Around this time of year, I start getting phone calls and e-mails asking for holiday entertaining advice. A cousin in North Carolina who is planning a large open house put in one such plea. A few days later a friend in Ohio solicited ideas for something special. At the finish of my holiday cooking classes, students line up for recipe counseling.
This flurry of questions isn't surprising, because in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve we open our homes more often than during any other period of the year. After decades of listening to these requests, what I've learned is that holiday cooks crave recipes that are distinctive yet simple to prepare, especially when it comes to appetizers.
I happened upon one such starter while flipping through a cookbook I bought in Paris. The appetizer was a small Camembert baked in the wooden box in which it was packaged. The paper wrapping encasing the cheese was removed and the cheese was tucked back into its box, covered with the lid and placed on a baking sheet. It was heated in a 375-degree oven for about 15 minutes, until soft and tender. When it's done, the cook breaks through the cheese's top crust and stirs in chopped walnuts. The cheese is then served warm straight from the box with a garnish of apple wedges and dried apricots. Sliced pears or crusty baguette rounds would also make fine accompaniments.
This appetizer, which serves 4 to 6, could make an impressive beginning for a dinner. For a cocktail party, you could double or triple the recipe, passing each baked cheese on a tray as it comes out of the oven. You might want to keep things even simpler and invite a small group for wine and cheese, unveiling the warm Camembert in a box as the star attraction.
Betty Rosbottom writes for Tribune Media Services.
CAMEMBERT ROASTED IN A BOX
Serves 4 to 6
1 (8 ounce; 250 gram) Camembert in a wooden box with a wooden lid (see note)
2 medium tart apples
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup walnuts, roasted and chopped (see note)
20 dried apricots
Line a baking sheet with foil. Remove Camembert from box; remove and discard the paper enclosing the cheese and any labels on the cheese. Return cheese to box and cover with lid. Place on baking sheet.
Bake cheese in the box on center rack of preheated 375-degree oven until the top is very soft and gives no resistance when touched with your fingers, 15 to 18 minutes. Watch carefully, and after 14 to 15 minutes check the cheese by removing the lid and pressing on top of cheese with your fingers. (Some of the cheese may start to ooze out of the box onto the baking sheet toward the end of the baking. Don't worry about this, since the apple and apricot garnish will conceal any leaks.)
While the cheese is baking, core and halve, but do not peel, the apples. Cut each half into 1/4 -inch or thicker slices. Toss slices with lemon juice in a medium nonreactive bowl.
Use a metal spatula to slide cheese in its box onto a serving plate. Remove the lid. With a sharp knife, make several cuts in the top crust of the cheese and stir in the walnuts. Surround cheese with apple slices and apricots. To eat, spread warm cheese and nuts on the fruit.
Note: Cheese and specialty food stores and some supermarkets (such as Whole Foods) sell Camembert cheese packaged in a wooden box. To toast walnuts, arrange a shelf at center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Watch carefully so nuts do not burn. Remove and cool.
Per serving: 268 calories, 11 grams protein, 15 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 24 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 27 milligrams cholesterol, 319 milligrams sodium.
The nutrition analysis was calculated by registered dietitian Jodie Shield.
Here are a few no-no's (and other helpful hints) to keep in mind when having a holiday party:
Don't be Scrooge with the vino. Make sure you have enough -- and enough open bottles of wine. For a sit-down dinner party that might last four to five hours (and feature multiple courses and dessert), plan on one bottle a person, although some people certainly will drink less. For a cocktail party, plan on one bottle for every two to three people.
Don't forget to chill the white wine. If you're having a large party and don't have enough refrigerator space, fill a big tub or urn with ice and stick several bottles in that.
Don't forget your non-drinking friends and relatives. Set up an interesting water, soda and juice bar. Offer still and sparkling waters.
Don't open gifts at the party. If people bring wrapped gifts, place them on a table, open them after the party and thank people appropriately at a later time.