Ever watch a cooking show on television and fantasize (or freak out) about hosting your first holiday with family and friends? Yeah, us too.
But if you’re hosting soon and you’re a bit panicked, we’ve got you covered. Who better to turn to for advice than an Emmy award-winning co-host from The Chew and former Top Chef competitor?
Carla Hall has teamed up with T.J.Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods as part of their Gift My Gathering contest, and has also gifted BRIDES readers with her best advice for hosting your first holiday (see what we did there?).
Don't stress if things aren't perfect
While she certainly has it all together in the kitchen now, it wasn’t always the case.
Hall reflects on her first-time hosting Thanksgiving for friends and acquaintances in Washington, DC who couldn’t go home for the holidays due to work, which she called “A Friendsgiving, before it was really a thing. There were about 12 people, I probably didn’t know about 8 of them. We had this elaborately decorated table, and when I look back I think about it—we had the china and the flatware and the glasses and it was really kind of gaudy but it was amazing.”
Instead of turkey and all the fixings, Hall decided to go a bit off the usual path. “I decided to make not the traditional fare—we had these courses set up, and a girl came and she was like, ‘Oh I brought candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows’ and we were like, ‘Um, that’s not going to be served with this meal.’” It didn’t quite fit, as Carla had prepared fancier, nontraditional foods including sea bass and orange lentils. Unfortunately, the lentils were not cooked well enough and her friend told her, “They were undone-te instead of al dente.”
“That was the first time I ever hosted,” Hall reflects. “It was crazy and it wasn’t quite a success.” Instead, now she sticks to what has always worked. “I’m all about tradition.”
Tips for the turkey
The main feature of any Thanksgiving, other than family of course, is the turkey. Carla’s biggest turkey tip? Break it down.
“I break the turkey down like a chicken,” she says. “I break it down because I want the carcass to make the stock so I can have the gravy for the dinner, I don’t care about soup after—I don’t wanna cook the next day. I want leftovers.”
Another important tip? Dry brining. “I salt the turkey, sort of a dry brine with salt and you put it in the refrigerator without being covered so it is dry, if the skin is dry—dry skin means crispy skin.”
She also prefers two smaller turkeys over a large one, explaining, “I would rather buy two 9 or 10 lb. birds than a large 18 lb. bird, because they cook quicker and you’ll have a greater chance of not over cooking so the breast is dry,” adding that she cooks it in parts—white meat ready before dry meat—and cooks on sheet pans after searing.
Make sure you come prepared
To ensure your kitchen is fully stocked, racks are the number one item she recommends. “I think you need a braising pan and you absolutely need coking racks,” she says. “Whether you are baking, putting meat on it, whether you are cooling something, you need racks. What they do is help things cool down and circulate air.”
Many may think that a turkey baster is another key to preparation, but Hall points out a reason they can actually deter from the perfect turkey, “People open the oven too many times cooking turkey when using a baster. The temperature drops and, basically, if they just left it closed, it would cook. But because they have to baste it, it ends up taking a lot longer than it should.”
While cooking for a large party, she offers a general rule of thumb. In terms of turkey needed, “you factor 2 lbs. per person, which equals one point of meat and gives you leftovers.” When it comes to sides, 8 oz. is the sweet spot. “If you have potatoes and you also have dressing and green beans and also have cranberry sauce, you’re only going to need 2 oz. of each.” Simply factor 8 oz. of sides per person, and divide that by how many sides you’re offering.
Another important tip? Don’t forget about your small appliances—put them to work! “Maybe you want to use crockpot to hold potatoes, toaster oven to make a casserole—I don’t think people think about those things,” says Carla. And if you don’t have those items, she recommends putting “all your dishes in your oven that you might use and see if they fit, minus the turkey because it doesn’t have to be hot—your gravy has to be hot.” Then, determine what also fits on your stove. She explains, “If you are a first-time entertainer that should be the extent of all the dishes that you have not, including what goes in your refrigerator. Think about balancing hot, cold and room temperature.”
Think about how you set the table
When it comes to hosting, a simple etiquette tip Carla offers is the importance of knowing how to set a proper table. She explains, “For a big party its ok to have a buffet, and you set a really nice table and the plates can be at the buffet or at the table. I think people should know how to set a table with a knife and fork. Fork on the left, knife on the right—you know, where to set water glasses and all those things. Water glasses go over the knife.” The basics are essential.
For a foolproof way to remember the “rules,” she offers, “I always tell people if you make an ‘ok’ sign in front of your face with your left and right hand, with left hand it’s a ‘B’ for bread which is the bread plate, and the right will be ‘D’ for drink. If you can do that, you will always know that, even when you’re sitting and it’s not your dinner and you’re at a fancy restaurant or something, you’re not going to take someone else’s bread because you know yours is on the left-hand side.”
In terms of decor, Hall offers a simple way to make a subtle but great visual statement. “I love taking wrapping paper making it a runner,” she offers. “It gives you an instant pop of color, and can set theme or tone or colors you want.” A simple solution to what could otherwise be a costly expense, she loves it for its inexpensiveness, and says “it makes you look really creative like a cool cat.”
Hall also says it’s a great way to set the kids table, noting that craft paper works well and kids can stamp or color on it.
Make it personal
Aside from food, there should be an added component to your holiday gathering that keeps it fun and connected. For Carla, its games and music, as she alternates the festivities with her husband. For the Hall family, it’s not a proper holiday without games. She explains, “I mean games, singing, were always doing some sort of card game, we are actually creating discussion or talking, laughing, and after every dinner we have these amazing games. It keeps us all at the table, nobody is running to get up and do something else because we have so much fun.”
For her husband’s side of the family, it’s singing, as her mother in law and father in law are choir members. “Everyone sings, they sing hymns. We sit around and they harmonize at the drop of the hat and I’m just like—with my mouth agape—like oh my gosh how do you know how to do this? So, it’s singing on one side, and games and being really loud because we’re southerners on the other side,” she says.
Stick to something you know
Carla’s best advice for first-time hosts is simple. Other than to relax, she suggests you stick with something you know. “I always make my Granny’s Five Flavor Pound Cake. I make it because I know it. I’ll have it in the summer on the 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas,” she explains, adding that for the holidays she dresses it up with a lemon glaze, candies, cranberries, maybe mint or holly. She continues, “the thing is to make something that you know that you feel very comfortable and that you’re not worried about. You don’t have to feel like it’s an audition for your guest.”
She stresses that in hosting (as with many other things), sometimes less is more. Carla says, “A lot of times, especially because of cooking shows, people feel like they have to impress people – but you can do that by having something that is simply delicious.”
Here’s how to make Carla’s Granny’s Five Flavor Pound Cake with Candied Cranberries
Granny's Five Flavor Pound Cake:
- 1 stick butter
- 3 cups sugar
- 6 eggs
- 4 cups A/P flour
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 3/4 cup sour cream or heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon each extract (vanilla, almond, rum, coconut, lemon)
Combine the dry ingredients and set aside.
In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle, cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time. On low speed, add the flour by alternating with the sour cream, beginning and ending with flour. Add the extracts. Scrape the bottom of the bowl to mix batter thoroughly. Continue to mix for three to four minutes or until the batter is shiny and completely mixed.
NOTE: The batter should be THICK! Spoon into prepared tube pan (buttered and floured). Place in COLD oven. Set temp to 300 degrees. Cook for 80-90 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely.
Garnish the cake: place it on a cake stand. Pour the top of the cake with a lemon glaze, and decorate the circumference of the cake with candied cranberries and small sprigs of mint.
Candied Cranberries (makes about 2 cups)
- 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
- 1 cup water
- 1” fresh ginger, cut into ¼” thick rounds (no need to peel)
- 1 bag (12 oz.) fresh cranberries, sorted to throw out any bad ones
- ¾ cup superfine sugar
Combine granulated sugar, ginger and water in a medium saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Off the heat, add the cranberries to the sugar liquid, stir to coat, cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Drain the cranberries in a mesh strainer over a bowl, saving the syrup. Shake the colander to drain as much syrup as possible.
Place the fine sugar in a shallow dish, and in batches, roll the cranberries to completely coat in sugar. Spread the sugared cranberries on a baking sheet for at least one hour or until the cranberries are dried.
Store in an airtight container for up to one week.
- 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 3-4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Place the sugar in a bowl or large glass measuring cup. Stir in the lemon juice until combined. Mixture should be thick, but pourable.
Five families across the US will be awarded a custom holiday gathering through the Gift My Gathering contest. For your chance to win, you can enter now through November 28th at GiftMyGathering.com.