How to Throw the Perfect (and Stress-Free) Holiday Party

A Maine hospitality veteran shares her entertaining tips and seasonal recipes to wow your guests—without freaking out.

How to Throw the Perfect (and Stress-Free) Holiday Party

How to Throw the Perfect (and Stress-Free) Holiday Party

 A Maine hospitality veteran shares her entertaining tips and seasonal recipes to wow your guests—without freaking out.

By Briana Volk
Photography by Andrew Volk

Issue: November/December 2021

I love throwing parties. From big ol’ bashes that go well into the wee morning hours to sit-down dinners for just a few friends, throwing parties is the thing I have missed most as we have navigated our way through the pandemic. The styles and types of parties that I have thrown have changed over the years. In my early 20s, I held a monthly gathering called Boards and Buffet. The idea was simple: a group of us each made a dish around a loose theme, and we played board games. After my partner, Andrew, and I started dating, our dinner parties became more elaborate. We’d spend hours in the kitchen cooking. I’d work on the perfect playlist for days ahead of time, and Andrew would batch cocktails.

Now that we have two kids and run a restaurant of our own, the days of leisurely all-day prep in the kitchen are pretty hard to come by. But that doesn’t mean our parties have become any less elaborate; we simply plan better so that we are more efficient with our time. After years of throwing parties, I am convinced that even people who dread cooking that once-a-year Thanksgiving dinner can do it and look like a refreshed, relaxed pro.

The Best Host Is a Relaxed Host

One of the most important aspects of a killer party is the host. Do they look relaxed? Are they sitting down and eating with their guests, or are they still in the kitchen running around while guests are awkwardly waiting? A relaxed host brings comfort to guests and the party as a whole. And here’s the key: Don’t overdo it. We all think that we can make that beef Wellington for the first time ever, for ten of your nearest and dearest, but I have seen that end in disaster. Save the new recipes for a fancy dinner with your partner. Instead, make the dishes you are comfortable with and know you can do. Showcase your greatest hits. When you’re cooking comfortably and with love, it comes through to everyone, and that makes a great dinner.

Themed Affair

Every party needs a theme. And I’m not talking about “dress as your favorite Real Housewives of New York” theme. A great theme ties the whole party together. It can be specific, or it can be loose. It helps guide you to connect the thoughts between food, drink, decor, music. It can be subtle—most of the time it is just for you, serving as a place you can refer to so party planning doesn’t go astray. Center it on a piece of art, a cocktail—anything is fair game. Think of it as your organizing principle. Once you have that, use it as your building blocks for the rest of the party: the decor, the menu, the guests. It will make those moments where you are not sure what is the right choice much clearer.

Don’t Make Everything During the Party

Another key to a successful party is to do as much of the work you can before your guests arrive. Plan your time, and batch, batch, batch! There are a million great dishes that can be made ahead of time, drinks that can be put together and set aside, and prep that can be done days before the first guest arrives. We are also lucky enough here in Maine to have an abundance of riches, from dumplings to desserts, by small makers who are selling at farmers’ markets and small shops. Ordering prepared dishes is like having multiple great chefs making your dinner without the cost of hiring a caterer. Mix-and-match, ordering out one component while you make other dishes yourself.

How to Throw the Perfect (and Stress-Free) Holiday Party

Mind Your Temperatures

Think about how the food will be served at the moment before guests enjoy it. Be sure to mix food that can be served at room temperature, or even cold, with hot dishes. I still remember Thanksgivings of my youth where my mother would battle to make sure every dish was hot on the table; it never quite happened. Instead, pick a dish or two that’s going to hit the table hot; the rest should be dishes that can be served without taking up valuable oven space.

Don’t Forget the Drinks

Make sure to put as much thought into what everyone will be drinking as you do with what they are eating. Make big pitchers of cocktails guests can easily pour for themselves. Don’t try to be a craft bartender (unless that’s what you’re into) or you’ll find yourself stuck making drink after drink all night. And make sure you allow plenty of low-proof and nonalcoholic options so that guests can pace themselves; no one wants to be at the party where someone gets too tipsy. These days there are many fantastic options at your local grocer or liquor store of alcohol-free spirits, beer, and wine. A good party is better remembered when you don’t wake up with a hangover the next day.

Vibe Check

Consider how you’re going to make your space feel. You can make any place feel welcoming and festive: have blankets for friends to get cozy; put together a playlist of music you love to keep the vibes you want going through the whole evening. If possible, dim your lights so everyone is washed in a soft glow—no one looks bad in low light. When I am throwing a party—small, medium, or large—I am always working to ensure that everyone feels and looks their best in my home.

How to Throw the Perfect (and Stress-Free) Holiday Party

Morning-After Granola

Leaving your guests with a little gift to take home is always a treat. I’ve thrown parties where I’ve had slices of pizza or doughnuts for guests as they walked out the door in the wee hours. For the holidays and more understated dinner parties, a bag of granola is my go-to. It makes the next morning easy for your pals who hung out past their bedtimes and keeps the good party vibes going into the next day. Granola feels like it is a lot of effort, but is so easy to make, and you can make it a few days ahead of time so you’re not putting together the recipe or bags at the last minute. With this recipe you can add or subtract pretty much any nut or dried fruit, so if you have a friend who hates raisins (like I do), it is easy to swap out for something else.


  • 4 cups rolled oats
  • 2 cups coconut chips, not shredded 1 cup raw pecans, roughly chopped 1 cup raw almonds, roughly chopped ¾ cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sea salt
  • ⅔ cup dark brown sugar
  • ⅔ cup maple syrup
  • ⅓ cup honey
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ¾ cup dried sour cherries
  • ¾ cup dried apricots, roughly chopped


Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.

In a large bowl, stir together the oats, coconut, pecans, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and salt.

In a small pot on low heat, warm the sugar, maple syrup, honey, and olive oil until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and combine with the oat mixture until all ingredients have been covered with the syrup.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Using your hands, spread the oat mixture evenly over it. Make some “chunks” of granola by creating globs of oats in different spots on the baking sheet. Bake until golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Stir the granola a few times while it is baking.

Remove the granola from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the granola and dried fruits. Add more sea salt to taste. Allow to fully cool before placing in individual containers. A typical serving is about 1 cup per guest.

Reverse Martinis

We’ve all been there: we are at a party, and someone’s distant relative has helped themselves a little too much to the party’s bar. Things get weird, and the night is remembered for drunk Aunt Shelly’s yelling at someone instead of all the other great things. When we leave our guests to make their own drinks, overconsumption can happen without anyone intending it. The Reverse Martini is the perfect holiday party cocktail: heavy in vermouth and light on gin, your guests can have a couple with all the glamor of a martini but not the intense effects. This recipe is made to maximize your efficiency by making this cocktail in a large batch ahead of time. All you need to do is throw it in the freezer and pull it out just before your guests arrive. Guests serve themselves and can be trusted to garnish with whatever they enjoy in their drink. Best of all, any leftovers can go back into the freezer until you’re in the mood for martinis again. Makes 8 three-ounce cocktails.


  • 16 ounces blanc vermouth (Dolin Blanc is excellent)
  • 8 ounces London dry-style gin (Tanqueray 10 is a great option)
  • 10 dashes orange bitters (optional)


Funnel all the ingredients into a clean, empty 750 mL bottle. Seal and shake the bottle gently. Place in the freezer and leave there until 30 minutes before your guests arrive. The contents will be a bit slushy. Set out whatever you would like for garnishes, along with glassware for your guests to use and ice. Some suggested garnishes: lemons with a peeler to make twists, olives, pickled onions, and anything else pickled that you may have in your pantry.

Alpine Potpie

Creamy, meaty, and chock full of hearty winter vegetables, this potpie is influenced by my Finnish roots. The recipe uses chicken, but you can easily substitute stewed beef or make it vegetarian friendly by doubling the veggies. You can also use a favorite biscuit recipe as the top crust for a heartier, more country-style potpie (if you are using biscuits, add black pepper and rosemary to the batter). You can make the base and the topping a day or two ahead of time, keep separate, and refrigerate. All that is needed for the day of the party is to roll out the puff pastry dough, build, and cook, making your dinner prep time easy-breezy.


For the potpie base

  • 4 pounds of bone-in chicken (can be a mix of breast and thigh meat or whole chickens broken down)
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • Water
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • Juice from one lemon
  • Salt to taste
  • Black and white pepper to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 to 3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 2 to 3 sprigs of fresh thyme

For the potpie filling

  • 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 4 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 4 celery stocks, sliced
  • 2 cups crimini mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 cup frozen peas, thawed to room temp
  • Bunch of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
  • 2 to 3 springs of fresh rosemary, leaves removed from stem
  • 2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed from stem Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 pie crust recipe (or store bought) or biscuit recipe of your choice
  • Egg white from one egg


Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.

Make the potpie base

Evenly lay out the chicken in a Dutch oven. Add chicken stock. Add enough water to cover all the chicken parts but don’t overfill. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Partially cover and continue simmering until the chicken reads 165 degrees on an instant thermometer, about 25 to 35 minutes. Remove the chicken from the broth, and shred into bite-sized pieces. Set broth aside.

In a separate pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly until smooth. Add 2 cups of the broth you cooked the chicken in and continue whisking until smooth. Add the heavy cream and bring the liquid to a slow boil. Continue to whisk, and add the lemon juice, salt, peppers, nutmeg, rosemary, and thyme. Cook the liquid for another minute and remove from the heat.

Make the potpie filling

Oil a large skillet, and heat over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and mushrooms. Cook until tender, about 8 minutes.

In a large bowl, add the cooked vegetables, cream mixture, and shredded chicken. Stir in the peas, parsley, rosemary, and thyme. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix to combine.

Assemble the potpie

Butter a 9-by-13-inch pan or large, deep pie pan. Pour the pot pie filling into the buttered dish and then top with the rolled-out pie crust or drop the uncooked biscuit batter on top of the filling. If using a pie crust, cut a few steam holes in a pattern in the dough. Brush the top with the egg white and place in the oven. Cook until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling through, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let slightly cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

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