GR Mag (Mar 2013): Retro Cocktail Party

(Grand Rapids, MI) — For our March column in Grand Rapids Magazine, we invite guests to a retro cocktail party, featuring old school nibbles and decidedly dated adult beverages. Juliet shares her secrets for assembling a menu worthy of being washed down with liquor...

The beauty of a retro cocktail party is the variety of easy snacky-poos you can make. After consulting a few websites and asking foodie pals, I narrow the list to five items: deviled eggs, bacon-wrapped dates, pigs in a blanket, savory meatballs, and mixed nuts. I have this deep-seated belief you should always present an odd number of items. Four would be skimpy, six would be too many. Tonight, five choices seems best.

Deviled eggs are easy and don’t even require a recipe. After I get the consistency and flavor I want by mixing up the yolks with mayo, herbs, salt, and lotsa fresh ground pepper, I smoosh it all into a pastry bag. Somehow piping in the filling and sprinkling the mustardy gems with smoked paprika seems like the best way to present deviled eggs worthy of a cocktail party. Plus, in all honesty, using the pastry bag is faster than spooning the filling if you’re a bit klutzy like me. These are great because everyone loves deviled eggs and you can make them hours in advance and perch on a platter in the fridge.

In my research, I discover bacon-wrapped dates are also called “devils on horseback” a variation of “angels on horseback,” or oysters wrapped in bacon and baked. Both hot appetizers are credited as being British in origin and believed to be a spin on pigs in a blanket, which became popular in the United States in the 50’s. I don’t need any history lesson to explain the delights to be found by taking a pitted date, wrapping it in half a slice of regular cut bacon (thick won’t cook thoroughly), and baking the dickens out of it. The date becomes juicy and moist in bacon drippings and the combination of sticky sweet salty fat is intoxicating. Speared with a toothpick before baking, these little devils quickly disappear. For the party I bake them in batches so there’s always a fresh plateful at the ready.

I’ve never cooked with Little Smokies, so I jump at the chance to make pigs in a blanket. Popping open the Pillsbury Crescent Rolls is somewhat jolting for a newbie. I know the damn can is going to pop and I mentally prepare for it. Then KAPOW! it pops one nanosecond before I think it will and I do a full-body flinch. It’s canned dough, for Pete’s sake. What’s with the flinching? Once I’ve got the dough freed from its confines, I cut each triangle into thirds (no need to be super precise here) and roll the dog up in its blanket, wide end to narrow. I brush each blankie with melted butter, sprinkle with garlic salt, and bake until golden.

The one dish that takes a bit of time, but certainly not much effort, is the savory meatballs. See if you can follow this: dump a large jar of currant jelly into a low-sided pan and add a bottle of chili sauce. Bring to a simmer and stir til it all melds and there are no blobs of jelly visible. Add a big bag of frozen meatballs and give it all a quick stir. I added enough meatballs to fill the pan in a double layer, though the recipe said to do a single layer. Let this simmer on low for 3-4 hours. To be honest, I had my doubts about this dish. It just sounds so processed and incredibly—dare I say it?—lowbrow. Well, be sure to set out a large pile of toothpicks because your guests will gobble these up with abandon.

Mixed nuts round out the party fare. Sure you could open the can and set it out as-is, but this is a cocktail party after all. I pull out my Grandmother Wava’s carnival glass bowl, one of her treasured hand me downs. Popular in the 20’s, I can see some housewife in the 50’s or 60’s using this for special occasions. Mixed nuts might be ho-hum, but mounded in the iridescent pressed glass bowl and paired with a silver ladle, they’re exemplary cocktail eats.

Final step, give your shoulders a shake to loosen up and check your lipstick before the first guests arrive. Betty Draper would approve.

Want to mix up some of your own fun? Here are the cocktails Jeremy made:

Classic Champagne Cocktail
  • 3 oz Champagne
  • 1/3 oz cognac
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • 1 tsp sugar
    Soak one sugar cube in a champagne flute with angostura bitters. Add champagne and cognac. Squeeze in a twist of lemon and discard. Garnish with half a slice of orange.

    Old Fashioned
    Place a sugar cube into the glass with a dash of water (some use seltzer) and muddle it to dissolve the sugar. Drop in an ice cube. Add three dashes of bitters, a twist of lemon, and a jigger (measures a shot and a half) of bourbon. Stir gently.

    Tom Collins
  • 2 oz gin
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1 tsp superfine sugar
  • 3 oz club soda
  • 1 maraschino cherry
  • 1 slice orange
    In a shaker half-filled with ice cubes, combine the gin, lemon juice, and sugar. Shake well. Strain into a collins glass almost filled with ice cubes. Add the club soda. Stir and garnish with the cherry and the orange slice.
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