Last Christmas was my first attempt at making a big four-course dinner mostly on my own for seven people. I guess it was successful, because this year we’re doing it all again. I’m breaking down a few things I learned, and some of my personal tips and tricks for nailing down your dinner party game plan. Plus, at the end, you can see what I’m making for Christmas dinner this year!
Start Planning Early
I began planning this year’s Christmas dinner menu in early November. While everyone else was tunnel-vision focused on Thanksgiving, I had already mentally moved on.
Now that we’re just over a week out, I have the menu fully planned, and we already started shopping for some of the ingredients that we think may be picked over closer to the day – like chestnuts, or items that need to be at a certain ripeness – like pears.
In the next week, I’ll make the full timeline for cooking and serving, so that there are no surprises when we actually start cooking. Three days before, we’ll do the final grocery shopping, including picking up the meat from the butcher counter. Then two days before, we start cooking.
Go Crazy and Pare Down
Last year’s menu started with a five-course meal, and the entree had four different sides. That’s ludicrous and unnecessary! In the end, it worked out okay. I dropped an additional seated appetizer course, leaving only finger food apps, and reduced the sides to a single vegetable and a single potato. No one missed those extra dishes, and I certainly didn’t miss preparing them.
This year, I’m starting from the last year’s basic outline, but with a couple of ambitious additions: a second dessert, a salad course, and three signature cocktails. I’ve already edited out the salad, and considering if we really need a cocktail for each course, or if one will suffice.
But I don’t regret planning for the extras. It gives me a chance to research and develop some recipes that I may use other places. Sure, that apple salad with horseradish dressing sounded delicious, but it’s not gone forever. I’ll just make it next fall!
Start with dinner time, subtract an hour, and begin your time there. The extra hour is for everything that you don’t expect that will inevitably go wrong. Then, start working with cook and prep times, allowing a little extra for any dishes that may need rewashing in between prep.
There are a few things that you need to focus on when timing. The first is the entree: Meat can sometimes cook for a long time, and then oven temperature can be important. The next is an oven schedule: Be sure you know when everything goes in and comes out. Some dishes need to rest, some need to be warmed just before serving.
When organizing time, I also like to think about my pots, pans, and dishes. You may think you have enough casserole dishes, but then you start assigning away every glass pan you own to it’s own holiday dish. It can get a little wild, and it’s good to know if you’ll need any disposable roasting pans before Christmas morning!
Make Ahead, Prep Ahead
This is the biggest and most important tip to not get overwhelmed. If there is something you can make one, two, three days in advance – Do. It. There is no need at all to slave over the stove for all of Christmas morning mashing potatoes. Mashed potatoes can be made ahead and saved!
Last year, I learned this with my caramelized onion scalloped potatoes. These were super tasty, and I made them over the course of three days. Day one: I prepped all the ingredients, using the mandoline I sliced potatoes, and I cooked down onions. Day two: I made the cheese sauce and stacked. On day 3, all I had to do was bake it.
This year, we had to work around a few different family holiday events. We’ll be out of the house for Christmas Eve dinner through early afternoon on Christmas Day. That means we need to make everything that can in advance, and the day-of timeline will be much lighter.
Think Dessert First
I always consider dessert the most important part of any meal. It’s the last taste, the final thing you remember from the evening. But it shouldn’t be the last thing you think about. I plan my dessert specifically to be something I can make ahead and chill.
Trust me, you don’t want a dessert that you need to serve fresh. Otherwise, while your guests are relaxing with filled bellies from dinner and sipping on your signature cocktails, you’re in the kitchen alone. The point is to see people, so make your dessert ahead. Custards, cookies, cakes, ice cream, pies – all these can be made the day before, meaning you can socialize and serve.
This Year’s Menu
So after all that, you want to hear about the food. I get it. For most of these, I don’t have real recipes yet, but I’m linking to what I will be using for inspiration.
Appetizers: A trio of dips, featuring walnut tapenade, roasted red pepper hummus, and caramelized onion dip served with crudite, wheat crackers, and rice crackers; with a white cranberry sangria punch.
Soup: Creamy chestnut soup with crispy pancetta, served with herb bread and rosemary butter.
Main Course: Pear and pine nut stuffed porchetta, served with caramelized onion and roasted garlic smashed potatoes and roasted endives; with cranberry spiced old fashioneds.
Dessert: Homemade peppermint stick ice cream sundaes served in chocolate bowls; with egg nog