Who Says You Have to Have Champagne to Toast the New Year? — 86 Proof Chocolate Cake

Toast 2012 with some 86 Proof Chocolate Cake.

Here’s another yummy dessert from the Poirier’s Christmas Cocktail Party where sweet and savory paired perfectly with cocktails in a festive atmosphere. The recipe for the party was flawless: great food and drink mixed with friends, old and new, and festive décor. Heck, Clark Griswold has nothing on Mark when it comes to outdoor lights! Right from the git go, the house screams, “We are glad you came!”

The name of this cake says it all. You won’t be disappointed. Take a slice and toast to 2012 and hospitality!


86-Proof Chocolate Cake

Make this cake in a fancy Bundt pan and serve without icing.

  • 5 ounces (5 squares) unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 cups sifted, all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup dry instant coffee or espresso
  • Boiling water
  • Cold water
  • 1/2 cup Bourbon
  • 1/2 pound (two sticks) sweet butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • Confectioners sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. You need a 9-inch Bundt pan or one that with 10-cup capacity. (Melanie says even then there is too much batter and the cake will overflow, so reserve some batter for a mini cake as filling the pan too full will result in a mess.)

Hint: Use a sturdy Bundt pan. Some of the lightweight colorful ones will buckle and eventually warp and give you uneven cakes. That’s why I had to buy a new one this year.

Here’s the kicker: I confirmed with Melanie that this is really necessary and she says it is and it works! Butter the Bundt pan; make sure you get every crevice. Then dust it with dry bread crumbs. She buys the unseasoned ones from the store.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, set aside to cool.

Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt, set aside.

In a 2-1/2 cup measuring glass, dissolve the coffee in a bit of boiling water. Add cold water to the 1-1/2 cup line. Add the Bourbon and set aside.

Cream butter in a large bowl. Add vanilla and sugar and beat well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Add the chocolate and beat until smooth.

On low speed alternately add the sifted dry ingredients alternating with the liquid ingredients. Add liquids gradually while scraping the bowl. Beat until smooth. The mixture will be thin.

Pour batter into the prepared pan. Remember not to fill it full as according to Melanie it will overflow in your oven.

Bake for one hour and 10 or 15 minutes. Test by inserting a cake tester and when it comes out clean it is done.

Cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Remove from pan and sprinkle the cake with a little bourbon and leave cake to cool. Before serving sprinkle with sifted confectioners’ sugar.

Maida Heatter

Melanie says she bought Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts years ago just for this recipe. It was published in 1978, and you have to admit Maida looks like she has a command over chocolate. As described “this is the book Maida was born to write!” I enjoyed leafing through her book and unlike most recipe books today, she goes into great detail on how to do something — which could be good if you are “a timid novice” as Maida puts it. I abbreviated much of her instructions when copying the recipe above.

On a funny note… Maida claims this chocolate cake recipe will not overflow in the pan, but after years of baking it, Melanie says not to believe that!

I think there is a little Maida Heatter in all of us. Without a doubt, she knows hospitality because in my humble opinion, every great dinner must end with some chocolate — it’s the last memory your guests will have and it will always be a good one.

More Photos

I never pass up this cheese and olive display.

I have to show some more photos from Mark and Melanie’s Christmas Cocktail Party. It was a Kelley Hospitality dream. Next year I’m showing up early, dragging in the special light and lens and going to town. I hope I have time to eat!

Melissa enjoys the buffet and a festive night out with her husband. They have 7 children!

Clay and Bill, neighbors, who see each other about once a year at this party!

Happy New Year to all! You’re a great audience. Here’s a toast to hospitality!

Ring in the New With Peppadew

Are you looking for something new? I just had these red gems for the first time at Mark and Melanie Poirier’s Christmas Cocktail Party held annually on the Saturday evening before Christmas. These are so easy there is time to make them for New Year’s Eve.

There Nothing Like a Good Old-Fashioned Cocktail Party

Time: 7 p.m.

Dress: our hosts don’t specify but guests come in anything from business casual to black tie.

Outcome: You always see people you know or haven’t seen since the last party. Plus you always meet someone new. It’s just plain civilized-cocktail-party fun…and with two Christmas trees…festive to the max.

Melanie handles the menu, her staff, and welcomes guests along with husband Mark.

Talk about hospitality! Melanie handles the menu which is rich in variety and taste. From sweet to savory, she orchestrates a menu that pairs perfectly with cocktails. Mark sets up a self-serve, full bar but stands by to greet and assist guests with their libation choices. And why hire any serving help when you have five capable children bred with hospitality? With two in college, two in high school, and one in sixth grade, Mark and Melanie have plenty of good help. From answering the door and checking coats to keeping food trays filled and mingling perfectly with guests, this party is well staffed by the fearless five.

The peppadews are only one of the delectables on the menu. Their party is Hospitality from A to Z and really deserves its own blog. Note that for next year. For now, I’ll share the wonders of peppadew with you so you can make them for New Year’s.

Can you find the peppadew on my cocktail party plate?

Peppadew Stuffed with Boursin Cheese

Peppadew is the brand name of sweet piquanté peppers. You can buy these from fresh olive bars in most grocery stores or in jars. This recipe originates with Melanie’s mom who stuffs it with homemade Boursin cheese.

You can stuff with anything you like—cream cheese or store-bought Boursin. But I can attest to this recipe. I ate it, loved it, and am making it for New Year’s Eve. Maybe you will too. Let me know. Buy peppadews and stuff them with Boursin—so easy and so good.

Boursin Cheese

  • 8-oz package of cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, put through garlic press
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon basil
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley

Combine all ingredients (this can be done in a food processor with steel blade) and blend thoroughly. Taste for flavor and seasonings. The cheese may be shaped into a ball and rolled in crushed red pepper or stuffed into a peppadew. Refrigerate overnight before serving. The Boursin cheese balls can also be frozen.

For more from the party…Melanie’s 86 Proof Chocolate Cake

Have You Set the Christmas Table Yet?

This year's table --- built around two gold candles Melanie gave me this morning.

This is my favorite part of getting ready. I set my table for Christmas Eve dinner this morning so I can enjoy it and fuss around with it a little more (I still have to finish the place cards). I lean toward the formal setting but your festive table can take on your own personality.

This morning my friend Melanie gave me some gold candle sticks. (Light bulb!) I decided to build my tablescape around two gold candlesticks. Gold and green with a sprinkle of red is the result. Gold balls accent the table (I actually took some off the tree!). When the sun sets and the lights are low, I hope to have a table that sparkles and whispers, “We are happy you’re here.”

Ideas — Tell Me Some of Your Own

  • Take a pretty tray or basket, place several votive candles on/in it and accent with some greens and ribbons.
  • Always use candles of some kind for the Christmas meal.
  • If your dining table is a farm-type table or more informal, use a colorful quilt to cover it. Make a centerpiece out of greens from your yard – holly, evergreen, magnolia leaves.
  • Use the gingerbread house your kids made as a centerpiece.
  • Use Christmas ornaments to decorate the table.
  • Weave beaded garland throughout the table for some sparkle.
  • Use various dishes that don’t match with a plain tablecloth.
  • Tie napkins with ribbons.
  • Put fresh cranberries in a vase and fill with some kind of white flowers. Do a lot of small vases or use one big one.
  • Fill a bowl with pomegranates and oranges.
  • Use a colorful silky scarf on which to place your Christmas baubles.
  • If you have a collection of anything — nutcrackers, carolers, houses, whatever, arrange them as a centerpiece with greens.
  • Fill a glass bowl with sparkly ornaments and greens.
  • If you can sew a simple stitch, visit the fabric store and make a table runner(s).
  • Walk through Michael’s or A.C. Moore and get ideas. Find some Christmas picks, candles, garlands, anything and get home and put it all together. Sales are going on now.
  • Let your children decorate the table for a complete children’s table. They will feel like they did meaningful work. Let them make place cards.

Welcome...we're glad you're here!

It doesn’t matter if it’s just two or twenty; if you have matching dishes or not. Put your mood and personality into it. Set your table with a spirit of hospitality. It shows.

Emergency Gifts

My sweet pecans, made to decorate a praline cake

When my husband and I were first married, we were shopping for Christmas and I’ll never forget what he said: “Let’s pick up a case of wine for emergency gifts.”

“Emergency gifts?”

“Yes” he said, “Keep them wrapped and under the tree and if anyone comes by we have gifts for them. You know, make them feel like we were expecting them.”

Oh boy did I embrace that thinking. Hospitality at its finest. Since then, my emergency gifts may include, but are not limited to, wine. I also like to give food made in my kitchen. A favorite is Sweet Pecans.

Sweet pecans are simple to make and give as a gift from your kitchen.

Sweet Pecans Do Double Duty

I made sweet pecans today because I need something to decorate the praline cake I’m making for Christmas Eve. I’ve done everything ahead except the icing — it has to be cooked and spread on the cake immediately. I put the cake in the freezer and have the sweet pecans in a plastic container. (They will keep for five days or up to three weeks in the freezer.)

I made a big batch so I packed some up for a homemade gift from my kitchen. They’re already under the tree. These are so simple and take minutes to make. Put them in a festive container and you have a gift! Grab some bags of pecans from the store and you are halfway there.

Sweet Pecans

  • 1 egg white
  • 1 pound pecan halves
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar

Beat egg whites in a large bowl until foamy. Add pecans and stir until coated. Stir sugars together and add to the bowl and stir until evenly coated.

Spread pecans on a lightly-greased aluminum foil-lined cookie sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes stirring half way. Remove from oven and let cool (about 30 minutes). Package when completely cool.

“I was afraid it was a fruitcake.”

Christmas Fruit Cookies

Have you ever heard those words? Fear no more. Mom made up a recipe that combined all the good parts of a fruitcake and put them into a little cookie. In her no-frills style, mom named them Christmas Fruit Cookies. We all loved them as kids but would not touch a piece of fruitcake. They are sweet and delicious with coffee or a glass of milk. In fact, that is what I had for breakfast today, coffee and a Christmas Fruit Cookie. Makes you look forward to getting up in the morning.

Hint: The great thing about this recipe is you can adapt it to your tastes. If you want more cookie and less fruit, just adjust the measurements. Or add less fruit, more nuts, whatever you like.

Mom’s original recipes were all geared toward her oven. For example, she says to bake them at 370 to 400 degrees for 10 minutes. When have you ever heard of setting your oven to 370 degrees? I made some yesterday and set the oven to 370 degrees (in honor of mom) but it was more like 15 minutes, not ten, as she noted. Then, I tried them at 350 degrees and it was 20 minutes. As you can see, there is a lot of leeway with her recipes.

I hope you’ll try them. They’re just that good! Merry Christmas.

Make a festive garnish by brushing rosemary sprigs with warm corn syrup and sprinkling with large sugar crystals. Add cranberries to complete the look.

Christmas Fruit Cookies

By Lois “DeDe” Garneau

  • 1/2 cup butter (always use unsalted for baking)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg

Cream the above ingredients together, then add:

  • 1-1/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Gradually add flour mixture to creamed mixture.

Stir in:

  • 1 lb. chopped dates — coated with flour — I buy the pre-cut dates in bags, much easier, they didn’t have these back then
  • 1/2 pound candied fruit — use red and green cherries, sometimes they are mixed with pineapple, all good
  • 1/2 pound chopped nuts — mom used walnuts, I prefer pecans

Bake on ungreased cookie sheet; drop one teaspoon dough. Bake at 370-400 degrees for ten minutes. Hint: adjust to your own oven.

Beautiful Sea Chicken — A Christmas Eve Dish

Dinner at my house. Photo by Cindy Dyer

What? I just made up my own translation for Chicken Marbella. Isn’t “mar” the Spanish word for sea, or “de mare” in Italian? Isn’t “bella” the Spanish and Italian word for beautiful? I know it doesn’t really fit but it’s the best I can do. I’m feeling like I want Chicken Marbella to mean something more since it’s one of my favorite dishes to prepare and serve.

One of my favorite recipes is once again from the Silver Palate Cookbook, page 87, in the chapter titled “Main Course, Chicken Every Way.” I like to make this dish in the wintertime. It’s savory with a touch of sweet and it is comfort food at its best showing.

Last Friday, the weekend before Christmas, was the perfect time to have Cindy Dyer (the one who photographs a lot of my food) and her husband Michael for dinner. The house is decorated for Christmas and everyone is in a party mood. The evening’s menu would also make a tasty Christmas Eve dinner if you are looking for ideas.

The Menu

This is a simple menu to pull off and you won’t spend all your time in the kitchen. The chicken is marinated at least a day ahead. Prepare salad and mix right before serving. Do things like toast the pine nuts and chop herbs before guests arrive. Of course, set the table a day or two ahead (so you have to time to play around with your tablescape).

Spinach salad with fresh strawberries with poppy seed dressing: The green leaves and red berries served in a glass salad bowl look festive. A poppy seed dressing complements the berries. Buy a good bottled dressing or make your own.

Focaccia bread: my recipe is here

Chicken Marbella: recipe below

Sautéed haricots verts: Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan, cook beans until tender. Squeeze with fresh lemon and salt and pepper to taste. I get these fresh, delicate beans at Trader Joes.

Rice with toasted pine nuts: cook basmati rice according to directions, season with salt and pepper. Add toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley. Toast pine nuts under the broiler with a little olive oil. Don’t walk away, they burn fast (ahem).

Dessert: assorted cookies including Cognac Sugarplums (my last blog post), peanut butter cup cookies (mom’s recipe) and Trader Joe’s oatmeal/cranberry white chocolate dunkers

Bring it all together in a spirit of hospitality and a festive table and you have a tiny party! Don’t forget the Boggle game for after dinner.

Chicken Marbella

The overnight marination is essential to the moistness of the finished product. The chicken keeps and improves over several days in the refrigerator. Since Chicken Marbella is such a spectacular party dish, they give quantities to serve 10 or 12, but it is easily divided to make smaller amounts. This recipe calls for chicken with bones. Of course, bones add flavor but I have successfully adapted it to use boneless chicken breasts. You just have to watch you don’t cook it too long. If you make the whole amount below, about 50 minutes is plenty depending on the thickness of the chicken. Enjoix the beautiful sea chicken!

  • 4 chickens, 2-1/2 pounds each, quartered
  • 1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed
  • 1/4 cup dried oregano
  • Course salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup pitted prunes
  • 1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
  • 1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/4 cup chopped Italian or cilantro
  1.  In large bowl combine chicken, garlic, oregano, pepper and salt to taste, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice, and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Arrange chicken in single layer in one or two large, shallow baking pans and spoon marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken with brown sugar and pour white wine around them.
  4. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting frequently with pan juices. Chicken is done when thigh pieces, pricked with a fork at their thickest, yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice. (Don’t overcook boneless breasts.)
  5. With a slotted spoon transfer chicken, prunes, olives and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of pan juices and sprinkle generously with parsley. Pass remaining juices in a sauceboat.

16 pieces, 10 or more portions