grazing went on for six hours. Savory tarts are good. So are tartines.

—Must resemble a well-balanced meal: vegetables, starch, meat, cheese, dessert.

—Must be easy to eat. Salads are great for a crowd, but require more than fingers.

—Must be easy on the budget.

—Must be in season.

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Zucchini-cheese chips. Grated zucchini mixed with grated cheese. Put little piles on a cookie sheet and back at 350 F (180 C). 

The party is Dec. 9. I started testing recipes the week of Nov. 20. Somethings look better on Pinterest than in real life. Failures included:

Roasted Brussels sprouts, split and stuffed with prosciutto—too much work, disappointing.

Mini stacks of sliced potato gratin—too much work; didn’t hold together.

Mac and cheese in mini cups of ham—too much work; didn’t hold shape; didn’t like the crackly macaroni on top.

Tuna/zucchini/carrot cake: too wet; didn’t hold shape; fade (bland). Will try another recipe. This is the French “cake,” which is savory, not a sweet gâteau. We will have plenty of those, too.

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Cheesy madeleines (also in the top photo). Aren’t they pretty!

I have a few others that worked well. I wanted to make gougères, but they are best straight from the oven. Instead, I found a recipe for savory, cheesy madeleines. Two thumbs up from my taste testers. I froze half the batch to make sure they would not soggy after being thawed. I’m going to make a big batch this weekend to freeze. Here’s the recipe.Ever since I first had chicken satay on a beach in Thailand, I have been hooked. Rather than deal with little skewers, I use chicken wings, with a peanut dipping sauce. Under the broiler in advance, and then heated in the oven, one of the few things I heated last time. Despite their inherent messiness, they disappeared quickly. Will be doing this again. The recipe is from “Cooking Thail Food in American Kitchens,” by Malulee Pinsuvana. I love that one column is written in Thai. Authentic!

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I’ve had this cookbook since 1989 and you can see it has gotten plenty of use.

I will come back on Tuesday with more recipes, a proper menu, and the game plan for carrying this out so it isn’t harried. Even the budget–it’s possible to pull off a classy event without breaking the bank.

Are you entertaining during the holidays? Feel free to share your tips!

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36 thoughts on “Fête de la Lumière

    1. You just mix grated zucchini (squeeze out the liquid so your crisps will be crisp and not soggy) and grated cheese in bowl (about twice as much cheese as zucchini). Also a little salt. Deposit about a spoonful of the mix in little piles on a baking sheet. The cheese melts and the zucchini cooks in the oven and turns into a kind of chip. Really easy.

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  1. Snap – how funny that we should both post about aperitifs on the same day!! 🙂 I love apertif dinatoire, and I’m totally with you on serving food that can be prepared well in advance!! I’ve got a great savoury cake recipe, which uses ham/bacon and cheese. Holds well and tastes delicious! Let me know if you need a recipe!

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  2. Sounds and looks like it will be a wonderful event. I’m not going to do much entertaing before Christmas. We do something similar after New Year. At that point most of our friends are in a withdrawal state and an excuse to combat the January Blues is necessary.
    We will celebrate the days getting longer, even if it’s just a few minutes a day.

    Feels strange to be home, but in a good way. Seems I had somehow forgotten how beautiful it is here even in the rain.
    Ali

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  3. Spinach Balls { Classic / unsurpassed – crowd pleaser }

    Prep Time: 15 minutes

    Cook Time: 15 minutes

    Total Time: 30 minutes

    Ingredients:

    2 packages frozen chopped spinach

    2 cups Pepperidge Farm fine herb stuffing (any seasoned stuffing will do)

    1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

    6 eggs, beaten

    3/4 cup soft butter

    Salt & Pepper, to taste

    Preheat the oven to 350° F.

    Rinse and drain the frozen spinach and remove as much water as you can.

    In a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients, combine the spinach, stuffing, Parmesan cheese eggs, butter and salt & pepper.

    If you have time, refrigerate the mixture until firm. This will make the next step easier, but it is not necessary especially when you are throwing these together at the last minute.

    The recipe says “Make Balls”. It doesn’t say how large or small these balls should be, just “Make Balls.” I guess it depends on how many you going to serve. We made ours on the large size and everyone loved them.

    Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until cooked through.

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  4. Never knew you could do so many things with pre-made pâte feuilleté! Some great ideas here. Love the zucchini cheese chips. I always try to sneak in a few more vegetables to balance out all the carbs. Usually do at least one fancy vegetable platter with dips, which somehow while so easy always impress my French friends. Bacon-wrapped prunes warm out of the oven is another goodie. I’m always amazed at how the French apéro dînatoire somehow mirrors a full-course meal with starter, main and dessert along the way!

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  5. Some very good ideas there, thank you! I will be attending buffet style potluck lunches as well as having one, so this will be quite helpful. I like to bring something I made, not something I thawed out. I’m in Provence and the word potluck has not yet arrived, but people are doing it. I must try to teach them that word: po -louk. After all, they seem to have gotten the hag of Tanksgeeveeng.
    bonnie near Carpentras

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    1. I’ve been to dinners where some guests have brought dishes and have helped friends by bringing, say, a starter. But the only full-out potlucks I have been to were for the Fete des Voisins. Interesting that they are picking up.

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  6. I’ve done appetizer parties before, but un apéritif dinatoire just sounds so much classier (one, because it’s French, and two, because your menu is just fantastic!) I love how it is elegant without being a formal sit-down dinner party — though still so much prep work.

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    1. Did you click through to the Seinfeld clip? It’s hysterical. My husband says that in Michelin-starred restaurants you’re expected to eat, say, an apple with a knife and fork. But who in the world would order fruit at a Michelin-starred restaurant?

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  7. I LOVE the Apero tradition! I have to say, though…the first time my husband and I were invited to one, we had no idea it would last all night. And the ONLY food on offer was chips, nuts and olives. By the end of it, we were a bit tipsy, and very hungry. But oh my goodness we had fun, and have had many many many parties together since then!

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  8. You’re an inspiration, and I love your site so much! We are planning un apéritif dinatoire (although I didn’t have this gorgeous name for it and was calling it ‘Buffet of Glory’ and ‘Appetizer Heaven’ ) for Christmas Eve here in Arizona because this year EVERYONE is gathering for the holidays, and it’s just not practical to think about anything formal or sit-down-ish. You sound so much like me with the planning and the recipes from 1979 and the joy in preparing it all. I still need to blog about the small cocktail party (with big drama) I hosted a few days ago before I left for the desert. 7 pm was show time, and at 6:55, two heavy plates on a high shelf came crashing down, splitting my forehead open. My husband butterflied it (I should have had stitches and now it’s too late…scar for sure) and I answered the door with an ice pack, blood, and tears. Lord have mercy. On the up side, we had such a good time, two of my buds didn’t want to leave so they didn’t! We won’t forget this holiday season. Merry Christmas to you! xox

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