Friday, December 20, 2013

How to Host: A Christmas Brunch!

Briana and I are starting another series called "How to Host" and we will be sharing our favorite party tips, recipes, and decor elements.  I'm starting off with a post on my Christmas brunch that Mr. 3 and I hosted for our friends last weekend.  We've had cocktail parties in the past at Christmas time, but (1) they are a lot of work during a really busy season, and (2) they often wind up being super expensive when you get all the booze thrown in.  I've hosted cookie swaps before, but I always wind up left with too many calories and a general state of feeling pre-diabetic.  I've also thrown afternoon dessert parties and those have wound up being ladies only (all the men wind up bailing in favor of manly things like football, beer, and video gaming).

This year, I came up with the idea to host a Christmas brunch on a Sunday morning.  We set the time for 11 AM and invited about 30 people. I figured that more people would be able to attend, because D.C. folk generally don't have too much to do on Sunday mornings.  I also thought that people would enjoy brunch to (1) soak up the booze from all the corporate parties the night before, (2) brunch = real meal, (3) people would be able to have their entire afternoon and evening to themselves, and (4) it's a different idea for a party.  Despite all these positives, I had really only expected 10-12 people to RSVP, but we wound up having 21 guests.  Whoopsies - clearly Mr. 3 and I are more popular than we thought.  Luckily, brunch is a very forgiving meal to serve the masses (Although, I did have last minute panic the day before that we would run out of food and bought some frozen appetizers I could throw in the oven.).  Here is a breakdown of how the party got put together:

The Decor

We did not have a lot of Christmas decorations to begin with, so I knew I was going to spend a little bit of money on making the brunch and our apartment Christmas-y.  To make things fun and festive, I used Christmas themed paper plates (appetizer and dinner sized), napkins, and cups from Target.  I also found a cheap Ralph Lauren tablecloth at Home Goods for $17 to cover our dining table which we used for our buffet and I bought one pretty candy dish from Home Goods for $13 to hold Lindt Truffles (which I will be keeping out through Valentine's Day).

Festive Napkins & Peek at My $17 Tablecloth

For decorations, we had our Christmas tree (our very first full sized!), 4 small poinsettias, and I reused some decorations from our wedding including a magnolia wreath we hung on the church doors (which I dressed up with a fluffy bow that I made using a roll of gift wrap ribbon I got on sale last year) and mercury glass hurricanes (which we originally used as vases at our reception).

Bow Topper

I put Christmas-themed paper buffet napkins in the guest bathroom that I found last year at Home Goods for $1.99. I also reused some gold and white paper coasters from a previous party to set around the living room and I didn't buy any new servingware for the party.

If you don't count the amount we spent on our Christmas tree (which we would have put up anyways and the ornaments will be reused for many, many years), we spent about $65 on decorations and paper products.

The Food

In planning the party, I looked for recipes that could be prepared the night before or had very little prep in the morning.  I also decided that instead of making double or triple batches of the same items, the best way to feed the crowd would be to make one dish each of bunches of different foods.  For drinks, I served orange juice and coffee from my Nespresso machine.  I also had a self-serve champagne station for people who wanted to doctor up their OJ and turn it into a mimosa.  Here's how I fed a total of 23 people:

Crab and Mushroom Strata (1 pan - super popular dish)
Raspberry Baked French Toast (1 pan)
Slow Cooker Shrimp and Grits (2 batches - biggest hit of the party)
Citrus Fruit Salad (1 batch - surprise hit with everyone!)
Powdered Donuts (1 bag = 20 donuts)
Whole Foods 365 Gingersnaps (1 box)
Safeway Cream Puffs (1 box)
Pimento Cheese Dip (1 container) & Water Crackers (1 box)
Trader Joe's Chambert & Cranberry Fillo Rolls (2 boxes - 16 pieces total - really popular with everyone!)
Trader Joe's Party Pups (2 boxes - 28 pieces total - really popular with everyone!)
Simply Orange Juice (2 large jugs)
Trader Joe's Sparkling Wine (6 bottles)
Trader Joe's Chocolate Biscotti (1 container)
Lindt Peppermint Truffles (1 small bags - 24 pieces)
Rolled Wafers (2 kinds - hazelnut and dark chocolate)
Other items: salt, pepper, half and half, maple syrup, and sugar

I made the crab and mushroom strata, the french toast, and the citrus fruit salad (minus the dressing) the night before.  I assembled the slow cooker shrimp and grits at about 7 AM when I woke up.  Mr. 3 and I worked on the fruit salad dressing and cooking the shrimp before our guests arrived.  Everything else was mostly assembly/unwrapping day of.

Sounds simple, right?  It probably would have been if we hadn't also needed to finish decorating our new apartment (i.e. hanging things on our bare walls and unpacking the last few boxes) as well as decorating for Christmas and cleaning up the Christmas wrapping paper explosion that happened in our living room.  It all came together about 25 mins. after the party started at 11, but luckily most people didn't start showing up until 11:30...so only about 4 people know the real truth....and by real truth, I mean me in my party clothes with a bathrobe on top (my apron is in a space saver bag in my cedar chest with a bunch of other linens) and frantically putting tags on my party favors (homemade bourbon fudge sauce and skillet toffee).

The Set Up

I made a two separate bar/drink areas  - one for coffee in the kitchen below the cabinet with all the coffee cups and next to the sink so that I could easily refill the water tank on the Nespresso and the other area was set up for OJ and champagne across the room from buffet table. I served the appetizers (party pups, fillo rolls, and pimento cheese) on our coffee table in the living room.  I kept our favors by the door to make sure to hand them out to guests as they left.

Since it was cold that day we were able to set the champagne on the patio so we didn't have a whole bunch of containers lying about and I stacked my tiered cake stand with baked goods to save on table space.

Tips & Tricks to Take Away

1. By making the drinks self-serve, I eliminated the need to hover over everyone (after the initial Nespresso demonstration).

2. By assembling the majority of the main dishes the night before, I didn't have tons of dirty pans lying about waiting to be washed, which kept my cleaning to a minimum before people arrived.  Also, once I was done baking everything and I put it out for people, I was done!  I certainly got to socialize quite a bit at this party rather than hanging out in the kitchen all morning.

3. Mix up your homemade and store bought products - no one expects for everything to be 100% homemade, but nobody wants to attend a party platter party either.

4. Use what you have for decor and servingware.  If you find gaps, hit up Home Goods, TJ Maxx, Marshall's, Target, or World Market.  They have the best prices and the most diversified selections.

5. Use paper products. You would need 3 dishwashers and piles of china to keep up with hosting 20 something people.  Paper products will also help your event feel more Christmas-y.

6. Spread out your food.  People tend to congregate where the food is, so by putting the food in different areas you can ensure more mingling!

7. Diversify your food.  I was afraid we wouldn't have enough food, but I was also concerned we would have too many leftovers if things weren't popular.  We didn't run out of anything (whew...my Southern hostess heart started beating again) and we didn't have too many leftovers.  I think there was about 1/4 of a pan of each of the homemade items, half of each of the dessert items, and none of the appetizers were left (People were picking at the leftovers right before they left  and one guest said she couldn't bear to leave them behind they were so good...so I count that as not running out.).  Plus, if one dish doesn't turn out so good, your guests will probably quickly forget because there were so many other wonderful dishes.

8. If you are setting up chairs for people to sit in, try to place them where people can set their food and drinks down easily (put a stack of reuseable paper coasters down nearby).  Also, try to make sure that no seat is off by itself or awkwardly placed.

Practicing my "Relaxed Glamour" look in front of  my reused wedding wreath and mimosa station
Top & Flats - Banana Republic and Leggings - J.Crew

Once the party was over (everyone left around 2:30 PM), I put a few things in the fridge and started the dishwasher...then we took a nap and enjoyed the rest of our afternoon.  Which was a big plus over staying up until 3 AM like we probably would have for a cocktail party.  All of our guests had a great time and people are still telling me thanks for the invite.  I even got a handwritten note in the mail today!  If you are still looking to host a party this year, think about hosting a brunch on New Year's Day or maybe even the weekend after (it would be a great chance for you to invite people who were too busy during November and December to get together).

Anyone else had any luck with hosting a brunch?  Share any good tips you might have!