A three-story gingerbread house decked out with stained-glass candy window panes and wee icing icicles dripping from the roof can make for an awe-inspiring sight on the holiday table. And if you've got the degree in architecture needed to pull it off, and you don't mind the taste of spiced cardboard, have at it.
But there are easier, and tastier, edible centerpieces that are just as impressive.
Sure, there are plenty of gorgeous look-but-don't-eat holiday decorating options - candles, flower arrangements, glass ornaments piled in a bowl. But why not cut the cost and elevate the charm with a centerpiece that does double-duty as art and appetizer, or decoration and dessert?
"It starts the appetite and gets people hungry and looking forward to the meal," says Sandra Lee, star of the Food Network's "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee."
"The second thing that's great about edible centerpieces is that you're not being wasteful," she says. "It gives you another reason to put just that extra touch, and it gives you the permission to spend that extra time, because it's going to be displayed and also going to be consumed."
Lee often uses cakes as centerpieces. Her Thanksgiving episode features mini pumpkin spice cakes with orange glaze - small cakes baked in bundt pans and dressed up with marzipan leaves. The idea can be adapted to any holiday, she says.
No need to bake from scratch. Lee says minor tweaks to cake mixes can make a big difference. For example, use lemonade instead of water in a lemon cake mix. Or add lemon curd to prepared icing.
Also consider buying a plain cake and adding festive icing, such as a glaze spiked with raspberries or fresh mint to play off traditional Christmas colors. And a small bunch of edible flowers tucked into the center of a cake adds instant elegance.
"You put three of those around the table and candles everywhere, and you're done. You've got dessert for 10," she says. "You don't even have to bake. You just get to take all the credit and all the glory."
Beverages as centerpieces
Beverages also can become centerpieces at holiday parties. "Maybe in the entry or foyer, you take a nice silver platter - it doesn't have to be real silver, it can be one of the silver colored plastic party platters you get at the party store - and put an eclectic collection of glasses on there with different champagne cocktails," Lee says. "They look beautiful on the tray."
Mixing them is as simple as combing equal parts juice and champagne - the cheaper the better, since the juice will dominate the flavor anyway. Garnish with frozen blueberries, cranberries or peaches.
"All of those things you don't even have to skewer or decorate," Lee says. "Just pop them in the glass and they keep the drink cold. Plus, it's beautiful."
Cranberries also star in an edible centerpiece created by Matthew Mead, a contributing editor to Country Home magazine. Mead, who recently published his own magazine, Holiday With Matthew Mead, uses toothpicks to attach cranberries, strawberries and grapes to foam cones of various sizes for a decoration that can be served with a cheese course or at the end of the meal.
"You can mix vanilla yogurt with a little caramel sauce and some cinnamon, and it makes a great dip for fruit," he says.
Though edible centerpieces can take more time to prepare, Mead says they make sense.
"A lot of these things can be made from things found at the grocery store or items you'd be using as part of your dinner party anyway," he says. "People love to see something on the table that's a little different and engaging, and I think an edible centerpiece is certainly the epitome of engaging."
He suggests using plain white dinner plates stacked on small, overturned stemware to create a tiered display stand that could hold a variety of baked goods, from dinner rolls to croissants. Reusable adhesive can be used to secure the plates.
"Your bread course is now a beautiful arrangement," he says.
For children of all ages, he creates a "cookie vase" comprised of a large urn filled with wooden skewers topped with cookies and chocolate truffles. Purchased royal icing is used to adhere round and flower-shaped cookies to a gumdrop, which is then speared with the skewer. Dots of royal icing on the front of the cookies add more decoration.
"I like to use a lot of things that anyone can get anywhere," he says. "People love this kind of thing. It's something they've never seen before, it's totally edible and it's just fun."