"Keeping it simple" is one of the repeated party-planning mantras of Michigan native Amanda Kuzak, owner of Kuzak's Closet in Mountain View and frequent party hostess. Last month, Kuzak hosted an event at Sur La Table in Palo Alto during which she applied the mantra while sharing her favorite holiday hosting tips.
"When it comes to entertaining, make it as easy as possible so that you can relax and have fun. Be organized in your menu and tablescape," Kuzak said. "You want your guests to feel comfortable and stay awhile. Stress shouldn't be happening at the party."
Kuzak, who gathers cooking and lifestyle inspiration from food television personalities Ree Drummond, Ina Garten and Tiffani Thiessen, has hosted multiple parties, including her sister's engagement party. She explained how people can keep their stress to a minimum, reduce the drama of the holidays and actually enjoy their own holiday celebrations. Her strategies, she said, are to plan ahead, use easy shortcuts, don't be afraid to ask for help and keep the food uncomplicated.
The French culinary phrase "mise en place" or having everything in place, helps Kuzak remember to have all ingredients already chopped and pre-measured prior to cooking. This is a technique used by cooks and chefs in restaurant kitchens to help keep their sanity and fingers intact. By taking the time to chop ingredients ahead of time, hosts can reduce the risk of a kitchen meltdown or a trip to the emergency room.
"Menu planning is essential," Kuzak said. Her No. 1 rule is to have appetizers prepared ahead of time to keep the flow of each course running efficiently. Most fruits and vegetables for salads can be pre-chopped the day before, then tossed with dressing just before guests arrive. Pasta or gnocchi dough can be formed and frozen weeks in advance, then boiled the day of the party. Aspiring pastry pros should leave time to bake tarts and pies a day in advance, then sit back enjoy the "oohs" and "ahhs" while dessert is served. Rather than serving as a bartender by mixing each guests' drink individually, big batches of cocktails can be served from punch bowls, and decanted by guests throughout the night.
Kuzak said, "Keep it organized with determining which items you're going to buy ahead of time; which items are going to be pre-made, which items are going to go into the oven (and) which items are going on your stovetop for prep."
Use easy shortcuts
Kuzak, who enjoys focusing her attention on holiday decorating, embraces pre-made shortcuts found at the local market. Party guests won't always remember the fact that each appetizer was homemade; but they'll remember the sparkly place cards and gold-rimmed wine glasses. Although it may be tempting to create everything from scratch, store-bought shortcuts, such as crunchy breadsticks, crackers or nuts, can please a multitude of palates during cocktail hour.
"I always try to do my appetizers pre-made, like a cheese board or nuts. I might make my own spicy almonds or cashews and bake them in the oven. (It's) something light but quick to make," Kuzak said.
Don't be afraid to ask for help
Not everyone may have the space or resources to create a three-course meal and cocktails within their kitchen; but that doesn't mean that a party cannot be thrown. In this case, it may be ideal to seek out assistance from others. Kuzak stated that delegating certain items for guests to purchase can help bring a party together and serve as an icebreaker to encourage conversation about favorite shops and recipes.
"I think that people feel like they have to do it all on their own," Kuzak said. "There's this misconception that you can't ask people to bring things. Guests actually love that. Nobody wants to show up to a party empty-handed, especially if you can delegate out something really simple like asking someone to pick up cheese for a cheese board, to bring white wine or bring a baguette."
Keep the food uncomplicated and make it an interactive experience
Creating an impressive main dish may seem daunting. Hosts and hostesses might feel pressured to go big with a roasted turkey or ham as the main dish, but Kuzak suggests keeping things effortlessly casual by making the main dish something that guests can tailor to their own tastes, such as a pizza bar.
"I had a party three years ago where it was 'make your own pizza,'" Kuzak said. "So I had pre-made crusts and toppings out so that my guests could just put together what they wanted and pop it in the oven ... while they baked we had wine and appetizers. It was really nice because we were able to enjoy each others' company and conversation."
Beyond dinner, there is no need to over-do it with the dessert options; guests are likely to feel full after dining on appetizers and a main course. Kuzak suggests keeping the dessert menu straightforward with only one or two options. An interactively themed dessert is a macaron bar, stocked with cookies, spiced holiday-appropriate frostings and decorative sanding sugars or sprinkles. Guests will welcome having the chance to get creative with a hands-on dessert. Don't forget to brew a pot of coffee; sending guests off with a disposable cup filled with a warm drink, complete with a handwritten "thank you," can signal the end of the party in a gracious way.