Your guide to the perfect Christmas

NZ House & Garden’s festive season spectacular > Celebrate the Christmas spirit with NZ House & Garden’s bumper December issue, the complete guide to creating the perfect Christmas for family and friends this year.

“This special issue is filled with ideas for creating a beautiful Christmas for family and friends this year. Gifts, decorations, wrapping, and table settings, everything we need to make the day a special one,” says Michal McKay, editorial director.

Stylist Sandra Kaminiski shares her plan for a festive Christmas party for readers to draw inspiration from, including ideas for decorations to set the scene and a delicious menu that will impress. The issue also includes a special feature on Christmas gifts with suggestions for the perfect present, as well as beautiful ideas for gift wrapping.

“Christmas is the time of giving and this issue has plenty of inspiration for all. For a great gift idea that will last the whole year why not give a subscription to NZ House & Garden? Readers can simply visit to place an order,” says Michal.

This issue has plenty of ideas for a Christmas dinner setting that will make the table come alive for family and friends as they share in the festivities, as well as picks for top wines for a seasonal toast. And Peter Gordon suggests a white Christmas dinner menu that can be prepared a day ahead, so that the chef might share in the celebrations too.

The new issue of NZ House & Garden magazine is on sale from Monday 20 November and retails for $8.90.

Visit for inspiration and information 24/7.

Tips to keep the holidays jolly

During the bustling weeks ahead, save yourself some time and trouble by using these tips to manage all the tasks that accompany the holidays. By planning ahead and working efficiently, you’ll be able to juggle the season’s cooking, cleaning, decorating, entertaining and giving.

•Buy baking staples:
  Avoid last-minute trips to the store by purchasing essential baking ingredients early. Take inventory of what you already have in the kitchen, and then stock up on basics such as butter, flour, granulated and brown sugars, baking powder and vanilla extract.

•Organize recipes:  Photocopy or print out recipes you plan to make, and arrange them in one binder. That way you won’t have to crowd your countertops with several cookbooks at once. Plus, the pages can double as shopping lists.

•Have multiples:  Measuring cups and spoons are indispensable for holiday cooking and baking. Buy extras of these inexpensive tools, and you’ll always have a clean set to use.

•Master a basic cookie dough:  Once you have a simple cookie dough down pat, mix up the recipe each holiday by changing the add-ins, using such ingredients as zest, dried fruit, spices, or white chocolate and macadamia nuts.

•Keep instant hors d’oeuvres: Stay prepared for drop-in guests by refrigerating a selection of cheeses that you can serve as hors d’oeuvres. Aged Gouda, goat cheese, blue cheese and hard sheep’s-milk cheeses store well. Refrigerate them, wrapped in waxed paper and in a plastic bag, for up to one month, blue should be wrapped in aluminum foil. Olives, chutneys and nuts are other small bites that also keep well.

•Hang a versatile wreath:
A pine-cone wreath, available from florists, can make a smooth transition from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Spruce up the decoration with a ribbon in gold or silver, festive shades suited to any holiday.

•Pick potted plants: Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, cyclamen and poinsettias will add cheer to any room. Plus, the attractive plants make excellent gifts for guests.

•Shop for a tree online: You can browse for a Christmas tree on the Web and arrange to have one delivered to your door. For farm listings, visit the National Christmas Tree Association’s Web site

•Create a long-lasting display: Dress up your home with items that will shine from November to January. Pillar candles, which last longer than tapers, and unshelled nuts spray-painted gold add sparkle.

•Keep a notebook:
Jot down gift ideas as you think of them. Make a list of people you need to shop for, and note their sizes, favorite colors and hobbies to inspire you and keep you focused.

•Store neutral wrapping paper: Stock up on patternless paper and matching ribbon that work year-round.

•Buy crowd-pleasers:  All-purpose gifts, such as jars of jam or bottles of wine or high-quality olive oil, are sure to please anyone. Soaps and lotions also work well. Wrap the items ahead of time so they’re ready in case you need a last-minute gift.

•Have a plan:
  Draw up a checklist of the cleaning that needs to be done before a family visit or large get-together. This may include organizing the entryway closet, cleaning out the garage or polishing furniture. To ensure you finish in time, start with the largest project on a weekend, and then tackle one or two more on the following weekends.

•Accept help: If a guest offers to pitch in with the post-dinner cleanup, let her. This can even be a nice opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation in the midst of a busy party.

•Minimize tree cleanup: Before you bring home a Christmas tree, ask the retailer to shake it to remove loose needles and other debris. To ensure a swift and tidy removal, lay a tree-disposal sack, available at home-supply stores, under your tree’s skirt. The large plastic bag can be pulled over the tree and tied so falling needles and sweeping are kept to a minimum.

•Have a buffet:
  This style of entertaining doesn’t require assigned seating or fancy table settings. Many of the dishes can even be made and set out ahead of time.

•Plan a get-together with a goal: Invite friends over to compose holiday cards or wrap small presents. Everyone will be able to socialize and cross off an item on her to-do list at the same time.

How to start preparing yourself for Christmas Season

Good thing I love the holidays. But even if you love the holidays as much as I do, we all know how much extra work Christmas entails. There are hundreds of celebrations, traditions and obligations during the holiday season and to pull it all off you will need sharp organizational skills.  

November is the perfect time to pick up a calendar and create your own holiday planner. I know for myself I can’t do everything nor do I want to, but there are certain traditions and events that are “a must”. I start by writing those “must-dos” on the calendar in red ink. Any other possible events are written in blue ink, but I certainly don’t sweat it if every event or task isn’t attended or completed. 

However, many of the tasks and events I don’t want to miss can sure benefit from an early start. Here is a reminder of some of the things that you may also have on your list and may be helpful to start early. Now is the time to:

(Read More)

Sweetness figures in wine selection

Tips for choosing drinks for parties >

Don’t worry so much about matching the perfect wine to the perfect food. I think people should worry more about matching the wine to the person. In other words, instead of selecting some wine because a wine magazine told you it was good, find out what sort of wine your guests like to drink and serve them that.

Don’t be too cheap. In truth, most people don’t like or at least aren’t that wowed by the sort of wines that garner high scores in the wine press. Some bottles of good-quality bubbly start the party out nicely. Cheap bubbly (something less than $6 per bottle), however, is not a good way to start. Making sparkling wine is a fairly expensive process; that’s why real champagne will usually set you back $30 or more. Be prepared to spend at least $10 to get some real flavor.

Stay sweet. No matter how many people I’m having over, or how rarefied their palates, I always serve German Rieslings. I like to spend at least $8 for a bottle. An easy way to spot a good one is to look for a black eagle symbol on the shoulder label. That means the producer belongs to a group called the VDP, and their members all make great wines.

Make service easy. I just open up the bottles and leave them on the table so people can serve themselves. So whether they’re standing in the kitchen or sitting in the living room, they know where to go when they want more.

Water is key. When people are drinking alcohol, they’re losing water. In cold weather, they’re losing water. In a dry, heated room, they’re losing water. If they don’t want to have the mother of all hangovers, they need to re-hydrate, frequently.

Be thoughtful. If you’re the perfect host, you’ve set up a few places for partygoers to sleep. It’s a nice way to keep your friends safe. But if you can’t do that, arrange for rides if people are going to be drinking. That way, you can see them next week and maybe have a drink again.

Toast etiquette

How to avoid ruining your eve with misspoken words of praise

It’s New Year’s Eve, you’ve clinked your spoon against your champagne flute, the room is growing silent and it’s just about time to launch into your toast. What are you going to say?

Whatever it is, it better be good, because this is the beginning of a new year for everyone at the party. Although toast making isn’t governed by any set-in-stone rules, there are some guidelines floating around to point you in the right direction.

First and foremost, avoid getting drunk and hashing out your personal problems in public. Remember the horribly uncomfortable toast given by an inebriated Mitch (Luke Wilson) at his friend’s wedding in the 2003 movie “Old School?”

It went something like this: “True love is hard to find, sometimes you think you have true love and then you catch the early flight home from San Diego and a couple of nude people jump out of your bathroom blindfolded like a (expletive) magic show ready to double-team your girlfriend … “

Not good. Fortunately, Bernard (Vince Vaughn) interjects with something about love being blind and saves the day, sort of. But you won’t always have an astute friend to help you out in a bind. So sip judiciously, and consider these bits of advice:

Keep it simple
A toast should be short and to the point. Nobody wants to stand through a year-in-review monologue. If you notice people getting antsy during your speech, you’ve probably gone overboard. And avoid using grandiloquent words (like grandiloquent). Simple words often sound the most sincere. In all cases, be yourself. People will appreciate a heartfelt offering.

Consider the company
Make sure you deliver a toast that’s appropriate to both the audience and the occasion. For family gatherings, that might mean focusing on warm words that celebrate your togetherness. For large groups of friends, something wittier might be in order. And a romantic or promissory tone might be best when the party is just for two.

Language please
ALWAYS cut out the vulgarity. Is it really so hard to keep it clean for a few minutes while you deliver what’s intended to be a classy gesture? It’s best to avoid crude language, sexual innuendoes or dirty jokes altogether. Some etiquette experts suggest that if you’re at a party where an unfortunate toast is delivered, you should give an eloquent one afterward (a la Vince Vaughn) to bring people back to a positive place.

Practice makes perfect
Good orators will tell you that, however ironic, it takes practice to sound spontaneous. Try rehearsing your toast as you would any public speech: out loud and in front of a mirror or some friends. It’s not a bad idea to have a couple of short toasts memorized in case you’re nominated to give a spur-of-the-moment toast. There are plenty of ready-made and time-honored toasts that can be found by doing a quick Internet search.

Stand tall, most of the time
When delivering a toast, it’s always best to stand. If anything, standing will get people’s attention and help quiet them down. Despite popular practice, experts recommend NOT rapping on a glass to signal for quiet. You could end up with nothing to toast with.

The standing rule does not apply if you’re the person receiving the toast, at least until the toast is complete. Nor should you raise your glass or drink to yourself. However, it is customary to stand and respond afterward, even if that just means saying thanks.

End clearly
Define the end of your toast by saying “cheers,” asking the audience to “raise your glass” or some other definitive gesture.

A few other details

  • The host should get first dibs on offering a toast to the guest of honor. If it appears the host doesn’t intend to offer a toast, it’s polite to discreetly ask the host if you can do so yourself.
  • Don’t pressure someone into giving a toast if they don’t want to. You might regret it.
  • Never refuse to participate in a toast. If you don’t drink alcohol, or whatever beverage is being offered, it’s better to request a nonalcoholic drink, a glass of water, even an empty glass, than to sit out altogether.

Tips to enliven holiday parties

Here are some suggestions and great ideas that will enliven this year’s holiday events >

• Make a simple centerpiece by filling a basket or copper bowl with small evergreen branches, pine cones, whole oranges and grapefruit, unshelled nuts and cinnamon sticks. Read more about decorating your Christmas table at our Art de la Table category!

• Pull out the slow cooker to help you with the holidays. When serving hot cider at a holiday buffet, pour heated cider into a slow cooker set on low and let the guests help themselves. Read more about cider under our  Festive Wines category!

• Freeze small dollops of whipped cream by scooping them onto a foil-lined cookie sheet and freezing until firm. Keep them handy in a resealable plastic freezer bag. Place a dollop on drinks just before serving.

• Look for whimsical little appetizer forks and spoons for serving pieces. Or, use serving pieces from the treasured family silver service. Read more at our Art de la Table category!

• For wine-loving guests, here are multipurpose party favors. Write your menu on bottles of wine with a china or dry-erase marker. Set a bottle at each place setting. Not only will your guests be tempted by the menu, they’ll get to take the wine home. Read more at our Festive Wines category!

• For casual get-togethers, dish up portions of chicken and dumplings or crab au gratin into oversize coffee mugs or shallow soup bowls.

• Top a torte or cake with sugared fresh cranberries. Brush cranberries with light corn syrup. Sprinkle with sugar; let stand uncovered until you’re ready to add the garnish to the top of the dessert. Read more at our Festive Recipes category!

Wine entertainment > Tips for a successful tasting

Try a wine tasting > Entertain guests simply but memorably by letting them try a few “mystery” wines, “unveiling” labels only after friends have tasted and evaluated. 


1. Best time to taste wine? In the morning! About 10 a.m. This is when your palate is the freshest and not tainted with all the things you consume throughout the day.

2. Start on time, and keep it focused. If you invite people to arrive at 10 a.m., start at 10:15, keep everyone on track for an hour, and then have 45 minutes for chatter, cleanup and food, if any.

3. Have plenty of proper glassware (not too big, not too small and hopefully all the same size), and make sure it is clean (lint and odor free). You can use wineglasses for champagne if you don’t have enough champagne flutes.

4. Make sure the wines are at the proper temperatures. Put the reds in the fridge to bring them to cellar temperature (which, at 55 degrees, is not room temperature) and pull the whites out about 15 minutes ahead to let them warm up a bit.

5. Have tasting sheets available so people can take notes.

6. Have the tasting in a room with good natural light. You can see the wines better.

7. Offer plain bread or crackers during the tasting. Unless you are specifically doing a wine-and-food pairing, keep the food out of the picture until after you have tasted the wines.

8. Get a retailer or other wine professional to choose the wines for you based on your theme or budget.

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