10 Steps to One Brilliant Holiday Party
Delightful ideas for spicing up your gatherings while dialing down your stress
Glasses clink. A group erupts in laughter. Noses follow the aroma of fresh ricotta tarts emerging from the kitchen. There is a special satisfaction that comes with watching friends enjoy the party you have planned down to the last bowl of spiced pecans. Not only are you making people happy, you are planning an evening that reflects who you are. And afterward, you get to put your feet up and rehash the highlights.
Former editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine, cookbook author, and international food consultant Barbara Fairchild has hosted more than a few bashes in her day. She shared her hostess-friendly ideas for throwing a holiday party that your guests will look forward to all year long.
Head to the Middle East
You don’t have to follow every food blogger’s latest discovery, but it’s fun to introduce your guests to what’s happening on the culinary frontlines. Fairchild suggests looking at the dishes you’re already serving and bringing them up to date. Today, she says that means heading to the Middle East. “A lot of what’s new on the food scene today has a Middle Eastern bent to it, and those herbs and spices are very aromatic; very holiday-oriented,” says Fairchild.
She suggests topping olive oil-brushed toasted pita wedges with dukkah, an Egyptian blend of nuts, coriander, cumin, and black pepper. Zing up your yogurt dip with za’atar (sumac, oregano, thyme, sesame seeds), or add harissa to your hummus. Fairchild also likes featuring Greek tzatziki dip on a crudité platter. For inspiration, she suggests heading to food52.com, the New York Times recipe archive, and the Bon Appetit recipes featured on epicurious.com.
Try some global food hacks
Fairchild also likes the idea of an hors d’oeuvres party that samples spicy finger foods from Latin America to Asia. You don’t need a degree in international cooking to achieve it. “With all the options at places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, you can use a few simple food hacks to make it special enough for a party.” She suggests a trio of mini tamales, premade steamed Asian buns, and dumplings (pork gyoza potstickers – mmm).
Perfect one insanely easy nibble
For something completely different, Fairchild thinks back to a caffé outside of Florence where she first sampled salami-wrapped cherries. “In winter, look for frozen pitted cherries, not packed in a sauce. Defrost them – it doesn’t matter if they’re a bit wrinkly – wrap each in a thin slice of salami, and stick a toothpick through it. It couldn’t be easier, and people love the contrast of salty pork and sweet cherry.”
Follow the cheese board rules
No. 1: Fairchild maintains that a cheese platter works best at an open house, not so well at an intimate cocktail party.
No. 2: Ask for help. Visit your local cheesemonger for advice on interesting cheeses that work well together.
No. 3: Consider a cheese trio. “Start with a mild, sliceable cheese such as a farmhouse cheddar, a quality gruyere, an Emmental – or, since it’s the holidays – something special like Sottocenere, a truffle cheese from Italy. Add a soft, mild goat cheese, and then either a pungent blue, like Silton, or a runny Brie or Camembert, both of which can be assertive in their own way if they have a little age on them.”
No. 4: Vary the crackers. Visit your local specialty store and gather an assortment of breads, breadsticks, and crackers. Just be sure they aren’t so strongly flavored that they overwhelm the cheeses.
Mix a special drink
“This time of year, the color and ingredients in a classic Cosmo are a natural,” says Fairchild. For her 2017 holiday version, she floated cranberries in the glass, and she also likes a pomegranate variation. If you’re not making individual cocktails, she suggests tall pitchers of white sangria. “It’s a nice surprise to get something super-refreshing in the winter. Go to the frozen fruit section of your market and find fruits without syrup, like peaches and raspberries.”
She also likes traditional holiday drinks such as a simmering pot of Swedish glögg —red wine steeped with cinnamon and other spices. And, just this once, she says bring on the rum-spiked eggnog. “A little goes a long way, but it’s a fun toast and there are lots of artisanal brands.”
Stock up on the bubbly
“For a holiday party that’s not super big, invest in a case of champagne and you’ll be good for the whole season. There are so many delicious champagnes and French sparkling wines for $35 and under, and a knowledgeable wine shop will be able to steer you in the right direction.” Fairchild says keeping a bottle or two in the refrigerator is a smart strategy throughout the holiday season. “If friends stop by, pop open a bottle, throw a raspberry in the bottom of the glass, and you’re set.”
Invite kids, but don’t dumb down your menu
“I’m a big believer in feeding kids what you feed the adults. Except for beverages, that is.” She likes making a child-friendly punch with ginger-steeped chamomile tea. Sweeten with a little good-quality apple juice and float fresh fruit in it. And set up a cookie table to keep the kids busy. “Buy sugar cookie dough and put out kid-friendly cookie cutters. Get a teen to supervise. Or if you don’t want to involve the oven, make cookies in advance and set out icing and sprinkles. They’ll have fun favors to take home.”
Give flavorful gifts
Speaking of take-homes, Fairchild has a handful of favorites. Ethically sourced TCHO chocolate goes to the chocolate fiends on her list; she says the Cinnamon Spice bars are perfect at this time of year. Other go-tos: K + M extra-virgin chocolate (from chef Thomas Keller and olive oil guru Armando Manni), Rancho Gordo heirloom beans, saved from extinction by Napa beanmeister Steve Sando, and Alien Fresh Jerky (“The Best Jerky in the Universe”) made in the Mojave Desert town of Baker, California.
Keep the decorations timeless
A bowl of roses and holly flanked by candles is a grown-up and festive combination that Fairchild says never gets old. She loves the idea of mixing family heirlooms and personal memorabilia into your holiday decor, like the handmade Christmas stockings she and her sisters have had since childhood. And when it comes to twinkly white lights, she likes them everywhere, especially cascading across a mantelpiece and wrapped around a banister.
Stick with what you know
Spending the bulk of Christmas Day fussing over a multi-course meal isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. Instead, Fairchild recommends a tried-and-true menu that is luxurious, and yet gives the hosts time to enjoy themselves.
The night beforehand she uses a blender to make an intensely green winter pea soup, which she serves hot the next day, topped with crème fraîche and bacon. That is followed by the showstopper: an herb-crusted beef tenderloin with a mushroom port sauce. “Beef tenderloin gets very expensive for a large group, and you don’t want to risk messing it up. But this is delicious and simple, and the timing is right on the mark.” (Find the recipe for “Herb and Garlic-Crusted Beef Tenderloin” in the Bon Appetit 50th Anniversary Cookbook, or on epicurious.com.)
Before that goes in the oven, she bakes a potato gratin; covered, it stays warm on the stovetop while the beef roasts. Finally, she sautés shredded Brussels sprouts, then tosses them with dried cranberries and toasted walnuts in a mustard vinaigrette. Dessert is chocolate and cookies provided by Fairchild, and a pie brought by someone else. She also serves tiny, candy-size pieces of the last fruitcake baked by her late mother. It truly is a taste of Christmas past.
“Our crowd gets bigger every year, and with all the diet restrictions nowadays, sometimes
I think, ‘maybe we should just take everyone out to a nice hotel and let them order what they like,’” muses Fairchild. “But who am I kidding? It’s Christmas.”