Savvy Soirees

‘Tis the season for celebration, but you hardly need that excuse to gather friends and acquaintances together for a memorable evening any time of year. Why not be the one who hosts the most talked-about party? You make the guest list; we’ll get you started with advice from the pros on what makes a party successful.

The first thing to do when hosting any type of get-together is plan the menu. Unfortunately, this can also be one of the most confusing details.

“A common mistake people make is thinking they need more variety of food and more quantity of food than they really do,” says Martha Jane Davis who launched Woodlea Gardens Inc. in Ocala in 1995.

“Put your time and energy into one or two main items, such as an entrée that’s going to be your showpiece and an hors d’oeuvre that is really pretty,” suggests Davis, who started doing flowers for weddings and then evolved into catering and “carry-home gourmet,” now her primary focus. “For the rest, just have simple things such as a cheese platter you can decorate with berries and grapes. You really only need four to eight different items, with eight being the max.”

Don’t feel like you need to make everything from scratch. Davis often has clients who make some of the party food themselves and then pick up a couple items from her, which come on attractive serving trays and are ready to place on the table.

Rather than going overboard—which will only leave you stressed out—create a gracious atmosphere for your guests.

“Use sprigs of greenery trimmed from your yard and don’t forget flowers,” says Davis. “When people walk in, most won’t realize why a place looks welcoming, but they’ll notice that you’ve created a place for them to have a fun, relaxing time. This is your gift to them.”

Judith Brunson of Ocala knows a thing or two about throwing a good party. While she hosts sit-down dinners and cozy get-togethers throughout the year, she also gives a larger party for about 50 guests twice a year.

“A party isn’t any good if the host and hostess aren’t having any fun. This is why I always hire help. For a party with 50 guests, I’ll hire one bartender, two people in the kitchen and may have additional servers,” notes Judith, who likes to have a theme to set the party’s atmosphere and often holds her largest gatherings around a holiday.

“We usually have a full bar because someone may like Dewar’s scotch and another might only want Grey Goose vodka,” says Judith, adding that this accommodates people who have specific tastes but also lets guests experiment with different drink options. “Bartenders are very good about making sure people don’t have too much to drink. We always have juice, tea, water and soft drinks as well as serving coffee after dinner.”

Many bartenders are happy to hire out and work special events. If you already know a bartender at a favorite restaurant, ask him or her if they’re available and what they typically charge. If you don’t know any bartenders, get recommendations from a restaurant you trust or a caterer you or a friend have used.

Since you don’t want guests drinking without eating, it’s important to have plenty of food on hand. For example, Judith’s parties always include dinner served at a buffet station, as well as additional “nibble stations” because not everyone wants to eat at the same time.

When it comes to food, you may choose to cater it, prepare the dishes yourself or a combination of both. Whatever you decide, people tend to gather around the bar, so take a tip from Judith and encourage mingling by setting up different food stations both inside and outside. You can also hire a server to walk around with hors d’oeuvres.

Because guests may not be sitting at a table, Judith says it’s important to serve dishes that don’t require a knife to cut. This way they won’t be trying to balance a plate and utensils. When meat is served, it’s cut into small pieces so it’s not a challenge to eat. Finger foods, bite-sized and small servings are best.

To set the mood, make sure to use plenty of candles, and if guests will be outdoors, lanterns or tiki torches add a festive touch and additional lighting.

Although conversation will be flowing, there’s nothing like music to enhance the atmosphere. Sure, you can create a playlist of favorite songs and burn a few CDs to play, but don’t rule out the option of live musicians. You don’t have to spend a fortune, and it definitely ups the classiness factor.

“I always like to have music or entertainment of some sort—whether it’s a pianist, violinist, harpist—something to add music to the evening,” says Judith. “You can contact the music department at the university and often find musical students or choral groups interested in doing things like this. I’ve also found people through”

The Basics

The following essentials make for a well-stocked bar:


Be Prepared

You’ll have more fun hosting the party if you’re prepared ahead of time.

Whether you mail invitations or send them by email or phone, be specific and don’t forget to mention attire (people hate to feel over- or under-dressed), as well as beginning and ending times. For cocktail parties, 6 to 8pm is common.

As a general rule, guests will consume one to two drinks per hour, including non-alcoholic beverages. Multiply number of guests by hours of party and then double that to be sure you have enough on hand.

Keep costs in check by serving one special cocktail, beer and wine, instead of offering an open bar. You’ll only need to buy ingredients for the signature drink you plan to offer. Select a cocktail recipe based on the season or theme of your party.

Unless you’re only serving a designated cocktail, your bar should be stocked with beer, wine, soda, mixers and the basic liquors to make popular drinks.

Be sure to have appropriate glassware depending on the beverages you’re serving.

Hire extra help such as bartenders and servers if having more than two dozen people.

Have a designated area for people to leave coats, purses and wraps so they can easily access these items when the party is winding down.

Use plenty of candles, lanterns and strands of twinkle lights. Even an ordinary setting takes on a festive atmosphere when you turn down the lights.

Don’t forget vegetarians when planning your menu. Be sure to include several meatless options (about 25 percent of the menu) for good variety and so the herbivores don’t go hungry.

Don’t forget the “fillers”—nuts, olives, breadsticks with dips and, of course, a cheese and crackers tray with fruit spreads and/or honey.

Be creative when it comes to serving. Shot glasses and small ramekins make beautiful presentations for individual mini desserts and other foods.

Always have coffee and plenty of food when serving alcoholic drinks so no guest leaves in a “tipsy” state. If necessary, call a cab or have a designated driver take home any guest that overindulges.



A cocktail party wouldn’t be complete without tasty noshes and nibbles. You may choose to have your event catered, but if you want to do some—or all—of the cooking, you’ll appreciate the following recipes. Entertainment and lifestyle blogger Jenny Steffens, along with Publix, share some favorite party dishes that look and taste impressive, but aren’t time-consuming to prepare.

Chocolate Fudge Topped Petite Cream Puffs

Frozen mini cream puffs

Thaw cream puffs for about an hour at room temperature or a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Put the buttercream in a plastic pastry bag (or any plastic bag), and cut the tip off, leaving about a 1/2-inch opening. Pipe the buttercream in generous swirls on the puffs.

Chocolate Fudge Buttercream Recipe

4      sticks salted butter, softended

6      cups powdered sugar

11⁄2 cup chocolate chips

1⁄2   cup heavy cream

Place chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl, and pour over heavy cream.Microwave for 1 minute, then stir. Repeat until the chocolate ganache (yes, that is ganache!) is smooth. Be careful not to over heat. Refrigerate for 15 minutes until cool. In your mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, whip butter and 4 cups sugar for 3 minutes until fluffy and smooth. Pour in chocolate ganache and 2 more cups of powdered sugar. Whip until smooth. Add more powdered sugar, if necessary, to create the desired thickness.

Wild Mushroom, Chive & White Cheddar Quiche

1      pastry crust, store-bought or homemade

4       eggs

11⁄4 cup half and half

1⁄4   tsp Cayenne pepper

1⁄2   cup white cheddar cheese, shredded

1⁄4   cup mushrooms, sliced (wild,shitake,porta,etc.)

1      tbsp chives, 1-inch snips

        salt and pepper

Roll out pie dough and place in a tart pan with a removable bottom. Trim the excess dough by pressing the dough off at the top of the pan against the edge. For the filling, whisk together eggs, half and half and seasonings. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Bake at 350°F for 25-35 minutes. (Can be cut into small squares for easy serving.)

Fingerling Potato Canapes with Blue Cheese & Bacon

20     fingerling potatoes, sliced in half length-wise

8       ounces of blue cheese*

6       slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled*

In a large pot with a steam tray, put 1 inch of water in the bottom. Pile the potatoes in the steam tray, and cover the pot.Steam the potatoes for 10-12 minutes or until they are tender. Drain the potatoes, and place them cut side up on a baking sheet. Top with blue cheese, then bacon. Place under a low broiler for 2-3 minutes until the blue cheese melts. These can be served immediately or are great at room temperature, too.

*You can also buy blue cheese and precooked bacon at your local grocery salad bar—a huge money and time saver.

Crab Stuffed Mushrooms with Red Pepper & Green Onions

4      cups mushrooms

1      8-ounce container cream cheese, softened

1      ( approx. 5 ounces ) small can crab meat

1⁄2    red pepper, small dice

4       green onions, small dice

1⁄4    cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1⁄2    tsp sea salt

1⁄4    tsp pepper

In a mixer with the paddle attachment, stir together cream cheese, crab, red pepper, green onion, Parmesan, salt and pepper until well combined. Put filling into a pastry bag. Remove stems from mushrooms and place bottoms up on a baking sheet. Pipe the mixture into each mushroom. Bake at 350°F for 10 minutes until the mushrooms are tender.

Creamy Sweet Chili Shrimp

1⁄4   cup fresh chives, finely chopped

1      box frozen popcorn shrimp

(10-14 ounces)

1⁄4   cup hot and spicy mayonnaise

1⁄4   cup sweet chili sauce

2      cups broccoli slaw mix

Preheat oven to 425°F. Chop chives. Cook shrimp following package instructions. Combine mayonnaise and chili sauce; stir into shrimp. Spread broccoli slaw over serving platter; top with shrimp and sprinkle with chives.

Skinless Potato Skins

2      tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped

4      bakery Chicago hard rolls

1      cup deli-baked potato salad

1      cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided

8      tsp peppered bacon bits, divded

1⁄3   cup sour cream, divided

Preheat oven to 425°F. Chop chives. Cut rolls into quarters; pull out center of each roll. Spread 1 tablespoon potato salad over each roll quarter; top with 1 tablespoon cheese and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon bacon. Place in muffin pan (for ease in handling). Bake 4-5 minutes or until cheese melts. Top each with 1 teaspoon sour cream; sprinkle with chives.

Artichokes Casino

1   8-ounce bakery baguette

4   14-ounce can baby artichoke hearts, drained

1    3-ounce frozen crab cakes ( or 8 mini ), thawed

1⁄2  cup Alfredo sauce, divided

1⁄4  cup peppered bacon bits

Preheat oven to 425°F. Cut twelve 1/2-inch-thick slices from bread. Press each bread slice with thumb to make indentation for filling. Bake 3-4 minutes or until toasted. Place one artichoke heart into center of each bread slice. Top with 2 teaspoons crab cake and 2 teaspoons Alfredo sauce; sprinkle with bacon. Bake 10-12 minutes or until crab cake mixture is 165°F.

Recipes and photo courtesy of Publix Aprons™Simple


Whether you hire a bartender or serve guests yourself, the following recipes aren’t complicated, but will earn rave reviews. Cheers


2parts Red Stag by Jim Beam® Spiced

1part Kimora® Coffee Liqueur

21⁄2parts half & half

Shake all ingredients with ice, and pour into glass. Garnish with a dash of ground cinnamon.


Spiced Apple

11⁄2   parts Red Stag by Jim Beam® Spiced

2         parts fresh pressed apple juice

1         part fresh lemon juice

           dash of balsamic vinegar

Shake all ingredients with ice and serve in a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a lemon twist.


Amour rouge

1         part Grey Goose® Original

1         part Puneau des Chanrentes®

1⁄2      part Crème de Cassis®

2         tsp lemon juice

1         dash Angostura® Aromatic Bitters

1        small cluster red currants

          lemon twist

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add all ingredients. Shake well and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with zest of lemon and cluster of red currants.


Hidden Cherry

3       parts Red Stag by Jim Beam® Black Cherry

1       part ginger liqueur

4       parts fresh lemon sour

2       parts fresh orange juice

Shake all ingredients with ice and pour into a tall glass. Garnish with a half-moon orange wheel.

Down The Stretch

1 1⁄2  parts Grey Goose® Original

1⁄2     part Blue Curaçao

1⁄2     part Grenadine

2         parts lemon-lime soda

1         squeeze lemon wedge


Add all ingredients to a tall glass filled with ice. Stir vigorously, and present with a fresh blackberry and a slice of lemon.

A Passionate Affair

1 1⁄2 parts Grey Goose® L’Orange

1 1⁄2 parts cranberry juice

1⁄2    passionfruit

6        raspberries

1        tsp simple syrup

1⁄2     part lime juice

In a cocktail shaker, mix the seeds and pulp from half a passion fruit. Add the other ingredients with plenty of ice and shake hard. Strain through a fine sieve into a martini glass and garnish with raspberries.

Posted in Ocala Style Features

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