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Cocktail Hour

Make it a smashing success

The holiday season is filled with joy—especially if someone else is hosting the party. Should you find your head filled with dreams of a soirée at home, however, you’ll have to conquer the cocktail hour. Whether you like to fly solo (do everything yourself) or make a solo phone call to your dearest caterer—or somewhere in the middle—there’s always something that can make the event a little easier. For ideas and inspiration, we turned to Rosinne (Roe) Chlala of Festivities (festivitiesevents.com).

Now a leading catering and event planning resource, Festivities started as a gourmet shop on Washington Street in Norwalk in 1984. “We are a sister–brother team who have a love of the craft of food, a passion for hospitality and a true commitment to our community through our foundation’s project, Pass on the Love,” says Roe. “For almost thirty years, we have been inspired by our clients to create milestone celebrations that, long after the party is over, continue to create fond memories for years.”

While they offer full-event design and management, they’re equally suited to intimate holiday home soirées. Roe is a pro with excellent taste. Her brother, Executive Chef Bill Kaliff, has worked with such notables as Jacques Pépin and has been recognized by Bon Appétit magazine as a leading chef of the country. The catering business is now in its thirtieth year. Consider them your magic for your next get together.

Grab those invitations—this party’s a go!

What’s most important to make a cocktail party a complete success?
“Most important in planning a cocktail party or any kind of party is for the host to be comfortable and at ease. If you love to cook, then do so; if not, you can always make your favorites and then order the other food. Or if you just prefer to go upstairs and have it magically appear, then call us!

What are some of the planning or timing considerations?
“Gracious entertaining begins with a great plan. Start your evening with some delicious room-temperature offerings on the coffee table. Guests aren't ready to approach a dining table laden with food until later in the evening. These early nibbles can be done ahead of time so that when guests are arriving, you are not in the kitchen repeating, ‘I’m coming!’ Don't forget to include delicious interesting nut combinations as they are satisfying and easy to eat.

“We like to think of food as part of the evening’s entertainment. Plan your menu presentation in stages. The first hour is the coffee table foods. The second hour can be more substantial foods that are easy to heat up and presented on the dining table. The third segment is dessert! Dessert can be prepared on platters on a table in the kitchen, ready to go.”  

Should a host have a tray of drinks waiting or just a stocked bar?
“Guests usually don’t feel comfortable until they have a beverage in hand. A waiting tray of a holiday signature drink is always welcome and easy for both host and guest. Beautiful punches are back in fashion and can be set in great style on a round table in the foyer of your home. Or guests may help themselves. I would suggest festive signage that alerts your guests to the special name you have given your punch and the ingredients.”

What's the trick for timing hot appetizers?
“Unless you have assistance in the kitchen to monitor the cooking of bite-sized hot appetizers, I would suggest forgoing them for a warm dip or other warm appetizer. The key to a happy cocktail party is for the host/hostess not to play Jack in the Box with your guests. If you have to keep interrupting the flow of the party to dash into the kitchen, both you and your guests will have the jitters. Your guests (and you) will feel most comfortable if you are available and enjoying them during the first hour or so of your party.”

How about planning appetizers with the main course?
“If your main course is substantial, appetizers can be an introduction to the main event. They can be as simple as nuts. Holiday tortes, cheeses and artisanal jams can be just enough as a prelude to a wonderful main course.”

What are some of your favorites appetizers? Drinks?
“Appetizers are where we can really have fun with the menu. Entrées need to be approachable to all your guests, while appetizers allow your guests to pick and chose their favorites. Global flavors are welcome for appetizers, including West Indian Chicken Curry Pillows and Lamb Tagine. One of my new favorites is a very yummy thyme-scented lemon shortbread cookie with grilled scallops. Layers and layers of flavors...unexpected yet familiar.

“Beverages have become seasonal. I love watching guests enjoy classic eggnog with a hint of rum that they only would dare during the holidays. Warm colors such as pomegranate, cranberry, kumquat, oranges all lend a feeling of warm welcome.

“Serving a great stew at the end of the cocktail hour? Bring out three or four great beers and pair them together—another new ingredient has been added to the entertainment with ease. Is the roaring fire blazing? A whiskey flight is a great way to warm up your guests. Engaging your guests is part of the entertainment of the evening and a great conversation starter.”

Turning to decorating, what are important considerations?
“Lighting sets the scene. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to create a magical feeling to your party. For the holidays, at our home, we start outside with a shooting star that swings from tree to tree. We live on a long street, and I love the idea that as our guests come down the street, I can just say,‘Look for the shooting star!’ We are already off to a great welcome to our festive evening.”

What's the key to a great party?
“Comfort. And that starts with a warm welcome. Be happy to see your guests and make them feel that way.”