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When you're thinking pumpkin desserts, think beyond pie. (Getty Images)
When you’re thinking pumpkin desserts, think beyond pie. (Getty Images)

Hosting a Thanksgiving feast isn’t a leisurely walk in the park. The race to get all the dishes done at the same time is worthy of an Olympics of cooking medal. But a few hours of cooking ahead can reduce the hassle. Prepare in advance, and you’ll even enjoy this holiday meal, in all its gravy and side dish glory.

Sure, you can’t stuff the turkey ahead. The potatoes taste best when cooked and mashed the same day they’re served. And the gravy, made from turkey drippings, is still a last-minute chore.

But you can make the cranberry sauce, salad dressing, braised red cabbage and dessert in advance and tuck them in the refrigerator or pantry, depending on the dish.

That’s your insurance policy for sanity on the big day.

Pumpkin Cake with Buttermilk Icing

The flavors in this delicious pumpkin Bundt cake continue to develop when made a couple of days in advance. I like to serve it with ice cream; when I can find it, my ice cream choice is pumpkin or rum raisin.

To make ahead: Cake can be made 3 days ahead and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.

Yield: 12 servings


One 10-inch nonstick Bundt pan (3 quart)

1½ sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for greasing Bundt pan

2¼ cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting pan

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1¼ cups canned solid-pack pumpkin (from a 15-ounce can; not pie filling)

3/4 cup (well-shaken) buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1¼ cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs


2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons (well-shaken) buttermilk

1½ cups powdered sugar


Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch nonstick Bundt pan generously, then dust with flour, knocking out excess.

Whisk together 2¼ cups flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice and salt in a bowl. Whisk together pumpkin, 3/4 cup buttermilk and vanilla in another bowl.

Beat 1½ sticks butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes, then add eggs and beat 1 minute. Reduce speed to low and add flour and pumpkin mixtures alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until batter is just smooth.

Spoon batter into pan, smoothing top, then bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 15 minutes, then invert rack over cake and reinvert cake onto rack. Cool 10 minutes more.

While cake is cooling, whisk together buttermilk and powdered sugar until smooth. Drizzle icing over warm cake, then cool cake completely. Icing will harden slightly.

— Gourmet magazine

Spiked with sherry and orange, this homemade cranberry sauce is an easy, do-ahead side dish for holiday feasts. (Getty Images)
Spiked with sherry and orange, this homemade cranberry sauce is an easy, do-ahead side dish for holiday feasts. (Getty Images) 

Spiced Sherry-Laced Cranberry Sauce

Sam Dixon, the author of the new “A Very Vegan Christmas,” writes that adding a “tipple” to the cranberry sauce is a suitably festive idea. He includes a sherry reduction in his cranberry concoction, but explains that you can add a splash of water instead.

To make ahead: Can be prepared five days in advance. Cool completely; remove the orange rind, cloves and cinnamon stick. Pour cooled mixture into a clean glass jar or other nonreactive container and seal with lid. Refrigerate.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


1/2 cup sherry

1 pound fresh or frozen cranberries

1/3 cup plus 1½ tablespoons granulated sugar, or more to taste

3 whole cloves

Rind of one orange, cut into wide strips with a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler

1/2 cinnamon stick

1/2 cup water


Place sherry in a saucepan and boil on medium-high heat until reduced by half in volume. Add remaining ingredients and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until the cranberries are broken down a little and become slightly jammy.

Remove from the heat and when ready to serve, remove orange rind and cinnamon stick. Serve warm unless making in advance.

— Sam Dixon, “A Very Vegan Christmas” (Hamlyn, $20) 

Braised red cabbage is made festive with fresh apples and cranberries for this Thanksgiving side dish. (Getty Images)
Braised red cabbage is made festive with fresh apples and cranberries for this Thanksgiving side dish. (Getty Images) 

Red Cabbage with Cranberries

There are many variations on the braised cabbage theme. This version has a lot of pizzazz because it includes dried cranberries as well as fresh or frozen cranberries. The tart edge creates a nice balance with the sweetness of brown sugar and balsamic. It reheats well and is, in fact, better the second day.

To make ahead: Cool and refrigerate airtight in nonreactive container. Reheat on medium heat, adding a tablespoon or two of water if it is dry.

Yield: 8 servings


2 tablespoons butter

1 medium red onion, halved top to bottom, thinly sliced

1 medium red cabbage

1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or to taste

2 tablespoons brown sugar, or to taste

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

3 tablespoons dried cranberries

2/3 cup fresh or frozen cranberries

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or pot on medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until onion softens but does not brown, stirring occasionally, 4 to 6 minutes.

Quarter the cabbage, remove the central hard core and discard, then cut the rest crosswise into thin slices. Add to pot with the onions and all remaining ingredients, seasoning well.

Stir and cover and cook over low heat for 1½ to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. The cabbage should be completely soft. Taste to check seasoning; you may want to add more vinegar or sugar, as well as salt and pepper and then cook for another 5 minutes to let seasoning be absorbed. Serve at once if desired, but the mix will taste even better the next day.

— Diana Henry, “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: Food to Warm the Soul” (Mitchell Beazley, 2009)

As Thanksgiving side dishes go, what could be more welcome than a crisp green salad -- with an easy, do-ahead vinaigrette. (Getty Images)
As Thanksgiving side dishes go, what could be more welcome than a crisp green salad — with an easy, do-ahead vinaigrette. (Getty Images) 

Green Salad with Ina Garten’s Creamy Vinaigrette

I always serve a green salad on Thanksgiving. Mixed green lettuce concoctions have always been a part of our family meals — and it’s an easy last-minute toss. I have the salad bowl and tongs set out and the dressing and ready-to-use lettuce are in the fridge. I ask a guest to toss it while I’m preparing the gravy.

To make dressing ahead: Place dressing it in an airtight nonreactive container, such as a glass jar, and refrigerate it up to 2 days. Shake well before using.

Yield: 4 to 5 servings


1/2 cup good olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon minced shallot

5 cup mesclun mix or salad of your choice


In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, honey, salt, pepper and shallots until the vinaigrette is emulsified.

Toss the greens with enough dressing to moisten and serve immediately.

— Ina Garten,

Sweet Potato Crunch

This classic casserole is dandy for holiday meals because much of the work can be done the day before. Sweet potatoes are mashed with butter, sugar, Grand Marnier and orange zest, then topped with a spicy, buttery streusel for a final bake.

Sweet-Potato-Crunch casserole can be made largely in advance and heated up just before serving to guests. (Courtesy Keller + Keller for America's Test Kitchen)
Sweet-Potato-Crunch casserole can be made largely in advance and heated up just before serving to guests. (Courtesy Keller + Keller for America’s Test Kitchen) 

To make ahead: Transfer the mashed mix to an 8-inch square baking dish and let cool. Then cover with foil and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. About an hour before serving, bake the refrigerated spuds for 15 minutes, before continuing with the recipe.

Yield: 8 servings


4 pounds sweet potatoes, unpeeled; see cook’s notes

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier (or orange juice)

1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar

1¼ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon grated orange zest


2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon table salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted


For sweet potatoes: Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Poke potatoes several times with a paring knife and space evenly on the prepared sheet. Bake until potatoes are very tender and can be easily squeezed with tongs, 1¼ to 1½ hours. Let potatoes sit until cool enough to handle, at least 20 minutes.

Peel the potatoes. Transfer potato flesh to large bowl and mash until smooth. Stir in melted butter, Grand Marnier, sugar, salt and orange zest. Transfer potato mixture to an 8-inch square baking dish and spread into an even layer with rubber spatula. (Casserole can be refrigerated, covered, up to 24 hours at this point. Reheat, covered, for 15 minutes before proceeding with recipe.)

For topping: Whisk flour, brown sugar, salt and cayenne together in bowl until fully combined. Stir in melted butter until mixture forms clumps. Break into pea-size pieces and distribute evenly over sweet potato mixture.

Bake, uncovered, until topping is fragrant and darkened slightly in color and potatoes are hot, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool for 25 minutes before serving.

— America’s Test Kitchen

Award-winning food writer Cathy Thomas has written three cookbooks, including “50 Best Plants on the Planet.”