4 Easy, Make-Ahead Appetizers That’ll Wow Your Guests

4Photo: Courtesy of America's Test Kitchen.
America's Test Kitchen — a real, 2,500-square-foot test kitchen just outside of Boston — is home to more than three dozen full-time cooks and product testers. Their mission? To develop the absolute best recipes by testing, then testing again (and again…) so you feel confident enough in the kitchen to cook everything from a simple, mid-week meal to an entire Sunday dinner party menu.
Think you have your holiday dinner party menu down pat? Even if you're feeling good about the main course, it's important to give your guests something to nosh on when they arrive!
To be sure you're not confined to the kitchen for the entire affair — seriously, we've been there — we've cooked up four easy appetizers you can prepare ahead of time. That's right: no more last-minute scrambling! Click through for our favorites!
1Photo: Courtesy of America's Test Kitchen.
Goat Cheese with Pink Peppercorns and Herbs
Goat cheese is often sold rolled in herbs or ash, and while these dressed-up logs are appealing, there are even more options when it comes to choosing your own embellishments. One winning choice is a layer of bright, eye-catching, cracked pink peppercorns. Despite being unrelated to the black peppercorn, the pink peppercorn has some of the familiar pungency of its namesake, but with a much more delicate, fruity, almost floral flavor. An equal amount of fresh minced thyme and a teaspoon of toasted fennel seeds round out the flavor and texture of the rub.

1 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted
4 teaspoons pink peppercorns
4 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
1 (8‐ounce) log goat cheese, chilled
1/4 cup extra‐virgin olive oil

1. Place fennel seeds in zipper-lock bag and crush coarsely with meat pounder. Add peppercorns and pound until cracked. Combine fennel seeds and peppercorns with thyme in shallow dish. Roll goat cheese log in herb mixture to coat, pressing gently to adhere. Wrap goat cheese log in plastic wrap and transfer any remaining herb mixture to zipper-lock bag and refrigerate for up to two days.
2. Transfer goat cheese log to plate, sprinkle with any remaining herb mixture, and drizzle with oil before serving.
Place the toasted fennel seeds in a zipper-lock bag and crush them coarsely with a meat pounder. Then, add the peppercorns to the bag and crush again. After combining the fennel seeds, peppercorns, and minced thyme in a shallow dish, roll the goat cheese log in the mixture, pressing gently so it will adhere.
2Photo: Courtesy of America's Test Kitchen.
Roasted Red Pepper Hummus
This light, silky hummus starts — surprisingly enough — with a can. We found that canned chickpeas were close in flavor to dried chickpeas, and the convenience of canned makes them perfect for a quick appetizer (ditto for jarred, roasted red peppers). We process the chickpeas with the red peppers in the food processor before adding lemon juice. To finish, whisk the olive oil and tahini together and drizzle this mixture into the food processor for a smooth emulsion. Our favorite canned chickpeas are Pastene Chick Peas.

1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil,
plus extra for drizzling
2 (14-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed
1 cup jarred roasted red peppers, rinsed and patted dry

1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1. Whisk tahini and oil together in small bowl or liquid measuring cup. Process chickpeas, red peppers, garlic, salt, and cayenne in food processor until almost fully ground, about 15 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. With processor running, add lemon juice and process for 1 minute. With processor running, add tahini mixture and continue to process until hummus is smooth and creamy, about 15 seconds. Transfer hummus to bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
2. Sprinkle with almonds and parsley and drizzle with extra oil before serving. Makes about three cups.
3Photo: Courtesy of America's Test Kitchen.
Homemade Tomato Jam
Make this spicy and fragrant jam once and it will become your favorite condiment. After a little experimenting, we discovered a few additions that boost this jam from good to eye‐widening: Grated ginger and star anise add spice and aromatic complexity. But its an unlikely ingredient — fish sauce, which is high in glutamates (the amino acids responsible for “meaty” flavor)—that makes the jam explode with savory depth…without tasting fishy. Fish sauce can be found in most supermarkets in the international foods aisle alongside other Thai and Vietnamese ingredients. To make this jam spicier, reserve the jalapeño seeds and add them with the jalapeño.

2 pounds plum tomatoes, cored and chopped
11/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup fish sauce
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 star anise pods

1. Combine all ingredients in 12‐inch skillet and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium‐high and cook until mixture begins to thicken, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard star anise. Mash mixture with potato masher until relatively smooth, then continue to cook until spatula leaves trail through jam, 5 to 10 minutes longer.
2. Transfer jam to bowl and let cool completely. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one week. Let jam sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
4Photo: Courtesy of America's Test Kitchen.
Baked Brie Cups
This recipe takes the concept of baked Brie and makes it miniature as bite-size hors d’oeuvres. Frozen phyllo pastry cups, which are readily found in the freezer section of your supermarket, are the perfect vessels to hold the filling. We tried various jams, jellies, and compotes and found that the fruity spreads that usually pair well with Brie were overpoweringly sweet in these small cups. Red pepper jelly has just the right balance of sweet and savory to perk up the cheesy bites. Continuing with the savory theme, we top each cup with chopped smokehouse almonds, which give the mild cheese a salty, slightly spicy edge. The final result: Each bite of flaky, crispy pastry yields to a gooey, flavorful filling.

1 (8-ounce) wheel firm Brie cheese
1/3 cup red pepper jelly
2 (2.1-ounce) boxes frozen mini phyllo cups
1/4 cup smokehouse almonds, chopped coarse

1. Cut Brie into 60 1/2-inch cubes. Divide jelly evenly among phyllo cups. Place two cubes Brie in each cup and sprinkle evenly with almonds. Transfer cups to airtight container, layering with parchment paper, and store in freezer for up to one month. Makes 30 Brie cups
2. When ready to serve, adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Place cups on prepared sheet and let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. Bake cups until Brie is melted and jelly is bubbling, about 15 minutes. Transfer sheet to wire rack and let cups cool for five minutes. Serve warm.
Want more? Take a peek at one of the team's glossies, Cook's Illustrated, or any one of their must-have cookbooks.

More from Food & Drinks

R29 Original Series