Create a Thanksgiving Cocktail

One of the secrets of effortless hostessing is to create a signature cocktail for your party. This reduces the amount of mixers and liquor that you have to purchase, helps reinforce a party’s theme, and makes it easier to mix and serve beverages.

This cocktail combines the flavors of fall in a rich and creamy, slightly spicy concoction. I call it the “Chai Thanks-a-Latte.” Get it??


Chai Thanks-a-Latte Chai Cocktail

1 c. Chai Cream Liqueur
1/2 c. vanilla vodka
1/2 c. half and half, cream, or milk
Cinnamon sugar (optional)


Combine the liquid ingredients over ice in a large cocktail shaker and shake well to blend. (Alternatively, mix the cocktail in a pitcher and shake/strain individual servings as needed.) Strain into martini glasses rimmed with cinnamon sugar if desired. Serves 4.

Note: This recipe may be easily converted to single servings; simply use a 2:1:1 shot ratio for the ingredients. So, for every 2 shots of Chai Cream Liquer, for example, use 1 shot of vodka and 1 shot of cream.

To make cinnamon sugar, combine ½ c. granulated sugar with 1 T. cinnamon. Spread a layer of sugar on a saucer or luncheon plate. Rub the rim of a martini glass with a lemon peel, an apple wedge or dip in water. Immediately coat the rim with the sugar.

Any leftover cinnamon sugar may be stored in an airtight container and used in tea, on cereal and grapefruit, or broiled on toast.

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Entertaining Outside the Home

I love to throw a good party, especially at home. But sometimes entertaining outside of the home is the best solution for a celebration. In addition to offering convenience for you (no clean up!) and your guests, it can be an economical choice, too.

My past “out of house” party venues have included a pumpkin patch, an IMAX theatre and of course, local eateries.

Recently two coworkers and I hosted a baby shower for a fellow coworker. We knew we wanted an “Alice in Wonderland” theme, so a tea party seemed ideal. We were able to find a local English gastro pub that featured daily high tea. Because high tea is a prix fixe (fixed price) menu, we were able to work out a group rate that was about what we would have paid for food and beverage anyway.

Luckily, the mother-to-be favors a pink and brown color scheme, and the restaurant had brown and white linens. Adding touches of pink was a cinch with balloon bouquets for each table, pink butter mints sprinkled on the table and pink and brown gift bags at each place setting.

Although the bags look extravagant, they were relatively inexpensive to put together. We found tea infusers online for a couple dollars each, then added a custom blended tea that we called “Lavender Lullaby” from a local tea shop. I printed bag tags with my color printer in just a few minutes. Filling individual tea bags took the most time and patience! Then it was just a matter of setting up an assembly line of bags (from and dropping in tea bags, the infuser and a brochure about tea (free from the tea store), then topping them off with some pink tissue from my local Party City store.

Because high tea is served in courses, it kept the afternoon on track and we could skip the shower games. Instead, we opted for “new mom advice cards” that every guest filled out. This also encouraged conversation at the tables. Later we organized all the cards into a photo album.

Guests stayed briefly to chat and wrap up the party after the gifts were opened. We paid the bill and were free to go. The guests appreciated the central location of the restaurant and the abundance of parking, which can sometimes be an issue at a private residence.

It was a very satisfying hostess experience!

Besides leaving the clean up for the restaurant, entertaining in a restaurant provides a certain finality to the festivities—no guests lingering on your sofa until the wee hours. And you can always leave, even when the last guest refuses to go. (Anyone who’s had the person who just won’t leave when all you can think about is going to sleep because it was a really long day/party knows what I mean.)

Here are some tips for entertaining in a restaurant:

  • Pick a theme and a color scheme; it simplifies decisions about decorations.
  • Coordinate with the venue’s colors where possible.
  • Keep the favors simple and easy to transport.
  • Use ice breakers or other devices to encourage table conversation.
  • Keep the menu simple; work with the venue for a prix fixe menu.
  • Split the cost and the responsibilities with other hostesses.
  • Confirm what time you may arrive to decorate and set up, and see if restaurant staff is available to assist.
  • Confirm the number of tables you will need, including a gift table, and any special requests.
  • Many restaurants have private dining rooms for parties at no extra cost.

The next time you’d love to have a get together or a celebration, consider saving yourself a lot of time and effort and look to entertain outside the home.

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Halloween Cocktails Made Easy

If you’re having a Halloween bash this year, streamline your beverage menu to one alcoholic and one non-alcoholic option. For example, you could mix up an easy punch with equal parts pineapple juice and sparkling apple cider with a splash of a flavored syrup. Raspberry syrup would impart a nice blood-red quality! I used to be a fan of punch bowls (I own 3!), but I now prefer beverage dispensers with easy-pour spouts. They are so inexpensive and widely available – and less messy than ladling out of a punch bowl.

For the alcoholic beverage, look a pre-mixed mimosa. I found the Mionetto Il Spritz at World Market (about $14). It’s a semi-sparkling white wine with natural citrus flavors. Other brands have their own varieties; have fun taste testing before your party and pick the winner for you and your family and friends.

Once you’ve picked your poison, serve it chilled in custom stemless glasses. (Glasses, $1.99 each at World Market; decals $10 for 12 at

Another tricked I’ve picked up over the years is to line the serving trays with a bar towel or napkins to avoid stains or chemical reactions with the tray. For Halloween, simply line your trays with black cardstock. Write the name of the drink directly on the cardstock with a white pencil. This idea would also work with appetizers!

Happy Halloween!

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Easy Easter Placecards

It’s a throwback to more formal times for sure, but using placecards to seat your guests at Easter dinner is a fun way to encourage conversation and add some color to the table. Here are three super easy creations.

Dyed egg: Write the name or initial of the guest on a dyed egg (you already have them on hand; why not use them?). Place the egg in an egg cup or, as here, a liqueur glass. Or, look for paper egg stands where you purchase dye kits.

Candy carrot: Cut orange tissue paper into 8 inch squares. Place a scant handful of jelly beans or chocolate candies in the center of the paper, gather into a loose cone shape and tie with green curling ribbon. Cut a piece of green paper and a piece of velum into leaf shapes; write the guest’s name on the velum leaf. Layer them together, punch a hole and attach to the ribbon. Curl the ends of the ribbon for carrot tops!

Bunny buddy: Who can resist a solid chocolate bunny on Easter? Simply write the guest’s name on a white tag (available at office supply stores) and tie the tag to the bunny’s neck with curling ribbon. Your guests can take their treat home to enjoy later, or indulge (ears first, of course!) right at the table.

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Party Favors End the Night on the Right Note

Don’t you love going to some big gala event and getting a goodie bag as you leave? I sure do! That’s why I also love sending my guests home from a party with a little something to remember the evening. Party favors are any small gift item that a guest may take home, and the selection is limited only by your imagination. They can range in price from a few cents to a few hundred dollars at celebrity parties.

For your home affairs, include a line item in your party spending plan for party favors, and then let your creativity loose! Party favors can do double duty as a place card at a dinner party, so things like mini picture frames or a small plant in a pot could work. Try to fit the party favor into the theme of the party. For example, at a “Moonlight Madness” party I hosted, guests received a packet of moon-shaped lemon cookies (purchased from a local restaurant) with a goodnight poem tied on with a shimmery ribbon. (See photo.) I arranged the packets on silver trays near the door so guests could take one as they left the party. I received many compliments the next day!

For your next brunch, dinner party or event, what can you find to give your guests as a memento of your time together? Whatever your choose, be sure to assemble them at least the day before your party.

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Big Game Buffet Menu

NYE to Val 2012 064The “Big Game” is on Sunday, February 5, and while millions will gather to watch football and clever commercials, millions more will be there for the food. Whether you’re hosting a game viewing party or a game-protesting movie marathon, easy-to-make yet delicious fare is sure to be a hit. This menu supposes a half-time or intermission buffet; round out your day with some snacks on the coffee table (a dip with chips and carrots along with party mix, for example) and a beverage or two and you’re all set. There’s a healthy chili (well, depending on how you garnish it it’s healthy!), a satisfying snacker sandwich and a tangy chopped salad. In other words, a little something for everyone!

Mom’s Mini Ham n’ Cheese

One bite of these tasty little sandwiches is a walk down memory lane for me. My mom came up with this combination, and this recipe is as close to authentic as I get it without my hometown bakery and butcher shop. We would set up an assembly line on the kitchen table and make dozens at a time when the bakery had the “right” rolls. I’ve tried everything from hamburger buns to croissants over the years, but the premade dinner rolls from the grocery store bakery seem to do the trick. These freeze beautifully and make great after school snacks or a quick “I’m too tired to cook” dinner with a simple green salad. (Try arugula drizzled with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.)

12 bakery dinner rolls
3/4 pound sliced deli hamNYE to Val 2012 016
6 slices Swiss cheese
¼ c. plus 1 T. Miracle Whip® salad dressing (or mayonnaise)
2 T. yellow mustard
1 t. dry minced onion

Combine the Miracle Whip®, mustard and onion in a small bowl and set aside. Cut the rolls in half with a serrated knife

and separate the top and bottom; line up the cut rolls on a cutting board or counter top. Cut the cheese slices in half. To assemble the sandwiches, place 2 slices of ham (fold it to fit on the roll) on the bottom portion of each roll and top with ½ a slice of cheese folded in half. Spread the top portion of each roll with a scant teaspoon of the mustard sauce. Wrap each sandwich in a piece of aluminum foil. At this point, the sandwiches may be refrigerated overnight before an event or stored in the freezer for up to 2 months.

To serve, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake sandwiches 15 to 17 minutes until the center is piping hot. From frozen, bake 30 to 35 minutes. Serves 12 as an appetizer; 6 as a dinner portion

White Chicken Chili

Using a slow cooker is a smart play on game day: you can cook and serve your dish piping hot right on the buffet table. I like the idea of serving this super healthy chili in mugs since they’re easier to carry and hold on to while sitting on the couch.

2 T. olive oil
2 pounds ground chicken (or turkey)
2 cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 ½ c. frozen white petite corn
1 white onion, dicedNYE to Val 2012 055
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. salt
½ t. white pepper
1 T. dried oregano
1 T. chili powder
2 T. ground cumin
1 32 oz. box low-sodium chicken stock
1 bag fresh baby spinach

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the olive oil and the chicken. Cook the chicken, stirring frequently and mashing the chicken with a fork to separate it. Place the chicken the crock of a slow cooker (3.5 to 5 quart size) and add all remaining items except the spinach. Stir thoroughly to combine. Cook on low 10 to 12 hours; on NYE to Val 2012 056high 5 to 6 hours. One hour before serving, taste and adjust seasonings. Add the spinach, one handful at a time, stirring after each addition. If the chili is too thin for your preference, thicken it by making a slurry: remove a ladle of hot liquid to a small bowl and whisk in 2 t. cornstarch. Stir the slurry into the chili; replace the cover and finish cooking.

Serve hot with one or more garnishes: shredded Monterrey Jack cheese; sour cream, chopped cilantro, lime wedges, chopped jalapenos, and crumbled tortilla chips. Serves 6 to 8.

Chopped Salad

A chopped salad is a perfect party food; since everything is already cut into bite-sized pieces, your guests don’t need a knife! This can be labor-intensive, so one option is to chop everything the morning of your event and store the ingredients in plastic bags until just before tossing and serving. This is also a good use of any leftover veggies, meats or cheeses in the fridge; substitute what you prefer or what you have on hand!NYE to Val 2012 061

1 head iceberg lettuce
4 oz. hard salami or pepperoni
4 oz. block Swiss cheese
1 red pepper, diced
½ red onion, diced
1 14 oz. can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 c. cherry tomatoes, quartered

Wash and dry the lettuce; chop into bite-size pieces and place in a large serving bowl. Cut the salami and Swiss cheese into ¼ inch cubes and add to the bowl. Add remaining ingredients; toss well. Serve with honey-lime vinaigrette or a dressing of your choice on the side. Serves 6 to 8.

Honey-Lime Vinaigrette

Juice and zest of 2 limes
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup olive oil

Combine lime juice, zest, vinegar and honey in a bowl and whisk to combine. While whisking, slowly drizzle in the oil. Whisk until well-combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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