Holiday parties are some of my favorite get-togethers. There's something about the snowy days of December that makes being with family and friends even more meaningful.

But soirees like that can certainly be time-consuming, with the hours spent perfectly polishing every piece of silver, and the three days it takes to think up the ideal centerpiece.

It's all worth it in the end, of course. There's nothing like that moment of satisfaction after the last guest has been ushered out, finally getting a chance to sit down, look around and think, "Yeah, I threw one hell of a party."

During the holidays, though, an empty nest can turn into a full house overnight. And when you're worried about airport runs and adequate bedding, there's not a lot of time and energy left to fuss over dinner for a crowd.

This time of year -- the ultimate collision of fashionable and functional -- calls for recipes that are flexible enough to meet either demand.

To that end, try a lasagna that works as fancy finger food or a make-ahead casserole; a cake that will thrill the taste buds as a three-tiered showstopper or a humble sheet cake; and a drink that's glitzy enough for company but won't break the bank if you start in on a second pitcher while gathered around the kitchen table, reminiscing about Christmases gone by.

Raspberry Champagne Cake

2 1/4 cups plain cake flour, plus more for dusting the pans

1 cup milk, at room temperature

6 large egg whites, at room temperature

2 teaspoons raspberry extract

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups granulated sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool

Red food coloring, optional

Adjust oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions and preheat oven to 350 F. Generously grease three 8-inch round cake pans and line pans with rounds of waxed or parchment paper. Grease parchment and dust with flour, tapping out the excess.

Pour milk, egg whites and extracts into 2-cup liquid measuring cup and mix with a fork until blended.

Mix flour, granulated sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer set at low speed. Add butter; continue beating at low speed until the mixture resembles moist crumbs, with no powdery streaks remaining.

Add all but 1/2 cup of milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed (or high speed if using a handheld mixer) for 1 1/2 minutes. Add remaining 1/2 cup milk mixture; beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape down sides of bowl. Return mixer medium (or high) speed and beat 20 seconds longer.

Divide batter evenly between pans, adding food coloring as desired; using a rubber spatula, spread batter to pan walls and smooth tops. Place two pans on upper rack and one on lower, baking until toothpick comes out clean, 23 to 25 minutes. (Be sure to check each layer individually, as bottom pan will likely be done first.)

Let cakes rest in pans for 3 minutes. Loosen from sides of pan with a knife, if necessary, and invert onto wire racks, peel off parchment and reinvert onto additional wire racks. Let cool completely, about 1 1/2 hours.

Chef's note: For the ombre in the cake pictured, add four drops of red food coloring to the whole batter; fill one pan with a third of the batter. Add three more drops of food coloring to the remaining batter; fill second pan with half of batter. Add two more drops of food coloring to last third of batter and scrape into final pan.

Champagne Buttercream

2 cups champagne

4 large eggs

1 cup sugar

Pinch salt

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool, each stick cut into quarters

Pour champagne into medium saucepan and boil over medium-high heat until reduced to about 1/4 cup.

Combine the eggs, sugar and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer; place the bowl over a pan of simmering water. (Do not let the bottom of the bowl touch the water.) Whisking gently but constantly, heat the mixture until it is thin and foamy and registers 160 F on an instant-read thermometer.

Beat the egg mixture at medium-high speed until light, airy and cooled to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium and add the butter, one piece at a time. (After adding half the butter, the buttercream may look curdled; it will smooth out with additional butter.)

Once all the butter is added, add 1/4 cup reduced champagne, increase the speed to high and beat 1 minute until light, fluffy and thoroughly combined.

For assembly:

Spread small dab of frosting in center of cake plate. Place first layer on cake plate and cover top with frosting. Repeat with remaining two layers, frosting sides and top of cake. Garnish with cranberries or other decoration as desired.

Lasagna Canapes

1 24-ounce container cottage cheese

4 tablespoons chopped basil, separated

12 lasagna noodles

24 pieces white sandwich bread

1 tablespoon oil

1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)

1 6-ounce can tomato paste, separated

5 cloves garlic, minced or grated, separated

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

4 cups shredded mozzarella

3/4 cup shredded Parmesan, separated

1 cup heavy cream


Stir 2 tablespoons basil into cottage cheese. Refrigerate until needed.

Soak lasagna noodles in boiling water until pliable.

Remove crusts from bread and cut each piece on both diagonals into four triangles. Spread garlic butter on each triangle, place on baking sheet at bake at 350 F until bread is crisp, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add diced onion and saute until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Reserve 1 tablespoon tomato paste; add rest of can, 3 cloves grated garlic and oregano to onions and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add diced and crushed tomatoes, salt and pepper; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until sauce begins to thicken, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in sugar and remaining basil and adjust seasoning to taste.

While sauce simmers, cut noodles into triangles, using a bread piece as a pattern. On top of each bread piece, layer mozzarella, noodle, cottage cheese mixture and sauce, sprinkling shredded Parmesan over each, reserving 1/4 cup. Return to baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes.

While lasagna pieces bake, cook cream, reserved tomato paste, remaining garlic and last 1/4 cup of Parmesan in a small saucepan until cheese has melted into cream and sauce is hot. Remove from heat; sauce will thicken as it stands. Drizzle over each canape and serve.


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