A little stressed about the holidays? I know, we can’t believe it’s already December either! Don’t worry dear reader, we’ve got you covered. We recently sat down with superstar baker/blogger/tastemaker and all-around wonderful New Orleanian, Joy Wilson, aka Joy the Baker, at her Bakehouse for some counseling on how to make it through the holidays with a smile (even if you’ve got powdered sugar and beignet crumbs on your favorite ugly Christmas sweater).
As you may already know, in New Orleans, we celebrate life year-round, and this time of year is no different. If anything, it’s a bit more glamorous and gussied up, with holiday lights brightening neighborhoods all over town, our finest restaurants bedecked with wreaths and ribbons and serving decadent four-course Réveillon dinners, jubilant tree lightings, bustling art markets, parades, cathedral concerts, and more.
Yes, it’s a lot. But it’s also wonderful. So we spoke with Joy about some of the biggest questions we get about celebrating the holidays here (or celebrating as if you were here, if for some reason you have to admire the city from afar this year). She helped us sort out everything from her favorite things to see, how to host a party, where to shop, and of course, what to bake.
GN: How do you kick-off this season in New Orleans?
JTB: I love hosting and going to parties, spending time with friends. I feel like this city really makes an effort to get together this time of year, and this space (The Bakehouse) just feels better when it’s full of people, so in between testing some new King Cake recipes (so they’re perfected for Mardi Gras season, which begins Jan. 6), I host a lot of gatherings and I start by getting The Bakehouse ready.
First step: Get a real tree the day after Thanksgiving and some holiday greens to fill the space that I can decorate simply with some lights and/or ribbon. I suggest picking a color palette for your home decor – just a couple colors to accent the greenery and your tree and whatever color your lights are. Then find items that fit that palette and let it evolve as you go through the holidays.
GN: Where do you find great holiday gifts?
JTB: I love locally-made things that you can find at little holiday markets and maker parties that pop up during December. We’re hosting one here at The Bakehouse on 12/15 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. These pop-ups can feature everything from food gifts like cookies or cookie dough, cakes, and pies, to other hand-made crafts. Some of my favorite makers here in New Orleans are Hex Candles, Lionheart Prints (for stationery), Jamboree jams, and Wild Rituals smudge sticks.
GN: What attractions here do you try not to miss?
JTB: The lights in the Roosevelt Hotel lobby are really something to see. And I love the little trains at City Park. Not the ones you ride, but the miniature ones in the train garden. It’s one of my favorite things.
GN: What’s your favorite thing to bake/serve/eat this time of year?
JTB: Hands-down, my dad’s sweet potato pie. He’s been working on it his whole life, and perfecting it every year, but now it’s just amazing and we won’t let him adjust it anymore.
I also love to make brown butter chocolate chip cookies and of course, dozens of different pies this time of year.
GN: What are your suggestions for hosting the perfect holiday party?
JTB: You have to get your hostess gifts on point. Make things people really want. Brandy Milk Punch is a favorite treat this time of year, and you can’t go wrong with chocolate or booze. Brown butter banana bread and chocolate cookies are also favorites.
Also, make everything ahead of time – well before your party. And now is not the time to try a brand new recipe – stick with your tried and trues.
And remember that the intention of the gathering is the gathering itself. This feels especially true in New Orleans. So a perfect pie isn’t critical. Adjust your expectations a bit, take it easy. Prep a couple days early so you can have fun and relax a bit more right before the party, and focus on the welcome, which is important.
Open the door with an open heart and a big smile and empower your guests to make themselves at home. Show them where the essentials are (like the bathrooms and the brie wheel), and introduce them to other guests with a key fact about each of them so they can take it from there. Placecards for a seated dinner are also helpful, so there’s no confusion about where to sit.
Your guests won’t remember a perfect pie, but they will remember how they felt at the party.
GN: How about tips for attending a party?
JTB: Eat something healthy and drink lots of water before you go. That way you’ll be hydrated and you’ll avoid mindless eating and drinking once you get there.
Make sure you bring a thoughtful gift for the host/hostess and wrap it! It’s not hard, but gift presentation important, and all you need is some butcher paper and good ribbon from an arts and craft store.
And most of all, have fun. Especially if you’re fortunate enough to be here for the holidays. It’s New Orleans, after all!