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The Newsroom: Articles

10 Holiday Party Planning Rules

LINDA GIUCA, Courant Food Editor

December 1, 1999
The Hartford Courant
Page D1
(Copyright @ The Hartford Courant 1999)

The time for panic has passed.

You missed the moment to think, "What have I done?" and punt before you mailed the invitations.

So take a deep breath, and forge ahead with the plan for that holiday party. Take special notice of that word "plan." It's the key to success, pulling off that great recipe, stunning centerpiece or just surviving.

Planning makes the party come together. Sit down and make out a list of what you'll need, what you must do and when you'll do it. You'll feel more and more relaxed as you check off those "To Dos" on your list.

Integral to the plan is choosing a theme.

The theme "could be a celestial party about the stars in the universe for New Year's, or a playful Christmas party at the North Pole, or even a color," says Wendy Moyle, founder and co-owner with her husband of www. ShindigZ . com , a Web site that offers free advice about entertaining and sells party products.

"People often skip that stage," says Moyle, referring to a theme. "But it makes planning easier. Once you have the theme in your mind, it helps with invitations, the food, decorations and favors."

Jay Ginewsky, owner of The Whisk catering company in Canton, serves up even more basic advice. Unless you hire an event planner to oversee every detail, Ginewsky recommends the KISS approach: Keep It Simple, Stupid. (No, he's not insulting your intelligence, just trying to drive the point home.)

Moyle also recommends setting a budget, then "sticking to it."

Here are 10 rules to help you pull off a wingding of a party:

  1. Whenever you feel an anxiety attack coming on, repeat Ginewsky's mantra: "KISS, KISS, KISS." No one expects you to be Martha Stewart. Most of your guests will be so grateful to attend a holiday party that they didn't have to organize, that you will be able to do no wrong.

  2. Go with a party idea that feels comfortable. The year-end holidays offer a lot of inspiration: tree-decorating, caroling, a cookie exchange, ringing in the New Year.

    Moyle hosts an annual cookie exchange for 35 women. Everyone brings four dozen cookies and a wrapped book for a grab bag. (Romance novels or "great sex" books have prompted plenty of laughter in the past, she says.) The food is a help-yourself menu of soup, salad and sandwiches. Dessert is, what else, cookies. At the end of the party, each guest gets a four-dozen assortment of cookies, transported home on platters Moyle provides.

  3. Clean, but not as you do when your mother-in-law comes to visit. Put the biggest pieces of clutter in boxes or laundry baskets and stash them in a room -- any room -- where the guests won't go. Stuff dirty clothes in the washing machine and clean clothes that you haven't gotten around to folding in the dryer. Close the lids and voila!, no one will know they aren't empty. The one room that should sparkle is the bathroom.

  4. Create the mood. Keep the lighting medium to low (the better not to see the dust) and light candles to set a festive mood. Ginewsky suggests votive candles as a simple way to create atmosphere. "You can also get fancy and use artichokes to hold the candles," he says. Cut off the stem so that the artichoke sits upright, then remove the center leaves to make space to hold the candle.

    Aromatic candles, which are the rage now, are a twofer: soft lighting and an inviting aroma.

    The nose knows what it likes, and a smart host will appeal to that sense. When planning the menu, "select one or two items that will make the kitchen smell good," Moyle says, such as brie wrapped in crescent roll dough and baked. "You'll get the smell of cheese and pastry and have something warm to eat."

    Have a pot of mulled cider -- or at the least, a few cinnamon sticks and cloves in water -- simmering on the stove.

  5. Rest those tired legs. Shop on-line or at a grocery store or specialty shop that delivers. "There truly no longer is a mystique about food because you can get anything on the Internet," says Ginewsky, whose current favorite Web site is site offers fresh and smoked seafood such as Alaskan salmon and halibut. It's not cheap, Ginewsky warns, "but this is the time to splurge a little" -- a whole 5- to 6-pound King salmon is about $70 - - but you'll get a spectacular main dish as well as a conversation piece.

    Internet or catalog shopping allows you to shop at night, after the kids are in bed, instead of trying to sneak in calls at work. She and her staff answer questions and offer party-planning advice, even if you don't place an order.

    Just be sure to do your Web browsing early and learn how far in advance a company needs an order. The same advice goes for catalogs.

    Many specialty food companies advertise in the back of food magazines. Ginewsky says he has found that Saveur and Fine Cooking have the best listings.

  6. Decorate the party site. We're not talking about a designer showhouse here. One good thing about December parties is that even the busiest households, especially those with children, scatter decorations here and there for Christmas or Hanukkah.

    Display any and all Christmas art projects that your children make in school. A little corny, perhaps, but no one would dare disparage little Johnny's efforts.

    Even some twinkling lights, pine cones, seasonal plants and big red bows to decorate an archway or the stairs' banister will add a festive touch for not much money. One caveat: Don't garnish food platters with holly, poinsettia or mistletoe because these plants are poisonous.

  7. Make an edible centerpiece. An assortment of fresh fruits in a cut glass bowl, a beautifully decorated cake (purchased, of course) on a pedestal plate or an aromatic candle surrounded domino-like rows of cookies will add interest to a table.

  8. What to eat? If soups are your forte, mix up a big pot of a hearty soup, and serve it in mugs with thick slices of bread. Check your local bakery --- supermarket or independently owned -- for the kinds of rustic breads with chewy crusts. If you hate to cook, opt for a wine and cheese party.

    "Look for foods that make things easy," Ginewsky says. Specialty stores and supermarkets offer an array of prepared or jarred foods such as toppings for bruschetta or an assortment of fresh olives. You might want to turn to a caterer for one or two interesting orders or an entree, then take care of simple side dishes yourself.

    Ginewsky also suggests preparing as much of the menu ahead of time and choosing dishes that can be served at room temperature, to eliminate last-minute cooking.

    Accept all offers of food. "Go to your party plan, and say yes," Moyle says. Bringing food or beverages "will make them feel a part of the party."

    If a friend makes an hors d'oeuvre to die for or cookies that rival the creations of a professional pastry chef, accept the offer and lavish heaps of praise on them at the party. They just made you look good!

    No one really needs to know what you made and what you bought. In fact, many hosts pass off everything as homemade, even though some caterer did the slaving in the kitchen. If you go this route, be prepared to change the subject swiftly when the guest asks you for the recipe.

  9. Never apologize. Julia Child once said that there is hardly a flopped dessert that can't be salvaged by some judiciously plopped whipped cream. You put forth your best effort. If anything goes wrong, greet it with a sense of humor. Conversely, accept all compliments with a smile and a simple "thank you."

  10. Have fun at your party.

The Supplies

Whether or not you're throwing a party, it's a good idea to keep certain staples in case friends drop by with seasonal wishes.

  • Beverages: wine, soft drinks, flavored seltzer, coffee, ice.
  • Marinated olives and roasted nuts for snacking.
  • One or two kinds of crackers.
  • One or two kinds of cheese; a cheese spread or cheese ball.
  • Jars of vegetable spreads or refrigerated hummus.
  • Christmas cookies, homemade or store-bought (sometimes, you just want something sweet).
  • Paper cocktail napkins.
  • Candles.


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