Fashion designer Lela Rose may be best known for her pretty party dresses and bridal gowns, but she’s also a creative party hostess with a down-to-earth flair for entertaining. Her new book, “Pret-a-Party: Great Ideas for Good Times and Creative Entertaining,” proves that you don’t need to be overly formal or precious to throw a memorable, modern day fête.
“There is a cowboy thread running through everything I do,” confesses the Texas-native-turned-New Yorker. “I like to go rogue with high-low combinations and uptown-meets-downtown style. I’m not pulling out Grandma’s heirloom china, if you know what I mean.”
As we move into prime holiday entertaining season, we asked Rose to share her best styling ideas — from wintery silver and white tabletops to spiced cocktail recipes and clever themes that can take an event over the top.
Previews Inside Out What’s your motto when it comes to hosting?
Lela Rose My overruling principle is to make it fun. If it’s not going to be fun, there is no point in doing it.
Previews Inside Out In “Pret-a-Party,” one of your ideas is a Silver-and-White Christmas dinner. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for this concept?
Lela Rose We host a Christmas dinner every year with close friends. I really like a format like that. During the holidays, we spend so much time at quick cocktail parties with five-minute conversations. The group we invite for this dinner includes some of our closest friends, and it’s our way of sending them off to enjoy their holiday travels with their families. I’m always looking for different themes around the idea of an intimate dinner party. One year, I decided to host a winter white party. Everything was white in some way. We asked our guests to bring a (literal) white elephant gift, and they had to wear winter white and silver sparkles. Even our address was White Street. The only thing I didn’t do was white food! I did, however, bake something that was silvery: a devil’s food cake topped with sparkles and white frosting so it looked like snow.
Previews Inside Out Do you ever change it up for the annual holiday dinner?
Lela Rose Yes. Each year, I do something different. One year, for example, I hosted a dinner party inspired by the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” where we had a partridge with pear and things that were Old World, like a spidery, silver spun lace that I laid over a linen tablecloth. I bought little silver tree ornaments to turn into napkin rings, which also doubled as ornaments. These were easy and inexpensive to make. I’ll use old wine bottles and take the label off to use as candle holders. To me, they are elegant table décor without going overboard. My closest friends know that I will always have some random trick up my sleeve!
Previews Inside Out What other fun twists might you bring to a holiday party?
Lela Rose A twist on the white elephant gift exchange is always fun. I’ll find unique ways to change up the process of passing out numbers [for the order of the gift exchange] to make it special. For example, I once baked little numbers into a cake! Everyone had to eat their cake to find their number. I have baked items into cakes for years. For birthdays, I make little riddles, or add little coins or charms wrapped in wax paper. It’s that element of surprise….
Previews Inside Out Can you give us a few creative ideas for holiday decorations or centerpieces?
Lela Rose I have never decorated my tree with traditional ornaments. I’ll decorate with German Steiff animals for Christmas, which I give to my kids each year. Doing that creates a memory for them, a way to mark the year and remember so-and-so gave this animal to me this year. It makes the Christmas tree more memorable than buying ornaments or candy canes. For centerpieces, I’ve used persimmons and pomegranates. I hate buying things that are just going to be wasted. I often go back to using those old wine bottles. When the party is over, I’ll make pomegranate and persimmon margaritas!
Previews Inside Out A pomegranate and persimmon margarita sounds amazing, but it also brings me to my next question. You are particularly passionate about food sustainability issues. One idea from your book — the outdoor supper to celebrate a favorite cause — seems like a great hook for a holiday party.
Lela Rose Yes. I’m very involved with food organizations that are working toward equality in different socioeconomic neighborhoods. I’m on the board of the Edible Schoolyard Project, which chef Alice Waters started in Berkeley, and I’m very involved with our local NYC chapter. These kinds of causes lend themselves to outdoor parties related to gardening and fresh vegetables, because they are so much about food. For me, food is a very inspirational. I will plan an entire party around a vegetable I’ve fallen in love with at the market. I’ll put it on the table, and it’s my favorite way to connect to people. I’ll put Osage oranges (in Texas, we call them “horse apples,” and they’re green, bumpy and wonderfully wrinkly) or Romanesco broccoli (which looks like an underwater cauliflower) on the table as my centerpiece. There are so many heirloom varieties of vegetables that are really fun to work with when designing a table.
Previews Inside Out What would you recommend for the host or hostess who has a guest list of sophisticates who have pretty much seen it all?
Lela Rose Thinking about the way you do your table. I love to have one idea that runs through everything. I’ll even match my drink to my dress. I keep the offerings within one idea and one theme. For example, I recently hosted a party benefitting MAD Symposium, an international culinary symposium founded by Danish chef René Redzepi of Noma fame. I dressed the table in all white and hired this beautiful paper artist who crafted these white herbs out of paper and olive branches. They were gorgeous, and it was about the food, because this was a food organization. I like to use things that can be sustainable, and use things in multitude of ways. I do not like to use just the standard flowers or floral centerpieces. If you think about it in a different way, it can be very special. Another example is in my book: the Gingham-Style Chicken Fry. For that party, I put wildflowers in old tomato cans, and I made all of the guests a tomato and chili jam as a to-go gift. People really appreciate the thought that goes into these special details.
Previews Inside Out As a guest, what is the one thing you always appreciate?
Lela Rose I really appreciate it when a host or hostess has thought through the details and welcomes you with something special — maybe it’s a surprise — as soon as you walk in the door. You immediately realize, “Oh, this is going to be fun.” It sets the tone for the entire event. You can also keep the surprise going throughout the party.
Previews Inside Out You’ve said before that a specialty cocktail is “a must.” Do you have a recommendation for the holidays?
Lela Rose To me, that is the first detail that you greet someone with! It means that you’ve thought it through. There are cocktails that I love for winter — the Nor’easter, which is made with whiskey, and the Apple Snap, which is made with blackstrap molasses and apple cider. I also have a Rum Flip, which is made with shaken egg and aged rum, that’s just delicious.
Use best-quality aged rum in this holiday favorite and shake each drink individually. Serves 8.
1 ½ cups aged rum
8 large eggs
8 tablespoons heavy cream
8 rounded teaspoons sugar
For each drink, combine 3 tablespoons rum, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon cream, and 1 rounded teaspoon sugar in a cocktail shaker. Add about 1 cup ice cubes and shake vigorously until frothy, about 20 seconds. Strain the drink into a coupe glass and serve.
Acorn Squash Salad With Winter Radishes, White Miso Vinaigrette, And Pumpkin Seed
2 medium acorn squash
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 heads garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 large onion peeled
and roughly chopped
6 ounces white miso
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
3 or 4 radishes, thinly sliced with a mandolin or knife
¼ cup salted pumpkin seeds, toasted
2 teaspoons Szechuan or pink peppercorns*
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Rinse the squash carefully to remove any dirt from the skin. Using a heavy large knife, split the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Pat the squash dry with a paper towel. Place the squash cut-side up on a rimmed baking sheet. Season the inside of the squash with salt and black pepper. Divide the thyme sprigs, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the butter between the cavities. Cover with aluminum foil and roast until the flesh is tender but still has some texture, about 1 hour. Uncover and let the squash cool to room temperature.
While the squash is cooking, heat the remaining 1 cup oil in a heavy medium saucepan over low heat. Add the garlic and cook until it is tender and sweet, about 20 minutes. Strain the garlic oil into a heavy large saucepan; reserve the garlic. Add the omen to the garlic oil and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 20 minutes. Let the onion mixture cool, then transfer it to a blender. Add the reserved garlic and puree.
Place the miso in a large bowl and slowly whisk in the onion-garlic puree. Add the vinegar and maple syrup; whisk to combine. Season the dressing with salt and black pepper.
Slice the squash into half-moons, about ½ inch thick. Arrange the squash on plates. Top with thin slices of radish and drizzle with the miso vinaigrette. Garnish with pumpkin seeds. Sprinkle with sea salt and cracked Szechuan pepper.
*Szechuan pepper is available at specialty foods stores.
Aunt Betty’s Devil’s Food Cake With Divinity Icing
If you are adding notes or fortunes, individually wrap the notes in waxed paper or parchment paper and include a string if you want guests to be able to pull them out. Serves 10 to 12.
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups granulated sugar
5 large egg whites, room temperature
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 to 3 teaspoons silver glitter dust, for garnish*
For the Cake:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flout two 8-inch round cake pans. In a medium bowl, sift together both flours, the baking soda, and the salt two to three times; set aside. In a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the melted chocolate and vanilla and beat to blend. Add the eggs one at a time, beating quickly. Alternately add the flour mixture and the buttermilk as quickly as possible; do not overbeat. Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans and place wrapped fortunes, if using, equidistant from each other in one cake pan only (this will become your top layer). Bake the cakes until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cakes cool in the pans on a wire rack.
For the Icing:
Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a heavy medium saucepan. Reduce the heat to low; add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Increase the heat to medium-high and boil without stirring until the syrup spins a heavy thread or registers 230 to 235°F on a candy thermometer, 10 to 15 minutes. While the syrup boils, beat the egg whites and a pinch of salt in a large, clean bowl until stiff and dry. Remove the sugar syrup from the heat. Slowly and very carefully, stream the syrup into the stiff egg whites while beating on medium speed, stopping often to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Then, add the vanilla and beat on high speed until very stiff. Place the bottom cake layer (the layer without the fortunes) on a platter. Ice and top with second cake layer. Spread the remaining icing over the top and sides of cake, creating peaks. If using glitter dust, dip the tip of a small knife into the dust. Point the knife toward the cake, about 2 inches away. Lightly blow the dust and it will spread evenly on the cake. Repeat where glitter dust is desired. (The cake can be made 8 hours ahead. Let the cake stand at room temperature until ready to serve.)
*Available at cake and candy supply stores.