A Hot Chocolate Bar

Last weekend was the 14th Annual Christmas Cookie Swap. The guest list includes people from all different points of my life, and this year I took it to a new extreme. There were people with whom I went to middle school, high school, and college. There were some family members, some of my sister’s friends I’ve gotten to know over the years, and the lady who lives downstairs – and at one point my neighbors I have grown up with (all 6 of them) came over to crash the party (who were, of course, welcomed wholeheartedly). It was quite the crew.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been trying hard to step up my party game in the past few months. I’ve been working on setting the whole stage, putting consideration into decorating, and planning out activities for the party. That said, this party doesn’t take place at my house, I couldn’t find any flowers that felt Christmas-y enough at Trader Joe’s, and the activities for this party have always kind of been laid out: eat cookies and sing Christmas carols. Exhibit A:

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

Of course, y’all already knew about the party favor bags. I set those up in the entrance way so that people would see them before they left. In retrospect, I probably should have made a sign that said, “take one of these when you leave.” But they looked great, and the people I remembered to tell were excited to take a treat bag when they left.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

The biggest addition to the party this year was a spiked hot chocolate bar. They’re all the rage on Pinterest these days. (Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, Exhibit E)

5 Steps to Make a Hot Chocolate Bar

  1. Lay out the mugs.
  2. Don’t forget to buy the hot chocolate.
  3. Make a sign. I found a chalk board in the children’s play drawer in my kitchen. It was hot pink so I covered the edges of it in green wrapping paper.
  4. Add in some flavors. Flavors can be alcoholic: godiva liquor, kahlua, baileys, vanilla vodka or non alcoholic: candy canes, peppermints, and marshmallows.
  5. Pour on the toppings. Don’t forget the whipped cream, but then remember that you can decorate the whipped cream with sprinkles, mini chocolate chips, or chocolate shavings.

Here’s how it turned out:

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

I’ve learned through the years that not everyone is going to want to use the hot chocolate bar. And not all of the toppings are going to get used – especially with wine to drink. So setting out only a few glasses was absolutely alright. One thing I would consider doing differently is having the hot chocolate pre-made as opposed to needing to turn the kettle on every time we wanted a cup, but I think it went well for the first year. Maybe next year I’ll get one of those pendant banners that are all the rage. We’ll see.

The food staple of this party is always the stuffed breads. The party starts at 7, so most people have eaten ahead of time, but the stuffed breads are a great way to tide people over and provide some balance to all of the cookies for the swap. Ben suggested getting pretzels in Philadelphia before we left to take to Connecticut. They were a big hit! That said, 21 pretzels was far too many, next year I would do 15. Yet again, not everybody wants a pretzel.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

And then there were a few new additions to our line-up. I’ve been on a chili kick recently, so we had chili available for anybody who wanted it. Then I bought two cheeses (the delice de bourgogne was gone by the end of the night), carrots, and hummus.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

The final touch I added this year was cookie name tags. Usually we just make people guess what type of cookies they are, but I think putting out the signs really helped this year. From year’s past I’ve learned that what happens is everybody brings about cookies, we all eat cookies while we are there, and then most people don’t take any cookies when they leave so I end up with a bunch. So this year I told everybody not to aim for only 30 cookies. (I still had a lot left over…)

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

I never actually took a picture of the table full of cookies because I was too caught up in the hustle and bustle of saying hello, getting people drinks, attempting to figure out what was wrong with the bottle of chardonnay I opened and offered to my friends fiancee that I met for the first time, and putting on a Christmas performance with Biz and Kerry (usually we have more than just 3 people around the piano, but this year it was 3 people around the piano and about 15 watching… it made me wish we had rehearsed…).

Anyway. That’s it. I hope you’re inspired to make your own hot chocolate bar! It was fun!

how to make iced tea

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Why did nobody tell me how flipping easy it was to make iced tea? I assumed you needed a 20 gallon jug, a million tea bags, a sunny day, and a week’s notice. A few weeks ago I hosted a Royale Purple Brunch with a little help from Plum Deluxe. They sent over some Royale Purple Tea and some Afternoon “High Tea” White Tea for me to try (as well as some Deluxe Tea Sugar). Then Andy (the founder) sent me this super easy link to make the perfect iced tea.

AND GUESS WHAT?! It was easy. And it’s cut down my bubble tea costs significantly. I’m gonna show you how it’s done. (Admittedly I made a few changes of my own, so you should read the original article for all the details. For example, I’m pretty sure I was supposed to shake it in ice, not put it in the ice. Maybe I’ll get there one day. Step 1: buy a shaker thing.)

Step 1: Get your materials. 

I found that the best way to make iced tea was in a mason jar. It seals easily. They come in all sizes. They don’t take up that much room in the fridge. It’s perfect.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 2: Measure out the tea.

2 teaspoons of tea leaves per 8 oz of water. Easy peasy.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 3: Put the tea in water.

Then wait.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 4: Get your second round of materials.

Peaches, lemons, and straw optional. Also, I had some simple syrup left over from the party so decided to sweeten it with that. The Perfect Iced Tea post has that recipe.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 5: Strain it.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 6: Add all the fixings.

Ice, peaches, lemons, and a straw.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe. How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe. How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe. How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

AND THAT’S IT. THAT’S HOW YOU MAKE ICED TEA. You can make it by the jar, the gallon, or the (alright, I ran out of larger units of measurement for liquids here, wait…) cubic foot!

Don’t forget to check out my Royal Purple Brunch on the Plum Deluxe website. It talks about finding your inspiration, creating your guest list, choosing the menu, finding the decor, and setting up for the party.

Host a Chai Tasting Party

How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel

I’ve had this party idea for a while – Chai Tasting Party.

Let me start at the beginning. I can’t really drink coffee. After about half a cup my insides start shaking, I can’t shut-up, and there’s a 100% chance that I’m not going to be able to fall asleep that night. So years ago I decided my hot beverage drink of choice was going to be chai. (And yes, I know there’s caffeine in chai, but it usually takes at least 2 drinks until I start shaking.) Recently I’ve been buying a bunch of the premade chais to try at home. I knew there was no chance I was going to be able to finish all the ones I started, so I decided to look at it as a good opportunity to throw a party. (Because everything is a good opportunity to throw a party.)

I am not an expert in chai, I just know what I like. According to the Chrystina world of chai there are two different types of chai: sweet chai (like Dunkin’ Donuts’) and spicy chai (like Starbucks). Actually, my favorite coffee shop in Philadelphia, Good Karma, has both, which I always find pretty gratifying. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten over I prefer the spicy chai over the sweet chai. I even used to get extra sweetener added to my Starbucks chai at the beginning, but not anymore.

So I invited a bunch of my chai-drinking friends over and bought: Oregon Chai, Celestial Mountain Chai, Trader Joe’s Spicy Chai Tea Latte Mix, Tazo Chai teabags, Trader Joe’s spiced chai teabags, Tazo Chai, and ingredients to make homemade chai.

How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel 01

I pulled out the smallest teacups I owned so that no one overdid it on any one chai.

How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel 02

I set out sugar and honey in case anybody wanted to sweeten their chai. (They didn’t.)

How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel 03

And when the guests arrived we went through the chais one at a time until we tried them all. Here’s what we learned:

  • The Oregon Chai was the sweetest. It also has the furthest out expiration date.
  • The Mountain Chai was a crowd favorite because it wasn’t super sweet or spicy, just flavorful.
  • The Tazo Chai tastes exactly like the chai that you get at Starbucks. (Unless, of course, you live in Philadelphia which is currently a test market for chai which seriously needs to stop immediately.)

For the chai concentrates the breakdown was 50% concentrate / 50% milk to make any of the chais.

How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel 04

  • The Trader Joe’s Spicy Chai Tea Latte Mix also leaned towards the sweeter side, although people agreed it was a pretty solid alternative to one of the concentrates. Also, logistically speaking, this one has a much further out expiration date.
  • We didn’t actually use any of the chai teabags because there were so many other chai options. I probably should have just given them to people as party favors.

How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel 05

The homemade chai, not pictured here because none of the process is pretty (and because I forgot to take a picture), was made using Wagh Bakri leaf tea, brown sugar, ginger, water, and milk. It’s an improvisational process every time I make it (because the freshness of the ginger and milk usually affect the taste), but here’s the approximate recipe.

Homemade Chai Recipe
Makes 2 cups

3 tsp. Wagh Bakri leaf tea
3 tbsp. brown sugar
1 inch ginger
8 oz. water
8 oz. milk

Add tea, sugar, ginger, and water to a pan on the stove. Bring to boil and keep at a simmer for 10 minutes. Add milk, bring back to a boil and keep at a simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the tea. Enjoy.

This is a modified recipe from the one I got from my boss a few years ago. (He’s the one whose wedding I went to in India – post 1, post 2.)

I supplied all the tea so I had everybody bring food. We had plenty of cookies and one friend read on the internet that chai pairs well with beef jerkey. (It was actually pretty good and nice to have a savory snack amongst all the sweet ones.) My friend Erin made these absolutely adorable chocolate-dipped tea bag shaped cookies. She’s incredible.

How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel 06 How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel 07

I somehow had all the ingredients in my fridge to make 7 layer cookies, which are some of my absolute favorites.

How to Host a Chai Tasting Party via Chrystina Noel 08

I’m sure there’s a fancy way to host a chai tasting party that includes everybody sitting down at a long dining room table and everybody trying every chai at the same exact time. (In this scenario I’m 95% sure everyone is weawring hats.) But when you’re 27-years-old, don’t have a dining room, and your kitchen is standing-room only that’s just not the case. When everybody came in the door they came down to the kitchen, chose a cup, and chose a chai they wanted to try. I had the homemade chai brewing on the stove and my cookies had just come out of the oven so the house smelled pretty delicious. I also kept a pot of water on the stove at all times so that people could make tea as they pleased. And when it came to trying the concentrated chais? Everybody made their own whenever they were ready and then put it in the microwave for 30 seconds. How’s that for fancy?

All in all it was a blast. There were people from all different aspects of my life there and the conversation went great. It ranged from travel to politics to schooling to adulting. And I think everybody left with at least one new friend, which is cool. Overall, here are my tips for if you decide to host your own chai tasting party:

  • Make sure you have water nearby so that people can take a break from drinking chai for a while.
  • Have regular milk alternatives such as coconut milk or almond milk for people who don’t eat/drink dairy.
  • Try to have a good balance of sweet and savory items on the table for eating.
  • Keep the guest list to a maximum of 12 people so that one box of each type of chai is enough.

Also, this is a great idea for a no-alcohol party if that’s not your style. That said, by the end of the evening, I was definitely shaking on the inside, mind was running wild, and if I wasn’t so gosh darn tired that night I would have absolutely not been able to sleep.

Have you ever hosted your own chai tasting? I’d love to hear how it went.

PS. If you’re looking for ideas for a regular tea party, check out my how to host an afternoon tea party post.

The Best Sangria Recipe

the best sangria recipe

About four years ago, at every holiday gathering, sangria started showing up as a staple drink.  It was a perfect addition to the menu (and a great way to meet the daily recommended fruit servings).  I asked my Aunt Lisa where she got the recipe, and the answer was a restaurant in New York City at a bridal shower.

She asked for the recipe, and surprisingly they gave it to her!  And goodness gracious I’m glad they did.  Enjoy!

Ingredients:
1.5 liters Pino Grigio
8 oz. Mountain Dew
1 cup simple syrup*
5 shots Peach Schnapps
2 shots Triple-Sec
1/2 cup Orange Juice
1 orange with peel left on
1 lemon with peel left on
1 granny smith apple with skin left on
1 kiwi
6 maraschino cherries.

Instructions:
Cut all fruit into tiny bite size pieces
Mix all but the mountain dew the night before
Use a very large pitcher
Add mounatin dew just before serving
Serve over ice (chopped or snow-cone-style)

*Equal parts water and sugar, bring to a boil and then cool before using.