It’s the season to gather with family and friends to eat, drink and be merry. For some, however, throwing a holiday party can be more stressful than festive, as we try to decide on refreshments, music and even the decor.
Fortunately, we live in the party capital of the world, with plenty of experts who make their living entertaining large groups. So we’ve asked a few for a bit of advice on holiday revelry. Whether you want to host an intimate dinner party, have an all-day open house or throw a blowout bash, they have some tips for maximizing the merriment.
Angie Enk, general manager of Honey Salt, recommends simple, bite-size foods for guests who are likely to be standing or walking around. Reserve portions of each food item, keeping it hot or cold until the buffet needs replenishing. Having hot food at one station and cold at another reduces crowding at the food table.
Roasted turkey meatballs, each served in a cup with a little sauce and a toothpick.
Farmer’s toast, which is toasted brioche spread with brie and baked in the oven, served with apples, pine nuts, arugula and honey.
Salmon rillettes, which are pita chips topped with salmon spread and a dab of creme fraiche.
With faces familiar and not-so-familiar coming and going in your living space, you’ll need to explore a variety of moods and have a little something for everyone here — except for that guy across the street who likes Train. He can go kick rocks.
Various Artists, “Holidays Rule”: Rufus Wainwright roasts chestnuts with The Shins; Calexico bites the heads off assorted gingerbread men with Paul McCartney on this excellent, diverse, indie-leaning compilation capable of catering to most every taste.
Johnny Cash, “The Classic Christmas Album”: This one is a bit of a litmus test: If somebody in the neighborhood objects to this collection of golden-voiced Christmas favorites, which truly lives up to its title, Rover’s going to have a new lawn to relieve himself upon during all doggy walks henceforth.
Various Artists, “We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year”: If there’s any lull in the festivities, crank your gathering up to 11 when late/great Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, Alice Cooper, Testament frontman Chuck Billy and more ring ears and sleigh bells alike. Hope Santa stuffed your stocking with a neck brace.
Open house-style parties are all about creating spaces for conversation.
Lori Foit, director of business development for event production company Blueprint Studios, recommends setting up a table outside where guests can sign a guest book and grab a glass of champagne. “They can enter the party with a drink already in hand,” Foit explains. “Decorate the table to set the scene for what theme or decorations they’ll find inside.”
Swap out light bulbs with amber lights that cast skin-flattering tones or bright colors to create a fun and exciting atmosphere.
If you have a collection or work of art elsewhere in your home, hang it on a wall or set it on an easel in the party space to decorate and share your interests with guests.
For an all-day affair with guests coming and going, Libertine Social’s Tony Abou-Ganim, whose books include “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails,” recommends serving hot buttered rum.
“The batter can be and should be made in advance, so when guests arrive throughout the gathering, their mugs of Hot Buttered Rum can be prepared quickly and individually. It will also warm them up in the cold weather!”
Tony’s Hot Buttered Rum
1 pound light brown sugar
1/2 pound butter (softened)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Beat butter, brown sugar, vanilla extract and spices until well combined. Refrigerate in an airtight reusable container for up to a month or freeze until ready to use.
To make Tony’s Hot Buttered Rum
In a pre-heated coffee mug, combine 2 heaping tablespoons batter with 1 and 1/2 ounces of aged rum (Mount Gay Eclipse). Top with boiling water and stir well to mix. Serve with a spoon.
Hint: It is best to make the batter in advance, so the spices have an opportunity to mingle. Be sure to remove batter from refrigerator at least 6 hours prior to serving to allow it to soften.
Award-winning mixologist and author Brian Van Flandern, whose latest book, “Whiskey Cocktails,” was released in September, recommends a riff on the classic gin and tonic, “because it’s a classic and it’s something that everyone is comfortable with and everyone is going to love.” To make it memorable, he creates one with brightly colored Empress 1908 Indigo gin.
“It’s a purple gin and tonic, and when you put a fresh lime wedge on it, it’s just a very holiday, very cheery conversation piece.”
Purple Gin and Tonic
2 ounces Empress 1908 Indigo gin
2 ounces tonic water
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Serve in a highball glass with a fresh lime wedge.
Pam Howatt, founder and president of Divine Events, suggests passed appetizers if you’re having cocktails. A key to success is “simple things presented beautifully.”
A trio of little vessels of mac and cheese in three varieties.
Raclette served from a portable station, which can be purchased at cooking stores and online. (Another option is a kitchen torch and a pair of fireproof gloves.)
Plated entrees such as espresso-glazed boneless short ribs, citrus-cherry-glazed salmon or lavender chicken.
Intimate gatherings require a laid-back soundtrack if not laid-back wine consumption, because you’ll want to actually hear what your guests are saying — until, that is, Steve starts going on and on about his sock monkey collection again.
Carpenters, “Christmas Portrait”: This Carpenters classic is buoyed by harmonies as sweet as that lump of fruitcake in your gut slowly working its way toward digestion sometime around June.
Communist Daughter, “Sing Sad Christmas”: The holidays can be depressing for some. Shed a cathartic tear with any seasonal Eeyores on hand with this elegantly understated covers of Yuletide downers such as The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”
Bright Eyes, “A Christmas Album”: Near-whisper, spare, beatific versions of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” highlight a quietly affecting album as hushed as the night before Christmas when not a creature is stirring.
The hallmark of a great dinner party is good company and a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
Fresh florals can introduce warmth and festivity. Keep tabletop flower bouquets on the shorter side — arrangements above eye level may obstruct conversations across the table.
Encourage pre-dinner mingling by creating a photo booth. “You can make a selfie booth by using a foil curtain background and balloons,” recommends Lin Jerome, a partner at The Refined Agency. “Give guests oversize frames or props to pose with.”
Include thoughtful touches at home-cooked dinners by printing out artfully designed menus and placing them with small sprigs of flowers at each place setting.
“As far as spirits go, at this time of year whiskeys play particularly well, as (do) cognacs and calvados,” says award-winning mixologist and author Brian Van Flandern.
His recommendation for your dinner party is a butternut squash sidecar, which combines Remy Martin VSOP Cognac with squash puree, simple syrup, lime juice and Cointreau. (Find the recipe for this cocktail, and all of the others in this article, at reviewjournal.com.)
Butternut Squash Sidecar
1 and 1/2 ounces Remy Martin VSOP Cognac
1 ounce butternut squash puree
3/4 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/4 ounce Cointreau
Serve in martini glass with powdered sugar rim.
Abou-Ganim says champagne cocktails are always a hit at dinner parties. Like Van Flandern, however, he displays an affinity for cognac, recommending a drink called Champagne Celebration that marries Hennessy VSOP Cognac with brut Champagne and Cointreau.
1 white raw-sugar cube saturated with Peychaud’s Bitters
1/2 ounce Hennessy VSOP Cognac
1/2 ounce Cointreau
Chilled brut Champagne
Place the sugar cube in a crystal champagne flute. Next, add cognac and Cointreau. Slowly fill with Champagne, garnish with an orange spiral.
Hint: Chill the Hennessy and Cointreau before mixing.
“You want to have hearty finger foods that can be easily picked up, but that still sop up alcohol,” said Shelle Hedrick, director of special events for the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. “And you never want to have a party with no food and only alcohol.”
Sliders or meatballs on skewers.
Hedrick said the items don’t have to contain meat but should contain protein, and suggested falafel sliders, falafel skewers or portabella sliders.
Action stations, such as a mashed potato bar, s’mores bar or ice cream sundae station.
Woo-hoo! Par-tay! Turn the volume up on everything! More shots! More exclamation points! Time for some questionable decision-making to these unquestionably awesome tunes.
Various Artists, “Christmas on Death Row”: “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” with Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and assorted non-Doggs in this hip-hop-heavy collection as funky as expired eggnog.
Bad Religion, “Christmas Songs”: Break some furniture, break a sweat, break the speed limit on a slew of seasonal standards with these punk veterans who could turn the recitation of the ingredients to a bottle of dandruff shampoo into a rousing sing-along.
Various Artists, “A Motown Christmas”: Because every holiday party demands a few Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson slow jams to soundtrack your awkward, most likely futile, cactus-smooth attempts at getting that hottie across the room to meet you beneath the mistletoe.
When throwing a large party, planning is key. “The more thought you put into the planning, the easier it is for your vision to unfold,” FNOM Worldwide founder Jennifer Burbank says.
Uplight walls and areas of focus with LEDs. On a budget, turn off the overhead lights and incorporate candles. Project surreal images or stream movies without audio on blank walls.
The secret to success? Add an element of surprise. “You can get creative with a small symphony, Cirque du Soleil-style performers, sword swallowers or maybe a fire handler,” Burbank says.
Amusement Game Rentals in Las Vegas loans oversize versions of games such as Operation, Connect 4 and Pac-Man. “People can be shy,” owner Walter Carnwright says. “But find a common interest and get them around a table together and everyone starts interacting.”
“If you’re having a high-end holiday bash, you (may) want to serve a hot cocktail,” offers Van Flandern, who says a mulled wine fits the bill perfectly. But he refers to his version as “mauled, like a bear just ripped it up.”
“Hot cocktails should always be served in a thin glass so it doesn’t crack or split,” he adds. “And always with a stem, so it doesn’t burn your fingers.”
3 ounces red wine (Van Flandern recommends Zenato Amarone della valpolicella)
1 ounce Pama pomegranate liqueur
1/2 ounce clover honey
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon clove
Emulsify ingredients in a sauté pan, bringing to a slow simmer and taste for balance, adding more honey if needed. Pour into a red wine glass.
Abou-Ganim also recommends a hot cocktail for events like this, looking to a family member for inspiration.
“For a blowout bash with lots of guests, I always recommend making batch cocktails such as punch. During the holidays, I like to pay tribute to my cousin, Helen David, by making Tom & Jerrys. Each holiday season for nearly 70 years, Helen made her famous version from scratch.”
Helen’s Tom & Jerry Batter
8 jumbo eggs
1 and 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Freshly grated nutmeg
Separate egg whites and yolks. In a large mixer, beat yolks until thin, transfer to another bowl. Clean mixer and add the egg whites and cream of tartar, beat until stiff. Add powdered sugar and fold in yolks. Mix until batter is thick, but light.
3/4 ounce Appleton Jamaican Rum
3/4 ounce Hennessy VS Cognac
In a pre-heated mug, add 1 heaping ladle of batter. Add rum and cognac. Top with hot water and dust with freshly grated nutmeg. Serve with a paddle or spoon.
Review-Journal reporters Heidi Knapp Rinella, Jason Bracelin, Janna Karel and Al Mancini contributed to this story.