Nov 18, 2017 Entertaining

Design Experts Share Their Top Tips for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving

by Gabrielle Savoie
PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

Most people love the idea of entertaining—in theory, at least. We all want our table to be beautiful and Insta-worthy and our meal to rival our latest great restaurant outing. The problem? In a time-starved world, it can be difficult to start thinking about your looming Thanksgiving dinner party until the day of, which can lead to panic. The trick is to keep it simple, work with what you have, and follow a strict schedule that will lead you to the finish line in time and stress-free.

Few people understand this better than design experts and chefs, who all make it their life mission to know how to entertain—and do it well. So when interior designer Becky Shea and chef Matt Powell (formerly editor at Homepolish) clued us in on their latest event, we had to ask them for their best tips to throwing a Thanksgiving dinner party without stress. From setting the right ambiance to choosing the right menu, here are their top tips for a seamless Thanksgiving dinner. Best of all, Powell shared the evening's recipes with us so you can try them at home too.

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

"Whether it's a curated platter of gourmet cheeses to take the initial hangry feelings away or a welcome cocktail to ease the flow of conversation, guests will always appreciate some munchies prior to dinner," says chef and former Homepolish editor, Matt Powell. "Plus, it'll buy you some time to finish up last-minute preparations and cooking."

Having these snacks and cocktails ready before your guests show up will not only make them more satiated, but it will also give them something to do until the party really picks up. "We always have a medley of bite-size appetizers our guests can nibble on as they settle in and make themselves comfortable, coupled with a fully stocked bar and a variety of mixers, fruits, and garnishes. A fall-themed signature cocktail like a Hot Toddy can always add to the experience."

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

"It's important to understand the space you have and how many guests you can comfortably accommodate to create your flow," warns interior designer Becky Shea. "Having a low-key, laid-back plan in place for the evening is instrumental to the success of keeping the conversation active and our guests engaged. You should also know how many courses will be served so that you can include the right number of plates, glassware, and flatware. From there, you can build out your table décor with the knowledge that each guest's footprint is accounted for."

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

"It doesn't have to be elaborate or over the top, but a table setting that is a bit more extra than your typical dining table shows guests that this is, in fact, a special occasion," says Powell. "Go for the full set of silverware, break out the nice china, and never forget a flourish of florals."

For the centerpiece, Shea mixed a combination of florals and edible items from the menu: "We got creative and used edible centerpieces, seasonal flowers in vases from throughout our home, musky-scented candles, and a fun place card to pique curiosity and ignite conversation."

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

"No dinner is quite right without the proper mood," says Powell. "Ambience is all about the senses outside of taste. Have you ever seen a restaurant that serves dinner under fluorescent lights? Use dimmers, light some candles, and select a good playlist to hum in the background. And if you want to go that extra mile, spray a welcoming scent in the entryway."

Tackling each of the five sense is the most important aspect of creating the right ambience, according to Shea. "As an interior designer, I understand that each of the senses should be stimulated in order to create a balanced home, and the same rule applies during a Thanksgiving gathering. The first step is a clean and tidy home that can be layered with candles, warm lighting, fresh flowers, music at the perfect volume, and texture."

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

"We all like to show off, but your friends are not expecting a three-star Michelin experience in your home," says Powell. "Stick to foods you know will please, and make slight variations. It's fun to experiment, but there's no need for undue stress at your party. So save the beef wellington for another time—a good roast duck leg dish or roast chicken will work wonders."

When crafting your menu, Shea also recommends tackling any dietary restrictions that may arise: "We find it's important to ask well in advance if any of our guests have food allergies or restrictions so we can accommodate and include variety on our menu."

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

An often-forgotten party tip: "Allow yourself to party," says Powell. "Nothing causes more unease than a host who doesn't know when to stop and enjoy themselves. So hands up! Step away from that stove and dive head first into a glass of red and some lively conversation. You deserve it."

Shea also recommends getting some outside help to relax and enjoy the evening. "If your budget permits, we recommend hiring a bartender along with one wait staff who can help with making cocktails and tidying up," says Shea. "This allows us to be a part of the entertainment, enjoying the company of our guests, and there are quite a few services to find reasonable options by the hour. We always like having games and quirky masks out to have a little fun with each other. As of late, we're huge fans of Apple TVs aerial art in the background that alternates throughout the night. The content is stunning and keeps us/our guests engaged."

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

Servings: 2

Ingredients for salad:

1 bunch Lacinato kale, stemmed and sliced
1/2 lb. Brussels sprouts, shaved
1/2 lb. butternut squash, cubed
Salt, pepper, and olive oil
1 sweet red apple, diced
Handful of dried cranberries
Handful of pepitas
Goat cheese

Ingredients for dressing:

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. whole grain Dijon mustard
1 shallot, minced
Salt and pepper 

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400˚F. Toss butternut squash cubes with olive oil, salt, and pepper and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast for 30 minutes until tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, combine all dressing ingredients and shake in a small jar to emulsify and combine. In a large bowl, combine kale, Brussels sprouts, and dressing. Massage the greens with the dressing to break down.

Add in apple, cranberries, pepitas, and cooled squash and toss. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with goat cheese.

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

Servings: 4

Ingredients for the duck legs:

4 duck legs
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 sprigs rosemary
4 tbsp. fig jam

Directions for the duck legs:

In a small bowl, mix together sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, Aleppo, salt, and black pepper. Add in minced garlic.

Rub spice mixture on the four duck legs and allow to marinate in the fridge, six hours minimum.

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Remove the duck from the fridge an hour before cooking. Arrange duck legs in a foil-lined baking dish, and place rosemary sprigs surrounding. Roast for one hour.

Spoon jam on top of duck legs and allow to roast 10 more minutes. Serve.

Servings: 6

Ingredients for the potatoes Anna:

2 lbs. small Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thin
1 stick of butter (1/2 cup), melted
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. fresh thyme

Directions for the potatoes Anna:

Preheat oven to 375˚F. In a large bowl, combine sliced potatoes, butter, salt, pepper, garlic, and thyme. Toss to coat potatoes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Arrange potato slices on baking sheet in discs. Bake until cooked through and tops are crispy, about one hour.

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

Servings: 8

Ingredients for the pie crust:

4 oz. graham crackers
1/2 cups hazelnuts
4 tbsp. melted butter
3 tbsp. brown sugar

Ingredients for the filling:

16 oz. cranberries
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 tsp. lime zest
1/2 cups lime juice
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 sticks butter, at room temperature, cut into 1-tbsp. pieces

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Pulse cookies in a food processor until very finely ground. Add nuts and pulse until finely ground. Add butter and brown sugar and pulse to combine. Transfer to a deep nine-inch pie dish. Using your hands, press firmly onto bottom and up sides of dish. Bake until firm and slightly darkened in color, 10 to 15 minutes. If crust slides down sides, gently press back up. Let cool.

Bring 12 ounces of cranberries, 1 cup granulated sugar, and 1/4 cup water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until cranberries burst and most of the liquid evaporates, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool. Purée in a blender until very smooth.

Cook purée, eggs, egg yolks, lime juice, salt, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon lime zest in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water (bowl should not touch water), stirring with a rubber spatula and scraping down sides of bowl often, until curd thickens and coats spatula, eight to 10 minutes. Let cool until just warm.

Using an electric mixer on medium-high, beat curd, adding butter one piece at a time and incorporating after each addition until curd looks lighter in color and texture, about five minutes. Scrape into crust and chill until firm, about two hours.

Bring 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add remaining four ounces of cranberries and cook until barely starting to soften, about one minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer cranberries to a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet. Cool until no longer sticky, 20 to 30 minutes.
Toss remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon lime zest in a small bowl. Toss cranberries in lime sugar. Top pie with cranberries.

PHOTO:

Sean Litchfield

Servings: 8

Ingredients:

4 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 small lemon
12 ripe figs
6 tbsp. butter
1 cup almond flour
2/3 cups granulated sugar
4 cold eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
Crème Fraîche, optional

Directions:

Position a rack in the lowest part of the oven and preheat the oven to 350˚F. Grease the bottom and sides of a nine-by-two-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Press and smooth the paper to adhere it to the pan.

Use the back of a spoon to smear the 4 tablespoons of butter topping all over the parchment. Mix the brown sugar with the cinnamon and dump it into the pan. Spread it evenly with the back of the spoon.
Use a micro plane zester to grate the zest of the lemon over the brown sugar. Cut the lemon and squeeze enough juice to measure 1 tablespoon. Drizzle the tablespoon of juice evenly over the brown sugar.

Stem and halve the figs. Arrange them cut side down, close together but not overlapping, to cover most of the brown sugar layer and set aside.

Heat the butter in a small pot until melted and bubbling and let it bubble for about 30 seconds. Turn the heat off now—but be ready to return the pot to the heat the moment you start to whip the eggs later. Set a four- to five-cup bowl (preferably stainless steel) near the stove to receive the brown butter afterward—the bowl must be large enough to allow you to fold some batter into the butter later.

Whisk the flour and 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar together thoroughly in a medium-size bowl. Set a medium-mesh strainer or a sifter next to the bowl.

Combine the remaining sugar, eggs, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of the stand mixer and beat with the whisk attachment on high speed, for about three minutes or until the mixture is pale yellow and has increased in volume. You should see well-defined tracks as the whisk spins, but when the whisk is lifted, the mixture should flow and sink into the surface of the remaining eggs rather quickly—don't continue beating all the way to the ribbon stage. (You aren't aiming for a mixture so fluffy that it falls in a thick rope that dissolves slowly on the surface of the batter.)

While the eggs are beating, reheat the butter until it bubbles and continue to cook it, swirling the pot, until it is golden brown and the milk particles suspended in it are reddish brown. Immediately pour the butter into the reserved bowl to stop it from cooking further and burning. (It should remain very hot until you need it.)
When the egg mixture is ready, remove the bowl from the mixer. Sift one-third of the flour over the eggs.

Fold with a large rubber spatula until the flour is almost blended into the batter. Repeat with half of the remaining flour. Sift in the remaining flour and sprinkle in any bits of coarse flour that may not have passed through the strainer or sifter. Fold until blended.

Scrape about one-quarter of the batter over the hot brown butter. Fold until blended. Scrape the buttery batter over the remaining batter and fold until blended. Scrape the batter over the figs in the pan.
Bake 35 to 40 minutes until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into it comes out clean. The cake will just barely show signs of shrinking from the sides of the pan.

Set the cake on a rack for five minutes. Slide a slim knife or small metal spatula around the edges of the cake to detach it from the pan. Invert the cake onto plate. Peel off the parchment if necessary. Scrape any of the brown sugar syrup left in the pan or on the parchment back onto the top of the cake. Let the cake cool before serving.

Serve plain or with a dollop of whipped crème fraîche.

And now, all your questions about how to host Thanksgiving answered.