A cocktail party can easily be transformed into the best holiday gathering (in my mind) of all, a grand dessert buffet that usually starts at around 10:00 pm. I love to meet my guests at the door with a champagne cocktail 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 gorgeous 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 gathering such as this, a Bouche de' Noel is a very traditional, delicious chocolate and chestnut and praline 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 Bouche de’ Noel, and I think that they are so much fun to make, but if time is short, you can usually purchase a very good one from a specialty baker!
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 sugared 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 alongside of it and if you can find them, the jewel tones of glaceed fruit are so pretty on a holiday table.
The exquisitely buttery French apple tart known as the Tarte Tatin is a fine addition to your 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, cheese and 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 if you can find it!
The last thing that I would create for the table is a wassail bowl, a gorgeous arrangement all by itself! For this I usually use my silver punch bowl, although a old cast iron cauldron or copper kettle is so pleasing to look at and historically appropriate. If you use copper, please make sure that it has a tin or steel lining so that the flavours don’t react with the metal to cause a bitter taste. I own a large copper soup kettle, and when my punch bowl is filled with eggnog, I use it for the wassail.
My 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 now in your cupboards!
You're wondering how?
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 appetizer/ salad/dessert plates ever made! They are just the right size, and they can go into the dishwasher without any problem at all. I see stacks of them all of the time at my neighborhood Goodwill stores if you don't have any and they're always really affordable.
Handcrafted in such lovely wintry shades of cobalt blue and soft white, they are just begging to be given the honour that they deserve! I know of no better way to make them happy then to heap them full of delicious food.
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 history into the party 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!
A gift for each woman and child is a lovely reminder of your friendship and a continuation of 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!"
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