Use This Menu to Create an Elevated Holiday Dinner with a Twist

white chocolate cake with orange slice garnish
Photo: Nathan Schroder

A design-minded couple put delightful twists on a holiday palette, menu, and decor to create a memorable dinner party for people they love.

01 of 10

Elevated Holiday Party

scott mcgaha placing beef wellington on table
Nathan Schroder

Just call them Mr. and Mrs. Claus. An invitation to the home of Dallas-based designer Denise McGaha and her husband, Scott, for a Christmas gathering brings a flood of gifts for fortunate guests: the gift of comfort, the gift of food, and the gift of friendship.

"We want to deliver a special and elevated experience," Denise says of the dinners that she and Scott carefully craft. "It's important at this special time of the year."

02 of 10

Christmas Dinner Decor

aerial view dining room with guests
Nathan Schroder

First, there's the home itself. Like a gingerbread house adorned with peppermint sticks and gumdrops, the McGahas' interiors offer plenty of eye candy. For this festive dinner, even a Christmas tree and greens weren't enough to achieve the grandeur that Denise envisioned. She moved her dining room furniture into the living room (and vice versa) to set a cozy dinner scene in front of the fireplace, its mantel bedecked with lush garland, and a line of Christmas stockings awaiting a visit from St. Nick.

03 of 10

Festive Color Scheme

porcelain patterned place settings
Nathan Schroder

A porcelain dinnerware pattern of plum-color leaves inspired a fresh holiday palette that's augmented by green from magnolia garlands, evergreen cuttings used for the centerpiece, and wine goblets that juxtapose clear crystal glasses. Vintage glass candelabra hint at the nostalgia of the season, while gold-tone flatware and chargers cap the tablescape with regal elegance.

"There's something special about making the living room like a grand hall," Denise says. "There's more space, and we want our guests to feel comfortable, like they can stay all night."

04 of 10

Deliciousness Guaranteed

scott and denise mcgaha
Nathan Schroder

And stay they will. After Denise has set the scene, Scott executes a menu guaranteed to please. His cooking contribution is apropos, given his Instagram moniker, @chefdaddyscoti, a name bestowed by friends of his two children, whom he often cooks for when they visit. His lobster tartlets, given a bit of heat with a harissa sauce topping, roasted celery, and fennel soup made extra seasonal with a garnish of chestnuts, wild mushroom-stuffed beef Wellington with port wine sauce and simple roasted carrots and crispy Brussels sprouts, and white chocolate layer cake delight with flavors that are sure to pull everyone into the spirit of Christmas.

05 of 10

What You'll Need

plates of beef wellington and veggie dishes
Nathan Schroder

Recipes were created by Chef Mary Payne Moran of Hail Mary, Food of Grace.

  • Holiday Dashers
  • Lobster Tartlets with Harissa and Watercress
  • Roasted Celery and Fennel Soup
  • Wild Mushroom-Stuffed Beef Wellington
  • Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Walnuts
  • Oven-Roasted Baby Carrots
  • White Chocolate Layer Cake with Orange Curd

Shopping List

We've organized a shopping list to make shopping for this gathering menu easier for you. Package sizes are included so you have enough for duplicated recipe ingredients.

Check your pantry for these necessary items before shopping:

Note: Unless specified, when we call for "butter," we mean the unsalted variety. When we call for "olive oil," we are suggesting good-quality extra virgin. When we call for "eggs," we are suggesting large eggs. Unless specified, when we call for "milk," we mean whole-fat milk.

Amounts in shopping list allow for 12 cocktails.

  • Olive oil (need ¾ cup + 1 tablespoon)
  • Vegetable oil (need 2 tablespoons)
  • Butter (need 9 sticks)
  • Vegetable shortening (need 1 teaspoon)
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • Kosher salt (need 1¾ teaspoons + to taste)
  • Ground black pepper (to taste)
  • Crushed red pepper (½ teaspoon)
  • All-purpose flour (need 5¼ cups)
  • Granulated sugar (need 3¾ cups + 1/3 cup)
  • Powdered sugar (need 3 cups)
  • Baking powder (need 2¼ teaspoons)
  • Cornstarch (need 3 tablespoons)
  • Vanilla (need 3½ teaspoons)
  • Milk (need 1¼ cups)
  • Eggs (need 1 dozen)
  • Red wine vinegar (need 1½ teaspoons)

Specialty grocery store

  • Peppercorn mélange (black, white, and pink) (need 2 tablespoons)
  • Gray sea salt (to taste)
  • Coarse sugar
  • 12 fresh chestnuts (or 12 packaged whole peeled chestnuts)


  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 bunch mint
  • 1 bunch watercress
  • 1 (5- to 6-ounce) package spinach
  • 11 blood oranges
  • 3 large oranges
  • 2 lemons
  • 2 pounds Brussels sprouts
  • 2 pounds baby carrots with tops
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cremini mushrooms
  • 1 (2-pound) bunch celery
  • 6 Persian or 2 English cucumbers
  • 1 medium fennel bulb with greens
  • 1½ pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 3 small onions
  • 4 shallots
  • 1 head garlic


  • 1 (12-ounce) jar roasted red bell peppers
  • Caraway seeds (need ¼ teaspoon)
  • Ground coriander (need ¼ teaspoon)
  • Ground cumin (need ¼ teaspoon)
  • 3 (1-quart) containers chicken stock
  • Almonds (need ½ cup)
  • Walnuts (need 1 cup)
  • 20 ounces white baking chocolate
  • 1 (12-ounce) package semisweet chocolate chips


  • 12 (4- to 5-ounce) beef tenderloin filets

Frozen food aisle

  • 2 (8-ounce) frozen lobster tails
  • 2 (2-ounce) packages baked miniature phyllo dough shells
  • 2 (17.3-ounce) packages puff pastry sheets


  • 1 (½-pint) container heavy cream

Cheese department

  • 1 (8-ounce) container mascarpone cheese
  • 1 (4-ounce) piece Parmesan cheese


  • 1 (750-milliliter) bottle vodka
  • 1 (750-milliliter) bottle gin
  • 1 (750-milliliter) bottle ruby port
  • 1 (750-milliliter) bottle Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
06 of 10

Holiday Dashers

three cocktails on tray with orange slice garnish
Nathan Schroder

Simple syrup is used in all sorts of cocktails. To make it, bring 1 cup each water and sugar to boiling in a saucepan; cool and store in the refrigerator.

Hands On: 5 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes including steeping time

Peppercorn Vodka:

  • 6 ounces (¾ cup) vodka
  • 2 tablespoons peppercorn mélange (black, white, and pink)

Holiday Dasher:

  • 2 ounces (¼ cup) gin
  • 1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) blood orange juice
  • 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) simple syrup
  • 6 to 8 thin Persian or English cucumber slices
  • Ice cubes
  • Splash Peppercorn Vodka (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 slice blood orange

For Peppercorn Vodka, in screw-top jar combine vodka and peppercorns. Cover; shake well. Let sit 30 minutes. Strain and discard peppercorns from vodka. Return vodka to jar.

For each Holiday Dasher, in cocktail shaker, combine gin, blood orange juice, simple syrup, and three cucumber slices. Muddle to crush cucumber. Add ice; cover and shake until very cold. Pour into ice-filled glass. Top with Peppercorn Vodka. Garnish with remaining cucumber slices and blood orange slice. Makes 1 cocktail.

07 of 10

Lobster Tartlets with Harissa and Watercress

lobster tartlets on white plate gold pattern
Nathan Schroder

Harissa, a fiery north African chili paste, is a perfect foil for sweet lobster and creamy mascarpone cheese.

Hands On: 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including chilling

Harissa Sauce:

  • ½ of 12-ounce jar roasted red bell peppers, drained and patted dry
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon caraway seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin

Lobster Tartlets:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ¼ cup finely chopped shallot
  • 2 (8-ounce) frozen lobster tails, thawed, shells removed, and meat finely chopped
  • 24 baked miniature phyllo dough shells
  • 1/3 cup mascarpone cheese, stirred to soften
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • Harissa Sauce
  • ½ cup watercress

For Harissa Sauce, in blender combine red peppers, vegetable oil, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, crushed red pepper, caraway seeds, coriander, and cumin. Cover and blend until smooth. Cover; chill up to 2 weeks.

For Lobster Tartlets, in large nonstick skillet heat olive oil over medium. Add shallot; cook 3 minutes or until tender. Add lobster to skillet; cook and stir 3 to 4 minutes or until lobster turns opaque. Transfer lobster mixture to medium bowl. Cover; chill at least 2 hours.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375°F. Arrange phyllo dough shells on baking sheet. Bake 5 to 8 minutes or until browned and crisp. Cool completely.

To serve, drain lobster mixture. Stir in mascarpone cheese, lemon zest, and salt. Spoon lobster mixture into pastry shells. Top each with about 1 teaspoon Harissa Sauce. Garnish with watercress. Serve with remaining Harissa Sauce. Makes 24 tartlets.

08 of 10

Roasted Celery and Fennel Soup

soup in white bowl on patterned plates
Nathan Schroder

Fresh celery and fennel bulb have their own unique flavors, but when they are blended with potato in this creamy soup, they harmonize to become greater than the parts.

Hands On: 25 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

  • 4½ cups sliced celery
  • 1½ cups chopped onions
  • 1 cup chopped fennel bulb
  • ½ cup finely chopped shallots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 4 cups chopped peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 12 fresh chestnuts, shelled and coarsely chopped, or packaged whole peeled chestnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh fennel leaves or dill

Preheat oven to 425°F. In large rimmed baking sheet, spread celery, onions, fennel, and shallots. Drizzle with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Roast 25 minutes or until tender and browned at the edges, stirring once.

In 6- to 8-quart pot combine roasted vegetables, chicken stock, and potatoes. Bring to boiling. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Remove and cool slightly. In a blender, puree soup in batches. Return to pot.

Meanwhile, in large skillet melt butter over medium. Add chestnuts; heat through.

Add cream to soup; heat through. Stir in fennel leaves; season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Serve in bowls, garnished with chestnuts, additional fennel leaves, and pepper. Makes 12 servings.

09 of 10

Wild Mushroom-Stuffed Beef Wellington

beef wellington on patterned plate
Nathan Schroder

This classic treatment of filet mignon is packaged neatly with Mushroom Duxelles (a stuffing of finely chopped mushrooms) and a spinach accent then finished with a richly flavored port sauce. Make sure the steaks are of equal diameter and thickness.

Hands On: 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Beef Wellington:

  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 12 (4- to 5-ounce) beef tenderloin filets
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • 1½ (17.3-ounce) packages puff pastry sheets, thawed (3 sheets)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • Mushroom Duxelles
  • Wilted Spinach
  • Fresh herbs, such as parsley and fennel leaves

Mushroom Duxelles:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • ¼ cup finely chopped shallot
  • 2 cups finely chopped fresh cremini mushrooms
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper

Wilted Spinach:

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 (5- to 6-ounce) package fresh spinach

Port Wine Sauce:

  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1½ cups ruby port
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon water

For Beef Wellington, preheat oven to 425°F. Coat two baking sheets with cooking spray.

In extra-large skillet heat oil over medium-high. Season steaks with salt and pepper. Lay six steaks in skillet. Sear 2 minutes. Turn steaks over; sear second sides 1 minute. Remove steaks from skillet; let cool. Repeat with remaining steaks.

Cut each puff pastry sheet into quarters. On lightly floured surface, roll each quarter into an 8-inch square. Cut 2-inch squares from corners of each square, creating plus sign in puff pastry (keep scraps for decor pieces).

For egg wash, in small bowl, whisk together egg and the 1 tablespoon water.

For each Wellington, add 1 tablespoon Mushroom Duxelles to middle of a puff pastry portion; top with 1 tablespoon Wilted Spinach and a steak. Fold puff pastry over steak, brushing with egg wash and pinching edges to seal, creating a package. Turn package over. Place on prepared baking sheet.

Use puff pastry remnants to create leaves (use paring knife to gently etch veins into leaves). Attach leaves to packages with remaining egg wash. Brush each package all over with egg wash.

Bake 15 minutes for medium rare (145°F) or 16 to 18 minutes for medium (160°F). Remove from oven. Let rest 5 minutes. Serve Wellingtons with Port Wine Sauce. Garnish with fresh herbs. Makes 12 servings.

For Mushroom Duxelles, in large skillet melt butter over medium. Add shallot; cook 3 minutes or until soft and glossy. Add mushrooms. Cook until tender and reduced to 3/4 cup, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Let cool.

For Wilted Spinach, in large skillet bring 1 cup of the water to simmer. Add half of the spinach. Cook 2 to 3 minutes until wilted. Remove and drain. Repeat with remaining water and spinach. Chop spinach. Drain well; squeeze dry.

For Port Wine Sauce, in large saucepan bring chicken stock to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, until reduced to 1 cup, about 35 minutes. Remove from heat and add port. Return to medium-low. Simmer until reduced to 1¼ cups, about 30 minutes. Whisk in butter, one piece at a time, until incorporated. In small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and water. Whisk into sauce mixture. Bring to simmer, stirring constantly.

Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Walnuts

This simple treatment for Brussels sprouts brings out their best, especially if you use freshly toasted walnuts and the best-quality Parmesan.

Hands On: 15 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

  • 2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved or quartered
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup chopped toasted walnuts
  • Shaved Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 425°F. In large bowl toss together Brussels sprouts, olive oil, and salt. Spread Brussels sprouts on large rimmed baking sheet, being careful not to overcrowd.

Roast 20 minutes or until browned and crisp-tender, stirring once. Toss with walnuts. Transfer to serving bowl and top with Parmesan. Makes 12 servings.

Oven-Roasted Baby Carrots

Finish tender oven-caramelized carrots with fresh lemon and a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt.

Hands On: 10 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

  • 2 pounds baby carrots with tops, trimmed, halved lengthwise and crosswise if long
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Gray sea salt and/or lemon zest

Preheat oven to 425°F. In large bowl toss carrots with olive oil. Season with kosher salt and pepper. Spread carrots on two foil-lined rimmed baking sheets.

Roast 20 minutes or until tender and edges are just beginning to brown. Toss with lemon juice. Sprinkle with gray sea salt and/or lemon zest. Makes 12 servings.

10 of 10

White Chocolate Layer Cake with Orange Curd

white chocolate cake with orange slice garnish
Nathan Schroder

Use a combination of navel and blood orange slices for the prettiest garnish. Thinly slice and pat them dry with paper towels so they don't weep on the frosting.

Hands On: 45 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

White Chocolate Cake:

  • 8 ounces white baking chocolate, chopped
  • 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 10 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla
  • 1¼ cups milk
  • ½ cup Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
  • Orange Curd
  • White Chocolate Frosting
  • 1 large orange, thinly sliced and patted dry
  • Fresh mint sprigs

Orange Curd:

  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • ¾ cup orange juice
  • 6 tablespoons water
  • 6 egg yolks
  • ½ cup butter, cut up

White Chocolate Frosting:

  • 12 ounces white baking chocolate
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups powdered sugar

For White Chocolate Cake, preheat oven to 350°F. Grease bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans. Line bottoms of pans with waxed paper or parchment paper; grease and lightly flour pans.

In medium saucepan heat and stir white chocolate over low until melted; remove from heat. In medium bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt.

In large bowl beat butter with mixer on medium to high 30 seconds. Gradually add sugar, beating until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Alternately add flour mixture and milk to butter mixture, beating on low after each addition just until combined. Beat in melted white chocolate just until combined. Spread batter evenly in prepared pans.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Cool cake layers in pans on wire racks 10 minutes. Remove layers from pans; peel off waxed paper. Cool completely on wire racks.

To assemble, use long, serrated knife to cut each cake layer in half crosswise. Place one layer, cut side up, on serving plate. Using pastry brush, lightly brush cake layer with Grand Marnier. Spread with one-third of the Orange Curd. Repeat with two more layers and remaining Orange Curd. Top with remaining cake layer, cut side down. Spread top and sides of cake with White Chocolate Frosting. Garnish with orange slices and mint. Makes 12 servings.

For Orange Curd, in medium saucepan stir together sugar and cornstarch. Stir in orange zest, orange juice, and 6 tablespoons water. Cook, stirring, over medium until thickened and bubbly. In medium bowl beat egg yolks. Whisk half of the orange mixture into yolks. Return yolk mixture to pan. Cook over medium until mixture comes to gentle boil, stirring constantly. Cook, stirring, 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Add cut-up butter, stirring until melted. Transfer orange curd to bowl; cover surface with plastic wrap. Chill at least 1 hour. Store, covered, in refrigerator up to 1 week or transfer to freezer container. Freeze up to 2 months. Thaw in refrigerator before using. Makes 2 cups.

For White Chocolate Frosting, in medium saucepan heat white baking chocolate over low, stirring until melted. Remove from heat; let cool 20 minutes. In large bowl beat softened butter with mixer on medium to high until fluffy. Beat in melted chocolate and vanilla. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Makes 3 cups.

To Make Ahead: Loosely cover frosted cake and chill up to 24 hours. Before serving, let cake stand at room temperature at least 30 minutes.

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