Sweet Endings

For dessert, call Dani's Cakes (972-897-2406). Dani has been a pastry chef for more than 10 years, mainly working for corporate clients and by word of mouth. This year, she began selling to the public. And Dani herself will deliver to your house a cake or pie made to your specifications for far less than you'd pay if you walked into a gourmet bakery and bought one off the shelf.

Another well-kept sweet secret is Cheesecake Royale (9016 Garland Rd., 214-328-9102). Their cheesecakes are sold in some stores for nearly $50, but you can get them for almost half that by ordering direct. They use only natural ingredients and no preservatives. They bake everything from amaretto cheesecake to the traditional New York-style cheesecake. And Cheesecake Royale also makes scrumptious black forest, rum raisin, and carrot cake, just to name a few.

With a little help from these culinary outfits, your holiday gathering will go swimmingly. Just remember to relax, breathe deeply, and save the clean-up for the next morning.

This holiday season will feel different. And not just because you'll be opening your mail-ordered gifts with thick, rubber safety gloves. But because you'll have flu-like symptoms, accompanied by cysts and boils. And because Dan Rather cried on The Late Show, for heaven's sake. And, of course, because you had to give up 15 percent of your salary for the good of the company. Then you were laid off.

So this year is going to be perfect for hunkering under the hearth and having over to the humble abode the people who matter most in your life at this time of need: your doctor and your accountant. Or, if your doctor and accountant can't make it, invite your family and friends.

But if you're like me, cooking that big family meal sounds about as appealing as gnawing off your own arm at the elbow without the aid of condiments. And then there's the matter of getting the homefront prepared for the invasion of guests, securing the decorations and so forth. This is not an operation to be undertaken without some assistance. Seeing as how discretion is the better part of valor, a caterer might even be called for. Herewith, then, is your guide to entertaining at home. If you're having company over, call these folks first.

Getting started

Vacuuming is always a good start. And taking out the trash. But for a holiday get-together, you'll also need decorations to get everyone in the mood. A wreath on the door is a must. For these necessities, head to the Christmas Warehouse (1331 Regal Row, 214-638-7867). This store is seasonal, as its name implies, and is only open from early September through mid-January. You'll find Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands, ornaments and much more -- all at a fraction of retail prices. It's also a great resource for gift wrap and cards.

Once everyone has arrived, you'll want to give them something they can put in their mouths before Uncle Ralph has a chance to work up a filibuster about how he made good time driving in from Wichita Falls. Might I suggest cheese? (Little trick: Put your hors d'oeuvres on one side of the room and your cocktails on the other, thus forcing your guests to mingle.) For a great selection of the perfect filibuster busters, go to the Mozzarella Company (2944 Elm St., 214-741-4072). There you will find an amazing array of cheeses, all handmade daily right there in a small factory. They make Italian (mascarpone, scamorza), French (crme fraiche), Greek (feta), and even Mexican cheeses (oaxaca). I suggest the mascarpone tortas, a party cheese if there ever was one. An assortment will impress the in-laws and get everyone's tummies ready for the real deal.

To go with that cheese, you'll need wine. For this, there is no better place than Marty's (3316 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-526-7796). Marty's is a Dallas institution and has been in business since 1943. It also has the city's widest selection of wines. The knowledgeable staff can help you pair a wine with whatever you're serving.

The main course

A home-cooked meal will say to your family and friends, "I love you, and I am grateful for your presence in my home." But a home-cooked meal, from what I've been told, requires actual cooking at home, which entails chopping and measuring and mixing and all manner of time-consuming processes. Around the holidays, who has time to plan a meal for his entire family?

So pick up the phone now, and, in two days, on your doorstep will arrive the best bird you've ever tasted from Greenberg Smoked Turkeys (221 McMurray, Tyler, 903-595-0725). The folks at Greenberg have been using their secret family recipe to smoke turkeys for nearly 60 years. Now, of course, you know about the Honey Baked Ham people and you're wondering why you should order a turkey from Tyler when there are turkey outfits right here in town. Trust me. The New York Times has raved about Greenberg. It's worth it. This year, birds are going for $3.40 per pound, plus shipping, which will run you between $5 and $8, depending on the size of the turkey (which, by the way, are best served at room temperature).

If fowl isn't your thing, stop by Holy Ravioli (4446 Lovers Ln., 214-696-3993) and pick up some pasta that will impress even your old Meemaw from Italy. You can choose from about a dozen flavors, all sold by the pound. Try the wild mushroom or chicken-gorgonzola-walnut (both $8.50 per pound) or my favorite, the lobster ravioli, made with very fresh Maine lobsters ($16.50 per pound). And you'll need some sauce, too. Holy ravioli will send you home with tomato basil, chipotle cream, spicy arrabiata, and several others, each one more delicious than the next.

Continuing with the ethnic theme, why not treat your guests to the traditional Mexican party food, tamales? Some of the best in town can be found at Dallas Tortilla (1418 Greenville Ave., 214-821-8854). The tamales are made in their Oak Cliff factory and come with or without jalapenos, in your choice of beef, pork, or chicken. Dallas Tortilla also sells marvelous fresh tortillas (natch).

If you've got a huge, extended family, then maybe it's time for drastic measures. Rather than picking up just an appetizer or main course, perhaps you should consider leaving things in the hands of professionals and having the entire affair catered. Might I suggest Breadwinners (3301 McKinney Ave., 214-754-0099). You won't find a more helpful person in putting together your meal than Catering Manager Mindy Jackson. "We're known for our customer service," she says. "I'll walk someone through the entire process." Breadwinners' catering menu offers silver dollar pan-fried crab cakes, southwestern spring rolls, goat-cheese-stuffed artichoke hearts, and so much more (many items for around $30 for an order of 24). "We can handle parties of just about any size," Mindy says. "We had a guy call once who wanted us to cater a meal for just him and his girlfriend. That was a bit too small. But we can do most anything else."

If you'd prefer to design your very own menu and have it catered, call Ty Gerot, the Director of Operations at the wonderful Tejas Grill and Cantina (2930 Parkwood Blvd., Frisco, 972-668-8108). "Most of the time, when someone wants us to cater," Ty says, "I'll hand them a blank piece of paper and ask them what they want. We don't just hand them a menu and make them choose. I call it tabula rasa." So the sky's the limit. Whatever you can dream up, the Tejas Grill can cook. And the staff from Tejas has a huge catering truck that allows them to cook everything on site, if necessary. So if your extended family includes, say, 3,000 people, that's no problem. I recommend the decadent Tejas Grill, a sizzling montage of cabrito, quail, flank steak, chicken, shrimp, and rib meat. And the Tejas Grill also has its own bakery, so don't miss the sizzling apple pie and gourmet cheesecakes. Furthermore, they can serve your entire family their signature State Trooper margaritas, a magical blend of prickly pear cactus juice and Jose Cuervo Tradicional. Tejas can cater your entire meal as inexpensively as $15 per person, which makes catering sound so much smarter than cooking the meal yourself.

Another wonderful caterer is The Festive Kitchen (3404 Rosedale Ave., 214-363-5111). But you can also drop in and pick up hors d'oeuvres (southern sausage cheese balls, spinach tortilla wraps), entrees (pork loin with fruit salsa and wild Indian rice, veal and chicken picatta), and desserts (pecan pie bars, Itty Bitty Rum Fudge Cakes). In fact, if you call ahead, they will meet you at the curb with your order.