Two designers and a group of friends savor Christmas joy at this holiday gathering.

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Television design shows make the holidays look easy. Christmas decorating and entertaining are over and done in less time than it takes to wrap a gift for a special someone, frost the last few reindeer-shape cookies, or add tinsel to the tree. But when it comes to celebrating the season in real life, designer and TV personality Mikel Welch and his set designer friend Dawn Heuer are committed to sitting down and savoring the holiday spirit.

holiday gathering around dinner table
Credit: Carmel Brantley

To create memorable moments for a group of their Atlanta friends, the two staged a dinner in the home Dawn shares with her husband, James. They set the scene with quiet elegance, allowing their friends and the flavorful meal to shine. 

decorative white paper christmas trees
stacked wrapped colorful presents
blue napkins with gold leaf ring
Left: Credit: Carmel Brantley
Center: Credit: Carmel Brantley
Right: Credit: Carmel Brantley

"We approach a table differently as set designers," Dawn says. "We are all about the theatrics—without the budget of a TV show. We are storytellers and show how to create an environment guests will love."

spode blue white dinner plate
holiday party seating card
Left: Credit: Carmel Brantley
Right: Credit: Carmel Brantley

The dining room, refined in its spare decorations and palette, was led to tradition with a vintage Spode blue-and-white dinner plate from Urban Cottage. A modern, gold-edge coupe charger from Blue Pheasant anchors the plate.

holiday party designers in front of christmas tree
Credit: Carmel Brantley

Designers Mikel Welch and Dawn Heuer entertain guests throughout the year in their homes and on television too. Mikel's latest on-screen venture is with The Drew Barrymore Show, where he conducts decorating segments. Dawn designs sets for shows on networks such as HGTV, Bravo, and Netflix. The Christmas tree is from Frontgate.

classic cabbage decoration with candles
Credit: Carmel Brantley

Instead of a floral centerpiece, Mikel and Dawn opted for a chic arrangement of cabbages that takes on additional visual interest from sprigs of pine and thistle tucked between the leaves. Even with their busy schedules, Mikel and Dawn's friends make sure to find time to gather and celebrate. Winter garlands are from Miss Milly's florals and design in Atlanta.

Although the room itself is steeped in simplicity with blue and blush giving whispers of color to the ivory space, the menu is formal and decadent.

guest eating at holiday table
Credit: Carmel Brantley

For this dinner, the pair wanted all the trimmings of the season to make guests feel at home. A simple backdrop of Christmas greens and twinkling white lights established the tone for an evening of magic.

A special menu of traditional fare modified expected flavor profiles. As guests arrived, an old-fashioned cocktail and a crustacean platter with three sauces were a simple but festive start. A green salad added red beets and carrots for a colorful medley of fresh produce. Root vegetables continued in the hearty soup. Toffee bread pudding had a tart bite with apples mixed in. And the crowning moment of this meal shared by friends was a crown roast of pork stuffed with corn bread dressing and a side of kale with seasonal figs and prunes. The menu and recipes were created by chef Mary Payne Moran.

"Atlanta is a very transient city," Mikel says. "It's a place where you create close friend circles that become your family when you aren't able to return home."

old-fashioned cocktails orange peel garnishes
Credit: Carmel Brantley

Old-Fashioned Cocktail

Orange peel garnishes heighten classic old-fashioned cocktails.

Start to Finish: 5 minutes

  • 1 large orange peel
  • ¼ fluid ounce Simple Syrup
  • 4 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 fluid ounces bourbon
  • 1 large round ice ball

Simple Syrup:

  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water

Wipe rim of old-fashioned glass with orange peel. Drop orange peel in glass. Add simple syrup and bitters; stir to combine. Add bourbon and ice ball. Stir well to chill. Makes one serving.

Simple Syrup:

In a small screw-top jar, combine sugar and water. Attach lid; shake until sugar is dissolved.

No-Alcohol Version:

Substitute brewed barley tea for the bourbon. You can find it in Asian markets.

shrimp crab and oysters platter with dips
Credit: Carmel Brantley

Crustacean Platter with Classic Cocktail, Mignonette, and Louie Sauces

A platter from Urban Cottage in Atlanta used to serve shrimp, oysters, and crab legs and a soup bowl from Blue Pheasant show the power of basic white against food.

Hands On: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

  • 1 onion, halved
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 12 jumbo shrimp, peeled with tail on, deveined
  • Seaweed for garnish
  • 8 Kumamoto oysters, shucked
  • 8 cooked snow crab claws, optional
  • 4 cooked king crab legs, cut into small sections, optional
  • 4 lemons, halved for garnish
  • Cocktail Sauce with Horseradish (see recipe)
  • Louis Sauce (see recipe)
  • Mignonette Sauce (see recipe)

Cocktail Sauce with Horseradish:

  • ½ cup chili sauce
  • 2 tablespoons creamy horseradish
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Louis Sauce:

  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons chili sauce
  • 2 tablespoons minced yellow or red bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons minced green onion
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 drops Tabasco sauce
  • Kosher salt

Mignonette Sauce:

  • ½ cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons minced, seeded Roma tomato
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • Cracked black pepper

In large pot bring 8 cups water to boiling with onion, 1 halved lemon, black peppercorns, and bay leaf. Boil for 5 minutes; add shrimp. Reduce heat; simmer 2 to 3 minutes or until shrimp are opaque. Drain; chill until ready to serve.

Spread crushed ice on platter or shallow dish. Line with seaweed. Arrange iced platter with poached shrimp, shucked oysters, snow crab claws (if available), and king crab legs (if available). Garnish with 4 halved lemons; serve with sauces. Makes eight servings.

Cocktail Sauce with Horseradish:

In small bowl, whisk together chili sauce, creamy horseradish, and lemon juice.

Louis Sauce:

In small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, chili sauce, bell pepper, green onion, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco sauce. Season to taste with salt.

Mignonette Sauce:

In small bowl mix together red wine vinegar, Roma tomato, shallot, white wine vinegar, and cracked black pepper. Let stand for 20 minutes. Serve.

winter greens beets carrots black salad bowl
Credit: Carmel Brantley

Winter Green Salad with Carrots, Beets, and Goat Cheese and Lemon Almond Vinaigrette

The rich hues of winter greens, beets, and carrots contrast a black salad bowl from Blue Pheasant.

Hands On: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

  • 2 medium yellow beets
  • 2 medium red beets
  • 8 small heirloom carrots
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped almonds
  • ½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • Kosher salt
  • Cracked black pepper
  • 8 cups torn lettuce
  • 8 slices goat cheese (chèvre) rolled in herbs
  • ¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted
  • 8 sprigs fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 350°F. Trim tops and bottoms of beets. Separate beets based on color. Add water to two loaf pans that will hold beets. Add beets to pans; cover with foil. Bake 1 hour or until tender when tested with a knife. Cool on counter 30 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Remove from pan. Peel skins under running water using your fingers. Cut each beet into 8 wedges. Keep colors separate. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Beets can be baked a day ahead.

Preheat oven to 425°F. Trim and halve all carrots lengthwise. Coat with olive oil and ¼ teaspoon salt. Place on greased baking sheet. Bake 25 minutes or until tender. Cool on counter 20 minutes or until cool enough to cut on the bias into 1-inch pieces or leave whole.

For Lemon Almond Dressing, in small food processor or blender combine lemon juice, vegetable oil, champagne vinegar, chopped almonds, and thyme leaves. Cover; blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

In large bowl add lettuce and 2 to 3 tablespoons of salad dressing. Toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Place salad on plate or platter. Top with beets, carrots, and cheese slices. Garnish with toasted almonds and thyme sprigs. Top with additional dressing. Makes eight servings.

blue pheasant bowl pureed root vegetable soup
Credit: Carmel Brantley

Pureed Root Vegetable Soup

Hands On: 20 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours including standing time

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cups chopped parsnips
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 2 cups chopped carrots
  • 1 cup chopped rutabagas
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups water
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Sage Oil:

  • 6 fresh sage leaves
  • ½ cup olive oil

Whole Wheat Croutons:

  • 12 to 14 1-inch pieces whole wheat bread
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Kosher salt

Fried Sage Leaves:

  • 8 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup olive oil

Pureed Root Vegetable Soup:

In large pot heat butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium. Add parsnips, onion, carrots, and rutabagas to the pot. Cook, covered, on medium 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft.

Add chicken stock, water, thyme sprigs, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 20 minutes or until vegetables are very tender.

Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Puree with an immersion blender or transfer in batches to a blender. Add pureed soup back to the pot.

Gradually add about ½ cup soup to the cream. Add cream mixture back to the pot. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with fried sage leaves, croutons, and sage oil. Makes eight servings.

Sage Oil:

Clean and dry 6 sage leaves. Add ½ cup olive oil to bowl. Mash sage leaves into oil. Let stand 2 to 3 hours. Remove and discard sage leaves.

Whole Wheat Croutons:

Preheat oven to 350°F. In large bowl toss bread with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt. Place on baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes or until crisp.

Fried Sage Leaves:

Dredge 8 sage leaves in flour. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in small skillet over medium. Add sage leaves; fry until both sides are lightly brown, about 1 minute. Remove; drain on paper towels.

crown roast cornbread figs
Credit: Carmel Brantley

Crown Roast of Pork with Fennel Sausage Corn Bread Stuffing and Kale with Figs and Prunes

A crown roast of pork accompanied by corn bread stuffing and kale mixed with seasonal figs and prunes elevates the dinner with a regal presentation.

Hands On: 15 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

  • 1 7½- to 8½-pound pork rib crown roast (12 to 13 bones)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 recipe Fennel Sausage Corn Bread Stuffing (see recipe)
  • 1 recipe Kale with Figs and Prunes (see recipe)
  • 1 recipe Madeira Sauce (see recipe)
  • 8 figs, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place crown roast in roasting pan with bones facing up. Brush roast with olive oil. Sprinkle with paprika, salt, and pepper. Place 3 cups Fennel Sausage Corn Bread Stuffing in roast cavity. Wrap ends of bones with foil. Loosely cover stuffing with foil. Transfer remaining stuffing to a covered casserole dish.

Bake roast 2 to 2½ hours or until thermometer reads 135°F. Add stuffing casserole to the oven the last 45 minutes of roasting time. Uncover casserole the last 10 minutes of roasting time. Tent roast with foil; let rest 15 minutes allowing the temperature to raise to 145°F.

Serve with remaining stuffing, Kale with Figs and Prunes, and Madeira Sauce. Garnish with figs. Makes eight servings.

Fennel Sausage Corn Bread Stuffing with Leeks, Roasted Fennel, and Walnuts

Hands On: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

  • 1 small fennel bulb
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 links Italian sausage, removed from casing (14 to 16 ounces)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ½ cup chopped leek
  • ¼ cup chopped celery
  • ¼ cup chopped onion
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 recipe Corn Bread (see recipe)
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • ½ cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Corn Bread:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1½ cups milk
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil

Fennel Sausage Stuffing:

Preheat oven to 425°F. Trim and cut fennel into slices. Coat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place on baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes or until lightly browned and tender. When cool enough to handle, chop. It should make about ½ cup.

In large skillet cook sausage until lightly browned. Remove from skillet, reserving fat. Add butter and remaining 1 tablespoon oil to pork fat. Add leek, celery, and onion. Cook over medium 5 minutes or until soft. Season with salt and pepper. Add mixture to a large bowl with crumbled Corn Bread, fennel, and sausage; toss with chicken stock and walnuts. Set aside until ready to add to crown roast. Can be made 4 to 6 hours ahead.

Corn Bread:

Preheat oven 350°F. Grease a 13x9-inch baking pan. In large bowl combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix well. In medium bowl whisk together eggs, milk, melted butter, and vegetable oil. Add to flour mixture; mix well. Pour into prepared baking pan. Bake 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack. Crumble half for stuffing. Keep the rest for snacking. Makes eight servings.

Kale with Figs and Prunes

Hands On: 35 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

  • ½ cup fresh or dried figs, halved
  • ½ cup prunes, halved
  • 2 heads purple curly kale, cleaned, destemmed, and torn into bite-size pieces
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and sliced
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Madeira Sauce:

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 shallots, minced
  • 1½ cups chicken stock
  • ¾ cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup Madeira wine
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

If using dried figs, place in bowl, cover with boiling water; let stand 10 minutes; drain. Place prunes in another bowl, cover with boiling water; let stand 10 minutes; drain.

Preheat oven to 350°F. In large bowl combine figs, prunes, kale, onion, olive oil, and salt. Toss together gently until evenly coated with oil. Spread kale mixture on two 15x10x1-inch baking pans. Bake 20 minutes or until edges of kale start to get crispy and onion slices are cooked through. Serve with Crown Roast of Pork and Madeira Sauce. Makes eight servings.

Madeira Sauce:

In large saucepan melt butter. Add shallots and cook over medium 4 minutes or until soft. Add chicken stock and cream. Bring to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add Madeira. Return to heat. Bring to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until thick enough to coat back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

toffee bread pudding with braised apples
Credit: Carmel Brantley

Toffee Bread Pudding with Braised Apples and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Bread pudding merges bites of tartness from apples with sweet notes from a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

Hands On: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 5 medium Fuji apples, peeled, cored, and diced
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups 2% milk
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 6 cups torn brioche
  • 1¼ cups crumbled toffee
  • Vanilla bean ice cream

In large saucepan melt butter over medium heat. Add apples, ¼ cup sugar, and water. Simmer, stirring frequently, 20 minutes or until apples are soft. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease 3-quart baking dish. In large bowl whisk together remaining ¾ cup sugar and eggs. Whisk in milk, cream, and vanilla. Fold in brioche and apples until well coated. Pour into greased baking dish. Top with ¾ cup crumbled toffee. Bake 45 minutes or until puffed and a knife comes out clean. Serve with vanilla bean ice cream and remaining toffee. Makes eight servings.

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