Party Planner: Our Guide to Hosting a Simple, Sustainable Holiday Gathering

Throwing an intimate get-together is a lot like baking a cake—while you can change up the flavor (chocolate or red velvet?), there are a few ingredients that are absolutely essential in ensuring that it comes out just right. So, as we near one of the most social times of the year, we called on three of our most talented LA-based friends who happen to be very familiar with these ingredients, to plan an easy, sustainable holiday gathering. We hope they inspire you to throw a party of your own.

The Experts
Heather Taylor, a textile designer, shows us how to set the table and set the mood.

Annie Campbell, the owner of a full-service boutique catering business, shares simple yet statement-making recipes—plus the key to a killer cheese board.

Holly Vesecky, owner of Hollyflora, teaches us how to personalize our blooms (and make every arrangement work with any style of vase).

The Table
All good party planning starts here. Where you choose to dine will be the gathering place for the rest of the night, so Heather recommends picking a spot that’s spacious (with enough room to get in and out of your chair comfortably) yet cozy. Your table might only fit in one area— à la the dining room—but if you have open space, try moving it around to find the perfect spot for the occasion.

When it comes to choosing your table settings, Heather recommends keeping it classic but in seasonal colors. For our party she chose a striped runner, saying, “I love how it made for a really elegant backdrop and it played nicely with the wood table.” But there are no rules when it comes to tablecloths vs. runners. “I usually like to use one of each,” Heather says. “Maybe a tablecloth on my dining room table and a runner on my bar—or vice versa—it’s just nice to mix it up for a little variety.” Speaking of mixing it up, cloth napkins not only add another textural element to the table, but they’re also an easy way to prevent waste that paper napkins create.

Now, it’s time to eat!

The Food
Entertaining is about bringing people together, and there’s no better way to do that than by luring them in with delicious bites. When creating the menu for our get-together, Annie went with simplicity—without sacrificing festivity. “Holly, Heather, and I had discussed the palette of the party, so I wanted dishes that complemented Heather’s linens and Holly’s flowers,” explained Annie. “All of the ingredients for the menu are seasonal and can usually be found at your local farmers market.”

“All of the ingredients for the menu are seasonal and can usually be found at your local farmers market.”

Care for a cocktail (or mocktail)? Whether it’s a group of close friends or first-time acquaintances, almost everyone mingles a little more comfortably with a drink in hand—alcoholic or otherwise. While Annie likes to always have a variety of beverages available (water, beer, wine), “a signature cocktail makes a big impression”. See the recipe below for the Blood Orange Mule she made for us. Make it a mocktail by subbing the tequila for sparkling water. And for a festive flourish, adorn your drinks with floral ice cubes. Simply add edible flowers or herbs to a large ice cube tray, fill the rest of the way with water, and freeze. They won’t have a taste, just a nice aroma. (And bonus: They’re seriously Instagrammable.)

“A signature cocktail makes a big impression.”

No holiday party would be complete without a cheese board, styled to perfection, of course. They’re simple, but there are tricks to getting them just right—starting with the ingredients. Annie’s staples include a variety of cheeses that range in color, texture, and shape along with seasonal fruit (pomegranates, citrus, and Asian pears) and other crunchies like rosemary cashews, spiced pecans, olives, and fig jam.

Annie centers the larger items, like grapes or pomegranates, as the focal point and works from there. She recommends adding olives and nuts in pretty bowls to keep the board tidy and prevent them from rolling off. Lastly, fill in empty spaces with crackers, fruit, and garnishes like herbs or clipped greenery. “The more full the tray looks, the more people want to eat it.” And importantly, placement is everything. Annie recommends thinking about the flow of your event, saying, “I put the cheese board where I hope people will gather, and then move it to where they actually are, if needed.”

“I put the cheese board where I hope people will gather, and then move it to where they actually are, if needed.”

For the main menu, Annie chose easy yet flavorful crowd-pleasers, including a farro salad, frisée and mustard greens, pomegranate-glazed Cornish game hens, and a ginger cake with cream cheese frosting (full recipes below). “The Cornish game hens are rather easy to prepare, but garnishing them with fresh pomegranates and herbs elevates the recipe to an ‘entertaining’ dish.” Both of the salads are vegan-friendly but if you feel you need something more, add in a plate of roasted seasonal vegetables.

Now that the food is ready, it’s time to decide how it should be served. Family style? Plated? Buffet? “It comes down to the meal and the guest count,” explains Annie. “For large groups, buffet style works best, but for smaller dinners, I like to plate certain dishes such as soups and pastas, and serve the rest family style.” For our gathering, Annie also used place cards at the table, saying, “I like assigned seating for dinner parties when not everyone knows each other.” While her husband disagrees, Annie says, “[I like] the opportunity for considered connections between people who I think would get along or would like to catch up.” Needless to say, it’s up to you whether you’d like to be the matchmaker or not.

“I like assigned seating for dinner parties when not everyone knows each other.”

The Flowers
When it came to the floral details of our shoot, Holly went for simple elegance—“Something that could be easily recreated but still felt unique,” she explains. She chose greenery (silver cypress and gunni eucalyptus) and deep burgundy dahlias to mimic the colors of the season. Her number-one tip for creating an arrangement? “Find that local element that makes it personal.” For example, she cut fresh fruit and greenery from an organic orchard in Ojai where she lives, which inspired her to use citrus as a detail in the florals.

“Find that local element that makes it personal.”

For the holidays, she loves pomegranates, fresh figs, and citrus. Start in your backyard and see what can be foraged. Any berry bushes? Next, stop by your farmers market to see what’s fresh and available. Last but not least—Trader Joe’s is a hidden gem for florals. No matter where you get your flowers, Holly suggests keeping them in the same family and color. Not only will this elevate the look, it will also keep you sane.

Now, for the fun part—where to put them. Holly focuses on the entryway, the dining table, and the powder room. If the food is being served family style, keep the arrangement to one centerpiece. “I used to want to want to fill every square inch with flowers, but these days, I like to see some negative space which also allows both elements to breathe,” says Holly.

When building an arrangement, Holly recommends starting with a focal point, which is generally the flowers, then adding greenery around them and finishing with the accent pieces (in our case, it was the oranges). If your vases aren’t holding your flowers just right, try a “flower frog”. The circular disk is placed at the bottom of the vessel—its holes or spikes keep your flowers exactly where you want them.

The Makeup
When it comes to perfecting your holiday party look, makeup is always the finish line. Staying true to our simpler theme, our Chief Artistic Officer, Christy Coleman, took a less-is-more approach to makeup, using a blend of Gala and Premier from the Mini Color Intense Lipstick Vault along with a touch of gloss in Spice from the New Nudes Lip Gloss Trio. She finished the look with a swipe of Stardust Cream Eyeshadow in Celeste on the eyes.

Not sure how to change up your look? Stick with your usual routine but play up your lips, cheeks, or eyes (maybe just not all at once). While summer is all about coral and bronze, rosy tones play nicely with the cooler weather. If a statement lip is a little intimidating, pat the color into your lips with your finger for a more lived-in finish.

The Vibe
When choosing the look and feel for your gathering, all three of our experts found ways to make the space feel cozy and personal. Heather’s favorite quick tip for setting the mood? “Lighting goes a long way. I like to dim the lights and use a lot of faux candles—it’s festive and welcoming.”

“Lighting goes a long way—it’s festive and welcoming.”

Avoid any awkward moments of silence with a killer playlist. Heather loves the “Midnight in Paris” station on Pandora to create a relaxed atmosphere. When you’re ready to start feeling merry, we’ve created a festive playlist for you (with a few of Heather, Holly, and Annie’s favorites in the mix).

The Cleanup
If you use reusable items (plates, glasses, napkins, etc.) you shouldn’t have too much waste, and most food scraps can be composted (don’t forget your flowers, too). Click here for the full list of the dos and don’ts.

No matter how you throw your celebration this holiday season, as long as loved ones are near, it’s sure to be time well spent. We hope these tips and tricks make your gatherings all the more enjoyable. Happy holidays!


The Menu

makes four cocktails

4 ounces blood orange juice
2 ounces fresh lime juice
8 ounces vodka or blanco tequila
12 ounces ginger beer
lime wedges, orange twists, or candied ginger, for garnish

to make the cocktail: Combine  the blood orange juice, lime juice, alcohol, and ginger beer in a pitcher and stir well. Let guests pour over ice and enjoy!!

note: Citrus varies in sweetness and tartness, so taste the drink and adjust the ratios as needed.

serves 8

4 large handfuls of mustard greens, a mix of green and purple frill
2 heads of frisée, removed from the stalk
1 cup pomegranate seeds
2 navel oranges, peels removed and segmented
2 blood oranges, peels removed and segmented
3 tablespoons champagne vinaigrette

for the dressing
1½ cups extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
½ shallot, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

to make the dressing: In a mixing bowl, combine vinegar, Dijon, garlic, shallot, salt, and pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to create an emulsion.

to assemble the salad: In a large mixing bowl, combine frisée, mustard greens, pomegranate seeds, and citrus segments. Drizzle with champagne vinaigrette and season with a few pinches of salt and pepper. Toss to combine and taste for seasoning and dressing.

tips: Segmented oranges and dressing can be prepared a day or two in advance and kept refrigerated.

serves 8

3 Cornish game hens, approximately 24 ounces each
2 medium shallots, peeled and halved
2 lemons, halved
1 bundle of fresh sage
½ cup kosher salt
3 teaspoons black pepper
1½ cups pomegranate molasses
butcher’s twine
2 pomegranates, halved or quartered, to garnish
rosemary or herbs, to garnish

to prepare the Cornish game hens: Rinse the Cornish game hens under cold water and pat dry with a towel. Season the cavities of the hens liberally with salt and pepper. Stuff half of a shallot, half of a lemon, and a sprig of sage into the cavity of each hen. Use the butcher’s twine to truss the hens. Season the skin of the trussed hens with the remaining salt and pepper, and refrigerate uncovered overnight.

to cook: Remove hens from the refrigerator an hour before ready to cook. Pat dry with paper towel and place on roasting pan with rack. Brush with pomegranate molasses.

Heat oven to 350˚ F convection. Brush hens again with another coat of pomegranate molasses right before going into the oven. Roast for 15 minutes. Remove hens from oven and carefully apply another coat of pomegranate molasses. Return hens to oven and roast another 15-20 minutes, until an internal thermometer registers 150 degrees in the thickest part of the breast. Let rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

to serve: Place the cooked hens on a serving platter and garnish with halves or quarters of fresh pomegranates and herbs.

serves 8

2 cups dried farro
6 cups water or vegetable stock
3 tablespoons of kosher salt
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 head of cauliflower, cut into small florets
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small bundle of sage
8 sprigs of thyme
1 teaspoon of chili flakes
1 teaspoon fresh black pepper
3 Fresno chilies, seeded and thinly sliced
2 cups parsley, chopped

for the red wine vinaigrette
1½ cups extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper

to make the dressing: In a mixing bowl, combine vinegar, Dijon, garlic, salt, and pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to create an emulsion.

to prepare the farro: Rinse and drain farro. Place in a pot and add salt and water or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until water or stock is absorbed and farro is tender. Drain well, then transfer to a large bowl to cool.

to roast the butternut squash and cauliflower: Preheat the oven to 400˚ degrees F. In a mixing bowl, toss the squash and cauliflower with olive oil, sage, and thyme until the vegetables are evenly coated.  Season with salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Transfer vegetables to a parchment-lined baking sheet tray. Spread out into a single layer (note: use two sheet trays, if necessary). Roast until the squash and cauliflower are tender and lightly browned, 20-25 minutes. Set aside until cool.

to assemble the salad: Combine the cooked farro and roasted vegetables, and toss generously with the red wine vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper, and fold in the Fresno chilies and chopped parsley.

makes 1 four-tiered 9’’ layer cake

7 cups flour
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups (4 sticks) butter, room temperature
2½ cups packed dark brown sugar
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
4 egg yolks, room temperature
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
2½ cups buttermilk, room temperature

for the frosting
20 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2½ sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
6½ cups powdered sugar, sifted
2½ teaspoons vanilla extract

to decorate
seasonal greenery, florals, and fruit

to prepare cake: Butter and flour four 9’’ cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment. Preheat oven to 325˚ degrees.

to make cake: Sift the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves together in a medium bowl; set aside.

In a mixer bowl, with the mixer on high speed, beat the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and egg yolks, beating until creamy. On low speed, alternatively blend in the dry ingredients and buttermilk in small batches, starting and ending with the dry ingredients.

Divide the batter between the three prepared pans, and smooth to level.  Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. All ovens are different, so start checking at 35-40 minutes.

to make frosting: Beat cream cheese in a stand mixer. Add butter. Add powdered sugar. Add vanilla extract. Beat until smooth.

to assemble: Divide the frosting between the layers of cake and on top, leaving the sides naked. Decorate with flowers, greenery, and seasonal fruit.

tips: Frosting can be made a day in advance and will keep in the refrigerator. The cake layers can be baked a day in advance and wrapped tightly, once cooled. Assembled cake will keep for a couple of days.

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