Beef Tenderloin Crostini with Sultana-Port Relish
Red Lettuce, Asian Pear, and Mint Salad
Classic Tarte Tatin
Lemon Cloud Trifle
Gilded Honeycomb Hazelnut Brittle
Espresso Icebox Coins
It's the afternoon of Christmas Eve, with stingy sunlight and wadded gray skies throughout New York City. But inside one West Village brownstone, the year is about to reach its blazing zenith. Just as it is every December, the four-story town house where Gael Towey and Stephen Doyle live has been gloriously transformed. A 12-foot-high Fraser fir with branches that have been painstakingly looped with 1,600 golden lights casts an extravagant glow. "I do it every year, and it takes forever," says Stephen, a partner in a noted graphic design firm. "But it's our palpable signal of warmth, welcome, and joy." Gael, longtime chief creative director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, has transformed the parlor floor into a banquet hall, lining up three tables to create a single long one dressed in rosy-pink linens and bejeweled with pink roses and shining lusterware plates.
It's for their favorite party of the year -- Christmas Eve dinner with their sprawling, close-knit clan, including their children, Maud, 18, and August, 16, Gael's parents, her five siblings, the in-laws, and 15 nieces and nephews ranging from 2 to 20. The doorbell never stops ringing. "They just keep tumbling in," says a bemused Stephen. "It's a fantastic chaos." Everyone contributes a dish -- a salad, a cake, or an hors d'oeuvre. Gael's youngest brother, Michael, arrives with a cooler full of fresh fish and begins dispensing sushi.
Soon it's time for an annual highlight. At Thanksgiving, each child pulls a name from a hat and then buys a modest gift for his or her Kriss Kringle. Each also writes a poem in praise of the child, and the poems, read aloud, are always charming. Not long after, Gael and Stephen start the risotto, a holiday tradition for this bunch. Several of the guests circle it, stirring to help the dish along. "It's performance art," Gael quips. After the procession of desserts, which includes Stephen's fabled tarte Tatin, everyone heads home or to midnight Mass. "I feel sad blowing out the candles," Gael says, "but satisfied that our party is a Christmas present that will last forever."