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Puttin on the ritz
Pros reveal tips on a successful holiday soire
When you have a party, your hors d'oeuvres don't have to be complicated to be good. Here, simple ingredients jazz up store-bought pizza crust. - photo by Tasha Biggers

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The Christmas season is in full swing, which means a calendar filled with parties.

If you're playing host to one of those festive soires, you want it to be fun, not stressful.

We consulted the expert decorators and party planners at Nashville's Gaylord Opryland Hotel - the largest resort hotel in the United States outside Las Vegas - about how you can tailor their big ideas to your cozy celebration.

Vincent Dreffs, director of catering operations at the hotel, said the work begins one week before the party will take place.

"You really have things to do every day or evening the seven days prior to the event," Dreffs said, adding that the first task is a trip to the grocery store.

If you're a novice cook, or just like to keep things simple, Dreffs said there are store-bought options that can make cooking a breeze.

"For basic cooks, I think there are some incredible basics that you can use or you can embellish upon or, in fact, just garnish, that are already done for you," he said.

Dreffs said to avoid single-serve items, opting instead for dips or a cheese display.

"That always looks very, very good and everybody enjoys it," said Dreffs, "But it doesn't take you piece by piece by piece, crimping edges and preparing filling.

"You get good mileage out of the food, meaning it serves a lot more people than it really appears to, as opposed to that one-off canap that, once somebody eats it, it's gone."

To expand your menu, Dreffs said you also can add several items with a simple base like pizza crust.

"I love pizza in general, but there's a great way to take pizza and make it really, really gourmet," he said.

"You can start with a store-bought crust, and I'm talking the crust out of the tube roll. Roll it out, and you can whip goat cheese with a little bit of cream cheese, and put some fresh dates and jalapenos on it and bake it. It's an incredible set of flavors."

A mixture of deli counter grilled chicken, sliced thin, some smoked Gouda and a drizzle of buffalo sauce atop the pizza crust also makes a delicious combination.

For dessert pizza, Dreffs said to buy sugar cookie dough.

"You could roll out and bake ... cookie dough, topped with some fresh fruit. Heat up some strawberry jam and glaze the fruit that's on top of it," said Dreffs.

He said the glaze "shines very brightly," and the pizza will look elegant cut into a small, uniform, bite-size shapes.

"If you're going to cut it, cut it into triangles or squares," he said. "If you give it to them in the shape of a pizza, they're going to say this is pizza with this particular type of topping.' Otherwise, it's going to appear to be a canap."

A chalk board featuring your menu also is a nice addition, leaned against a wall or on a table.

Now that you've planned your menu, it's time to clean up the areas where your guests will be, but Dreffs said to spruce up the whole house, since you never know when you might need to use the other rooms.

As for decorations, your house might already be full of Christmas cheer. But if you're waiting until the last minute, there are quick ways to add sparkle without spending too much.

"In my opinion, minimal is better," Dreffs said.

"Minimal and classy keeps you away from what I call the yard sale look."

A simple theme like holly, Dreffs said, can pull a room together.

"Holly can be green with red berries in its natural state," he said. "It can be painted gold, if you prefer to have a more glitz or glam setting, and you can add it anywhere."

Dreffs said you can place holly on a fireplace mantle, around some simple candles or in a floral arrangement. A bough of holly on the mailbox, or in a wreath on the front door will make guests feel welcome and help get them in the party mood.

If poinsettias are your theme, you can keep them fresh until party time by watering them properly.

"At home, with the poinsettias, I always recommend, if they come in foil or decorative containers, that you would take that off of it, sit it in the sink and water it, or you can put a saucer under it," said Hollis Malone, manager of horticulture and pest control at the hotel.

Malone said most poinsettias are grown by being watered from below.

"You can put it in a little saucer or something, let it suck the water up, and when it gets through, just shake it a little bit and make sure there's not still water running out of it, and then put it back in your foil or decorative container," he said.

"I would think (watering) once a week is usually sufficient."

If you still need to get around to outside decor, Malone said one way to pack a punch is to concentrate tree lights.

"We have two different styles of decorating trees," said Malone.

"We have what we call the wrap trees, where we take the lights, just like how you could do it very easily at home, and you just wrap them around the main trunk and the perimeter of the limbs going out to the end. When you light them up at, it would show pretty much the form and structure and character of the tree," he said.

Another way the Gaylord Opryland dresses its trees is by attaching lights to orchard netting, which is a method similar to the net lights you can buy at most big box stores.

If you want to make your own, Malone said first to attach the netting, and then to use plastic zip ties to attach the lights. Malone recommends LED lights, since LED colors have improved, and "you can hook so many of them in together without ever worrying" about causing a fire, he said.

Jenny Barker, the director of public relations for Gaylord Opryland, said the arrival experience- whether at the hotel or in your home is key to any celebration.

"The arrival experience is really important, and having somebody there to greet people," said Barker.

"It's just a warm friendly face that helps create that warm, friendly atmosphere from the start," she said.

Dreffs said to pay attention to every detail of the party.

"We work with all the olfactory senses - sight, smell, sounds - we take all of that into consideration when planning an event," he said.

The sound level of the music is especially important, he said.

"There's always a walk-in volume, and when you or I or our guests sit down to eat, then we turn it down to a nice dinner volume," said Dreffs. "They can't be the same. The walk-in volume will be too loud for dinner."

Dreffs also said to pick music that reflects your personality, or is suited to your party guests.

"Music, to me, is a natural motivator. You kind of see people with a little extra pep in their step, and when they've got music that's upbeat or otherwise, it just adds a dimension - it actually adds that fifth dimension - to an event," Dreffs said. "A room that is silent has no personality. It's not speaking loud. The choice of music can set the tone for the event."