Even if you can't whip up four-star hors d'oeuvres or set a sensational table, you can still throw a great holiday party. Here's how to bluff your way through. And don't worry ... We'll Never Tell; FOCUS ON ENTERTAINING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When it comes to holiday entertaining, there are two types of people: the ones who make scrumptious dinners from scratch and serve them on impeccably set tables in clean houses -- and the rest of us.

We are the fakers. We buy gourmet take-out and arrange it on our own china. We put candy in a bowl and call it a centerpiece. We are overwhelmed, underskilled, sometimes just plain clueless.

But we still like a good time. And we wouldn't mind throwing a party to celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas or New Year's without falling to pieces.

What we need are shortcuts. So we asked party pros for their best tips and tricks on how to bluff your way through holiday entertaining.

A full guest is a happy guest

The cheater's first step to feeding the guests: Ply them with drinks and snacks.

"Keep the bar stocked and cold beer in the fridge and don't forget the wine," advises Julie Salter, a producer with P.W. Feats, an event marketing and design management firm in Baltimore. "You'll make a lot of people happy."

For hors d'oeuvres, "Just give them something," stresses Lisa Honick, chef at Gourmet Again in Pikesville. Toasted or spiced nuts, cheese and olives are festive and easy. Even easier: Put a couple of minced garlic cloves in a small bowl, pour in some good-quality olive oil, and have your guests tear off chunks of bread and dip away.

Your guests will be so happy they won't even notice you've slipped out to the nearest gourmet take-out counter to pick up dinner.

Don't even think about feeling guilty.

"Today so many things are pre-cooked and pre-made and pre-laid out for you on little platters, you can really go into a grocery store and get everything for everyone," Salter says.

Most grocery stores sell rotisserie chicken, some sell sushi. Many will even arrange their prepared foods on your own platters.

At Gourmet Again, popular choices for the holidays include potato latkes with homemade apple sauce, grilled turkey breast and mini chocolate chip cookies. At Eddie's of Roland Park, it's beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce, duck breast and Israeli couscous with winter squash. During December, Graul's, which has stores in Ruxton, Hereford, Timonium and Annapolis, sells a lot of crab and artichoke dip, portobello mushroom quesadillas with fresh salsa and crab balls.

Upon returning home to feed your guests -- who, by the way, have run out of bread and are dipping frozen french fries in olive oil -- be prepared to reply when they compliment your cooking. Or rather, your smart shopping for gourmet-to-go food.

"It's a compliment when people pass off our food as their own," says Jo Alexander, spokeswoman for Eddie's of Roland Park. "Their secret is safe with us."

And if your guests ask for actual recipes, it's not necessary to confess, says etiquette expert Peggy Post.

"It's really up to you," says Post, the author of "Emily Post's Entertaining" (HarperCollins, 232 pages, $20). "You certainly don't have to lie. Smile and say, 'Thank you. I'm glad you like it.' You don't have to elaborate any more if you don't want to."

Keep the decorations simple

Eleven months out of the year, it's fine, acceptable even, to live in a house with no decorations on the front door or over the fireplace, where the only decorating theme is "dusty clutter."

Then December arrives and you're expected to turn your messy abode into a pristine holiday wonderland filled with gingerbread houses, twinkling lights and fanciful displays. Yikes.

Just like the food, you can fake it.

First, the cleaning. Or rather, the not cleaning. "A house doesn't require major cleaning every time you invite people over," says Salter. "There are a lot of things you can get away with."

Only straighten the rooms guests will see and close the doors to other, messier rooms. Move furniture over Kool-Aid carpet stains, toss pillows over Oreo cookie smudges on the couch, do a quick swipe at the bathrooms guests will be using.

Fresh flowers on the table cover a tablecloth that's not as new as you'd like. Tossing a roll of cookie dough in the oven fills the house with that sweet smell of baking.

Most important, after your guests arrive, stop cleaning, says Post.

"If your house isn't clean, don't worry about it," she says. It bothers the host and hostess much more than it bothers the guest. In fact it makes guests uncomfortable to watch their hosts scurrying around trying to pick things up."

Now the decorations.

Greens cut from your yard can be used in displays all over the house. Spray them with Wiltpruf -- available at garden centers for about $5 -- and they'll last all season long.

A bowl of Granny Smith apples in a silver bowl can be a simple, elegant centerpiece. Or, make a slit in a shiny red apple or pear and use it as a place-card holder.

Instead of putting candles in candleholders, fill buckets or bowls with sand and shove in lots of tall taper candles. "You can light up a whole fireplace that way," says Leslie Haskins, owner of the eclectic Hampden housewares store, In Watermelon Sugar.

Tiffany Zappulla, owner of TAZ Designs Inc., an interior design and decorative painting company in Baltimore, suggests using gold spray paint to liven candleholders and ornaments that are scratched and chipped. Put a taper candle in a low candleholder in a glass or crystal bowl and fill the bowl with wrapped candies. Some other ideas: Old mirrors, decorated with holly and laid on the table, can be used as party trays. Tie napkins on each end with ribbons to look like English Christmas crackers.

Zappulla recommends coming up with new ways to use what you have.

Last year, she decorated her niece's Christmas tree in Beanie Babies. "Most people have a gazillion of those," she says.

No time for any of that? Then do this: Buy a bag of holiday candy. Open it. Pour in bowl. Set on table.

"Something as simple as a colorful bowl of candy can help give a room a party feeling," Salter says.

It's OK to ask for help

There is nothing more odious than complaining about slaving in the kitchen while your guests stand idly by. Avoid this situation altogether by making your friends work for their supper.

"Making dinner can be part of the party," Salter says. In addition to asking people to bring courses, you can ask them to help chop vegetables for stew or cook their own meal if you serve fondue.

This help-with-the-party tactic works especially well when entertaining children, who tend to be both energetic and gullible. In addition, people tend to be more complimentary and forgiving of those who are still in grade school.

Before guests arrive, have children make and display their holiday decorations on the front door or mantle. If your own spray-painted, lasagna-noodle sculpture of a snowman looks less than professional, fib and tell everyone little Billy made it. In no time, you'll be taking orders for more.

And finally, when the party's over and everyone has gone, leaving behind crumpled cocktail napkins, half-finished drinks and no leftovers, repeat these words: Never again. Never again. Never again.

And know that come next year, you'll be here, same time, same place, same need to fake it all over again.

After all, if there is one thing the holidays are all about, it's tradition.

Just like Mom makes

With the variety of gourmet-to-go items available at specialty and grocery stores, it's easy to figure out what to feed your guests. But how to pass the food off as your own? Some suggestions of ways to garnish take-out at home.

* Dispose of the evidence. Hide take-out containers in the bottom of the trash. The very bottom.

* Use sprigs of fresh rosemary, sage or other herbs to garnish meats and salads. No fresh herbs? Try slices of fresh fruit.

* Make tomato roses to top side dishes or sandwich platters. Use a sharp paring knife to skin a tomato in one strip, roll up the skin and -- voila!

* Baby fruits and vegetables arranged around a roast or platter elicit praise. Try circling kumquats and baby pears around poultry.

* Toss a handful of raspberries over a plate of mini eclairs, fruit tarts and cream puffs.

The cheater's list

Here are 10 basics that party planners recommend even the unskilled have on hand during the holidays:

1. Wine and beer

2. Cheese and an assortment of crackers

3. Salted, mixed nuts

4. Fresh garlic

5. Good-quality olive oil

6. Jarred pesto, olive dip, other vegetable dips

7. Sparkling water, soda, juices

8. Ice

9. Linen napkins

10. Candles

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