A Perfect Table Setting, Made Easy

I fashioned elf boots out of napkins today. That’s them, in the picture below. Ain’t they cute? I’m not the handicraft-y type (despite Lia’s insistence last spring that I decorate Easter eggs and write about it), so these adorable elf boot napkins really are examples of if-I-can-do-it-so-can-you.

The only person in the world who could get me excited about performing the oragami to fold a napkin into a bootie is Denise Vivaldo, author of Perfect Table Settings: Hundreds of Easy Ideas for Napkin Folds and Table Arrangements (Robert Rose). She’s a top-notch food stylist–meaning her job is to make food look mouthwatering, and a big part of that is creating gorgeous table settings to showcase that food. Prior to food styling, Vivaldo ran a successful catering business in Los Angeles, where she created stylish events for celebrity clients. But, she points out, big-name clients didn’t always have big-time budgets.

“When we had low-budget parties, sometimes all we had for decor on the table was the napkin folds,” Vivaldo chuckles. “The cheapest way is to set a nice table is to have a set of cloth napkins and change the fold.”

Everything in Perfect Table Settings, from the 100 napkin folds (ranging from the super-easy Simple Upright to the advanced Elf Boot) is designed to offer affordable, real-world solutions to balance the often unrealistic expectations created by the many cooking and home style shows on TV. As a behind-the-scenes stylist, Vivaldo confesses to helping create some of those “simple” projects, and to some degree, this book helps atone for that. Unlike many of the crazy crafts she was charged with styling for some of the best-known personalities on TV, the strategies in this book are “supposed to be achievable for people.”

And they are, as evidenced by the fact that even I could turn a plain red napkin into the Elf Boot, thanks to the clear instructions and step-by-step photos in Vivaldo’s book. As I twisted and folded and flipped napkins, I couldn’t help thinking that if she tires of food styling Vivaldo should write instructions for assembling Ikea furniture (after, of course, penning a tell-all book about the many crazy characters with whom she’s worked over the years).

Since many of us want to set a festive table with panache this time of year, here are 5 tips from Vivaldo to create a gorgeous table for the holidays and everyday.

Opt for cloth. “There’s nothing easier or greener than investing in two sets of cloth napkins for your family,” says Vivaldo. If you want to experiment with different folds, 20-inch square napkins are your best bet. The fabric depends on your preference–100% cotton is great for everyday use, though a cotton-polyester blend tends to hold its color better and won’t need ironing.

Use napkin rings. These add style and sparkle to a table, but they originated with a practical purpose. “Napkin rings were meant to identify a napkin as yours so it  didn’t have to laundered every day,” says Vivaldo. Her suggestion: Buy a set of animal-theme napkin rings and assign a different critter for each family member to use for his or her napkin.

Go monochromatic. Pick a hue you love and stick with it. “Mixing colors is much harder than staying with one color,” says Vivaldo. One of her favorite themes is an all-white brunch. “It’s beautiful, because the food really pops on those inexpensive white dishes.”

Decorate with what you have. “You don’t have to buy an expensive flower arrangement to have a good-looking table,” she says. Instead, she’ll scavenge her yard for interesting and seasonal greenery–magnolia leaves are a favorite (“I use the gold side up, and with a few gold ornaments, they couldn’t be more beautiful”). She also suggests creating a simple, low-profile centerpiece with pillar candles and scattering seasonal fruit down the center of the table as a runner. Clove-studded oranges are lovely this time of year; so are pears.

Get out the fine china–but don’t worry if everything doesn’t match. If you’re missing a few pieces from Grandma’s china set, so what? Round it out with clear glass or simple white dishes. “They’ll work with everything on your table and won’t become dated. Any kind of glass adds some sparkle and pizzazz.” She’s also a fan of silver or gold chargers. “They’re not expensive and they totally dress up the table.”

Ultimately, Vivaldo’s recipe for a pretty table is simple: Mix some of your best china with some newer pieces and nicely folded napkins. Garnish with a few natural, seasonal touches. This time of year, she says, “Setting a table is as much of a tradition as the food you’re serving.”


Eggnog Flans with Maple and Toasted Walnuts

Eggnog Flans with Maple and Toasted Walnuts

Premade eggnog gives you a head start on this easy holiday dessert, while using maple syrup saves you the trouble of making caramel to coat the bottoms of the ramekins. You’ll need to make these flans at least 1 day (and up to 3 days) ahead, so the custard has plenty of time to infuse with the maple flavor.

eggnog-flans-with-maple5 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2-1/2 cups low-fat eggnog
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons toasted chopped walnuts

Position 1 rack in middle of oven; position second rack in top. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Whisk together the first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl. Place eggnog in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat; heat to 180 degrees F or until tiny bubbles form around the edges (do not boil). Gradually pour eggnog into egg mixture, whisking constantly. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a large 4-cup measuring cup or clean spouted bowl. Skim any foam from surface of custard.

Arrange 8 (5-ounce) ramekins in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Place pan on a rimmed baking sheet. (This will make it easier to maneuver the pan in and out of the oven.)

Pour maple syrup evenly into ramekins. Top evenly with custard. Skim any bubbles from surface of custard. Fill pan with hot water to a depth of 1-1/2 inches. Place pan on middle rack of oven. Place a second baking sheet on the top rack (this prevents the tops of the flans from browning). Bake 45 minutes or until set. Carefully remove ramekins from pan. Cool to room temperature. Cover, and refrigerate 24 hours or up to 3 days.

To serve, run a thin, sharp knife around the edge of each flan. Place a dessert plate upside-down over each flan. Invert to unmold flan, allowing maple to drizzle over flan. Garnish with nuts.

Serves 8