COHASSET — Caterer Kate Papaleoni and her assistant are arranging platters of gin and tonic Jell-O shots, showering chives over a plate of dumplings, and lining up homemade chocolate-dipped marshmallows in a bed of crushed graham crackers in the basement-level kitchen of a private home here.
Upstairs, lights are twinkling and hosts Andrea and Craig Hillier are getting ready for 60 guests to arrive for the holiday bash they throw every few years. Andrea Hillier, 48, says she started planning for the event in early October, when she set a date, called Papaleoni’s catering company, Kate’s Table, and sent out invitations to the couple’s friends.
Whether you call a caterer or plan a DIY affair, for many hosts a holiday celebration can bring as much stress as it does joy. From creating a perfect playlist, to getting the menu and the lighting right, throwing an amazing party is all in the details. It might take a few occasions of doing it wrong to host a memorable soiree without making yourself insane.
Successful hosts say you have to have systems in place. “For me, the best part of the party is planning it,” says Hillier. Just like any project, a party goes smoother with a road map. Think it through from the big stuff, like the menu, guest list, and decor, to the day-of timeline. Without a thorough to-do list, you might forget to empty the bathroom trash or hide the laundry basket. “There’s nothing ignoble about checklists,” says Cuisine en Locale owner J. J. Gonson. “Lean on them.”
But a checklist is nothing without a budget. You have to decide what part of the party will have the most impact (on your guests as well as your wallet). For Hillier, hiring Kate’s Table was key. “I wanted everyone to say ‘wow’ about the food,” she says. Since Hillier knew the catering would be the biggest part of her budget, she scaled back on decor.
Hillier’s menu featured lobster and corn fritters served with basil aioli, Baja fish tacos (with a mini margarita on the side), shots of carrot soup with spiced pumpkin seeds, and tiny panini filled with robiola cheese, escarole, and fig jam.
When you’re working with a caterer, aim for lots of variety in the passed appetizers, says Kate’s Table co-owner, Papaleoni’s sister, Kelly Griffin. “You want your guests to get lots of little tastes of everything that’s coming out of the kitchen.” Griffin recommends planning for six to nine bites per person for a cocktail party (closer to 10 if no dinner is being served), and choosing up to 12 to 15 different nibbles to keep things exciting.
Catering may not be a priority, but this is not the time to test out a new recipe. Bring out the star players in your cooking repertoire, or better yet, get your guests involved. “We throw a lot of interactive parties at home,” says State Park and Hungry Mother co-owner Rachel Munzer. Having guests make their own tacos or doing something like fondue “gets people talking more and gets them engaged,” she says. “It lightens the mood.” And whatever you do, make enough so you won’t run out. “I always overprepare,” says Munzer.
At a recent State Park party to celebrate Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project’s sixth birthday, Munzer and her staff laid out a spread that included a roving cart of chicken wings and bratwurst, and instead of a birthday cake, there was a slightly off-kilter croquembouche, the tower of cream puffs made in French pastry shops, held in place with caramel.
The food you’re doing yourself should be simple, says Griffin. “Think about things you can do as part of a stationary display,” she says. And just because a platter sits in one place doesn’t mean that all the platters should be together on the dining room table. Spread them throughout the house to invite people to wander around. “And don’t put much food by the bar,” says Griffin. “You’ll get a bottleneck.”
As the date approaches, do as much as you can ahead of time. If it’s a dinner party, set the table the night before. Make playlists in advance. Mix a pitcher of cocktails or a bowl of punch and keep it cold on the porch or in the garage. Cut your prep timeline off about two hours before guests arrive, so you have time to take care of last-minute details. “The less you’re doing an hour before your party starts,” says Gonson, “the better.”
There’s a solution to avoiding expensive flower arrangements, says Katrina Jayazeri of Bread + Salt Hospitality, a pop-up restaurant currently running at Wink & Nod in Boston’s South End. Use cheaper things in quantity. Pile tangerines or clementines, vintage ornaments, or ribbon candy in glass bowls, or collect twigs from the yard, spray paint them white or silver, and arrange them in a tall vase, she suggests.
Your menu can also evoke simple abundance, says Jayazeri. Fish baked with lemon and herbs can be served whole on a platter and garnished with sliced citrus; oysters Rockefeller are perfect special-occasion food that can be assembled in advance and are self-contained in the shell. Finish with a beautiful cheese plate and an overflowing bowl of fruit with bowls of whipped cream for dipping, and “you can make it look opulent,” she says.
Lighting is sometimes an overlooked party detail, but an easy one to get right. Use lots of candles, says Griffin. “Nothing beats candlelight for a holiday party.” Dim the overheads and put candles everywhere — in front of mirrors, on silver or mirrored platters, in unlikely corners. Votives are inexpensive, as are tea lights, and you can use juice glasses to hold them. Think about a mixture of levels of light, from a wash of uplighting on a wall to a tangle of battery-operated twinkle lights in a bowl.
Jayazeri also suggests turning on the music early, simmering some spices on the stovetop to make the house smell festive, and greeting guests with a drink. “It’s those little touches that make people feel comfortable,” she says.
Along with a calm host, of course.
Leigh Belanger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.