A Great Dinner Party Starts with “Wow”

Blue Cheese-Walnut Shortbread with Chutney

Put down the bag of chips. Don’t open that jar of bean dip. Quit buying red Solo cups. I hate to be the one to tell you, but you’re a grown-up now. It’s time you embraced the dinner party – the kind that includes appetizers.

I consider the dinner party a rite of passage. It’s as important as a first kiss and as inevitable as a drivers license. You kinda get the idea you’re grown up when you throw your first dinner party. It might start out as a simple affair – a few buds, brews and boxed pizza – but as life and the years start to creep up on us it seems our dinner parties become more and more elaborate. They become laden with social and professional importance. They begin to mark meaningful events in our lives. Pretty soon the dinner party will emerge as a family tradition.

Once this happens (and it always does) it’s time to put aside the Cheez Whiz and learn a few tricks that make your dinner party easier (or at least less stressful).

I’ll admit, I’m probably older than you and I’ve had decades on the front line as a party planner. I have quite a few dinner party tricks up my sleeve. But let me pass on just one great dinner party tip: wow them at the beginning. You can accidentally serve overcooked chicken as a main course, but if you impress your guests at the very start of the evening they’ll just assume everything you do after that is magic.

Really. Even if the idea of a dinner party is new to you. Even if you are still trying to tackle a few other grown up milestones – like buying car insurance, owning a sofa, or wearing big-boy underpants – there’s one sure fire way to get a dinner party rolling. Simply get a drink (of any kind) into your guest’s hand within moments of their walking through the door and have a plate of tasty tidbits waiting. Choose something pretty. Something that makes a strong statement. Something that seems fancy, but can be made hours in advance.

I recently served these Blue Cheese-Walnut Shortbreads. You can make the shortbread the day before. They’re boldly flavored with blue cheese and have that buttery texture that’s sure to impress your guests at the very first bite. Once baked, they’re simply topped with plain cream cheese and a dollop of jarred chutney. Best of all they can be assembled a few hours before the guests arrive. They’re just the “wow” you need.

Dinner Party AppetizerDinner Party Appetizer

Once you’ve gotten the party off to a great start with you can simply relax into the rest of the meal. Everyone in the room will be rooting for you. Because the biggest obstacle a host faces is not a fallen soufflé or a backed up toilet. Nope, it’s the hosts or hostesses themselves. We can be our own worst enemy. So take a good long look in the mirror ‘cuz I’m talkin’ to you (and me!).

Tell me if you recognize any of these characters:

The Absent Host

Having failed to organize your time, or worse having decided to make a flourish of complicated, last-minute changes– you find yourself in the kitchen all alone, all night long. Sound the buzzer. Clear the plates. Your party is a flop. You failed. Sure your guests expect a great meal, but they’re hoping you’ll be in the room as they enjoy it.

The Nit Picker

I’ll admit I have ruined a few parties myself by becoming this guy. So I feel qualified in helping you ban him from the kitchen by passing along this tip. Do not tell everyone at the table what’s wrong with the food before they even pick up a fork. Maybe the chicken is too salty and you know it. Maybe the guests know it too. But by pointing it out, all that’s left for your guests to do is offer uneasy objections, making everyone in the room look like a liar. Besides it’s always possible (likely even) that it’s not nearly as bad as you think.

The Wishful Thinker

No, it won’t just miraculously work itself out. You have to be present and accountable. If the roast is burnt. You have a problem on your hands, so have a back up plan. A box of pasta and some frozen marinara can be your friend. Because if you have a back up plan it quite plainly means that you are an organized cook, so there’s not a chance in hell you are even gonna need that backup plan!

The Impossible Dreamer

You saw a great recipe for Thai-style noodles on your favorite blog but couldn’t get a hold of lemongrass. You thought about making apple pie, but changed it to tarte tatin – then went with tiramisu in the end. Don’t tell people what they could be eating. Most guests will love whatever dish you put in front of them, as long as you don’t start gushing about the Tangerine-Glazed Pork Belly you almost made.

The Insufferable Food Network Star

Speaking of pork belly, if the dishes being served are very well executed and the wines very well chosen, it’s natural for the host to expect a little recognition. But please, no bombarding the guests with television-style gourmet commentary, boastful patting on the back, or exaggerated tales from the front line. Let the guests notice this for themselves. Believe me, it’s far more satisfying to accept a compliment gracefully, than try to wrest one out of everyone at the table in alphabetical order!


Blue Cheese-Walnut Shortbread with Cream Cheese & Chutney for a dinner party

Blue Cheese-Walnut Shortbread with Cream Cheese and Chutney 

Print This Recipe Total time Yield 36Source adapted from Mary Corpening Barber and Sara Corpening WhitefordPublished

The shortbread dough can also be rolled and cut out with 1 ½ inch cutters for a more formal presentation.

Blue Cheese Shortbread


  • 3 ounce blue cheese (such as Maytag)
  • 1½ ounce unsalted butter
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour (scooped and leveled)
  • ¼ cup cornstarch (scooped and leveled)
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 ounce chopped walnuts (lightly toasted)
  • 2 ounce cream cheese (or to taste)
  • 36 walnut halves (lightly toasted)
  • chutney (such as Major Grey’s)
  • 36 fresh thyme tips


Combine blue cheese and butter in a food processor; process until smooth and creamy. Add flour, cornstarch, salt and pepper to the blue cheese mixture; pulse to combine. Add the chopped walnuts and process until just incorporated into a dough that pulls away from the sides in jagged clumps. Do not overprocess.

Remove the dough from the food processor and shape into 2 logs about 1‑inch in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic and chill at least one hour.

When ready to bake preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Unwrap and slice each log into eighteen ⅓‑inch thick discs and place each disc onto parchment covered baking sheets about 2‑inches apart. Use the bottom of a glass to press each disc into a 1 ½‑inch round about 1/8‑inch thick. You may need to use an off-set spatula to loosen the discs if they are sticking.

Bake in the heated oven, rotating halfway through, until lightly browned; about 15 minutes. Remove sheets from oven and let them cool on a rack. The shortbread made be made up to 3 days in advance. Store covered at room temperature.

To assemble: Spread a small dollop of cream cheese onto each shortbread; top with a walnut halve, chutney and a tiny sprig of thyme.