Getting a Handle on Christmas Dinner

lunch at fifteen 1

A week or so ago (why is time moving so FAST?!) I spent a day getting on top of holiday prep, thanks to Virtual Vino, and got so caught up in the possibilities of what can be done ahead that I stopped at about 2600 words and promised to follow up with a few ideas about how to get a head start on all the cooking obligations of Christmas Day. Everyone wants a luxurious breakfast without cooking, and a stress-free dinner that doesn’t require spending half the morning getting the turkey in. And the orchestrating of sides and appetizers and dessert can be exhausting. But really – feeding everyone for the whole day doesn’t have to be daunting, even if you don’t have everyone pitching in to get dinner on the table. So much can be done well ahead of time, and doesn’t necessarily require freezer space.

First! Order wine. I love having a couple well-curated six packs on standby for parties and dinner duty. Liquid assets.

So. Christmas day! Of course everyone wants to start with a semi-fancy breakfast. It’s a nice idea, the trick being that there’s too much going on, and few of us actually want to cook. It’s a common strategy to assemble cinnamon buns or overnight French toast or Christmas Morning Wifesaver the night before to stash in the fridge overnight. But I’m not super keen on the idea of making a fancy breakfast on Christmas eve either, or of venturing out to find a bakery that happens to be open on Christmas morning, and so here are a few other ideas:

Scones

Scones are simple to put together – really – but they’re especially fast if you grate or rub the butter into the dry ingredients in a bowl or ziplock bag and stick it in the fridge, ready to go in the morning. (Bonus: the butter gets nice and cold, making for flaky scones) to dump into a bowl, add milk, cream or eggnog, stir, pat an inch thick on a baking sheet, cut into wedges and bake at 425F for 15 minutes while everyone dives into their stockings. (I made a batch of eggnog scones a week or so ago over on Instagram stories!) I gave up on the notion of an elaborate Christmas morning breakfast years ago, knowing I’m going to eat half the chocolate in my stocking for breakfast and then nibble my way through turkey dinner prep.

Cinnamon Babka 14

I’m perfectly happy with cinnamon buns or kanelbullar or babka (from the freezer – put them in the fridge overnight, then on the counter for an hour or so, while you’re preheating the oven) or a warm scone with copious amounts of coffee on Christmas morning. And of course there’s inevitably a bottle of Irish cream in the fridge too.

Breakfast Cheese Fondue 2

But here’s another idea, if you’re not all about the sweets: I like putting a cheese and charcuterie board out in the morning, because cheese and cured meats are totally breakfast foods, and if you want to get elaborate about it, you could make a breakfast cheese fondue: grate 1 lb Swiss cheese (I often use half Swiss, half gruyere, or half Monterey Jack if W is in on it, as he’s not a smelly cheese fan) and toss with 2 Tbsp flour. Warm 1 1/2 cups dry white wine, beer or even milk on the stovetop, and when it’s steaming, stir in the cheese by the handful, whisking after each until it melts. Serve it with roasted potatoes and mushrooms, wedges of sausage, eggs, toast points – you name it. Douse it all in cheese. Don’t you kind of love the idea of everyone sitting around and eating cheese fondue for breakfast? Sometimes I saute some mushrooms with a bit of rosemary in a skillet first, and then make the fondue right in the skillet… no need for a fondue pot, even!

Mushroom Rosemary Fondue

And breakfast inevitably morphs into lunch, or breakfast is eaten at lunchtime, or party leftovers stand in for lunch during dinner prep. And then it’s time to put in the turkey.

Smoked Winter's Turkey 2

Everyone has their own turkey method – and maybe you don’t do turkey at all. But if you do, and you love lots of stuffing but not a 5 hour cooking time, you may find breaking the bird down and roasting it on top of a pan of stuffing – a deconstructed turkey – mildly life-changing. I’m a turkey traditionalist – I do the butter and sage-heavy bread stuffing with lots of onions and celery, and everyone freaks out if I try to stray and add something crazy like sausage or pecans or cornbread. I can’t imagine what might happen if I tried to sneak an oyster in there.

deconstructed-turkey-3

There’s not a whole lot to be done to get a head start on the turkey, unless you want to roast a chicken and put some stock away for the gravy, but so many of the sides can be taken care of in the next few days. There always needs to be a starter, and cheese is so easy (toss it on a board with chutney/jellies/dried fruit/nuts/crackers of all sorts/pickles/olives/anything really), but this year I’ve delved back into pimento cheese, and I can’t get enough of it. It can be made days in advance, as can a cheese ball, which is really just a package of cream cheese mixed with grated or crumbled bits of cheese (about equal parts, or more cheese to cream cheese, plus a glug of Worcestershire and a pinch of garlic powder), which you roll in toasted almonds or pecans right before you set it out, and everyone is inevitably thrilled. Who doesn’t love a cheese ball?

Braised Red Cabbage with Cranberries

But! The real meal sides. Braised red cabbage is a Belgian thing, and one of those dishes that’s even better after a day or two in the fridge, so it can braise (a low, slow cook) away while you do other things, then hide away in the fridge to reheat (in the oven alongside the turkey toward the end, or in the microwave).

Cranberry sauce
Cranberries are the easiest part – when I pick up a bag of fresh or frozen berries, I feel so on the ball when I upend them into a saucepan and simmer them with sugar and water or orange juice – and sometimes I add a bit of fresh rosemary, or some chopped rhubarb from the freezer – and it’s done and tucked away in the fridge in about ten minutes. Of course it keeps well, so can be made a few days in advance or frozen. This is my strategy this year: I simmered a bag of berries (most fresh and frozen bags are 300-340 g, with about 1/2-3/4 cup sugar and the juice of a squishy mandarin orange or a splash of water or apple cider) while I was making oatmeal and coffee this morning, and scraped it into the actual serving bowl I’ll use for dinner to cover and stick in the fridge, ready to go, leaving about a half cup in the pot. To the bit in the pot I added a splash of balsamic vinegar and a bit of chopped rosemary and cooked it for another minute, then put it into a dish or jar to put over baked brie at some point over the holidays. Multitasking!

Baked Brie with Cranberries, Walnuts and Rosemary

Mashed potatoes can stand for longer than people think, and reheat easily in the microwave. (Just add a bit more butter and cream as you reheat them!) Of course we have to provide a ballast to all the cheese and bread and gravy with a big salad, and in recent years we’ve defaulted to that kale and Brussels sprouts salad with toasted almonds and Parmesan. The bright lemony dressing is such a delicious contrast to the rest of the plate, and the salad won’t wilt – it gets better over the course of dinner, so you can toss it while you scramble about to make the gravy and carve the turkey, and it won’t collapse on itself. Although this year I may do the kale and roasted squash salad with miso dressing, and roast the squash alongside the turkey (or put it in while it’s resting). But if you’re just doing classic greens, you can at least have the dressing ready to go, and I always wind up chopping up some of the sweet-spiced nuts I make at some point over the holidays to scatter on top.

Kale & Brussels sprout salad

Dessert is a simple one to tackle, from a do-ahead perspective: we inevitably have a mishmash of sweets around the house – my mom’s pecan shortbread and Hello Dollies, butter tarts and/or mince tarts around from the parade of parties leading up to Christmas day.

Mince tarts

If I do make something, sometimes it’s upside-down pear gingerbread, often it’s a trifle made in my great aunt Maud’s old trifle dish (and likely there will be one this year, as I have a big chunk of pound cake in the freezer), and there are alway. Often there’s apple pie – I like to saute the apples first to cook off some of their moisture and caramelize/intensify them – and if you’re intimidated by the thought of making pie, a slab pie, quickly assembled with puff pastry and cut into wedges, could be just the thing.

Sticky toffee pudding!

Gingerbread cakes and sticky toffee pudding can easily be made ahead – they get better after a day anyway, and freeze well, and the sticky toffee will keep in the fridge for ages, so is great for making ahead of time.

Anna Olson's Chocolate-orange Fruitcake

This year I made Anna Olson’s Chocolate-Orange Fruitcake, which is fantastic, and as all fruitcakes do, gets better after a few days. I love that fruitcake has staying power – and because a whole bundt-sized fruitcake is so substantial, I can nibble it for breakfast and dessert and pack it to take on road trips straight through until the new year. (I’ll share the recipe asap, and add the link here!)

Happy holidays, all! Thanks so much for being here. Here’s hoping the dog doesn’t eat your turkey, and you don’t spill an entire pitcher of chocolate sauce inside your fridge, starting on the top shelf so that it cascades down all the layers, right in the thick of things, like I did tonight. And remember, it’s not what’s on the table that counts, but who’s around it.

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6 comments on “Getting a Handle on Christmas Dinner

  1. Heather
    December 20, 2018 at 9:19 am

    That fondue in the cast iron skillet with mushrooms just blew my mind. What a great idea!!!

    • Julie
      December 21, 2018 at 11:27 am

      Yay!! 🙂

  2. Haley
    December 20, 2018 at 9:32 am

    All of these dishes look delicious.

    • Julie
      December 21, 2018 at 11:25 am

      Thank you!!

  3. Sandra D
    December 20, 2018 at 10:44 am

    Saving some of your cranberry mixture (with rhubarb – definitely doing that) to put over cheese is a great idea!

    • Julie
      December 21, 2018 at 11:25 am

      Thanks! 🙂

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