The holidays are a time to gather with friends and family, drink copious amounts of mulled wine, open gifts you might not be that excited about, and — most importantly — eat all the things.

And with food being the star of the show, you can dress your table to impress. Especially in the appetizer department… I’m, of course, talking about my personal favorite: an impressive charcuterie board. The lavish spread may look intimidating, but it’s really quite simple to put together.

I was born and raised in the upper Midwest so I know my way around the cheese section of the grocery store. For an elevated charcuterie board, I like to choose at least one from each of the following categories:

  • Firm: such as the classic Parmigiano Reggiano or Syrah-soaked Toscano
  • Soft/creamy: like herbed goat cheese, or triple-cream French brie
  • Aged or smoked: like gouda or Trader Joe’s Unexpected Cheddar.
  • Funky: such as bleu cheese.

You’ll want to estimate about 3 ounces per person. So if you have two people, that’s 6 ounces — or work backward. For example, if you want six cheeses for two people, you’d only be getting an ounce each. Of course play around with your favorite combinations, and feel free to pile on more of your favorite.

The meat section is another important component of any impressive charcuterie spread. I like to play around with texture and color here, so I generally choose one of each:

  • dry Italian meat
  • flavorful ham
  • spicy sausage
  • smooth spread, like pâté

My go-to for meat, no matter how big the board, is Gusto’s Black Peppercorn Soppressata, an Italian dry salami. I love the black pepper, which adds a bit of elevated spice.

Another winner, if you don’t want spice, is Creminelli Prosciutto, an Italian dry cured ham. Other personal favorites are dried Spanish chorizo, which has tons of warm spiciness, and a smooth and flavorful chicken liver pâté.

Sauces are an all important selection because nothing is worse than a dry charcuterie board. For a balance of flavors and textures, I prefer some tried-and-true items. These include:

  • Trader Joe’s pepper jelly for a sweet and salty flavor bomb
  • a fig and citrus spread for a fruity, acidic kick (heaven when paired with goat cheese and pistachios)
  • some homemade pesto, which has extra holiday vibes due to its vibrant color and is so delicious with prosciutto and Parmesan
  • stone-ground mustard, a classic board staple
  • salted almonds, Cornish pickles (aka the cute little ones), pistachios (unshelled), and/or mixed nuts for another crunchy element

And when it’s available or in season, I will also include a local fruit jelly and honey from the farmers market. Additionally, you can consider adding heritage elements. My husband is Irish, so I could pick an aged Irish cheddar when I want to honor his ancestry.

In my opinion, a good charcuterie board is like calculated chaos. It should look crowded and like it’s overflowing with goodness. Plus it’s how you get the most photogenic result!

Ingredients

Serves 20 people

  • large marble or wooden tray (using multiple smaller trays also works)
  • 60 ounces of cheese (to start, 50:50 ratio of hard and soft)
  • 60 ounces of meat
  • spicy jellies and sweet jams
  • salted almonds, Cornish pickles, pistachios
  • red and green colored toothpicks, festive cheese spreaders, and knives for serving (optional)

Directions

1. The best presentation comes from placing each cheese around the board but not right next to each other. Cut thin, uniform slices of your hard cheeses (about halfway through a large block) and keep a knife on the board so guests can cut their own slices.

Place your soft cheeses, like a goat cheese log, in the middle with a spreader stuck right in. For other spreadable cheeses, like Brie, simply make sure to include a spreader for each type.

2. Next up, layer your meat choices. They can go either in one long line, from one end of the board to the other, or you could lay them in pretty circles.

3. Now pile on your spreads. You can do this by putting them in ramekins or directly on top of your charcuterie board. I like to add dollops wherever there’s empty space.

4. Add your nuts, pickles, and other inspirations. I like to sprinkle small piles of pomegranate seeds to brighten up a board. Sometimes I’ll add sprigs of rosemary, which is not only fragrant but sort of resembles a Christmas tree (on theme here!). If I can, I’ll also include a honeycomb for sweetness and a visual punch, or dried edible flowers for a gourmet touch.

Finally, for all the indulgent eating, I’ll include some sparkly, metallic or holiday-themed napkins, cheese knives and spreaders, and small plates.

Katy is a freelance food, business, and travel writer. She has contributed to Chilled Magazine, The Reader, Matador Network, Crunchbase News, Business Insider, Popular Science, and many more publications. Follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn.