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Make the holidays easier with a make-ahead feast

Choosing a holiday menu based on what you can make in advance gives you more time to spend with family and friends and less time working in the kitchen.Photo Illustration by Alberto Mier

Apologies to Bob Cratchit and his family’s famous Christmas goose — as well as the more contemporary turkey or prime rib — but lately, I’m happier if I’m not fussing over a big hunk of meat when hosting the holiday meal.

These days, when I’m in charge, I like to choose my menu based on what I can make and bake in advance. It gives me more time to spend with family and friends at my home and less time in the kitchen while everyone else celebrates.

Buffet-style menus offer a range of main course options, and they will mean fewer dishes to do at the end of a meal — a great gift for the holidays.Photo Illustration by Alberto Mier

The following three menu inspirations for make-ahead holiday feasts are ideal for serving larger groups. They’re all based on the concept of casseroles and other dishes that can easily be baked or prepped ahead of time, then finished or reheated when you’re ready for the festivities to begin.

Because these buffet-style menus offer a range of main course options, it’s easier to accommodate various food allergies and preferences and keep everyone satisfied. And there will be fewer dishes to do at the end of the meal, which seems like a gift in itself.

A breakfast casserole buffet

Whether you’re hosting a big brunch or simply a fan of breakfast for dinner, you can find inspiration for a holiday gathering menu in your favorite breakfast foods. There’s no need to be a short-order cook and flip pancakes while everyone else is waiting — these dishes can be reheated the day of or prepped in advance.

Hash brown-and-egg breakfast casserole has been around for generations, but it’s a favorite for a reason: I have yet to meet someone who can resist this combination of creamy, cheesy eggs and comforting potatoes. Add bacon or sausage or keep it vegetarian. Make a vegan casserole option. You can even make this dish in the slow cooker overnight.

You can find inspiration for a holiday gathering menu with some of your favorite breakfast foods such as French toast or bread pudding.Photo Illustration by Alberto Mier

Bake-ahead sweet casseroles can be made days ahead of time and reheated in the oven without compromising their taste. Try a maple-bacon polenta casseroleblueberry bread pudding with croissants or a cinnamon roll bread pudding.

Overnight French toast rests in the refrigerator while you sleep to get ready for baking the next day as you greet guests. Create a toppings bar with whipped cream, chopped nuts, chocolate chips and maple syrup so everyone can customize their portion.

As for pancakes, they’re still possible. Use a mix or your favorite from-scratch recipe to bake pancakes in a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish, then slice into squares and serve with your favorite toppings. Stir in chocolate chips or fruit, such as banana slices or frozen berries, before baking to add more flavor.

A pie potluck

Do you have guests who love to cook as much as you do? The pie potluck may be perfect for your party. This theme allows attendees to contribute both sweet and savory offerings to fill the table.

My favorite savory pie for any occasion is the classic chicken pot pie, but a shepherd’s pie or cottage pie is equally comforting. (Shepherd’s pie is traditionally made with ground lamb, while cottage pie is filled with ground beef — that’s the distinction.)

A pie potluck lets participants to holiday gatherings contribute both sweet and savory offerings to fill the table.Photo Illustration by Alberto Mier

sweet potato pie baked in puff pastry with caramelized onions is a rich vegetarian option, as is a spinach and artichoke galette. Pizza can also technically be considered a pie, at least in my book!

Dessert pies don’t always have to adhere to the fruit-filled varieties, though they’re always welcome. Make an indulgent chocolate pot de crème tart or get creative with homemade pop tarts for a hand-held alternative.

A tamale-inspired meal

Tamaladas, or tamale-making parties, are a Christmas tradition for many Latino families and across the Southwest. The process of wrapping each masa-filled bundle can be time-consuming, so if you’d like to embrace the spirit of the event without the work, try a tamale casserole — a tamal de cazuela — as your main course.

Tamale-making parties can be a Christmas tradition, but preparation is time-consuming. A tamale casserole helps embrace the spirit of the event without the work.Photo Illustration by Alberto Mier

Tamale casseroles can be made in a cast-iron skillet or in a square or round baking dish, so you can use what you have on hand. The crucial ingredient for any casserole is masa harina, the finely ground corn flour used to make masa dough. It’s made from nixtamalized corn — corn that’s been cooked and soaked in a lime solution — and can be found in most supermarkets.

As for fillings, choose your favorite:

• Chile-braised pork in a skillet casserole
• A steamed zucchini and corn casserole that combines crust and filling in a savory cake
• Tamale pie with chicken, green chiles and cheese
• Or layers of spicy braised beef and masa in a lasagna-style casserole

Because these casseroles are hearty and filling on their own, choose some refreshing side dishes to round out the meal, such as cabbage slaw, mango jicama slaw or a chopped salad.

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