Dinner in Five: Holiday Buffet

In Dinner in Five Ivy Manning shares 5-element menus that are so easy, you can pull them off even on a weeknight. Cooking hacks, time management tips, shopping secrets, and beverage pairings, she covers all the bases, so you can enjoy the dinner party, too. Today’s meal? A Nordic-inspired buffet of Christmas delectables including a nippy aquavit cocktail, a seafood smorgasbord fit for a Viking king, and a glazed slow cooker ham served with a cheesy cauliflower gratin. The five elements are done in advance and require no effort from the hosts once the party starts.

To be honest, I initially served this Nordic-inspired party menu for a springtime “kitchen warming” party we had to show off our newly renovated kitchen some years ago. I accidentally invited entirely too many people to the party and this menu was something of a crowd control plan. Set everything up, including the do-it-yourself cocktail station, keep the hot food hot in slow cookers, and let ‘er rip, as they say.

The menu turned out to be such a success that I’ve approximated the menu (and party) every year since. I’ve shifted the event to the holidays because all the food fits beautifully into the holiday spirit. The rest is really just shopping for good food and setting up. That sort of party always puts me in the mistletoe mood.

To Drink: The Espevear Martini

I became fond of aquavit after a trip to Norway, where it is drunk straight. Oof! I opt for a little more sophisticated offering for parties: this aquavit, vodka, and dry vermouth martini muddled with cucumber. The savory anise-caraway flavors remind me of rye bread, which is a perfect pairing for both the seafood and the glazed ham that follow. I set out a card with the recipe and all the fixings on the side board and invite guests to make their own drinks. You can certainly appoint a dedicated mixologist to make bespoke martinis, if you’re so inclined.

For 1 Espavear martini:

In a cocktail shaker, muddle 2 thin slices cucumber with 1 ounce aquavit (I like Krogstad Aquavit, made in Portland, Oregon). Add 1 ounce good vodka, 1/2 ounce dry vermouth (I love the botanicals in Vya Dry Vermouth), and a dash of celery bitters (The Fee Brothers make a nice one). Fill with ice, shake 15 times, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a slice of cucumber.

To Start: Seafood Smörgåsbord

I’m the first to admit this course is more about shopping than it is cooking. I like to offer guests five different bites and I keep them simple, so it’s crucial to buy the best quality seafood possible, in a range of flavors so it’s a dynamic sampling. I always include a sharp, pickled thing like pickled herring. Just stick a cocktail fork in the jar and serve it with some hearty “doorstop” rye bread slices. I also make sure there is something briny, like the lovely creamed fish roe that comes in a tube from IKEA. I serve it squeezed on top of halved hard boiled eggs. I also include a ‘fishy’ fish like Matiz imported Spanish sardines. Serve them right out of the can for a relaxed, foodie feel. There has to be smoked fish, so I serve wild smoked Alaskan salmon mixed with crème frâiche, lemon zest, and dill and mound it on top of baked potato chips for a one-bite flavor bomb. No holiday party would be complete without retro shrimp cocktail. I boil fresh shrimp in the shell (they retain their shape and flavor better this way) in copious amounts of Old Bay seasoning, then peel them, and serve them with my own ketchup-and-wasabi cocktail sauce. It’s such a lovely spread; you could just serve this and the martinis and call it a party.

The Main: Fig Glazed Slow Cooker Ham

With people coming and going at different times, it’s best to have food that can be kept warm for the entire evening. Enter the Crock Pot ham!  Buy the best boneless ham you can afford (I’m partial to the applewood smoked goodness of Neuske’s), dress it up with a 50/50 blend of fig jam and brown sugar on top, and throw it in the slow cooker on low heat for five to eight hours, depending on the size of the ham. Figure that each guest will eat about five ounces of ham. For for 12 people, plan on buying a four-pound boneless ham and cook it on low for eight hours. Hold the ham on the warm setting after that. No need to carve, just set out a carving knife and a cutting board and let your guests do it it themselves.

The Side: A Cauliflower Cheese

I simply cannot eat ham without having a rich and creamy cauliflower gratin, or a “cauliflower cheese” as they eloquently call it in Great Britain. Steamed cauliflower folded into an easy nutmeg-infused white sauce with a judicious amount of cheese is just the thing to compliment the sweet-salty ham (see recipe below). To keep the side dish warm and at the ready, I hold the cauliflower in a small slow cooker on the warm setting, plug it next to the larger slow cooker with the ham, and let it be.

The Other Side: Sweet Sour Cucumbers

A glazed ham and creamy cauliflower are not the lightest fare. To counter their richness, I like to serve them with a crisp, tart salad. One year I did a shaved red cabbage slaw with chopped dates and red wine vinegar, which wasn’t a big hit. Another year, I grated a fancy raw beet and fresh horseradish salad. Grating fresh horseradish brought copious tears to my eyes and I looked like a daytime drama queen with mascara running down my face as guests arrived. Since then, I’ve settled on a more straight forward approach: thinly sliced cucumbers tossed in a sweet-sour champagne vinaigrette with chopped dill. It’s simply delicious and it doesn’t require me touching up my makeup.

Shopping List


  • 1 bottle Aquavit (I like Krogstad)
  • 1 bottle good-quality vodka
  • 1 bottle dry vermouth (I prefer Vya)
  • 1 bottle celery bitters (Fee Brothers is excellent)


  • 4 cucumbers
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 bunch fresh dill
  • 2 heads cauliflower


  • 1 jar pickled herring
  • 1 loaf dense rye or pumpernickel bread
  • 1 dozen eggs
  • 1 tube creamed fish roe (Kalles from IKEA is a good choice)
  • 2 cans imported Spanish sardines packed in olive oil
  • 5 ounces wild smoked salmon
  • 1 cup crème frâiche
  • 2 bags baked potato chips (Kettle Brand baked chips are worth seeking out as they’re not too salty and they lie perfectly flat on the serving tray)
  • 2 lb. shell-on wild shrimp
  • 1 box Old Bay Seasoning
  • 1 bottle ketchup
  • 1 small container wasabi powder
  • 1 boneless smoked ham (figure 5 ounces per guest)
  • 1 jar fig jam
  • Brown Sugar
  • Champagne vinegar
  • Sugar
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 1 quart milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Fresh nutmeg
  • 7 ounces sharp cheddar or Gouda cheese


Cauliflower Cheese

Serves 12 as part of a meal
Recipe by Ivy Manning

  • 2 large heads cauliflower, cored and broken into florets
  • 4 cups milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed with side of chef’s knife
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 7 ounces sharp cheddar, grated
  • 1 1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper

In a steamer basket set in a large pot, steam the cauliflower florets until just tender when pierced with a fork, 5 minutes. Drain. In a large microwave-safe measuring cup, microwave the milk, bay leaf, and garlic clove on high heat until piping hot, 3 minutes. Let steep 10 minutes.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Whisk in the milk and garlic, discard bay leaf. Cook, whisking frequently, until bubbly and thickened, 4 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the cheese and nutmeg. Fold in the cauliflower and season with salt and pepper.

Spray the insert of a small (3-quart) slow cooker with cooking spray. Pour the cauliflower mixture into the slow cooker, cover, and set on low heat for up to 8 hours.

Photos by Ivy Manning

Ivy Manning is the author of six cookbooks including her most recent title: William Sonoma Weeknight Vegetarian. She is an award-winning freelance food writer and cooking instructor based in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not playing with her retired greyhound Mini and lap Whippet Thor, she travels the world eating every delicious thing that crosses her path. Follow her travels at ivymanning.com and @ivy_manning on Instagram.


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