Susan Kane, Owner, Susan Kane Catering, Inc., Norwalk, (203) 327-6668; susankanecatering.com:
The Club Scene. Serve bite size tasting plates, passed fall and winter soups, mini grilled cheese and demitasse cup of tomato bisque, night club atmosphere, New York lounge décor, pomegranate martinis.
Eye candy. Use more tall glass vases, LED lighting, crystal stones of color, big branches, mini bread puddings, comfort foods with a twist, like watermelon shooters, butternut squash puree, and gazpacho.
Comfort and Joy! Try grazing food stations as opposed to plated dinners, mashed potato martini bars, a sushi rolling station or dessert flambé station. Signature drinks: making the drink a certain color or adding dry ice for a smoke effect. Margarita, mojito, sangria and martini bars are a fun way to keep costs down by controlling which alcohol is being consumed.
Dos. Do the bulk of the house cleaning a few days before the party. Stick to your guest count, and don’t think you can invite everyone. If you don’t have the time, hire someone to help you. Enlist family and friends or hire a caterer; split up the shopping detail with friends and family members; set aside time for a short nap on the afternoon of the party; consider hiring a dishwasher. Plan for bad weather.
Don’ts. Don’t leave details to the last minute. The only room you should wait to clean on the day of the event is the bathroom. Don’t wait until the day of the party to shop or worry about the cleanup during your party — your guests want to see you!
Andy Burke, Burke Catering, Greenwich, (203) 698-2875; burkecatering.com:
Just for starters. Some appetizers that I like to prepare around the holidays include bacon grissini, sweet potato pancakes with crème fresh and dried cranberry garnish, russet potato fingers topped with cheddar and poblano chili, wild mushroom crostini with asiago cheese, curried chicken in phyllo cup puff pastry brie with Cajun nuts, lobster Newberg canapés, smoked salmon Christmas trees with red pepper, boursin, dill and caper garnish, tandoori spiced cilantro grilled chicken skewer with pineapple coriander salsa beef tenderloin on tarragon shallot crostini and a flavorful cheese board with cow, goat and sheep’s cheese accompanied by dried and fresh fruit, baguette and crackers.
The main event. Whole turkey or maple cured Vermont ham, turkey strudel — individually portioned strudels with wild mushrooms, pearl onions, celery, peas and carrots, bound in turkey stock reduction; ratatouille with brown rice and sharp cheddar; Honey Dijon grilled salmon; grilled and carved beef tenderloin with horse radish cream and Béarnaise sauce with red and yellow pepper and parsley are just a few of the items that my clients have requested, particularly during the holidays.
Happy endings. People want great desserts during the holidays…chocolate soufflé pudding, dried fruit pudding, apple crisp, blueberry betty, and trays with assorted finger desserts like cannolis, mini éclairs, Napoleons, chocolate dipped strawberries and pineapple. Don’t forget mulled cider, bowls of egg nog and spiced pecans for the bar.
Debra Ponzek, Owner, Aux Délices, Darien, Greenwich, Riverside, Westport, Stamford, (203) 326-4540; auxdelicesfoods.com:
Cheers! A specialty cocktail is always a way fun to get things started! Try to have something you can pre-mix (unless you’re hosting a small group) so you don’t have to fumble with lots of ingredients and shakers. Sometimes Prosceco simply mixed with Pama (Pomegranate liqueur) or St Germain (eldeflower liqueur) is great way to begin a festive party or holiday dinner. Serving stationary hors d’oeuvres such as a great cheese platter (we love to serve ours with honeycomb), an interesting crudite (maybe in silver julep cups rather than just on a platter) make it easy to have something out for your guests without spending a lot of time in the kitchen.
Think ahead. Cook ahead whenever possible; many recipes can be made ahead of time so they can put together quickly the day of your party. Room temperature buffet items, or perhaps side dishes, also make it easier to spend more time with your guest and family than making all of your dishes warm.
Simple pleasures. Keep things simple! Buffet items like filet mignon on crostini, or sliced filet mignon with accompanying small brioche rolls and a seasonal fruit chutney can be a simple yet easy way to serve an elegant dish. Poached salmon is also always a buffet favorite that can be served warm or chilled, and could be served with an elegant grain salad, a crusty bread and a beautiful salad.
Good things come in small packages. For larger parties I like to tempt guests with smaller finger desserts (they are more apt to take when they are small!) like miniature éclairs, biscotti, apple tarte tatin or chocolate mousse shots. Mini cupcakes and shots of rich hot chocolate or spiked apple cider are always a favorite for the holidays!
Nature’s bounty. Flowers are always gorgeous for any party but in lieu of flowers why not try baskets of apples or bowls of pomegranates or lemons/ Hurricane lamps filled with acorns and cinnamon sticks, or festive candies are also another option.
Deborah Lionetti, Owner, Say Soirée, Rowayton, (203) 249-9980; saysoiree.com:
Stick to the season. Use seasonal flowers, fruit, vegetables, leaves and branches to decorate tabletops, fireplace hearths and mantels, windowsills, and appetizer platters.
Turn the lights down low. Set dimmers, replace standard bulbs with gold light bulbs and use candlelight to provide a warm glow. Vary the sizes of candles and place them around the party area with your seasonal decorations. There are beautiful flameless candles available that provide light and ambience without the worry of an open flame.
Set the tone. Good music is essential to all parties. Choose songs that connect with the holiday and the mood you want to create. For extra magic, add live music with a keyboardist, pianist, guitarist, or harpist.
Offer a signature cocktail. Select one or two signature drinks to have ready for guests when they arrive. Choose drinks that are easy to make and fit the occasion. Some of our favorites:
Thanksgiving – Sangria, Apple Cider Martini
Christmas – Mulled red wine, Red Apple Martini
Chanukah – Mulled white wine, Blue Ice, Absolut Blue Souvenir
New Year’s Eve – Bellini, Midori Melon Ball Drop, Millennium Cocktail
For any holiday – Champagne with raspberries, pomegranate seeds or cranberries for a pop of color.
Keep your guests moving. Place appetizers in several different areas of your home. It makes serving easier for you and encourages guests to move around the party and enjoy the holiday decorations.
Stick to a schedule. If you are providing dinner, be sure it’s served at a reasonable time. A good guideline is within an hour and a half of arrival time so your guests don’t get antsy.
Enlist extra help. If you can, hire someone to help you in the kitchen. This will allow you to enjoy your party and spend more time with your guests.
Don’t forget the bathrooms. Stock up on the essentials: toilet paper, soap, and hand-towels (cloth or paper). Add a touch of seasonal decorations and finish with candlelight.
Present your guests with a parting gift. A few suggestions: a simple flower, a box of assorted chocolates, homemade cookies, or a holiday ornament.
Madalene Benoist d’Etiveuad, Owner, Bash Catering and Event Planning, Darien, (203) 202-7780; bashct.com:
Pair and pair alike. During the holiday season when tradition is most cherished, table design and unusual menu pairings can be a fun way to make any holiday lunch or dinner extra special for you and your dinner guests.
Specialty of the house. Consider adding one international dish or specialty cocktail to your menu this holiday season, just to shake things up a little. For example, you can start your festivities with a holiday cocktail from across the pond by making a batch of German Gluhwein, a version of mulled wine using brandy, cinnamon, cloves or citrus. Serve it in vintage silver goblets or china to symbolize the commencement of a special meal.
Swedish style. You could also follow in the foot steps of the Swedish tradition by starting the meal with a Christmas smorgasbord including serving pickled herring in a sour cream or mustard sauce on hearty Scandinavian rye bread topped with dill and red onion. Accompany this sweet and savory starter with a small glass of ice cold Aquavit.
Table talk. If changing up the menu is a bit too daring for friends and family, you can deviate slightly from tradition through your table setting. To “pump up the volume” at your holiday dinner try using a monochromatic color such as bright crisp whites or sage greens and fill glass vases with mounds of red roses and green orchids tipped with bursts of red. The colors remain traditional yet the textures are rich and luxurious exuding a sense of chic.
Katherine Jacox, Owner, Paisley Events, Ridgefield, (203) 340-0912; eventspaisley.com:
Prime Time Holiday Ideas. Typically, there are two prime Saturday evenings in December when everyone gives holiday parties. If those dates are already booked, try holding a late night dessert party; along with sweet nibbles like cookies, chocolates and fresh berries, serve one big festive dessert such as a rich chocolate cake or traditional buche de Noel. Serve sparkling wine hot coffee and cocoa spiked with a splash of Kailua or Grand Marnier liquor. Or throw a cocktail party during the week. Double up on hors d’oeuvres or serve a light buffet (roast turkey breast or beef tenderloin, for instance); guests coming straight from work will be thrilled to see substantial snacks that can serve as a light dinner.
Open Door Policy. At an open house, where a large number of guests come and go over a span of four to six hours (usually from late afternoon into the evening), certain pointers come in particularly handy:
Stagger the party times. On invitations make half say 4 to 7 p.m., the other half 6 to 9 p.m. so everyone doesn’t show up all at once.
Keep snacks simple. You can serve s few hot hors d’oeuvres if you’re feeling ambitious, but supplement them with bowls of mixed smoked nuts, spiced popcorn and cheese platters.
Serve food buffet style. Use small serving platters and replenish them often, so food always looks and tastes fresh. Have plenty of glasses, plates and silverware.
It’s all in the Details. Pay special attention to the invitations: send a festive paper “present”: print or write party details on a square piece of white card stock. Tie a thin, red satin or velvet ribbon in a crisscross around the “gift”; mail in a bright red envelope; the décor: create a clean, sophisticated combination of red, white and silver. Incorporate touches of high shine black or red with a glossy lacquered tray or bowl. Arrange tall branches of winter berries in a cylindrical case on the buffet table (use the dining room table or a table set in the party area). Set up the bar on a long narrow table, such as a console or hall table, with access on all sides. Cluster different shades of red roses in a low lacquered or silver boxes (to resemble gift boxes) and place them on the bar and on coffee and tables. Scatter red votive candles on tables and windowsills. For areas not close to food, try candles scented with pine or mulling spices; the menu: set out snacks like popcorn and chips in small bowls or lacquered boxes. Place smoked salmon bites and prosciutto wraps on the buffet; either pass trays or set out small batches of hot hors d’oeuvres (like soup and baked brie parcels) and replenish as needed; the music: every major artist has recorded a holiday album, but our dream stocking could include classic carols by Bing Crosby!