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Let's Have a Ball: Holiday Party Planning


Brandon Byerly knows the holidays are approaching when orders for cookies are as hot as the ovens at Cannon’s Custom Cakes and Bakery in Newark. Each year, the bakery offers 60 varieties of cookies, ranging from traditional shortbread to peanut butter and jelly, Byerly’s personal favorite. “Pineapple-nut was new last year and was so popular that we are bringing it back,” he says. “Russian tea cakes also are very strong.”

Cannon’s will bake 1,500 oversized sugar cookies with the company logo for a bank and dozens of sheet cakes for corporate gatherings, as well as Yule logs with chocolate icing and mousse filling for private parties. “Red velvet rolls are very big,” he says. “We also have lots of people who buy cookies and take them to cookie exchanges.”

Company parties

Companies that want to treat employees often opt for luncheon parties, says Kelly Connell, director of operations for the Platinum Dining Group, a full-service catering company with a retail market and four restaurants: Capers & Lemons and Eclipse in Wilmington; Redfire Grill Steakhouse in Hockessin; and Taverna in Newark.

“We are seeing a lot more lunchtime parties for companies at our restaurants,” he says. “We like to start out with something guests can enjoy right away, maybe flatbreads, hummus and fried calamari, served family style for sharing.”

Catered events range from small cocktail parties for law firms to large corporate gatherings. Options are abundant, including food stations, passed hors d’oeuvres, buffets or sit-down meals.

“Heavy hors d’oeuvres are very popular, such as grilled and chilled shrimp with lime cocktail sauce, canapés of cucumber wheels with salmon mousse, stuffed mushroom caps with sausage or crab, and bruschetta,” he says. “Deviled eggs are still going strong.”

Connell recommends one staff person for every 10-12 guests. “Our servers are well trained and we get a lot of compliments on our staff.”

Planning tips

At Fulton Paper and Party stores, hosts can buy plates, napkins, cups and cutlery, as well as invitations to parties and open houses. The staff also will deliver the goods and decorate the venue with such festive touches as balloon arches.

“We are personal shoppers,” says Dorothy Malinoski, the owner. “We will help you plan your decor and provide guidance on what to buy, as well as how much.”

Bulk beverage napkins make sense for large events. For company parties, napkins with the company logo and the date are an option.

Because guests are always setting drinks and plates down, plan on at least three forks, plates, napkins and tumblers for each person. Have lots of picks on hand; a box of 1,000 picks decorated with frilly tops costs less than $10. “It’s always better to have more than less,” Malinoski says.

Look-alike silver, a durable plastic with a silver finish, is an elegant choice during the holidays, as are recyclable plastic plates that can be reused. This year’s 10-by-18-inch oval plates are trendsetters, either white rimmed with silver or ivory rimmed with gold.

“Blue is also an option in addition to traditional red and green for Christmas,” she says. “We also sell a lot of clear tumblers decorated with snowflakes.”

Cocktail parties

So, what goes in the glass? Increasingly, it’s a cocktail, says David Dennett of Southern Wines & Spirits of Delaware.

“The bourbon category has been exploding in recent years. It’s becoming a year-round drink,” he says. Jim Beam is leading the pack, along with Maker’s Mark. Bourbons flavored with honey and cinnamon also are entering the market.

Dennett suggests stocking a home bar with Svedka vodka—“good price point for the quality”—Jim Beam, Jameson’s Irish whiskey, Beefeater’s gin and Appleton rum. “It’s Jamaican, a relatively unknown brand with great clarity.” For mixers, he recommends club soda, tonic and ginger ale “coming on very strong as a mixer.”

For wine drinkers, choose two reds, two whites and two holiday sparklers. His choices as crowd pleasers: Mark West Pinot Noir, “California, easy to drink,” Robert Mondavi Cabernet, “great with food;” Simi Chardonnay from Sonoma, and Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, “a bit fruitier.” Two tried-and-true bubblies: Ruffino Prosecco and Anna Codorniu Cava.

“And be sure to have lots and lots of bottled water on hand,” he adds. For an offbeat, interactive experience, Dennett suggests a Bloody Mary bar, with such substantial accompaniments as shrimp and scallops as garnishes. “It’s like a meal—and lots of fun to put together,” he says.

For small gatherings, hosts and guests can handle the pours. But for a large group, bring in a pro. “If you are only having 10 people, you make the first drink and then everyone can help themselves after that,” he says. “If you are having lots of people, hire a bartender, so you can actually enjoy the party.”

Save the date

When it comes to scheduling events, weekends are at a premium. “Get your date in as soon as possible,” says Lisa Bixby of Bixby’s Caterers. “Everyone wants the second or third weekend of December.”

Businesses and organizations typically gravitate toward weeknights, Wednesdays and Thursdays in particular. Sunday afternoon is a good choice for open houses.

“Two to three hours, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres,” she says. “Perhaps a tomato soup shooter with a little grilled cheese or a braised short rib with puréed cauliflower.”

There’s a strong trend toward guests getting more dressed up for holiday events. Hosts also are upping the wow factor. Bixby notes that one company ordered an elaborate ice sculpture made into a luge. “There was a funnel at the top where you pour the vodka into it and it dispenses into a martini glass at the end.”

An opulent table

At The Buttery in Lewes, groups can arrange for parties at the Victorian-era  restaurant. Or the restaurant can bring the party to you. Options range from having trays delivered to homes and businesses, to fully staffed soirées.

“Think about what kind of experience you want your guests to have,” says Lisa McDonald, general manager. “If you enjoy cooking but don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen, hire a server for the night. It means you can enjoy your party.”

Old-fashioned cocktails—“the golden slippers, the grasshoppers, the rusty nails”—are making a comeback. Celebrants also are getting a kick out of Moscow mules, a vodka cocktail served in a copper mug. “Those mugs look very festive, lined up on the bar,” she says.

One client pulled out all the stops with a lavish catered dinner party at his home, with a staff of five to pamper 10 guests.

“It was like Downton Abbey. He pulled out his best china, his best crystal, 18 pieces at each place setting, including individual salt and pepper shakers,” McDonald recalls. “It was such a success he had us back three months later with a different set of guests.”

Interactive events

For a larger gathering, create opportunities for mingling, suggests Ronnie Burkle, corporate chef for SoDel Concepts, which operates Plate Catering and eight restaurants: Fish On in Lewes; Lupo Italian Kitchen and Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria in Rehoboth Beach; Matt’s Fish Camp and Bluecoast Seafood Grill and Raw Bar in North Bethany; NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View; and Catch 54 Fish House and Papa Grande’s in Fenwick Island.

 “A lot of people like stations set up in various places in a restaurant or in their home,” he says. “It could be a mashed potato bar or a slider bar or a raw bar—or a harvest table with cheese, nuts and fruit and various meats.”

Be mindful of presentation. Burkle is fond of using food as a container, such as an apple cobbler backed in a hollowed-out apple or acorn squash roasted inside a hollowed out butternut squash with toasted pumpkin seeds.

For sit-down dinners, consider serving family style. “There’s something about the passing of the platters that is very warm and friendly,” he says. For a stand-up event, stick to finger foods, or nibbles served on sticks or skewers, “nothing that you need to cut.”

He is an advocate of interactive entertaining, such as a holiday luncheon with a cooking demo or a raclette, in which guests grill their own cheeses. Invite guests to top off their own eggnog by serving brandies and bourbons on the side. “It’s important to keep in mind that not everybody drinks,” he says.

On the menu

At Tutto Fresco in Wilmington, owner Barbara Scotto recommends a three- or four-course fixed price menu, with such choices as tortellini with peas in cream sauce, chicken marsala or grilled salmon.

Limiting the choices means guests can spend more time chatting and less time perusing an extensive menu. It also helps to pace the meal. “You don’t have one person ordering four courses and another person ordering one,” she says.

The week before Christmas, the restaurant keeps the Italian tradition of putting seven fishes on the menu, served family style, as an appetizer or a meal. “We always have the fried calamari, then add something different,” she says. “We have done mini-crab cakes. We have done marinated anchovies.”

The fun isn’t limited to food and drink. Each year, a small company reserves space for 100 people so employees can bring their families.

 “They have games and prizes,” Scotto says. “It’s a gathering everyone looks forward to each and every year.” 

Hip for the holidays: Tips for a stylish gathering

* Let’s do lunch: Small business groups are getting together at restaurants for midday holiday repasts. Employees like it because the company party doesn’t gobble up an evening during this busy season. Hosts appreciate a modest bar tab.

* Share the joy. Interactive events promote the holiday spirit.

* White with silver, gold or blue: A wintery take on the season, rather than traditional red and green. Quality recyclable plastic plates, in white with metallic edges, can either be tossed or washed and reused.

* Lord and lady of the manor: Hire attentive servers, get out the best china, silver and crystal, light the candles and host an opulent dinner party for those nearest and dearest.

* Copious cookies: Serve a vast assortment of these finger-friendly treats in various shapes and sizes. 

* Pour it on with cocktails: Bourbon-laced drinks are trending, as well as vodka-based Moscow mules served in hammered copper mugs.