by Michael Vyskocil  photography by Tara Hope Cofiell

Come December, your social calendar tends to swell with family luncheons, office parties, church socials and myriad events that can max out your cooking muscles. Fortunately, you don’t have to resort to pre-purchased foods to bring something special to whatever table you’re seated at this holiday season.

Make-ahead dishes are the salvation of time-pressed cooks. With a bit of preparation on the front end, you can enjoy festive and delicious fare in transportable dishes that can go from refrigerator or oven to buffet and table.

Spinach and turkey empanadas are home-baked appetizers that are impressive in their puff-pastry presentation, but simple to prepare in advance. Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloins lend incredible flavor to this main dish with only seven ingredients. Cranberry relish is a sweet-tart accompaniment to pork, and a holiday version of the Tres Leches Cake with peppermint and pomegranate makes an indulgent dessert for any occasion.


Spinach and Turkey Empanadas

Store-bought puff pastry adds a flaky flair to this appetizer.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup small-diced celery
1/2 cup small-diced carrots
1/2 cup small-diced onions
1/3 cup sour cream
4 ounces oven-roasted turkey breast, cut into 1/4-inch dices
4 ounces grated Guyère cheese
2 ounces (about 2 cups) fresh baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
All-purpose flour
3 sheets frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon heavy cream, for egg wash
Sea salt or kosher salt, for sprinkling

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. In a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat, melt butter. Add celery, carrots, and onions, and sauté vegetables until tender, but not browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the sour cream and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine the turkey breast and Gruyère cheese. Add the sautéed vegetables, spinach, parsley and sage. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Mix ingredients well and set aside.
  4. Lightly flour a cutting board or work surface. Roll out one sheet of puff pastry to an 11-by-11-inch square. Using a pastry wheel or a sharp knife, cut the sheet into 4 equal squares. Brush the edges of each square with egg wash and place about 1/3 cup of turkey filling in the middle of the square. Fold the square diagonally to form a triangle, being sure to line up the edges of the pastry. Place the filled triangles on the prepared baking sheets. Dip the tines of a fork into flour and press the tines along the edges of the pastry to seal the edges closed. Repeat with the remaining pastry and turkey filling. If making ahead, place empanadas on a baking sheet, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for up to 3 days before baking.
  5. When ready to serve, brush the triangles with egg wash and sprinkle with sea salt or kosher salt.
  6. Bake empanadas for 22 to 26 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Remove empanadas to a cooling rack and let cool. Makes 12 empanadas.


Bacon-Wrapped Pork Tenderloins

If you don’t care for the taste of bacon, you can substitute slices of prosciutto in this recipe.

2 pork tenderloins (about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds total), trimmed
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil
10 to 12 slices applewood smoked bacon or other thickly sliced bacon
Cranberry Relish (recipe follows)

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Place the pork tenderloins on a baking sheet and pat dry with paper towel. In a small bowl, combine rosemary, thyme, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Rub about 2 tablespoons olive oil over the tenderloins. Rub the herb mixture on all sides of the tenderloins. Fold up tail end, then wrap tenderloins completely with a single layer of bacon slices, placing the ends of the bacon under the tenderloins. Use kitchen twine to truss every inch along the tenderloins. (To make ahead, cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate tenderloins until ready to serve.)
  3. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the meat registers 145 degrees for medium or 150 degrees for medium well on an instant-read thermometer. Remove tenderloins to a carving board, cover board tightly with aluminum foil and allow to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes. Slice meat diagonally and serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


Cranberry Relish

1 pound fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Zest of 1 orange
4 oranges, segmented, with piths and membranes removed

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine cranberries, sugar, orange juice and zest. Stir until sugar is dissolved and cranberries begin to burst, about 15 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat. Add orange segments and stir to combine. Serve or cool relish completely before storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Makes 4 cups.


Holiday Tres Leches Cake

This is a seasonal version of the familiar cake of three milks (tres leches). Substitute the pomegranate seeds for orange or grapefruit segments.

Unsalted butter, for pan
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole milk
1-1/3 cups heavy cream
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 teaspoon pure peppermint extract
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean, scraped
Sifted confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
1 cup pomegranate seeds, for serving
Sprigs of fresh mint, for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan and set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together eggs, sugar and vanilla extract on medium-high speed until the mixture is light yellow and fluffy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add half the flour mixture, the milk and the remaining flour mixture. With a rubber spatula, gently turn the batter to be sure all ingredients are incorporated.
  3. Pour batter into the pan, smooth the top and bake for 25 to 28 minutes, or until the cake springs back when touched lightly in the middle and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool cake in pan for 30 minutes.
  4. In a 4-cup liquid measuring cup, whisk together heavy cream, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, peppermint extract and vanilla-bean seeds. Using a bamboo skewer, poke holes over the surface of the cooled cake and slowly pour the cream-and-milk mixture over the cake, allowing liquid to be absorbed completely before gradually adding the remaining mixture. Cover the baking pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
  5. To serve, dust cake with confectioners’ sugar, cut cake into squares and place on dessert plates. Sprinkle each serving with pomegranate seeds and garnish with a mint sprig. Makes 9 to 12 servings.