No More Tears: A Holiday Dinner Simplification Plan

Spinach pasta with tomato sauce

hide captionA Christmas colors dinner features spinach pasta with a basic tomato sauce that suits both the fussiest and fanciest eaters at any table. Recipe below

Beth Donovan, NPR
Aunt Sarah's Darn Good Chocolate Cake

hide captionSprinkle some crushed candy canes over Aunt Sarah's Darn Good Chocolate Cake covered with ganache, and voila! Recipes below

Beth Donovan, NPR

About the Author

Beth Donovan is editor of the Kitchen Window column, as well as an elections editor for NPR. She is also the very busy mother of four children, age 9-15.

Christmas dinner is the equivalent of Mile 17 in the holiday cooking marathon. At this point in the season, the quick breads for the neighbors have been delivered, along with cookies for the teachers and cupcakes for the holiday recital. The gingerbread house for my own kids lists proudly in the front hall and the casseroles, salads and sides for the office parties, book groups and other holiday fests are all behind me. I can hardly recall the Thanksgiving dinner for 13 that marked the starting line for this race.

Still, I arrive at the foot of the hill completely intimidated. We're talking about Christmas dinner here. My late mother-in-law was famous for the Sicilian feasts she prepared for her own large family, friends, students stuck in Vermont — and anyone lucky enough to remember how good last year's dinner was. My sister's mother-in-law makes a beef Wellington so mouthwatering that it can be spoken about only in hushed tones.

Even my own cooking-impaired mother managed to get a turkey and all the requisite sides to the table every year for Christmas dinner. OK, so the canned green beans had Campbell's mushroom soup and crushed potato sticks on them, but the baking dish was nested in a lovely silver plate trivet and looked darned good.

For years, I tried. I brined my organic turkeys. I lovingly basted the standing rib roast. I made three pies because that's what Norman Rockwell's mom surely did. And then I cracked.

I missed one too many Christmas Days exhausted in the kitchen, while the kids had tea parties with their new dolls, played football outside or puzzled in the living room. I wanted to be part of that family, not just their cook. It also dawned on me that even if Gourmet Magazine had come to photograph my simple yet elegant holiday meal, the kids wouldn't eat it. They like pasta.

This epiphany started me thinking. Pasta. It's typically served with a red sauce, on a large white platter — you see where I'm going right? Off to the Italian market for fresh spinach fettuccini, and there you have it, a traditional Christmas colors dinner.

And that was just the start of my holiday simplification plan. A few years back, I decided to put the whole meal in the freezer, early in the fall, long before the marathon began.

Some Sunday, say in September when I'm making spaghetti sauce any way, I double the batch and freeze half. On good years, I add a few meatballs to the mix — ornaments, you might say. And the super simple chocolate bundt cake that I use for all the birthday parties is also freezer friendly. One of those goes in the icebox too.

On Christmas Day, while the sauce thaws, I drizzle the cake with melted chocolate and sprinkle it with crushed candy canes. At the appointed hour, I toss a salad and boil the pasta water.

Pots and pans are as scarce as the tears and sweat as I cross the finish line in style. And I if I happen to need a break from all that family togetherness on Christmas Day, the sauce can always use an occasional stir.

Basic Tomato Sauce

There are as many tomato sauces in the world as there are cooks, actually more, since I for one never make it exactly the same way twice. This is my most basic sauce, which seems to suit the fussiest and fanciest at my table.

Serves 8.

1 generous cup chopped onion

5 cloves minced garlic

2 tablespoons slivered fresh basil

1/4 cup olive oil

2 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes (you can use crushed or diced or whatever's on hand, but whole tomatoes seem to have a richer flavor)

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

A few grinds of pepper

Warm a heavy pan, then add oil, onion, garlic and basil.* Gently cook the onions until they are soft, sweet and golden. Add the tomatoes, sugar, salt and pepper, bring to a gentle boil; lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. At this point, I cool the sauce slightly and then puree in a blender or food processor. (You can skip this last step, though my kids like the sauce without chunks.) If you are freezing it, now is the time. Pour it into a ziplock bag and freeze for up to two months. If not (or when you thaw), lower the heat and simmer for at least an hour.

* This medley is called a soffrito. It's the point where the flavor of a sauce or soup is set. For this sauce, I cook the soffrito long and slow to caramelize the onions, making a rich, sweet sauce. The character changes if you raise the heat and give the onions and herbs a quick cook. I like doing this when I'm adding other vegetables or using fresh tomatoes. You can also add whatever else you like or happens to be in the fridge to the soffrito: peppers, carrots, celery, parsley, more garlic, dried herbs.

Note: It's easy to turn this into a meat sauce, too. Simply begin by browning 1 to 1 1/4 pounds of meat, drain and set aside. Return the meat to the sauce right after it's pureed and before it simmers. Just as an apple pie benefits from a variety of apples, so too a meat sauce. Ground beef works just fine, but if you can, add some pork, Italian sausage or veal. My husband even likes ground turkey in the mix.

Aunt Sarah's Darn Good Chocolate Cake

Turns out that Aunt Sarah credits The Cake Doctor for this easy, delicious, the-kids-can-make-it-themselves cake. I thank her, too.

Forget everything you think about baking and precise measurements with this recipe. With a mix at its core, it's not a delicately balanced science. If you're a little short on this, add a bit of that. Freezing instructions are more particular. They are below the recipe.

1 box devil's food cake mix

1 box chocolate pudding (large or small; instant or real; they all work)

4 eggs (I use extra large, but large work just fine)

1 cup sour cream (the more fat the better the texture, but they all work)

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup oil (I use canola, but any flavorless oil will do)

1 bag Nestle's chocolate chunks (get the size right on this one; regular chips vanish into the cake, which is nice in it's own way)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-cup bundt pan, which is the standard size. (The recipe also works fine in two 9-inch cake pans.)

Put everything but the chips in a bowl and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Scrape the bowl down and mix on medium speed for another 3 minutes. The batter color will lighten slightly when it's ready. Add the chips, mix for another minute and voila!

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 50 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 5-10 minutes and invert to cool completely.

Freeze. Thaw. Drizzle with ganache (recipe below).

Freezing a Cake

Cakes and cookies freeze quite well. The serious bakers I know always have a few on ice, which is half the reason they make baking look so easy. Here's how you do it.

Cool the cake completely and thoroughly.

Wrap it once in freezer paper, wax paper or parchment.

Then wrap it two or three times in plastic wrap.

Wrap it again in aluminum foil.

And, if it will fit, put it in a plastic bag.

Now freeze, for up to several months.

Unwrap and thaw for about 2 hours before frosting.

I generally frost when I thaw, but I hear-tell you can frost first. Put the frosted cake in the freezer unwrapped for an hour or two, and then wrap, wrap, wrap.

Basic Ganache

This is the world's easiest icing. Whipped, it spreads. Warm, it drizzles. And cupcakes never look so pretty as when they're dipped in warm, shiny ganache.

1 1/4 cups cream

16 ounces of the best semi-sweet or dark chocolate you have on hand

Bring the cream to a gentle simmer, turn off the heat and add the chips. Let them rest a few minutes and then stir until chips are melted. This can also be done in the microwave.

Drizzle over your cake. Accessorize with crushed candy canes, mini M&Ms or sprinkles.

Notes on ingredients: Cream does taste and look best. It's much shinier. But when I don't have cream on hand, which is often, I use half and half, whole milk, even 2-percent milk, but I add a bit of butter to up the fat and a dash of corn syrup.

A basic bag of chips works fine, but if you see a chunk of nice chocolate, indulge.

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