November 29, 2011

Holiday Open House Countdown: Part One

I used to adore Christmas. I was the one who got up before all my siblings, going down the stairs on my tippy toes to scope out the presents piled high beneath the tree, checking to see if the milk and cookies were gone, biting down a squeal of delight if there was magical snow on the ground. My older, wiser sisters slept more peacefully, knowing that the thrill of anticipation is best cultivated by waiting, waiting, a little bit longer for gratification.

The obligatory beauty shot with the Christmas tree, pre-Santa visit

Invariably a gift or two was forgotten. There would be a wayward box tucked high in the closet, perhaps with new pyjamas, or maybe, if I was especially lucky, a new doll. New dolls being a rarity in a house with two older sisters and frugal, hand-me-down parents. My mother would suddenly slip away, coming back with the errant package, hastily wrapped and “forgotten” by Santa. Even when I was old enough to catch on, these last minute random gifts seemed somehow special, apart from the rest, and those pyjamas, that doll, treasured all the more for almost having been missed.

Those Christmases of a lifetime ago seem almost as mythical as Dickens. Nowadays, Christmas is a very different affair. My parents are both gone. My sisters and I, although still very close, live many miles and lives apart. And, as hard as we’ve tried, we just can’t seem to interest our cat in either new pyjamas or dolls (although a brand new catnip toy does garner more than passing interest). Time for new traditions, new ways of celebrating and sharing a spirit of joy during the Christmas season.

And thus was born our annual Holiday Open House. An iron-clad tradition, it started as a modest affair with 30 friends and family popping by to nibble on hors d’oeuvres and share a convivial hour or two. Sixteen years and three kitchens later, it is the bellwether for us that the season of giving has truly arrived, and with it, a chance to reconnect, relax, share and celebrate all that is good about Christmas.

With more than 80 people now regularly in attendance, and all of the food prepared by us, I modestly think we’ve become somewhat expert at throwing a ‘do. One that we know is as eagerly anticipated by all who come as it is by us who plan it.

As we begin the four week countdown to the big day – December 18 this year – I thought I would take you along on the journey, sharing tips, tricks, recipes and survival tactics for how to throw a party with aplomb, verve, passion and enthusiasm. Because I do firmly believe that even the most disastrous of events can be salvaged with a bit of verve and a lot of enthusiasm.

Five Tips for a Memorable Holiday Gathering

1. Send proper invitations. By that I mean in the mail. You remember mail, right? When it was exciting to receive a beautiful silver envelope amongst all of the junk and the bills? People still get excited by personal invitations and for the little bit more time and effort, it makes a wonderful impact. Yes, I know I know; you can’t keep track of RSVPs electronically; you can’t automatically send reminders; you won’t know who FOR SURE is coming and with whom – but do you ever really anyway? For years we even made our invites by hand but time and common sense in the form of my husband prevailed. Do what we do and look for beautiful invitations on sale after Christmas. Plan ahead for the next year (but remember where you put them!).

From the complex to the silly: handmade invites of Open Houses past

2. Hire help.  For goodness sake, don’t be a martyr. Hire people to help you serve/clean/clear/take coats. Even if the gathering is small, hire a local college student (or pay your older kids) to pitch in and help. Even better – if there’s a local culinary or hospitality school, post your party there. You’ll get someone who’s enthusiastic about food. You’ll be more relaxed and more importantly you’ll be able to spend time with your guests. For our annual do, we hire five wait staff: two to do last minute prep for food, and three to do the rest.

3. Simplify your food choices. Finger foods are fun easy to prepare and many can be made and frozen in advance. I also stick with all savoury. Introducing sweets means coffee, tea, etc etc.

Pastry cirlces for mini meat pies that can be baked, frozen, and pre-heated as needed

4. Remember it’s the season of giving. Amidst all of the bounty, we try to remember those who have less than us. Every year we accept donations to our Daily Bread Food Bank. With the abundance on the table, it makes us feel great to collect those boxes and boxes of food.

The generosity of our guests in full evidence

5. Give everyone a little something special to take home. Every year we make each guest a personalised gingerbread cookie. It’s probably the most laborious thing we do, but perhaps the most satisfying. I love seeing the look on the kids’ faces when they’re handed a cookie with their name on it. And nothing beats the smell of gingerbread baking.

Stay tuned for more as we gear up and count down. This is truly one of our favourite things – perhaps it will become one for you too.

November 02, 2011

Plate to Page - Eating and Drinking in la Bella Toscana

How many days does it take, I wonder, to get perfectly accustomed to having wine at every meal? In la bella Toscana, it seems the answer is barely two. Just days into the Plate to Page workshop and already I’m anticipating the wine we’ll have with lunch at Il Salicone winery.

Il Salicone is not your typical Tuscan winery. It’s an artisanal operation, producing small batch Sangiovese blend wines that are more likely to find their way into demijohns for local purchase as they are to be bottled and sold at retail. There’s no proper restaurant; tables are set outside, mismatched glasses and plastic utensils belying the feast that’s to come. The three signore preparing our meal smile and say “buon giorno” as we walk through the kitchen and out onto the simple terrace.

There couldn’t be a more perfect day for it, with the sun so blazingly hot it feels more like July than October. There’s barely a whisper of a breeze and even the birds seemed fooled into thinking it’s summer, singing like crazy as they scramble for stray crumbs. The meal is brought out and almost offhandedly laid before us. Platters abound: chicken liver crostini; cheese with acacia honey; simple salume. Ribollita¸ a slow cooked soup of day old bread and seasonal vegetables are here, along with a choice of fritatte: cheese, pancetta or leeks. The Poggioalcanto we’re drinking is just right with this Tuscan spread: full and fruity, without the rough edge that many Sangiovese wines seem to have.

We sit back, sated. And then la signora comes out with one last bite – a plate of cantuccini, traditional Tuscan almond cookies. Twice baked to draw out the moisture, cantuccini are deliberately hard and dry, to store them for long periods of time, as was the original intent, or better yet, to dip them into our wine. I move to a shady spot to savour this last bite.  As I dip the cantuccio, it absorbs the liquid like a sponge, transforming it from buttery yellow to a deep plum, and softening it just enough to take a resounding bite. Sweet and acidic, soft and hard, the conflicting sensations combine somehow in the most satisfying way.

I drain the last sip in my glass, thankful that the next meal – and next glass of wine – is only hours away.


This blog post was conceived and written at the recent Plate to Page Tuscany workshop, in partnership with Marta Majewska, who blogs at Princess Misia.  Marta is a fantastic photographer, and shot the first and the last photo in this post, while I captured the words that described our experience, and the biscotti in the middle.  Thanks, Marta, for being an amazing assignment partner and a great roommate to boot! And hugs to Valentina Jacome, our other roomie, who blogs in Portuguese at Trem Bom.

And if you are passionate about food and blogging, and you haven't heard of Plate to Page Tuscany, get thee to their website.  The four organisers are not only truly successful food bloggers; they are absolutely delightful, and the very best hosts for an intensive, engaging writing and photography workshop.  The next Plate to Page is taking place in Somerset, Engalnd; be sure to register your interest!

With thanks to the P2P rock stars: Ilva Beretta of Lucullian Delights, Jeanne Horak-Druiff of Cook Sister!,Meeta Kurana Wolff of What's For Lunch, Honey?, and Jamie Schler of Life's a Feast.  Watch this space for more P2P posts!