Food & Drink

Readers share tips for holiday entertaining

The jam cake with caramel frosting that Mary Smoot serves is made from the same recipe that her mother-in-law's father once used. Recipe on B4.
The jam cake with caramel frosting that Mary Smoot serves is made from the same recipe that her mother-in-law's father once used. Recipe on B4. Herald-Leader

It's almost November which means the holiday entertaining season is here. But the idea of entertaining at home can be overwhelming. Some young parents complain about being too busy and too stressed to clean house and cook for others, even though they long to fill the house with friends and the aroma of home-cooked foods. And some older folks say they don't have the energy to pull out the fine china or bake cookies for a holiday exchange.

We asked readers to tell us how they prepare for holiday entertaining. Those who responded to our request say it's never too much trouble to open their homes to friends during the holiday season. Here are some of their holiday entertaining menus, recipes and suggestions.

Tina McMahan of Lexington: Christmas open house works 'well for all'

"Christmas is my favorite time of the year, I love Christmas decorating and entertaining. For many years now we have hosted an open house every other year. As our children have gotten older, we missed seeing many of our friends we made through the years. I thought one way of staying in touch would be to host an open house. It's been very successful over the years. An open house on a Friday or Saturday night in December has worked well for all. This allows some to visit longer while allowing those that have other parties to attend an opportunity to drop by for some Christmas cheer."

McMahan's plan: Invitations are mailed two weeks in advance.

Food/drinks: The menu has stayed about the same: Honey Baked ham with Mondelli's biscuits with cranberry sauce, cheese balls/logs, shrimp, tortilla rolls, vegetable tray, crab dip, a dessert table that includes her husband's famous bourbon balls. Bar with mixed drinks, wine, beer, coffee and mulled cider.

Servers: "We hire a bartender and server. This keeps my husband from tending the bar and me from refilling trays and plates. The server also helps with greeting guests and taking coats. I request the server and bartender through DaRae & Friends Catering."

Decorating: McMahan decorates inside and out on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. "Each room in our home receives a touch of Christmas. Jeremy Rice or Dwayne Anderson from House (on Walton Avenue) drop by for a little fluffing and minor updates to the Christmas decorations the following week."

Housekeeping: "I clean for the party on the Monday before."

Food prep: "I begin baking Christmas treats several weeks in advance and freeze them. Two days before the party I make the cheese balls. One day before, I prepare and bag vegetables and tortilla rolls, decorate tables, and mark trays with which item is to be placed on it."

Day of party: "Prepare ham/biscuits and any other last-minute preparation, then relax until guests arrive. Food is located in the dining room with the dessert table in the breakfast room. The bar is located in the downstairs area. This set-up keeps the guests flowing throughout the house."

Mary Smoot of Lexington: Mother-in-law leaves stamp on meal preparations

Because of her mother-in-law's illness, Smoot said the holiday season will be different this year. She has shared meal preparation with her mother-in-law, Ann Smoot, for many years.

"She showed me how to make favorites out of her Bourbon County Homemaker Clubs Cook Book, published in the early 1970s," Smoot said. "Our preparations for Thanksgiving always include a jar of blackberry jam from Reed Valley Orchards. I would take my mother-in-law there once a year to enjoy the orchard and to get our precious jar of local jam. The jam is used in a jam cake recipe which Ann's father, Russell Heaton, used to make for them at Christmas each year. I keep the recipe, which is handwritten by Ann, safely protected.

In addition to the jam cake, Smoot makes dressed eggs, using home canned sweet pickles from their Duncastle Farm garden. She uses a recipe for sweet pickles from the first cookbook she ever owned, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking, which she received while at Vanderbilt University in the early 1980s.

"My mother-in-law taught me how to make corn pudding, and broccoli casserole. Our daughters enjoy helping in the meal preparation. Each year the main meat may vary slightly from baked turkey, to smoked turkey, ham and an occasional Tofurky when our children were vegetarians."

This year, the Thanksgiving menu will likely include a purchased spiral-cut ham, green beans from the garden, small red potatoes with the skins on, gravy, cranberry-orange salad, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top (prepared as Smoot's Aunt Betty made it), yeast rolls, homemade apple pie, and a store-bought pumpkin pie with Graeters ice cream and whipped cream. Appetizers always include a cheese ball made with chipped beef, green onions and cream cheese, served with crackers; a veggie tray with red pepper hummus; taco chips with homemade salsa; and hot apple cider.

"We will use a handmade tablecloth that my sister's mother-in-law made for us, and we eat on Bybee Pottery plates.

"The first year we lived on the farm we hosted 37 family members at a Thanksgiving meal served on tables scattered throughout our living room and kitchen. Although we have not hosted another family group as large 37, we enjoy sharing Thanksgiving with whichever family members come from my seven siblings scattered across the country."

Here is Mary Smoot's recipe for jam cake.

Jam cake

1 cup butter or shortening

2 cups white sugar

5 eggs

3 cups flour

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1½ teaspoons cloves

1½ teaspoons allspice

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup raisins or dates

1 cup chopped nuts, optional

1 cup blackberry jam

5 pecans for decoration

With a mixer, cream butter and gradually add sugar. Cream together until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, beat eggs well and add to butter mixture. Sift flour before measuring and add spices and salt. Dissolve soda in buttermilk and add it to flour mixture alternately with egg and butter mixture, beating after each addition. Lightly dredge raisins and nuts with a small amount of extra flour and add to mixture. Add jam, stirring well.

Grease a Bundt or angel food cake pan or line it with parchment paper. Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake at 325 degrees for 40 minutes. (Test with knife to make sure it's done; it should be removed cleanly from cake.)

Caramel frosting

½ cup butter

½ cup brown sugar

¼ cup milk

3¼ cups confectioners sugar, sifted

Melt butter in pan. Add brown sugar and bring to boil. Stir about 1 minute, until it begins to thicken. Cool slightly, add milk, and beat until smooth. Gradually beat in confectioners sugar, until icing reaches spreading consistency.

Spread over top and sides of cake. Icing will thicken up quickly. Dipping the spreading knife in warm water will make it smooth. Place 5 whole pecans around sides for decoration.

Virginia Long of Lexington: On a limited budget,hostess relies on planning and imagination

Long finds that holiday entertaining doesn't have to be time-consuming, costly or require gourmet cooking skills.

"I am a senior in a modest home with limited assets, but I find entertaining to be fun and rewarding, particularly during the holidays. Even though eating out is usually enjoyable, dining at home involves no waiting for a table or background noise, and no need to rush through the meal.

"Shortly after Thanksgiving, I set aside a few hours for a little extra tidying up and then I am ready to decorate. I usually invite a few friends for a couple of dinners and plan a 'girls only' lunch or two. Over the years, I have accumulated an assortment of dishes, napkins and centerpieces, but a table can be set attractively on a small budget with any dishes, flatware and a little imagination. I use tea lights in varying containers and have soft music playing in the background.

Long keeps her menu simple. "I personally think dessert should be one of the highlights and I select one that can be prepared ahead. Many delicious entrees can be made with little effort, and the sides don't have to be elaborate. Colorful and flavorful is the key. Warm bread is a must for me, and I use my bread maker, but the local deli can help with that or any other dish. I offer wine, but that's not a must for everyone.

For overnight guests, she prints out a menu offering the "Long bed and breakfast" menu, and everything is a la carte. "That's been a big hit for years, especially with children.

"On Christmas Eve, because there is a crowd, a buffet of hot and cold finger food works best, and my family likes to share their favorite dishes. Last year, almost half my guests were not related to me. If a home is warm, friendly and inviting, it is a place where folks want to return year after year. With a little planning and imagination, anyone can make it happen."

Here's one of Long's favorite recipes:

Ham and chicken lasagna

9 lasagna noodles

1⁄3 cup butter

1⁄3 cup flour

3 cups milk

1½ cups Parmesan cheese, divided

4 ounces fresh or canned mushrooms

¾ teaspoon dry basil

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

½ cup cream

2 cups cooked chicken breast

2 cups cubed ham

Paprika and fresh parsley for garnish

Cook noodles according to package directions. In a skillet, melt butter, add flour and stir to make a roux. Add milk and cook on medium heat until slightly thickened. Add 1 cup Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, basil, salt, pepper and cream. Cook another minute. Add chicken and ham.

Layer as follows: ¼ of the sauce, 3 noodles; repeat two more times. Top with remaining sauce and cheese. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Garnish with paprika and fresh parsley.

Barbara Harper-Bachof Lexington: Making lunch for close friends

Harper-Bach is planning a Christmas luncheon this year for her close friends.

"I do it every year. I only have room for eight at my dining room table, but sometimes I sit two at the breakfast room table and let some just eat out of their laps on the couch.

"I usually fix recipes from my many cookbooks (The Christmas Clinic, From My Mother's Kitchen, The New Turkey Clinic). I put my cakes and candies on one side board and serve the luncheon offerings on another, bigger sideboard, buffet-style. I set my table with Spode Candleberry Christmas china and use my good silver and crystal.

Her menu varies almost every year, but she always has some of the traditional Christmas luncheon dishes — beaten biscuits stuffed with country ham salad, all homemade; frozen fruit salad; cream of Christmas vegetable soup; dressing balls; homemade cranberry jelly; chocolate fudge; peanut butter fudge; opera fudge; little cherry pound cakes; and the original Waldorf Astoria red velvet cake with a cooked icing; and Christmas cookies from her cookie exchange earlier in the month. Each guest receives a package of candied pecans to take home.

Country ham salad

2 pounds cooked country ham, cubed

Dash ground cloves

Juice of 1 lemon


Place ham cubes in food processor and add dash of ground cloves and lemon juice. Pulse a few times and add enough mayonnaise to make a spreading consistency. Serve on hot baking powder biscuits or beaten biscuits. James and Madelyn Millard of Lexington: Biscuit bar takes center stage on their party menu

Christmas on the Creek is the name of the couple's annual Christmas party, held two Sundays before Christmas Day. "It is a 'come as you are/come when you can' party, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., that evolves from a brunch menu to a dessert and sweets menu as the day goes on.

"The house, which sits on our farm above Goose Creek in northern Fayette County, is traditionally decorated with wreaths and a live tree under which are iconic toys from the 20th century, from Lionel trains to American Girls dolls.

"We base the menu (for a biscuit bar) on the recipes published in the November 2011 Southern Living, with sweet potato biscuits, angel biscuits and corn bread biscuits, with mustard, poppy seed, chutney and bourbon-pecan butters."

Here's one of the recipes they use.

Sweet potato biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon. baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, divided

1/2 cup cold butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup cooked, mashed sweet potatoes

1/2 cup cold whipping cream, plus 2 tablespoons

Parchment paper

Vegetable cooking spray

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Put first 4 ingredients and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon in a large bowl and stir; cut in butter with pastry blender until mixture resembles small peas and dough is crumbly. Freeze 5 minutes.

Stir together sweet potatoes and 1/2 cup whipping cream. Add to flour mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface (mixture will be crumbly); knead 1 minute. Pat dough into 3/4-inch-thick circle. Cut dough with a well-floured 21/2-inch round cutter, rerolling scraps as needed.

Line backing sheet with parchment paper; lightly grease paper with cooking spray. Place biscuits 2 inches apart on parchment paper. Brush tops with 2 tablespoons whipping cream.

Stir together granulated sugar and remaining 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon; sprinkle. mixture on biscuit tops. Bake 13 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader