The Holidays are magical. They can also be a little stressful.
Shopping, parties, parades, decorating…it’s easy for overwhelm to set in while you’re trying to make your life extra holi-dazzling. I used to try to do it all. But now that I’m a mom of two and a business owner, I’ve learned that if I’m going to keep the joy in the season, I have to let some things slide. I’m learning to focus on the things that matter to me most, and take some very clever, calculated short cuts. One of the holiday things that matters to me most is having people over.
Hosting – bringing people I love together into my home – is one of those things that actually stops me in my tracks and places me squarely in that moment, that moment of being perfectly present with them. Wanting nothing, celebrating everything. And for me that’s what the holidays is most about. So, I love hosting. I also looooove being a little fancy. But I do not love being stressed out with party prep. If that’s you too, if you like to be fancy but fuss-free, then this is the party guide for you.
MY TOP TIPS FOR YOUR FANCY YET FUSS-FREE COCKTAIL PARTY:
-Invite people you love to be around. There may be times and there may be parties (because of work, family, you name it…) when you have to invite someone who isn’t your favorite. But, your fancy fuss-free party is not the party for that. Invite the people who give you that warm fuzzy feeling in your heart when you’re around them and from there hosting becomes pretty darn easy.
– Tell people to wear their fanciest clothes. Because we all really want a chance to reuse the formal clothes that you bought for a wedding and have only had the chance to wear once. Or use this as an opportunity to rent a crazy sparkling gown you can’t justify wearing anywhere else. If everybody is dressed to the nines, your party is automatically fancy. Even if all there is to eat is pizza and popcorn, suddenly you have a super glam pizza and popcorn party. Remember, fancy is not the same as stuffy or pretentious. Fancy is fun.
-The evening before you’re going to have your party, go through your house or apartment and hide things away to make it feel spacious. I take away all of our countertop appliances like kitchen aid, coffee maker (ok, that one goes away after I use it the morning of), cutting boards, etc. and stack them in the basement. Also take all the buckets and baskets that are full of shoes, jackets, blankets, and toys and hide them in closets. They’ll spill back out into their places as soon as the party is over, but for a brief glorious evening our house looks uncluttered.
-Make a centralized drink station. Find a large surface – a table or a sideboard for example – and put your glasses, ice buckets, bottles of wine, citrus etc. on top of it and cozied up next to it.
-I make some of the food items myself and then I also rely on high quality prepared food that I buy and zhuzsh up with sauces, chopped fresh herbs, chutneys, pomegranate seeds, and the like.
-Prepare as much as you can in advance so you can feel more chill on party day. And speaking of chill, if you don’t have enough space in your fridge, keep food in coolers out of doors or in your garage. This works especially well if you live in a cold climate like me – then the bigger issue is keeping things from freezing. And making sure none of the wild animals get to the food, haha.
-Delegate! There is nothing wrong with asking your guests to contribute some of the food or drink, even for a fancy party. The key here is to not leave anything to chance. Plan out what you want to serve at your party, and then when someone asks what they can bring, give them something very specific from your plan. You can even text them a photo of a recipe. Just remember to assign things based on your knowledge of your friend’s skills and likes. And if you assign someone to bring ice, remind them it’s not an affront to their cooking skills, it’s because ice is the. most. important. element of a cocktail party, and you’re assigning it to them because you know they can be trusted.
-Use real plates, glasses, and silverware not paper or plastic. Yes, this does mean a little more cleanup. But, it feels sooooo much nicer to eat off a real plate and drink out of a real glass. You’ll make less garbage, which is better for the environment. AND, since you invited people you love, at the end of the night hopefully you’ll be able to dole out some aprons, switch your playlist from Sinatra to Dua Lipa and have a dish washing dance party in your kitchen. You may discover this is the best part of your evening. If you don’t own enough dishes, buy assorted vintage dishes and glassware from a thrift shop. Mismatched dishes look whimsical and creative once they have been stacked next to a vase of greenery or dried grasses.
-I like to set out lots of vintage coupes and champagne glasses along with rows of chilled Frenchie, Vélo, and Briar cans plus lemon twists to add as granish. It’s festive and sparkling and it’s like having French 75’s made to order, except all you have to do is crack a can!
-I complement the cans by also serving a big batch of a bitter boozy cocktail in a pretty pitcher – think a pitcher of old fashioneds, Manhattans, or negronis. Set out your pitcher of cocktail, a bucket of ice, a bunch of rocks glasses and a bowl of orange twists for garnish.
Here’s how to make a pitcher of old fashioned cocktails:
In a pretty pitcher combine one 750 ml bottle of bourbon (actually, I use Vikre Hay & Sunshine because it’s my fave cocktail whiskey, but bourbon also works), ¼ cup demerara sugar (or brown sugar) and 18-20 dashes of Angostura bitters. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Then stir in
¾ cup water. Chill until party time. This makes about 12 servings.
-For the folks who prefer wine to cocktails, firstly you may be able to convert them over to drinking Frenchie cocktails because they are complex and not super sweet like many cocktails are. But if cocktails are an absolute non-starter, I like to have bottles of a light red wine. I really like Austrian or German reds and/or Gamay, from natural wine makers. They tend to be a fun balance of juicy, earthy, and complex. It can feel tricky to choose between wines, so don’t hesitate to ask for advice at your favorite local wine shop.
-Make sure to have lots of sparkling water and other non-alcoholic options as well. Pear juice + spicy ginger beer + fresh lime makes for a simple but delicious zero-proof punch.
-Always have a cheese plate. For me, it’s (at least borderline) non-negotiable. Is it the most innovative cocktail party food? No. Is it delicious and filling and classy-classic. Yes. The key to a good cheese plate (and if you have followed me in any of my food writing you already know this) is to be focused. Have three to four truly amazing quality cheeses with very different character. Something intensely creamy, something sharp, and something funky, for example. Then add spreads and drizzles – think fig spread, quince paste, hot honey, lemon marmalade, olive tapenade…- and at least two types of crackers. You won’t be sorry.
– Next, instead of fiddling about making a jillion little crostinis, I set out the ingredients so people can mix and match and make their own. First you need the toasts: slice baguettes on the diagonal into half-inch thick pieces. Drizzle or brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with flaky salt and pepper. Pop these into a 350°F oven for about 15-20 minutes, until light golden brown. Then set aside. The toppings can be any assortment of things that have been chopped into small bits and taste good piled onto small toasts.
Here’s a potential spread of toppings from which you can choose, just make sure you have some vegetably things, some savory fatty things, some tangy things, and some creamy things:
• mushrooms sautéed with minced garlic, a splash of sherry and a sprinkle of thyme
• diced broccolini sautéed with chile flakes and garlic
• cauliflower roasted with whole garlic cloves and thinly sliced lemons and tossed with chopped dates
• sweet potato cubes, roasted then tossed with chopped flat leaf parsley, Castelvetrano olives, and white wine vinegar
• prosciutto or speck
• hard salami
• chicken liver pâté
• hot smoked salmon
• salmon or trout roe
• a purchased smoked fish pate
• pickled red onions
• crème fraîche with lemon zest stirred in
• sour cream mixed with finely chopped dill pickles
• fresh ricotta that has been heavily drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with flaky salt
-I hate trays of raw veggies, but I loooove a good composed salad. So I like to set out a wintery salad or two. What makes a salad wintery? Think sturdy greens and heavy seasonal veggies, fruits, and creamy things like cheese crumbles or avocado. For example, layer arugula with roasted delicata squash, pomegranate seeds, and avocado slices and dress with lemon and olive oil. Layer thinly sliced fresh fennel and celery with orange slices, cured olives, and feta, again with lemon and olive oil. Layer torn escarole and thinly sliced endives with apple slices, bacon bits, torn fresh mint and flat leaf parsley, and crumbled creamy goat cheese. Dress this with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and mustard.
And then there’s dessert!
A good array of desserts makes any gathering feel festive. Set out a tray of holiday cookies. Buy some spice cakes or pumpkin bars and set them out on a pretty tray and sprinkle them with pomegranate seeds or quartered fresh figs to spiff them up. Then, one of my favorite super simple desserts is a Norwegian classic called tilslørte bondepiker. You don’t need to know how to say it. Just know that all you have to do is layer good quality store bought applesauce (or homemade if you want) with crushed gingersnaps (these can also be store bought) and sweetened freshly whipped cream to make a parfait.
Another favorite of mine is the almost flourless chocolate cake from Molly Wizenberg, known sometimes as the “winning hearts and minds cake.” It’s a simple one-bowl cake that results in amazing fudgy decadence. Melt 7 oz. really good dark chocolate plus 7 oz. really good butter in the microwave or on the stovetop. Whisk in 1 1/3 cups sugar. Set aside to cool for 10 or so minutes. Meanwhile heat your oven to 375F and butter an 8-inch round cake tin and line it with parchment. One at a time, whisk 5 large eggs into your chocolate mixture. As you whisk in the eggs bit by bit the mixture will go from looking grainy to glossy and smooth. Finally whisk in 1 Tbs. of flour. Scrape the batter into the cake tin and bake in the oven until the cake is set but jiggles just the tiniest bit in the center, about 25 minutes. Cool completely before removing from the cake pan. Serve with whipped cream or mint ice cream.