Even if you can’t spend April in Paris, you can welcome the new month with a chic French-themed fete. For tips, recipes and more creative ideas we turned to Jennifer Shea, party planning expert and author of the new book Trophy Cupcakes & Parties. Here, she shares a festive celebration from the book and shows us exactly how to pull it off. Get inspired, and start planning!
Go for Color
The French flag’s navy, white, and crimson stripes make a perfect visual threesome. For a softer effect, use a muted version of these same three colors, plus a light peach accent.
Begin with café lights. Strings of classic round bulbs create a strong impact and can be repurposed later to spruce up your patio or add to holiday decor. Tie in the color palette by loosely weaving Cloth Streamer Garlands throughout the lights (instructions below).
To evoke the feel of a French market, use rustic stands or wooden produce (or wine) crates under platters of food atop an old wooden dining table. Stand extra “prop” baguettes in baskets or metal tins. Label cheeses with mini chalkboard signs. Create a quintessential Parisian café sign on a chalkboard—ours is a popular French saying, “Eat well, laugh often, love much.”
Never be afraid to be your own florist for casual parties among friends. Make your own herbes de Provence arrangements of thyme, lavender, rosemary, and savory, and place them around the party space in old bottles or vintage tea and coffee tins. Fill each “vase” with water, strip away any leaves resting below the waterline, and cut the herbs about the same height. A loose, casual arrangement is often the most appealing, so relax and embrace your inner florist!
CLOTH STREAMER GARLAND
I love standard crepe paper, but to capture the old-world feel of this party, I decided to create hand-dyed cloth versions of classic streamers. Cloth streamers create a lovely vintage look, allow for a perfectly matched color palette, and are a great project to do with kids!
1 yard white 100 percent cotton fabric (or an old white cotton sheet); you’ll get about 50 2-by-18-inch-wide strips of fabric per yard of 54-inch wide fabric.
Fabric dye, such as Rit Dye
12 feet of heavy twine
1. Several days before the party, wash and dry the fabric. This removes the sizing (if it’s new fabric) and will help the fabric hold the dye better.
2. Dye the fabric following the manufacturer’s instructions. To find the perfect color for your party, use Rit Dye’s “ColoRit Color Formula Guide.” It’s awesome!
3. Dry the fabric in your dryer and promptly remove to avoid wrinkling. But there’s no need to iron—we want the strips to look rustic.
4. Carefully rip the fabric into 2-inch strips that are 18 inches long. For 1 yard of fabric, fold the fabric in half lengthwise and make a 1/2-inch snip on the fold with scissors and carefully rip into two 18-inch sections, then make a small 1/2-inch snip every 2 inches down the length of each section and carefully rip into 2-inch strips. You’ll need about 40 to 50 strips per 12 feet of garland, depending on how closely you’d like them spaced.
5. Tie the strips onto heavy twine about every 3 inches and voila`! You now have a cloth streamer garland in your exact party color. You can use the same method with long strips using the full length of the fabric (54 inches) to create cute cloth backdrop.
This theme is perfect for celebrating good food, so let your mind go wild with various food-related activities (other than eating) you could share with your guests, such as a mustard- or preserves-making station or blind champagne and/or cheese tastings.
Camaraderie and good-natured competition makes pétanque, a popular pastime in Paris parks, the perfect outdoor party game. For the kids, set up wine bottles on a low table for a fun ring toss game. Each time a ring makes it onto a bottle, offer up a fun French-themed prize such as a French flag temporary tattoo or a fake mustache sticker. For kids’ parties, you could also provide red berets and lots of props to create a lighthearted French photo op.
How about some music? Paris is about sights, smells, and tastes, but it’s also about sounds. Buskers (outdoor musicians playing for pocket change) are seemingly on every street and subway, and the sounds of their old-world accordions, stand-up bass fiddles, violins, portable pianos, and Spanish guitars resonate long after you’ve returned home. To really bring Paris to your party, hire a local musician and chanteuse to serenade your guests, a classic three-piece to provide background cocktail music, or an upbeat chanson outfit that will get even the most timid guests dancing. If you prefer a playlist, download Putumayo’s “Paris” or “French Café”—fun mixes for Francophiles.
Forget those notions about fussy French food. The most delicious French cuisine is the simplest of all! Baguettes, a spread of French cheeses (with at least one stinky cheese, such as Epoisse de Bourgogne or Roquefort—available at most gourmet grocers), olives such as picholine or Nicoise, pates, cornichons, Dijon mustard, fresh veggies, and cured meats are really all you need. Visit your local specialty grocer or cheesemonger—I love DeLaurenti in Seattle—to help take your spread to the next level.
The great thing about a rustic French buffet is that it’s completely kid-friendly, so there’s no need to make separate food for them. Baguettes with butter and ham or cheese and crunchy cucumbers, carrots, and haricots vert are a favorite among les petits-enfants.
If you’re feeling ambitious, start the party with champagne and raw oysters served from an oyster station complete with an oyster shucker (ask a friend or poach a professional from your favorite fish monger or oyster bar for one night). Display the oysters on ice with lemon wedges and a bowl of Mignonette Sauce (recipe below).
It goes without saying that the bar must be stocked with good French wine and champagne. A Lillet Cooler (recipe below) features the soothing flavors of mint and cucumber, and makes a delightful signature cocktail.
Pour les enfants, set up an ooh-la-la inducing French Soda bar with club soda, a variety of natural syrups (I like elderflower, lavender, and French vanilla for this party), half-and-half, and whipped cream.
Combine 1 teaspoon crushed black pepper, 1 tablespoon minced shallots, and 2 tablespoons champagne vinegar. Makes enough to accompany 1 dozen oysters. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
1 cup ice, plus more for serving
½ cup Lillet Blanc
1 ounce vodka (Ketel One or your favorite)
2 tablespoons fresh lemonade
A few leaves of mint
Splash of soda water
1 cucumber spear and fresh mint sprig, for garnish
Put the ice, Lillet, vodka, lemonade, and mint in a cocktail shaker and shake well.
Fill a glass with ice; strain mixture into glass and add soda water.
Garnish with cucumber spear and mint sprig.
Pro-Tip: You don’t want to get stuck behind the bar all night, so for larger parties, make a large batch of Lillet Cooler. Just combine the first 5 ingredients (multiplied by how many you want on hand) in a pitcher or punch bowl alongside an ice bucket. Have the pitcher available to guests to pour over ice, top with soda, and garnish. Be sure to make a cute “Lillet Cooler” sign too!
Fill an 8-ounce glass with ice. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of flavored natural syrup. Slowly pour club soda over the ice (for a pretty layered effect), then add a splash of half-and-half, plus a dollop of whipped cream (if desired). Top it off with a striped mustache straw!
Lavender Crème Brûlée Cupcakes
Although crème brûlée’s origins are hotly debated, it’s quintessentially French to me and one of my all-time favorite desserts, so I just had to make it into a cupcake. It is a little trickier than Trophy’s usual recipes, and you’ll need some special equipment— at least ten 2½- to 3-inch metal biscuit cutters or mousse rings (straight-sided with no handle) and a kitchen torch. But the extra effort results in a most amazing creation: lavender-scented custard with a hardened-sugar crown atop our moist vanilla cup- cake. C’est magnifique!
Makes 10 cupcakes
What You Need:
Crème Brûlée Cupcakes (recipe follows)
Lavender Pastry Cream (recipe follows)
Ten 2½- to 3-inch biscuit cutters or mousse rings
1. Prepare the Crème Brûlée Cupcakes and the Lavender Pastry Cream, following the cupcake recipe’s instructions for how to carefully assemble the two ingredients together, then bake.
2. Serve the cupcakes on a plate with a teaspoon so your guests can experience the ultimate pleasure of cracking the top. You can caramelize the tops up to 1 hour before you serve the cupcakes. Any longer than that, and the caramel will become watery.
Crème Brûlée Cupcakes
Makes 10 Cupcakes
¾ cup plus 1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
⅓ cup cake flour (not self-rising)
⅔ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup milk
¼ cup half-and-half
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
5½ tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup plus 2½ tablespoons sugar
2½ cups (1 batch) Lavender Pastry Cream (recipe follows)
1 cup granulated sugar
1. In a large bowl, sift together the all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
2. Combine the milk, half-and-half, and vanilla in a measuring cup with a spout. Set aside.
3. Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat them at low speed until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about
1 minute if the butter is soft. If the butter is cool, it will take longer. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well and scraping the bowl after each addition, and waiting until all traces of each egg have disappeared before adding the next one.
4. Add the dry ingredients in 3 parts, alternating with adding the wet ingredients in 2 parts. Keep the mixer at the lowest speed, and mix each time just until the ingredients are combined. When everything has been added, scrape the bowl and paddle one more time, and stir the batter just until it’s smooth. Set the batter aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 10 cups in a 12-cup muffin pan with 2 cupcake liners each and set aside while you make the Lavender Pastry Cream.
6. Use all the cupcake batter to fill the double-lined muffin cups three-quarters full.
Level the top of the batter with the back of a spoon, if necessary. Place a biscuit cutter or mousse ring on top of each cupcake well. Using a small portion scoop with a trigger or squeeze handle, divide the pastry cream evenly between all 10 cups (about 1/4 cup in each). You want to do this slowly and carefully (if you drop a big blob of pastry cream onto the batter, it may sink). If you don’t have a portion scoop, use two small spoons to divide the pastry cream: take a scoop of pastry cream with one spoon, and use the other spoon to push it evenly over the cupcake batter. When all the pastry cream is divided onto the batter, smooth the tops if necessary. The pastry cream level will be about 1 inch above the top of the cupcake pan with the biscuit ring holding it in place.
7. Bake the cupcakes for 25 to 30 minutes. The pastry cream will rise to the top of the biscuit cutter as the cake rises; don’t worry if a little spills over.
8. The best way to tell if the cupcakes are done is to remove the pan from the oven at about 25 minutes to see if any cupcake batter has risen to the top (it tends to push the pastry cream out of the way). If it has, insert a cake tester in the center of a middle of a cupcake: it should come out with just a few crumbs. If no cake is peeking out, place the cupcakes back into the oven for 5 more minutes. At this point, they should be done. The pastry cream will keep them from overbaking.
9. Let the cupcakes cool completely before removing the biscuit rings. Use a small metal spatula to carefully remove the cupcakes from the pan.
10. To serve, carefully remove the outer cupcake liner from each cupcake, leaving the clean inner liner still attached. Place the cupcakes on a sheet pan or a fireproof work surface. Sprinkle each one with about a teaspoon of granulated sugar, and use a kitchen torch to caramelize it by holding the flame quite close to the top of each cupcake, moving it slowly to melt all the sugar. Let the cupcakes sit for at least 5 minutes to let the caramel harden. Serve on a plate with a spoon so that your guests can experience the ultimate pleasure of cracking the top. You can caramelize the tops up to 1 hour before serving. Any longer than that, and the caramel will become watery.
Lavender Pastry Cream
Makes about 2½ cups
1½ cups heavy cream
1½ cups half-and-half
1½ tablespoons dried lavender
6 egg yolks
¾ cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1. Put the heavy cream, half-and-half, and lavender in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, cover it with a piece of aluminum foil, and let the cream steep for 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks and sugar in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth. Sift the cornstarch into the mixture, add the salt, and whisk until perfectly smooth.
3. When the cream has finished steeping, set a mesh sieve over a medium saucepan and pour the hot cream through it to remove the lavender. Temper the egg mixture by slowly adding about 1 cup of the hot cream to the eggs while whisking constantly, then pour the egg mixture into the saucepan that has the remaining cream in it, and whisk well.
4. Set the pan over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the pastry cream gets thick (like mayonnaise) and begins to bubble. Let it boil for 30 seconds, again whisking constantly. It should be thick, smooth, and glossy. As soon as it is ready, pour it into a clean bowl.
*(c)2013 By Jennifer Shea. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Trophy Cupcakes & Parties! Deliciously Fun Party Ideas and Recipes from Seattle’s Prize-Winning Cupcake Bakery by permission of Sasquatch Books.