Thanksgiving Dinner – Tips and Tricks for a Stress-Free Holiday Meal

I make a kick-ass Thanksgiving Dinner.  Not being egotistical, because it is just a fact.  Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks to make your Thanksgiving extra special….at least the food part!  You are on your own when it comes to dealing with your in-laws, but well-fed relatives are usually less confrontational, right?

Great things to make ahead of time and when to make them:

Way ahead: only things that can be frozen or canned like jams, jellies, apple butter, quick breads that freeze well, and homemade stock….I have herb scones in the freezer right now!  Some pies freeze well, too.  I am not a huge fan of freezing things, but sometimes it must be done.

2-3 days ahead:  cranberry sauce, cookies, prep work like compound butters (see my last post!), soups, and brining.

1 day ahead: mashed potatoes (see tip about reheating later!), stuffing, carrot soufflé or sweet potato souffle, pies, cakes, casseroles, dips, and you can even do your turkey ahead (but would rather you not!).  Also, set the table, but only if you don’t have kids; )

Thanksgiving day:  make the turkey (or duck, or goose, or ham, or turducken?), gravy, rolls or breads (unless frozen in advance), and vegetables (unless in a casserole), salads, cut fruit and veggies for crudités, and reheat everything.

Cooking tips

Mashed potatoes:  Use Yukon Gold potatoes (also called Butter Potatoes) for the richest, best mashed potatoes.

Start them in cold, well salted water then bring to a boil.  Do not cut them super small, as they will become water logged.  If you do not salt your water, no amount of salt added later will make the potatoes taste good.

For the love of everything holy, do NOT over whip them!  They will become gluey, and then there is not much you can do.  This happened to me last year, and I am still bitter about it.  Use a hand masher or ricer, and you should be fine.

Use plenty of butter and cream.  I like to steep herbs and garlic in the warm cream and butter mixture, which I later remove before adding to the potatoes.  This is not the time for skim milk.  Sour cream is fine, though!

If making potatoes ahead, add a little extra cream and butter on top before reheating.  This will prevent a skin from forming on top and make the potatoes perfect!

Thanksgiving Potatos in the Pot


Herb infused cream and butter.
Herb infused cream and butter.
Mashed Potatoes with Herb Infused Cream
Mashed potatoes ready to be stored in the fridge for tomorrow. The cream and butter on top will prevent a crust from forming.

Stuffing or Dressing:  Make your own!  It is not hard.  Just sauté veggies in butter, add herbs, stale or toasted bread cubes, stock, and voila.

Thanksgiving Dinner Stuffing ingredients being sauted

Thanksgiving dinner stuffing complete

To make ahead and reheat, just pour a small amount of stock and dot with butter on top and reheat slowly in the oven.

DO NOT stuff the bird with the stuffing.  By the time the stuffing is cooked through and safe to eat, your bird will be way over cooked.

Stuffing muffins are one of my favorite ways to serve stuffing.  Everyone gets a pre-portioned stuffing ball with some crispy top and soft center!

Thanksgiving Dinner Stuffing Muffins


Use a meat thermometer or digital probe thermometer that alerts you when your Turkey is cooked through.  Insert thermometer into the center of the Breast meat- careful not to touch a bone!  Do not rely on pop-up thermometers that come with some birds.

ONLY stuff a turkey with aromatics such as herbs, lemon, onion, garlic, oranges, apples, etc…  Do not stuff with dressing, as I said before.  Your bird will cook faster and be moist and delicious.

DO use a high heat first method, such as Alton Brown’s Turkey Recipe.

Also, slather your bird under the skin with a compound butter (see my previous blog entry.  A little canola oil on top, salt and pepper will make a nice crispy brown skin.

Feel free to brine your bird if you have the space in the fridge and time, but if you want to save on that, buy a pre-brined or a Kosher Turkey.  Anyone who keeps kosher knows that these turkeys are already brined for you and are the tastiest birds around!

When reheating your turkey (because it is almost impossible to serve a hot turkey and hot side dishes at the same time unless you have 5 ovens), slice turkey, and lay it in a large baking pan in one layer.  Add a little stock over all the turkey, cover and heat in the oven on a fairly low temperature until warmed through.  The turkey will be very moist from the stock!

Pie crust

Feel free to make them from scratch, and more power to you if you do.  However, there is no shame in buying premade crusts, especially if you are doing the bulk of the cooking.  It saves a lot of time and effort, and let’s face it, pie is still fantastic either way.  Never seen anyone turn down a pie, because the crust was store bought.  I like the ones you unroll and place in your own pie tin.

Use pie shields instead of messing with foil to prevent your crusts from burning. Another tip is to bake pies at a slightly lower temperature for a longer amount of time.  I really like baking pies at 375 degrees, because the crusts don’t burn easily that way.

Lastly, because I have to go make some pie-

Pumpkin pies-  Every pumpkin pie has some form of milk product, but which is the best?  It is really a matter of personal preference, but I have conducted an exhaustive search to find which I like best over the past few years.  I have tried heavy cream, half and half, condensed milk, and evaporated milk.  IMHO evaporated milk is the best tasting, because the pumpkin really shines through and there is a lighter consistency to the filling.  The heavier creams (and I am usually such a fan!) muddle the flavors of the spices and pumpkin for me.  My second favorite would be the condensed milk, which leads to a richer, denser consistency that is also great!

Thanksgiving Dinner Pumpkin Pie

General tips for Thanksgiving Dinner:

1. Be careful and aware of the food allergies your guests might have.  If your recipe has nuts in it, please disclose that information!  If you sneak oysters into your stuffing, make sure nobody has a shellfish allergy and so on…

2.  Keeping a list of what needs to be done, reheated, and when you plan on doing those things is very helpful.  I generally write a menu, a to-do list, and a schedule of when I will make and heat things.  It helps tremendously.

3.  Clean as you go.  ‘Nuf said.

4.  Do some of the work ahead of time, if possible.

5.  Enlist your children or family members to do easier jobs like setting the table, peeling potatoes, cutting the ends of the green beans, etc…

Thanksgiving Dinner Children Helping

Thanksgiving Dinner Children Love to Help!

6.  Experiment with one or two recipes that might be out of the box creative, but keep most things fairly traditional.  That curried, pretzel crusted turkey from the cover of Bon Appetite might not please everyone in your family.  People want the food that brings back memories of Thanksgivings past and the comforting flavors of childhood.

7.  No need to go over the top with decorations.  The food is beautiful enough, and centerpieces usually get moved aside.

8.  Do have activities ready for the children to work on while waiting for the meal.

What tips and tricks do you know?  Please leave me a comment with helpful hints or recipes that make your Thanksgiving special!  Hope this was helpful.

Thanksgiving Quickie – Herbed Compound Butter

Since I am in the midst of my favorite time of the year, my Super Bowl of cooking as it were…I am kind of pressed for time.  I am making a million complicated, delicious things that I won’t get a chance to blog about.  However, sometimes it is the simplest thing that really makes all if those other dishes sing. For me, that simple thing is compound butter.

You can pretty much add or subtract whatever you want.  I generally make a sweet version for spreading on rolls and sweet bread (think Cranberry bread with honey-orange butter), but I want to talk about the savory one I make every year:

I rub this stuff on everything, and it makes everything delicious.  Look, I know butter isn’t a diet food, but if you can’t enjoy copious amounts of butter on Thanksgiving, then why bother?  I stuff it under the skin on my turkey, then slather it over the outside.  I will probably use it as the base of my stuffing, to sauté the vegetables before adding the bread.  You could even add it to the warm cream instead of plain butter to make a delicious herbed mashed potato. Smear it on bread, sauté your green beans in it, melt it on your Brussels sprouts or carrots…You get the idea.

First, throw a garlic clove and a shallot in the food processor and pulse until finely minced.  Then take some room temperature salted butter (if using unsalted, just add some salt!) and throw it in the food processor! too.  Add herbs of your choice- I used chopped fresh thyme, sage, rosemary, and parsley.  Then process it up!  Roll it up in a piece of plastic wrap and refrigerate until you need it.  Let it come to room temp if you are smearing on Turkey or turducken.  Voila!  Thanksgiving Magic.

compound butter in the blender

compound butter on the plastic wrap

compound butter ready to be refridgerated

P.s. My secret new favorite thing is to add room temperature brie to the mix.  Delicious on roast chicken, too!  Shhh, don’t tell

Herbed Compound Butter Recipe

Herbed Compound Butter Recipe


  • 1 shallot
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 sticks salted butter, at room temperature
  • Large handful of herbs (any combination you like)
  • 4 ounces brie cheese (optional variation), at room temperature


  1. Add shallot and garlic to a food processor and pulse until finely minced.
  2. Throw in the butter, herbs, and brie (if using).
  3. Process until well blended.
  4. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate.
  5. Let come to room temperature before using in a thousand delicious ways.
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Recipe: Herbed Compound Butter

Herbed Compound Butter Recipe

Herbed Compound Butter Recipe


  • 1 shallot
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 sticks salted butter, at room temperature
  • Large handful of herbs (any combination you like)
  • 4 ounces brie cheese (optional variation), at room temperature


  1. Add shallot and garlic to a food processor and pulse until finely minced.
  2. Throw in the butter, herbs, and brie (if using).
  3. Process until well blended.
  4. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate.
  5. Let come to room temperature before using in a thousand delicious ways.
Recipe Management Powered by Zip Recipes Plugin

Adventures in Nashville at the 47th Pillsbury Bake Off – Part 1

I just returned from my second “dance with the dough boy” as a finalist in the 47th Pillsbury Bake Off contest. For those of you who remember, I was lucky enough to participate as a finalist last year as well in Las Vegas. If you are not familiar with the Pillsbury Bake Off, it is a famous cooking and baking contest that highlights amateur home cooks, Pillsbury and other sponsors’ products, and offers a Million dollars as the grand prize. As you can imagine, Pillsbury receives tens of thousands of entries. (The rumor this year was that it was around 65,000 entries)

Me and the Pillsbury Doughboy in Nashville

This is kind of embarrassingly obsessive, but I entered 27 recipes I total this year. Here is my “top 100” finalist recipe, which is gluten free!

Lauren's Cherry Vanilla Dutch Pancake

Cherry-Vanilla Dutch Pancake

I was pretty excited to be competing with a gluten-free “Dutch baby” pancake that looks gorgeous, is easy to make, and tastes amazing.  Nobody will even know that it is gluten-free, unless you tell them.

So, I flew to Nashville with some hope, a few nerves, and a massive hankering for “hot chicken”, which I had lusted after heard all about on the Food Network.

First, I met a fellow Finalist and her mother in the lobby of the beautiful Omni hotel (the venue for the Pillsbury Bake Off).  We decided to hit the restaurant in the hotel that is famous for having a biscuit bar with all sorts of toppings, but alas, no hot chicken.

I had a lovely salad of arugula, locally grown beets, goat cheese, and candied pecans, topped with a delicious honey vinaigrette.  The piece de resistance was the buttery, flaky sweet potato biscuit with toasted pecans on top!

My Lunch Biscuit

My Lunch SaladAfter lunch, I checked out the famous letterpress print shop that is attached to the hotel.  As a former Printmaking major, my love of prints and the process of printing is near and dear to my heart.  I love that this studio, which is famous for creating posters for the musicians and shows in Nashville, also happened to create the aprons we wore in the Bake Off contest!  I may have bought a few souvenirs there…..

Hatch Show Print Poster

More Hatch Posters

The Hatch Printing Press

At this point, I got a much awaited text from my friend Michele Kusma, who had been in the 46th Pillsbury Bake Off with me in Vegas.  She had brought along her husband and daughter this time, and they were all game for finding the best hot chicken in Nashville, with hopes of hitting the Grand Ole Opry afterwards.  So, we grilled the bellhop on how to find the most authentic chicken in Nashville.  Apparently, there is a saying in Nashville, that goes something like:

“If you didn’t fear for your life, then you haven’t had real hot chicken.”

Well I am here to tell you that I have had the real deal, authentic, best ever “hot chicken.” It was life altering.

Nashville Hot Chicken
Hot Chicken, a Nashville speciality!

Lauren and Michelle Outside the Prince's Hot Chicken

If you have never had it, “hot chicken” is this crispy, almost shellacked, spicy, juicy, fragrant chicken that is unlike anything I have ever had before.  I am quite okay with all things spicy, so I ordered the “medium” spice level.  If you are at all a fan of heat, I would go at least for medium.  It was quite spicy, but not unpleasantly so.  Not really sure who gets the XX-Hot…  I would recommend Prince’s whole heartedly….if you don’t mind a long wait, barely any tables, and a huge line all day (and night) long.  The chicken is totally worth it, and the staff is super friendly!  Warning: the area is a bit sketchy, and I do not want to be held responsible if you are not happy about that.  You might have to physically fight for a table.  Full disclosure and all….

Once we finally convinced a taxi to come pick us up from Prince’s (a monumental task), we headed over to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, which Michele was familiar with from their original store in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio.  Cooling down the residual chicken heat with these inventive ice creams was the best idea ever! After tasting about 8 flavors,  I settled on  the Bangkok Peanut, since I was 600 miles away from my son with the peanut allergy.  I am sneaky like that.  This flavor blew my mind with it’s familiar creamy peanut buttery-ness that was enhanced by undertones of coconut and spice.  Delicious and addictive!

Bangkok Peanut Ice Cream from Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream

Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream

You can see the list of unusual flavor combinations above!  Jeni’s is a true must visit, when in Nashville or any other city that is lucky enough to have one (Please come to Northern VA, Jeni!).

This time we wised up and made our cab wait for us at the ice cream store.  So, we headed directly over to the Grand Ole Opry in Opryland.  Due to the daylight savings time change, our one hour time difference from VA to Tennessee, and our hot chicken adventure taking FOREVER, we missed the last tour of the stage area for the day….We did get to see the outside, hop over to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, check out their beautiful botanical gardens, and shop a bit at the outlets across the street.  I just want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Kusma family, and they made me feel like a part of their group, even though we feared for our lives for large portions of the day.  I just love Michele, and I hope we get to cook together or just hang out again soon.

Some photos from Opryland:

Outside the Opryland Hotel

Inside Opryland 1
Inside the Opryland hotel

Inside Opryland 2

Inside Opryland 3

We returned to our beautiful hotel, stuffed and exhausted.  But since we were only in Nashville this one time, the Kusma’s and I went out to dinner to do more eating.  This time we were accompanied by some more dear friends (fellow finalists as well) from the previous Pillsbury Bake Off – Arlene Erlbach, and Mindy Beaumont.  At the tables surrounding us, there were many other friends from the Pillsbury Bake Off family, and it was kind of like one big, festive party in the restaurant.  We retired to our rooms, ready to face the first official day of Bake Off business, which I will talk about more in part 2…..To be continued!

My room in the Opryland Hotel

My lovely room at the Omni. Good night!