It's getting to that time of year again, where the pointy end becomes the party end and it's all aboard the champagne train to Good Times Central.
If you're preparing to throw a festive get-together, we've got some great tips for catering, decorating, soundtracking and hosting from those who know how to make it happen. Think personal, creative, crafty and interactive. But above all else, if you're having a party, remember to enjoy yourself as well. As that eternal quote from Spinal Tap will attest, 'Have a good time…all the time.'
Kate Stewart, Director of Bright Young Things Culinary Event Makers recommends taking an interactive approach to party food by setting up DIY tables where people can build their own snacks. Think kranskies, baguettes, cheese and slaw, or BBQ duck or pork (grab some from your local Asian grocer) or spicy tofu to wrap in lettuce leaves and top with kim chi and condiments. For a sweet touch, set out giant cookies, tubs of ice cream, fudge sauce, lollies and berries for bespoke ice cream sandwiches.
GET LUXURIOUS WITH CHEESE
A hunk of quality cheese is a great party staple. As Maurice Terzini from Icebergs/CIROC says, 'Everyone does the block of reggiano now - but for a reason. It's easy! It also allows for social interaction, talking and laughing.'
However, if you want to take your cheese to 'talk of the town' status, take a tip from Spring Street Cheese Cellar's head cheesemonger and affineur, Anthony Femia, who suggests serving 'a large wheel of triple cream brie (from 500g to 2kg) with the top cut off and about 30ml-50ml of champagne poured in the centre. Cover it and put it in the fridge to marinate overnight. Serve it the next day at room temperature with raspberries on top and a spoon to serve.' Swoon.
The current crafting movement has had a huge influence over décor and can add a bespoke charm to your get-together. Beci Orpin, designer and author of Make and Do, says, 'My favourite quick decorating trick is adding some coloured paper confetti over the table cloth. Paper confetti is getting a bit hard to find these days, but it is easy to make your own with a hole punch or cutting up thin strips of paper to make paper sprinkles.'
Amelia Crook, the brains behind the beautiful Simple Provisions blog, with the mantra 'Food does not need to be fancy to be celebrated' suggests using brown craft paper as a table runner and a posy of fresh herbs from the garden for a simple and fragrant centre piece. She also suggests you never serve anything in the packet it came in. Similarly, make store-bought dips look more appealing by adding chopped fresh herbs, olive oil and nuts on top. (She also suggests serving good quality vanilla ice cream with a dash of olive oil and sea salt on top for a stylish dessert using pantry staples. Yowza.)
Marcus Longinotti, creative director of Gastronomy, suggests looking to household items for their alternate uses, like placing plates of food on upturned pots or placing kitschy travel souvenirs amongst a fruit platter.
CUT THE CAKE
Parties can often culminate in some kind of celebratory cake – teetering wedges doled out on sagging paper plates. But not anymore! Gavin Walker of Atomic Cakes says the best way to get the most serves out of a round/square cake is to imagine it as a checkerboard, which ensures equal-sized pieces that are easy to eat. He also recommends larger cakes, even for small gatherings, for the wow factor and, when it comes to double-digit birthdays, just place two or three candles on one side of the cake board – don't go spearing a fire hazard in the middle of the cake!
CATER FOR KIDS
If you've got kids coming to your party, Alice in Frames, host of Kitchen Whiz and author of Alice's Food A to Z (April 2015) recommends you set up a 'Skewer Station' with bamboo skewers and colourful bowls of chopped fruit so they can design their own snacks. Kids are more inclined to eat something they feel a sense of ownership over. You can also use small recycled boxes and jars for kids to take leftovers home in instead of a lolly bag. (Be careful your selection doesn't exclude any kids with allergies though!)
Punches are easy-to-make and are an ideal party option because guests can serve themselves. Get inventive with ingredients and with serving vessels. Grant Collins from The Powderkeg (TPK) Potts Point emphasises that the key ingredient of a good punch is the ice. Use a block and cubes - the block can be flavoured using liqueurs, fruit and/or apple juice or cider to keep the flavour of the punch intact rather than diluting it with regular ice.
People may congregate around the punch bowl so you may as well make it a conversation piece. The TPK punch is served in a smoking barrel (with a fuse!) but they've also used vintage fire buckets, fish tanks and antique divers' helmets.
HIT THE RIGHT NOTE
The right music can underline the atmosphere of a party in that subliminal way. Steve Wide of 3RRR has a couple of simple rules. 'Don't peak early – start off with something mellow; some slow and tasty beats to get people in the mood. If you want the party to get started, pick up the pace and launch into the hits. Just make sure you stop would-be DJs from taking over the stereo - put your own comp together and stream it from a computer in a different (possibly locked) room. Marcus Longinotti offers some additional basic advice: 'If you're going to have a great party, move all your breakables.' Nothing puts a dampener on a party like a Georg Jensen in pieces.
DON'T FORGET THE BASICS
While today's shindigs bear little resemblance to the low-lit Mad Men soirees of yore, there are still some evergreen basics to keep in mind. Gastronomy's Marcus Longinotti says ice does sell out over the party season, so don't leave it to the last minute. Also, set up your food area with plenty of access to avoid traffic jams and don't put everything out at once or it will look tired – replenish that visual feast. And make sure you (and whoever you live with) are out of the shower at least two hours before guests arrive. (No harried greetings in towel-wrapped hair!)
The "Powderkeg" punch (Grant Collins)
3 cups bourbon
2 cups elderflower cordial
8 cups apple juice
2 bottle of cider (I like Custard co organic)
4-5 dashes bitters
Top with 150mls lemonade and soda mix (equal parts)
Add all ingredients into a punchbowl or barrel . Stir and add an apple ice block* (this melts into your punch to keep flavoursome) and garnish with apple and orange wheels and a couple of dashes of cinnamon. Serve in a barrel and top with dry ice to add smoking effect!
*Pour 300 mls cider and 200 mls apple juice into a plastic container with 3-4 pieces of apple and palce in freezer overnight or 6-7 hours
DRINK 2: Watermelon, mint & raspberry cooler (Sebastian Crowther MS, Head Sommelier, Rockpool)
Put the chopped flesh of a watermelon (deseeded if possible) in a bowl and crush roughly with the back of a fork. Add a few torn mint leaves then put watermelon and mint into a jug and fill with ice. Add a healthy slug of Chambord. Top off with Prosecco just before serving. Stir and serve in a rocks glass.
Syrian red pepper, walnut and pomegranate dip (Cyril Miletto for Gastronomy)
3 red capsicums
100ml extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 lemon, zested
1 tbsp lemon juice
80ml pomegranate molasses
1½ tsp ground cumin
salt and pepper
1. Prick the capsicums and place on a rack in a hot oven (240C) until skins are blistering and turning black.
2. Remove from the oven and cover with plastic wrap, or put in a lidded container to cool.
3. Rub off the skin and discard the seeds and white membranes. Place olive oil and diced onion into a hot heavy-based pan, add a half teaspoon of salt and cook over a medium heat until rich, golden and softened, then allow to cool.
4. Place all ingredients into a food processor, with a few good grinds of pepper. Process until almost smooth.
Makes 500 millilitres
New Orleans oyster shooters (Chris Weysham, head chef, Girl with the Gris Gris)
1 dozen oysters (or as many as you desire)
60ml tomato juice (or your favourite Bloody Mary mix)
¼ tsp horseradish
hot sauce (Crystal hot sauce preferred but Tabasco is fine)
spring onion, chopped
1. Place an oyster in large shot glass. Add the vodka, tomato juice and horseradish with a dash of hot sauce and a pinch of spring onion. Shoot it!
Turkish lamb pizza (Amy Roberts, Trailer Made food truck)
2 brown onions
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp cinnamon
1kg lamb mince
1 tsp salt
small pita breads
chilli flakes, lemon juice and pickled chillies, to garnish
1. Dice onions and sauté in olive oil for 20 to 30 minutes until cooked and caramelised, then stir in the cinnamon.
2. Heat pan , add a half teaspoon of onion mix per 100 grams of lamb mince and season with salt. Using a spatula, chop up the lamb mince until it's cooked through and minced.
3. Toast pita bread until warmed through. Spoon the lamb mince onto the pita. Sprinkle with chilli flakes, lemon juice and add pickled chillies for extra spice!
Makes 50. Reduce quantities to suit.
Beetroot and fluffy cheese crackers (Raph Rashid, Beatbox Kitchen and Taco Truck, author of Hungry for That: Recipes from the Beatbox Kitchen)
3 small beetroots, trimmed and unpeeled
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
30g soft blue cheese
30g cream cheese
12 crackers (use Salada or Premiums or you can make your own)
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
mint leaves, to garnish
1. Preheat oven to 180C, wrap beetroots and garlic in foil parcel and roast for one hour or until beetroots are cooked through. Remove and cool.
2. Peel the beetroots, cut in half, and put in a processor with garlic, olive oil and salt, and process until smooth, adding one tablespoon of water while processing to loosen mix.
3. In a mixing bowl, use a whisk to combine blue cheese, cream cheese and 25 millilitres of water until fluffy.
4. To assemble, spread crackers with cheese mix, then beetroot. Garnish with tomato and mint.
Louisiana shrimp cocktail (Chris Weysham, head chef, Girl with the Gris Gris)
1kg medium size prawns, peeled and deveined with the tail on
1 onion, quartered
2 sticks celery, quartered
2 lemons, quartered
1 orange, quartered
5-6 tbsp Cajun seasoning mix
1 cup ketchup
1 lemon, zested and juiced
4 tsp horseradish
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
salt, pepper and cayenne to taste
1. For the prawns, fill a large pot just over halfway with water. Add the onion, celery, lemons and orange, Cajun seasoning. Bring to a rolling boil, add prawns and stir well. Once water has returned to a boil, kill the heat and let the prawns soak for about two to three minutes. Drain and set prawns aside in cooler to chill.
2. For the cocktail sauce, combine ketchup, lemon juice and zest, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and cayenne. Stir to combine and refrigerate until ready to serve.
3. Serve on a platter with sauce in a dipping bowl or make individual ones in mini martini glasses with just a tablespoon of sauce inside and one or two prawns on the rim.