Party Planning 101
Five creative strategies to make your holiday party a big success.
THE HOLIDAY SEASON: the time of year when we challenge our inner Martha Stewart to create Pinterest-worthy gatherings. Oh, the pressure. Not to worry, we’ve brought in the experts. If you do it right you can probably get away with a lot less work than you think — a little planning here, some artfully chosen premade food there, mix in a few shortcuts and you’ve got yourself a party. Here, event planners, cookie makers, chefs and wine experts give the inside scoop on easy planning no matter what type of fete you’re having.
1. The Holiday Open House
The holiday open house is the most deceptive of party prospects. At first glance it seems casual — guests drop in whenever their schedule allows for merriment, food and drink — but the host faces what seems a Groundhog Day process of cleaning and restocking, unless you provide snacks that don’t require refrigeration, cooking or prepping once the party starts. With that in mind, who better to school us on what to serve than chef Jared Rogers of Picco Restaurant in Larkspur?
Besides being a celebrated chef, Jared is known for his cheese plate prowess. A great cheese plate is a perfect holiday party attraction: it can be left out at room temperature and filled just once, and it itself can be a topic of conversation. When choosing which cheeses will make the cut, be sure you have a variety of textures and flavors represented. Rogers likes to choose one hard cow’s cheese, one medium-hard cow’s cheese, one soft triple-cream cow’s cheese, one hard pecorino goat cheese, one medium-hard goat cheese, one soft goat cheese and a blue. Locally, he likes Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes and Woodlands Markets for their cheese selections.
Take the guesswork out of your next purchase and consider these cheeses that have been vetted by the pros.
AGED Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam — Gold Winner at the 2014 California State Fair
SOFT Marin French Cheese Camembert — Bronze Winner at the 2015 Cal Expo State Fair
FIRM Beehive Cheese Company Barely Buzzed — Bronze Winner at the 2014 World Cheese Awards
BLUE Point Reyes Bay Blue — Second Place, Best in Show at the 2014 Annual American Cheese Society Conference
GOAT Cypress Grove Chevre Humboldt Fog — Second Place 2013 at American Cheese Society Awards
SHEEP Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper — Second Place 2011 at World Cheese Awards
A noticeably odiferous cheese isn’t an automatic no-go, Rogers adds; he just recommends knowing your guests — are they picky eaters or foodies? If you do choose a strongsmelling cheese, give it its own serving plate away from the other cheeses, so that it doesn’t transfer the aroma and alter the taste of a less pungent cheese.
As for logistics, it’s good to know approximately how many people will be strolling through. If cheese is going to be the main event, plan on buying three pounds for every eight people. If cheese is just one of many items being served, a few ounces per person should suffice. Put out a separate knife for each cheese and set everything out an hour before the start of the party. At room temperature, the flavors of the cheese can open up — like a wine that’s had time to breathe in a decanter. Put the spread on platters around the home so everyone isn’t confined to one gridlocked table, and label each cheese so you won’t have to recite (or memorize) every name.
Although cheese may be the star, the supporting acts are just as important. Rogers recommends quince paste, local honey, apples, peaches and Spanish almonds warmed in the oven with fresh thyme, rosemary and lemon as accompaniments to the cheeses; a favorite seasonal jam works well too. Stick with neatly served appetizers that won’t make a mess — anything skewered or on toothpicks is a smart choice — such as chicken kebabs, salami roll-ups or mini caprese salads.
A healthier alternative or supplement to the cheese is fresh crudité platters that can easily be prepped ahead of time. Cut up the produce, cover with a layer of damp paper towels, wrap the platter in plastic, and refrigerate until the start of the party. It’s the holidays, so most guests will expect to indulge in something sweet; platters of bitesize desserts invite chatting while nibbling and still look presentable much longer than a half-eaten cake will. And unless you have the time to bake, Woodlands, Nuggets and Whole Foods have a great selection of “two bite” brownies, cookies and macaroons.
2. Neighborhood Get-Together
What’s the best way to get kids excited about another neighborhood get-together? Tell them they can play with their food. Host the ultimate cookie-decorating or gingerbread house-making party for an experiential activity that will keep the kiddos busy and also let parents get a little creative. Before anyone arrives, cover the workstations with white butcher paper so cleanup is as easy as recycling. For a cookie decorating party, have about three to six cookies for each child to decorate — unless you want a five-minute activity and a room full of restless kids. Sharon Leach, of Tiburon’s Sweet Things Bakery, says it gets messy, but children as young as five can take part. “To them, it is not how good the decoration looks, but how much frosting, sprinkles or candy get onto the cookie.”
If you’re hosting a gingerbread-house-making party, one house per child is plenty, but plan on having prebaked house pieces or graham crackers ready to go to allow guests to get right to work creating their own iced chateaus. John McAteer, owner of Marin’s holiday gingerbread house decorating pop-up Gingerbread Builders, says decorating is great for the whole family. “You’d be surprised at who gets really into the project,” he says. “At Gingerbread Builders, we’ve had everything from toddler parties to married couples out on a date. In general, it’s the elementary- school-age kids who enjoy it the most.”
For either activity, set out bowls of small candy and snacks in a variety of colors — gumdrops, candy canes, Nico wafers, Pez candies and even pretzel sticks at each workstation. Place tools like child-safe knives, scissors and spoons for kids to customize their candy decorations. For gingerbread houses, have the kids create their houses on squares of cardboard they can take home.
“Kids love a piping bag of colorful frosting and squirting it onto the cookie. You can buy decorating frosting in squeeze tubes. They are fairly easy for kids to use,” Leach says. “You just have to remember that as long as the cookie is a shape that they recognize and that there is plenty of frosting and sprinkles, they will have fun piling it onto the cookie.” McAteer says the biggest challenge isn’t the decorating, but keeping guests from eating all the supplies while they’re building, and then cleaning up after you’re done.
Besides a little spiked eggnog for the adults, sweeten the neighborhood get-together with the classic milk and cookie pairing updated with chocolate or vanilla milk varieties served in retro glass milk bottles or mason jars with a straw. Once the masterpieces are complete and icing has set for at least 45 minutes, let guests carefully walk their creations home, or provide boxes.
BAKERY BOXES TO HOLD COOKIES Sur La Table at Town Center Corte Madera, 415.945.0112
PIPING BAGS FOR ICING Williams-Sonoma at The Village at Corte Madera, 415.924.6799
SPRINKLE DECORATIONS Cake Art, 415.456.7773, cakeartsupplies.com
BULK CANDY DECORATIONS Smart & Final, 415.259.0285, smartandfinal.com
RETRO CLEAR MILK BOTTLES orientaltrading.com
3. The Oenophile Cocktail Party
If you can’t commit to a sit-down dinner, the two-hour holiday cocktail party is a short and sweet way to celebrate the season. You don’t have to stock a full bar for the party — have a short list of red, white and sparkling wine options and perhaps one specialty cocktail, something that you can whip up a large batch of and keep in the fridge in pitchers to be served as needed. Margaritas and sangria work well for this purpose. Put up a small chalkboard sign to let guests know what is being served so you’ll have time to imbibe with them instead of reciting the evening’s options.
Budget and number of guests will likely determine what the house will be pouring that night, but we couldn’t resist getting the scoop on what to serve from Marin’s Caroline Craig, a director at a successful wine media relations agency, which counts some of the top wineries on its client list, and Brandon Parkhurst, general manager of Marin’s Brick and Bottle restaurant.
For a cocktail party, Parkhurst recommends serving anything that can be made in batches ahead of time. “You don’t want to be mixing cocktails as you go throughout the night, so make sure you have all the glasses ready, with all the garnishes set out, and have the premade batches of your drink ready to go before any guests arrive,” he says. For a holiday party, he recommends season-appropriate drinks like eggnog or a winter punch, including fragrant additions like nutmeg, cinnamon sticks and whole allspice berries and made with or without alcohol. “Ludwig’s in San Anselmo is a good local store for cocktail ingredients and for everyday needs BevMo is an easy go-to,” he says.
“Mill Valley Market is a go-to for finding affordable wine gems in the store’s ‘staff picks’ section,” says Craig. “I love supporting the local family-owned business and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful for choosing the perfect wine to complement your meal.”
For a small, intimate gathering, keep it casual and have guests pour their own wine from a buffet of options, or do your own service. “We always greet our guests with an initial glass and set up wine service at the kitchen island for self-pouring,” Craig says. “My husband spent many summers bartending on Nantucket and a season in Aspen as the bartender at the Hotel Jerome. He’s very particular about glassware and is very good at keeping an eye on thirsty guests. For larger events, a server can save your life, as it’s difficult to visit with your guests and make sure that everyone’s drinking from a glass half full.”
For still wines, white and red, serving at cellar temperature is ideal. “You want the wine slightly chilled but not so cold you can’t taste it,” Craig says. “We live in the redwoods above Old Mill Park and our foundation is carved into bedrock. It’s the perfect natural wine cellar. For sparkling wines, we use a glass ice bucket to better see the bottle, and we keep it chilled by adding a mixture of water with ice.”
How much is too much? A typical bottle of wine holds at least four glasses — but when determining how many bottles to purchase, fine-tune the math based on what you know about your guests’ imbibing habits. “I typically plan on three glasses per person. But during the holidays I always keep extra bottles on hand in the $20–$50 price range in case neighbors pop in or we’re invited to a holiday open house,” says Craig. For a cocktail-based party, two to three drinks per person is generally a good estimate, but consider your audience and their typical drinking habits. You may also want to consider the alcohol content of what you’re serving: 12 ounces of beer is about equivalent to five ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of liquor.
If you really want to make a statement, Craig says, consider pouring out of a magnum or double magnum. “These large bottles are perfect for the holidays when you have a large family gathering, especially if you’ve cellared an older vintage to mark the occasion,” she says. “The bottle alone is impressive and adds an instant ‘wow’ factor.”
For a fun twist on the classic cocktail party, consider hosting a themed BYOB in which guests bring their your best bottle or one priced under $20. “It’s a great way to spark conversation and find new favorites,” Craig says. When it’s time for guests to depart, give them the holiday gift of an Uber ride.
Yes, you can tune into a Pandora playlist, but why be like every other party host when you can pull together your own unique tunes inspired by these local music men?
NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN claims you can’t go wrong with the gold standards. “I just love the classics, all Johnny Mathis and Nat Cole for the kids. Even Burl Ives from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Christmas is the best!” He’s also a fan of his song “Candy Cane Park Christmas Kalamazoo” and “It’s Christmas Time in Rhinestone Kittie Land,” by Rhinestone Kitties & the Furry Dog. “You can find these on YouTube,” he adds.
MUSIC PRODUCER/ENGINEER SCOTT MCDOWELL loves Christmas music, but is very picky. “I really wish Merle Haggard made a Christmas record that lives up to my imagination,” he says. “I often start off with Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You,’ though she’s got some competition since I fell in love with Ariana Grande’s ‘Last Christmas’ — it’s a fantastic update on George Michael’s epic jam.” He likes to finish with the Charlie Brown Christmas album, but “at this point my patience for holiday music begins to run thin,” he confides, “and I just start listening to Dave Brubeck or other West Coast jazz albums.”
JONATHAN KORTY, general manager and talent buyer at 19 Broadway Bar and Nightclub, says, “I’m a huge fan of the Christmas Jug Band, and I play all the albums every holiday season nonstop — just kidding!”
4. Alternative Diet
San Rafael’s Erika Lenkert, who publishes the quarterly gluten-free-themed magazine GFF, says for dinner parties it’s always a good idea to inquire if anyone has food allergies or sensitivities beforehand. “There’s nothing more disappointing for a host than to learn one of their guests can eat nothing but salad halfway through the dinner party.”
San Francisco vegan personal chef Stacey Ellis of Herb’n Vegan, who hosts her own sell-out dinner parties at her home through cookapp.com, also inquires if any of her guests have special dietary needs. “When I was transitioning to a 100 percent vegan diet 10 years ago, there was nothing more stressful than the holidays, because so much revolves around parties and dining in other peoples’ homes,” she says. “It’s a time of year when people love to feature treasured family recipes that are decadent and memorable beyond belief, but not always health conscious.”
Lenkert says plenty of appetizers and traditional holiday dishes are naturally gluten-free, such as roasts, mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, but there are simple ways to make the usually off-limits dishes accessible too. “Thicken gravy with cornstarch, arrowroot or a gluten-free flour mix; I like Cup4Cup, but it does include dairy. Swap regular breadcrumbs for a gluten-free version of stuffing or meatballs or over your gratins. Use a gluten-free pie crust or order a gluten free dessert from a local bakery, like Flour Craft,” she says. “Gravies, salad dressings, ready-made crab cakes, anything marinated or seasoned with soy sauce are a few common (gluten sensitivity) culprits.” Be careful not to inadvertently include gluten via spice mixes and premade sauces.
Ellis advises limiting the number of dishes that contain milk or butter by using soy milk and a nondairy butter substitute like Earth Balance or a good olive oil. “Switch out beef and chicken broths for veggie broth — I like the Pacific brand — in your stuffing and bake it in a casserole dish, instead of the turkey,” she says. “Rather than put cheese into sides and salads, put out a cheese tray, so people who are avoiding dairy can still enjoy your dishes, and those who love cheese will have a whole platter to enjoy.”
When you do put out the spread, Lenkert suggests, “make it easy on yourself and guests; if it’s not obvious what’s in a dish, present a note card that lists ingredients.”
Raw Maca Balls
MAKES 12 ONE-OUNCE SNACKS
- 1/2 cup raw hazelnuts
- 1/2 cup raw almonds
- 1 tablespoon raw maca powder
- 1/2 tablespoon raw cacao powder
- About 10 large soft dates, pitted and chopped
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil (the solid kind)
- 1 tablespoon hemp seeds or chia seeds
- 1 tablespoon flax seeds (dark or golden)
- 1/2 tablespoon Maldon sea salt flakes (to taste)
Place the nuts in a high-powered food processor and pulse into a coarse chop. Add the powders, chopped and pitted dates, oil, seeds and salt and process until a moist blend comes together. Turn off the machine and test the consistency. You’ll know you have it right when you can squeeze the mixture together in the palm of your hand and it holds nicely without crumbling. If it crumbles, process a little longer. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and form it into small balls by rolling in your hands, each a little smaller than a golf ball (about an ounce per ball). Transfer to a cookie sheet or tray and place in the freezer for 20 minutes to allow them to firm up. After that you can store them in the fridge in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
5. The Traditional Sit-Down Dinner
Nothing says “the holidays” more than the traditional meal with all the fixings and a beautiful formal table setting. Moira Gubbins, owner of Marin’s Parties, Parties, Parties, likes name cards and assigned seating for a formal dinner. “This is an element of the party where you can have your personal vision of the party design or theme come through,” she says. “Hiring a calligrapher for place cards or other directional signs is a great touch, and it ties the entire event together.”
For a formal table setting, Gubbins says, “set a gorgeous charger down first, then set a complementary dinner plate and maybe a salad plate. Place a folded linen napkin on top of the salad plate and tuck in a card to really set the elegance up. Although a traditional place setting has the napkin off the plate and on the left side of the forks,” she adds, “I love the look of the menu card and napkin on top. It is another area where you can customize and personalize the settings.”
If you aren’t preparing your favorite noshes that have been passed down through generations of family recipes, consider a nontraditional menu. So many people are avoiding some kind of food these days, whether it’s animal products, dairy, carbs or gluten. That makes creating the menu more of a challenge than pulling out Grandma’s recipe box, but it’s rewarding when your guests appreciate the thought you put in.