With so many holiday-related tasks to manage - shopping, wrapping, baking, (cleaning and) decorating, partying, and making travel plans, all on top of that other little thing known as work - the prospect of actually entertaining guests can feel overwhelming. Like it or not, though, family is on the way and the clock is ticking. What's a well-meaning but frazzled host to do?
Open your home to loved ones, yes, but also know your limits. Give yourself a break by planning meals that can be made ahead and frozen until needed.
While the modish emphasis on fresh and local has shamed us into feeling we must cook everything to order these days, there's a strong tradition among smart home cooks of making ahead and stocking up. Yes, it's time to push aside those veggie burgers and reclaim the freezer.
In The Foolproof Freezer Cookbook (Kyle Books), author Ghillie James offers a stylish roundup of recipes that are special enough for company, even during the most high-pressure parties of the calendar year.
Using the freezer, she argues, prevents last-minute hard work and reduces stress for entertaining. Of course there are other benefits to making the freezer your friend, such as saving money and preventing waste.
Baked goods such as scones and muffins can be made now and frozen for later. Defrost and bake or warm just before serving. Scones are usually best frozen unbaked, while muffins and quick breads fare better in the freezer after their turn in the oven.
Breakfast casseroles such as baked French toast and strata are make-ahead workhorses that can also energize a crowd for a long day of gift-opening.
Soup is an obvious choice for a cold-weather lunch, and most can be frozen gracefully.
James' Spicy Carrot, Tomato, Chorizo, and Cilantro Soup, swirling in a puree of vegetables with chunky chickpeas and sweet potatoes, is hearty enough for a light dinner for overnight guests (James suggests serving it with slices of bread and manchego cheese). It's also a good staple to keep on hand during the hectic pre-holiday, pre-guest days when cooking something fresh just isn't a realistic possibility.
Baked dips and fish or meat pates are surprisingly strong candidates for prefrozen entertaining starters, as are phyllo pastry triangles and puffs, tarts, and quiches. Savory biscotti and crackers can be made and frozen by the batch.
For premeditated main courses, casseroles, stews, and braises are strong contenders. Jones even proffers an old-fashioned Beef Wellington, swapping out the traditional pate for prosciutto slices, with an equally freezable Madeira sauce, an entree elegant and classic enough for Christmas dinner. Cook a couple of last-minute sides, or better yet, have a guest bring them, and the meal is ready.
On the sweet side, keeping a few batches of cookie dough or baked cookies on hand can be a smart strategy for impromptu guests - and they inevitably show up this time of year. Most pies and tarts can be assembled and frozen before baking; cakes can be fully baked and iced before they go into the freezer.
Some rules of thumb from James:
Freeze foods when they are freshest for the best taste and texture. Refreezing is OK, but refreeze previously frozen foods when they are cooked rather than raw.
Wrap items exceedingly well, using a double layer of foil, a freezer bag, or a lidded container to protect against freezer burn. (She recommends expandable freezer bags for soups and sauces, lidded containers for baked goods.) With liquids, allow space at the top of the container for expansion.
Allow cooked foods to cool completely before freezing.
Know your food's longevity. Cakes, casseroles, soups, pastry-wrapped items, and sauces can last about three months, while frozen cooked meat is best served within one to two months.
Leftovers, too, can be frozen for later use, and all that holiday cooking can help enrich future meals.
Don't neglect extra wine for future sauces and gravies (freeze in ice cube trays).
Egg whites and yolks, bread crumbs, cream, fruit juice, even defatted meat juices can all be successfully frozen for use long after guests are gone, the holidays a distant memory.