It sounds like such a good idea in theory: invite friends and family over one weekend in the lead up to Christmas and you can eat, drink and be merry together. And yet, as the day draws closer, amid the tree decorating, present wrapping and mince pie making, regret over that breezily extended invitation sets in.
This year you can forget about working yourself into a seasonal tizz, because we’ve called in the experts. From the perfect seasonal drinks to almost effortless canapés, as well as ideas for adding decorative flair to your food and home, here’s how to make festive entertaining a cinch.
It sounds simple, but do your numbers: consider how many confirmed guests you have and then roughly translate that into quantities of food and drink per person (see our tips below).
Give your living room a quick pre-party once over with the hoover, but there's no need to go mad cleaning; instead, dim the lights and let flickering candles do the work for you.
Harassed-looking hosts make partygoers feel uncomfortable, so take a few deep breaths before welcoming your first visitors. Ensure that you've got some background music on as well. There's no call for carefully curated playlists, just stick a festive hits album on and be done with it.
There are two types of people when it comes to the post-party clean up: those who can't rest until every glass has been rinsed, and then there's the rest of us mere mortals who prefer to skulk off to bed and tackle the washing up the next day. Whichever way you approach this particular battle, think ahead: clear the dishwasher before the party begins, make sure you've got plenty of cleaning equipment and consider booking someone to help.
For a real festive party vibe, substantial canapés and easy-to-eat bites that can be passed around the room and munched standing up are the way to go, and feel far less formal than a sit-down meal. Amy Kinnear is a freelance food stylist and recipe writer, which means that her job involves making food look and taste not just good enough to eat, but to grace magazine covers, cookbooks and television shows.
She’s also a dab hand at hosting parties and says that the key is to keep things simple. “Try to pick dishes that will impress your guests, but are realistic in terms of time and budget. There’s nothing worse than not being able to enjoy yourself because you’re stressed out and worried about having spent a fortune,” she says.
A gooey whole baked brie is one of her party stars. "It's really easy to make, looks great as a centrepiece, and because it's a sharing dish, it gets people talking as well. Serve it with a spiced berry and balsamic compote, walnut and raisin bread, crackers and toasted strips of panettone for a real seasonal flourish," Kinnear suggests.
Festive baked brie with spiced berries
1 x whole brie in a box (approx 300g)
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
8 sprigs thyme
2 figs, quartered
80g cherries, stoned
1 star anise
1 tbsb brown sugar
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1. Preheat the oven to 200C, gas mark 6. Score a crisscross pattern over the surface of the brie and then remove two-thirds of the surface rind. Stud with the sliced garlic and half the thyme sprigs.
2. Put the figs, blackberries and cherries in a bowl with the star anise, brown sugar, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and cinnamon. Stir to combine.
3. Tip the berries on to a large baking tray and place the brie (still in its box) alongside them. Bake for 15 minutes, until the cheese has melted and the berries are softened.
4. Serve warm with strips of toasted panettone, raisin and walnut bread and crackers.
She says that soups – presented warm or chilled – are a real winner for occasions like this as they’re cheap to make and can be cooked in advance and reheated (if necessary) when needed. Serving them in dinky glasses or espresso cups and adding a pretty garnish is all that’s needed to make them party ready: “At this time of the year, I particularly like curried roasted parsnip soup topped with coconut yogurt and parsnip crisps. Pumpkin and sage is really nice too and looks great finished with crispy sage leaves, parmesan croutons and a drizzle of chilli oil.”
When it comes to taking the visual appeal of these dishes to a new level, Kinnear says that the key is in the final touches. "Always have a handful of chopped herbs, or better still, micro herbs on hand as they can make any dish look good. With desserts, a scattering of berries – redcurrants in particular – adds a delicate pop of colour and a dusting of icing sugar gives a festive finish and can cover a multitude of sins if required."
Thanks to his background in classic, high-end British cooking (he was operations manager at Caprice Holdings, the group behind Scott’s, The Ivy and The Rivington Grill for seven years) and his current role as the managing partner at Ghaf Kitchen, the catering company known for their food trucks, bespoke events and exceptional canapés, there’s no one better placed than David O’Brien to give advice about party food and cooking under pressure. “For a gathering like this focus on simple, great quality ingredients and really show them off. At Christmas, people want to see familiar dishes and classic flavours – salmon, prawn cocktail, roast turkey, homemade stuffing – but they appreciate it if you give them a bit of a twist,” he says.
For a spin on tradition, O'Brien suggests making your own beetroot gravadlax and serving it with dill and horseradish yogurt and cucumber ribbons, either arranged on a platter or piled onto blinis or crostini. While curing your own fish might sound daunting, gravadlax is actually perfect party fodder: it's deceptively simple to make, feels luxurious and a little goes a long way.
Beetroot and dill gravadlax
70g caster sugar
60g coarse sea salt
2 beetroot, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 bunch dill, roughly chopped
1 side of salmon (approx 800g)
1. Mix the salt and sugar together. Arrange the beetroot, fennel and dill on a large sheet of cling film.
2. Place salmon on top skin side down, and cover with the sugar-salt mix. Wrap tightly in more cling film and transfer to a baking tray or dish where the fish can lay flat. Place a board or the lid of the dish on top and weigh down with tins or bottles.
3. Chill in the fridge for 48 hours, turning the fish over and rewrapping every 12 hours.
4. To serve, scrape the cure from the fish or wash it off, if you prefer. Cut the salmon lengthways into long thin slices and serve on a platter or arrange on top of crostini or blinis.
Canapés really need not be complicated: homemade pitta chips topped with a dollop of store-bought hummus, crumbled feta and a dusting of smoked paprika, slices of bresaola wrapped around asparagus spears, roasted baby potatoes split open and filled with labneh and chopped chives and olives, mini mozzarella balls and marinated tomatoes on tiny skewers will all go down a treat.
If you really feel like taking the stress out of festive entertaining and going all out with your canapé offerings, then by all means bring in the caterers (Ghaf's extensive list include Atlantic prawn cocktail with caviar, Devon crab doughnuts with lime and coconut and elderflower cheesecake with winter berries and raspberry ripple ice cream). The beauty of doing this, of course, is that someone else will also supply all the cutlery, hand the food around and leave your kitchen as tidy – or potentially even tidier – as it was when they arrived.
"At parties I find that people appreciate a bit of direction. Instead of asking guests what they'd like to drink without providing any options, consider creating a short drinks menu so they know what's on offer," advises Raven Rudolph, a trained mixologist and the bar manager at popular Dubai restaurant Folly. Rudolph says that having a drinks list not only creates a talking point, it also saves on money and effort: you can be specific about the ingredients you purchase and these items can be prepped in advance.
“Christmas is definitely a time of year when you should play around with your drinks: garnish cups with candy canes or baubles and decorate the punch bowl with tinsel,” he suggests.
“A hot mulled drink flavoured with honey, cloves, cinnamon and star anise is a festive party essential, as is something refreshing like Folly’s Celery Savoury.
Ingredients (Makes 10 drinks)
2 heads celery
500ml unsweetened green apple juice
300ml lime juice
150ml agave syrup
½ bunch marjoram, plus extra to serve
1. Roughly chop the celery and put in a juicer. Juice according to machine instructions, then chill in the fridge.
2. Break the marjoram stalks into pieces and add to a large jug. Pour in the chilled celery juice, followed by the apple juice. Mix well.
3. Add the lime juice and agave syrup. Stir vigorously to combine and chill in the fridge until needed.
4. When you’re ready to serve, strain the drink through a fine sieve into a clean ice-filled jug. Garnish with the extra marjoram sprigs.
And it might sound a bit off the wall, but infusing drinks with mince pies works brilliantly: combine equal parts lime juice and sugar syrup (around 20ml of each) in a cocktail shaker, add 2 tablespoons of mince pie filling, 200ml cranberry juice and some ice. Shake really well, strain and pour into a chilled glass.”
No matter how extravagant you go, it’s still important to stock up on the basics: make sure you have plenty of ice, citrus fruit and still and sparkling water. Think about where you’re going to chill drinks if the fridge is full of food (an ice-filled bath works well) and consider buying recyclable cups or hiring glasses.
“Have fun with the planning and decorating; there’s really no such thing as a perfect party set-up – make it your own,” says Aisha Leitner, founder of the UAE-based accessories, gifts, games and decorations shop Party Camel.
Decorations are of course essential for truly embracing the holiday spirit, but Leitner explains that doesn’t necessarily mean going mad with the multicoloured tinsel or spending vast amounts of money. “Dig out all your favourite tried-and-tested Christmas bits and pieces and then add a few new elements to bring in a sense of freshness. Small details such as pretty napkins, table confetti and crackers in different sizes and styles are all real crowd pleasers.”
To make a real statement at your soirée, Leitner recommends decking your halls (and more) with garlands, hanging foil curtains and giant balloons, and also placing them close to the entrance to help set the tone for the party. If you really want to be on-trend with your theme, she says that two options are proving popular this year: you can either embrace all things playful, Christmassy and kitsch with reindeer balloons, Bad Santa paraphernalia and a festive photo booth (eflie selfie anyone?) or stay ice cool and channel Scandi chic with Party Camel’s Nordic range which features stylish pared back designs and luxurious, muted metallics.
Five expert tip for festive entertaining
1. “Make sure you know exactly what you’re going to serve and run through the menu from start to finish in your head. Work a day in advance and do your prep work before the party so that when it starts you just need to put things together.” David O’Brien.
2. “Allow plenty of time to get yourself ready. You might feel frazzled on the outside, but a crisp white shirt and perfectly blow-dried hair will suggest otherwise.” Amy Kinnear.
3. “Even if you consider your self a bit of a mixologist, serve punch-style drinks in big bowls or jugs rather than attempting to make them individually, otherwise you’ll never get to relax.” Raven Rudolph.
4. For a party lasting around four hours, O’Brien advises serving six different canapé choices (four savoury, two sweet) and working on the basis that each guest will have two of each savoury item and one sweet. Rudolph meanwhile reckons on estimating that each guest will finish three drinks per hour.
5. “Have a contingency plan: ask a couple of your more outgoing friends to arrive early and get the conversation started and be ready with a few party games in case there’s a delay in serving the food.” Amy Kinnear.