With Labor Day weekend just a memory, and the return of school buses to area roads, the fall social season begins. Cocktail parties, intimate dinners and big bashes fill the calendar. For the home host and hostess, it’s time to change up the menus and color schemes for the transition from hot weather to autumn breezes. Westport Magazine searched and found fresh ideas for cocktails and after-dinner drinks—beverages to get the conversation flowing and great nightcaps to wind down a special evening. Naturally, we turned to high-profile party-givers and party-planners for these tried-and-true pointers.
Roe Chlala has always positioned herself at the “front of the house,” directing sales and event planning for Festivities, the Norwalk-based catering company that she runs with her brother, Chef Bill Kaliff. The siblings have made their business a countywide success since opening a small retail food shop on Washington Street in SoNo in 1984. With Bill’s fabulous brownies and artisanal bread attracting customers, the catering business also took off. Known for its imaginative concepts and dedication to excellence, the firm’s events run the gamut from intimate dinners for ten guests to high-profile charity events for 1,500 attendees.
Katie Wachtel, who grew up in Westport, began her career as an intern with Abigail Kirsch in Westchester and Aux Délices in Greenwich. Not long after she decided to strike out on her own, she got an opportunity to plan and cater an event for her former neighbors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The couple asked Katie and Kathy Oberman Tracy—another Newman neighbor and Martha Stewart alumna—to jump in when their usual caterer backed out. When the pair’s efforts earned kudos all around, the event became the seed for their catering business, K Squared. After five years the women branched out, with Kathy returning to styling work. Katie now runs Katie’s Kitchen on her own, planning special occasions for private clients and nonprofits across the Gold Coast.
Mar Jennings has made a name for himself with his rose gardens and his career as a lifestyle guru (see “Simply Marvelous,” Westport, May/June), and party-giving is one of his many talents. Not one to be limited by the Westport cottage he calls home, Jennings enlists every square inch of the public spaces, indoors and out, to create a welcoming environment for his guests.
With their decades of entertaining experience and bulging idea files, our experts have plenty of good advice. They shared with us not only treasured drink recipes but also tested party tips you can use for your next special occasion.
Cocktail Hour Tips
Roe Chlala notes that a unique container can dress up a drink. For her ruby-hued margaritas, Roe uses half-pint Mason jars. “Pomegranate juice is big right now, and it has great color,” she says. “And because it’s canning season, you can easily pick up a quantity of Mason jars at your local hardware or home store. They look beautiful with a garnish on a silver tray.”
Put a Twist to Tradition
In this season, Katie Wachtel likes to serve sangrias pre-dinner. “For me, this is the perfect before-dinner drink because it’s inviting, amusing, delicious and out of the ordinary. Most important, it makes your guests feel special,” she says.
Beware of the Sting
“It doesn’t get any easier than this,” says Mar Jennings, who likes to serve chic, vodka-based drinks in early fall. With a grin, he explains why one of his favorites, Bumble Bee, is so aptly named: “A little spirit offers a lovely ‘buzz.’ Watch out though—if you go too heavy on the vodka, you may get stung.”
A great evening of food and friends should be topped off with a special treat. As the party winds down, you can indulge your guests with a cozy coffee drink. As delicious and eye-catching as they are, it’s hard to believe they’re also so easy.
Coffee as Dessert
Know Your Liquors
Roe Chlala takes standard recipes for end-of-celebration drinks and adds a memorable dessert twist. Her secret weapon is an impressive collection of irresistible liquors.
Keep It Simple
Why serve coffee and dessert, when you can serve coffee as dessert? Katie Watchel says it can be as easy as putting out coffee, a few choice liquors and garnishes so that guests can create their own customized treat. She says, “This is the perfect ending to a party, and a celebration in itself.”
Katie keeps things quick and easy with affogato, which “consists of espresso poured over ice cream, topped with sweetened whipped cream and chocolate-covered espresso beans.” She adds, “With all the new introductions in ice creams, gelatos, sorbets and liquors, the possibilities are endless. It’s just as good with regular coffee or decaf as it is with espresso and takes five minutes tops to make.”
“If making coffee isn’t your thing, this dessert is a lifesaver. No matter how bad the coffee, this dessert still tastes amazing.”
A Pro’s Advice on Avoiding Party Faux Pas
Reed Collyer is celebrating ten years at Collyer Catering in Westport. With her catering business, she’s seen and done it all, which is why we asked her for the seven mistakes every savvy hostess should avoid…
1 Assuming the kids, food will remain kids’ food. Adults are just as apt to go for the pigs in blankets and chicken tenders you have reserved for the kids menu. Make sure to have enough for all.
2 Not having an RSVP on your invite, or at least, a regrets only. Not just for caterer numbers, it will help you if you are doing the food and drinks yourself. Taking a shot in the dark is never a good plan.
3 Forgetting to have a backup plan for weather. Having your party outside to showcase your yard/pool/fabulous outdoor space is great, but Mother Nature may have other plans. At least have a backup or rain date. And if the backup includes a tent, you won’t be the only one trying to find one in a pinch, so pay the reservation charge—and if you lose it, know it’s money well spent.
4 Trying to make a menu you have never tackled before. Vet the recipes in advance, or ask friends to bring a side dish and you handle the main course.
5 Biting off more than you can chew. If you cook for your family, great, but a group of twenty requires much more work and coordination.
6 Crafting an event which keeps you in the kitchen all night. Eighty percent of the prep should be done before the guests arrive. If it can’t be, consider hiring a set of hands to help.
7 Not taking other people’s food preferences into account. If you are entertaining for business, always make sure to have a menu that accommodates everyone.”
READY | Prep
“Anything that looks simple has been thoroughly thought out,” notes Roe. “That’s my business: The simpler it looks, the more thinking has gone into it.” If you’re doing it yourself, effortless entertaining means having everything in order before you dress for the party.
“You can try all kinds of new things, as long as you’re comfortable,” she says. “This is why preparation is so important. You know where everything is, you have all the pieces staged and ready to go, so you can enjoy your guests no matter what you’re serving.”
Mar agrees. “The key is to be prepared: Lay out your glasses, cut up your garnishes. Make sure any appetizers you serve with cocktails are finger foods. It’s difficult to handle a plate, utensils, a napkin and a drink with just two hands.”
Katie advises scoping out a couple of locations—near the door, in the main gathering space—where you can set cocktails before guests arrive. Place some glasses and nonalcoholic choices in the same locations for guests who aren’t drinking. “Having the first round ready to go gives you time to say hello and help your guests relax,” she says.
SET | Décor
Mar Jennings thinks white is ideal for your first post-summer bash. “Most people still have their summer tans, and nothing sets off great skin tone like white linen.” Mar also suggests tucking hydrangea florets into napkin rings. He clips a choice flower from his garden and offers to pin it to one of his guest’s hair. “If you’ve got a great garden, use it,” he declares.
Katie sees fruit as a logical decorative choice for fall. Arrangements that use apples, pears, grapes and pomegranates are exceptionally easy to put together and reflect all the colors of the season.
“It’s colorful, and there’s no waste; you can use it all after the party’s over.” Katie notes that a bare wood table makes a great underpinning for your centerpiece, appetizers or a buffet. “Wood tables that lend just a bit of a rustic touch are very popular right now. Just arrange your appetizers along a nicely textured runner down the length of the table. It’s a simple and attractive look, and eliminates the need for laundering or renting more formal linens.”
For Roe, temperature or seasonal blooms might inspire a color palette. “On Indian summer evenings, all the lighter colors work well. But dahlias, with their incredible range of vibrant colors, also bloom at this time and can suggest something completely different. In October, you’ve got jewel tones and warmer colors such as eggplant, ochre and orange that can make a beautiful scheme. It’s really up to your taste and surroundings.”
GO | Gracious Welcome
Katie Wachtel offers a gracious way to handle a guest who arrives with flowers without a vase. “Make the bouquet part of your décor in an original way,” she says. “Tuck a few flowers into your fruit arrangement, or add them to your appetizer trays. It’s a thoughtful use for an unexpected gift of flowers.”
Call in the pros
Like our experts’ tips? Here’s where to find them…
• Collyer Catering, 203-438-5382; collyercatering.com
• Festivities Catering and Special Events, 203-847-7774; festivitiesevents.com
• Katie’s Kitchen, 203-767-3829; katieskitchenct.com
• Mar Jennings, marjennings.com
Fall breezes rush in the entertaining season, which is why we thought it was the perfect time to collect drink recipes for your best cocktail and coffee hours. We turned to area pros Roe Chlala of Festivities Catering and Special Events and Katie Watchel of Katie's Kitchen (see contact information below). These are bonus recipes from our article "Spirited Beginnings and Cozy Endings" (Westport Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2011) by Judy Ostrow.
Recipes From Festivities Catering and Special Events (203-847-7774, festivitiesevents.com)
- 2 cups tequila
- 2 cups triple sec
- 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
- 8 cups ice
- 2 cups pomegranate juice
- 2 cups fresh lime juice
- Pour the tequila and triple sec into a pitcher.
- Sprinkle in the confectioners' sugar, and stir to dissolve.
- Add the ice, and pour in the pomegranate juice and lime juice.
- Stir to mix, then serve.
- You can add more tequila to taste.
Yield: 2 pitchers
Chocolate Mint Martini
- 2 oz. vodka
- 1 oz. Crème de Cacao (dark)
- 1 oz. Crème de Menthe (white)
- Pour all ingredients into a shaker with ice.
- Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass.
- Garnish with mint chocolate.
- 1 oz. Hiram Walker Pumpkin Spice liqueur
- 1/2 oz. coffee liqueur
- hot coffee
- Pour the Pumpkin Spice liqueur and coffee liqueur into an Irish coffee mug.
- Fill it with hot coffee.
- Garnish with whipped cream
- 1 oz. Coffee Liqueur
- 1 oz. Tequila
- hot coffee
- whipped cream
- Pour the coffee liqueur and tequila into an Irish coffee mug.
- Fill it with coffee.
- Add whipped cream on top.
From Katie's Kitchen (203-767-3829, katieskitchenct.com)
Katie’s Apple Cider Sangria
(adapted from the Hay Day Chronicle, Riches of Spain Sangria)
- 4 cups Prosecco
- ¾ cup Calvados (Apple Brandy)
- ½ cup brown sugar simple syrup (1 cup water, 1 cup dark brown sugar dissolved over low heat, until mixture becomes dark)
- ¾ cup apple cider
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 cup ginger ale
- 2 apples, crispy variety
- Make the brown sugar simple syrup.
- Mix the Prosecco, brandy, simple syrup, apple cider, cinnamon stick and 1/2 of the sliced apple.
- Stir and chill well.
- Just before serving add the ginger ale.
- Garnish with the remaining sliced apple.
- Serve over ice, rim with cinnamon sugar and add frozen cranberries if desired.