It's next to impossible to get through the holiday season without doing something at the last minute. So don't beat yourself up if you're scrambling to throw a dish together for a holiday party that starts in a few hours. You're not alone. Look at us publishing this story on Friday the very weekend that holiday parties really get going.
The chaos doesn't have to dampen the holiday cheer. Grab a hot cocoa or apple cider — perhaps spiked — and get to know the USA TODAY Network's food and dining journalists.
These folks make their living visiting the most inviting restaurants with the most delicious food across the United States. They understand how a simple dish can wow a crowd. They also know which ones to avoid. Read on for their recommendations for last-minute dishes to bring to holiday parties.
Cream cheese + pepper jelly
From Allison Ballard, StarNews (Wilmington, North Carolina)
Try cream cheese slathered with festive pepper jelly and crackers on the side. I try to have all three ingredients on hand for impromptu gatherings. It's not elegant, but it is quick, effortless and probably tastier than something bought in a fit of grocery-store desperation. Even better if you can find a local jelly. I like the Apricot Hot Pepper Jelly from the North Carolina-made Gotta Be Penelopes brand.
Question: Does anyone enjoy those grocery-store crudite trays with the sub-par ranch dressing?
From Gail Ciampa, Providence Journal (Rhode Island)
Pepperoni bread is a little spicy and a little cheesy in a fluffy flour and egg base. It goes great with wine, cocktails or plain old seltzer. People love it, and the best part is no one else will bring one.
Don't: Bring flowers that need a vase or food that must be cooked.
Brie and cranberry bites
From Sarah Griesemer, The Asbury Park Press (New Jersey)
Brie and cranberry bites are a guaranteed hit and super simple to make. Into frozen phyllo dough cups, place a small piece of brie, a few Craisins and a big pinch of brown sugar. Bake at 350 degrees until melty, then be sure to eat a few off the cookie sheet because they'll be gone before you know it. These are delicious hot and at room temperature.
Never: Bring fruitcake — especially one you're regifting. No one wants it.
From Suzy Fleming Leonard, FLORIDA TODAY (Brevard County)
I don't like Triscuits. They taste like straw. And yes, I've tasted straw. But anything wrapped in bacon is better. Bacon-wrapped Triscuits are easy, albeit a bit messy, to make. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Cut slices of bacon in half, then slice them horizontally, so you have four thin ribbons of bacon. Wrap the crackers in bacon, and coat each one with brown sugar. A pound of bacon will make about 48 crackers, but make as many as you want. I like to snap the crackers in half before wrapping them for smaller treats. Arrange crackers on a wire rack in a rimmed baking pan. (Rimmed is important. Bacon = grease.) Bake for 30 minutes, and enjoy.
Skip: Plain Triscuits, the only crackers that can't be improved with cheese.
From Joanna Tzouvelis, WickedLocal.com (Massachusetts)
I make s'mores bars with a crushed graham cracker crust topped with milk chocolate and marshmallows — always a hit. The trick is the crust has to be mixed with butter and a little sea salt, then pressed onto a cookie sheet and baked for 15 mintues. Then top with melted milk chocolate chips (about 3 cups); then top with mini marshmallows and broil until the marshmallows on top are toasted. Refrigerate overnight and cut into little squares the next day.
Skip: Storebought cookies, especially those rainbow-colored ones that all taste the same — bland.
Anything with brie
From Susan Selasky, Detroit Free Press
Go for just about anything that uses brie. It's easy to use, rich and creamy tasting. Top it with pepper jelly, bake it for 20 minutes, and serve it with crackers or bread. Or check out these recipes for cranberry brie puffs or baked brie with chutney.
Chocolate chip cookies
From Tiana Kennell, the Asheville Citizen Times (North Carolina)
My go-to dessert is homemade cookies with some blend of chocolate chips. It's a dessert that doesn't take long to mix up and bake and cool before tossing it in a nice container and taking to a party. It's also a winner with guests as it's easy to grab and eat at the soiree or take home. If unable to bake, take ice! There's always a shortage and need for ice at any party.
Avoid: Fish. As much as I love fish, it's not ideal for a party. Some people may be allergic, it doesn't reheat well, and the odor isn't always appetizing to everyone.
From Jennifer Chandler, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)
There is nothing better at the holidays than a homemade gift. Every year I make peppermint bark for my family and friends. I start my "peppermint bark factory" at Thanksgiving, so I have plenty on hand for gift giving and to bring to holiday soirees. It's the perfect sweet to bring to a holiday party because it is festive, easy to make and takes the stress away since it can be made way in advance. (The hardest part is not eating it all yourself.)There are many recipes for peppermint bark. Some use only white chocolate; others use red and green candies. I use dark chocolate and white chocolate, and top mine with crushed candy canes. My one secret tip is to remember to spread both layers of chocolate as thinly as you can.
Again: No fruit cake. No one likes it, and you just may find it re-gifted back to you next year.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: 8 last-minute dishes to make for a holiday party — and ones to avoid