by Lauren Wilson for Viva Tastings, a ‘Certified Good Food Fighter

This holiday season why not consider hosting an open house?

The holiday season is officially upon us.  And while some people grow weary at the thought of another hectic holiday marathon ahead, for others it’s a jolly time for catching up with family and friends, over-indulging in food and drink and just being merry.

Most of us fall somewhere in between those two camps, and welcome the opportunity for easy ways to entertain that are warm and welcoming but also low-fuss and easy to put together.

Enter the open house.

A long-standing entertaining stalwart, this drop-in style event is making a jolly comeback this season, and provides the perfect way to be a social butterfly while spreading holiday cheer to friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues. Guests are able pop in and out, giving them to freedom to meet other social obligations AND giving you the flexibility to invite a larger crowd (making it great bang for your buck, for smaller spaces like apartments and condos).

Open houses can be as swank or caj as you please, are a cinch to organize, and because they are relatively low maintenance during the event, they allow the host to mix and mingle with guests.

But before you fancy yourself the next Martha, here are a few tips to help make your holiday open house cheery and bright from the event experts at Viva Tastings:

Ankle Biters Welcome Or Imbibers Only?
Will your event be child friendly?  This is a question that invitees are often confused about when receiving their invites, so be clear.  If you’d like to accommodate both the G-rated and adult crowds, stagger the start times – host a kid friendly event earlier in the afternoon (say 2pm-6pm) and an adults only event later (say 7pm onwards). 

Get Invites Out Early
This may seem obvious, and yes, while the open house is an informal way to entertain you still want to give people plenty of notice.  Snail mail always offers a certain level of class, but there are great online invitation options available (my fav is Paperless Post) to get your invites there instantaneously (and hug a tree while you’re at it).

Deck Your Halls
Another obvious point – who doesn’t love a little festive festooning?  Go with what you love, with anything from garish foil Santa wall hangings and caroling plush meese, to classy trim and baubles from Tiffany.  At Viva we love going au-naturelle with pinecones, decorative gourds, pine boughs and wreaths, with the lovely scent of mulled apple cider wafting through the house.  Bonus – decorations can be put up well in advance.  Another, less glamorous but equally important, aspect of decking the halls: decide what serving vessels you are going to use for what and put a sticky label on them.  Set them out the day before, one less thing to do the day of.  Last, put together a playlist of holiday tunes to complement your festive abode.

Not surprisingly, this is our favourite part here at Viva Tastings. The food at open house parties should be graze and finger-friendly, easy for guests to nosh on while mingling, and easy for you to prepare ahead of time and quick to replenish during the event. The question we hear most often when planning a holiday open house is how to plan for food quantities.  The general rule of thumb we suggest is about 4-6 pieces per person for hor d’oeuvres and about one ounce per person for things like cheese, nuts, dips etc.

The key to no-stress food preparations for the party will be in choosing items that can be made in stages ahead of time and will at most need a quick jaunt in the oven before serving.  What to make?  We always recommend thinking about the foods you do best as a jumping off point, then make a mini-version.  Make a mean mac ‘n cheese?  Why not try rolling it into balls and deep-frying for croquets? Just about any dish you make can be scaled down and tweaked to be an hors d’oeuvre. Other yummy bites, like smoked quail eggs or oysters on the half-shell are already bite sized and easy to prepare.

Another option could be to prepare your best tried-and-true fare – a bite or two or perhaps a cocktail, and supplement with a few items from your favourite neighbourhood chef.  Or, to make it truly no-fuss, have it fully catered with a helper in the kitchen to prepare and pass the food.

Refreshments & Libations!
The other crucial element to any merry get-together.  We suggest offering at least one warm option – they smell great and are lovely way to welcome guests in from the cold, plus most hot ciders and punches can be offered as either non-alcoholic or spiked.  For some extra special festive flare try Viva’s Flaming Punch (recipe below) – it’s always a crowd pleaser.  Add to your hot option a couple of festive cocktails that can be mixed and set out in self-serve vessels and you’re set.

So if the thought of holiday merry-making seems overwhelming this year, consider getting some serious bang for your hosting buck and plan an open house.

Happy holiday hosting from Viva Tastings!

Recipe: Viva’s Festive Flaming Punch

Yields: 3 quarts

1 quart of dry red wine
1 quart of ruby port
1 cup of brown sugar
2 cinnamon sticks (3 inches long)
¾ lb of sugar cubes (made into a tree – see below)
1 cup of lukewarm brandy or dark rum
1 750 ml of champagne or other sparkling dry white wine at room temperature

1. Heat the red wine, port, brown sugar and cinnamon in large Soup pot to boiling. Pour into heatproof punch bowl.
2. Lay a baking rack over the bowl and set the tree on top.
3. Warm the brandy or rum.
4. Have a match ready to light the brandy smoked tree.
5. When ready, get your guests to stand around while you flame the punch – at our house this is the official kick-off to the Christmas season.
6. Pour the heated brandy over the tree and immediately (and I mean immediately) light it.
7. The flame will dance and the tree will slowly melt. When the tree is half melted (about a minute), douse the flames with the champagne.
8. Serve in glass mugs with handles if you have them.

Sugar Cube Tree:
Make a thick paste of water and icing sugar. Stack the cubes to resemble a Christmas tree using the sugar paste to glue the cubes together. You can get creative and if there is any paste left over, drizzle on the tree to look like snow. Set aside to dry. This can be made a week ahead.

Lauren Wilson is a jack-of-all-food-trades.  After cooking with Karen and Anne at Viva Tastings and eating up all the good bits of Toronto, she followed a trail of crumbs to Brooklyn where she is cooking, writing, and eating happily.