By Barb Appold
Like a favorite winter blanket that is retrieved from storage the day after temperatures drop, the holiday season is suddenly upon us once again. And planning the perfect dinner party, stocking up for an impromptu get-together or wowing your host or hostess with the most thoughtful of gifts is easier than you think, thanks to the resources available at some popular artisanal spots here in the Great Lakes Bay Region.
Whether you provide a delectable charcuterie spread and a sumptuous Yule log or arrive with an exquisitely decorated personalized holiday basket, you will make a grand entrance and leave a lasting impression with some of these popular holiday offerings.
Play to Your Strengths
If you don’t know a knaidel from a kishke, sevruga from a rollmop or jerk from jambalaya, do not despair! You can still create your own holiday feast without having a breakdown or breaking the bank. Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, the key to a successful gathering lies in the planning and preparation.
If you are the quintessential host, more than likely you have your tried-and-true standards and go-to recipes. There may be an expectation of creamy mashed potatoes and glorious gravy, succulent turkey and delightful sides of green beans and cranberry relish or some other holiday delicacy. However, there are some dishes that require more time than it’s worth to prepare and there are perfectly wonderful alternatives that can be purchased already made.
Who doesn’t love a savory slice of sopressata or a mouthwatering mound of Roquefort on a crispy cracker? A charcuterie and cheese board is quick and easy to assemble, and always a crowd pleaser. If it is your only food item or the prelude to dinner, a variety of cured meats and salami paired with soft and hard cheeses brilliantly displayed with fresh grapes, jam, mustards, cornichons, olives and nuts is a showstopper. Arrange a variety of crackers and bread on the side and you have an evening-long nosh fest. Artigiano Artisan Cheese Shoppe (Bay City), Eastman Party Store (Midland), SVRC Marketplace (Saginaw) and Frankenmuth Cheese Haus (Frankenmuth) offer a variety of imported and domestic cheeses as well as cured meats and can help you put together a memorable combination of delectables.
Make OR Buy
Charcuterie and Cheese Board
This is something you can easily make on your own, but if you are strapped for time or aren’t feeling very creative, the previously mentioned establishments can fashion any size party board you would like, offer suggestions for food pairings and have your order ready for pick-up — or they may even deliver to your door! Kevin Parker at Artigiano said,
“We can do pretty much anything people want. Sometimes a customer would like us to use a platter or a board that they provide, but we also will create one right here at the store. We would like a 24-hour notice, and for a small fee, we will deliver.”
Time to Dine
You must have your plan of attack whether you are attending an event or hosting one. Now is the time to expand your pantry and pick up some specialty items. Here are some tips for either side.
Green Bean Casserole
This holiday classic – green bean casserole – whether you deem it tasteless mush or a time-honored tradition, is as popular as it was when it was invented in the Campbell’s Soup test kitchen in 1955. If you really want to add some pizzazz to this dish include sautéed onions and mushrooms, and some cooked bacon. Yum! A quick zero to hero!
If a dry turkey is the bane of your holiday existence, you do have options. Many local supermarkets give the option of ordering a bird fully cooked to perfection or a ham that you just need to keep warm until ready to serve. However, if you find yourself attempting to have another go at a home-cooked bird, brining is always a great option for maintaining moisture as well as using a cooking bag with the breast side down.
Yule Need to Branch Out
Post-prandial enjoyment in almost every culture includes sweets. Fudge, divinity and trays of assorted cookies are always a safe bet.
Homemade Ice Cream
This is a treat that can be made far in advance and will wow your guests. Serve a scoop with your heirloom-recipe sugar cookies and dessert is done!
Buche de Noël (Yule log)
If you want to kick it up a knot (pun intended), you’ll want to go foraging for the classic French holiday dessert, a buche de Noël — a rolled cake made to look like a tree log, complete with confectionary mushrooms.
Master pastry chef Louise Schwaiger at Petit 4 Pastry crafts exquisite versions in her Essexville shop. Noted Schwaiger: “The tradition stems from bygone years in France, when families would depart from their homes to go to midnight Mass and leave an enormous log burning in the fireplace so the home would be toasty when they returned for their Reveillon feast. With the advent of central heating, the tradition morphed into this delightful log-shaped confection.”
St. Laurent Brothers in Bay City have been putting together tasty morsels for decades. They will build a delightful display of assorted treats to dazzle your guests. Another great dessert idea is a tray of hand-dipped chocolates, or pretty much anything from Zak and Mac’s Chocolate Haus in Frankenmuth.
Wet Your Whistle
Lubrication, libations, liquid refreshments — whatever term you choose, they are the essential ingredient to any successful party. With the holidays fast approaching, a small bar setup is a must have, and don’t be afraid to raise the bar when selecting wet goods; your guests will definitely take note.
A Christmas sangria can be served in a punch bowl and guests can help themselves — which means less work for you. Another great annual favorite is a classic eggnog, available at your local supermarket, which can be served with or without alcohol. Depending on your location, Eastman Party Store, Ideal Party Store, or Oppermann’s Cork ‘N’ Ale can offer recommendations and handy tips for creating a festive potion.
A variety of beer, wine and nonalcoholic fare will keep everyone mingling. Make sure there are bottles of both red and white wines, an ample selection of craft beers (local to Michigan is always a plus), and flavored waters or sodas for the teetotalers. If you decide to have a full bar, stock up on plenty of ice, mixers, garnishes and glassware, and arrange the various components for a heavenly libation so your guests can create their own concoction.
Better yet, hire a professional bartender. This is the time of year to splurge a little and get that top-shelf bottle you’ve had your eye on. Jeff Oppermann at Oppermann’s Cork ‘N’ Ale offers this tip: “Bourbons are hot right now, especially single barrel. We have a selection you can’t find anywhere else in the region.” He noted that Cork ‘N’ Ale also carries 20 different kinds of bitters, another “in” thing at the moment.
Every Party Needs a Soundtrack
It is not a party without some great tunes! It is no secret that popular restaurants curate their playlist to enhance the mood they want to create. Make sure you have at least three hours of a variety of genres to keep everyone on the happy list.
Make your own playlist of holiday favorites to get your guests in the holiday spirit and run it through your Bluetooth. Know your audience and plan accordingly. Nothing gets a party moving like a sing-along of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
Hire a local musician or three to give your gathering a very special and upscale feel.
Acknowledge Your Host
It is appropriate, but not expected, to bring a tasteful gift — with no expectation it will be used that evening — to acknowledge the efforts of your host.
Say thank you in advance by giving your host or hostess a thoughtful gift for inviting you to the party. It can be simple or a tad extravagant (a partridge in a pear tree, anyone?) — it all depends on your relationship and the occasion. If you have a unique talent you are known for such as making soap, a killer pesto, candied bacon or homemade Kahlua, then by all means gift your wares to your host or hostess. Another great idea is to buy an inexpensive punch bowl, bring all the necessary ingredients for a lovely punch, mix it up when you get there and leave the bowl!
Personalized gift basket
There are many local establishments that are ready and able to fill a basket full of magnificent and delicious items customized for your specific needs, such as Peel ’n Pare in Midland, Bay City’s Artigiano, and Keit’s Greenhouse. Jude Craves Kaunitz at Peel ’n Pare said, “We can put together an exquisite combination of tea towels, coffees, kitchen gadgets, Michigan items and gourmet salts or anything you desire from our store. We even had a customer bring in a teddy bear to add to her gift basket, so her gift was truly unique for her hostess.”
Just remember the five Ps of entertaining: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Make a list, make another list, repeat. Do as much ahead as possible and keep little noshes on hand like cheese spread and crackers you can bust out if you have some drop-in guests. The most important thing to remember is: You are not alone! Local business owners are ready and willing to lend their expertise to help you with all your holiday entertaining. No worries; you’ve got this!
2 cups fresh squeezed orange juice
½ cup dark rum
½ cup orange liqueur (Triple Sec)
2 bottles sparkling wine
Stir together orange juice, orange liqueur and dark rum. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Pour into punch bowl and add sparkling wine and fresh orange slices for garnish.
Recipe can be tweaked or modified to suit any taste.