Dec 162010
Hubby prepping food for the Open House

Hubby prepping food for the Open House

A party just isn’t a party without friends. I found out this year that party prep is a whole lot more fun with friends, too. Completely by accident, we are starting a new tradition: The Pre-Open House Friday Night Prep Party.

I’ve learned over the past few years (and am still learning) that when friends offer to help you, you should let them. My mother (if her health is good) and a couple of close friends come a few hours early each Open House to assist me, and my college friend B– spends the weekend here so she can help.

But it’s never occurred to me to impose on people by asking that they come over on a Friday night for several hours just to help me finish (or make progress on) the impossible number of dishes that I always try to tackle for this holiday party.

It still wouldn’t have occurred to me if my (really wonderful and amazing) friend Angela hadn’t suggested it. Thanks to her offer and idea, six of us spent a good 5 hours the night before the party frosting, folding, dipping, and filling an assortment of sweets and savories.

The menu was takeout pizza and the broken or messed up pieces of whatever we’re prepping. This year that included Oreo Truffles, Buckeyes, Peanut Butter Chocolate Sandwich cookies, and Mini Chocolate Sandwich cookies.

We also prepped Cheesy Bacon Bites, but those weren’t cooked until the next day so they weren’t something you wanted to nibble.

We covered the coffee table with cutting boards and sheet pans, and most of my friends camped on the couches or sat on the floor while they prepped. I wish I had taken photos, but we were so busy cooking I didn’t think about it! (The picture above is actually from the day of the party, but you get the idea of how we were working.)

Six people working 5 hours saved me at least 30 hours of making sandwich cookies and rolling items in chocolate. I actually got less done myself because every time I turned around someone said, “Done! What’s next?” and I had to figure out how else they could help. I know for next year that I need to have a list of things people can do, and the components for those things prepped and ready for them.

I cannot say enough how awesome my friends are and how much I value the gift of their time.

And you know what? I think we had more fun than during the actual party!

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Dec 132010

Every year that I put on this Open House, I feel I get a little better at delegating.

Not just delegating, but letting go of the idea of perfection. The first year that I gave my friend B– free rein of the fruit and vegetable platters for the party, I nearly cleaned off the trays and started over.

It wasn’t that what she did wasn’t beautiful – indeed, she’s very artful at arranging crudites.

She just didn’t arrange them exactly the same way I would.

For example, she arranged the fruit like a rainbow, with one color blending harmonious into the next – yellow pineapple, orange sections, green kiwi, red strawberries, purple grapes and so on (in color theory, it would be an analogous color scheme).

B--'s Fruit Tray - a rainbow of color

B--'s Fruit Tray - a rainbow of color

My arrangement is more like a triad color scheme, where I put distinctly different colors beside each other – yellow pineapple, blueberries, orange sections, purple grapes, green kiwi, red strawberries.

Does it really matter? No. The thought I hold on to nowadays is that the fruit is arranged, and I didn’t have to do it.

Can you tell I’m a little bit anal particular in the kitchen? I promise you I’m much more relaxed about it now.

I even let other people chop the fruit now, not just arrange it.

It used to be people would come to help before the party, and I couldn’t think of tasks for them to do because I insisted on perfection, or my version of it, so I couldn’t trust helpers to do things the way I’d like them done. And by the time the party started, I was tired and stressed and grumpy – and probably still not done cooking.

Admittedly, I don’t just hand a friend the brownie pan and leave them to it. I cut a sample brownie to show the size, give them mini muffin paper cups for each brownie, and point them to the right serving dish, then I leave them to it.

Maybe it helps that I have smart friends who know how to follow directions.

But we’ve trained each other over the years.

Here’s a little entertaining tip when you’re getting ready for a big party, especially if friends will help you with the plating. Get all your serving dishes clean and ready a day or two before. If you’re doing a buffet or appetizers on your dining room table or a sideboard, go ahead and prep the table – tablecloth, flowers, decorations – and arrange your dishes ahead of time. Then just put sticky notes on each plate labeling what food goes where.

Open House Table Prep

Open House Table Prep - all serving dishes laid out and labeled so helpers know where to put the food

I had 20+ dishes on the dining room table for the Open House, and because everything was labeled I was able to hand food to friends, tell them what it was, then they found the proper plate and filled it. Best idea I ever had.

Do you have trouble delegating? What’s your best entertaining tip?

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Dec 042010

The two weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Open House are crunch time. Ideally, with a week left before the party I want the decorations to be completely finished and the house mostly clean so I can spend the final week focused on cooking.

It never quite works out that way.

Twin Bridges Nursery Christmas Tree Lot

Twin Bridge Nursery Christmas Tree Lot

The tree is done, at least. THE tree, not the dozen I have scattered around the house in heights varying from 1 feet to 6. I love my theme trees, and take great joy in them, but my Christmas tree, the one that counts, is the live Frasier Fir in the den. We purchase it the Sunday after Thanksgiving every year at Twin Bridge Nursery down the road.

One year I just couldn’t find a tree on the lot that I liked, so we spent an hour going up and down the road to several other lots. By the time we came back to Twin Bridge, half their inventory had sold and we found the perfect tree the second time around!

This year, thankfully, we found the perfect tree the first go round, but hubby and I both take the selection seriously. We’re shaking branches to see how many needles drop, checking for bare spots, making sure the trunk is straight – or mostly straight, at least, and checking the sturdiness of the branches. I have a lot of heavy ornaments, so my tree must have many stiff branches to support the weight.

Here’s a tip: Bring a measuring tape to the tree lot.

Trees can look awfully small on the lot surrounded by other trees. Remember the branches will drop and open up, so the tree will get bigger after it’s decorated.

We aim for no taller than 7.5 feet (remember to account for the tree stand) and no wider than 4. Though one year I just fell in love with this really chubby tree. By the time it was decorated the thing must’ve been 7 feet wide. It was almost round – we had to rearrange some furniture to accommodate it, but boy was it cute.

This year we got about the perfect size. I almost ran out of branches to hang all the ornaments on, but the tree fits perfectly in the space – not too big, barely not too little. (I’m exuberant in my decorating, so I like bigger trees than are really practical for the room we have.)

Ornaments on the tree

Just a few ornaments on the tree...

Generally, we get the tree Sunday, it’s in the stand and nearly in place by Sunday night and I spend about two days putting the lights on. Then we push the tree to its final spot a couple of feet from the wall and tie it to a sturdy hook so it won’t fall over.

This may seem paranoid, except it happened to us one year, caused an issue with the tree lights, and I had to half undecorate the tree until I found the problems and then redecorate.

So now we tie the tree to the wall with very strong, clear picture wire – no idea what it’s made of, but you can’t see it unless you’re really looking, so it works for me, and I trust the tree will stay upright.

Anyway, by Tuesday I’ve got all the garland, ribbon and beading on the tree and we can start hanging ornaments. I let hubby hang the first ones because he can easily find open branches this early in the process. (Though I have been known to “rearrange” his ornaments if I think they’re on too strong or too weak a branch.) Once a couple hundred ornaments are on the tree, it gets harder to find places to hang more.

I can’t hang all the ornaments in one go, partly because there are just too many and partly because I get bored easily. So I’ll pull out 10 or 20 at a time, pick an area of the tree, hang that selection, and then make some cookies or something.

Scooped, frozen, ready for baking cookies

Scooped, frozen, ready for baking cookies

Speaking of baking, at this point most of the cookies are made and in the freezer, ready for baking the day before the party.

Cookies are the perfect do-ahead dessert.

I’ve made double batches of most recipes, scooped the dough onto baking sheets with my smallest cookie scoops, frozen the dough, then placed into labeled zippies and stashed the bags in the freezer. I put the baking time and temp on the bags too, so I don’t have to pull out the recipes again. I’ve even rolled out the gingerbread, cut it into shapes, and frozen the cutouts! So Friday I’ll simply pull all the cookies out of the freezer, plop them on to sheet trays and bake!

How do you get ahead during the holidays? Do you buy a live tree each year?

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