Sunday, July 1

Hosting a Tasting Party


Having a tasting party is all the rage these days. The current "it" party which has replace the classic cocktail hour. Also know as canap├ęs, hors d’ouvres, titbits, or amuse-bouche’  (mouth amusments to the French) these bite size parties are appearing everywhere.
With more and more people watching cooking shows, challenges, and contests, small bites are in. Having a tasting party of your own is easy and fun. You can feature several different recipes in small portions for your guests to enjoy.

Think of a tasting party as a really fancy cocktail hour. Easy to eat foods which are prepared in small sizes, allow people to talk, walk, and eat all at the same time. The difference between a tasting party and a cocktail hour is in the preparation and menu. Tasting party foods usually feature items which can be served as a large meal broken into smaller portions, while cocktail hours feature great food that you might not want a whole plate of as a meal. Tasting party also features the presentations of foods, each dish is made to be a one bite wonder. Amazing to look at and great to eat. Each little portion needs to represent the chef and the dish in one bite.

Tasting parties often feature a central theme. This central theme will allow you to group all the dishes together. Unlike a cocktail hour or potluck, you want a theme behind the recipes you choose to include. Themes can be ingredient based or presentation based.

Ingredient based tasting parties usually include serveral recipes from the same style of cooking or containing a few similar ingredients. These could be a great way to experiment with a new ingredient you have never used. For example: Fennel Tasting Party, fennel is a spice, a herb, and a vegetable. You could have a fennel themed tasting party and included a few different recipes each showing fennel in a different way. Feature non-fennel dishes cooked in similar styles alongside to round out the menu.

Presentation based tasting parties usually include recipes which can be layed out similarly or have the same over all feel to them. For example: Game Day Tasting Party, this can include recipes we all know and love. Wings, mini-sliders, or fruit salads. Include a few recipes which are also small finger foods but, are dressed up a little more to round out the menu.

Here are a few great tasting party ideas to get you started:
  1. Dessert Diva Tasting Party. Recipes you can include mini-tarts, parfaits, pies, and lollipoped items.
  2. Bountiful Breakfast Tasting Party. Recipes you can include poached eggs, fruit salads, mini-quiches, bite size waffles, and pancakes. 
  3. Taste of Italy Tasting Party. Feature small bowls of pastas, salads, and chicken dishes.
  4. France Revolution Tasting Party. Feature pastries, baked goods, small bowls of stews or poached meats, and wine. 
  5. Spanish Fiesta Tasting Party. Feature a salsa bar, tapinadas, mini-fajitas, and sangrias.
  6. Ice cream tasting party. Include mini-floats, mini-milkshakes, single scoop sundaes, and serve single scoop plain ice creams with topping your guest can add on.
  7. Chocolate Lover's Tasting Party. Feature a chocolate foundue pot surrounded by dipping items. Recipes to include alongside mini-parfaits, mini-milkshakes, and chocolate tarts.
  8. Take-away Tasting Party. Include dishes you would often get on the road or from a take-away resturant. Bite size pizzas, egg rolls, burritos, or mini-tacos and sliders, are agreat place to start. But don't forget to include the seasoned fries and onion rings!
The only real important thing behind a tasting party is not getting carried away.

You want a clear cut menu, one with variety but, not so much it becomes overwhelming. Allow your ingredients to carry through several dishes. This will cut down on cost and help have a uniform menu. You want to work on your menu ahead of time and consider what each dish will be served in; the container is just as important as the dish itself. Each container has to make the dish easy to eat. You wouldn't want to put soup on a large spoon it may slide out of. At the same time trying to put a kabob into a small bowl would be pointless.

There are several options for containers out there and all over. Some grocery stores now carry the disposable acrylic tasting party sets in their party isle. You can also find great porcelain sets at several stores. The best ones by far that I have found are at Pier 1 Imports. They have a huge line of "Tasting Party Sets". Their line features several different styles, from bowls to spoons. Most of the sets come on their own serving tray. They also sell separate platters, dishes, glasses, and spoons to accompany these sets. Most of the Pier 1 locations have a dedicated display set-up for just their "Tasting Party" line.

I like their sets for a few reasons: First of all, you can tell they keep up with the trend. Originally the sets all featured the same size dishes in white porcelain, but now they have mixed sets which include different size dishes, some come on bamboo trays, and several come in multiple colors. Although, I stick to all white, the colored ones are fun. Second, each set comes in a box which is easy to store and easy to get the items back into. Third, most sets include recipes! Which is a great help for ideas and thoughts of what style recipe should be featured in the dish.

Even though I create my own recipes, it is great to see what is out there or have a great last minute idea included. I have purchased several sets over the year and slowly built up a nice little collection. Most of the sets retail around $20-30 dollars, but they have a few that are $12-$20. The sets are often on sale and you can get them for $9-$15 dollars! Making this a great little splurge to add to any dish collection. Also, they are all dishwasher safe-bonus, after all washing all those little guys by hand could be a little scary.

Hosting a "Tasting Party" doesn't need to be expensive or over the top. Just combine simple recipes, great dishes, good friends, and possibly a bottle of wine or two! Here is the run down of things to know and a few key steps:
Plan ahead:
  • When are you having the party.
  • How many people will be there.
  • What dishes you will be using
  • How do you want your presentation to be set up. Remember you don't need to lay out in a flat surface, try adding tiered platters or stands to create a visual appeal.
 Plan your menu:
  • What recipes do you want to included
  • What ingredients will you need to get
  • What dish will feature which recipe
  • Make sure to have 1 of each recipe dish for each guest plus 1 or 2 extra (Ex. 4 guests make 6)
  • You want at least 8-12 bites for each guest in total, this will allow everyone to feel full and keep coming back for more
  • Have little signs for every dish so guest know what they will be eating
Prepare in order
  • You will need to timeline which dishes can be made ahead, which dishes need to be hot, and which dishes need last minute garnish prior to serving, this way it all times out for serving together.

Don't be afraid to ask for help
  • Tasting parties require more prep work, so having a co-host is a great idea.

Do the research:
  • Look around for great bite size food ideas, updates of the classic (Ex. chicken wings)
  • Know what your guest might want to try.
  • Find which items may already be made from a take-away resturant or frozen appetizer section to include and save time.

Be prepared.
  • Have the serving area all set up and know where each tray will go.
  • Have napkins, utensils (if not in dish) ready to go.
  • Have back up dishes just incase you or a guest knocks over a tray. Nothing is better then the extra food at the end if it isn't needed.
  • Know it may be a rocky road to get it all out but once it is-your done!

Just have fun with it.
  • Try a new ingredient, try a new recipe or two, try something you have always wanted to, and just have fun doing it.

You will do it again.
  • Seriously, people love this style party. Once you host one, someone who came to yours probably will or you may do it again, just get ready for lots of great food and good times!
If your stuck for finding recipes, remember anything you make can become a dish. Soups can be portioned smaller, fruit or vegetable salads work wonders, little chicken parmesan bites are great, and any finger food can be dressed up. Try some of my recipes or here are some of the great recipes that were included in my Pier 1 Imports "Tasting Party" sets:

Quick and Simple Mousse

Recipe great for any of the shot size dishes



1 cup graham cracker crumbs                    8 oz whipped topping

3 tbsp butter, melted                                 ¼ tap vanilla

1 tbsp sugar                                               1 cup fresh or frozen fruit, chopped

8 oz cream cheese, softened



Combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter. Mix together.

Spoon about 1 tsp of mixture into each dish and pat down.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together cream cheese and vanilla until fluffy.

Gently fold in whipped topping.

Add in chopped fruit.

Fill each glass with mousse.

Garnish with a dollop of whipped topping and small piece of fresh fruit.



Chocolate Raspberry Cup

Recipe great for any of the shot size dishes



1 cup graham cracker crumbs                    2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

3 tbsp butter, melted                                ¼ cup sugar

2 tbsp honey                                              1 cup fresh raspberries or ½ cup raspberry jam

2 cups whipping cream                             12 oz semisweet chocolate chips



Add 1 tsp sugar to melted butter and graham crackers. Mix thoroughly.

Place about 1 tsp of mixture in the bottom of each dish and pat down.

In a sauce pan bring the whipping cream to a boil, lower heat to low and simmer 5 minutes. Stir constantly to avoid scorching.

Add chocolate chips, remaining sugar, and cocoa powder in and mix until smooth and melted.

Pour chocolate mixture into each glass.

Chill 1-2 hours or until set/firm.

Serve with a fresh raspberry or dollop of raspberry jam on top.



Tropical pineapple orange delight

Recipe great for any small bowl



1 20oz can of crushed pineapple with juice                      1 3oz box instant vanilla pudding

1 can mandarin oranges, drained                                      8oz whipped topping

Maraschino cherries, for garnish only



Cut mandarin oranges in half.

Mix oranges, pineapple, and pudding together.

Gently fold in whipped topping.

Spoon into dishes.

Top with cherries for garnish.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

For a great variation add a small piece of pound cake or angel food cake to the bottom of dishes first, top with fruit mixture and serve!



Chocolate Fantasy

Recipe great for any small bowl



1 box devil’s food cake mix                                 1 bag of toffee pieces

1 can sweetened condensed milk                        8oz whipped topping

1 jar caramel sauce                                                Maraschino cherries, for garnish only



Prepare cake mix and bake in a 9 x 13 pan, you will not use the whole cake.

Cut cake into 2” squares and place a square in each dish.

Poke 4 hole using a handle of a wooden spoon in each cake piece.

Mix together condensed milk and caramel sauce.

Pour mixture over cake and sprinkle toffee pieces over it.

Top with whipped topping.

For garnish, sprinkle over more toffee pieces and top with a cherry.



Chocolate Praline Fantasy

Recipe great for any small bowls



1 cup chocolate wafer crumbs                              ½ cup whipping cream, divided

¼ cup butter, melted                                             2 cups pecans

30 caramels                                                           ¾ cup semi-sweet chocolate pieces

½ cup caramel sauce                                             ¼ tsp milk



In a bowl mix melted butter and wafer crumbs. Mix thoroughly.

Firmly pat 1 tbsp of mixture into the bottom of each dish.

In a saucepan, melt caramels into the caramel sauce.

Stir in ¼ cup whipping cream.

Remove from heat and add pecans.

Spoon onto crusts until half full, chill for an hour.

In a microwaveable bowl melt chocolate pieces and milk.

Stir in remaining whipping cream, drizzle over pecan mixture.

Refrigerate to chill slightly.



Cherry Chiffon Dessert

Recipe great for any small bowl



1 large can of cherry pie filling                             8oz whipped topping

1 can sweetened condensed milk or 12oz plain or vanilla yogurt*

1 large can crushed pineapple, drained     1 cup miniature marshmallows



Combine all ingredients in a large bowl until well blended.

Spoon into serving dishes and refrigerate to chill.

*Using unsweetened condensed milk makes dessert rich tasting while the yogurt will be a lighter taste.



Mango Salsa with Chicken or Shrimp

Recipe great for any small bowl



1 mango, peeled and finely cubed                        1 lb large frozen shrimp, rinsed and thawed

12 oz fresh pineapple, diced                                 ½ cup honey, divided in half

¼ red pepper, chopped                                         2 tsp red pepper flakes, divided

¼ green pepper, chopped



In a large mixing bowl, combine the mango, pineapple, red and green peppers, 1 tsp red pepper flakes and ¼ cup of the honey. Mix well.

Place a heaping spoonful of the mango salsa in the bottom of each mini bowl.

In a small mixing bowl, place the remaining honey and red pepper flakes.

Dip the shrimp, but not the tail, into the honey mixture.

Place 2-3 shrimp in each individual serving bowl on top of the mango salsa.

This can be made in advance, but should be covered and refrigerated until ready to serve.

For Mango Salsa with Chicken, cut 2-3 boneless chicken breasts into 3” strips.

The chicken should be grilled or pan-fried until golden brown and done.

Serve the same as the shrimp recipe



Snappy Fruit Yogurt Parfait

Recipe great for parfait style or tall/thin dishes



16 oz plain or vanilla yogurt                                       8 oz granola

1 ½ - 2 cups fresh fruit, chipped into small pieces

(suggestions: pineapple, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries)



Layer into serving container:

¼” Granola


½” layer of yogurt

Continue until glass is full.

Refrigerate to chill.



Black Forest Cream Parfaits

Recipe great for parfait style or tall/thin dishes



1 cup raspberry preserves or cherry pie filling      4 oz semi-sweet chocolate pieces

2 tbsp milk                                                            8oz cream cheese, softened

1 ½ cups of whipped topping (leave out ½ cup for garnish)



In a microwaveable bowl, heat milk and chocolate pieces until melted.

Add in cream cheese and blend.

Gently fold in 1 cup whipped topping.

Carefully spoon mixture into glass.

Layer with raspberry or pie filling.

Continue until glass is full, leaving ¼” off top for topping.

Refrigerate until chilled.

Garnish with dollop of whipped topping and shaved chocolate.



Chocolate Peanut Butter Parfaits

Recipe great for parfait style or tall/thin dishes



¼ cup butter, melted                                 1 tbsp honey                           

1 8 oz-container whipped topping or fresh-made whipping cream

1 ½ cups finely crushed chocolate wafers or graham crackers    

½ cup chocolate chips                               1 tsp vanilla

¼ cup finely chopped peanuts                  2 tbsp milk

½ cup chocolate syrup                              1 cup powdered sugar

1 8-oz package cream cheese, softened    ½ cup peanut butter



Chocolate shavings or chopped nuts for garnish (optional)

Combine melted butter, honey and crushed wafers in a mixing bowl.

Fill each glass with one heaping teaspoon of wafer mixture, about a ½”, pack down slightly.

Add a few chocolate chips and some chopped peanuts on top of the cookie crumbs. Drizzle with the chocolate syrup.

In a bowl, combine cream cheese and peanut butter until smooth.

Add powdered sugar, milk and vanilla, mix together until well-blended.

Gently fold in whipped topping or whipped cream.

Carefully spoon mixture into glasses.

Garnish with chocolate shavings or add another drizzle of chocolate syrup and some chopped peanuts. Refrigerate a couple of hours until set



Banana Cream Delight

Recipe great for any mini-martini or flared glass



½ cup graham cracker crumbs                               1 container whipped topping

2 tbsp butter, melted                                             2 bananas, sliced

1 box vanilla pudding (non-instant is creamier)    1 tsp sugar



Mix cracker crumbs, melted butter and sugar in a mixing bowl.

Divide the cracker mixture equally between 12 glasses, press down firmly in bottom of each glass.

Make the pudding as directed on the box.

Put 3-4 slices of banana over the cracker crumbs.

Cover bananas with pudding. Chill until set.

Finish with whipped topping and serve



Caprese Salad

Recipe great for any mini-martini or flared glass



24 cherry tomatoes (quartered optional)   salt and coarse black pepper

1 small can black olives                             1 lb fresh buffalo mozzarella, diced

½ cup fresh basil, chopped or torn into small pieces

¼ cup olive oil                                           2 tbsp balsamic vinegar



In a mixing bowl, combine the first four ingredients.

Toss with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Season to taste with the salt and pepper.

Serve in Glasses on a long tray



Classic Cheesecake

Recipe needs to be served in oven proof small ramekins



1 cup graham cracker crumbs                    2 tsp vanilla

1 can cherry, blueberry pie filling or fresh berries for topping (optional)

¼ cup margarine                                        2 egg whites

¼ cup sugar (for crust)                              ¼ cup sour cream

1 8-oz package cream cheese, softened (ricotta cheese may be used)

¼ cup sugar (for filling)                                       



Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For a simple graham cracker crust, mix graham cracker crumbs, margarine and sugar, then divide equally between 12 ramekins.

In a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar and vanilla with electric mixer until well blended.

Add egg whites, mix well, then add sour cream and mix thoroughly.

Pour equally into the 12 ramekins, almost to the top.

Bake 20 minutes or until center is almost set.

Turn off oven, leaving oven door open for another 15 minutes.

 Remove from oven and refrigerate until chilled.

When ready to serve, top each ramekin with a spoonful of pie filling or fresh berries



Texas Party Quiches

Recipe needs to be served in oven proof ramekins

1 pkg. refrigerator biscuits                        1 jar of salsa for topping, optional

5 eggs, beaten                                           ¼ cup shredded cheddar cheese, optional

1 cup cottage cheese                                 4 tbsp finely chopped green onions

¼ cup flour                                                2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese

½ tsp baking powder                                ¼ cup butter or margarine, melted



Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Separate biscuits and cut in half horizontally, making 20 pieces of thin pastry.

Place a piece of pastry into each ramekin. Press down.

Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, until just brown and slightly puffy.

In a large bowl, combine beaten eggs and cottage cheese.

Beat in flour, baking powder and melted butter.

Stir in Monterey Jack cheese, green onions. Mix well.

Pour mixture equally into the ramekins. Sprinkle a few pieces of cheddar cheese on top (optional).

Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until done.

Serve warm, plain or with salsa on the side in a dip bowl.

You can also make this quiche without the pastry crust, or use some toasted bread cubes.

You can add almost anything to this recipe: bacon, mushrooms, green pepper, etc