03/06/2014 11:28 EST | Updated 05/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Interactive sweet and cocktail stations, tea stands among trends at weddings

TORONTO - Many brides and grooms wanting to personalize their wedding reception are opting for interactive beverage and sweet stations where guests can customize their drinks and food.

Stations can also be used to highlight a theme, and having a chef, bartender or sommelier on hand to interact and explain the origins of a dish, drink or wine makes guests feel special, says Chef Paul Brans, creative lead for O&B artisan.

"They want a little bit of entertainment, a little bit of theatre ... I do think these stands help the bride and groom give the tone of their wedding," he added. "It tells much more of a story. I think these sort of things are really fun."

Often, people want to tell their story through flavours, he noted. Perhaps the couple met on vacation in Greece and return there every year, so thyme and lemon are favourite flavours. Or they're crazy about caramel and make it a weekend indulgence. Chefs can play with such ideas to devise food and drink specific to the couple.

"Couples like that because it personalizes it. A lot of people nowadays are so busy. There's such a pressure to make things personalized and do things yourself, but people just don't have the time to do it."

Gone are the days of a signature cocktail concocted to match a wedding's colour scheme. In fact, it is in the area of drinks where some of the biggest changes have occurred, says the Toronto-based Brans.

Couples still want to offer guests a great cocktail, but it may be in the form of a gin bar with different bitters and vermouths. Or a drink might be topped up with homemade soda that has been infused with something like fresh peaches macerated with vanilla and honey. Ices are flavoured so that drinks are not watered down as the ice melts.

Tea stands, hot and cold, are also trendy. They run the gamut from tea lattes to non-caffeinated tisanes and flavoured teas. And a cuppa or iced tea can be a way to provide a drink that is non-alcoholic if the event is continuing for many more hours. Or tea can be worked into cocktails.

Couples who say their vows in the afternoon may offer high tea between the service and the reception. "Instead of their guests dispersing and coming back in a couple of hours it's a nice way of bridging that afternoon," Brans says, adding it can be as simple as a sandwich and piece of cake or a cookie.

Topping up drinks with homemade tonic waters and sodas "makes it a little bit more kid friendly and fun at a wedding so that it's not just a bunch of cranberry juice."

Interactive food stations are being incorporated into the cocktail hour, where the chef will invite guests to watch what is being prepared. For example, many people don't know how to shuck oysters, so a bar featuring the shellfish offers theatre for guests.

"The problem with cocktail hour is it often gets delayed (or extended) because of photos or the bride is changing or whatever, and so this is a little added something that the guests get, a little bit of education, learn a bit more and they seem much more involved."

When it comes to the sit-down three-course dinner, Brans says "people are wanting a high-end composed kind of plate and really experience a food taste or explosion and something a little bit more elevated."

Tenderloin, beef cheeks and beef shortrib off the bone are popular while chicken and halibut or salmon are safe choices.

Many couples are requesting a vegetarian option. In the past, this may have been done to satisfy the needs of a few guests; now it's a complex dish that's part of the menu, says Brans. Dishes featuring quinoa, the ancient grain amaranth or freekeh, which is made from green wheat that is roasted, also give gluten-intolerant guests an option.

Interactive sweet stations let guests customize their desserts with various toppings.

Ice-cream stands work especially well if there are children among the guests or it's a summer event. They can include sorbet, which is good for anyone who is lactose intolerant, a yogurt-based choice and a gelato. For toppings, the options are endless: fresh fruit, chopped macaroons, toffee, cookies or fudge and flavourings such as vanilla, chocolate and dulce de leche.

Brans likes to do chocolate-covered sponge toffee stands so people can watch the sweet confection being made. Again, guests can customize it with toppings and break off as much as they want to eat.

Couples don't want guests to leave the party hungry.

"Late-night snacks are very much here to stay. People still like them, they still want them, the only thing is not in a station format," says Brans. "They don't want to take people away from dancing and having fun. They like them more passed, almost in a take-away manner, so your little burger may be wrapped. You're getting a lot of street food, which is fun, and I think it's appropriate for a late-night snack."

Choices can include spicy noodles served in a little take-away box or a burger where the bun is made of udon noodles that have been pan-fried and served with wasabi mayonnaise or kimchee.

Scones range from savoury to sweet: a bacon sandwich with maple mayonnaise, or spread with lox or clotted cream with strawberries or raspberry jam.

"People like those because they're small. They don't feel it's yeasty or too heavy. It's small, a couple of bites."

And instead of a traditional tiered wedding cake, Brans says couples are requesting a tower of truffles that can be served at a tea stand or a chocolate station.

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