How to Plan the Ultimate Cozy Night In With Friends

Ready the fuzzy throw blankets and string lights.

November  6, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

We've partnered with The Hess Collection to celebrate sweater weather with a seasonal menu of elevated comfort-food classics that pairs perfectly with their Hess Select Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Don't laugh, but fall has always been my favorite time of year...in California. Yes, I realize that the weather is pretty much perfect all year-round in the Golden State, but every year come November, something in the air is noticeably different—especially in the Bay Area, where I went to college. The grey, rolling fog feels thicker and what was once a refreshing breeze in the summer would cut through my sweater with a sharp chill.

During the warmer months, I loved to entertain on my oversized balcony (it had a view of the Golden Gate bridge, what's not to love?), and would often throw small dinners featuring homemade pizzas, fish tacos and fresh, tangy salsas, or grilled meats and vegetables from the nearby farmer's market, and local California wines. Between late October and early November, though, I would start to bring the party indoors, shifting my focus to hearty, warming dishes and a laid-back vibe.

But instead of billing these get-togethers as dinner parties (which can sometimes feel a bit too formal to me, and would leave me stressing over every detail), I'd invite friends over for a "cozy night in." These little shindigs were relaxed and casual, but still special—I always served food that was as comforting as it was company-worthy, and made sure to include little touches that made my guests feel right at home.

The spice and vibrant red fruit flavors of Hess Select's velvety Pinot Noir pair perfectly with this cheesy pumpkin and kale lasagna. Photo by Rocky Luten

Whether impromptu or planned in advance, the key to one of these laid-back evenings is to throw the idea of perfection out the window. Don't let a couple of oddly chopped vegetables, a bubbled-over baking dish (it's happened to me so many times!), or a few rumpled napkins get you bent out of shape. Actually, I think it's these little imperfections that make the whole night feel that much more intimate and authentic (and your friends won't care, I promise). Here are my tips for planning your own cozy night in, plus tricks for making it as chill and fun for guests and host alike:

Prep what you can ahead of time.

As with any gathering where food is involved, you'll save yourself a ton of time and hassle if you prep as much as possible in advance. My go-to main dish for a cozy night in is either a cheesy kale and Italian sausage lasagna with a creamy pumpkin béchamel, or a hearty short rib ragu. That's because they're both fall friendly and delicious, of course. But it's also because both of these recipes can be prepped the day before.

For the lasagna:

  • Prep the entire lasagna the day before, just don't bake it.
  • Store it in the fridge, covered.
  • About an hour before you want to serve it, sprinkle on a fresh layer of parmesan and pop it in the oven to bake.

For the ragu:

  • Make the ragu one day in advance; according to the recipe, you're actually supposed refrigerate it overnight.
  • The morning of, prep this shortcut polenta; you can leave it covered at room temperature for up to 12 hours.
  • About an hour before guests arrive, prepare the gremolata and let it sit at room temperature.
  • 15 minutes before serving, finish the polenta so it's ready to serve.
  • While you prepare the polenta, re-heat the ragu over low to medium heat on the stove.

In addition to making sure the mains are ready to go, you can get a lot of the side dish and dessert prep work out the way, too:

  • Up to two days before, mix up the vinaigrette (just give it a good shake before dressing the salad) and bake the cake.
  • The day before, chop up all the vegetables you'll be roasting (Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, carrots, and radicchio) and store them in the fridge.
  • Leave the pears uncut until you're ready to roast, so they don't brown.

Make sure you're stocked.

While my friends will usually bring a bottle of wine if they know I'm making them dinner, I always like to keep at least a few bottles on-hand that I know will pair well with whatever I'm serving...and to sip on while I'm setting up before people start knocking on the door. During the fall, when my dishes tend to be rich and hearty, that means keeping a few California reds stocked—a habit I started when I lived in the Bay Area because they were local, food-friendly, and big on flavor.

For something like the creamy pumpkin lasagna, I'll choose a lighter-bodied Pinot Noir with spice, red fruit-forward flavors, and enough acidity to balance out the bite of the kale and round out the richness of the béchamel sauce. Whereas for a hearty, meatier dish like short rib ragu, I'll serve a bolder Cabernet Sauvignon to draw out the savory umami flavors of the porcini, tomato, and fork-tender, herb-scented meat.

When it comes to serving, go family-style.

No need to whip out place settings or roll up serviettes for a casual evening like this one. Instead, let your guests work through the meal at their own pace by helping themselves. Create a serving station using a kitchen countertop or dining table: Put finished dishes here (no need to transfer to a serving platter, simply serve them in the dishes they were cooked with), along with bottles of wine, a stack of plates, napkins, silverware, glassware, and a pitcher or two of water.

Get comfy.

Whenever I'm setting up for a relaxed, autumn evening, I keep the Danish tradition of hygge in mind to help set the vibe. The idea of hygge has been wildly popular in the U.S. for a few years now, and for good reason—it's all about creating a cozy, intimate atmosphere and slowing down to savor the little moments (something we could all do a bit more often, right?). Instead of planned-out decorations like flower arrangements or matchy-matchy place settings, I just lay out some string lights around the table or light clusters of pillar candles (let that wax drip down!). I also try not to worry (this is tough for me) about making sure every inch of my home is as spotlessly clean and tidy as a hotel, because in the end, my friends will feel more comfortable hanging out in a lived-in space than one that looks more like a museum anyways.

Backyard barbecues and outdoor dinner parties may be a thing of the past, but now that autumn's in full swing, we're excited to transform our homes into cozy, cold-weather sanctuaries perfect for relaxed entertaining. When planning your own cozy night in with friends, stock your kitchen with a few bottles from our partner Hess Select, a part of The Hess Collection’s portfolio of premium California wines, family-owned since 1978. The aromatic notes of red berry fruit in their Cabernet Sauvignon and earthy hints of white pepper in their Pinot Noir pair well with a number of fall dishes, from roasted seasonal vegetables to slow-cooked stews—and are perfect with the two recipes above.

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Erin Alexander is the Brand Partnerships Editor at Food52, covering pop culture, travel, foods of the internet, and all things #sponsored. Formerly at Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Us Weekly, and Hearst, she currently lives in New York City.