Even thinking about feeding a big crowd of people over the holidays is exhausting. This year, avoid a full Clark Griswold-Christmas-breakdown altogether and try one (or all!) of these 10 stress-free ways to feed your guests. From stocking your freezer with ready-to-go dinners to how to make a grilled cheese sandwich for 10, these genius ideas are designed to make your holiday a little easier. Hey, maybe your guests will be so appreciative they’ll even thank you with something special (after all, the Jelly of the Month club is the gift that keeps on giving).
1. Rethink Pasta
Everyone immediately turns to pasta when it comes to making dinner for a big group, but pasta suffers when you make it ahead. Therefore, you’re always left hovering over a big pot of boiling water and waiting for your noodles to cook while your hungry guests start filing into the kitchen. Skip this whole sweaty scenario, but still enjoy the simplicity of pasta by making a spaghetti pie. This dish involves cooking your pasta until it is just al dente and then tossing it with cheese, eggs and whatever vegetables or herbs your heart desires. Pack everything into a springform pan and then refrigerate it up to 8 hours before you’re ready to bake. The result is pasta that’s crispy on the outside, sliceable like a cake and can be served hot or at room temperature. PLUS, any leftovers make a killer breakfast when sizzled in a pan and topped with a fried egg, or eaten cold as a snack. Here are two takes on a spaghetti pie to try out now.
Cacio e Pepe Pasta Pie
Spaghetti Pie with Wild Mushrooms and Spinach
When she was 19, Gail Simmons traveled through New Zealand and quickly became obsessed with a local specialty that appeared at practically every roadside diner: spaghetti sandwiches. Part oozy grilled cheese, part tangy, tomato-sauced noodles, this mash-up was the inspiration for one of the Top Chef judge’s greatest culinary triumphs, spaghetti pie. She’s prepared multiple flavor variations, and it always makes her guests extremely happy. This version, perfect for fall gatherings, incorporates plenty of wild mushrooms, spinach and herbs (plus a spoonful of chopped oil-packed black truffles, if she’s feeling decadent). Bonus: If you don’t finish it all in one sitting, leftovers make possibly the best next-day treat of all time.
2. A Spin on the Taco Bar
Set up a nori “taco” bar. Lay out toasted squares of nori sheets, steamed rice, julienned vegetables and one or two prepared toppings like cubed raw salmon tossed with sesame oil, tamari and scallions, or pulled crab meat mixed with kewpie mayonnaise and furikake. Let guests fill their nori squares like a tortilla—with a bit of rice and whatever toppings they want. Fold up and eat like a taco.
3. A Big Batch of Soup With all the Toppings
Make one simple, versatile soup (i.e. have a few vegetarians? Make it veg friendly and lay out chopped crispy bacon for the meat eaters to sprinkle on top), plus an impressive spread of toppings for people to customize their bowl. Offer a mix of store-bought garnishes like salted peanuts, cilantro and chili oil, then tw or three special homemade toppings such as pickled red onions or a flavored crema.
4. Ham is Always the Answer
Order a smoked ham and make it feel homemade by rubbing it with a mixture of whole grain mustard and brown sugar. Wrap it tightly in foil and bake at 350° for two to three hours, depending on the size of your ham. Let it cool for at least an hour in the foil so the ham reabsorbs all of its flavorful juices. Serve the sliced ham with small rolls from your favorite bakery, sliced pickles and a spread of different mustards and chutneys. Bonus: all of those extra bits of ham can be turned into the next morning’s breakfast strata (see tip no. 3).
RELATED: The Holiday Ham Buying Guide
5. Make-Ahead Casserole Dishes
From a lasagna to a breakfast bake that can be refrigerated overnight, a 9-by-13-inch baking dish can do it all and is essential for cooking for a crowd. Choose recipes that can be assembled early and then popped in the oven when it is time to eat. We’ll be making these ultra-cheesy Green Chile-Chicken Enchiladas. If you’re pressed for time, replace the poached chicken with a shredded store-bought rotisserie chicken.
These spicy chicken enchiladas, from Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, make for the ultimate Sunday night dinner.
6. Make a Giant Grilled Cheese Sandwich (Kinda)
Knock out lunch for 8 to 10 people with a super-cheesy slab pie that you can assemble in advance and then pop in the oven right before you eat. The best part? You can use frozen puff pastry. Here’s how you do it: Preheat the oven to 400° and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out two sheets of thawed puff pastry dough to 10-by-13-inch rectangles. Transfer one piece of pastry to the baking sheet. Smear a thin layer of Dijon mustard all over the pastry, leaving a 1-inch border, then top that with a sprinkling of shredded sharp cheddar or Gruyere. 1 cup or so should do it. If you want, you can also top it with a few slices of ham or, better yet, mortadella. Then lightly beat an egg and brush some of it around the edges of the dough. Set the second sheet of puff pastry on top and then crimp the edges together. Brush the remaining egg all over the top of the pastry and cut a few slits with a sharp paring knife. Bake until golden brown and puffed, 20 to 30 minutes. Cut into squares and then serve with more mustard!
7. A Make-Ahead Salad Worthy of Its Own Meal
A seven-layer salad sounds retro, but it’s a pretty genius (and healthy-ish) way to feed a big crew. This modern, Middle Eastern spin on the dish would make for a great lunch for six to eight people or a casual side for a dinner for 10. It’s also convenient because you can assemble the whole thing in advance and then toss it when you want to eat. The sturdy vegetables on top can stand up to the creamy dressing.
8. Meet Congee, Your New Go-To Dinner
Congee is an East Asian rice porridge that is simmered until it is thick and creamy. It’s inexpensive to make and super-customizable. Simmer up a big batch of this hearty dish and then lay out pulled chicken, sliced scallions, soft-boiled eggs and garlic fizzled in oil. It is truly the perfect canvas for whatever you’re craving. Also, it gets even simpler when you make it in a slow-cooker! Check out the recipe here. This is the perfect warming dinner for post-sledding or pond hockey.
9. Sheet Pan Desserts
While cute, this is not the time to stamp out and frost personalized Christmas cookies for every person. Take those rimmed baking sheets and use them to make bars instead. Chocolate Espresso Pie Bars:
or Pecan Pie Bars:
10. When in Doubt, Granola
Running out of breakfast ideas (and energy) for your holiday house guests? Homemade granola is always a win. It’s simple enough to lay out with bowls, spoons, yogurt, milk and fresh fruit so people can help themselves, but by making it yourself it still feels special. This loaded granola is packed with nuts, seeds and dried fruit. The fruit stays extra plump thanks to a brief soak in orange juice before being tossed in with the granola for the last five minutes of baking.
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