You’re looking to make this holiday season a memorable time with family and friends, and that inevitably means a warm, hearty meal together. But how to make sure it’s picture-perfect? We’ve sought advice on picking just the right accents this season.
When you’re hosting a special holiday gathering, it’s on you to bring the goods. You do, after all, want to set a spread that’s special, attractive and, most importantly, easy to assemble.
But how to do it in a way that looks picture-perfect? You don’t have to do it alone.
Start with Your Menu
The outdoor vendors you may have visited at this summer’s Woodstock Farmers Market are still around. They’ve just moved indoors to the winter market, located at the county fairgrounds. With an eye on seasonally available produce, they’ve got you covered with fresh breads, fruits, jams and jellies, meats, flowers and more. It’s all locally made, harvested and prepared. And it’s ever-changing.
At least 30 to 40 vendors appear on the first and third Saturdays during the winter months.
“We’re a producers’ market,” says Kristine Anderson, the market’s social media/marketing coordinator. “We check out all of their products and how they handle their farms. It’s genuine, authentic, and that’s what a farmers market should be.”
Best of all, these farmers can offer up plenty of ideas for how to prepare a one-of-a-kind menu your guests are sure to remember.
Throughout the winter months, vendors offer fresh cuts of turkey, beef, chicken, lamb, pork and duck eggs from places like Riemer Family Farms, Root ‘N Sky, and R Family Farm.
Carly’s Confection makes gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan sweets to close out the meal.
“Everything she makes is amazing,” Anderson says, adding that Carly Hall, the owner of Carly’s Confection, buys from other vendors to top off her cheddar bacon scones. “They’re delicious.”
This time of year, certain vegetables can be harder to provide, but it doesn’t stop Sosinski’s Produce from serving up heaps of winter squash and other fresh pickings. “Sosinski is making a Christmas jam that she’ll sell and also holiday baskets perfect for hostess gifts,” says Anderson.
Need a centerpiece or a hostess gift? Look for the vendors who make candles or pottery, or check out the bright centerpieces with fresh evergreens from Ohana Farms.
Preparing and Serving the Feast
Mary Behrens, owner of Kitchen Outfitters, in downtown Crystal Lake, has spent more than six holiday seasons pointing people in the right direction for cooking gear and serving pieces that make for a five-star presentation.
“On holidays, especially if you’re hosting, you don’t want to be tied to your kitchen, so anything that can make it easier is great,” Behrens says.
One must-have for this holiday season, she says, is an “old school gadget” known as a potato ricer – a tool that makes mashed potatoes quickly.
“It has all of these little holes in it, and you push down on a lever that squishes your boiled potatoes through the holes,” Behrens says. “They make the potatoes smooth and creamy.”
Another recommendation this season is an easy-to-clean piece that makes turkey clean-up a breeze.
“Everybody’s complaint is cleaning the roasting rack,” says Behrens. “We have a silicone roasting rack called a roasting laurel. It looks like a Greek laurel. It elevates the turkey, which keeps it from sitting in fat as it cooks.”
She also suggests a high-quality pressure cooker that dramatically speeds up cooking times.
“You can throw a bunch of food in there like a slow cooker, but it cooks ultra fast,” Behrens explains. “You could probably fit an 8- to 10-pound turkey in there. My sister has made cheesecake in hers.”
Behrens’ store carries the top-choice pressure cooker, Zavor, which was featured at the annual Housewares show last year. “Cooks Illustrated,” her cooking bible, gave it top ratings as well.
“It’s just so handy,” she says. “You can brown, steam, cook eggs and more, and it’s so easy to clean.”
Don’t forget the serving pieces. Behrens has a wide variety from which to choose in an assortment of colors.
“Our Staub bakers are amazing to cook in and beautiful to serve in,” says Mary. “Our NOW Designs bowls are perfect to mix and match or buy all of the same design, with sizes from dips and dessert to soups, salads and vegetable sides.”
In addition, Mason Cash bowls add beauty to the holiday table. Charcuterie boards, which are all the rage, are great for serving up appetizers.
Desserts to Talk About
Shoppers familiar with downtown Geneva know a must-stop shop is Graham’s Fine Chocolates, where handmade chocolates are the main star. No matter the season, people line up, sometimes out the door, to partake in these delicious treats.
“Here at Graham’s, we love making your holiday feast a special occasion,” says Jayni Wunderlich, Graham’s vice president. “We offer adorable, handmade sweet treats that can be enjoyed by your loved ones as their place setting.”
Try chocolate Santa sucker pops, mini “Christmoose” or a trio of chocolate-dipped Oreos with lovely hand-piped holiday decorations. While they can make a great table setting, they’re also ideal for stocking stuffers, Wunderlich adds.
Of course, one should never show up empty-handed to a holiday party, and desserts make for an easy – and rewarding – treat.
“We make so many wonderful hostess gifts,” says Wunderlich. “If you’re looking for a crowd-pleaser, bring a large bag of our irresistible chocolate-covered potato chips to share with all of the guests.”
And, if you want to make a good impression, try the chocolate nativity scene, which provides an attractive display throughout the holiday season. It also makes a fun centerpiece that can be enjoyed for dessert.
“If you’re not sure what people may like from Graham’s, we always suggest our delicious sampler assortment, which features so many of our most popular candies such as caramels, creams, truffles, skälies, meltaways and nut clusters,” Wunderlich says. “We make everything from scratch in our kitchen here in Geneva and offer so many delicious holiday treats for everyone on your Christmas list in a wide range of prices.
A Staple for the Table
Cheri Cho and Choongki Min, owners of Breadsmith of St. Charles, specialize in baking artisan breads – just the sort of thing to complete any meal, whether it’s dinner, lunch, brunch or breakfast.
What you’ll find at Breadsmith of St. Charles is a variety of hearty, dense, European-style breads that are handmade and hearth baked without preservatives or additives.
“We make our bread with the highest-quality ingredients possible,” says Cheri. “We make a sourdough, traditional rye, multigrain and Italian every day, but on certain days we have specialty breads like cinnamon swirl, blueberry pie bread and apple pie bread. We also have a cranberry walnut multigrain.”
At the same time, Breadsmith of St. Charles offers sweet breads like banana, banana walnut, banana chocolate chip, pumpkin chocolate chip, walnut, zucchini, zucchini walnut and cranberry orange.
“The cranberry orange is made with orange juice and orange peel, and it’s made with whole cranberries as well, so it gives it that whole tartness,” says Cheri.
For a holiday feast, imagine showing up with a turkey-shaped bread that can be used as a centerpiece, appetizer and conversation-starter.
“This is a four-pound bread, and a lot of kids really like it,” Cheri says. “You can cut out the body and insert a dip. We offer three types: French peasant, honey white and honey wheat.”
Breadsmith also sells a Christmas tree-shaped bread as well as tree-shaped dinner rolls and a special stuffing starter.
“We toast our bread and make unseasoned stuffing that people will make to serve on the side,” Cheri says.
Bread not purchased by the end of the day gets donated, so it’s guaranteed that every loaf has been freshly baked.
Treats in a Pinch
Admit it: sometimes, even the best-laid plans still require a mad dash for that last part of the meal. For the past nine years, the owner of Kiera Confections, in McHenry, has been supplying freshly made cakes, cupcakes, ice creams and desserts, especially “if you’re pressed for time.”
While owner Kim Loewe makes many customized desserts for dinner parties, “friendsgivings” and family feasts, it’s the box of cupcakes in assorted flavors that’s one of her more popular items.
“There are a dozen cupcakes in the box, and you can order more than one box,” says Loewe. “There are three of each of four flavors, so everybody gets something they like. The Thanksgiving box has cupcakes decorated with turkeys, pumpkins and leaves. It’s something fun.”
The holiday box offers Christmas flavors. “There’s a snowflake, a gingerbread man, a joy with a wreath for the ‘o,’ and a holly leaf with berries,” Loewe says.
The cupcake frosting, which comes in flavors like chocolate mint, red velvet, gingerbread spice and eggnog cream, explode with flavor. “We’ve done these for the past two years, and they have worked out really well for people,” Loewe says.
If you’re a cookie lover, try the Oreo cookie boxes, which include six cookies hand-dipped in milk chocolate. “The Thanksgiving cookie box has pumpkins and leaves, and the holiday one has a pine tree and snowflake on it,” Loewe adds.
Homemade pies are great sellers, too. They include apple, pumpkin, pecan, chocolate cream and blueberry. Pumpkin, no surprise, is a top seller at Thanksgiving.
“We have a really good crust for our pie,” Loewe says. “At Christmastime, we make a candy cane pie, which is chocolate and peppermint cream.” It’s the most popular choice around Christmas.
Topping it All Off
The family-owned Kuipers Family Farm, in Maple Park, is a go-to destination for fall fun, but it’s also spent 19 years helping families to complete their holiday feasts. The 230-acre farm, run by Kim Kuipers, her husband Wade and their sons Joe and Will, sells pumpkins, apples, Christmas trees and more.
“We have freshly harvested apples for baking all of your holiday desserts,” says Kim. Varieties of apples include Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Jonagold, Jonathon and Ida Red.
Though Kuipers Farm’s apples are only available during the harvesting season, Kim offers a little help with holiday baking.
“If you’re not handy in the kitchen or just pressed for time during the holiday rush, we are still baking our apple, double apple, caramel apple nut, apple brown Betty and pumpkin pies through December,” Kim says. “We also sell them frozen and ready to bake yourself, if you prefer.”
Consider topping off the night with a nice fruit wine or hard cider, also available at Kuipers Farm’s market.
“New this fall, we introduced our spiced red wine, which is a sweet red with hints of cinnamon, plum and clove so it’s perfect for serving warm on a cold day,” Kim says. “For a non-alcoholic drink to serve to your guests, we recommend our freshly pressed apple cider heated with mulling spices that we sell here in the store.”