When entertaining, Haven Younger draws on recipes that were her mothers, or from favorite cookbooks. “I like recipes from Junior League cookbooks because those are really tried and true,” she says.
Emma Chan and her husband, Dr. Samuel Chan, have been welcoming friends and family to their Hagerstown home to celebrate the holidays for more than 20 years. Emma — born in Cuba and raised in the Dominican Republic, where her husband also was born — says traditional celebrations there center around Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, and the couple typically opens their home to between 20 and 30 friends and family members. “I get really excited about the decorating and setting the tables,” Emma says. “And just seeing everybody, too, because [our] kids have grown up together and gone to college, and this is a time we get to see everyone again.” Entertaining is always exciting, but it can be somewhat daunting, too: how can we possibly pull it all off, and still be able to enjoy friends and family? Hosts like Emma know that a little planning, creativity and contributions from friends and loved ones will help them serve up an evening to remember.
“No. 1: You can’t do this in two days,” says Lehmans Mill owner Cindy Brezler, who also hosts Christmas Eve dinner for family in her home. “Two weeks before, I start collecting all my stuff.” Planning a theme and decorations in advance lays the groundwork for a successful evening. “Allowing yourself to be creative can make the evening fun,” says Haven Younger of Hagerstown, who points to Pinterest as a wonderful new resource for decor and recipe ideas.
“I get inspired to decorate when I see flowers that I love,” says Emma, who says even grocery stores can be a great source for florals. “They have an amazing selection of flowers now during the holidays.”
“For your guests, it makes it, like, more fun and they look forward to it more if you don’t do the same thing every year,” Emma says. “And I enjoy that every year I do it different. I get inspired with the tables and the flower arrangements and the menu.” With a theme and head count in mind, take stock of your dishes, silverware, glasses and linens. And don’t be afraid to mix and match: If you don’t have enough of one place setting, consider alternating settings or creating different settings for the heads of the table, Cindy suggests.
Plan the menu early, too, to allow enough time to order any special ingredients. “I always do a fresh ham, so I’ll order that ahead of time,” Emma says. Her Cuban-style ham, flavored with garlic and sour orange, has to be seasoned two days beforehand and roasted on low heat. Baking can also be done a few days before. “The more things you can make ahead, the better off you are,” Cindy says.
To keep events managable, Haven recommends selecting your favorite dishes to cook, and then contacting local restaurants and other businesses for desserts or other items to incorporate into your menu.
Don’t feel obligated to do all the cooking yourself. Let others — guests and local businesses included — share the load. “I try to incorporate the talent of people around me that have great products, and then incorporate my own,” Haven says. “I might not have time to do all the things that I want – I’m cooking the turkey, doing some of my mom’s standards — but I can contact a local restaurant ahead of time.” She might pick up a dessert — Nick’s Airport Inn’s pumpkin creme brulée or The Rhubarb House’s banana coconut cake “that is to die for,” Haven says – so she can focus on making favorite dishes. “Lots of times at functions, my mom ended up working so much that she didn’t get to enjoy her guests. You don’t want to do that. You want to enjoy your guests. That’s why you’re having the evening.”
Guests often love to pitch in and share their favorite dishes, too. “Americans, I’ve been learning as I’ve lived here longer, get excited about bringing something,” Emma says. “So they ask about a month before, ‘What’s the menu? What should I bring?’” Not only does it make hosting a little easier, “but then you get to try everyone’s recipes,” Haven says.
Though Emma changes her menu each year, she always serves her traditional ham, rice in a Caribbean style, and a casserole called Pastelon de Yuca — layers of mashed yuca and ground beef seasoned with wine, peppers and onions, and topped with cheese. “It’s so good,” says Susan Itell, who has attended the Chans’ Christmas Eve dinner for many years. “It’s kind of like a shepherd’s pie.” Susan says she sometimes brings roasted vegetables or appetizers, but a favorite dish among all guests was the onion sandwiches her late mother, Joan “Gigi” Snyder, was known for. “It was really her trademark: always served on a platter with fresh parsley, and people love them!”
Finding your entertaining style is a learning process, and it might change over the years. Haven recalls having to discover how she liked to entertain, which was different from what her mother had done and from how her sister — who loves cooking — prefers to entertain. “I think you have to figure out what works for you,” she says, adding, “entertaining can be about how and where you are in your life. The way I entertained when my husband and I were first married 27 years ago is very, very different than the way I entertain now.” As Cindy’s family has grown, “in abundance,” she says, her Christmas Eve dinner has transitioned from a sit-down meal to more of a buffet style. Whatever style suits you best, “don’t forget to make it fun and enjoy yourself,” Cindy says. “And by all means, take lots of pictures!”