I once I read the menu for a holiday party someone threw and it was incredible. It must have had fifteen different items; several dips with both crackers and vegetables, a smoked salmon, cheeses, individual hors d’oeuvres, desserts, the works. The party was, as I recall, for about 25 people. I thought as I read about how much work that person must have put into making all that food, and wondering how much they had left over.
Many years ago BC (Before Children), my husband and I used to throw a holiday party every year for between 50 and 100 people. Also many years ago, I sold catering services, and a major component of selling the services was developing menu proposals. When the glamour of food service (ha!) faded, I moved on to project management. So with this combination—experience in catering, experience in project management, and many parties thrown for my own friends (as well as total strangers)—I’d like to share some of (or, you know, a lot of) the things that I learned on the subject of How to Throw a Party.
To define what I mean by party: a gathering of more than 8 people whose final destination is not the dinner table. I’m thinking of more of a cocktail party, although some of the planning suggestions could be applied to a dinner party. Planning is planning for almost all types of cooking, after all.
I was taught to think of planning a buffet of “heavy hors d’oeuvres,” which is usually what a cocktail party consists of, in much the same way one thinks of a meal. Or more accurately, in the way we used to think of meals—meat, starch, vegetable, etc. Transport yourself back to 1950s and 60s sitcoms when you start this exercise—channel your inner Aunt Bee. Break out that old Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook from the late 60s and check the section on “Meal Planning Tips.” There should be a protein dish or two—chicken, beef, or fish. An egg or cheese dish is good in case your guest list includes vegetarians (if it includes vegans, you’re on your own—I don’t do vegan). Then add a vegetable or two, something starchy, and perhaps something sweet and you’re all set. Really, seven items is plenty. If there are many more than that, several things happen—there are always one or two popular items you’ve never made enough of because you didn’t have time, so you run out of them; you always end up with tons of leftovers of one or two of your choices; and you drive yourself completely bananas trying to schedule the prep for all the things you decided to make.
In making choices, think about prep. A catering manager I worked with once sold someone a menu that included stuffed cherry tomatoes. We had to hollow them out with a paring knife, and then pipe herbed cream cheese into them. This would have been a terrific vegetable component, and a really nice change from the usual “crudités with random dip served in a hollowed-out cabbage.” I even recommend you consider them as a possible choice for your own party. But not if you are serving 150 people. Since you need to provide two to three of each individual hors d’oeuvres per person, that meant stuffing between 300 and 450 cherry tomatoes. I won’t even go into the horrors of transporting that many cherry tomatoes to the party site, with their artfully swirled herbed cream cheese atop them, and how the artful swirls get smashed down by the plastic wrap that is critical to keeping them upright on the sheet pans so that they don’t all fall over like so many drunken Weebles and go sliding into each other, smearing their herbed cream cheese all over the neighboring tomatoes…but I said I wouldn’t go into it.
So the moral of this story is, think about the degree of labor intensity. Does the preparation of any one item require you to fiddle around with each and every piece to some degree? If so, consider having only one, or at most two, of something like this if you’re hosting more than about 15 people. This is the reason why things like vegetable platters, slabs of smoked salmon, bowls of olives, and cheese boards are so popular. They rate almost a zero on the fiddle scale. On the other end of that spectrum, we have things like those cherry tomatoes (curse their souls), or something-on-party- toasts that need to be assembled, heated, and garnished, or the famous shrimp-wrapped-in-a-pea-pod. If you have to handle each component of an hors d’oeuvres for more than a couple of seconds, it’s going to be pretty labor intensive.
The question, though, is “What can I serve to a fairly large group that’s not a boring old cheese board, but is also not a fiddly thing requiring hours of individual attention?” There are some choices. One thing that I like to do is sausage in puff pastry. These look impressive, but aren’t really very time consuming. Cook Italian sausage (pork or turkey) in boiling water until they’re pretty well cooked through (10-15 minutes). Drain the sausage, and remove the casings. Cut thawed puff pastry into rectangles—about 3” wide, and about as long as your sausage. You want a little bit on either long end to tuck down over the end of the sausage. Wrap the rectangle of puff pastry around the sausage and press the seam firm, possibly using a little water to seal it. If your puff pastry is getting sticky, you can put the wrapped sausages in the freezer for 10 or so minutes to firm up. Using a serrated knife (I’ve found this works best), cut the wrapped sausage into ¼” slices, and lay them on a baking sheet. Bake them off in a 400 degree oven for about 12 minutes, or until the pastry puffs and browns a bit.
Really what you’re after is something where you’re making one part of the item in bulk, and doing a little fiddling with the finished product. Curried chicken salad in phyllo cups (you can buy these and they’re fine; if you’re determined to make them yourself, make them a couple of weeks in advance and freeze them so you’re not tearing your hair out making phyllo cups three hours before your guests arrive). Biscuits or muffins (either of which can have cheese, nuts, or herbs added to the batter) stuffed with a little meat of some kind (roast beef, turkey, ham), and served with a couple of interesting condiments—honey mustard, herbed mayonnaise, chutney spread. Homemade cheese “crackers” in which the dough is made, rolled into a log and chilled, then sliced and baked. These could be served with a fun dip or spread. Baked polenta “fries” dusted with grated parmesan and served with a warm marinara sauce for dipping.
Think about entrees you like and consider ways to make them into hors d’oeuvres. We did an office party for which the client requested a “holiday meal” theme. We served cranberry muffins with sliced turkey (an idea borrowed from Martha Stewart’s Entertaining book), mini stuffing balls served with gravy for dipping (prepare your favorite stuffing recipe—not one with tons of nuts or fruit in it, nor one in which the bread is in big chunks; it won’t hold together in balls—and using a melon baller, make little balls of stuffing, bake at 350 until crisp on the outside, about 10 to 15 minutes; serve with toothpicks for spearing and dipping), twice baked new potatoes (steam new potatoes and cool until they can be handled comfortably, cut in half, scoop out the top of each potato with a melon baller, reserving the “scoops.” Combine the reserved potato with butter, sour cream, chives…your favorite baked potato toppings. Using a pastry bag, pipe back into the hollowed out potatoes and heat in a 350 degree oven until hot through, about 20 minutes), baked sweet potato wedges dusted with a brown sugar-orange zest “glaze,” and a crudités platter with a blue cheese dip. Dessert was mini pecan pies (full disclosure: we bought these from a bakery. Never be afraid to supplement your own menu with something from a really good bakery; better to do that than to have your guests find you in tears because the fat wasn’t hot enough when you were frying the mini donuts and you wound up with a pile of half raw oil sogged donut dough.)
Another consideration is the various flavors, and, for lack of a better word, nationality of the food. The polenta fries with marinara sauce, on a buffet with tortellini skewers with pesto dipping sauce, and cherry tomato-and-mozzarella salad with a basil vinaigrette would be too much Italian (unless you were going for an all-Italian theme). For a holiday party that doesn’t have a specific ethnic theme, make sure that the flavors harmonize without being repetitive. If you choose an obviously ethnic dish—sautéed shrimp with Indian spices, or miso glazed beef skewers—try to keep the rest of the menu ethnically neutral. America is a melting pot, but the flavors of all cuisines don’t always blend as harmoniously, and in some cases may actually clash.
Once you’ve got a menu in mind, the next steps are to think about how to assemble it, and how to serve it.
Look at the recipes for your chosen hors d’oeuvres. Are there parts that can be made ahead? Can the whole thing be made ahead? If everything requires absolutely last-minute preparation, you might want to rethink your choices. Empanadas, for example, can be made in stages. The filling can be made a couple of days ahead and refrigerated. They can be assembled (I use the pre-rolled pie crust dough from the grocery store for these) a day or two ahead of time and kept covered in the refrigerator. They can be baked off right before everyone shows up, but they also taste fine at room temperature. Dips can be made a couple of days ahead. Biscuits need to be cooked at the last minute. See how timelines can slot together so you’re not trying to cram everything in the oven at once. It may be more realistic to buy some things already made. As nice as the idea of baking your own ham for ham biscuits is, Honey Baked is just as good and far easier to work with.
Storage space is also a consideration. If you don’t have a lot of room in your refrigerator, you may want to consider things that can be stored at room temperature, or in the freezer. Of course, if you live in a part of the country where it gets cold enough, and you’re throwing your soiree during the winter months, you may be able to use a garage as additional cold storage. This was the case at my in-laws’ house in Western Massachusetts (average winter high temperature: 0 degrees Kelvin). We could make baked goods or sauces, wrap them up well, and store them in the garage in a cooler for a day or two. Even if you don’t have a garage, if the temperatures are cool enough, an Igloo cooler sitting in the shade could be used for storage for a short time. When thinking about what to make ahead, think about where you’re going to put it until you’re ready for it again.
Another catering manager I worked with was always shopping on the day of the party. She was pretty badly organized and somehow she always realized that she lacked a platter, bowl, or pitcher for some critical menu item on the very day of the event. She would then bop off to the local Crate & Barrel, or Linens & Things or whatever and spend a couple of hours buying serving items while the rest of us toiled in the kitchen. From her I learned to think about what to serve and what to serve it on (or in) at the same time. Then I’ll know a couple of weeks before the party that I really don’t have a suitable sized bowl for a dip, or I’ll remember that the platter I’m thinking of using got broken two years ago at Thanksgiving and I need to replace it. It’s much easier to find just the right thing if you’re not in a rush, and if you’re working with someone to get everything ready, you won’t piss them off by being gone for half the day while they work themselves into a froth cooking and cleaning and decorating.
Look at each menu item and think about how people are going to eat it. Is it something fairly tidy that can be eaten in two bites? Or is it something that has a filling that might slip out so that someone might want to be holding a plate under it? For anything being served on a skewer, there are some special considerations: how are your guests going to get it off the skewer (if it’s chicken or beef, consider cutting the meat into pretty small chunks so that the teeth can be used to pull it off; you don’t want your guests to spear themselves in the soft palate while trying to gnaw the satay off of the stick), and then what will they do with the skewer when they’re done? Will there be a trash can right there (perhaps a very small one discreetly tucked under the edge of the tablecloth), or will you provide a tray or plate for “used” skewers? If you do this, I always recommend “seeding” the used skewer plate before everyone shows up. Eat one or two, make sure the skewers are recognizable as used, and put them on the plate. Either that or make up a little tent card that says “Used Skewers.” Some things are really better eaten with a fork—anything that might be drippy or sticky. I’ve served soup at hors d’oeuvres buffets with great success. Just provide small Styrofoam cups and spoons, and someplace convenient for people to toss them when they’re done
If you’re having enough people and want to rent china, it’s not terribly daunting, but know that most rental places are very busy around the holidays, and you’re generally required to return plates rinsed; they don’t have to be washed, but they shouldn’t have food clinging to them. Rental linens are generally pretty bad. Most of them are a polyester blend. Given the choice between rental linens and good quality paper napkins from the grocery store, I’ll go with the paper. Of course, you can always buy pretty printed napkins at party supply stores. These may cost a little more, but you may not want just a plain solid colored paper napkin. If you have enough of your own linens to provide for your guests, even if they don’t all match, I say go for it.
Be sure to have lots of napkins on hand, even if that means putting out your “nice” cloth cocktail napkins and having a backup pack of paper in the kitchen. People generally go through several napkins in an evening and you don’t want to run out. A tablecloth makes the easiest table covering (yes, yes, banana leaves stitched together would be hugely fun for a tropical theme, but if you’ve got time to do that…then do it. I don’t have that kind of time). Cut flowers are nice as decoration, but so are pots of herbs, or blooming plants. I’ve found that I got so into arranging the flowers that I got behind on food prep. One holiday we bought three dozen white roses, and when I got them home from the florist (the day of the party, mind you), I must have spent two hours wiring all their little heads to keep them from drooping. They looked outstanding, but I wound up feeling frazzled as the seconds ticked down to the arrival of the first guest and I was still putting the finishing touches on food.
Probably the most important rule of party-giving is: everything is going to take about 50% longer than you think it is. If you think it’s going to take you 20 minutes to chop the onions for the dip, and you’re making dip for 75 people, figure on 30 minutes. The only area where this is not the case is in baking times. Generally speaking, baking times tend to be pretty close if you’re using well-tested recipes. If you’re sautéing or browning, I’d suggest using the 50% rule, because it always seems that between the difference in the stove I’m using, and the variations in cookware, sautéing mushrooms until their liquid is evaporated for example, can take longer than a recipe recommends. Also, if you’re doubling or tripling a recipe, stovetop activities may take longer because of the increased volume of food.
I could probably go on for another page or two. Or twenty. After all, whole books have been written on this subject. This is only my 2 cents (or maybe 5 or 10 cents). I love throwing this kind of party, and I love to think about what to serve at this kind of party. Sometimes I’ll see a recipe in a magazine and plan an entire party around it. This is fun for me. People tell me I should become a caterer because I enjoy this kind of thing so much. These are mostly people who don’t know that I’ve already done that. I’d never do it again because it’s hard, hard work, and anyone who does do it has my utmost regard. I’ll just keep planning menus, and someday serving them to my friends and family for them to enjoy. And maybe pratting on about the logistics of it in blog entries.