- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Let your New Year’s Eve gatherings be more intimate and informal than other holiday get-

togethers. A cocktail party with finger food can provide a refreshing alternative to all those big seasonal sit-down dinners.

In my house, I like to gather friends around the coffee table, which is just barely large enough to hold a few appetizer plates and drinks. It’s wonderful to note how the conversation tends to shift into more personal and interesting realms when people are clustered close together in soft light and fed something richly comforting and beautifully presented.

The dish I have in mind is cheese-nut pate, a dense pate made from a combination of cheeses and nuts blended together, baked and then chilled until firm. It’s easy to prepare in a food processor and not much more difficult to make with an electric mixer, if that’s your machine of preference.

Make it a few days ahead. It benefits from time spent tightly wrapped in the refrigerator, where it solidifies in both flavor and texture. Then, shortly before serving, decorate it lavishly with all sorts of colorful accouterments over a coating of pure, white ricotta cheese.

This is one of my favorite dishes ever. Not only is it straightforward and enjoyable to prepare, when you serve it at a cocktail party you will need no other appetizers beyond the crackers or toasts that accompany it.

If you want to make cheese-nut pate into a light meal, serve it with a simple tomato soup and everyone will be happy. Another great attribute is that it goes well with many types of wine, so choose your own special bottle of red or white and you won’t go wrong.

Leftover pate also makes a terrific sandwich filling. So if you brown bag it, you can take a souvenir of the holiday season with you to work after the weekend and let the spirit linger.

Cheese-nut pate

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

cup almonds

cup walnuts

1 cup minced onion

8 ounces regular or low-fat cream cheese, softened

1 pound regular or low-fat cottage cheese

teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons minced or crushed garlic, optional

2 tablespoons minced fresh dill

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 cups packed, grated sharp cheddar cheese

TOPPINGS (select any combination):

1 cup regular or low-fat ricotta cheese

A few walnut halves, lightly toasted

Sliced or slivered almonds, lightly toasted

Radishes, sliced or carved

Cucumber slices

Cherry tomatoes, halved or sliced

Pitted Nicoise olives

Finely minced parsley

Sprigs of dill and fresh basil leaves

Crackers or small toasts

Brush bottom and corners of a standard-size loaf pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Set aside.

Place almonds and walnuts in a food processor or large blender and grind to a coarse powder in a few pulses. (Don’t let it turn to nut butter. It should be rough meal, not paste.) Leave in machine.

Place small skillet over medium heat to warm. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add onion and saute for 5 to 8 minutes, or until soft.

To nuts in food processor or blender, add cream cheese, cottage cheese, salt, pepper to taste, garlic, if desired, dill, mustard, lemon juice, cheddar cheese and cooked onion. Process until well-combined. (If your machine is too small, you can do this in a large bowl using an electric mixer.)

Spread mixture in prepared loaf pan and bake on center rack of preheated 325-degree oven for 1 hour. When you remove pate from oven, it will look suspiciously loose. Don’t worry. It will firm as it chills.

Cool completely in pan, then cover pan with plastic wrap and chill for a good 3 hours or more before removing from pan.

To remove pate from pan, loosen it on all sides with a dinner knife, then use a small metal spatula to loosen it further and to lift it slightly all around, pushing it into itself. Invert pate onto a large plate or a small platter, holding pan in place against plate or platter.

Shake firmly several times or give it a whack. Then put plate and pan down on a counter and gently lift off pan. Pate should emerge in one piece. If it breaks, it can easily be molded back together.

Don’t be discouraged by how homely it looks in its undecorated state. It will be transformed by the toppings.

Pate can be made (short of decorating) up to 3 days ahead of time. In fact, it benefits from chilling time. Decorate just before serving.

To decorate, spread a layer of ricotta cheese all over, as if frosting a cake. Adorn lavishly with nuts, vegetables, olives and/or fresh herbs. Serve with crackers or small toasts. Makes 10 or more servings.

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