Earlier this month my husband and I hosted a cozy-glam winter cocktail party for friends in our Boston apartment. Yesterday I shared the party plan and menu, and now it's time to get a peek at how it all went down!
Buoyed by our friends' festive mood and attire (I encouraged everyone to wear something that made them feel "dashing," and was thrilled to see sparkles and bow ties around the room!), we lit candles and popped sparkling wine bottles; we played records, snacked on sugared cranberries, and ran out of the cheddar olives. It was a little crazy pulling it all off, but also exhilarating. After all, this is it — the final episode in our Gatherings from The Kitchn for the year — so why not go out in style, with a glass of boozy punch in one hand and a bacon-wrapped date in the other?
The Day(s) Before
We started prepping food on Wednesday, and tried to do a little every night between then and the party on Saturday. I also made time in the week before the party to put together some of the decor touches, like the washi tape toothpicks for the cake bits and the food label cards.
As I said in my party plan and menu post, it was really important to have a few items on the menu that could be made ahead, otherwise it's a terribly lot to do in one day! Here's how we divvied it up. I've also noted where you can even make more ahead than we did if you so choose!
The Schedule: What We Made Ahead and On the Day
The party was on a Saturday. We started prepping for it on Wednesday.
- Made all the cheddar olives* and popped them in the freezer. All that was left to do was put them on a baking sheet an hour before our guests arrived.
- Made the cranberry rosemary syrup for the punch
- Made the crispy shallots
- Made the pink grapefruit and pomegranate syrup for the sparkling wine bar
- Made the syrup for the sparkling cranberries and let them soak overnight
- Assembled the cheese balls*
- Cut up the veggies for the cheese balls
- Made the lamb meatball mixture**
Saturday (day of the party)
- Finished the sparkling cranberries
- Made the chocolate cake and ganache, and cut into bites
- Assembled and baked the bacon-wrapped dates*
- Roasted the cashews
- Made the chimichurri sauce*
- Cooked the meatballs and assembled the sliders
* This could have been made anywhere from 1 to 3 days earlier than I made it here, so good to note if you really want to get ahead of things!
** The meatball mixture can be made up to 12 hours in advance and refrigerated, or it can be frozen, uncooked, for 3 months.
We put our typewriter on the coffee table to entice guests to type out a message (like a guest book) or a funny line or whatever else struck their fancy.
As far as the decor for the party, prep for that started a month in advance with a Pinterest board to capture some of the looks and ideas I was going for: yes, I like the idea confetti on the table. And, oh, streamers! That could maybe work.
I also took stock of what I already owned (gold-rimmed plates, tablecloth, platters, flutes) and made a list of items I'd need to get (punch bowl, martini glasses, confetti, streamers, fun napkins). I found the vintage Anchor Hocking punch bowl with accompanying glasses on eBay for a great price, and bought 18 martini glasses for $17 at World Market in a terrific 1-day sale.
I started the party setup on Friday, when we strung the lights, arranged the table with the plates, platters, and labels, and moved the dining chairs against the wall. Now all that was left was to hang the streamers and finish the food. My Christmas tree and garland had been up since early December — I like to get into the holidays pronto!
The Day of the Party
Oh, the things you learn when you throw a cocktail party. Despite the schedule I laid out above, and despite my best intentions to have all the food on the table before our first guests arrived, the reality is that things always take a little longer than you anticipate, and they'll be ready when they're ready... and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
I wanted to have a dozen lamb meatball sliders on the table when guests arrived, but because the oven was occupied with the cheddar olives and bacon-wrapped dates (both of which were assembled earlier in the day, but still needed to cook and be served hot!), we didn't get to actually cooking the sliders until around 7pm (the party started at 6pm). And here's where the first lesson comes in:
Cocktail Party Tip #1: It's okay if you don't have all the food on the table right away; just make sure there's some food on the table, and lots of drinks!
As it so happened, we had cheddar olives and the goat cheese balls all set up and ready to go when the first guests arrived. My husband, the resident mixologist, also made sure guests had a drink first thing: a glass of boozy cranberry-ginger punch, a glass of sparkling wine with their choice of syrup, bitters or liqueur, or a Gold Rush, which he shook up for them.
Cocktail Party Tip #2: To keep costs down, choose a 1-liquor cocktail. This way you don't have to spend money on additional liquors or liqueurs, which can add up when you're serving a few dozen drinks a night. We served the Gold Rush, which is basically bourbon, honey, and lemon. It's a great go-to.
We may not have had the sliders ready right away, but bringing them out late actually created a bit of a scene, in a good way. Here are delicious meaty mini burgers for you! Allow me to walk around and serve them right into your mouth.
Oh, and speaking of the cheddar olives:
Cocktail Party Tip #3: If you decide to make cheddar olives for your party (and you should, at every party, because they're amazing) make three times as many as you think you'll need. Seriously. This is not normal food. People kind of lose their minds.
In her recipe for cheddar olives, Emma warned us that you can never make too many. I made 75 for 15 people — that's five per person. More than enough, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong. Perhaps it was because they were alone on the table with the cheese ball for awhile and so it's what people were eating, but I tend to think it's because they're irresistible balls of salty, savory goodness. Lesson: make a ton. Worst case scenario you have some leftover which you can eat all yourself!
(Or, if you're me, and you don't get a chance to have any cheddar olives at the party because you're too busy being a hostess, you can make up a batch the next day just for yourself to have for dinner while you watch Jimmy Fallon. Truth.)
We served two versions of Faith's Festive Cranberry Fizz — a boozy version in the punch bowl, and a non-boozy version (made without the gin) in a pitcher.
Cocktail Party Tip #4: Offer a mocktail. I know that seems to go against the very nature of a cocktail party, but not everyone likes to drink (or can drink), so why should they miss out on the fun? Faith's punch recipe used here is excellent; it's complex and a little bittersweet, and totally stands on its own.
Cocktail Party Tip #5: Set up chairs away from the main action of the party. People like to congregate around food, so I knew my dining room would be 'standing room only' for most of the night. I set five additional chairs in the adjoining living room for those friends who wanted to relax or have a quieter conversation away from the bustle of the cocktail-shaking and music.
Cocktail Party Tip #6: Learn from my oversight, and get a champagne bucket if you're serving any kind of sparking wine. It was the one thing I realized too late I'd neglected to get, so the sparkling wine had nowhere to chill once it was opened, and I had to keep an eye on the bottles throughout the night so I knew when to get a new one out of the fridge. (Not something I needed to worry about.)
The cake bites were my favorite part of the whole menu. I'm not really a cake person, but I love chocolate, and these little bites were the perfect sweet morsel. A whole piece would have been too rich (and I imagine there would have been a lot of half-eaten pieces of cake at the end of the night), but just one little bite (or two, maybe three!) is a great thing to offer guests, and just right for an appetizer-only party.
The Music: A Mix of the Classics
I'm eternally indebted to my friends Jed and Allison, who brought two bags of records from their personal collection for the party. (We're recent record player owners, and we only have five records to our name right now — not enough for a party!) Over four hours we moved through Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, Lou Reed, Edith Piaf, Hank Williams, Stevie Wonder, Beirut, Fleetwood Mac, The Band, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Steely Dan, even a little Michael Jackson when everyone was feeling nice and loose and ready for a little dancing!
Jed & Allison's Tips for Playing Records at a Party
- Start with albums that'll set a neutral mood, something that works as mellow background music — old-timey (they started with King Oliver's Dixie Syncopators) or jazz is always good. You don't want the music to be too overwhelming right at the beginning. Chronology can help you here. If you're not sure where to start, go with your oldest records first, and then move through the decades.
- Pick albums that have a lot of hit songs (as opposed to only one or two really good ones) so you don't have to switch the record out right away.
- Play only one side of a record, then move on to something new.
- Transitions between records should be either smooth or exciting. You either want to move to a similar style or genre for continuity, or go in the opposite direction and throw in a song that'll get people's attention. (Don't do this too often, though, or it'll feel fragmented.)
- Stick with the classics, and there's something for everyone. Don't be too obscure in your choices, and let guests pick through the albums, see what you have, and make requests.
- Finally, let it all go at the end of the night, and play whatever people want!
And that was our Winter Glam Cocktail Party! Dare I say we'll make it an annual tradition? I had so much fun that I think I just might! Still to come: I share a little more about the cake bites served, how we put together the sparkling wine bar, and why both of those are great things to do at a cocktail party!
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A Winter Glam Cocktail Party