When my friend Cynthia turned 40, another friend and I wanted to give her a special birthday party. Instead of an "over the hill" theme, we decided a fiesta was in order!

Since we live in Texas, we had lots of choices for our menu due to the Hispanic influence here. Rather than plan a big meal, we decided on a buffet of appetizers and desserts. Three of the most popular foods were Tex-Mex Dip, Chili Pepper Cookies and Cactus Cake.

Perfect for a party, Tex-Mex Dip is a real crowd-pleaser. Ingredients in the recipe blend very well, and it makes a large platterful. Be sure to keep plenty of tortilla chips alongside, because people will keep eating this hearty appetizer until it's gone.

Besides this dip, we served salsa with chips, chile con queso, Spanish peanuts, cactus-shaped pimiento cheese sandwiches, peppery snack mix and nonalcoholic margaritas.

Cut out to look like their namesake, Chili Pepper Cookies were sweet treats at the celebration. We used a favorite recipe that makes a tender, slightly soft sugar cookie.

By tinting the frosting and adding some colored sugar sprinkles, these can be decorated without a lot of fuss. They really say "fiesta."

Cactus Cake photo

Desert-Style Dessert

The birthday cake was succulent—a Cactus Cake! I "doctored up" two white cake mixes and baked them in 13- by 9-inch pans. Adding whipped topping mix, milk and vanilla to the batter boosted the cakes' flavor and moist texture.

When the cakes had cooled, I cut them into several pieces to put together a cactus shape. Chocolate sprinkles decorating the cake's green-tinted buttercream frosting gave the cactus its prickly look.

Colorful pottery serving pieces, chili pepper paper plates, and brightly colored napkins and tablecloths lent a festive look to the buffet tables.

Mexican-theme decorations also prevailed throughout the dining and living rooms. In one corner, I strung chili pepper-shaped lights on several big plants. In front of them, I posed a scarecrow with a sombrero over his head. He looked like he was taking a siesta. Latin music played in the background.

It was a great party! One of the highlights was the birthday girl, blindfolded, trying to beat open a pinata filled with gag gifts. 

We also made edible favors to send home with all guests—chocolate bars with custom wrappers we printed on the computer. One side of the wrapper displayed a big "40," and the other was printed with this little poem:

Chocolate is tasty
fiestas are great
Cynthia's turning 40
so let's celebrate!

Cynthia had a memorable 40th birthday, and everyone had a tiempo bueno—a good time.

While this fiesta theme worked beautifully for the birthday, it's also a great idea for other parties. So when you have reason to celebrate, feel free to pick up on our festive food and fun.

CHILI PEPPER COOKIES

TEX-MEX DIP

CACTUS CAKE