Many of New York City's most highly touted chefs have the same phone number on speed dial: the one that connects them to thirtysomething food writer Melissa Clark. A regular contributor to the New York Times Dining section, Clark is also a sought-after cookbook coauthor. Her most recent book is The Last Course with former Gramercy Tavern pastry star Claudia Fleming, and she has two more due out next year: High Heat, with Waldy Malouf of Beacon, and East of France, with Bouley's David Bouley.
As much as Clark likes to write about other people's food, she prefers cooking, especially for company. Behind everything she makes is a simple philosophy: "Do it ahead of time or do it fast." She learned this from her mother, a psychiatrist who'd step into the kitchen between therapy sessions to prepare for dinner parties. As a graduate student at Columbia University in Manhattan, Clark supported her writing studies by catering: "I had a monopoly on the faculty parties; it was a choice between me and Mama Joy's delicatessen, and I was cheaper." She was still at Columbia when she landed The Bread Machine Cookbook. She wrote it in just six weeks, often with four machines going at once.
A decade later, Clark's bread machines have been relegated to the closet, but her interest in efficiency remains. To celebrate the holidays in her typical streamlined way, she gives a cocktail party at the home of Manhattan interior designer John Barman. In the modernist red, white and black apartment, Clark offers an array of stylish, easy appetizers. A potato and bacon tart, inspired by an Alsatian classic, uses store-bought pizza dough, and port-glazed walnuts with Stilton require just 15 minutes of hands-on prep. The fallen soufflé squares have been a standby since her catering days because they can be prepared hours in advance.
Clark delegates the drink-making to her friend Eben Klemm, the bar manager at Pico, New York's best and most elegant Portuguese restaurant. Klemm, who studied molecular biology in college, is supremely creative, using ingredients like leeks from his parents' farm. He has his own philosophy for easy entertaining: "At parties, I make drinks with related ingredients so I don't need a thousand things." To that end, he brings along two versatile syrups, one infused with rosemary, the other with cinnamon, allspice and star anise. The rosemary syrup flavors a fragrant Vinho Verde punch and a refreshing gin fizz. The spice syrup invigorates a rum drink called a December Stormy and a red wine punch with kumquats.
The glasses are barely cleared, and Clark is already planning her Christmas Eve seafood dinner. But cocktail parties are her favorite. "There's so much pressure at holiday meals, especially with family. Cocktail partieswhere your friends are dressed up and the food is delicious and the drinks are prettythey're just fun."
Kate Krader is a freelance writer in New York City and a regular on the cocktail-party circuit.