Category Archives: Events

Music, Music, Music

When I have company over for a gathering, I have a short list of “must-haves” (beyond the obvious good food and drink): a clean bathroom, fresh flowers, and an appropriate playlist. The first two items are self-explanatory, but the last one can be pretty nuanced, I think. For instance, I have two very talented friends that play in a band (River Rising). They come to my place every month or so for dinner and I always make a playlist for them that includes the bluesy bands that have influenced them and other music that I think they will enjoy. For a Dia de los Muertos dinner I held a few years back, I asked everyone beforehand to send me a few songs that pleasantly remind them of friends and family that have passed. There were a few tears shed, but for the most part, that gathering was a happy celebration of our loved ones.

Lately, I’ve been compiling a pretty universal playlist in Spotify called, “Dinner Party.” For me, this means one thing: jazz (mostly vocals). Something about the voices of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Peggy Lee make me feel celebratory and slightly nostalgic, and that’s exactly the kind of mood I like for dinner or cocktails. I always add a few modern surprises (a thoughtful cover, a new orchestration of an old favorite), but for the most part, I stick to standards. I encourage you to check out this public playlist if you are a Spotify user (my username is fignatius), and I welcome suggestions for additions. This meant to be a living mix that will change over time, but certain tunes will always make the cut.

So, I ask: what’s your dinner party playlist?

Cookie Time

Mexican Wedding Cookies

I only really make cookies at one time of year (December), but I am always looking for a new and fun recipe, or a variation on an oldie but goodie.  Last year, we revamped our moms’ thumbprint cookies to a chocolate variety, filled with cherry or orange preserves.  The cherry version was a real hit, but the orange came off a little bitter alongside dark chocolate.  This year, we are making old standbys, for sure, like the Bun’s Mexican Wedding Cookies shown above; he used to make them for his Nana because they were her favorite cookie, so they always have a place in our cookie tin.  However, we are brainstorming some future favorites, too, and in some unexpected ways.

For the most part, I gravitate toward either spicy or chocolate-y cookies, so I think it may be fun to combine these flavors in a chocolate-ginger cookie, or one with a lot of cinnamon and nutmeg.  Another idea I have is to make a gingerbread dough without the heavy molasses, making a lighter colored, but spicy cookie.  However, I fear that the texture might suffer, since I think that the molasses is what gives the cookie that signature chewy texture.  The goal on that one is to let the spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, clove) take the lead on flavor.

Pushing the envelope a bit, I suggested to the Bun that we revamp what people in Chicago (and my hometown in Pennsylvania) call “Kolache,” which are these little cookies that are a square of dough with two corners folded together over a jam or sweetened-cheese filling.  My idea is to make a cardamom-flavored dough and fill the cookies with an orange-flavored cream cheese.

The test cookie turned out pretty well, but the dough really does need to be chilled overnight before you try to roll it out and bake it.  I decided to fill them with mascarpone cheese that I sweetened with sugar (to taste) and flavored with both grated orange zest and a little orange flower water.*  They make for a little more exotic version of a traditional cookie, so please give it a go, if you feel adventurous!  I should have a cookie update later today or over the weekend.

Anyway, I am sorry for the many delays in posting.  I can’t make any promises, but my hope is to really ramp up in the new year with posts throughout the really wintry months in Chicago.  Until then, I’ll keep posting when I can, even if I am just getting a few pictures and writing a few lines of text.  I hope to keep you entertained!

*Available in Indian food stores and online at our local (excellent) spice merchant, the Spice House (; be sparing with this ingredient, as it tends to make food taste perfume-y, if you use too much.

A Note on Cocktail Parties

If there is one thing I have learned about cocktail parties, it is this:  the simpler, the better.  Sure, you want everyone to be festive and have a good time, but it turns out that you don’t have to bust your hump to make a good party.  In fact, if you put too much time into the preparation for the party, you’ll find yourself exhausted and the affair will often come off as overwrought.  Simply put, people come to your party to see you and your friends, not for a big spread of fancy appetizers and complicated drinks.

For me, I always attend a cocktail party with a lot of gratitude for the host for putting the event on at all.  It isn’t often that people get a larger group of people together for an occasion, and to host such an affair is both stressful and rewarding.  As a guest, I just appreciate that someone was thoughtful about scheduling a gathering and providing some good cheer.  As a host, I think it is best to remember that perfect parties are never really all that fun, and almost come off as a non-event.  Keep it casual, but with a sense of occasion, no matter when you decide to hold your next cocktail party.

Regarding food, it turns out that people often gravitate to the simplest snacks.  Cheese and crackers, mixed nuts, and crudite plates are all simple crowd-pleasers.  Pick one or two slightly more complicated items from your latest food magazine or from a quick review your favorite food website; if you can make items in advance, all the better.  Remember, you want to spend time with your guests, not slaving over the oven.  Try to keep items small and portable, without gloppy sauces and or napkin-necessary greasiness.  Don’t forget sweet items, too.  Cookies are a great cocktail item to have around, because they contrast the saltiness of savory bites.  Savory usually = salty, and salty usually = more drinks, which we all know can end up being messy.  Keep everyone noshing and talking and not just sipping.

As for drinks, have several options in terms of booziness.  Some people can handle more than one Martini or Vodka Stinger, but I don’t happen to be one of those people.  Though the old-school rules of cocktail parties say to serve strictly spirits, I see nothing wrong with giving people the choice of beer or wine instead.  The old rules also say to have a fully stocked bar available for people to mix their own drinks.  Well, that might be an option someday, but for now, we try to keep costs low by offering two or three options, premixed in pitchers or punch bowls.  An old-fashioned drink (Manhattan, Sidecar, etc.) is always welcome for those who like a kick, and most people love anything made with sparkling wine or champagne.  I know I do!

Other than that, come up with a quick, but thoughtful playlist that is a mix of both upbeat and mellow (but not too much of either), and have some fresh flowers and candles around.  You’ll be surprised how just a little prep work can make for a great get together.