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Make-ahead Thanksgiving dishes save valuable time for holiday meal

  • 5 min to read
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Thanksgiving make-ahead: Apple-cranberry pie cake, ready to be served. Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

In November my freezer becomes the most important appliance in the house, even though it is awkwardly placed in the guest powder room off the dining room of our Charleston single house. I rely on making ahead and freezing for most of my Thanksgiving meal, and still have people coming back year after year and have to add a second table to our dining room table and catty-corner it in the dining room for everyone to fit. To me that means freezing is the way to go.

There are some rules or tips that will make life much easier for the Thanksgiving cook and the freezer. First is to plan the menu and go down the list and make a chart to see what will freeze, what will come in the house frozen (like the turkey) and how it will be defrosted and reheated. This funny list will come in very handy, and is the key to making it all work.

The freezer needs to be reordered, with a place reserved just for Thanksgiving items. This gives an opportunity to use up all those cooked foods that are languishing there to make room for more. Which will, in turn, ease the amount of daily cooking while also doing holiday cooking.

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Thanksgiving make-ahead: turkey stock for freezing. Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

As much as possible items should be frozen on a baking sheet or pan and spread out evenly so they can be stacked on top of each other when frozen. And there should be room to freeze the dishes first before stacking. Of course everything needs to be marked. Freezer bags and/or both light and heavy duty foil, containers, etc., should be gathered ahead of cooking.

Most important thing first: Is there room for the frozen turkey(s) in the freezer until defrosting time and then is there room for defrosting? (Defrosting in a good cooler is possible as long as it is kept cool enough so the turkey doesn’t sit at room temperature.) If it is too big, consider two smaller turkeys, which I prefer anyway.

What else comes in the house frozen until the big day? A pie from a favorite baker, maybe? Cranberries purchased fresh can be frozen until used.

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Thanksgiving make-ahead: Cranberry-orange relish, ready to be served. Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

What needs to be prepared and go into the freezer? Dressing, aka stuffing, can be frozen if it does not contain raw products that cannot be defrosted and reheated properly such as raw eggs or sausage, for instance. For that reason I use an eggless stuffing with cooked sausage, and freeze it either baked or unbaked. If frozen unbaked, it can be frozen in a plastic bag, which makes it more malleable for finding space in the freezer.

Pans are freezer hogs and are best avoided. Bake casseroles and dressing in foil-lined oven-to-table dishes, then remove, cool, rewrap and freeze, because the pan may need to be used for something else in the ensuing weeks, or just be too clunky to be frozen. Stack in the special reserved freezer space.

Defrosting can be done in the refrigerator overnight, in the freezer wrappings, and then moved to the original oven-to-table dish to be reheated. Or it can be carefully reheated in the microwave and placed back in the original or another dish.

Yummy cheese dishes usually can be frozen, and in this case, my friend and volunteer helper Cathy Nutatis has been cooking a broccoli casserole dish for years, converting it from an old cookbook that called for frozen broccoli. The same rules for oven-to-table dishes above apply.

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Thanksgiving make-ahead: Broccoli casserole. Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

Or, roasted vegetables for those that eschew the fattening casseroles can be reheated on a baking sheet or in the microwave willy-nilly and then arranged just before serving on a platter. Better yet, any leftover roasted vegetables can be added to the leftover turkey to make turkey soup.

Rolls freeze well if lightly under-baked so they can be reheated in the oven without drying out. Cranberry relish freezes well, although I usually just refrigerate it for a week or so before using.

Cakes are excellent for freezing, by and large. Cathy’s apple cake is decorated, including fresh apples slices, just before serving. Some people might even sneak an undecorated piece for breakfast, of course.

A couple of other tips: Making stock from turkey parts and freezing it enables a stress-free gravy. Which also can be frozen, or refrigerated several days.

And who can resist a pie, store-bought or homemade? Just remember most meringue toppings weep when frozen, so are best made the day of serving, and whip cream ahead of time if possible. Last of all, check that chart or list and make sure that everything frozen for the day is actually defrosted and ready to be eaten, as there is nothing more disheartening than finding something the next year meant for this year's holiday.

Nathalie Dupree is the author of 14 cookbooks, including the James Beard award-winning “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She lives in Charleston and may be reached through

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Thanksgiving make-ahead: roasted vegetables -- green beans, turnips, Brussels sprouts, and butternut squash -- ready to be frozen. Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

Cathy’s Broccoli Casserole


20 ounces chopped broccoli or florets, frozen or fresh

1 can cream of chicken soup

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup chopped red pepper

3 green onions, sliced thinly

1 clove garlic, minced

Black pepper, to taste

1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided

1 1/2 cups seasoned stuffing mix

3 tablespoons melted butter


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Steam the broccoli until slightly tender. Drain thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels; set aside. Mix the next three ingredients and add to the broccoli, along with the peppers, onions and garlic. Mix thoroughly and then stir in 1 cup of the shredded cheese. Pour the mixture into a well-greased casserole dish (foil-lined in an oven-to-table dish if freezing). Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the broccoli. Combine the stuffing mix with the melted butter and spread over the broccoli mixture. Bake for 30 minutes. The casserole should be browned and bubbling. If the crumb topping is browning too quickly, cover with aluminum foil. Cool completely before wrapping and freezing.

Nutatis Family Apple Pie Cake


2 large Granny Smith Apples (see cook's notes)

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup softened butter

1 egg

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons pie spice (see cook's notes)

2 tablespoons hot water

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup toasted pecans, chopped

1/3 cup dried cranberries

To serve:

2 cups store-bought or homemade caramel sauce

1/2 to 3/4 cup toasted pecans (optional)

2 cups sweetened whipped cream

1 to 2 apples, preferably red, unpeeled, sliced in wedges


Cook's notes: Other cooking apples may be substituted or a combination of apples may be used. If pie spice is unavailable, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves may be substituted. Or just use 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Peel and coarsely chop the apples. Two large apples should yield approximately 3 to 3 1/2 cups; save any excess for other use. Set aside apples. Beat the sugar and butter together until smooth. Add the egg and mix until thoroughly combined. Combine the flour, salt and spices and add to the egg mixture, beating until smooth. Stir in the hot water and vanilla, beating once again. Fold the apples, nuts and cranberries into the batter, making sure to coat all of the fruit and nuts. Spread mixture into a buttered pie plate and bake for 40-45 minutes. The edges should be browned and the top should slightly brown. Cool thoroughly before wrapping and freezing. Defrost completely before removing wrapping.

Serve with warm caramel sauce, toasted pecans and whipped cream. Garnish with unpeeled apple slices, if desired.

Food Processor Cranberry Orange Relish

Makes about 3 cups

If memory serves, this was developed for a little food processor book. Ocean Spray had the recipe on the package for years, but now it can only be found on its website. It's still my favorite.


1 unpeeled orange, cut into eighths and seeded

1 12-ounce package fresh or frozen cranberries, rinsed and drained

3/4 to 1 cup sugar


Place half the cranberries and half the orange slices in a food processor container. Process until mixture is evenly chopped. Transfer to a bowl. Repeat with remaining cranberries and orange slices. Stir in sugar. Store in refrigerator or freezer.