Bring On The Cheer

Jill Paglia sets a festive tone with lavish holiday decorations and a menu of decadent, yet easy to prepare, hors d’oeuvres.

Jill is a big advocate for preparing ahead of time when entertaining. And that’s her secret to making it all look so effortless when it comes to decorating and cooking during this hectic holiday season.

“I start earlier now that my children are grown, but there was a time when I couldn’t wait to leave the Thanksgiving Eve dinner at my sister-in-law’s and rush home and start decorating my fireplace.” 

Among her most treasured decorations are small, framed family photos of her children growing up, and now her grandchildren, that go on the main tree that towers over the family room. 

A fresh addition this year are tree collars, which help keep pets and youngsters from getting too close to the gaily decorated trees. 

Helping to set the mood, classical holiday music greets arriving guests, with “soft, jazzy Christmas tunes without vocals during dinner.”

Jingle Juice

4 cups cranberry-apple juice
2 (750-ml.) bottles red Moscato
1 (750-ml.) bottle Prosecco
1/2 cup vodka
2 cups frozen cranberries
1/3 cup mint leaves
1/2 cup granulated sugar, for rimming glasses
2 limes, sliced into rounds

Use a wedge of line to wet the rim of each glass. > Dip the rim in sugar to coat. > Combine the liquid ingredients in a large container and then transfer to a crystal pitcher as needed. > When ready to serve, top the Jingle Juice with frozen cranberries and add mint. > Place some ice in each glass and pour in the juice, then top with a sprig of mint.

Shrimp on Seasoned Crackers with Pepper Jelly and Cream Cheese

Seasoned crackers (your favorite brand)
24 jumbo peeled and deveined shrimp 
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1⁄2 cup cream cheese, at room temperature 
1⁄4 cup red pepper jelly, at room temperature
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

Stir the shrimp, salt, and pepper in a bowl until evenly coated. > Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high. > Arrange the shrimp in a single layer and cook until they turn pink, about 2 minutes on each side. > Transfer the shrimp to a large bowl and let cool for about 5 minutes. > Add the parsley, lemon juice, chives and dill and stir until each shrimp is coated. > Arrange the crackers on a serving plate and spread 1 teaspoon of cream cheese on each one. > Top each cracker with 1 shrimp and spoon 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper jelly on top of each shrimp. > Garnish with remaining herbs and serve immediately.

Antipasto Skewers

24 4-inch skewers or cocktail picks
24 slices salami (or prosciutto, pepperoni or a combination of cured meats)
24 grape tomatoes
8 ounces mini mozzarella balls (or other cheese)
15 ounces quartered artichoke hearts
24 pitted olives 
24 leaves of fresh basil
1/4 cup Italian dressing or balsamic glaze
Additional basil or rosemary sprigs for garnish

Assemble the ingredients onto each skewer as you choose. > Arrange on serving platter or plate. > Drizzle the skewers with dressing or glaze. > Garnish as desired. (These may be assembled up to a day in advance.)

Pigs in a Blanket

1 tube crescent roll dough
24 mini hot dogs
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons of milk)
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
Salt
Rosemary sprigs for decoration
Ketchup

Preheat the oven to 375° degrees. > Line a large baking pan with parchment paper. > Place the crescent roll dough on a lightly floured surface and cut each section into thirds, to get 24 triangles. > Brush a piece of dough with Dijon mustard, place a mini hot dog on the thick end and roll it up. > Arrange side by side in a circle on the baking sheet, with each one touching in order to create a “wreath” with a hole in the center. > Brush the tops with egg wash and sprinkle with salt and poppy seeds. > Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden. > Let cool for about 20 minutes. > Place rosemary sprigs around the outside of the wreath and place a small bowl of ketchup in the center. > Serve immediately.

Bacon Wrapped Dates with Goat Cheese

8 slices bacon (I find that thin bacon works better)
16 dates
4 ounces goat cheese
toothpicks

Preheat the oven to 350°. > Slice the dates lengthwise on one side to create an opening. > Remove the pit. > Using a spoon, stuff a small amount of goat cheese into the cavity of each date and press the sides together to close. > Cut the bacon slices in half lengthwise and then into thirds. > Wrap each date with a slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick. > Arrange evenly on a baking sheet with raised edges and bake for 10 minutes. > Turn each date over and bake another 5-8 minutes until browned. > Remove from the oven and place on a paper towel lined plate. > Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Cranberry Brie Bites

1 tube of crescent roll dough
1 8-ounce wheel of brie
1/2 cup whole berry cranberry sauce
1/4 cup chopped pecans
6 sprigs of rosemary, cut into 1-inch pieces
Cooking spray
Flour

Preheat the oven to 375° and grease a mini muffin tin with cooking spray. > Lightly flour a surface and roll out the crescent dough. > Pinch the seams together, then cut into 24 squares. > Place one square in each muffin tin slot. > Cut the brie into 24 pieces and place one inside each nest of crescent dough. > Top the cheese with a spoonful of cranberry sauce, some chopped pecans and a sprig of rosemary. > Bake until the crescent pastry is golden, about 15 minutes. > Serve warm, with added rosemary for garnish.

To create your own picture-perfect holiday events, Jill offers some easy tips to help you prepare and make them shine like a brightly accented ornament. 

Set a tasty, but simple, menu: Offering appetizers and drinks is festive and easier than serving a full meal. Mix it up with hot and cold items, and sweet and savory. Jill’s Shrimp on Seasoned Crackers with Pepper Jelly and Cream Cheese, Cranberry Brie Bites, Pigs in a Blanket, Bacon Wrapped Dates with Goat Cheese and Antipasto Skewers offer all of that and more.

Be creative with plating: For her Antipasto Skewers, Jill selected a Christmas tree-shaped ceramic platter that really showed off the red of the tomatoes and the green of the olives. A two-tier serving dish was the perfect way to offer the Bacon Wrapped Dates and Brie Bites. Be sure the appetizers are easy for your guest to pick up and place on their plate, and to consume without feeling self-conscious. And bring out the nice serving pieces, such as a cheese slicer or cake server. 

Serve punch: Mix up a sparkling beverage like Jill’s Jingle Juice to help keep you from tending bar all night. Adding fresh cranberries and mint makes the color pop and serving in sugar-rimmed Old Fashioned crystal glasses adds a note of elegance. 

Use caddies: If your guests will be using utensils, consider placing them in decorative caddies that offer easy access. You can also choose this method for offering a variety of condiments, sauces, fresh vegetables or breadsticks. 

Calm your nerves: Jill says the best way to greet your guests is to be calm and relaxed, and maybe even have a sip of wine ahead of their arrival. 

“Be lighthearted and don’t stress over everything,” she urges. “No one will know if things aren’t perfect. People are there to have fun. Christmas brings a lot of excitement, especially when you have kids and grandkids, so you want it to be a happy and fun gathering for everyone, including the hostess.”

And speaking of that, when you are the guest at someone else’s soiree, be sure to bring a hostess gift. 

“You can’t go wrong with a beautiful set of Christmas themed hand towels or a special candle,” Jill offers. “I always think about something special for a hostess rather than a bottle of wine for the crowd.” OS

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