Make intimate gatherings live large by putting refined classics on the tabletop—and the menu.

By Krissa Rossbund
October 30, 2020
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Social gatherings might be at a minimum this season, but there's no maximum for style at the table! Whether you're hosting a small group of loved ones or limiting the guest list to those within your household, you don't need a crowd to make the holidays feel extra special.

Start at the table by layering black and white basics with texture and color to create a festive backdrop for a tasty menu. This selection of recipes, all created by chef Mary Payne Moran, puts a sophisticated spin on classic dishes, including serrano ham-wrapped Parmesan sticks; waffles with salmon, chive, and caviar; roasted beet soup with crème fraîche; butter lettuce, butternut squash, and pistachio salad; beef tenderloin with pomegranate sauce and fried sage leaves; and layered opera cake. Mix up a few pear old-fashioneds to serve alongside for a simple yet unforgettable evening.

Credit: Marty Baldwin

Cheddar Straws with Serrano Ham

Prep: 25 minutes

Bake: 16 minutes

  • 4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, finely shredded
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 24 slices thinly sliced Serrano ham

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat; set aside.

In a large bowl beat half of the cheese and the butter with an electric mixer on medium until smooth and creamy. In a medium bowl combine flour, rosemary, salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, and black pepper.

Gradually add flour mixture into cheese mixture, beating well after each addition. Knead in remaining cheese using hands.

Divide dough into 24 portions. Roll each portion into a 7-inch-long rope. Lay ropes on prepared pan. Bake 16 to 18 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack. When straws are cool, wrap the tips with Serrano ham and serve immediately. Makes 24 cheddar straws.

Waffles with Chives and Smoked Salmon

Serve this appetizer before sitting down at the table or as a plated course of three per person. It's lovely paired with a glass of Champagne or Prosecco.

Prep: 20 minutes

  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 2½ tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives or green onions
  • 1 (4-ounce) package thinly sliced smoked salmon (lox-style)
  • 1 cup whipping cream, beaten to soft peaks
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives or green onions
  • 1 to 2 ounces caviar

In medium bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Whisk in egg, milk, butter, and 2½ tablespoons chives.

Spoon about 2 teaspoons batter into each quadrant of preheated, lightly greased waffle baker. Close lid quickly; do not open until done. Bake according to manufacturer's directions. When done, use fork to lift waffles off grids.

To serve, top each mini waffle with smoked salmon, whipped cream, additional chives, and caviar. Makes about 39 mini waffles.

Roasted Beet Soup

This beet soup has humble rustic origins, but roasting the beets gives it an additional level of flavor and elegance.

Prep: 20 minutes

Roast: 1 hour 30 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Cool: 10 minutes

  • 7 large beets (about 4 pounds)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 1 large leek, trimmed, halved, rinsed, and sliced
  • ¼ cup chopped celery
  • ¼ cup chopped carrot
  • Kosher salt and cracked pepper
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons snipped fresh thyme
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • ½ cup crème fraîche (optional)Parsley leaves (optional)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut tops and bottoms off beets; place in roasting pan. Rub 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon kosher salt all over beets. Cover pan with foil. Roast 1½ hours or until fork-tender. Cool. Peel beets; cut 6 beets into quarters and set aside.

In a 4- to 5-quart pot, heat remaining oil and butter over medium-high. Add onion, leek, celery, and carrot. Season vegetables with salt and pepper. Cook and stir 5 minutes or until tender. Add quartered beets and water; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes. Cool slightly.

Puree vegetable mixture in blender, one-third at a time, covering top of lidded blender with a towel when motor is running. Return all to pot. Add water, if desired, for thinner consistency. Add bay leaves, thyme, and ginger to soup. Simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes. Remove bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper.

Thinly slice remaining beet. Serve soup garnished with beet slices, crème fraîche, and parsley leaves, if desired.

Tip: Store any remaining soup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. Makes eight servings.

Credit: Marty Baldwin

Holiday Butter Lettuce Salad

Prep: 30 minutes

Roast: 25 minutes

Dressing:

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon herbes de Provence, crushed
  • Salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper

Salad:

  • 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon finely shredded lemon peel
  • 12 ounces goat cheese (chèvre)
  • 3 heads butterhead lettuce, torn (about 16 cups)
  • 3 medium avocados, halved, seeded, peeled, and cut into wedges
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh chives
  • 6 tablespoons Dressing
  • Salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 medium butternut squash
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup roasted almonds, coarsely chopped<magazine lists pistachios<
  • 4 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved

For Dressing, in a screw-top jar combine oil, vinegar, lemon juice, herbes de Provence, pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Cover and shake well to combine.

For Thanksgiving Salad, in a shallow dish combine the 1 tablespoon pepper and lemon peel. Roll goat cheese in lemon peel mixture, pressing to adhere mixture to outside of goat cheese. Slice goat cheese into 12 slices. Set aside.

In a very large bowl combine the lettuce, avocados, and chives. Drizzle with dressing. Toss well to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among 12 salad plates and top with a slice of goat cheese. Pass any remaining dressing.

For Christmas Salad, omit goat cheese and avocados.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut butternut squash in half lengthwise; remove and discard seeds. Peel squash. Cut into ½-inch pieces. Arrange squash on a 15×10×1-inch baking pan. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss to combine. Spread the squash in an even layer. Roast 25 minutes or until tender and lightly browned, turning once halfway through roasting time. Cool in pan on wire rack.

In a very large bowl, combine the lettuce, chives, butternut squash, almonds, and Parmesan cheese. Drizzle with dressing. Toss well to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among 12 salad plates. Pass any remaining dressing. Makes 12 servings.

Fennel Seed and Sage-Rubbed Beef Tenderloin with Pomegranate Sauce

With fennel seeds and sage adding subtle flavor to a traditional rub, this tenderloin is a holiday showstopper. Pomegranate sauce gives the pan juices a complementary sweetness, and fried sage leaves are an unexpected holiday garnish.

Prep: 35 minutes

Roast: 40 minutes

  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, crushed
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon chopped fresh sage
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 (3½ to 4-pound) center-cut beef tenderloin roast
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 16 fresh sage leaves
  • 1½ cups reduced-sodium beef broth
  • 1 cup pomegranate juice

Preheat oven to 400°F. In a small bowl, stir together pepper, parsley, salt, fennel seeds, garlic, chopped sage, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Spread mixture over all sides of beef.

In a 12-inch oven-going skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high. Add beef tenderloin to skillet and brown well on all sides. Place skillet in oven; roast tenderloin 40 to 45 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in meat registers 135°F. Remove meat from skillet; cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile, for fried sage leaves, heat about ¼-inch of vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add sage leaves to hot oil in batches; fry for 1 minute until leaves start to brown. Remove with slotted spoon; drain on paper towels.

For pomegranate sauce, holding handles of skillet with hot pads, add broth and pomegranate juice to skillet. Bring to boil over medium-high, scraping up browned bits from bottom of skillet. Boil gently, uncovered, 12 to 14 minutes or until thickened slightly and reduced by half. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons butter.

Slice beef and serve with pan sauce. Top with fried sage leaves. Makes eight servings plus leftovers.

Credit: Marty Baldwin

Pear Old-Fashioned

Prep: 10 minutes

  • 1½ teaspoons sugar
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • 2 slices Anjou pear
  • 1 lemon twist
  • 1½ ounces pear nectar
  • 1½ ounces bourbon
  • Ice cubes
  • Sprig fresh thyme

In an old-fashioned glass, combine sugar, bitters, 1 pear slice, and lemon twist. Use a muddler or the back of a spoon to crush mixture until fruit is pulverized and sugar dissolves. Stir in pear nectar and bourbon. Add ice cubes and garnish with the remaining pear slice and a thyme sprig. Makes 1 cocktail.

Tips:  For lemon twists, use a vegetable peeler to remove 3×1-inch strips of peel from the lemon.

For a nonalcoholic version, replace the bourbon with cooled lapsang souchong tea. Note: bitters contain alcohol, but you are using a very small amount. Replace with a nonalcoholic bitter, if you wish.

Opera Cake

Elegant and lady-like, opera cake is a relative newcomer to the world of French patisserie. It gained popularity in the late 1950s, amid a refined world of white gloves, Dior gowns, and veiled hats.

Prep: 1 hour

Bake: 8 minutes

Cool: 45 minutes

Stand: 30 minutes

Chill: 1 hour 30 minutes

Sponge Cake

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 6 egg whites
  • 1¼ cups sliced almonds
  • 2/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar

Coffee Syrup

  • ¼ cup strong brewed coffee
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar

Coffee Buttercream

  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • ¼ cup strong brewed coffee, cooled
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup butter, softened and cubed

Mexican Chocolate Ganache

  • ½ cup whipping cream
  • ½ cup semisweet chocolate pieces
  • 2 ounces Mexican chocolate, chopped

For Sponge Cake, allow egg yolks and egg whites to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, grease three 8×8×2-inch square baking pans.* Line bottoms of pans with parchment paper or waxed paper.

In a food processor, combine almonds and powdered sugar. Cover; process with on-off pulses until nuts are finely ground; set aside.

Preheat oven to 425°F. In a medium mixing bowl, beat 6 egg yolks with electric mixer on high speed about 5 minutes or until thick and lemon color. Add milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla; beat on low speed until combined. Fold in almond mixture. Fold in flour; set aside.

Thoroughly wash beaters. In large mixing bowl beat egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until soft peaks form (tips curl). Gradually add ¼ cup granulated sugar, beating on high speed until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Fold half the beaten egg whites into egg yolk mixture; fold egg yolk mixture into remaining beaten egg whites. Divide the batter between prepared pans, spreading evenly.

Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until top is golden. Cool in pans on wire racks 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans; remove paper. Cool completely on wire racks (cake layers will be thin).

For Coffee Syrup, in a small saucepan combine ¼ cup coffee and ¼ cup granulated sugar. Cook and stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture comes to boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes; set aside.

For Coffee Buttercream, in heavy, small saucepan, combine ¼ cup sugar and 2 tablespoons water; bring to boil. Remove from heat. Gradually stir about half of hot mixture into the 3 lightly beaten egg yolks. Return egg yolk mixture to saucepan. Cook and stir 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in ¼ cup coffee and 1 teaspoon vanilla; cool. In large mixing bowl beat butter with electric mixer on medium to high speed until fluffy. Add cooled egg yolk mixture, beating until combined. If necessary, chill until mixture reaches spreading consistency.

For Mexican Chocolate Ganache, in small saucepan, bring cream just to boil over medium heat. Remove from heat. Add semisweet and Mexican chocolates (do not stir). Let stand 5 minutes. Stir until smooth (Mexican chocolate has a somewhat grainy appearance). Cool 15 minutes.

To assemble the Opera Cake, place one sponge cake layer on a serving plate. Brush with one-third of coffee syrup. Spread with half of coffee buttercream. Top with another cake layer; brush with one-third of syrup. Spread with half of Mexican chocolate ganache. Top with remaining cake layer; brush with remaining syrup. Spread with remaining buttercream. Chill at least 1 hour or until layers are firm. Casually spread top with remaining ganache. Using long sharp knife, trim sides of layers to make even. Makes eight servings.

*Tip: If you don't have three 8×8×2-inch square baking pans, bake one or two pans at a time, keeping the remaining batter chilled until ready to bake. Cool, grease and line pans between each batch. Wrap cooled layers and store at room temperature for up to 24 hours or label and freeze in a freezer container up to 3 months. Chill assembled cake up to 24 hours.

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