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Thanksgiving: The Make-Ahead Project

by Ashley Hardaway

My first thanksgiving away from home I bought a whole, frozen chicken and threw it in the oven; opened up a bag of instant mashed potatoes, cut up some Hawaiian sweet rolls and called it a day. The chicken was ugly as all get-out. I believe its color would be described as manila, but it wasn’t a complete disaster. After all, I was eighteen. I was alone. Expectations were low.

But over the years adulthood has crept in and somehow amidst the massive onslaught of jobs, schedules, extended families and bills you’re supposed to amass the culinary skill to pull off a classic, six-course (minimum) meal within the time-span of a day: Thanksgiving. When I was younger I appreciated it at its most basic form: a day at grandma’s spent overeating and then napping…and then eating. Now that I’m older I grasp its full, horrifying reality: a dusk till dawn race against the doorbell.

But this year I say ‘No!’ I say let’s sleep the night before Thanksgiving. Let’s answer the door without beads of sweat on our brow and nerves shaking our hands. Let’s make these damn side dishes in advance and reclaim Thanksgiving for cooks and grandmothers everywhere!

The following sides can all be made in advance. The turkey however, well, there’s always Honey Baked Ham.

Sausage and Cornbread Stuffing
A true southern classic. I use Jiffy to make the cornbread. If making in advance: assemble in a baking dish, then wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 24 hours before baking. To bake, let the stuffing stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap and proceed to bake as directed in step 3.

Ingredients
1 pound fresh pork sausage, casings removed, crumbled
1 large onion, (about 2 cups), finely chopped
3 celery, finely chopped (1 1/2 cups)
Coarse salt and ground pepper
2 pounds prepared cornbread cut into 3/4-inch cubes (12 cups)
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 to 1 /12 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

Directions
1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large nonstick skillet, cook sausage over medium-high heat, until browned and cooked through (about 6-8 minutes). Transfer to a large bowl.
Add onion, celery, and 1/4 cup water to the pan. Reduce heat to medium; cook until vegetables are translucent, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add to sausage.
Add cornbread, sage, and eggs to sausage and vegetables. Bring broth to a simmer in a small saucepan; pour 1 cup over stuffing, and toss gently (cornbread will break down into smaller pieces). If needed, add up to 1/2 cup more broth, until stuffing feels moist, but not wet.
Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until golden, about 30 minutes longer. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Cranberry Sauce with Orange and Ginger
This sauce can be made up to a week ahead if refrigerated. Also try fresh rosemary in place of ginger or any other aromatic you think you’d like! So quick and easy you’ll wonder why you ever messed with the can opener.

Ingredients:
12 oz. fresh cranberries, picked through and rinsed
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 tsp. chopped crystalized ginger
1/2 tsp. finely grated orange zest

Bring the cranberries, sugar, orange juice, and ginger to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 1 min. (some berries will pop, others will remain whole). Remove from the heat and stir in the orange zest. Cover and let stand for 10 min. Let the sauce cool to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate.

Health(ier) Sweet Potato Casserole
This recipe uses low-fat milk in the base and whole-wheat flour and orange juice concentrate in the topping (as opposed to just gobs of sugar and butter). If making ahead: Prepare filling in casserole dish and topping in separate bowl. Cover both and refrigerate (up to two days in advance). To bake, let the sweet potato filling and topping sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap and proceed to bake as directed in step 5.

Ingredients
Filling
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup 1% milk
2 teaspoons orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt

Topping
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
4 teaspoons frozen orange juice concentrate
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Place sweet potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain well. Mash with a potato masher. Measure out 3 cups.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare 2 quart casserole dish with cooking spray.

Whisk eggs, oil and honey in a medium bowl. Add mashed sweet potato and mix well. Stir in milk, orange zest, vanilla and salt. Spread the mixture in the prepared baking dish.
To prepare topping: Mix flour, brown sugar, orange juice concentrate, oil and butter in a small bowl. Blend with a fork or your fingertips until crumbly. Stir in pecans. Sprinkle over the casserole.
Bake the casserole until heated through and the top is lightly browned, 35 to 45 minutes.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

This recipe combines everyone’s two favorite holiday desserts: pumpkin pie and cheesecake. If making in advance, wrap well after baking and cooling and freeze. Allow 24 hours to thaw in refrigerator before serving.

Ingredients
Crust
1 1/4 cups graham-cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Filling
32 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons pumpkin-pie spice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a medium bowl, mix graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter until moistened; press firmly into bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Bake until golden around edges, 10 to 12 minutes.
In an electric mixer, beat softened cream cheese and sugar on low speed until smooth; mix in flour. Add pumpkin puree, pie spice, vanilla, and salt; mixing just until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, mixing until each is incorporated.
Pour filling into springform, and gently smooth top. Reduce oven heat to 300 degrees and bake 45 minutes. Turn off oven; let cheesecake stay in oven 2 hours more (do not open the door).
Remove from oven; cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate until firm, at least 4 hours before serving.