Parties with a Purpose

By Jane Remley

As each new year progresses, we steadily flip the pages of our calendars, and page by page, the long cold days of winter slowly become just a shiver of a memory. Springtime begins to emerge with new freshness and anticipation, full of vibrant color, vitality, and regrowth. For some mysterious reason, springtime also seems to magically produce thoughts of love, romance, and babies. This is traditionally the time of year when friends and family begin to plan bridal and baby showers - otherwise known as "parties with a purpose.

Bridal and baby showers are planned to assist the engaged couple, or the parents-to-be, in equipping their new home or their baby's first nursery. The tradition of the bridal shower is said to have begun in Holland a long, long time ago. The story is told that a young woman was forbidden by her father to marry her love, a poor but kind miller, who had shared his possessions with some villagers who were in need of help. When the townspeople learned that the young girl's father denied her a dowry (a sum of money or goods to help the couple establish a home), they all got together and "showered" the couple with gifts; and the couple happily began their new life together. So the tradition began.

Today, the shower event has become a festive way for friends and relatives to shower the bride, or the mother-to-be, with gifts and a multitude of good wishes. A shower can be as elaborate as a formal tea or as casual as a backyard barbeque. The choice is usually made by those who are hosting and paying for the celebration. However, showers do not typically include a full meal. They are usually planned as informal get-togethers with a simple menu that may include finger foods, a cake, desserts, chocolates, punch, and other beverages. These types of parties often have a theme or idea to help guide the guests in their choice of gifts. Baby showers basically speak for themselves, and gifts for the new baby are usually traditional. Bridal showers can be theme oriented such as kitchen showers, bath showers, or even lingerie showers if you so desire. The choice of foods, decorations, and desserts often compliment the chosen theme.

If you are considering hosting a shower, you will want to decide whether or not you will prepare the food and decorations yourself, or if you need to hire help. This, of course, will depend on your skill levels, your budget, and how much time you have for the project.

If you're the type of person who likes to add a creative and personal touch when you entertain, you will probably want to make the centerpieces, candies, and desserts yourself. That way you can decorate them according to the shower's theme. Have you noticed recently that cookie bouquets are being sold at gift shops and specialty stores for a very hefty price? Cookie bouquets are becoming very popular as centerpieces and favors, and it's very easy to make your own. You, too, can create a beautiful display using decorated cookies. All you need is a basic sugar cookie recipe or mix, a selection of cookie cutters, cookie bouquet sticks, and some tinted royal icing. Better yet, you can purchase wedding or baby shower cookie bouquet kits that contain everything you need to make the cookies. Whichever way you choose, it's very simple and fun to mix the dough and cut out the cookie shapes. Place the cut-outs on a sheet pan, and put a cookie bouquet stick under each cookie. The sticks will magically attach themselves to the cookies as they bake. Once they are baked and cooled, you can decorate the cookies according to your shower's theme or colors. When making the royal icing for your cookies, it is usually best to avoid recipes that call for raw egg whites, because of the risk of salmonella. You can safely make the royal icing by using meringue powder or a convenient royal icing mix. They are both simple to use and are a very safe way to decorate your cookies and other desserts. After you mix an assortment of pastel icing colors, place small writing tips in disposable decorating bags or paper cones. Now, you are ready to decorate the cookies, and you can decorate them as simply or as elaborately as you choose. When the icing is dry, gently wrap each cookie in clear plastic wrap and tie it with a coordinating colored ribbon. You can also use convenient decorative bag closures to hold the wrap in place. Any suitable vase or attractive container can be used to arrange and hold your cookie bouquet creations. Fill the container with green floral foam, and cover the foam with shredded colored paper or ribbon. Carefully insert the cookies and arrange your cookie bouquet. Now step back and admire your work!

Next, you may want to consider making several "conversation piece" centerpieces that will hold a variety of cookies, chips, candy, or fruit. Caramel popcorn bowls are an old-time favorite, and they're making a comeback at parties everywhere. The bowls are simply made out of plain popped popcorn and melted caramel. They can be made in a variety of shapes and sizes, and when filled, they can stand alone or rest in a decorative compote or tray. You can buy the individually wrapped caramels at the supermarket and unwrap each one separately, or you can use a container of the original Nestle Caramel to make your task much easier. The caramel popcorn bowls are very easy and fun to make. When you fill them with colorful cookies, candies, or fruit, you will create exquisite centerpieces that will delight and intrigue your guests. Smaller filled popcorn bowls can also be placed throughout your house to make it easier for your guests to nibble as they mingle. Make an assortment of candies, mints, or party chocolates by using a convenient candy mold set for wedding showers, for baby showers, or the springtime flower assortment set. Each set contains instructions and easy to follow recipes. And of course, after all the tasty treats are eaten, your guests can break off pieces of the caramel popcorn bowls to munch!

Since shower menus traditionally include bite size finger foods, a small pastry item will add a special elegance as well as satisfy your guest's cravings for something sweet. Small cakes, called Petit Fours, are always a welcome sight at any party. However, the multi-layered, elaborately decorated little gems can be expensive to buy, and they can be very complicated to make. An easy alternative is to make a batch of Very Easy Petit Fours. Simply bake any white or yellow cake mix in a 15-1/2" x 10" x 1" jellyroll pan. When cool, cut the cake into bite size shapes, such as squares, triangles, or rounds. For an interesting variety, you can also use the really handy Fancy Aspic Cutter set to make twelve different 1" size shapes. By cutting the shapes close together, you will eliminate waste and probably get about sixty Petit Fours from one cake. Once the shapes are cut and all of the crumbs are removed, you are ready to ice and decorate your little gems. Put the cake pieces, a few at a time, on a wire rack that has been placed over a clean sheet pan. Pour Petit Fours icing over the top of each cake piece so the entire piece is covered all at one time. Any icing that drips off of the cakes and into the sheet pan can be reheated and used again. Continue covering the rest of the cake pieces. Allow the icing to dry completely, then decorate the tops of the petit fours with royal icing designs, drizzles of colored frosting, colored sprinkles, or gold and silver dragees. With a little creativity, you can easily transform your little gems into luscious, tempting, mouthwatering delights. If you place each decorated Petit Four in a small paper or foil candy cup, you will be adding an extra special finishing touch. When shower time comes, just place them on a pretty serving tray, and you're all set. Your guests will marvel at your creative ability, and you will marvel at how easy that was!

If you are planning to host a shower, the most important thing to remember is that by doing so you are being a good friend to the bride or the mother-to-be. You are giving her your support, and you're showing her how much you care. Don't even think about trying to host the perfect party. We all have busy lives, and most of us know how much work showers can be. If you keep the menu, decorations, and your life simple, your "party with a purpose" will come together naturally and successfully.