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The Party Secret

(by Barbara Ballinger)

My mother taught me almost everything I needed to know to throw a successful dinner party. Guests often filled our house during my childhood in suburban New York—my mom considered her role as hostess a reflection of her maternal and professional skills. She was a Midwesterner trained as a dietician, although she became known in her circle for outrageous indulgences like crispy potato pancakes and buttery rugelach, and some of her choices at the time now seem quaint at best—the meals often included iceberg lettuce salads and iridescent colored Jell-O molds that seemed “fancy.” My job was passing a platter of hors d’oeuvres such as rounds of white bread with a broiled topping of grated onion and mayonnaise.

When I started hosting my own dinner parties, I realized that food was secondary to my mom’s real secret for success. She masterfully mixed guests who didn’t know one another, which led to conversation that was always lively, sometimes even heated. One of my parents’ friends was a news producer who would act as instigator, firing questions at guests to stir debate. I was allowed to listen in from an extra table in the living room, eavesdropping on volatile subjects such as the U.S. involvement in Vietnam—definitely more interesting than weekend golf scores.

(clockwise from bottom right: Mom Estelle, daughter Lucy, me, and daughter Joanna)

Following my mother’s example, I’ve always gathered guests who’ve never met and suggested that we discuss the news of the day. The topics have ranged from whether Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas lied in testifying before the Senate to whether getting into a “good” college really matters. So far, the company has emerged unscathed. I also delved into favorite cookbooks to expand on my mom’s repertoire, and she asked me to share recipes for Julia Child’s ice cream cake and Silver Palate’s chicken Marbella. In one of those interesting role reversals that life sometimes presents, the student educated the teacher.

Sharing through the generations continues as my daughters have become adventuresome cooks, and now it’s my turn to laud their efforts, although their concept of a dinner party means everyone balancing the results on their laps while watching a TV show. With the informality of contemporary life at their age, they may have lost the art of conversation, but who can fault avocado toast with runny egg or homemade ramen? Thanks, Mom, for setting the example of gathering with food that nourishes the body and friends that nourish the soul.


Barbara Ballinger is a writer in the Hudson River Valley of New York. She is the co-author of Suddenly Single After 50 and Not Dead Yet: Rebooting Your Life after 50 .


8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature

1/2 lb. unsalted butter at room temperature

3/4 c. granulated sugar, divided

1/4 t. salt

1 t. pure vanilla extract

2 c. all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out the dough

1/2 c. light or dark brown sugar

1 t. cinnamon, divided

1 c. pecans, chopped fine

1/3 - 1/2 c. raspberry, apricot, or strawberry preserves

1 egg

1 T. milk or water

In an electric mixer, combine the cream cheese and butter until light.

Add 1/4 cup granulated sugar, salt, and vanilla.

Slowly add the flour, and mix until well combined.

Gather up and place on a well-floured board.

Roll into a ball.

Cut the ball into four parts, roll each into balls, and wrap each in waxed paper.

Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

To make the filling, combine 6 T. granulated sugar, the brown sugar, 1/2 t. cinnamon, and the pecans.

On a well-floured board, roll one ball of dough into a circle of about 9 in. in diameter.

Spread the dough with some of the preserves, and sprinkle with some of the filling.

Press the filling lightly onto the dough.

Cut the circle into 12 pizza-shaped wedges.

Starting with the wide edge, roll up each wedge into a “snail” shape.

Repeat with remaining balls of dough.

Place the rugelach with points tucked under on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Chill for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Beat egg with milk or water, and brush each cookie.

Combine remaining 2 T. granulated sugar with remaining 1/2 t. cinnamon, and sprinkle on the cookies gently.

Bake for about 20 minutes, until browned.

Let cool on a wire rack.

Makes 4 dozen.

(Cookies can be frozen.)


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