Whether you have a long-standing tradition of hosting a crowd on Christmas or are new to the pleasures and anxieties of that sort of get-together, preparation is the key to happy holiday hosting.

]There are many great make-ahead dishes that are festive, delicious and easy: sweet coffee cakes, fruit strudels, baked French toast, quiches, tortas, savory tarts, and stratas are all classics to prepare ahead and serve for company brunch on Christmas morning.

Smoked fish or gravlax - served with dark bread and mustard sauce with a simple cucumber-and-onion salad - is another easy and elegant offering.

There is still plenty of time today (between wrapping gifts and baking cookies) to make sure you, your family, and your guests can relax and enjoy one another's company over a delicious meal tomorrow.

Many of these ideas will also fit well for New Year's Day gatherings, giving you almost a week to lay in ingredients and get organized.

When planning your menu, consider your crowd. Are there many children, vegetarians, enthusiastic eaters, dieters?

Almost everyone enjoys fruit and nuts. Put a big bowl of clementines piled high where guests gather, and tempt everyone to indulge in a healthful snack. The fresh smell of clementine peel is a bonus.

And, my husband notes, since we've had a bowl of unshelled nuts and a nutcracker in the living room, it's harder to overindulge by the handful. For both nuts and clementines, be sure to leave a small bowl for peels and shells.

For casual company, oranges and sweet grapefruits are also lovely simply cut into wedges with their skin. Better yet, serve a variety of seasonal citrus fruits perfectly peeled and sectioned in a light syrup of their own juices.

The peeling and sectioning takes a bit of time, but is easy to do with a very sharp knife and can be done a day ahead. For a special holiday touch, add a sprinkle of jewellike fresh pomegranate seeds.

Also consider roasting apples or pears with a touch of sweetener to serve alongside baked goods or cheese plates, or as a side dish.

If you are welcoming visitors before noon, plan to serve at least some brunch-type fare. Some guests will arrive having had little more than a cup of coffee. A menu that spans sweet and savory helps to ensure that even those who have had breakfast will enjoy their next meal. These brunch suggestions all can be prepared mostly a day or so ahead; you can pop them into the oven to finish while you open gifts.

A nice alternative to frying bacon in the morning is to serve thick-sliced smoked turkey or ham, seared quickly in a hot pan with light olive oil or on a stovetop grill till marked. You can brown slices the night before and arrange them on a heat-proof platter. Warm briefly in the oven before serving.

If you have folks coming throughout the day, consider also preparing ahead a pot of soup, and have available a few cheeses, some marinated roasted peppers, and white bean spread or hummus. A pot of cider mulling on the stove with a piece of cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, and orange peel makes the house smell great, and it can be served all day. By cocktail hour, you might be ready to enjoy it spiked with bit of dark rum.

Happy holiday hosting (and cooking)!

Buttermilk Breakfast Bread Pudding With Maple Roasted Pears

Makes 6 to 8 servings

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For Bread Pudding:

1 stick (8 tablespoons) melted sweet butter, and more for buttering pan

6 to 8 eggs

1 cup whole buttermilk milk

3/4 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

One loaf good quality, soft- crusted white bread, such as challah or brioche, sliced (18 to 20 slices)

For Roasted Pears:

Juice of 1 lemon, no seeds

6 to 8 pears, unblemished Bartlett or Bosc pears that are just starting to soften

½ cup maple syrup

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1. Heavily butter a 9-by-13 inch heavy baking dish (Pyrex or ceramic). Whisk the eggs and both milks with the vanilla, sugar, and zest until well combined. Dip each slice of bread into the mixture and lay in the baking dish, overlapping the slices neatly. Pour the remaining egg and milk mixture evenly over the layered bread. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the roasted pears. (Pears should not be fully ripe for roasting as they will be too delicate. Pears may be roasted up to two days ahead.) Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a nonstick silicone mat. Put the lemon juice in a glass or stainless bowl.

3. Peel and core the pears and slice each pear into small chunks. Toss the pears gently in the lemon juice. Add the maple syrup and toss until coated. Turn the pears onto the baking sheet and distribute them evenly. Roast until browned, about 10 minutes. (If storing, let cool, and store covered for up to 2 days. Re-warm for 4 to 6 minutes at 350.)

4. To bake the pudding: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until puffy and browned. Top with warm roasted pears and serve warm. Serve extra roasted pears and additional syrup on the side.

Note: Assembled in the evening, the bread absorbs the custard-y liquid and is ready to bake in the morning. The buttermilk adds a nice tang - but using all whole milk works just as well.

Per serving: 915 calories, 24 grams protein, 116 grams carbohydrates, 42 grams sugar, 40 grams fat, 355 milligrams cholesterol, 741 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.

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Citrus Salad

Makes 6 to 8 servings

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10 to 12 navel oranges

6 sweet pink grapefruits

1 tablespoon to ¼ cup sugar (optional)

Seeds of 1 pomegranate, and a few mint sprigs, for garnish

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1. Start by peeling each piece of fruit. (The key to perfect sections of pith-free citrus is a very sharp knife.) Cut both ends off of each fruit. Place one cut end down on the cutting board and cut small strips of peel, just deep enough to penetrate the white pith, from the top toward the cutting board all around once or twice until the peel and pith are completely removed.

2. The second step is sectioning. Do this directly over your serving bowl, to catch the fruit juices. Hold the well-peeled orange or grapefruit in your nondominant hand. Still using your very sharp knife, slice down both membranes of each section to release a perfect delicate segment. When you have completed all the sections, squeeze all the remaining juice into the bowl.

3. This salad is delicious as is, or you may sprinkle a bit of sugar to create a light syrup of the juices.

4. Serve within a day for freshest taste and best texture.

5. Garnish with a handful of pomegranate seeds, and a sprig or two of mint.

Per serving (based on 8): 176 calories, 3 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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Caramelized Onion Tart With Spinach and Cheese

Makes 6 to 8 servings

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¼ cup olive oil

1 large yellow onion, peeled, cut in half, and sliced very thin

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

Salt and fresh ground pepper

1 teaspoon dried Turkish pepper (Aleppo or Urfa) or 1 teaspoon smoked

Spanish paprika

1 bag frozen chopped

spinach, defrosted

3 large eggs

2/3 cup heavy cream

14 ounces to 1 pound of

defrosted puff pastry, or other short pastry crust

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

1/3 cup grated fresh Parmesan Reggiano cheese

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1. In a large saute pan, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onions and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until very soft and browned, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic and cook two more minutes. Season well with salt and fresh ground pepper, add Aleppo pepper or paprika, and stir. Remove from the heat.

2. While the onions are cooking, place the spinach in a colander and press the excess water out with your hands or the back of a spoon.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the cream.

4. Roll out the puff pastry to fit rimmed cookie sheet or other ovenproof rimmed baking dish. Place the puff pastry in the dish and press from the center toward the edges to create a rim with the dough.

5. Spread the spinach over the crust. Sprinkle the grated cheddar cheese evenly over the spinach. Pour the egg and cream mixture carefully to just cover. Spread the onions over the entire top, and sprinkle with grated Parmesan and some fresh black pepper.

6. Bake in the lower third of the oven (to ensure the crust cooks well) at 350 degrees until the custard is set and lightly browned, and the crust is well cooked, about ½ hour.

7. Serve warm or at room temperature. If serving the next day, let tart cool before wrapping and refrigerating. Reheat for 10-12 minutes in a 300-degree oven.

Note: This is especially easy if you start with prepared puff pastry - a household essential in the holiday season. Dufour Pastry Shop makes an excellent all-butter dough, available at local Whole Foods stores in the freezer case.

Per serving (based on 8): 527 calories, 13 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 41 grams fat, 124 milligrams cholesterol, 359 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

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