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An Elegant Christmas Dinner, Made Ahead

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There’s no last-minute fussing in this entirely make-ahead holiday menu, and it includes dishes that actually improve after a day or two in the fridge.

Serves 8-10

A few years ago, in the midst of preparing an elaborate Christmas Eve dinner, I realized I’d forgotten the bacon for the clams casino. I raced to the market, but of course, traffic was miserable, and the store was mobbed. By the time I got home, I barely had time to finish dinner, much less dress before my company arrived. AsI lay in bed that night, it wasn’t visions of sugarplums that danced in my head. It was a plan to do things differently next year.

These days, I sit down weeks ahead of time and calmly dream up a befittingly elegant menu, taking care to choose recipes that require very little last-minute fussing. In fact, I look for dishes that actually improve after a day or two in the refrigerator, like the ones in this menu: delicate potted shrimp (a classic British spread), spice-rubbed beef tenderloin, creamy potato and rutabaga gratin, satiny braised fennel, and a luxurious gingerbread trifle.

Get organized
Mapping out a schedule for getting everything done—including shopping—is the key to never being a harried host. For this menu, I start by dividing the grocery shopping into two trips. A week ahead, I buy all the pantry items and less-perishable fresh foods, and then I just need to pick up the shrimp and beef two days before the party (if you pre-order these, you can farm this errand out to a willing family member).

The actual cooking begins three days before the party. That’s when I make the ginger syrup for the trifle. The next day, I turn my attention to the shrimp, the gratin, and the fennel, and make the gingerbread cake. The day before the party, I prep the salad for the shrimp, season the beef, make the wine sauce, and finish the trifle. By breaking up the work, the menu feels entirely manageable, and my kitchen never looks as though it’s eligible for federal disaster relief.

On the day of the party, most of the work is already done. A couple of hours before my guests arrive, I remove the beef and side dishes from the refrigerator—they heat more evenly from room temperature than from refrigerator-cold—and turn on the oven. As guests appear, I reheat the gratin and put the tenderloin in to roast (it takes just under an hour), which leaves a nice window for cocktails and pre-dinner mingling. The other side dishes take just a few minutes to get ready for the table, and as soon as the beef is done, I serve the shrimp; this allows the roast time to rest so that it carves up juicy and rosy. Since the gingerbread trifle is at its best at least a day after you make it, it’s entirely ready to go. And as the host, so are you.

Menu Timeline

Up to 3 days ahead

  • Make the ginger-tea syrup for the trifle.

Up to 2 days ahead

  • Make the potted shrimp.
  • Make (but don’t bake) the mashed potato gratin.
  • Braise the fennel.
  • Make the gingerbread cake for the trifle.

Up to 1 day ahead

  • Season the beef tenderloin.
  • Chop the celery and radish and make the vinaigrette for the salad that goes with the potted shrimp.
  • Make the red wine reduction sauce.
  • Make the filling for the trifle and assemble the trifle.

Up to 2 hours ahead

  • Remove the potted shrimp, beef, gratin, and fennel from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature.

Up to 1 hour ahead

  • Roast the beef.
  • Heat the gratin.

Half hour before the beef is done

  • Heat the red wine sauce.
  • Toast the bread for the potted shrimp.
  • Heat the fennel.
  • Dress the salad.

While the beef rests

  • Serve the potted shrimp and salad.

Shopping List

Fresh Produce

  • 4 medium stalks celery
    1 medium carrot
    1 bunch radishes (5 to 6)
    4 oz. cremini mushrooms
    1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley (for 1/4  cup chopped)
    1 bunch fresh thyme
    1 medium shallot
    2 cloves garlic
    5 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
    1 large rutabaga
    4 medium bulbs fennel, about 1 lb. each
    1 piece fresh ginger, about 4 inches
    1 medium naval orange
    2 lemons

Meat, Seafood, Eggs & Dairy

  • 2 beef butt tenderloins, each 2-1/2 lb., trimmed
    18 large (31 to 40 count) shell-on shrimp (about 10 oz.), preferably wild
    10 large eggs
    1 cup whole milk
    1-1/2 cups heavy cream
    6 oz. (12 Tbs.) best-quality salted butter (such as Kerrygold)
    6 oz. (12 Tbs.) unsalted butter 
    8 oz. cream cheese
    8 oz. mascarpone
    2 oz. pecorino cheese

Other Groceries

  • 4 to 6 allspice berries
    Cocktail-size sliced pumpernickel bread (12 to 15 slices)
    2 cups lower-salt beef broth
    1/2 cup lower-salt chicken broth
    1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
    Strong black tea, such as English breakfast, (1 teabag)
    1 Tbs. pure olive oil or expeller-pressed canola oil
    Whole nutmeg for grating (or 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg)
    1 Tbs. ground fennel seed
    1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
    1/2 tsp. dry mustard
    1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
    1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
    1-1/2 tsp. ground ginger
    1/4 tsp. ground allspice
    Pinch ground white pepper
    6 Tbs. chopped candied (also called crystallized) ginger
    3/4 cup dry white wine (plus 1/2 cup)
    1/4 cup Champagne or rice vinegar
    2 Tbs. brandy, such as Cognac
    2/3 cup sparkling wine, such as Asti Spumante
    1 bottle dry, hearty red wine, such as Shiraz or Zinfandel

Pantry Staples

  • 3 dried bay leaves
    1/8 tsp. cayenne
    1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
    1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
    2-1/2 cups granulated sugar
    2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    1 tsp. baking soda
    1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
    1 tsp. vanilla extract
    Black peppercorns
    Kosher salt

The Menu

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