The Party’s Over

Put down that calendar! Before you plan your next party, how about spending some time going over the one that just finished to see what worked, what didn’t and what could have been better.

The Guests

Look back over your guest list, this time concentrating on the ones who came. Did anyone make a fool of them-self, cause a problem or generally show themselves as an ungrateful boor? This is especially helpful when evaluating new members of your guest book so you know who not to invite in the future. More than the obvious offenders, were there more subtle clues that the guest was not right for your party such as not mingling, finding there own space amidst the party or even, say, spending more time inside when the party was out. They may not be bad guests, it just might not be the best party scenario for them. Also keep in mind who really enjoyed themselves, who got best into the spirit of the party and joined in the fun to the fullest. These are the people you definitely want to have back!

The Menu

While you munch on a few leftovers, consider what dishes were popular and which, if any, got a lukewarm reception. I’ll use my recent party as an example:

Appetizers & Nibbles

Crudites platter (pea pods, broccoli, carrots, celery, radishes) with dip
Spicy Black Bean Dip* with chips
Bacon-wrapped Artichoke Hearts*
Smothered Spuds*
Spinach Dip in Bread Bowl

Main Course

Barbecue Chicken Breasts
Shredded Beef, with Rolls and choice of sauces (including au jus and horseradish sauces)
Farfalle with Peas, Ham and a Tarragon Cream Sauce**
Cold Cucumber Soup**
Salad of Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Jicama & Radish with a Creamy Citrus dressing**

Desserts

Blueberry-Lemon cupcakes with Lemony Cream Cheese frosting
Mexican Chocolate Fondue w/a variety of dippers & fresh fruit
(cookie bars, brownies, marshmallows, graham crackers, cake cubes, strawberries, pineapple, red & green grapes, blueberries and apple slices)

Beverages

Sparkling Citrus Punch (non-alcoholic)
Melon Balls (alcoholic)
Beer, Wine, Water and Sodas plus a full bar

*=old favorites, the dishes everyone expects at one of my parties
**=brand new recipes, never before tried

The old favorites continue to be popular and the main dish spread was balanced and mostly popular. The pasta dish was very tasty and a good gamble, as was the salad and dressing, even though I could have made a lot less but that goes for the entire party as there were a lot of no-shows from the maybe and non-responder segments. The only no-go was the cucumber soup: the taste was okay but most people found it very unfamiliar. Also, I’d served it in shot glasses (which is an idea I picked up a while back from magazines and television) to avoid the need for spoons and so forth but some people thought it was an adult beverage and not a soup. I opted not to do signage for this buffet, maybe I should have.

Of course the desserts were popular, even though the blueberry-filled cupcakes ended up as blueberry-bottomed ones (the filling sunk, unexpectedly, sank–should have stuck to fresh or frozen berries instead of prepared filling!). A few people found the fondue a bit odd as the mexican chocolate included bits of cocoa nibs so it wasn’t 100% smooth. It was still really tasty, though, and more of a one-time thing since we’d brought the chocolate home from our cruise in January and won’t be repeating the trip any time soon (more’s the pity).

The Entertainment

Even though some of the best parties I’ve been to just offered a platform for people to mix and mingle, I like my parties to have something for the guests to DO (like carve pumpkins, watch–and critique–movies or play yard games). This depends as much on what you provide as well as the people you invite as to who enjoys what. Did one game receive a better reception than others? Bring it back! Others not go over so well? Try it on a new group or retire that idea and look for something better. Never be afraid to try something new but don’t be so married to one idea that you stick with it even when it doesn’t work.

Now, pick up that calendar and address book and plan the next shin-dig with another fabulous success under your belt and the knowledge of what worked and what to change.

Fruit[y] Cocktails

I’m not a girl who likes her liquor straight. On the contrary, I prefer mine well-mixered and my favorite class of mixer is fruit juice. Frou-frou umbrellas are not necessary and the blender can usually stay in the cabinet, but a good juice-to-booze ratio makes a happy camper of this cocktail chick.

I went flipping through my mixology books and found a promising “Mocktail” (a non-alcoholic cocktail, from the book of the same name) that I thought had potential. Even better, I had plenty of fresh strawberries and honeydew melon on hand that the recipe called for.

The one criticism I have for the original recipe is that the quantities are not specific. In school my chefs quickly figured out that I was definite a baker (as opposed to a line cook) since I preferred (and always asked for) exact quantities, times and temperatures–everything that’s necessary for proper baking chemistry but more subjective for cooking on a line. How much is a “slice” of honeydew? What, to you, is a “part”? Since one ingredient was pineapple juice and the cans I keep on the bar are 6 oz. I decided that a “part” for this trial would be 3 oz. to prevent waste. (I decided to try the recipe two ways.) Here’s my version of the original:

Fantasia

6 strawberries, hulled and washed (halves are okay if the strawberries are very large)
6 1-inch balls of honeydew melon (I’d just finished a party and had extra melon balls, adjust as necessary)
3 oz orange juice
3 oz pineapple juice
1 c ice

Combine all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth. This makes 1 tall smoothie or 2 short ones to share.

—adapted from Mocktails, David Biggs

Now, this was okay. Todd commented that it was all sort of mushed up together–no one flavor dominated. And that’s okay, really, but it doesn’t make the drink stand out. Even with the amount of liquid in this, it’s still very frothy and a bit chewy. If you, as the original recipe suggest, blend everything but the ice and then pour the mixture over crushed ice it may make a difference. I combined them for convenience.

So we have Fantasia, non-alcoholic and, frankly, G-rated. I was in the mood, however, for something with a little more kick and a little more flavor. This is our preferred version of this cocktail, still low-alcohol so safe for Summer consumption without fear of a hangover, but no longer safe for the kiddies:

CHF* Pink Elephants on Parade

6 strawberries, hulled and washed (halves are okay if the berries are large)
6 melon balls (for more kick, soak them in a little Midori)
3 oz orange juice
3 oz pineapple juice
1.5 oz spiced rum
1 c ice

Blend all ingredients until smooth. Makes 1 tall cocktail or 2 shorter ones: make a friend.

The spiced rum in the Pink Elephant version (does anyone else remember that scene from Dumbo? my favorites were the plaid ones) smooths out the flavor, warms it up even for being a blended ice-drink and gives a pleasant aftertaste.

Safe Sipping!

*Cocktail Hour Favorite. There may be only so many ingredients in a drink but there’s many ways to mix them.

The RSVP

Répondez s’il vous plaît. Please respond. Such a simple concept but something that is so often overlooked.

RSVP, whether placed as corner copy on a larger invitation or as a separate response card intended to be returned by mail, is a simple request that your guests let you, as host[ess], know who will attend and won’t. Depending on the type of party, this information can be crucial to both planning and the budget.

For my parties, if it has a printed invitation, it has RSVP information included. The less formal a get-together the less I need a for-sure head count but most of the time there are rentals involved (tables and chairs) and a menu to plan–I like having leftovers but there’s a line between not having to cook for a few days after an event and just plain waste. So it can be frustrating when someone doesn’t pick up a phone or send an email to let me know they have other plans.

First thing to consider is how much lead-time your party may require. For a wedding with a sit-down dinner, for example, your caterer should be able to tell you when they need an absolute number. If you’re doing it all yourself, try to figure out how late you can squeeze in extra chairs or make one last trip to the grocery store. When you have that information, add it to the invitation or response card.

When you’re hosting a pot-luck or something where it’s just a case of adding another pizza to the order or a few more burgers to the grill, you can consider who you invited and deduct about 10%. Small dinner parties or game nights being the most common exceptions, any time you invite a group of people over for anything you can guarantee that at least a tenth will have other plans or just not come. If it’s a holiday or other big event day, it might actually be 15 to 20-percent.

If you have included RSVP information (a name and phone number for the short notations, emails are appropriate for less formal situations) and it’s a week or so before the party with the majority of your guest list unresponsive, it’s completely appropriate to call or email those you know well to as if they will be joining you at the party. But only do it once–hostessing isn’t about badgering the guests, after all. A quick note about how much you’re looking forward to seeing them again is a nice way to make them feel, truly, like an honored guest and not just a name on a list.

Still, if even that doesn’t work you’ve got 2 choices: prepare for those who replied or count the non-responders as maybes and prepare accordingly. Since my biggest nightmare of having a party is running out of food, I go with the latter and send leftovers home with willing guests.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie Clueless is the debate over Hatian refugees. In it, the main character, Cher, says

. . . when I had this garden party for my father’s birthday right? I said R.S.V.P. because it was a sit-down dinner. But people came that like, did not R.S.V.P. so I was like, totally buggin’. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, squish in extra place settings, but by the end of the day it was like, the more the merrier!

And that’s what really matters, isn’t it? In a perfect world everyone would RSVP, there would be no glitches during party preparation and we’d all meet our guests at the door in a calm manner and not scrambling to get that last dish (or 2) out onto the buffet. Until then, we just have to deal.

Eggnog

Don’t think of this as unseasonal, just think of this as a very timely suggestion for any Christmas-in-July celebrations you may be planning!

(Seriously, my other e-option was Everclear and, well, we don’t want to go there…)

Eggnog is one of those dividing drinks: you either love it or hate it and I reside firmly in the former camp. I could drink gallons of the stuff when it’s in season and I must say that I all but did a dance right there in the grocery-store aisle when I found Lactaid-brand Eggnog last season. (Alas, among other things, I’m one of the thousands–millions?–of adults who don’t get along all that well with dairy.)

My usual recipe for holiday eggnog involves cutting it about 50-50 with milk, to cut both the calories and the richness. Real adventurous, right? It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I had the opportunity to taste homemade, fully loaded eggnog that was so thick you could eat it like dessert. And as much as my arteries may clog just thinking about it, I would love some right about now.

This will probably be the year that I make my own, should the occasion arise (and there are worse reasons to throw a party than to try out a recipe, no?) and this is the recipe I would most likely use:

Cooked Eggnog
about 18 servings

Lightly cooking this eggnog kills any possibly dangerous bacteria in the eggs. Two tablespoons of vanilla can replace the spirits. Do not double this recipe.

Combine and set aside:
1 c milk
1 c heavy cream

Whisk until just blended:
12 large egg yolks
1 1/3 c sugar
1 tsp freshly grated or ground nutmeg

Whisk in:
2 c milk
2 c heavy cream

Transfer the mixture to a large, heavy saucepan and place over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture becomes a little thicker than heavy cream (about 175 degrees F). Do not overheat, or mixture will curdle. Remove from the heat and immediately stir in the reserved milk and cream. Pour through a strainer into a storage container. Chill thoroughly, uncovered, then stir in:

1 1/2 c brandy, Cognac, dark rum, or bourbon
Freshly grated or ground nutmeg

from Joy of Cookingcarrier to noise ratio

I like this version because it is a touch safer for anyone who might want to drink it. Even though the chances, these days, of salmonella poisoning from consuming raw eggs is much lower than it used to be, it’s still not a good idea for kids, the elderly or anyone with a compromised immune system to consume them. If you’re really concerned about the mixture curdling you can cook the ‘nog in a double boiler. It’s a lot like making a cream anglaise sauce that you would use for dessert and that’s how we did it at the Plantation.

Which makes me wonder: how awesome would the eggnog be with a scraped vanilla bean added?

The Guest List

I love to entertain and I take my job as hostess very seriously, trying to put together the best possible experience for my guests with each occasion. But after a theme and date are chosen and before much of anything else can be done, I have to create the guest list that will be a perfect fit for my party.

Now, you might be thinking, what’s the big deal: invite your friends and be done with it. Sure, for some events that’s totally acceptable and will result in a wonderful party. Sometimes, though, you might need to be a bit more selective.

An Open House gives you carte blanche to invite anyone and everyone in your address book because the party is very fluid, it’s mix-and-mingle for the duration and people are free to come for the whole thing or stop by for only a moment or two. Hors d’oeuvres and cocktails are the menu, in most cases, and those are easy to replenish throughout the evening.

Your available space is a deciding factor that can drastically limit your guest list. Of course you think about how many can comfortably sit around the table for a dinner party or on your couches for a movie party but something you also need to consider is how much parking your home or venue can offer. The last people you want crashing your party are the cops or angry neighbors because you’re blocking streets or driveways.

Plus you should consider the kind of party you’re throwing from the guest’s perspective. Say you’re throwing a wine tasting party (which is totally on my party-to-do list for Fall) as a for instance. The entire party is about tasting wine and what foods go with the wines and wine, wine, wine. If you invite someone who is allergic to or just doesn’t drink wine, they’re gonna be completely left out of the festivities. Knowing who likes what will help create  a guest list that ensures fun for both them and you.

Finally, there’s always the horror story about weddings where you can’t seat Mrs. Hatblossom at the same table as Mr. Feltenberger because they used to be together but he ran off with her sister and now no one speaks to each other. Don’t invite rival factions or sworn enemies to a party unless it’s a) a very big party or b) you’re looking forward to a bit of extra drama. Save yourself (and the rest of your guests) the hassle and even though it hurts, choose a side. If you just can’t invite one without the other, make the tough call and don’t invite either of them.

Crafting a guest list is more than just printing out your address book onto labels and calling it a day. Choose your guests with an eye towards how they’ll mix with each other and the event you have in mind and you’re that much closer to a perfect party.