Doesn’t your heart pound madly on the day after Thanksgiving? Once the turkey is carved and the guests have gone, our very next thoughts turn giddily towards December, for no matter which of the holidays your family celebrates, you can’t help but be captivated by the sparkle of the season. It’s magic in the truest sense of the word, a time when the world is frosted in color and twinkling lights! December is actually my favorite time of the year to give a party, because the warmth is already present, the joy found in people absolutely effervescent, and fun becomes the frosting on the cake! I love to create celebrations rich in tradition and drama for everyone including the littlest reveler to enjoy, and throughout December there are so many occasions to throw a great party! I often give intimate cocktail parties throughout the season, because they’re easy to create and so much fun! One of my favorite things to do is serve a special cocktail, like a chocolate mint martini in a wonderful glass with a chocolate kiss! Often, I’ll serve my favorite wintry standard of a champagne cocktail , which is a glass of great bubbly, jazzed up with a splash of pear eau d’ vie and a slice of sugared fresh pear! A champagne cocktail is a perfect use for all of those wonderful old saucer champagne glasses of your mother’s and your grandmother’s that you have, but never use “because it’s “so inappropriate” to use them for good champagne! I’ve come to think of that as such a silly rule! They say that the bubbles disappear too quickly and perhaps there are some nuances of flavor that you’ll miss by not using a flute, but in my experience the champagne never stays in anyone’s glass long enough to actually worry about it! It’s not that flute champagnes aren’t wonderful, and I have quite a few myself, but when I’m really celebrating an occasion close to my heart, I love to use the serving pieces that are meaningful to me.
My mother has beautiful iridescent saucer champagne glasses that belonged to her mother that have marked every major occasion in my life and with really wonderful champagne! About two weeks ago, we brought them out once again to toast my husband for a job that he’d done really well. As we sat around the dining room table and lifted those beautiful old glasses, I looked around the table and thought that I caught just a glimpse of my grandparents long gone, smiling, laughing and sharing the moment with us! Whether or not I actually did, I’ll never really know, but drinking out of those beautiful glasses, sharing an exquisite bottle of champagne with those closest to me brought me a lot of joy and brand new memories to mix with the old!
Saucer champagne glasses are also really good for serving frozen drinks like a grasshopper or brandy Alexander! They are also marvelous when used to serve a creamy dessert! There’s nothing quite as pretty as a velvety chocolate mousse or a simple dessert of fresh berries with a bit of custard elegantly dressed for the occasion in a lovely crystal glass!
It’s a delightful and unexpected twist like this that will set the tone for a really great evening. A twinkling tree or a brightly lit menorah along with a crackling fire, and/or lots of candlelight reflecting from all of your mirrors will provide the perfect lighting for a great party! Lots of jazzy holiday music sets the tone for everyone to relax and have fun and while you’re at it, pull up your rugs to provide lots of room for dancing! Use an abundance of candles and fill up all of your old crystal bowls (you know the ones that you never use!) with colorful glass ornaments! Anything that has a reflective surface will help create soft light all around your home. One of the things that I learned a long time ago is that when it comes to a cocktail party, pretty and simple food is the name of the game! Canapé’s are easy and very rewarding to make because everyone loves them! Apple slices can be used as a cracker for anything from pate to bleu cheese. If you spread them with pate, add a slice of cornichon pickle and if you use the bleu cheese, add some chopped walnuts. Grapes can be rolled with Roquefort cheese and chopped nuts! Purchased pastry cups can be filled with salmon pate or crab dip and dusted with dill. Chevrons of smoked trout are easy, beautiful and so delicious when served with a horseradish dipping sauce. A single spear of endive can be dressed with a dollop of smoked chicken salad or boursin cheese then garnished with watercress. Filet of beef can be sliced thinly and used as a topping for a thin round of French bread, that’s been spread with a pesto mayonnaise! What about tiny new potatoes, baked and topped with a little bit of sour cream, and caviar! Take these hors d’ oeuvres and put them on something unexpected and pretty. Old mirrors are wonderful serving platters, especially when they have great frames! So are the new lacquered service plates that are so popular right now for dressing up a dinner plate. Many of you have very old service plates that belonged to your family. They are usually drop dead gorgeous, encrusted with lots of gold and sadly serve almost no purpose anymore. They would cost a kings ransom if you tried to purchase them now, if you could even find any! They were originally intended to cover each place at the table until the serving help brought in your plate with food and took them away. Alas, there is no one in my house to do any of that magical whisking away, so I have given them new life as beautiful platters for my favorite foods!
A cocktail party can easily be transformed into my favorite holiday gathering of all, a grand dessert buffet that usually starts at around 10:00 pm. I love to meet my guests at the door with that champagne cocktail that I told you about, and I always serve just a few canapés, like a cheese puff , or mushroom toast just in case that my guests haven’t had much dinner. The fun of a party like this is in the dramatic way that you present it! Have all of the candles lit in the room, but keep your guests as far away from the table as possible so that they can see the flickering flames of the candles but not the food. I'd pick a fabulous piece of music to be playing (Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy or something wonderful like that!) and at about 11:00 I'd throw open the doors and invite everyone to gather at the dessert table. There are very few things as delightful to the child in all of us, as a heavily laden table just groaning under the weight of an abundance of fantastic desserts! What follows here is just a partial list of things that I love, because I am sure that all of you have several specialties that would be just perfect for such an evening!
Make sure that you have a bowl of fresh fruit and lots of whipped cream or zabaglione to go with it!
I always like to have one yummy jam trifle, or maybe two! Trifles are the dessert versions of a layered salad! They look simply beautiful in a cut glass bowl, or better yet, if you’re lucky enough to own a trifle bowl, use it. There’s nothing prettier than layers of ladyfingers and glistening jams, and a trifle in spite of its fancy name is among the easiest of all desserts to create.
For a wonderful centerpiece, a Buche de' noel is a very traditional, delicious chocolate and chestnut and praline flavored dessert. It is a fantastic creation, shaped like a Yule log and fancifully decorated with mushrooms and greens made from marzipan and meringue! Displayed on your grandmother’s tea service tray and surrounded by holly and fresh greens, this is one of the most beautiful desserts of the season! There are lots of easy recipes for a Buche de’ noel, and I think that they are so much fun to make, but if time is short, you can purchase a very good one from Williams Sonoma!
Next, pile those wonderful little cream puffs that you can buy frozen onto any gorgeous platter and have them drizzled with chocolate syrup, raspberry or caramel, and garnished with some mint leaves. You can also simply serve them dusted with confectioners’ sugar for a snowy effect and serve the sauces on the side in a gravy boat!
You’ll need a rich chocolate mousse, which is guaranteed to disappear immediately as well as the platter of chocolate covered strawberries served along side of it and if you can find them, the jewel tones of glaceed fruit are so pretty on a holiday table. That exquisitely buttery French apple tart known as the Tart Tatin is a fine addition to the buffet and of course, you’ll need one really grand chafing dish dessert like a Bananas Foster served with a simple vanilla bean ice cream! I would also mound some chocolate truffles into lovely compote, a piece which is traditionally used to serve a spiced fruit or chutney. I might even consider filling those champagne glasses that I spoke of before with a creamy rice pudding, fragrantly dusted with cinnamon, and placed for effect on my silver pedestal cake plate! In fact , make use of all of the things that you own that have pedestals or feet. Along with a liberal use of candlesticks in all materials, shapes and sizes, as well as sparkling pieces of cut and smooth crystal, these pieces will provide height and interest to your table!
The last thing that you’ll need to round out the dessert offering is a cheese platter, with wedges of Brie, Camembert, and some really good cheddar! A Stilton cheese is very traditional cheese to serve right now, and comes directly from England
cloaked in wonderful drama and ritual. I always feature my cheeses on the sideboard with several different bottles of port and Madeira wine.
I have many cordial and small wine glasses that were my grandmothers, and this is what I use them for. Just some assorted good bread, crackers, fruit and you're all set to shine!
For beverages, a coffee bar provides a very festive end to the evening, with an assortment of liqueurs, as well as the traditional offerings of cream and sugar. You could even provide more champagne but with several wonderful choices of liqueur. Don’t forget a nice assortment of non alcoholic sparklers, or you might want to serve a special non alcoholic cocktail! My absolute favorite is called “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” and it’s made from sparkling water, pear nectar, a splash of lime juice and then poured into a martini glass filled with crushed ice , then garnished with a piece of candied ginger and a sprinkling of edible gold leaf!
The last thing that I would create for the table is a wassail bowl, a gorgeous centerpiece all by itself! For this I usually use my silver punch bowl, although a old cast iron cauldron or copper kettle looks so historically correct! If you use copper, please make sure that it has a tin or steel lining so that the flavors don’t react with the metal to cause a bitter taste. I own a large Mauviel copper soup kettle, and when my punch bowl is filled with eggnog, I use it for the wassail. My favorite wassail recipe is pretty simple, blending cinnamon stick, clove, allspice, cranberry juice, apple cider, sugar syrup, Calvados and brandy, mixed together and heated through, then served with a slice of sugared apple! A bowl of steaming wassail is a wonderful aromatic welcome into your home, and if you’ve got a wonderful foyer, put the bowl there surrounded by masses of fresh greenery and berries “to drive the cold winter away” as the front door opens!
You may be wondering what to serve all of this on, and I’ll bet that we can find some holiday china right in your cupboards! Many of us have inherited stacks of Royal Copenhagen or Bing and Grondahl collectible Christmas plates. However, because traditionally they are hanging on the wall, no one ever knows what else to do with them, so they sit year after year gathering dust, when really they are the best holiday salad/dessert plates ever made! They are just the right size, and they can go into the dishwasher without any problem at all. Handcrafted in such lovely wintry shades of cobalt blue and soft white , they are just begging to be given the honor that they deserve! I know of no better way to make them happy then to heap them full of delicious desserts or salads!
Just an aside here, one of the most commonly asked questions about fine china is “Can I put my formal dishes in the dishwasher?” The answer is a resounding yes, and as a matter of fact, almost any plate made within the last 25 years is dishwasher safe. It’s not the dishwasher that ruins your good dishes; believe it or not it’s the soap! Use about half of the amount of soap recommended, and make sure that you let everything, especially the gold trim cool down, before you remove your dishes. That’s all that’s needed, and what this means is that there’s no excuse to not use the lovely things that you own. Beautiful food presentation is a feast for your eyes and uplifting to your spirit, and it’s so easy to make anything look wonderful when you put it on a silver tray or a beautiful service plate. I’ve always gotten such pleasure from bringing out lovely old things, and inventing new uses for them. Old silver with monograms, glasses with initials, linens with fancy embroidery… all of these things make up your shared personal history. Old silver that has a beautiful hand engraved monogram is a treasure. I practically cried every time someone would bring a set of it into the store to have the engraving removed. You can’t get monograms like that anymore; very rarely do you find an engraver with that skill. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, and bringing this bit of “you “ into the atmosphere connects the past with the yet unknown future, and lets your guests feel like they’ve been welcomed into a home that’s emotionally rich and very special!
Having said all of this, I realize that I’ve left out the three most magical ingredients that I know of to create a wonderful holiday party.
First, make sure that you have a gingerbread house, lots of undecorated cookies and bowls of frosting, candy and plenty of children around to decorate and eat them!
Next, a gift for each woman and child is a lovely reminder of your friendship and a continuation a such a special evening , how about several narcissus bulbs for fragrant midwinter blooms or a votive candle to light the New Year?
And last but not least, my personal favorite,
LOTS OF MISTLETOE FOR KISSING UNDER!
Beth Schreibman Gehring