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How to Host a Fabulous Dessert Party

My sister shares her secrets for making a table full of sweet treats to share with family and friends


spinner image Barbara Beckerman standing next to various baked goods
Host Barbara Beckerman awaits 50 guests to enjoy 50 desserts — all prepared by her — at the home she shares with her husband, Martin, in Asheville, North Carolina, for their 40th annual dessert party.
Cathy Lynn Grossman

A mountain of sugar goes into the annual dessert party thrown by my sister, Barbara Beckerman — where the treats usually outnumber the guests (and we’re talking 50 to 80 guests).

Barbara, 77, discovered the delight of holding dessert extravaganzas in 1980 when she hosted a potluck dinner on New Year’s for the neighbors in her suburban Boston cul-de-sac. She was in charge of dessert. 

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Entranced by all the delicious-looking recipes in a newly published dessert cookbook she’d gotten her hands on, she happily went a little overboard. “It was just for five families, but why make one dessert for 12 people when you could make six,” she says. Over the years, her parties morphed into just Barbara making a ton of desserts.

Four decades and 40 dessert parties later, Barbara and her husband, Martin Beckerman, 81, still live on a cul-de-sac, but now the dessert parties are in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s an annual opportunity to gather with neighbors, work colleagues, and friends from synagogue and book club and treat them all with recipes Barbara has collected — or invented.

How does she do it? With quite a bit of advanced planning and organization and a little help. Here’s Barbara’s step-by-step guide to hosting your own sweet treat extravaganza. 

1. Make sure it’s fun to do

Barbara enjoys spending weeks baking classic treats like snickerdoodles, navigating a three-page, single-spaced recipe for a divine chocolate cake, or inventing an addictive orange-ginger meringue cookie. You have to love baking if you are going to fire up the oven.

2. Find your sense of humor

Barbara laughs about the night a 6-inch-high carrot cake flipped off a platter and splattered cream cheese icing everywhere. “You have to roll with it,” she says. And getting creative can help keep your mood up in the face of a recipe that flops. Once she turned lemon bars “too gooey to serve” into the base of a trifle, smothered in blueberries and whipped cream.

3. Set your date strategically

You need lead time, particularly if you’re also busy with family life, a job, travel, classes or hobbies. For three decades, Barbara delivered the massive parties while working full time. She revved up for this year’s March 10 party before January. The early March date avoids conflicts with holidays, holy days and sporting events. The email invitations, adorned with a photo of the prior year’s party, went out a month ahead.

spinner image a list of various baked goods
While Barbara was whipping up finishing touches for frosted treats, the author was assigned sister duty: assembling treat labels on little stands.
Cathy Lynn Grossman

4. Take stock of your stuff

Beyond assembling the right-size pans, tins and baking paraphernalia — including acres of parchment paper — you’ll need serving platters and bowls galore, cake boxes and containers for leftovers later. Assess how much fridge and pantry space you have for ingredients, and how much freezer space (your own or borrowed from a pal) you can utilize. Barbara’s full-size freezer in her garage was packed with more than 30 containers holding stacks of cookies divided by waxed paper and layers of naked cakes or meringues, tightly sealed with plastic wrap before they are dressed up on party prep day.

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5. Consider your budget

Barbara turns to warehouse stores for bargain prices on bags of nuts, bottles of vanilla and pounds of butter. She spaces out purchasing eggs, baking chocolate, cream and other ingredients, depending on what she’s baking next, and adds these to her weekly grocery list. She also plans for serving chips and dips, crackers and cheeses, savory snacks, fruit platters and beverages so that everyone will be comfortable — including Barbara, who, ironically, doesn’t eat sugar — “although I may lick my fingers if it’s chocolate.”

spinner image Barbara Beckerman preparing baked goods in a kitchen with various dishes in tupperware on the counter
The day before Barbara’s 40th annual party, she was still adding goodies to the menu while dozens of containers of cookies, candies and cakes defrosted on her counter.
Cathy Lynn Grossman

6. Bake with a plan

Barbara starts preparing candies and bar cookies first because “they freeze well and you can stack them in containers.” Everything comes in from the cold to defrost about 48 hours ahead of the party. She has a three-page, 21-item day-by-day plan for the party.  

Barbara also tries to make a variety of desserts — something for everyone. “I don’t want to make everything chocolate, and I don’t want to make everything so excessively sweet that that’s all they taste. I also try to make things that are tart, like lemon or lime dishes,” she says.

She mixes family favorites, such as our mom’s date-and-nut bread, with items like a showstopping frozen white chocolate raspberry mousse tart. Twelve of the 50 desserts this year were gluten free. One rule — no green desserts — dates to the time she baked green macarons with pistachio filling and, she says, “nobody ate them.” 

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spinner image baked goods in displayed on a tabletop
Barbara likes to arrange — and rearrange — the presentation right up until the first guest rings the doorbell. She sets desserts at different heights to arrange a picture of colors and textures.
Cathy Lynn Grossman

7. Plot your presentation

Barbara mapped out spots for 19 cookie platters, a glass bowl shimmering with a Grand Marnier mousse, and a “stand” made from a napkin-covered upside-down pot to display a lemon blueberry cheesecake. By varying heights, she can fit more on the main table, she says, and “it’s more visually interesting.” Little label cards are perched near each dessert. Stacks of paper plates, forks and napkins are set in several corners. Her kitchen island and breakfast nook become centers for drinks and snacks. Name tags and a guestbook go in the entry.

spinner image Barbara Beckerman and friends put various baked goods in tupperware
The day of party prep is a party in itself. Barbara’s friends (from left) Evelyn Blau, 75, Mercedes Otero-Carrady, 65, and Amy Loy, 72, chat and laugh while they assemble cookie platters.
Cathy Lynn Grossman

8. Give the gift of letting people help

​The day before the party, a friend whose passion is flower arranging treated Barbara and Marty to nine beautiful arrangements. Another friend led the prep day cookie display team, while Barbara assembled last-minute dessert decorations and Marty cleaned the house.

“If a cookie breaks, they get to eat it,” says Barbara. “That’s the rule. And lot of cookies get broken intentionally while they’re doing this setup. It’s almost a party in itself.”

9. Enjoy the party!

Guests were swooning, taking photos, urging Barbara to carry on for another year — and another. Almost everyone carried home a plateful of goodies. Hours later, Barbara put the remnants of the creamy and eggy desserts in the fridge, then covered the remaining cookies with plastic wrap and left them on the table for the next morning.

spinner image Barbara Beckerman gives extra baked goods to a firefighter
The morning after the party, Barbara gives her biggest, fullest platter of remaining cookies to Capt. Jason Graham at the nearby Skyland Fire & Rescue station. She mails leftover treats to family. The author managed to make off with almost all the orange ginger meringues.
Cathy Lynn Grossman

10. Extend the pleasure

Post-party day began with Barbara dividing stacks of treats that travel well into sealed containers for mailing to out-of-town family. She also took her biggest platter, piled high with cookies, and delivered it to the nearby Skyland Fire Rescue station.

Generosity is the real “recipe” handed down to us from Mom. She didn’t teach us to cook or bake. But, Barbara recalls, “our mother was one of the most incredibly organized people in the entire universe, and she loved to entertain.” Barbara watched and learned. “I like to give a party, and I like to do it with this kind of food because it’s fun for me to make. A lot of the organization, I’m not even thinking about. I’m just doing it,” she says.

Me? I took notes, hoarded orange-ginger meringues and brought home our mom’s date-and-nut bread.

BARBARA’S ORANGE-GINGER MERINGUES

Courtesy of Barbara Beckerman

INGREDIENTS

  1. 3 egg whites (room temperature)
  2. 1 cup sugar
  3. ½ teaspoon pure orange essence (or lemon or lime)
  4. 4 ounces (half can) crystallized ginger

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Preheat oven to 250°F. 
  • Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  • Beat egg whites on high until soft peaks occur. 
  • Gradually add one cup sugar and flavoring, and beat until egg whites are stiff. 
  • Fold in crystallized ginger.
  • Drop egg whites, a spoonful at a time (I use regular dinner spoon), onto parchment. 
  • Bake for 45 minutes.
  • Turn off oven and leave meringues in oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove, cool on parchment for 5 to 10 minutes, then transfer to baking racks to cool completely. 

Note: These meringues freeze beautifully in airtight containers, or you can store them in airtight containers at room temperature for a week. 

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