So far this week, I've talked about the plan for my holiday potluck, shared the recipe for the incredible slow-cooked bigos stew that I made as my own dish, and showed you how to set a beautiful, easy holiday table with evergreens. Now it's time talk about the party itself! Here's how it all came together, from the mulled wine that we sipped as dishes were warmed to the dinner itself and the walnut cake we had for dessert. The whole evening came together with sparkle and light and ample amounts of good cheer.
The Day Before
The beauty of the potluck is that there's not much for the host to worry about before the guests arrive! I had already decided on my own dish: a big pot of hearty bigos stew. I got that going in the afternoon the day before the party and let it simmer into the evening. Boy oh boy, did my house smell good! I confess that I may have sampled a bowl for my dinner that night — I had to make sure it was good, right?
Tracy and I had also decided that we wanted to give gingerbread cookies as a little thank you to our guests for coming, so once the stew was out of the oven, I made a few batches of my favorite recipe (I'll be talking more about this recipe tomorrow!). Tracy and I would decorate the cookies together at her house the next day.
The Day of the Party
I arrived at Tracy's house a few hours before our guests were due to arrive to help her set everything up and get the gingerbread cookies decorated. Our plan for the evening was to serve cheese and crackers with mulled wine at her kitchen island while our guests arrived and heated up their dishes, then we'd move on to dinner in her dining room. We thought we'd end the evening in her den in front of the fire with slices of cake and a special after-dinner sip.
Setting Up the Buffet Table
We set a folding table against one of the walls in Tracy's dining room to serve as our buffet table. We covered it with a simple white tablecloth (insta-fancy!) and used post-it notes to mark where each dish would go. To spiff it up, we brought in some of the same decor we'd be using on the table: a few branches of fresh evergreen and a few scattered paper snowflakes.
Using the post-it notes to mark where the dishes would go was a great idea for both figuring out how to decorate the table and also for visually thinking through the flow of the buffet. We put the main dish near the beginning with the sides nearby. The salad and dinner rolls went next, and even though we'd be serving it in another room, we decided to display the dessert toward the back of the table so our guests could ooh and ahh as they served themselves dinner.
Setting Up the Dinner Table
A potluck can be a casual, eat-off-your-lap affair or just as fancy as a dinner party with crisp tablecloths and tapered candles. Tracy and I decided to go for the middle ground with our party — something that would feel festive and fun, but also very relaxed.
Tracy cut several branches of evergreen from around her house the morning of the party, and when I arrived, we arranged them down the length of her table. White paper snowflakes and silver ornaments completed the look. We left the table bare of placemats or linens and just let her beautiful wooden table have its own moment. To keep it feeling casual, we also set out silverware and napkins in groups around the table instead of at each place setting.
Icing the Gingerbread
The only thing left to do before guests arrived was decorate the gingerbread cookies — fun! We'd talked about having this be an activity we shared with our guests while the party was going on, but ultimately decided to just focus on enjoying dinner and each other's company. If you're throwing an afternoon potluck or have kids coming to the party, I think it would be a lot of fun to set up a separate table where guests and children could wander over and decorate a few cookies.
Guests Arrive with Their Dishes
As the sun set, our guests started arriving with potluck dishes in hand. I got the mulled wine going in a slow cooker set to "warm" and set out a cheese plate for nibbles. We warmed their dishes as needed and the buffet table started filling up.
Almost more than seeing this feast appear out of thin air, I loved hearing the stories that came with each one. Our friend Sheri learned how to make the most perfectly nubbly spaetzle using a perforated hotel pan during an internship at Bar Tartine in San Francisco. The platzki were a childhood favorite from my friend Matthieu, who grew up in Alsace. Coco learned how to make this chewy, crusty opa bread from an old roommate, and Cheryl's gift of walnut cake came from her upcoming cookbook of recipes featuring yogurt. (That's Cheryl Sternman Rule whose previous book Ripe was a favorite of ours! Keep an eye on this one.)
Sitting Down to Dinner
When the aromas from all these dishes and our own rumbling stomachs became impossible to ignore, we moved the party into the dining room. Everyone grabbed a plate and started moving through the buffet. I might start serving all my dinner parties buffet-style — it was so easy for everyone to fill their plates and there were no hot dishes crowding the table!
We lit the candles on the table and clinked glasses over our collaborative dinner. The dinner felt perfect: good food, good friends, good cheer. We poured second glasses of wine and made repeat visits to the buffet table.
When we were reduced to covertly licking our plates, we moved the party into the den and got the fireplace going. Cheryl served slivers of her fantastic cake —stuffed as we were, we still managed to find room, of course! It was the perfect cap to the meal.
I also brought out one last surprise: a bottle of Sam Adams' recently-released 2013 Utopias. An evening like this one calls for something extra-special, and I was so happy to be able to share one of my favorite beers with these friends. I poured a little for everyone and we sipped it happily along with our cake.
Holiday Potluck — A New Tradition?
Alas, all evenings must come to an end and many of our guests still had a long drive ahead. We cleared the plates and divvied up the leftovers in the kitchen. Tracy and I handed out gingerbread cookies as guests pulled on their coats and hugged each of our friends before they hit the road.
This potluck was so much fun — and felt so very the opposite of stressful — that I think I might make this a tradition. A cozy evening with friends felt just right in the middle of all our other holiday plans. If you still have a free night between now and the end of the year, I highly recommend gathering a few friends and having a potluck of your own.
I still have a few more morsels from this evening to share with you — tomorrow, I'll talk about my favorite gingerbread recipe and give you a closer look at that Utopias. I'll also share my tips for setting up a potluck table and making sure it looks as good as it tastes.
Featured Party Resources
Drinking glasses: various mason jars
Wine glasses: various
Napkin rings: Crate & Barrel
Paper snowflakes: handmade
Disco-ball decorations: Cost Plus World Market
Candle holders: CB2
Starburst Sculpture: West Elm
String lights: Amazon
(Image credits: Danielle Tsi)