How to Make the Best Holiday Party Platters

Get Cheesy

1. Select four to six types of cheese and vary the colors, textures, flavors, and shapes. Consider a fresh goat cheese, a bloomy pungent or washed rind cheese, a wedge of alpine cow or “piquant,” a butterscotchy cheese, a nutty pecorino, and streaky blues.

2. Use the farmers’ market for decorative inspiration. Arrange the cheeses on large leafy greens, such as chard and collard greens, and decorate with curly leaves such as purple kale and frisée. Weave smaller decorative sprigs such as kale flowers, rosemary and flowering thyme around the cheese as aromatic garnishes. Hollow out a small red cabbage or a radicchio head to use as a serving vessel for nuts and olives.

3. Sweeten up the board with colorful nibbles such as fresh grapes, pomegranate arils (seed pods) and persimmon wedges, or use dried cranberries, figs and apricots. Serve with a jar of chutney or jam. Add a wedge of honeycomb or a little glass of honey for drizzling.

4. Select a variety of crackers, crisps, and breads for texture, color, and consistency: hearty fruit and nut bread, rustic baguette slices, olive oil crackers, seeded crispbreads — and don’t forget to add some gluten-free options.

5. Serve each cheese with its own knife.

Quick Fig and Rosemary Jam

8 ounces dried Mission figs, stems removed, coarsely chopped
¾ cup sugar
2/3 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 (2-inch) sprig fresh rosemary

Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer until the figs begin to break down and the mixture thickens, 12 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Discard the rosemary sprig. Transfer to a food processor and pulse to your desired consistency. Cool, transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Meat Spread

Savory Solutions

1. A little meat can go a long way. Figure 4 to 6 ounces per person if it’s a stand-alone board or 2 to 3 ounces per person if it’s served with cheese.

2. Provide a variety, aiming for a range from mild to piquant, of spiced and smoked artisanal charcuterie. Fan out precut slices of salumi and other dry-cured meat. Provide a few whole hard sausages for interactive DIY cutting. Add a wedge of country-style pâté and a terrine of creamy truffle mousse or duck rillettes.

3. Enhance the array with rustic bowls of stone-ground or Dijon mustard, briny pickles, cornichons or mixed olives. Provide finger bowls of sea salt flakes and coarsely ground black peppercorns for garnish.

4. Use a minimum of garnishes and let the meat do the talking. Garnish with simple sprigs of flowering thyme and rosemary. Sprinkle a few nuts, such as shelled pistachios, for earthy color.

5. Keep the bread simple and country-style. Cut up a loaf of levain bread or a rustic baguette.

Citrus Marinated Olives


¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 sprigs thyme
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
12 ounces mixed olives, such as Kalamata, Picholine, Castelvetrano
Juice and zest of ½ lemon

Heat the oil, garlic, thyme, and peppercorns over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the olives, lemon juice, and zest, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, discard the thyme and cool slightly.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Chocolate Spread

Sweet Treats

1. Cap off your party with an indulgent chocolate platter. No time to bake? No worries. Purchase a variety of bite-size, finger-friendly goodies from local bakers and shops. Mix up artisanal truffles, mini-cupcakes, fudgy brownies, crisp cookies and gooey bars.

2. Add non-chocolate nibbles to cut the chocolate, such as fresh raspberries or strawberries, wedges of fruit pâté, or sugar-coated nuts. The almond recipe here works well with sweet or savory.

Sweet and Salty Burnt Sugar Almonds


1 cup plus 1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound raw almonds
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne
1½ teaspoons sea salt

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Add the 1 cup sugar, the water, and cinnamon to a large, heavy saucepan (not nonstick) and, using a wooden spoon, stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the almonds and stir constantly until the water evaporates and the sugar begins to dry out, 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and keep stirring until the dried-out sugar begins to melt and the almonds begin to brown and have a shiny coat, 2 to 3 more minutes. Add the 1/3 cup sugar, the vanilla, and cayenne and continue stirring until the almonds are stiff and coated with the sugar. Pour the almonds onto the prepared baking sheet, spreading to separate. Sprinkle immediately with the salt and cool completely. The almonds can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 weeks.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Entertaining 101”.

Lynda Balslev

Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food writer, editor and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She authors the nationally syndicated column and blog TasteFood, and co-authored the cookbook Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture (2015 Silver Medal Winner Independent Publisher Awards). She is the 2011 recipient of the Chronicle Books Award (Recipe Writing) to the Symposium for Professional Food Writers, and a 2018 Fellowship Award recipient to the Symposium for Wine Writers at Meadowood, Napa Valley. Lynda’s writing and photography have been recognized by the New York Times Diners Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and more.