Welcome Holiday Guests in Style
Elegant but relaxed style
In the early 1980s, Julee Rosso's pioneering Silver Palate Cookbook helped change the way we entertain, and her New York food shop practically invented the elegant take-out meal. Since then, her warm, relaxed style and her creative approaches to food have captivated guests at her Wickwood Inn in Saugatuck, Michigan, especially during the holidays. You'll love her fresh, memorable strategies— and that they're all doable in your home.
The No. 1 hosting rule
Julee and her husband, Bill, bought the Wickwood Inn, a renovated 1930s white-frame colonial, in 1991. Since then, the bed and breakfast has welcomed more than 100,000 guests and appeared regularly on lists of top inns (including ours!). Even after that parade of visitors, Julee's No. 1 hosting rule remains simple: Show people how much you care.
Set the stage
Decorations, candles, a fire and music combine to create a mood and tell guests how important they are. Aromas matter, too. Guests like to be greeted with scents of good things cooking: cinnamon, coffee, cloves, chocolate. During the holidays at the Wickwood Inn, food aromas mingle with the fragrances of flowers and evergreen boughs.
Get everyone involved
Greet each guest personally, graciously. Make the first drink for everyone, introduce them around, and then tell them to help themselves. People want to do something so they don't feel awkward being waited on. Having access to the bar or coffeepot makes guests relax. People gravitate to the kitchen; let them in. That way, the cook can join in the fun!
Give a small, thoughtful gift to each guest. People love to open something. Keep it simple and functional—not just more stuff. Give homemade brandy (Julee shares her mother's damson plum brandy), tomato sauce from last summer's garden, recipes on hand-decorated cards, a bag of homemade cookies tied with satin bows. Arrange gifts at place settings ... just something special for each person. You could do secret Santas, sending each guest another's name for a series of tiny presents. Then the Santas are revealed at the holiday party with nicer gifts.
Create intimate spaces
Small round tables are better for talking, and smaller rooms bring people together. Sitting on hassocks, on the floor by the fire, on the arms of chairs, guests have no choice but to interact. And they can move from one conversation to another more easily.
Have fun together
Be sure there's something to do, besides eating and watching football. Get out the cards or board games, play touch football, go sledding or tell stories. At the inn, Julee and Bill arrange for horse-drawn sleighs to appear after dinner. (If that's not possible, use a couple of cars to take guests on a neighborhood lights tour.)
Be the life of the party. If the hostess is having fun, it's infectious. Julee invites guests to take off their shoes, because she doesn't wear them at home. Having fun requires being comfortable.
Celebrate with food
Since 1982, the Silver Palate Cookbook has sold 2.5 million copies and been inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame. Julee's specialties have continued to evolve. The inn's menus show it. Breakfast and afternoon appetizer buffets blend fresh and simple with lavish and festive. Julee's philosophies infuse every meal. Read her advice for holiday cooks on the next slides.
Simpler is best
There's no reason to stuff your guests at holiday time. Save that for the turkey! Instead of two kinds of potatoes, serve more vegetables or even wild rice. Begin with a soup— squash, roasted beet, potato, leek or broccoli. Brush the turkey with olive oil instead of butter. Try roasted winter veggies brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with herbs. Serve an interesting salad of microgreens scattered with mango or pomegranate. Then let everyone go for a walk together, or organize a caroling expedition.
Keep it fresh
Start your meal planning in the produce section. Choose foods that are at their freshest and best.
Be creative. Hold on to traditions, but add some pizzazz. Julee's menu changes all the time. A recent favorite: a big berry salad.
Combine traditions. Celebrate your family's history. Make those treasured recipes in memory of those who aren't there— scalloped oysters from Grandma, Uncle George's applesauce. Ask family members to volunteer to bring a dish for the big holiday meal. It makes everyone feel involved.
Make enough to share
Ahead of the holiday, set aside an evening or weekend for the family cooks (all ages welcome) or a flock of good friends to bake Christmas cookies together. Recognize some of the people who make a difference in your life by giving them a gift from the kitchen, such as these Vanilla Sables. Frozen soups, stews, pasta sauces and one-dish meals also make thoughtful gifts.
At your holiday meal, send guests home with leftovers, maybe in a special container or on a plate that doubles as a gift. Then those who didn't cook don't feel like orphans once they're home.
Borrow from the best
You're busy, so don't be afraid to borrow other people's ideas to add sparkle to your entertaining. Julee shared several of her recipes with us. Cappuccino Mousse is "a creamy, cool and spoonable version of our favorite cappuccino," Julee says. "We think it's a perfect brunch treat." An Almond-Pistachio Crisps recipe "was given to us by a great pal, after much cajoling. Then, we embellished it to make it even more indulgent. Great munching!"
More of Julee Rosso's recipes
Guests at Julee's beautiful Garden Dining Room (pictured at left) are treated to a variety of seasonal specialties. Julee loves Asparagus and Arugula Frittata "because it's more moist than most and is loaded with flavor in every bite." You'll find truffle oil at specialty food stores.
We also love the intense flavors created by spices, cranberries and lemon in Julee's The Taste of Christmas Cranberry Cake. "This is the star of any holiday brunch of dessert buffet," she says. Julee serves it warm with a dollop of whipped cream.
Trim every room
Julee and Bill and their Wickwood Inn staff string more than 100,000 lights and decorate 14 trees, including one in each of 11 guest rooms. Try a little holiday sparkle in your guests' private spaces.
Make everything sparkle
Many of Julee's guests arrive around dusk, so the living room's decorations must make a stunning, glistening first impression. Julee might use fishing line to hang silver ornaments from the ceiling. A towering Christmas tree sits in the corner near the fireplace. Votive candles provide dancing light.
Let nature inspire you
Julee uses natural/found objects for their interesting textures and shapes. She finds inspiration at her local farmers market: dried artichokes (baby and grand), nuts in their shells, chestnuts, blue hydrangeas. She also decorates with sage, bay leaves, rosemary, rose hips, holly, juniper, pine, blue spruce, pinecones, eucalyptus and loads of small dried gourds and pods, natural and painted (shiny red, gold or silver). Then, wherever she can, she adds all kinds of evergreens to faux garlands and trees.
Use things you love
Objects stir memories about good times, great people and fond feelings, so surround yourself with things that make you feel good. If they are meant to be used, use them every day from Thanksgiving right through the holidays— fine china, your grandmother's silver, linens that you've collected.
Trust your instincts
Avoid trying to match everything or making a room look too planned. When you choose a decoration, a piece of art or furniture, or food or wine because you love it, it works. That's true style— for the holidays or anytime. Plus, when you love the things around you, you're constantly nurtured as you go through a day.
Savor the season
Be ready with a list of must-see stops for your holiday visitors. Julee offers her Wickwood Inn guests tips for exploring Saugatuck, an enclave of artists' studios and shops along Lake Michigan.
Less is more
Julee's last piece of advice: "While walking the dogs this morning with Bill, I thought: We cannot emphasize enough at holiday time that 'less is more'— for all of the obvious reasons, but also to reduce stress. Look around at what you already own and use it in a new way, remember familiar and loved recipes and tap into nature. Give treasured possessions of yours to people you love. Give of yourself! Don't just buy. If we remember it's all about love and laughter, and helping others, we'll all get so much more from the holidays!"
(Originally published in Midwest Living® November/December 2007)