Minneapolis caterers share secrets for throwing big-flavor, low-stress holiday cocktail parties.
Appetizer spread
Appetizer spread

Scratch-cooking for a party can be daunting. But take it from Heidi Andermack and Amy Lynn Brown, pros who have paddled a wedding's worth of food into the woods (and written a book, Chowgirls Killer Party Food, on the topic): You've got this. Just learn to think like a caterer.

1. Keep Your Ambition in Check

Heidi and Amy recommend serving six to eight foods for a dinner-hour appetizer party, but they don't all have to be homemade. If you are anxious about cooking so many dishes, make four recipes, and then supplement with special low-effort extras, like a cheese board or a bakery focaccia. And you can always enlist a friend or two to bring dessert.

Appetizer spread
Appetizer spread

2. Resist the Call of the Creamy Dips

Heidi and Amy describe catering clients who ask for menus packed with warm, creamy, cheesy foods. It's a common craving during colder months, but "we have to explain to them that you need variety!" Lighter foods to balance the rich ones. Different colors, textures and flavors. And no more than two spreads or dips, one hot and one cold.

3. Don't Quadruple Everything

No, you never want to run out of food. But a cocktail party isn't a cruise buffet. Heidi and Amy have found that most people will eat about 12 total bites or portions. (For example, if you serve eight foods, guests will take one or two tastes of each.) Plan to size up a few easy, affordable dishes that will keep as leftovers, and be OK with the rest running out.

4. Practice Extreme Make-Ahead

Catering is the art of prepping ahead and making it all look good at the last minute. Comb your recipes for any step-even something small, like chopping onion-that you can get done early. Write a to-do list that spreads those mini tasks out over a week. It may sound like overkill, but Amy and Heidi insist it's your best shot at a frazzle-free party.

5. Embrace Room Temperature

This is about preserving your sanity. "Roasted vegetables, steak skewers, puff pastry. So many foods taste good even if they aren't piping hot," says Heidi. (Food-safety fine print: Two hours at room temperature is the max you can leave something out, per USDA recommendations. For longer parties, plan to clear or replenish foods occasionally.)

6. Set a Doable Pace

Release the food in stages, like the passed appetizers at a wedding reception. Start with cheese, nuts and other nibbly things, placed in a few different spots to encourage guests to mingle right away. Wait to serve the highest value items (or anything that must be enjoyed hot) at peak time, about an hour into the party.

Chowgirl party

7. Serve One Cocktail, Then Move On

Amy and Heidi are big fans of a signature cocktail, but-"because you probably don't have a hipster bartender"-pick one that you can big-batch and serve from a pitcher or punch bowl. Or set up a simple bar with vodka, gin and whiskey and a few basic mixers and garnishes. To control costs (and sobriety), assume one cocktail per guest, plus a couple of glasses of wine or beer.

Sage woodstock cocktail
Sage Woodstock: Chowgirls legend holds hat this is the drink that sold Heidi on gin

8. And Most Important: Chill Out

Amy and Heidi put it this way: "You're running behind, you've burned your crostini, and now there are 10 extra guests who didn't RSVP? Never let on that anything's awry. Let the guests enjoy your party without revealing those worries, and you'll all be more relaxed. ­­­It's just food, not a medical emergency."

Chow girls collage

Check out some of Heidi's and Amy's recipes to find your party-perfect treats:

Chilled Borscht (bottom left)

Iron Range Pasties (bottom middle)

Eggnog Créme Brulee (bottom right)

Heidi Andermack and Amy Lynn Brown
Heidi Andermack (left) and Amy Lynn Brown

About the Pros

Heidi and Amy started Chowgirls Killer Catering in 2004. "We were casual friends, both newlyweds doing a lot of entertaining with our fancy china from our registries," Amy recalls. "We realized we liked to express ourselves through food. We didn't want to open a restaurant, and we didn't want some young guy bossing us around. We wanted to do it our own way."

That meant launching a tiny catering firm emphasizing seasonal, local ingredients (a rarity then). And as the business grew, it also meant cherishing and celebrating the crew that makes each job a success. "We call it a culture of kindness," Amy says.