With life starting to return to something like “normal” in the UK, many of us are taking the opportunity to have people over for food. But dinner parties are high-effort affairs that keep the host away from all the fun for an unforgivably long time. What can you do instead?
Allow me to present the snacking buffet. Shelly Westerhausen Worcel is the author – along with Wyatt Worcel – of the book Tables & Spreads, which explains how to create an array of beautiful and elaborate grazing treats. Here are her top tips.
A well-laid-out buffet is something to behold, but Westerhausen Worcel maintains that it’s a less labour-intensive way of feeding people than you would think. “Instead of spending all day working on a big menu, a spread just needs simple recipes and really great ingredients,” she says. “It feels really special because there are so many different components, but they’re all very simple. As a host, I can enjoy the party without having to know I’ve got something in the oven that has to come out at a certain time.”
“Start with one thing you’re really excited about, then create a theme around it,” Westerhausen Worcel says. “Maybe it’s a dip that you’re really excited about, or a soup. Start thinking about what would go well with it. I love sliced carrots, or bread, with soup. Then you want to garnish it, then you kind of build on it. One of my really big pet peeves is when nothing makes sense together – you put a dip out and then you don’t have anything to dip into it.”
A big part of getting a buffet right is the visual aspect; done right, with dishes overladen with complementary foods, it can look like a Rembrandt painting. “Start with a board or a nice serving platter,” says Westerhausen Worcel. “I use little serving bowls for dips and sauces that we don’t want to mix. Then you’ll want some utensils, because you don’t want to have everyone just sticking their hands in there. So the cheeses all have their own knives, then I always have the honey and sauces with their own spoons. And then whatever you want your guests to be eating the food on; maybe just party napkins, if it’s handheld food, or small serving plates or bowls.”
You can move this philosophy beyond the food. “Flowers really can add to a table. Pick some that are in season, that go with the in-season food you’re serving. Candles could really bring some ambience,” she adds, “but do not use scented candles. You do not want your food to smell like a pumpkin spice latte.”
To make your gathering as stress-free as possible, get things in order long before you’re expecting guests to arrive. “Shop three days ahead of time and make a lot of the components the day before, so you’re not stressed out at the last minute,” says Westerhausen Worcel. “An hour before people arrive, start laying stuff out and making sure everything is all good to go, so you’re not having to talk to guests while you’re trying to make a presentation.”
Alternatively, if you are going to cook, make it an interactive experience. “I’m a pretty big introvert, so this is how I like to hang out with friends, because it kind of gives you a mission,” says Westerhausen Worcel. “Growing up, me and my mom always made pierogi together, so I’ve always loved the idea of interactive parties. It becomes really easy to have a conversation because you’re all working together.”
To make 12 pierogis, blitz together 840g plain flour, 240ml milk, 165g butter, 2 eggs and ½ tbsp salt until it forms a dough. Roll it out to 4mm, then cut into circles with the rim of a water glass. Fill with potato that has been mashed with cheese and sour cream, then seal the dumplings, boil for 4-5 minutes, then fry in butter until brown on all sides.
“Spreads are really easy to adapt for outside,” says Westerhausen Worcel. “And they can be enjoyed hot and cold or at room temperature. You can pick and choose what you want to serve depending on where you’re going to be and your access to a fridge. For example, you might want to use hard cheeses or cheeses that can travel well versus a creamy cheese that’s going to get all over.”
This sense of communal eating also stretches to drinks. “Make pitcher drinks that you can whip up ahead of time so people can just pour them,” says Westerhausen Worcel. “Another thing I really like to do is make simple syrups in a couple of different flavours so people can then flavour their drinks themselves. It feels really fancy because it’s like you’ve done all this extra work.”
It’s always good to have a quick go-to for emergency buffets. “I keep a bunch of nuts in my freezer for baking, so I’ll just toast those,” says Westerhausen Worcel. Nuts can be further jazzed up by the addition of a sweet, herby coating. Preheat the oven to 180C. Spread 400g mixed nuts on to a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, melt 3 tbsp butter in a saucepan, and whisk in 65g brown sugar, 2 tbsp chopped rosemary, 1½ tsp chopped thyme leaves and 1½ tsp salt. Tip the nuts into the pan and toss, then place back on the baking sheet and bake for a further 20 minutes.
Tables & Spreads: A Go-To Guide for Beautiful Snacks, Intimate Gatherings and Inviting Feasts (Chronicle Books, £21.99) is out now. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.