I love cocktail parties at this time of year. They're such fun, so easy to put together and always feel glamorous. People dress up a bit, eat and drink delicious things, mix and mingle - then go home.
Entertaining is a bit like travelling - there's as much fun in the planning as the actual travel. I like to figure out everything I can ahead of time - from planning the menu and preparing the food, right down to even labelling the platters that I'll use for each menu item, putting out glasses and ice buckets for the chilled wine, mixing up the cocktails and preheating the oven so that anything that needs to be warmed up can be done in a flash.
Set the tone from the start with a formal invitation. There are some great websites, such as Paperless Post, that allow you to create bespoke invitations. Be sure to specify the date, the location and the start and end times. Two hours is a good duration, so if it's mid-week I usually suggest a 6pm or 6.30pm start and 8pm or 8.30pm finish. That way people can come directly from work but don't feel like they have to hang around all night (and they know you won't be providing dinner).
Having done a three-year stint as a caterer in my 20s (my little catering company was called Hot on the Spot), I've definitely earned my stripes on the cocktail circuit. For the food, I work on the basis of five to six different items, and allow two to three of each per person. It's a good idea to provide a variety, with some light, low-calorie options, such as fresh vegetable bites and light dips, as well as a couple of chilled items and a couple of hot items. Sometimes I'll offer one or two more substantial dishes served as individual portions - eco-friendly disposable tableware is the go here, look for either bamboo or bagasse tableware, which is made from sugar cane.
It's always a good idea to stick to a flavour theme - I don't like mixing up Asian and Mediterranean flavours as it's hard to make the tastes feel cohesive.
Whatever you choose to serve, make sure the food is easy to eat and small enough to handle. When serving food with toothpicks, bones, pits or shells remember to provide a receptacle for the leftover bits, and always have plenty of napkins available.
Theming the party makes things fun and at this time of year you definitely don't need an excuse - it's the silly season!
Annabel Langbein's Prawn and Chorizo Skewers
Ready in 15 mins. Makes 24
24 large raw prawn tails
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 chorizo sausages, each cut into 12 slices
Salt and ground black pepper
Smoked Paprika Aioli
1 cup homemade or good-quality store-bought mayonnaise
½ tsp smoked paprika
1 clove garlic, crushed
To make the aioli, stir smoked paprika and garlic into mayonnaise. Store in a jar in the fridge for up to a week.
For the skewers, soak 24 wooden skewers in cold water for 30 minutes. Toss prawns in garlic and oil and leave to stand for at least 15 minutes. Thread each skewer through one end of a prawn, right through a chorizo slice and out through the other end of the prawn. They can be prepared ahead and chilled for up to 24 hours until needed.
When ready to serve, heat a barbecue hotplate or frypan and cook, turning once, until prawns are pink and cooked through and chorizo is hot (about 1 minute each side). Season with salt and pepper and serve with Smoked Paprika Aioli.
Annabel says: The Spanish know a thing or two when it comes to creating simple flavour combinations - these little prawn and chorizo canapes with a garlicky, smoky aioli are always a hit and super easy to put together.
Bocconcini Prosciutto Bites
Ready in 5 mins. Makes 12
4 slices prosciutto, each cut into three strips lengthwise
12 bocconcini balls
12 basil leaves
Wrap a strip of prosciutto around each bocconcini ball, tucking in a basil leaf as you wrap. Secure each with a cocktail stick to serve.
Annabel says: Leave the fancy architectural canape creations to the professionals and go for simple combinations that taste great together - like fresh, milky mozzarella and melt-in-the-mouth paper-thin sweet prosciutto. With their Christmas colours, these bocconcini bites are the perfect nibble for a pre-Christmas drinks party.
Devils on Horseback
Ready in 30 mins. Makes about 40
340g pitted prunes
8 rashers rindless streaky bacon
Cut bacon into thin strips about 6-8cm in length. Wrap a strip around each prune and secure with a toothpick. Repeat so you have two prunes on each toothpick. They can be prepared ahead to this stage and chilled for up to 24 hours until needed. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 200C fanbake. Line a baking tray with baking paper for easy clean-up and arrange wrapped prunes in a single layer. Cook until bacon is crisp (about 10 minutes). Cool for a few minutes before serving - they'll burn your tongue if eaten right away.
Annabel says: I remember my grandmother making these and everyone oohing and ahhing over them. We love them still. Good things never go out of fashion. Make twice as many as you think you'll need as they disappear with the speed of light.