Holiday Entertaining

Photography by RORY DOYLE

Three holiday parties tailored to suit your family and friends

     When two creatives combine their high-octane ideas for food, decor, and entertaining the results are spectacular. When they are Elizabeth Heiskell—cookbook author, TODAY Show food contributor, and chef, and Sarah Smythe—interior designer, event planner, entrepreneur and floral design whiz, you’ve got a dream team. Not to mention they’re both Delta girls, raised in the land where entertaining is like breathing. Add all the holiday feels to the mix and these two will provide you with inspiration for gatherings throughout the season. – c.c.

     Because every family has its own traditions and unique ways to celebrate during the holidays, Smythe and Heiskell have collaborated on three Christmas gatherings covering the bases from casual to formal. There is something to suit all ages: a formal Christmas Eve dinner, a cozy breakfast by the fire, and a sweet charcuterie board and cookie bar for the little ones pattering around your house. – C.C.

Formal Christmas Eve Dinner


     If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, this one is for you. Smythe brings her considerable eye for detail, tablescapes, and floral design to the forefront. Her preference for white and gold creates a formal backdrop for Heiskell’s menu, which is elegant but simple, keeping it manageable during the busy holidays.

     “I’ve always loved Christmas Eve dinner after church as a way to slow down from the craze that is the holidays,” says Smythe. Many are able to celebrate throughout the season, but for Smythe, who owns Lagniappe Gifts in Leland with her mother, Sherry, things don’t slow down until Christmas Eve. “With a very busy store during this time of year, Christmas Eve is the first time I feel like my job is officially done, and I can switch gears to entertain. Even though it’s just my family and nothing fancy is required, I welcome the chance to pull together many lovely collections and some of my favorite details to set a gorgeous table.”

Sarah’s Tips and Tablescape Details

Use what you have

     Smythe used her year-round china, Herend Elegance, for the basic setting, but switched a few things up to make it more festive. “I’ve changed out the salad plates for a mix of their Christmas characters including a gingerbread man, tree, snowman, and a classic Herend bunny in a Santa’s hat. And, I always say work with what you have, and because this is a new collection for Herend I have not quite collected enough for the entire family, so I simply set them at every other place setting. Then I added holiday figurines to set atop the Elegance salad plate to give them a festive vibe. 

Know your strengths 

     This is my biggest entertaining tip and is very general, but has served me well. Know your strengths and find co-hosts who have different ones than you. For instance, I love setting the table, the flowers, and the tiny details of an event, while my sister-in-law, Ann Marie, loves to focus on the menu and cooking. 

     Also, know when you can’t pull something off. I’m often overzealous when it comes to entertaining, but I’ve learned I can’t do it all, hence the gorgeous store-bought Sugaree’s coconut cake!

Floral arrangement

     For this arrangement, I used a low-profile, linear gold trough filled with varying shades of white roses and hydrangeas, gold pinecones with a neutral velvet ribbon, ranunculus, and a mix of gold, cream, and silver ornaments. 

It’s actually such a simple arrangement as everything is packed in. Once the flowers were in place, I tucked in ornaments that I had simply removed the tops from and inserted floral stems in the opening to secure them into the arrangement. Then I just finished it with touches of gold using the pinecones and velvet ribbon.

With lots of family nearby, the beautiful home of Sarah’s brother and sister-in-law, Ann Marie and Will Smythe, is often the location for holiday family gatherings.

Dish patterns and details on the table

Annie Glass Ruffle charger 
Herend Elegance dinner and salad 
Herend Christmas salad plates in 4 scenes 
Vietri footed etched-glass compote 
Herend figurines (gingerbread house, nutcracker, tree)
Michael Wainwright Truro gold wine glass 
Christmas tree embroidered napkins (lagniappe custom)
Hand-painted menu card and place cards by Beth Hunt 
Vintage brass candlesticks with modern white and gold taper candles. 

Buffet details

     The buffet is styled with a lovely collection of selenite trees in varying sizes and colors of silver, white, and gold. Add snow or miniature ornaments when not using for food service. I used some wedding tricks with a fresh floral wreath on the mirror, however, you could easily replace with a fresh greenery wreath! Add special touches like the velvet ribbon on the cake dome. 

Dish patterns and details on the buffet

Vietri Gatsby martini glasses 
Juliska Berry and thread cake stand 
Royal Crown Derby fluted Gold Aves dinner plates 
Selenite trees in various shapes and sizes (Lagniappe Gifts)

Elizabeth’s Menu Tips and Advice

     “If you’re like me and wait until the last minute to prepare for your dinner parties, Christmas Eve is particularly hard. I mean I’m still wrapping presents! So it’s best to have a couple of simple recipes you know you can whip up in a flash. I adore this Shrimp Creole for that reason, I can get the base made earlier in the day and add the shrimp right when company arrives. And nothing could be simpler than my grapefruit and avocado salad! It is so fresh and is absolutely the best with the creole.

Keep it simple

     “I’ve learned a streamlined menu is all you need when feeding a crowd. This is a lovely menu and just has three basic elements—the creole, a flavorful rice, and a beautiful salad. Believe me, during the holidays when most everyone is overindulging, a simple lighter meal is greatly appreciated. And it’s just more doable. Add a store-bought dessert and you’re done. Just be sure you have plenty on hand in case anyone wants seconds—and plenty of wine!”

Prepare ahead 

     “I may be last minute by necessity, but I always try to see if there is anything that can be done ahead,” says Heiskell. In this menu, there are several things that can be made ahead. The base of the creole can be made (omitting the shrimp) earlier in the day or even days ahead of time and frozen. Just warm it up and add the shrimp, cook until they’re pink, and adjust seasonings. The vinaigrette can be made several days ahead of time and kept in the fridge—and the rice can be made several hours earlier in the day.”

Serve a festive after-dinner cocktail

     Your guests will feel special and it’s a simple, but memorable way to end the evening!


1 head of bibb lettuce
4 grapefruits, segmented
2 avocados, sliced
1 recipe of Disappearing Vinaigrette (see below)
Shaved Parmesan cheese, optional

     Place 2 bibb lettuce leaves on the salad plates to make “cups.” Divide avocados and grapefruits between the lettuce cups.

      Drizzle with vinaigrette. Sprinkle with shaved Parmesan, if desired. Serves 8


3 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup good-quality olive oil

     Place the garlic in the bottom of a salad bowl; sprinkle with the salt and pepper and mash with a fork to release all the garlic’s juices. Stir in the dry mustard and then the lemon juice.

     Slowly drizzle the olive oil into the bowl, whisking vigorously until the olive oil and lemon juice are thoroughly combined. Serve over your favorite salad. Store in a Mason jar in the fridge for up to three months.


1/4 cup bacon drippings 
1/4 cup (about 1-ounce) all-purpose flour

2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup chopped celery with leaves
1/2 cup chopped scallions
2 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
6 ounces tomato paste
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
8 ounces tomato sauce
1 cup seafood stock or 1 cup water
4 pounds unpeeled, large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon hot sauce
2 cups cooked long-grain white rice 

     Heat the bacon drippings in a 4-quart Dutch oven over medium-heat; add the flour, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is dark brown, about 7 minutes. Reduce heat to medium; add the onions and next 8 ingredients. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are transparent, about 30 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, and cook 3 minutes.

     Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and stock. Simmer 1 hour, partially covered. Add the shrimp. Cook until they just turn pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley, lemon juice, and hot sauce. Remove from heat. Discard bay leaves. Serve over the hot cooked rice.  Serves 8


1 cup uncooked jasmine rice
3 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh mint
Zest of 1 lemon plus 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon kosher salt 
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted (optional)

     Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over medium high heat. Stir in rice, cover and reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Pour the rice into a fine wire mesh strainer and drain. Rinse with cold water until cool.

     Heat 1 teaspoon of the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Place the rice and onion in a large bowl, add the mint, lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley, salt, remaining 2 teaspoons oil, and if desired, the pine nuts, and toss. Serve at room temperature. Serves 8


2 ounces simple syrup
5 ounces fresh espresso
3 ounces coffee liquor
4 ounces vodka 
Several dashes peppermint Schnapps

Chocolate syrup and coffee beans for garnish, optional

     Chill martini glasses for 30 minutes or longer before serving. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add all ingredients. Shake well for about 45 seconds before pouring between four chilled martini glasses. Garnish glasses with extra chocolate syrup if you wish before serving.  Serves 4

Breakfast by the Fire



     Smythe and Heiskell agree that Christmas morning is wild enough as is and should be kept as simple as possible with an easy breakfast spread. “Christmas morning is usually one for the kids and most parents are exhausted! So why not make breakfast fireside so you don’t miss a thing as your family opens their gifts?” says Smythe. Heiskell agrees, “Make breakfast an easy affair. After all, adults should enjoy Christmas morning just as much as the children. This egg casserole and cream cheese danish are both make-ahead so all you have to do is put in them in the oven that morning! Simply add fruit, coffee, and mimosas and you’ve got a spread everyone will love.”

Elizabeth’s tips for serving

Simply set out your plates, napkins, and utensils so guests can serve themselves.
Keep Champagne and juice chilled and ready to pour for mimosas
Set out casseroles when warm, pile fruit on a platter, and breakfast is served.

Mantel decor tip 

Mix real and faux greenery 

     “One of my favorite tips is to mix faux and real garland at the beginning of the season—as it is easier to clean up and maintain! Then just add in fresh flowers for when you have guests over! I added dendrobium orchids to this mantel because they last longer than many other flowers and can be kept in flower picks. Tuck in ornaments to give a bit of sparkle to the space and it’s perfect!”– Sarah


8 white bread slices, crusts removed
2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh spinach
1/2 cup coarsely chopped yellow, red, or orange bell pepper
8 ounces fresh Parmesan cheese, grated (about 2 cups)
4 ounces pre-shredded low-moisture mozzarella cheese (about 1 cup)
3/4 cup goat cheese
2 cups whole milk
10 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoon Creole seasoning
2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

     Cut 4 of the bread slices into triangles, cut the remaining 4 bread slices into cubes. Arrange the bread triangles in the bottom of a lightly greased 9″ x 13″ baking dish, top with the bread cubes. Cover bread layer with the asparagus, spinach, and bell pepper. Combine the Parmesan, goat, and mozzarella cheeses in a small bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, eggs, mustard, seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, and half of cheese mixture. Pour the egg/cheese mixture over the vegetable layer. Top with remaining half of cheese mixture. Refrigerate about an hour.

     Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove casserole from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature about 10 minutes. Bake in the preheated oven until set and the cheese is lightly browned, about 50 minutes. Serves 8


1  17.3-ounce package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
2  8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
4 ounces (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

     Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll 1 puff pastry sheet into a 12×9 inch rectangle, place on the prepared baking sheet. Combine the cream cheese, egg, vanilla, and 1 cup of the sugar in a bowl; beat with an electric mixture on medium-high speed until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Spread evenly over the prepared pastry sheet.

     Roll the remaining puff pastry sheet in to a 12×9 inch rectangle, place over the cream cheese mixture, pinching the edges of the pastry sheets together to seal

     Combine the pecans, butter, cinnamon, and remaining ½ cup of sugar in a bowl. Spread evenly over the top layer of the pastry. Bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 30 minutes. Cut into rectangles, and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 16

Breakfast setup details

Annieglass Jaxson small plates
Michael Wainwright Truro Gold pitcher
Engraved mint julep cups
Heirloom silver flatware and servers


Sweet Charcuterie & Kid’s Cookie Bar



     Keep the kids and neighborhood gang busy (and happy) with a sweet charcuterie board just for them. It’s an easy way to check all the boxes for the young set with store bought delights—cookies to cut out and decorate, petit fours, candy and, of course, hot chocolate.

     “In my business, fancy cheese and charcuterie boards are all the rage among adults but children are not the biggest fans,” says Heiskell. “This is the perfect paring to a cookie decorating party. It is so simple because you can purchase all the cookies and candy from your grocery store or local bakery.” 

Charcuterie and cookie board ideas

When choosing the ingredients, remember to get a variety of color, sizes, and shapes. Make generous piles! This makes your platters look so much more visually appealing. Also, be sure to elevate some of your platters and embellish with greenery and other fun decorations. – Elizabeth

Sarah’s niece and nephew Charlotte Carter Smythe and Daniel Smythe were delighted with the sweet charcuterie board!!

     I have five nieces and nephews who range in age from two to ten. They love being together and this is a great activity for the wide age range. They can all decorate cookies at varying levels of skill but each one has a blast! This is such a fun (and slightly messy) way to share the holidays with them. And this is an easy concept to scale up in size by simply by adding more quantity to your supplies according to the number of guests. – Sarah

Topiary tips 

     These myrtle and rosemary topiaries are perfect for year-round tablescapes. I’ve used them for parties and just to add a touch of green around the house! To make them Christmas-y, I simply added green and red grosgrain ribbons! 

Christmas gifting tip

     Start a collection that you can continue to add to for years to come. I’ve given each of my nephews a mint julep cup engraved with their names and the year all their lives. I know these are gifts they’ll always keep!                

Sarah’s favorite collections to start for easy gifting 

Engraved mint julep cups  
Christmas or everyday china
Herend figurines
Keepsake ornaments



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