It's holiday party season, and you're looking to dazzle your guests without breaking the bank -- or your back. Whether you're envisioning a family holiday movie night with gourmet popcorn and handmade candy bars, a midweek cocktail party for busy couples, or a luxurious dinner inspired by "The Twelve Days of Christmas," you'll find just what you're looking for in our holiday party guide.
We enlisted three of the Bay Area's top caterers -- Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, Taste Catering & Event Planning, and Barbara Llewellyn Catering & Event Planning -- to share their inspiring ideas for holiday entertaining with sophisticated dishes and decorative details that are deceptively simple.
Holiday Movie Night, Barbara Llewellyn Catering
There's a reason you invested in that 50-inch LCD flat screen. You're a family of movie buffs, and your annual Oscar party is widely recognized as the neighborhood party of the year. So, why not light the fireplace, don your favorite Christmas sweater and transform your living room into a cozy festival of your favorite holiday movies (starting with "It's a Wonderful Life," natch) complete with comfort food?
If you don't love your TV set, Barbara Llewellyn suggests hanging a large white sheet on the wall to create a DIY projection screen where you can watch movies via laptop and rentable projector. Hang wreaths and string popcorn garlands around the house and make your own festive table runner from burlap and a few craft supplies.
Run strips of painters tape down the length of the burlap to form stripes of varying widths. Daub craft paint between the strips, let it dry then remove the tape. The resulting rustic runner makes a festive backdrop for Llewellyn's menu, which includes Grilled Gruyere and Sage Sandwiches dunked into personal-sized terrines of French Onion Soup.
Afterward, let your guests graze at the gourmet popcorn station, where they can fill small red (or Hanukkah blue) bags with freshly popped kernels and a selection of spice mixes, including a kicky Southwest version. Add a homemade candy bar station, with a Snickers-style recipe filled with milk chocolate, caramel and peanuts.
If you're looking for an activity, create a movie trivia game that guests can play for prizes. Make it foodie-driven for added fun. Trick question: Who "carves the beast" in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"?
The Cocktail Party, Taste Catering & Event Planning
You're looking for an excuse to wear that little black dress and bust out your favorite martini glasses. For busy couples who have mixology on their minds and not a lot of time, Taste Catering president Margaret Teskey, an Irish native with a love for classic drinks, recommends an early-in-the-week, adults-only cocktail party with passed appetizers and a few festive cocktails.
It's a party trend she's seeing a lot of this month. "Most people are booked with corporate parties and formal family dinners from Thursday into the weekend," she says. "But they still want to do something at home and see their friends, so a cocktail party on a Monday or Tuesday night is actually going to get a big audience."
Entertain early in the week? It's far easier than you think, especially with a holiday play list queued up on Spotify, beautiful platters on the table, and seasonal cocktails that can be pre-batched and chilled in the fridge until the minute your guests arrive. A few wooden bowls brimming with pomegranates, persimmons and pine cones elevate your tablescape with little effort. So do tapered candles and a variety of fresh wreaths.
To pay homage to the holiday season, Teskey builds her cocktails and her delightful eats around citrus and apples. Her Exotic Manhattan is made with whiskey, the spirit of the moment, plus cardamom bitters and fresh orange juice. She pairs it with a Smoked Chicken Salad served in red endive leaves with a green apple and black cardamom compote. Her play on the classic Negroni features blood orange vodka, Carpano Antica, Campari, and blood orange juice, which she serves with a Citrus-Cured Salmon and Avocado Mousse on an olive biscotti.
Not up to making your own gravlax? Substitute smoked salmon and avocado on crostini, made from slices of Acme herb slab. Or go for the Brioche "Boxes" with a chanterelle topping, an impressive appetizer that takes less than half an hour to throw together.
Ultimately, this is a relaxed, saunter-and-smile affair. An excuse to mingle with your friends over a few killer appetizers and drinks. If cocktails aren't your thing, Teskey suggests simply uncorking Champagne.
"Keep it simple," she says. "You're not committing to the big dinner. This is more doable."
"Partridge in a Pear Tree" Dinner Party, Paula LeDuc Fine Catering
If you long to host a dinner party, look no further than this elegant gathering envisioned by Paula LeDuc catering art director Dyan Garza and chef du cuisine David Hurt. A visual and gastronomic interpretation of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the menu is designed around pears, butternut squash and other seasonal goodies. Readily available quail stands in for the partridge.
Armed with a can of gold spray paint, you can make your table sparkle by turning miniature pears and pine cones into golden works of art. Head to the flower market for pieces that evoke winter, like whimsical, frosty air plants, small Champagne-colored woodland trees, fresh wreaths and laurel.
Tuck them between copper or silver platters holding Hurt's Pancetta-Wrapped Quail stuffed, with wild rice brioche bread pudding, and a velvety Brown Butter Pear Soup that's finished with bright green fennel oil and pomegranate seeds. Show off a gorgeous deconstructed salad, a carpaccio of persimmon, beets and pears dotted with Stilton cheese and pistachio butter, on a modern glass platter.
To balance the luxurious tones, Garza gives the table a rustic feel with mossy-hued fresh herbs, like thyme and sage, which she stuffs into vases placed around the table. The herbs almost glimmer against the amber glow of candlelight and the other gilded details -- so much more beautiful than loud Christmas green. Bring in red hues with a few port and hibiscus poached pears or stems of pink peppercorns, which make an appearance in Hurt's pink peppercorn pear preserves, a condiment served alongside the quail.
Add a silvery jade green velvet table runner and a few bowls of pomegranates, and your guests will swear they're looking at a Flemish painting, not your holiday dinner table. Turn on some moody jazz, hand them a pear-infused spiced bourbon cocktail, and they may never leave.