Eat + Drink: Domestic Divas
Move over Martha, the founders of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits are schooling locals on all things home entertaining, including hosting the perfect cocktail party
Call it the cocktail party conundrum: How does one juggle a small plate of hors d’oeuvres, fork, napkin, and beverage while nibbling daintily, making scintillating small talk, and shaking hands? Truth is, it’s impossible. “People don’t have three hands,” says Lee Manigault, who, along with Suzanne Pollak, founded the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits (CADP) in 2011.
They suggest that party hosts take plates and forks out of the equation altogether and stick solely to finger food—“Two bites max, preferably one.” And those ubiquitous paper cocktail napkins with cute quips on them? Unless they’re a real hoot, opt for linen, insists Pollak. “None are beautiful enough to get over their ‘paperness.’”
These are just a few of the pointers veteran hostesses Manigault and Pollak breezily impart as they mix old fashioneds and pass trays of cheese coins during a recent class on how to throw a cocktail party. Since launching the academy, the “deans,” as they call themselves, have offered a revolving curriculum on the domestic arts—from hosting an oyster roast to canning to making edible holiday gifts—at homes around town. The courses are part instruction, part fun (“It’s not MIT,” Manigault laughs, “it’s supposed to turn into a party at the end”) and have been a huge hit, regularly selling out, largely by word of mouth.
Both women have impeccable entertaining credentials. A descendant of John Jacob Astor, Manigault grew up in Millbrook, New York, where she was regularly tapped to pass hors d’oeuvres at her parents’ parties, and later those of their friends. “I did it instead of baby-sitting to make money,” she says. “I think it was because I liked doing it so much that I added a bit of extra
energy to the event.” Manigault later channeled that energy into hosting fundraisers at her King Street home here in Charleston, where she lives with her two daughters. One of her most memorable bashes? “I gave a party to celebrate my divorce—it was called the Emancipation Proclamation—and my ex-husband came dressed as Abe Lincoln,” she recalls.
The daughter of a diplomat, Pollak was raised all over Africa. “Most nights, my parents either hosted parties or attended someone else’s,” she says. Oftentimes, she tagged along. “I especially loved standing with my father, watching how he connected to people and listening to his stories.” She remembers having to step over pythons on the streets of Enugu, Nigeria, on the way to a cocktail reception, where guests in the know never set down their drinks, lest the resident monkeys drain them.
Like Manigault, Pollak’s own fêtes took on a life of their own; an annual Halloween costume party at her and husband Peter’s historic Beaufort home was a particularly coveted invitation. In addition to raising four children, she coauthored The Pat Conroy Cookbook and Entertaining for Dummies and was a representative for Federated Department Stores for five years, giving seminars on decorating, entertaining, equipping kitchens, and cooking.
The two women met, fittingly, at a party in town. For years Pollak had been mulling over the idea for the academy and saw Manigault as a kindred spirit. “We both have PhDs in all aspects of entertaining,” says Pollak. “Concocting cocktails, baking bread, flaming fish, catching and growing our dinner—we’ve done all that. Each of us has strong opinions on ambience; organization; mixing personalities; and collecting silver, linens, and china. There isn’t a part of the art of entertaining and running a house that we don’t enjoy and haven’t thought long and hard about.”
Their motto, “live at home,” particularly resonates with Charlestonians, whom they claim have a greater penchant for opening their houses to friends than bigger city dwellers—New Yorkers, for instance—who tend to socialize at restaurants or cafés.
And your address need not be South of Broad, they say, to throw a fabulous party. In fact, the deans insist the cozier the space, the better. Even if your house is sprawling, confine a cocktail party to two rooms, such as the dining and living rooms, by setting up the bar and buffet in one of them. “If guests can’t see everybody, they keep looking for the party,” notes Manigault.
The deans urge their students to mix up the guest list. Cocktail parties aren’t about social paybacks, says Pollak, “You have your friends and people you want to get to know.” Then invite some eye candy. “My father always said you have to have some gorgeous women there because people like to look at them—men and women.” Add a specialty cocktail, delicious finger food, background music, low lighting, and you’ve got the makings of a killer bash.
The difference between a good and great party, however, is you. The deans liken the host to a circus ringmaster. Start by greeting each of your guests as though they are the person you want to see more than anyone in the whole world. “Put them at ease right away with a welcome and a drink, whether it’s a glass of water or a glass of wine. They want something to do with their hands,” says Pollak. Then give them a task. “Go find (fill in the blank), you’re going to love her!” People need to be guided no matter how social they are.”
Passing a tray of hors d’oeuvres allows hosts to monitor the event’s success. “You can tell how a party is going by listening to it—a good party hums—and it gives you an excuse to save guests who are being subjected to the details of another’s gall bladder surgery,” says Manigault.
“The number one thing is to have fun,” adds Pollak. “If you’re having fun, then everybody else will.”
Ice Spheres 101
According to the deans, ice is all the rage right now. And while you likely won’t want to invest in a $10,000 ice machine to make the latest cubes, you can create ice spheres for less than five cents with this simple eye-catching trick. A single ice sphere melts more slowly than conventional ice and maintains the integrity of your signature cocktail.
Here’s what you’ll need:
Twist up a long, thin piece of aluminum foil and form it into the shape of a ring. Use bottled water to fill a balloon until its circumference is slightly smaller than that of your cocktail glass and tie off. Rest the balloon atop the foil ring. This prevents the balloons from getting a flat side and keeps them orbicular while freezing.
Place the filled balloons into the freezer the day before the party. Plan on one per glass. At party time, cut the top of the balloon and peel rubber off the ice. If sphere is too big to fit into glass, simply run under hot water until ice shrinks a bit.
The Deans' Cocktail Party Pointers
Forget Evites: If you’re not mailing invitations, call guests on the phone to invite them.You’ll typically get a response right away and you can generate excitement for the party by the tone of your voice.
Make a List: Work backwards from the very last thing you’ll do to prepare—light candles, put out ice, etc.—and spread chores out over several days. “A half an hour before your party starts, have a drink and take a bath,” says Lee. “Half the fun is getting ready.”
Don’t Skimp on Alcohol: Have one specialty cocktail that guests can serve themselves and a selection of the highest quality liquors you can afford. On a budget? Trim down the options. If you’re expecting 40 or more guests, hire a bartender (or two if the guest list tops 100).
Get Creative: No Spode on hand? Use (nonpoisonous) leaves from your garden to decorate plain platters.
Tone Down the Tunes: “You want background music,” says Suzanne. “That means no vocals unless they’re in another language.”
Turn Down the Lights: The darker the better, insist the deans. Think votive candles. “The light from candles makes everyone feel beautiful.”
1 large and uneven slice of lemon peel
1 brown sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
1 oz. bottled water
1 ice sphere (or 2 large ice cubes)
2 oz. Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-year-old bourbon
1/4 orange slice for garnish
Sprig of mint for garnish
Place lemon peel, sugar cube, and both bitters into an old fashioned glass. Using a wooden muddler, muddle the ingredients firmly in the bottom of the glass. Add water, ice sphere, and bourbon. Stir with a spoon. Garnish with orange and mint.
1 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
4 bay leaves, crushed
2 oz. bottle capers, drained and coarsely chopped
4 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. coarse or kosher salt
1 tsp. celery seeds
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
2 lbs. large (21-25 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined
Mix all ingredients, except shrimp, in a large heatproof glass/ceramic bowl. In a medium stock pot over high heat, bring four quarts of abundantly salted water to a rolling boil. Add shrimp and cook until just pink, about two minutes. (Shrimp will continue to “cook” in the marinade.) Drain and immediately transfer to marinade. Bring to room temperature, cover tightly, and marinate overnight in refrigerator. Transfer shrimp and marinade to a glass serving compote or bowl. Serve chilled.
4 12-oz. New York strip steaks
1/4 cup favorite seasonings (such as sea salt and cracked pepper)
More sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F. Allow meat to come to room temperature and season both sides with spices and salt. Heat cast-iron or ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add oil. Sear steak three minutes until a crust forms. Flip and place pan in oven. Roast for five to eight minutes until it reaches rare doneness. Remove from oven, place on cutting board, and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Trim fat and gristle, then cut into bite-size cubes. Garnish with sea salt and serve on a tray with a container of toothpicks.
2 cups extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
12 Tbs. (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, chilled but not hard
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 375°F.
In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream the cheese and butter until well-combined. In a separate bowl, mix peppers into the flour and add slowly to the cheese mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides, until it forms a ball.
Lightly flour a dry work surface and roll the dough into a log. With a sharp knife, cut the dough into 1/4-inch slices. Transfer the coins to ungreased baking sheets.
Bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes. Check them after 10 minutes to see if the pan needs to be rotated. Cool before serving.
4 bottles Champagne or prosecco
1 750-ml bottle of pear nectar, Looza brand recommended
1 1/2 cups Poire William liqueur
1 container fresh raspberries, optional
Chill all ingredients and combine in a large punch bowl over a block of ice or ice cubes, but not too many or they will dilute the flavor. You can make your own ice block in a mold using pear juice and embed it with raspberries or other colorful fruit. When the juice cube melts, it only improves the punch’s flavor.
2 (32 oz.) or 1 (64 oz.) Ball jar(s) with new lids
2 lbs. white turnips, peeled and sliced
1 medium beet, peeled and sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled\
1 Tbs. yellow mustard seeds
1-2 Tbs. sea salt
1 1/4 cups white wine vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
Clean the preserving jars. Immediately before using, fill them with boiling water and let sit for 10 minutes before pouring out.
Fill the jars with turnips, alternating slices of beet between layers of turnips. Add garlic cloves and mustard seeds. For quart jars, add one tablespoon sea salt; for half-gallon jars, add two tablespoons. Mix vinegar and water and pour the liquid over the turnips so that they are completely covered. Refrigerate. Invert the jars every few days to distribute the salt.
The pickles will be ready to eat in a week to 10 days but can be kept, refrigerated, for up to one month.
4 Tbs. unsalted butter, plus melted butter for brushing the rolls
1/2 lb. white mushrooms or more exotic mushrooms, or combination
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 cup light cream or half-and-half
1 Tbs. minced chives
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
20 slices white sandwich bread (the cheaper the better)
Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until softened, approximately three to four minutes. Remove from heat and blend in flour. Stir in cream, return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat, stir in chives and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, and let cool.
Remove crusts from the bread. Roll each slice with a rolling pin until flat and thin.
Spread each slice with some of the mushroom mixture, roll up, and place seam side down on a baking sheet. Brush with additional melted butter. The rolls can be sealed in freezer bags and frozen for up to two weeks. (Do not keep in refrigerator.)
To serve, heat the oven to 400°F and defrost the rolls if frozen. Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake, turning occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the rolls are golden on all sides.
Cut each roll into three or four slices and serve warm, not hot.
For guests with a sweet tooth, a tiny bit of chocolate or cookie on the way out of your party feels like a kiss goodbye.
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
10 Tbs. (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar\
3/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp. water
1 tsp. vanilla
2 large eggs, chilled
1/3 cup plus 1 Tbs. unbleached flour
1 cup walnut pieces
Preheat oven to 325°F.
Line an 8x8-inch metal baking pan with foil, pressing the foil against the sides and leaving an extra two inches (for ease in lifting the finished brownies out of the pan). Coat foil with nonstick vegetable spray.
In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat, stirring often, until butter stops foaming and browned bits form at bottom of the pan, about five minutes. Remove from heat and add sugar, cocoa, water, vanilla, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir to combine. Let cool five minutes and add eggs to mixture, one at a time. Using a wooden spoon, beat vigorously after each egg. When mixture looks thick and shiny, add flour and stir until blended. Beat vigorously for one minute. Stir in nuts. Pour batter into prepared pan and place in oven.
After cooking for 10 minutes, remove from oven and sprinkle lightly with coarse sea salt. Return to oven and continue baking for another 15 to 20 minutes. These brownies can be made two days ahead, but be warned, the deans have never seen them last that long. Store airtight at room temperature.