November 20, 2015
Make your party sparkle
The right blend of seasonal decor and relaxed entertaining will put you and your guests in a festive mood
STORY LUCY HYSLOP
PHOTOS TRACEY AYTON
It’s beginning to look a lot like the holiday party season, which means playing host has to hit just the right festive note. So forget about your shopping — now’s the time to be all wrapped up in those decor and menu decisions to make your soiree sing. For Vancouver’s Erin Sousa, founder of digital creative agency Sparkle Media, it all comes down to careful planning. Having just the right mix of people and a casual environment is a top priority.
“I like to strike the right balance between people feeling hosted and taking formalities out of the picture,” she says. “You want people to feel comfortable, so instead of doing something sit-down, I really love to have a relaxed cocktail style with plenty of cosy spots to curl up with a cocktail, a plate of treats and great conversation.”
So make sure hors d’oeuvres are created in advance to leave you in front of guests rather than the stove (see her recipes for pecan meltaways on page 41). And, she adds, never be afraid to ask caterers to do some of the heavy lifting (a recipe for glazed ham skewers from Dan Olson of Railtown Catering is on page 40).
Nothing screams “hello, holidays” more than a guest being greeted with a signature cocktail. “It really sets the tone for an evening that’s more special,” Sousa says, explaining her 2015 cocktail of choice is Champagne with a skewer of sugared cranberries (her Champagne Sparkler recipe is here as well). “You can do something simple yet elevated in terms of working with the garnish,” she says.
As for decor, gone are the days of the same old bright green and red. Inspired way back in September by a grosgrain black-and-white ribbon, courtesy of a bunch of flowers from the Flower Factory, Sousa will add a similar ribbon to a fresh boxwood wreath. She will also deck out the windows with a slew of fresh greenery, such as fresh-cut boughs. “I like to leave the greenery a bit loose to keep it from looking fussy,” she says.
Sousa wants her holiday home to luxuriate in a few contrasting tones this year: her tree decorations, serving decor and floral accents range from gold glass to hints of jewel tones such as dark cranberry. “Update your palette with a more neutral or monochromatic base, adding in hints of colour, texture and of course sparkle — it reflects light and attracts the eye,” she says.
Festive lights, for example, don’t need to be saved just for the tree, but can be liberally sprinkled on a centrepiece. She also favours champagne glitter on her DIY creations such as gift tags, the gift ribbon and, of course, on the tree. And as for the grand exit? Sousa thinks it should be just as notable as when your guests arrive, which is why she likes to give away gifts such as a tree ornaments. “It’s a great mark of friendship,” she says, “and a memento for your guests to add to their own tree year after year.”
Erin’s advice to really enjoy the season
Get the holiday shopping out of the way early so you can enjoy all the fun the season has to offer without a mile-long to-do list.
Plan a new tradition, such as organizing a cookie swap or a brunch with friends, or take a Christmas Eve drive to see lights around your neighbourhood.
It’s not just about being at home. Get into the spirit by taking part in community activities such as the VanDusen Botanical Garden’s Festival of Lights, or go for a hay ride in the countryside with hot chocolate.
Bring on the spirit of Christmases past by setting up the holiday movies in rotation, from The Holiday to Home Alone.
Brown Sugar & Bourbon Glazed Ham Skewers with Winter Greens Purée, Cranberry Jelly and Orange Brittle
- 1 thick piece of honey ham, cut in 3/4 inch (2 centimetre) cubes
- 1/4 cup (60 mL) brown sugar
- 2 ounces (60 mL) bourbon (such as Maker’s Mark)
- 1 Tbsp. (15 mL) butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a pan over medium heat, heat the brown sugar until lightly caramelized. Deglaze the pan with bourbon and carefully light a flame to burn off the alcohol. Reduce by half and whisk the butter into the glaze.
On a baking sheet, distribute the ham cubes and coat with the glaze. Heat in the oven until warm and glistening.
WINTER GREENS PURÉE
- 1 bunch watercress
- 1 bunch baby kale
- 1 Tbsp. (15 mL) heavy cream
- 1 tsp. (5 mL) butter
- Salt to taste
- Fresh lemon juice to taste
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the greens until soft but still bright green, about four minutes. Submerge in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process, then squeeze out the water with a paper towel.
In a blender, purée greens until smooth with a splash of cold water. Reserve in the fridge.
When ready to serve, warm the purée in a sauce pan, add cream and whisk in the butter. Add seasoning and a touch of lemon juice to taste.
Serve immediately before the bright green color turns brown.
You can substitute with your favourite store-bought jelly.
- 1 cup (250 mL) cranberries
- 1/4 cup (60 mL) sugar
- 1 piece orange zest
- Juice of 1 orange
- 1 Tbsp. (15 mL) honey
- 4 cups (1 litre) water
- Dash of brandy
- 2 sheets gelatin, softened in cold
- water for two minutes
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes and strain through a fine conical sieve (chinoise) into a heat-proof bowl.
Add two sheets of softened gelatin for every cup of liquid. Strain again into a container and chill in the fridge until set, about two hours.
- 1 cup (250 mL) butter, softened
- 3/4 cup (175 mL) confectioner’s sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5 mL) vanilla extract
- 2 cups (500 mL) all-purpose flour (or pastry flour)
- 1 cup (250 mL) finely chopped pecans (toasted if you can)
- Additional confectioner’s sugar for dusting
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Gradually add flour. Stir in pecans.
Chill dough in the fridge for two hours to avoid cookies spreading.
When ready to bake, shape rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into two-inch balls. Do not overpress the dough. Place balls one inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until set and bottoms are lightly browned.
Let stand for two to three minutes before removing to wire racks to cool. Roll in confectioner’s sugar when cool and tap off excess.
Yield: About 36 cookies.
This one is all about the garnish — the sugared rim and gorgeously textured cranberries make for a festive take on a glass of Champagne.
- Gold sparkle sugar
- Champagne or sparkling wine
- Sparkling Cranberries (see recipe below)
- Sugar the rim of your glasses by dipping them in water, then the gold sugar.
Pour champagne into the glass.
Lay skewered cranberries on top.
- 2 cups (500 mL) sugar
- One 12-ounce (340 gram) bag fresh cranberries
- Clear plastic skewers
Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, about two to three minutes.
Stir in cranberries until well coated. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to wire rack; let dry for at least an hour.
Working in batches, roll cranberries in remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar until well coated; let dry for at least an hour before placing on skewers.
With most of us living in smaller homes, it’s important not to overwhelm your space with holiday decor, so add elements of cosiness with light (such as strings of sparkle lights) or swap out your throw pillows for more seasonal picks.
To add to the occasion, don’t forget to pull out your special platters, glassware and cake stands to make things more elegant. “Mixing and matching your older classic pieces (like mom’s silver serving platter or delicate crystal glasses, for instance) with more contemporary finds creates an eclectic mix that never feels too stuffy or precious.” Sousa says.
Don’t forget to create a special playlist. For Sousa, it’s all about the classic Christmas favourites, from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra. Use layers of texture, like a plush sheepskin under the tree to replace the traditional tree skirt, to make things warm and contemporary.
Shop high and low — meaning everything from craft and discount stores to stylish boutiques — for decor items to save money and avoid matchy-matchy vignettes.
Decor: The Cross Design & Decor http://thecrossdesign.com
Flowers and Greenery: Flower Factory http://www.flowerfactory.ca
Makeup and Hair: Suzanna Chun, Tori Blush http://toriblush.com
Brass candlesticks: Bespoke Decor http://www.bespokedecor.ca/
Catering and Food: Railtown Catering http://railtowncatering.ca
Calligraphy: Love by Phoebe http://www.lovebyphoebe.com
Photographer: Tracey Ayton http://www.traceyaytonphotography.com